Are Affordable Hunting Rifles Any Good? LocaCarnivore Test and Review: Savage 111 Package Rifle


Face it, quality hunting rifles are expensive, always have been.  Trouble is, many hunters can't afford top shelf hardware, and even used gun prices have jumped skyward in recent years.  However, there is a budget minded alternative: a new, entry level rifle.

Seems every gun maker now offers a low-cost rifle aimed at the novice or budget challenged hunter.  Ruger has its American line, Marlin makes the XL7 and XS7 series, Browning introduced the X-bolt, even up-scale, boutique brand Weatherby offers the Vanguard.  Truth is, all these rifles are designed to do one thing; take market share from Savage Arms.

Intelligent Design


Long before the current budget gun glut, way back in 1958, Savage introduced a revolutionary bolt-action rifle, the Model 110.  The company tasked their chief designer, Nicholas Brewer, to rethink how rifles were made and come up with an easy to produce but reliable hunting gun.

Brewer found several ways to improve upon traditional gun making methods, in particular how the barrel fit into the receiver and the bolt's construction.  For centuries, rifle barrels were screwed into the receiver. The barrel's base mated with a step machined into the receiver to set the necessary headspace.  If the headspace didn't line up just right, skilled, well paid craftsmen had to re-machine and refit it.  This took precious assembly line time, and in manufacturing, time is money.

That's Just Nuts


Brewer came up with a novel, and for the time, radical solution.  He eliminated the step machined into the receiver.  This allowed any semi-skilled worker to just screw the barrel along with a recoil lug (which also acted as a shim) into the receiver until it butted up against a head space gauge, then secure the whole assembly with a simple nut.  The process took far less time and made Savage's new rifle less expensive to produce, and more accurate.  Also, the gun's owner could change barrels if they desired with simple hand tools.  The action proved strong and reliable.  Genius.

Float Your Bolt


He also developed a simpler bolt with a floating head assembly.  This bolt head adjusted for small imperfections in the cartridge case and set the final head space at the specified minimum which also increased accuracy.  Brewer gave the bolt an improved handle which allowed either a right or left handed throw with no tooling changes.  Thus, Savage became the first manufacturer to offer left hand bolt-actions on a standard basis.  Before this, left hand guns were often expensive special orders.

From the Ashes


In the late 1990s, after a brush with bankruptcy, Savage improved the 110 based on owner feedback with items such as a better trigger, plus a free-float barrel, and they changed the model designations to better align with their new product mix.

Fast forward to the early 2000's and the Great Recession.  Despite strong tactical rifle and handgun sales, hunting rifles lagged.  Except for Savage with their affordable, reliable, accurate, near fifty-year old design.  Savage sales just went up, and up.

Smart, Not Cheap


Okay, Savage has a low-cost rifle, but is it any good, or did they just make it "cheap?"

LocaCarnivore, always on the lookout for a bargain, obtained a used, blued carbon steel Savage Model 111 Package Hunter complete with factory supplied Nikon 3-9 x 40 Pro Staff scope and AccuTrigger, chambered in .300 Winchester Magnum for this test.  The rifle appeared new, even the "Savage" stickers were still on the stock.  A local gunsmith observed the rifle looked as though it had only been proof fired at the factory.  All this for less than a new one from Savage.  Quite a find, indeed.

First Impressions


As befit its near new condition, the blueing and overall finish rated a ten.  It came with a black molded stock, we're unsure if it's composite or just formed polymer.  Either way, it has deep, positive checkering on the wrist and forearm, integral sling swivels, and has withstood two rough and tumble hunting seasons without noticeable wear.

The gun fits well and comes up to the shoulder with smooth precision.  The only complaint so far is the hollow butt.  If it bumps against one's gear or a tree limb, it has a distinct, audible "thump" like a drum, so one has to take care when stalking through heavy timber and brush.  Unlike some inexpensive polymer stocks on the market, the forearm's underside has an almost flat area which kept it steady when shot from various rests both at the range and in the field.

Light but Doesn't Bite


Savage claims the twenty-four inch barreled gun with scope weighs eight pounds unloaded.  While not a true light-weight mountain rifle, it proved an easy carry in rugged terrain. Concerns it would kick like the proverbial mule given the powerful .300 Win. Mag. cartridge were unfounded.  It proved tolerable, and milder than the author's ten pound .375 H&H Magnum.  Shooterscalculator.com's recoil function claims around thirty pounds free recoil energy for the Savage.  For comparison, a .30-06 in the same weight gun produces about twenty-five pounds.  Oh, the .375?  Thirty-six pounds.  While the 111's recoil is stout, it is far from big bore safari gun territory.

