Scout Rifles

The old Lee-Enfield No. 5 Mk. I, a.k.a., “Jungle Carbine,” was a decent “scout rifle” exactly as it was issued to British troops in Burma and Malaya in 1945. Other good factory scout rifles include the Savage 99 and the Mannlicher-Schönauer Model 1903.

Not quite a quest, but close.

[by Terry Wieland]

THE ARMY SCOUT IS AN ALMOST MYTHICAL CHARACTER FROM FRONTIER HISTORY—as admired in his day as a Navy SEAL is now. A scout combined the best qualities of a good soldier with those of a skilled hunter. He was at home on a horse, in the woods, alone on the prairie, or behind enemy lines. A scout was a woodsman, a reader of sign, a master of stealth, and a tactician who depended on himself alone to get out of trouble.

A scout was well but simply armed: a carbine, a knife, a pistol. He traveled light and moved fast, and his weapons reflected that. This was the image Col. Jeff Cooper evoked in the early 1980s when he embarked on a project that was to occupy his attention for the next decade: the design of a modern “scout rifle.” Nothing like the gun Cooper envisioned was commercially available in 1984, and in fact, few custom rifles fit the description. Hunting rifles of the time, he felt, were too heavy or awkward; some were too powerful, others not powerful enough. Therefore, he set out a formula, and what he described would, in another age, be the perfect stalking rifle for red stag in the Highlands, for white-tailed deer in Maine, or foraging for food in the Rockies.

“What happened to Cooper’s scout-rifle idea after that, after it fell into the hands of rifle companies and their marketing departments, is almost an object lesson in how a good idea can be turned by committee into a bad idea…”

Although the scout rifle’s specifications evolved over the years, the basics remained the same: It was to weigh no more than seven pounds, loaded and ready to go; it used a mid-power cartridge along the lines of the . 257 Roberts; had a barrel no more than 22 inches long; and the scope was mounted ahead of the action so stripper clips could be used. Having the scope forward also allowed the rifle to be carried for long periods, comfortably, in one hand or— in military parlance—“at the trail.” Unusual for the time, Cooper specified a plastic stock for lightness, stability, and durability. This was before the advent of Kevlar and similar high-tech stock materials, but Cooper accurately predicted the eventual domination of composites over wood.

Equally as important as what the rifle was, is what it was not. It was not a sniper rifle, so it did not need extreme range; 300 yards was more than enough. An army scout avoided firefights, so he did not need an assault rifle with high-capacity magazines. Sighting equipment was pretty basic—either a compact scope or a good aperture sight.

Writing in Guns & Ammo in 1987, three years after the project began and with several custom rifles then in various stages of completion, Cooper pointed out that “There is no single element that makes the scout superior, but rather the total effect of many small increments. No single feature of the scout makes it supreme, but when taken all together the effect is dramatic.”

Cooper called this process “increment-stacking,” but it could also be likened to the domino theory in reverse. Having all the right “small increments” may make the scout rifle supreme, but changing even one can affect the others adversely and result in a rifle that is unusable for its intended purpose.

Of course, a major element was the cartridge for which the scout rifle was chambered. It needed sufficient power and accuracy out to 300 yards, but it also had to be small enough to function through a compact action. And, since a man on a long scouting mission carries all his own ammunition, an adequate supply needs to be light. Dozens of cartridges fit that bill. My own choice would be the .250-3000, but anything from the .243 Winchester to the .308 would do. Cooper himself favored something along the line of the 7mm-08. Today’s darling, the 6.5 Creedmoor, would be ideal.

By 1989, a dozen of Cooper’s admirers had custom rifles in progress, but already he was experiencing a kind of “mission creep.” There was now a formula for a “super scout,” and even plans for a “lion scout.” The latter was a rifle suitable for African hunting—lions in dense brush and so on—and the array of so-called scout cartridges had expanded beyond recognition. The image of a lone scout on a horse had been updated to embrace three men in a Bren-gun carrier, cavorting behind enemy lines, and suitably armed for the purpose.

What happened to Cooper’s scout-rifle idea after that, after it fell into the hands of rifle companies and their marketing departments, is almost an object lesson in how a good idea can be turned by committee into a bad idea—or at least, one that falls far short of the original vision. Everyone, it seemed, had an idea of how to “improve” it, by using magnum cartridges, longer barrels, even bipods. Ever try to fit a rifle with a bipod into a saddle scabbard? Don’t.

Looking back to 1952, 30 years before Cooper floated his idea, Winchester had introduced a rifle that was almost ideal. The original Winchester Model 70 Featherweight, chambered for the .308 Winchester, could hardly have been improved upon. Within a few years, the Featherweight had been so adulterated by chambering it for such cartridges as the .264 Winchester Magnum that it was a travesty. It was abandoned, with shudders, when the Model 70 line was revamped in 1964.

Much the same thing has happened as one company after another has come out with a “scout” model, some proclaiming the blessing either of Cooper or his heirs. Most resemble Cooper’s original vision the way a Humvee resembles a horse.