Tim Pilbeam tests the Sako 85 Varmint Laminated Stainless in .222, and finds a plethora of uses – from vermin shooting to long-range shots – for this solid rifle topped with Leupold glass
The Sako Varmint Laminated Stainless is made with medium- to long-range hunters in mind, as well as maybe target shooters who are looking for proven and consistent accuracy. It did not disappoint.
The action for this model comes in two sizes: extra small (.222, .223) and small (.22-250 to .338 Federal). The rifle on test, being a .222, has the shortest bolt travel, making it feel very neat and compact. What seems a simple construction of the bolt makes it fantastically smooth. Sliding on five raceways, it is quiet and effortless to cycle a round owing to a ‘controlled round feed system’. This patented concept helps the round to slide up smoothly from the magazine into the bolt face.
The bolt has three lugs with a single claw-type extractor that relies on the round being pushed out by a small bar when retracted. There are the normal tapered scope rails located on the top of the receiver, facilitating a very firm platform for the Optiock mounts. There is enough space in the receiver to easily load rounds from the top. Most importantly, it is totally reliable and proven.
Moving on to the trigger, it was set to a very manageable three pounds. After a quick adjustment involving the removal of the stock and the use of a hex-headed key, I managed to set it to a crisp two pounds. This model also boasts a set trigger, activated in the traditional way by pushing it forward, with the pressure set at under half a pound.
As anticipated, this whole mechanism is of a very high quality. The two-position safety catch is located to the right of the action, partnered by another small lever located just in front of the safety catch. This allows the bolt to be cycled when the safety is in the ‘on’ position. This ensures the safe extraction of the round when the firing mechanism is locked in the safety position.
The ‘total control latch’ is a patented design of the magazine locking mechanism that prevents the accidental dropping of the magazine. To release the magazine, it has to be pushed upwards at the same time as pulling the release latch backwards. Initially it was a little fiddly, but with practice it became much easier to use.
Being stainless steel, fluted and heavy, the 24in barrel looks the part if you enjoy anything from vermin shooting to foxing to long-range shooting. It is fully floating and very well finished. Unusually, the recoil lug on the action locates into a small frame, screwed on to the stock. Without stating the obvious, the fully floating heavy barrel should maintain its accuracy after many shots, aided by a healthy gap between it and the forend. It does make for a heavier gun, but it is very well balanced. It also comes with a 14mm x 1mm thread screw-cut as standard, and a twist rate of one in 14in. For the test I fitted an Ase Utra moderator.
As soon as I took hold of the stock, I could feel its quality. It is made of many layers of wood stuck together using epoxy resin, resulting in a hard-wearing and practical stock that will take a fair amount of abuse. It feels like a wooden stock, but offers a more rigid and stronger platform. The cheekpiece felt perfectly formed, as did the pistol grip. The extra wide, flat-bottomed beavertail forend crosses over to target shooting use and comes with the normal QD stud for easy attachment of a bipod.
With the rifle, distributor GMK kindly included a Leupold 6-20×50 long-range scope with a 30mm tube and the new varmint hunter ballistic reticle. The Optilock mounts were easy to fit, and we were soon set up to zero the rifle at 200 yards. For this test, I used Federal Premium 40-grain Ballistic tip (3,450fps) and Sako 55-grain Gamehead soft points (3,200fps), allowing me to see if the accuracy was affected by using different bullet weights.
The .222 is a lovely calibre to shoot as it offers very little recoil. Both the 40-grain and 55-grain rounds grouped less than 1½in at 200 yards, which was expected but comforting to witness. The trigger reset to 2lb could not be bettered, and as for the set trigger, it required the lightest of touches with no creep whatsoever. The stock fitted very well – a perfectly made pistol grip, with the cheekpiece suiting lower scopes as the mounts supplied for the Leupold scope were too tall.
Owing to the extra-small action, the bolt travel was minimal, making it very quick and easy to reload. When I used a few Winchester 50-grain soft pointed rounds, they would not cycle from the magazine, as they all twisted to the left, jamming against the rear face of the barrel. With exception to these particular rounds, I never experienced any problems with the action whatsoever. The accuracy, thanks to the heavy barrel, was never affected even after I had fired more than 50 rounds in quick succession. Out to 300 yards, both the Federal and the Sako ammunition produced sub-2in groups – a surprising result given the moderate winds blowing from one to two o’clock.
Overall, the Sako Varmint Laminated Stainless looks like a custom rifle but more importantly, performs like one – and with an SRP of £1,725, it is half the price. The smoothness of the action, a very well made barrel and most of all, superb accuracy demonstrate Sako’s superior engineering. With a weight of 12lb including scope, bipod and moderator, it is slightly on the heavy side for lugging around the highlands, but this is an all-rounder, perfect for foxing, hunting or playing on the range. Personally, I would prefer to put up with a couple of pounds than to sacrifice accuracy.
Thanks to GMK for the loan of the rifle and the Leupold scope.