Optics


The Nikon scope's quality surprised us.  The glass transmitted light well, even at twilight.  It has a bullet drop compensating duplex reticle, which when combined with Nikon's Spoton online software, allows the user to determine the impact range for each hash mark with any given load.  You get what you pay for though, and this scope is no exception.  It is obvious Nikon shaved some cost with less than first rate internal components.

The elevation and windage turrets are marked as 1/4 inch at 100 yards for each detent, but it did not return to exact zero when adjusted for different loads.  Close, but not exact.  Best to stick with one load and leave the adjustment alone.  Time will tell if it will shoot loose when subjected to magnum recoil over a few years.  We suspect Nikon intends this scope to sit on rifles which only see daylight during hunting season.  It is not a scope for constant match use or precision long-range hunting.

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It


The original Savage 110 had a blind magazine.  One loaded it through the top, and to unload, you cycled each cartridge through the action rather than unlatch a floor plate and dump them.  The newer 111 has a removable sheet metal magazine with a polymer floor plate.  The author prefers built-in magazines with hinged floor plates.  Removable magazines can remove themselves at inopportune times.  In fact, the author lost a detachable magazine from another gun while walking along a forest trail once, which proves the assertion.

Savage 111 detachable magazine.  Problematic latch at far right.
The Savage's mag has a polymer latch built into the floor plate which rises vertically along the magazine's front and mates with a recess in the stock's mag well.  The latch seems less than robust.  As a precaution, the author secures the mag in the gun with some duct tape when in the field--just in case--and loads it like a blind mag.  (Tape is visible in article's lead photo.)

At first, we short cycled rounds through the action to unload the mag to avoid wear on the mag latch, but a few cartridges caught on the barrel's feed ramp and with ham-handed bolt pressure, the author managed to push the bullets deep into the case on several rounds.  We don't do that any more, no siree.  Now, it's just remove the mag and unload it with thumb pressure.  If the tape needs replacement from time to time, so be it--tape is cheap.

Safety


The three position safety is a conventional tang mounted affair.  The forward-most detent allows the weapon to fire, while the mid-position blocks the trigger but allows the bolt to cycle.  Handy if you cycle rounds through the action but want to help prevent a negligent discharge.  The rearmost position blocks the trigger and locks the bolt in battery.

The author won't accept a bolt-action rifle without this three position, Mauser-like safety system.  Both the Ruger American and the Marlin budget guns' safeties do not lock the bolt in battery, a feature which prevents us from ever buying one.  Without a positive lock, it's too easy for the bolt to come loose in the field and dump the cartridge from the firing chamber unbeknownst to the gun's owner.  We've seen it happen.

Like all the other areas, we had just one complaint about the safety.  In cold weather, with heavy gloves, it is difficult to feel the various detents and several times it did not engaged fully.  Like most tang safeties, it tended to freeze if snow got into it.  Then again, you should never rely on any safety.

Bench Test and Reality Check
The 111's bolt handle is perfectly aligned to peen the shooter's trigger finger.


At the range, the rifle performed better than expected.  Savage's AccuTrigger is excellent, and although it is user adjustable, the factory setting proved fine for the author.  The robust recoil pad is also effective.  It soaked up magnum round after magnum round to the point the author didn't need a shoulder pad between it and his tender hide.  While the stock didn't bite, the bolt handle did.  When shot from sandbags, the bolt handle raps the shooter's trigger finger between the top and middle knuckle if they don't take a careful grip.  However, when shot from field positions, the problem didn't arise.

Accuracy is good.  PPU brand 180 grain soft-points grouped just under 2.0 MOA, and 180 grain Nosler AccuBond hand loads hit at 1.0 MOA.  Savage claims 1.5 MOA with most factory
ammo.

In the field, the 111 exceeded expectations.  It accounted for five deer and one antelope over two seasons at ranges from 25 - 230 yards (yeah, the author can get close).  Given its accuracy, it should make a great long-range hunting rifle once a higher quality scope is installed.

Bottom Line

Savage rifles have always been good for their price, but with the newest improvements, especially the trigger, they are a steal.  The Model 111 we tested is a great gun; everything you need, nothing you don't.  While the package model won't win any bench rest matches, it does give the budget conscious locacarnivore a turn key gun which will put meat in the freezer under average hunting conditions.  The thing's built like an AK: simple and effective, but unlike Mr. Kalashnikov's brainchild, the Savage can morph into a great long-range precision rifle.  LocaCarnivore is sold on this Savage.

--LJ Bonham