Thursday, September 5, 2013

Practical Testing of the Cooper Scout Rifle Concept

Practical Testing of the Cooper Scout Rifle Concept
Much has been written about Jeff Cooper's scout rifle concept. Although no one can speak more authoritatively on the subject than the late Cooper himself, I have become a student of the concept. Unfortunately many writers have missed the spirit of the scout rifle concept using the traits such as the lightweight, .308 chambering, and overall length as mandates versus guidelines.  A point often missed was Cooper’s more important requirement of shooter capabilities… after all if you cannot hit the target, it matters little how good the equipment is.
"The natural habitat of the general-purpose rifle is the field, the forest, the desert and the mountain -– not the shooting shed with its bench rest. To be really useful a rifle must be as short, light and quick to use as is technically compatible with adequate power and useful accuracy. What matters is not what the equipment can do, but rather what it will do in the hands of its operator under field, rather than laboratory, conditions." - Jeff Cooper
CALIBER SELECTION Some of the more relevant Cooper’esk scout rifle discussions have been around caliber selection. Generally everyone centralizes over the 308 Winchester chamber, however interestingly Cooper played around with a large number of other calibers working with Steyr. The Cooper influenced Steyr bolt action Scout rifle was offered in .223/5.56, .243, 7mm-08, .376 Steyr, and obviously .308/7.62x51 Nato.  The rifle weighed in at only 6.6lbs without an optic and was only 38.6” in length. By today’s standards, it still had a number of forward thinking features such as spare mag in the buttstock, forward mounted optic, and integrated bipod… however it was and still is priced about $2000 even if you can find one. Generally the .308 is the hardest model to find.
Cooper most widely recommended the .308 Winchester simply because it is effective on most manner of beast to 400 yards and was and still is readily available even in the more remote areas around the world.
Cooper first developed his scout rifle concept after looking at the very long-lived success of the Winchester 94 in the 30-30 caliber and its effective use on a wide range of hunting and defensive targets for well over 100 years.  The 30-30 is by today's standards considered a medium weight round and actually around the same 800 Ft/lbs of energy at 200 yards as a standard Russian 7.62x39 AK round (technically the AK round is more powerful). The 308 is clearly more powerful at distance, however even at 200-yards the 30-30 and 7.62x39 are still a pretty deadly round even for whitetail and hog hunting. I decided to expand my test a bit with this in mind.
VARIANTS OF THE COOPER SCOUT RIFLE To test my theories about the idea of a scout rifle concept and my ability to shoot them, I picked up two of Ruger's newest 308 bolt actions and a Mini-30 to assemble three variations; a "quintessential" Scout Rifle, an even lighter weight more affordable compact alternative and the battle proven Mini-30 design with a bit more punch than the venerable 30-30.
Ruger Gunsite - The Gunsite was specifically designed around Cooper's concept of a Scout Rifle by some of his closest friends at Gunsite and matches up well to his original guidelines.  Fortunately, I have the new all stainless version sporting a longer 18" barrel to test out. The rifle is a brute and feels like your typical over engineered Ruger that could take everything you could throw at it. With this stainless version the action is about as corrosion resistant as it comes. I topped this rifle with Hi-Lux/Leatherwood's newest long-eye relief variable power 2-7 Scout Rifle scope exactly where Cooper intended; way out in front of the bolt. As equipped, this rifle matches almost perfectly to Cooper's specs, so I was looking forward to seeing whether I could deliver from a shooter perspective.
Ruger American Compact .308 - The 6lb Ruger American with detachable rotary magazine has never been noted as a "Scout Rifle" since its recent introduction however with the right optic, I wanted to prove that it could be an effective alternative to Ruger's other namesake design. The Ruger American tested is the Compact version which drops the barrel length from 22” to 18" and shortens the length of pull by 1.25" to deliver a very compact and ultra-light Scout Rifle variation - about 3" shorter and 1.1lbs lighter than Ruger's Scout Rifle. It is probably the lightest .308 in production and considering the $350 street price on these Ruger American's, it may be one of the least expensive options as well. To keep the weight down and deliver the both eyes open shooting capabilities noted by Cooper, I opted for something unusual on a 308 bolt action, a Nikon 1-4x M-223 AR optic. On 1X it delivers the defensive CQB distance engagement Cooper noted and on 4X allows some precision at distance.

