Having grown fond of foxing with the Sako Model 85 .223, Mike Powell gets to grip with the updated XS Varmint version in .204 Ruger
Many years ago, I owned a Sako Model 85 in .223 calibre that served me well in my fox control work. I seem to remember that it was one of those rifles that had been developed to such a high degree that it was pretty well faultless, so I was keen to see how a far more modern Sako stacked up against my golden oldie!
Some countries seem to have the knack of producing extremely good rifles. The Scandinavian countries, Finland in particular, have this ability. It is hard to understand why, but many of their products, not just rifles, seem to be uncluttered and, above all, fit for purpose.
I must say that following shooting websites, YouTube and the shooting press, it’s hard to find serious criticism of any Sako rifles, and looking at this particular model it’s easy to see why.
This rifle comes from GMK in .204 Ruger which is a favourite foxing calibre of mine. In fact, I have taken to it so much that my faithful Sauer has been moved on, as I just wasn’t using the .223 calibre any more. So I was more than interested to see how the Sako worked in this calibre.
Dressed to impress
For a start, the rifle looks ‘right’, the woodwork is well designed and
pleasing to the eye, complemented by the attractive metal work. This particular model has the laminate stock that has a beavertail forend enhanced by some nice sharp chequering that affords very good grip in all weather conditions. The stock has a nice cheek piece that allows a good eye to scope match. The stock itself is finished off with a thick rubber butt pad.
Length of pull is 14 inches and the rifle comes to the shoulder perfectly and, most importantly, feels comfortable. There are two stainless sling swivel studs fitted. It came as no surprise to find that when the woodwork was removed, the inletting was of a high standard.
The forward fixing screw (one of two) that holds the action to the woodwork pulls the action down on to a metal plate that also doubles as a recoil lug, ensuring a stable lock up between the two components.
Before looking at the various parts of the rifle body, I have to say that when removed, the barrel, action and other mechanisms were extremely well engineered and looked absolutely perfect – a credit to the manufacturer.
This may sound a bit over the top, but I was really impressed with the way the rifle had been put together. The stainless 20-inch barrel was beautifully crowned and came with a 1-12 twist rate, which is about standard for a factory .204 Ruger. It has six flutes machined in the central section.
The barrel fits neatly into a fairly minimal action body, but again the engineering is beautiful. Sako has long been praised for its bolts, and looking at this one it was easy to see why; the three locking lugs ensured a strong and stable lock up and the bolt, although new, ran smoothly throughout its length of travel. It was good, and will only get better with further shooting.
The safety was well positioned on the right side behind the bolt, forward was ‘fire’, rearward ‘safe’, and in front of the main safety catch was another catch that when the rifle was ‘safe’ and the bolt locked if depressed would allow the bolt to be lifted to unload while the rifle remained completely safe.
The trigger, as you would expect, was excellent. The one on the rifle I reviewed was a single stage unit with a set trigger facility. It’s not for everyone, but I like them, especially when zeroing or waiting out for foxes.
However, great care must be taken when using set triggers, as they can be extremely light and muscle memory can sometimes lead to premature firing. The trigger system is adjustable between 2-4lbs, with the set trigger generally around the 1lb mark.
On the left side of the action body is the bolt release catch and underneath is the six-shot, all-metal, controlled-feed magazine. This can be loaded when removed from the rifle, or top loaded when in situ.
The magazine, when in place, is flush fitting, and upward pressure is needed when removing it, while at the same time operating the magazine catch located at the front of the mag. This is a good system, as it prevents accidental loss of the magazine when in the field.
The review rifle came with a Stalon moderator that is suitable for calibres up to and including .243 Winchester. This is one rifle where it seemed wrong to stick a can on the end.
Unfortunately, this is pretty much the norm these days. Moderators never improve the aesthetic appearance of a rifle, particularly one as nice as this. However, the mod worked well, and at the end of the day that’s all that matters.
Judging the performance of a sound moderator is an imprecise science at the best of times, as so many factors come into play, especially the terrain you are firing the rifle over.
Most of my shooting is done in an area where there are a lot of valleys and no matter what moderator you use, on a still night, the report can be impressive! However, when using it on high ground with nothing much to reflect, it does a reasonable job.
The other component GMK sent with the Sako was a Steiner Ranger 4-16×56 scope. The optics were very good indeed, up there with the top brands. I liked the on/off between the illuminated reticle settings, it certainly helps someone like me who is notorious for leaving illuminated rets switched on! I was impressed with the clear uncluttered picture the scope gave and, although not cheap, I thought it was first rate.
Loads of options
As I started off by saying, I am a big fan of the .204 Ruger, finding it perfect for my fox control work, so I was particularly keen to see how the Sako performed. As far as brands of ammunition were concerned, I had plenty to choose from.
GMK has sent some Federal premium 40 grain ammo with Nosler ballistic tips and Federal 32 grain loaded, interestingly, with Hornady V max bullets. Having tried a variety of ammunition in my own .204R, I have found that my home loads using Sierra Blitzkings (39grn) work well for me, down more to bullet length than weight.
Getting out on my usual 100 yard ‘range’ on the farm, the Sako rather predictably was printing good groups with virtually everything I put through it. This is one rifle that seems to me to shoot almost anything well. As I find with my own .204, the Sako preferred the 40 grain ammunition to the 32 grain.
However, results with the lighter bullets were far from shabby, and with a slight bit of scope tweaking I would have been more than happy to use the 32 grain ammo on the local fox population.
I put a few of my home-loaded 39 grain ammo through the rifle purely as a matter of interest and, yet again, it was putting them easily within a one inch circle at 100 yards. I have absolutely no doubt that for anyone reloading for this rifle, very small, consistent groups can be obtained.
It’s a long time since I reviewed a Sako, and what was always good has got even better. The quality of engineering is top notch, and I understand why you hardly ever hear criticism of this make of rifle.
Hunt it down
Sako Model 85 XS Varmint Stainless Laminate in .204 Ruger: £2,135
Stalon Moderator: £335
Steiner Ranger scope 4-16×56: £990
GMK, 01489 579 999, gmk.co.uk
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