X marks the spot

As I grew up, Browning was synonymous with shotguns. We never had any Browning rifles in the household, but I was well aware that Browning made excellent over-and-unders. It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I came across its rimfires, and of course the famous A-Bolt centrefire.

Launched just a few years before I was born, the A-Bolt was well established and liked by the time I was browsing the pages of hunting magazines. As time went on its popularity began to wane, certainly in the UK, with Browning holding on to its old design for more than two decades before releasing the X-Bolt. It was long overdue, but the hunting public was definitely receptive to Browning’s new rifle.

Looking at how the rifle is put together, you can’t help but notice the influences of the A-Bolt. This, of course, is no bad thing, as the old rifle had plenty of desirable qualities in the build. However, what I was particularly keen to find out was how Browning had gone about improving the aspects I was less than enthusiastic about.

BROWNING X-BOLT STAINLESS STALKER01Taking an overall look at the Stainless Hunter, which I was testing, the X-Bolt is distinctive. Browning went to the trouble of moulding aesthetic and ergonomic lines in the stock, which give the rifle more character, even if it is just plastic. The stainless metalwork has a brushed matt finish, with the whole rifle appearing to sit compactly together. In the hand the stock has a firm, positive feel, owing to what Browning calls its Dura-Touch Armour Coating. This is basically a rubberised shell on top of a hard co-polymer. It is a design that  many manufacturers have tried their hand at in recent times.

The coating on the X-Bolt feels robust, with reinforced inserts around the pistol grip and forestock, but only a decade of hard graft will show just how durable it is. It is certainly one of the nicer synthetic stocks on the market, and the ribbed internals in the forestock help to maintain rigidity.

Although the bolt shroud, trigger guard and magazine housing are made from a sandblasted cast aluminium alloy, the receiver itself is a machined stainless steel, fixed to a button-rifled sporter profile barrel with a recessed crown. It’s a substantial piece of metal, and although it probably started life as a round action, Browning kept the same angled lines on top as the A-Bolt. What is different, however, is that instead of being drilled and tapped with the traditional two screws per scope base, the X-Bolt has four each side of the ejector port. Indeed, it is this crossing ‘X-Lock’ mounting system on the receiver that gives the X-Bolt its name. But is it necessary? Probably not, but it certainly does no harm and is 100 per cent more anchoring power when fixing your scope to the rifle.

The recoil lug has been taken from the A-Bolt, which is the same as you will find in a Remington. In terms of stock fixings, Browning has gone to the trouble of bedding the metalwork, not just around recoil lug area but also further down the receiver. It is not the neatest bedding job in the world, but it’s not terrible. There are no pillars fitted, however, so the action screws squeeze against the bottom metal through the co-polymer stock.

The bottom metal is worth mentioning in itself, being a little bit different to what most hunters are used to. With the exception of rifles such as Sauer and Blaser, which have moved away from traditional designs, most rifles have their bottom metal recessed into the underneath of the stock. Browning hasn’t followed the crowd here, and moved away from the pretty terrible design found in the A-Bolt. The X-Bolt has bottom metal that wraps around the stock and supports the updated rotary magazine. Although initially reserved about how this looked, I began to come around once I had it on the range. In fact, it makes sense to have the metalwork on the bottom of the rifle to protect the stock edges, and the design does give the rifle a more robust feel.

The magazine itself is plastic, which brought an immediate frown to my face. My preference is always for a floorplate, but if a rifle is fitted with a magazine, I have always wanted to see a solidly constructed metallic mag, like that offered by Sako. Holding the X-Bolt magazine in my hand, I held back my knee-jerk misgivings and looked a little closer. Logically, a plastic based magazine makes sense. No problems with corrosion, and with modern materials, they can be made incredibly strong and reliable.

The problem has always been that the motivation for plastic magazines has been wrong. More often than not it’s down to savings in production costs, and the results are normally quite poor. The motivation may be the same for the X-Bolt, but it is well designed and constructed. It doesn’t feel flimsy in the hand, and it loads easily, offering up rounds centrally from the top. This helps with feeding the shorter, fatter, modern calibres that are offered in the X-Bolt, such as the WSMs.

What is also interesting is how the release catch operates. Whereas most rifles have the release on the stock, or part of the bottom metal, the X-Bolt release is on the magazine itself, recessed below the level of the stock. This means that on removal you are pulling the mag into your hand instead of popping it out – far less chance of dropping it in the field.

Like the A-Bolt, the X-Bolt has maintained the 60-degree bolt lift and three locking lugs, keeping the same plunger ejector and sprung claw extractor even if it has been marginally altered. The new rifle has, however, done away with the sleeve that encased the entire bolt shaft on the A-Bolt. It never seemed to serve any great purpose, and although it was intended to aid smoother cycling, the A-Bolt carries considerably more resistance and is a far clunkier design to operate. The X-bolt has a straightforward shaft, although it has been shaped on the top side to match the contours of the receiver. A plastic guide stud does sit to one side of the bolt, which works fine, but may find itself getting broken over time. This seems a silly addition to an otherwise good design.

The bolt does hold one other point of interest integral to the safety of the rifle. Most manufacturers these days opt for three-position safety catches, allowing the bolt and ammo to be removed with the rifle still deemed ‘safe’. Although on principle this is a good thing, I have always had a preference for a straightforward two-position ‘safe’ and ‘fire’.

In a way Browning has done that with the X-Bolt. The safety is found to the rear of the bolt, in the same place as a shotgun, allowing easy, almost silent operation. With forward position ‘fire’ and rearward for ‘safe’, the firing pin is disengaged and the bolt locked down. It can, however, still be removed by depressing a button at the top of the bolt handle. Clever and simple, it just works. Although the concept is nothing new, Browning’s application is excellent, and easier to operate than the same system on a Sako. Having said that, there is probably more to go wrong with the release incorporated in the handle, but you can’t have it both ways.

Finally we get to the trigger. I could go into a lot of detail about how Browning’s Feather Trigger system works, but you can get that from the Browning website. What I can tell you is that it’s probably the best trigger Browning has put on a rifle. Crisp to operate, over-travel is almost non-existent. For a stalking trigger on a factory rifle, it really is good. The only criticism I would have is that it probably doesn’t adjust down quite far enough, although at just under 3lb it is fine.

Browning claims the rifle will return MOA groups with just about any factory ammo, and in the .308 Win I tested, they weren’t far wrong. I never achieved any storming groups, but of the 150-grain Federal, 150-grain Winchesters, 165-170 grain Gecos and 168-grain Hornadys, none returned average groups larger than 1.2in.

Although I may have started with reservations about the rifle, I came around in the end. With this rifle coming in at just over £800 retail, it’s competing with the Howas and Tikkas of the industry, and it does a good job of that.

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