Ruger Mini-30 - At first glance, aside from the 7.62x39 chambering and forward mounted optic, the Mini-30 is the semi-auto version of the Gunsite scout rifle. Brutally tough and infallibly dependable. Perhaps Ruger should offer this in a 308 version.  The $799 street priced Mini-30 tested was a simple blued 16” barreled version which includes about the same accessories as the Scout. It comes complete with a birdcage flash hider, virtually the same iron sights, two 20-round magazines, 1” scope mounts, and even a weaver scope mount rail. This rifle shared the same Nikon 1-4x M-223 optic with the American.

LENGTH & WEIGHT Cooper specified a carbine/compact rifle with an overall length of less than 39.4" (1 meter). This was to allow the rifle to be highly maneuverable and greatly reduce weight in the process which should not exceed an unloaded weight of 7.7lbs with accessories and preferably being as little as 6.6lbs.  
Ruger Gunsite - The Ruger Gunsite Scout Rifle is a little too long at 41” including its removable flash hider and a tad overweight at 7.1lb weight without an optic even mounted, however it is close enough still handles well and the weight is appreciated with the 308 round.
Ruger American Compact .308 - The Ruger American on the other hand is right at a 6 lb weight and with the short & light barrel it feels feathery. With the shorter barrel and reduced pull length, the American is a full three inches under the maximum length recommended by Cooper at a 36.75” length.
Ruger Mini-30 - Ruger’s semi-auto Min-30 weighs in at 6.75lbs and is only 36.75” long. Even with the supplied Ruger scope rings and the Nikon 1-4x M-223 moved over on Mini-30, the weight is still easily under Cooper’s suggested weight limit.
OPTICS & SIGHTS Cooper's Scout Rifle guidelines recommended a forward mounted low powered optic for several reasons. It reduced bolt to scope interference to avoid busting a knuckle during stressful bolt cycling. The forward scope provided room to use stripper clips for reloading, and minimized potential jams, however the most compelling reason was to increase field of view for a “both eyes open shooting style”. Cooper was a big game hunter and knew the value of aiming with both eyes open when hunting prey could be important when the thing you are hunting can kill you. Moving to a long-eye relief low powered scope (generally a handgun scope at that time) mounted in front of the receiver delivered all the above benefits and put the shooter on target faster. Cooper recommended a 2x-3x magnification scope but did not require a scope. Obviously back up iron sights were recommended should the optics fail.
Ruger Gunsite Optic Choice - The Ruger Gunsite does have iron back up sights, however I mounted the new Leatherwood/Hi-Lux 2-7 Scope. The Hi-Lux was specifically designed for the Ruger Gunsite rifle with a BDC reticle calibrated for the 308 round out to 600-yards.  Overall the optic is a perfect fit for the rifle’s, chambering, effective range and spirit of the design. If you own a Ruger Gunsite this would be my first optic choice.
Ruger American Compact .308 & Mini-30 Optic Choice - For my lightweight experiments with the Ruger 308 American Compact and the Ruger Mini-30, I decided to leverage “newer” optic technology with a 1-4x M-223 Nikon AR optic mounted classically at the rear of the receiver. 

As we know, this new breed of optics are designed for a both eyes open shooting large field of view style on the 1X magnification settings, but can still deliver some precision on the higher magnification. The bolt/charging handles do not interfere with the scope on either rifle and I have no need for stripper clip clearance. 

