Testfire by John Herbert
Calibre: .223 Remington
22 Inches (560mm) Med/Heavy cold hammer forged.
Twist Rate: 1/9
4 Shot detachable magazine
Trigger: Adjustable and single Set
Stock: Glass fibre-reinforced composite.
43 inches (1100mm)
8.6 pounds (3.9KG)
Reviewed by NZ Rod&Rifle Magazine's Technical Editor,
The Safe Bet
Steyr introduced the Pro Hunter with the new Safe Bolt System action in 1996 – it was hailed at the time as being a very strong action that used a safety system that made moving about with a round in the chamber much safer. The SBS action was also the basis for the Steyr Scout Rifle, that was promoted by the legendary Jeff Cooper as the perfect all-round rifle.
The rifle and its variants gained a lot of attention in the late nineties/early noughties, but it’s been a little anonymous in the last decade. New Steyr agents, Kilwell Sports sent NZ Rod & Rifle a Steyr Pro Hunter Heavy Barrel in .223 so we could find out if it’s still the special rifle we all thought it was back then.
The Pro Hunter on test is a special variant made for Australia and New Zealand: a standard Pro Hunter with a stainless heavy barrel and set trigger. Thus it has many features of the Pro Varmint, but at a much better price. Pro Hunters in the larger calibres have standard weight barrels and weigh around 300 grams less.
The heart of any rifle is the action and the SBS action is a modern design that places emphasis on strength and safety.
The action is cylindrical and uses a substantial recoil lug assembly that bolts to the underside of the receiver. The magazine housing also attaches directly to the receiver, and at the end of the action the tang is actually part of the trigger/safety assembly. The separate recoil lug allows for a slightly longer tenon area and the action length incorporates a bushing that rotates with the bolt, encasing the extractor and providing a gas seal in case of a ruptured primer or case. The bolt has four locking lugs for extra strength and the action has been proofed to 120,000 psi, twice the average working pressure of many common cartridges and 20-40,000 psi more than many other rifles are tested at. A 60 degree bolt rotation gives the handle decent scope clearance, and the unique slots on the bolt body are there to help clear mud and snow when the going gets tough.
The safety on the Steyr is noteworthy, as it’s a solution to the chambered round question. In NZ we’re instructed not to trust the safety but instead use the half cock; this is a hangover from the Lee Enfield days and unfortunately it puts us at odds with just about every other country in the world that relies on safeties. Many popular rifles don’t have useable half cocks, so now the Kiwi hunter must decide if they will use the safety or rely on a tenuous half cock.
Side stepping the debate to focus on the Steyr: it has a safety that doesn’t just rely on a trigger block but blocks the firing pin sear, making it impossible for a drop or hard knock to release the firing pin and fire the rifle. As a bonus it also locks the bolt handle in closer to the action. The process that puts the rifle on safe is managed with a rolling tang safety. Roll the dial forward until the red dot shows and this is Fire. Roll the dial back one step and the white dot appears; this is the Safe, but it still allows the bolt to cycle. Roll it back one more step and a button pops up; at this stage you can push the bolt handle into the action blocking the firing pin sear from the trigger. To release the safety roll the dial forward until it stops, aim and shoot.
The only downside to this process is that when the safety is disengaged the bolt pops back up a few mm, making a slight click. The click is subdued but at very close range it’s possible that an animal might hear it. Past 30 yards though, and I’d think it would just blend into the ambient sounds of nature. There is however a quiet way to release it; you put your trigger finger on the bolt and roll the safety back one position, and then allow the bolt to come up with pressure from your trigger finger guiding it. This reduces the noise of the click considerably and is extra safe, as your trigger finger is nowhere near the trigger. When the bolt is up, roll the safety back one more step and you’re ready to fire. This is a simple process and after doing it 4 or 5 times it became second nature.
The last trick this particular rifle had was a set trigger. The Europeans still like their set triggers and I personally think they are a good solution to the light trigger pull question. To use the trigger, cycle the bolt and push forward on the trigger until it clicks; you now have a crisp ½ pound release. If you don’t want to take the shot you can reset the trigger by lifting the bolt and cycling it 10mm or so, or you can roll the safety on and pull the trigger – this will de-set the trigger but won’t drop the firing pin. You can also roll the safety right round to Extra Safe; this will de-set the trigger automatically. Finally, if you just like a normal trigger, the Steyr’s is adjustable for weight of pull.
The Pro Varmint has a 22 inch medium heavy barrel with the distinctive swirl marks from the cold hammer forging process. The barrel has a 1 in 9 twist so it will stabilise bullets up to 77 grains, and the shorter 75 grain Hornady HPBT and the Sierra 77gr Match King bullets, but 1 in 9 will not stabilise some of the longer 75 grain and 90 grain VLD and tipped bullets.
The stock is the composite Pro Hunter stock and is ergonomically very comfortable. It’s reinforced with fibreglass, and was noticeably stiffer than the common injection-moulded stocks seen on many sub-$2000 rifles. The butt has a spacer system to change the length of pull and the stock is fitted with traditional sling swivels.
For testing, the Pro Varmint was fitted with a Meopta MEOPRO 4-12 x 50 scope and Warne Maxima rings. The Pro Varmint’s set trigger made accuracy work easy, to the point that I could eliminate flyers from my groups. When shooting the same ammunition using the trigger at its 4.5 pound setting I would regularly get flyers. The Pro Varmint took a liking to the first ammunition tried, Winchester’s standard 55gr Pointed Soft Point. I shot a number of groups ranging from 0.4 to 0.7 inches, with the larger groups occurring when I didn’t use the set trigger. The Norma Match 77 grain Match King load shot easy sub-Minute of Angle groups with a number of groups in the 0.7 range. Hand loads using the 55gr Hornady V-Max bullet shot into the 0.6 inch range, and factory Winchester 55gr Varmint Special also shot into the 0.7 inch range. As this was a Varmint rifle all groups were 5 shots.
I will add my usual Wellington Wind note: if it wasn’t gusting the groups would have been noticeably smaller and as I started my groups when there was a lull in the wind the first three shots were often sub-½ MOA, with the strong wind gusts making the reticle shake for the last shot or two and opening up the groups.
The Meopta scope used was quite bright and crisp and the holdover reticle made it useful as a med/long range hunting scope, and as such the parallax is set at 150-200 yards. This meant that the bench rest targets were not completely in focus at 100 yards. At 200 yards the sight picture was crisp and in focus though, and looking at targets out to 350 yards the image was again clean and crisp. If you don’t have variable parallax – and remember it does add cost and complexity to a scope – then it makes sense to set the parallax further out on a higher magnification scope as it’s likely to be used at longer distances. At shorter distances the parallax error is far less noticeable when the magnification is turned down; this is how a variable power scope is designed to work. Considering the $1000 price point of the scope, adding parallax adjustment would seem unnecessary – especially as the scope delivered very good clarity at the distances it will likely be used at.
The Pro Hunter is a feature-packed rifle with a big emphasis on safety. The Safe Bolt System is both clever and easy to use, and provides a real option for hunters who need to move with a chambered round. The fit and finish of the rifle is very good, and the European styling cues like the ergonomic stock and the hammer forged barrel make it look a bit special. The set trigger is a bonus at this price point and helps the rifle achieve ½ MOA accuracy.
Over time I’d forgotten all about the Steyr Pro Hunter and its clever features, but this test confirmed that both the design and execution of the rifle are top notch – and the icing on the cake is the retail price of $1799. That’s a lot gun for the money.