The Browning X-Bolt is the newest model of one of Tim Pilbeam’s favourite rifles – so his expectations are high for this versatile rifle
One of the most successful rifles I have owned was a Browning A-Bolt. It was reliable and superbly accurate, especially when shooting lighter ammunition. My local gamekeeper still uses it. I was hoping the newer Browning model, the X-Bolt, would be able to rekindle fond memories.
I started warming to the rifle as soon as I plucked it from the packaging. The Dura-touch Amour coated stock fitted my hands beautifully. It is slender at the forend, it is lean and it has no raised cheekpiece, but its simplicity seems right. It has an all-over soft, rubbery feel, with the pistol grip and forend feeling a bit more grippy. There is also a high-quality soft recoil pad at the rear – suitable for the larger calibres available. Once removed, it sounded slightly hollow when tapped, but on further inspection, I found the forend has a star-shaped web to give more rigidity and save a little weight. The front and rear of the action were synthetically bedded, telling me this could be an accurate rifle. I suppose the words that describe it best are ‘ergonomic’ and ‘practical’ – a good start for sure.
The bolt is similar to that on the A-Bolt, with a three-lugged front locking ring with a very efficient extractor aided by a plunger ejector. The short lift bolt handle leans back at a slight angle, with the knob made up of an oval flat shape. To the rear, a small cocking indicator informs the shooter if the action is cocked. Another new feature is the unusual square button, allowing the bolt to be cycled when the safety is on.
The typically angular stainless steel receiver is another reminder of the A-Bolt. The bolt release catch is to the left, but another change is the Weaver-type bases (‘X-lock’ system), each secured by four screws to guarantee a solid fix. Weaver and other makes of ring can be fitted with ease. The safety catch sits at the rear of the action – simply move the thumb without the need to change the grip.
The adjustable ‘feather’ trigger has little creep and is set to a crisp 4lb. The aluminium silver trigger guard and matching surround to the magazine may or may not be to everybody’s taste. The heavy plastic magazine is based on a rotary design that carries four rounds, with the release catch located to the front. It is a tight, flush fit owing to a simple spring tensioner, and very easy to remove and refit.
The 22in stainless steel, non-reflective barrel is a fully fluted, light sporting grade and comes threaded to allow the fitting of a sound moderator. It is fully floating from the front of the receiver, again being stainless. Overall, the X-Bolt Stainless Fluted Stalker looks functional, and weighing in at under 7lb it gave me high hopes that it would perform in the field.
Fitted to the rifle was a Swarovski 3-20x50mm with a 30mm tube – a great optic for deer stalking and general fox control. I also tried the Nightforce 5.5-22×50 NXS for night-time foxing. Up to the shoulder, the rifle feels light and very pointable, especially without a moderator fitted. For the test, I used a variety of ammunition, from 55-grain ballistic tips to 100-grain soft points. Loading the magazine was a doddle – it feels solid and clips back into the stock very firmly. Moving the thumb to push the safety catch forward, the bolt gently moves the round into the breech with a beautiful smoothness. With the safety back on, I could open the bolt by pushing the button at its base.
I understand Browning boasts 1MOA (1in at 100yds) for the X bolt. My first round was the 55-grain Winchester Silvertip, firing at 3,900 fps with a devastating group of under half an inch. With a twist rate of 1 in 10, the rifle may appear to favour the heavier ammunition, but the 95-grain Winchester Silvertip ammo gave me a much larger 1.5in group. At 200 yards – my preferred zero for foxing – the lighter bullets stayed within a one-inch group.
The trigger, while heavier than I would like, was firm and very crisp with very little movement through its travel. These tests were done with the use of a front bipod to simulate most fox shooting, but I did find the forend was touching the barrel. While this was slightly disappointing bearing in mind there was no moderator fitted, it did not seem to affect the point of impact or accuracy on this test.
The stock was a joy to use, helped by the narrow pistol grip and forend, making me feel at one with the rifle. Bearing in mind the lack of moderator, the recoil was a little snappy, even with the lighter bullets. It was a very easy gun to use, with the safety catch and bolt release button found easily by the thumb on the trigger hand. The lightweight fluted barrel, despite warming up after 15 shots, did not have a huge effect on the accuracy, telling me that it not only looks like a varminter but can also compete with the heavier barrels.
I fitted the Nightforce scope along with an old T8 Moderator, and I also took the liberty of trying to reduce the trigger pressure to around the 3lb mark. While this made a difference, I found it hard to anticipate when the firing pin would release. The break point seemed to vary, making it rather tricky, especially when I had a fox looking unintentionally down the barrel. On one shot, the delay allowed the fox to move a few inches, resulting in a still fatal shoulder shot as opposed to a mid-chest point of impact.
The Browning X Bolt retails for £888, which, in my opinion, is brilliant value for money considering the accuracy and fluted barrel. I can see many gamekeepers taking a shine to it, as the stainless steel will require little maintenance and the stock is extremely durable.