Ballistically the 308 and 7.62 are similar out to 300 yards, however for the 7.62x39 chambered Mini-30, I zero’ed at 300 yards versus 200 yards to provide a similar bullet drop out to the 300 yard line. It would seem this Nikon 1-4 3-Gun optic may deliver everything required for sighting that a forward mounted optic would.
ACCURACY Some writers inaccurately note a precision accuracy requirement for a scout rifle.  This was not true as Cooper’s definition was a rifle and shooter capable of field accurate 4" groups at 200 yards. This is not particularly accurate for today's modern factory rifles from the bench however delivering that accuracy in the field under less than optimal situations is a bit harder. As any quality rifle today, it becomes far less about the capabilities of the rifle than it is about the capabilities of the shooter. From the specs, any of these rifles should be capable of this accuracy, but let’s see if I am.
TESTING THE CONCEPT I set up four tests varying the shooting positions and respective distances; standing - 50 yards, kneeling - 75 yards, sitting -100 yards, supported prone 200 yards & 400 yards. Standing, kneeling, and sitting positions were stabilized via national match style sling and the 200 & 400-yard supported prone position was shot with the rifle supported over my 5.11 Rush Moab 10 pack. The idea was simple to topple a 4” steel at each distance out to the 200-yard line and then be able to ring the 400-yard 12” steel gong and do it at a pretty brisk pace.  
The problem was, I didn't have any 4” round steels, so I used large full sealed corn cans instead. Hit a can of corn with a 308 or 7.62x39 Hornady Z-Max round and you know it… “corn it's what’s for dinner in a 20-yard radius.”
In most cases this pace meant that if I hit each shot of the entire five shot string, the entire test would be over in around 30-40 seconds with a rather joyous spray of corn everywhere. This was also a no excuses test repeated three times. If I screwed up, flinched, or didn't concentrate on the fundamentals of the shot, then it reflected in my performance.
MY PERFORMANCE I will be up front, back many years ago, I shot well from all these positions, but now my shots are almost always via bipod, over a branch, or pack, but most typically off the bench when shooting groups. Thankfully that yoga pays dividends and put me into each shooting position without too much grunting.
Ruger Gunsite - The Ruger Gunsite delivered a near perfect performance. Running the four corn can gauntlet three times with the Scout delivered only one miss out on the 200-yard line can, however this was more my fault than the Scout’s. 

My first run was at 32 seconds, the second at 29, and the third, I got cocky and missed the 200-yard can and that cost me me with a 44 second time.

Ruger American Compact .308 - With the American, things were not so easy the first round. Part of this was that the 1lb lighter gun and shorter (read that as 1” too short for me) may be lighter to carry, but it is harder to stabilize offhand and packs a brutal recoil on multiple shots.  After the first very brutal round, I added a slip-on Limbsaver over the existing buttpad and the American was suddenly transformed into something I wanted to shoot. The result was that attempt one at the 50 and 200 yard lines required second shots, however once the extra pad was on, I nailed every shot on the next two runs except another miss on the 200-yard line.  My first time was just under 60 seconds, one under 45, and the perfect last run timed in at 35 seconds.

Ruger Mini-30 - The Mini-30’s performance shocked and stunned me. The Mini-30 was actually the clear stopwatch winner even though I had to send a couple extra rounds down range on the 200 on two runs and one extra on the 100-yard can on what would have been otherwise been a perfect run. 

With all the extra bullets down range, two of the runs were under 30-seconds and one was under 40. It required the highest round count but delivered the best times.

Oddly enough the 400-yard 12” gong was by far the easiest target off all to hit with the 200-yard corn can giving me the most issues with all guns.
OBSERVATIONS FROM TESTING Ruger Gunsite - For potential engagement beyond 200 yards, the Ruger Gunsite would be my first choice due to the power of the 308 round and accuracy. The Gunsite delivered pretty darn fast shooting considering this was a bolt action and was the practical accuracy winner.  

The Scout is a keeper and really impressed with its overall accuracy and how it tamed the 308 round through the volley of shooting. The American is technically more accurate than the Scout, however the Scout allowed me to deliver the rounds on target more effectively in practical shooting positions - sometimes a little weight is a good thing.
Ruger American Compact - Between the light weight and the short length of pull of the American, I was reminded that I have bad shoulder joints during the first round. If you are not a wuss, then the American’s recoil will probably not beat you to death as it did me. For me personally, there is no way in hell I would repeat the test without adding a slipping on a big fat Limbsaver recoil pad. In my first run, the recoil definitely affected shot recovery and transitions. Once the recoil was tamed and length of pull was extended, the American was keeping pace with the Gunsite. A slip-on Limbsaver pad is a game changer on the American to the point that I would say this is a no-brainer as a inexpensive and capable scout rifle option.
Ruger Mini-30 - Of the rifles tested, the Mini-30 was the most fun and quickest shooting with the fastest times and more rounds on tap.  Shot-to-shot recovery was significantly faster thanks to the semi-auto action providing significant recoil reduction. 

The 7.62x39 is a fine round out to 200 yards, but beyond that I would want a 308. The power differential is clearly apparent when you hit a can of corn with a 308 vs the AK 7.63x39 rounds.  
Running these drills, you see Cooper had put some thought into each of the traits of the rifle. Yes you need a low powered optic for fast offhand shots, and high capacity magazine fed ammo delivery when multiple targets are engaged. Most importantly it is less about the gun and more about the ability of the shooter to use the equipment.
FINAL THOUGHTS This exercise will certainly get your heart rate up and show you ALL your horrible flaws in less than three one minute sessions. Cheap training is grabbing your trusty .22LR and connect with 25 to 100-yard spinner targets.
I humbly proved that these fine rifles abilities exceeded mine and that I need to get off the bench and start working real world shooting positions more beyond my go-to supported shooting positions I use out in the field.  I also proved that a $350 street priced Ruger American rifle can make a pretty decent Scout rifle with just a fat buttpad and the right low powered optic attached and delivered performance almost as good as it $799 street priced big brother. I also proved to myself that although you may be limiting yourself from longer range power perspective, the Mini-30 is one surprising little accurate scout rifle with a decently powerful cheap to feed cartridge.
The Ruger American is an amazing value and perfect place to start for the budget conscious. The Ruger Scout is as quintessential as a Cooper scout rifle can be all wrapped up in a highly durable package that handles and shoots well. If we say the 30-30 lever action was historically a heck of a scout rifle, then there is no reason that the Ruger Mini-30 should not be considered an awesome semi-auto version. Regardless of your choice the most important learning from this test was that, I as a shooter, need to spend more time off the bench working on unsupported and shots from positions typical of what I I face when in the field.

Get off the bench, I double dog dare you. Your abilities change considerably once you add a timer and force yourself to transition between each of these shooting positions…. now go buy some cheap canned corn and create your own perfect scout rifle.

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Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Come visit the Scout Rifle Forum at:

Unknown said...

Really good article. I applaud anyone who gets out and shoots from actual field positions, It is fun, and a great way to have actual “real world” practice. I’m not sure where you came up with the idea that the Russian 7.62x39 round is “technically” or any other way more powerful than the 30-30? According to the Hornady website the 7.62x39's 123 grain SST / Z Max bullet is traveling at 1755 fps with 841 Ft/lbs of energy at 200 yards. The 30-30 beats that anyway you look at it, with Hornady LEVERevolution 140 Grain at 1902 fps /1124 ft/lbs and the Hornady LEVERevolution 160 Grain Flex Tip 1916 fps / 1304 ft/lbs at 200 yards - they are not even close. I guess you could compare it to the 150 grain round nose which comes in at 1581 fps and 832 ft/lbs at 200 yards, but then you are comparing apples to oranges. And the .308 beats them all, as stated. With the 110 grain TAP registering 2519/1549 respectively at 200 yards, and the 150 grain SST comes in with 2192/1601, that’s about twice the energy of the 7.62x39 at 200 yards. The 7.62x39 is a great little deer and hog caliber and in the Ruger Mini-30 is pretty popular in places like Hawaii where they have hogs to kill and certain restrictions on types of semi-autos. But Cooper said the Scout Rifle should be “capable of striking a single decisive blow, on a live target of up to 200 kilos ( 440.9) in weight, at any distance at which the operator can shoot with the precision ...”. Past very close range, the 7.62x39 Russian is marginal to say the least for this requirement.