The closure of Winchester’s New Haven factory in 2006 made everyone in the shooting industry wince. Now what would happen to Browning, also owned by industrial giant Fabrique Nationale? A year and a half after the lights at 275 Winchester Avenue went out, I visited Browning’s offices near Morgan, Utah. Surely these people had some news… .
“Browning and Winchester are thriving,” Scott Grange assured me. “Both are putting news-making firearms on the shelf next year.” Product managers from both houses then inundated me with photographs, specifications and marketing hyperbole. “You’ll have the X-Bolt with you in the hills for a couple of days,” said Denny Wilcox, who tends the Browning line. “We’re proud of it.”
The rifle he showed me had a trim three-lug action with detachable, spool-fed polymer magazine. The checkered walnut stock, finished in traditional Browning gloss, had a long grip. Shadow-line detailing gave the butt a streamlined look. A button on the bolt shank base enabled me to cycle the bolt with the two-position tang safety engaged. The gold-plated trigger, garish as ever, hung from a three-lever mechanism that tripped like an icicle snap at 31⁄2 pounds. “It adjusts from three to five pounds,” said Denny.
“It looks like a refined A-Bolt,” I ventured tactlessly. “Is it a replacement?”
Denny assured me it was not.
Browning wanted to partner the X-Bolt with the A-Bolt the way it had the Cynergy shotgun with the Citori. “It’s a styling option,” he said, “with mechanical improvements like the rotary magazine, on-safe bolt movement and the new trigger. Finish on production rifles will be more satin than gloss.”
He then handed me an X-Bolt in .308, and Scott ushered me to the range. The scope needed some adjustment after I shoved it ahead to accommodate my stock-crawling habit. When it printed two inches high at 100 yards, the next three 150-grain Barnes TSX bullets punched a .7-inch group.
Field testing is hardly necessary for most rifles. Lab and range tests tell all you must know except how the iron feels hanging from your shoulder after a day in the hills. The .308 cartridge has killed a lot of deer, and this rifle’s sub-MOA accuracy delivered more reach than I could match as a marksman. Still, I never refuse a chance to hunt. “Let’s see if it works on deer,” I said, as if I had doubts.
Troy Justensen met us at the mouth of a long canyon hemmed by sage hills. Toward the Uintas, darker conifer slopes held a sugaring of October snow. We climbed ranch roads to a small, winter-wearied mobile home. It was comfortable, though, and anchored smack in the middle of a superb mule deer range.
“The rut is on,” said Troy, who for 12 years has outfitted hunters across the West from his base in Kaysville, Utah. “You’ll see lots of bucks in two days.” I hoped so. Two days was all I had–and trophy deer were off limits. “We need to weed out mature bucks with undesirable antlers,” Troy explained. This ranch had been routinely overhunted. Troy’s aim was high-quality hunting for high-scoring bucks. “To get there, we have to shoot the big four-points conservatively and cull genetically inferior deer.”
Next morning we spied a wide-antlered three-point, but though he clearly had sex on his mind, the steep, open hills scuttled my two attempts to get close. He vanished in a brushy canyon. My still-hunting efforts at dusk failed to turn him up. That night brought brittle cold. A fat three-point buck with tall, narrow antlers tempted me at sunrise the second day as I legged my way uphill through thick serviceberry. But I’d committed to the deer that had eluded us earlier.
I met Scott and Troy on top, where Troy had already gone to work in his Zeiss spotting scope, his practiced eye probing all the right places. “There!” He had locked onto antlers a half-mile away. “It’s him!”
Indeed it was. But again the wide three-point seemed unapproachable. Open hills fell away from his perch on all sides. We skirted a knob, crawled within 350 yards. But the presentation didn’t look good to me, and reluctantly I declined the shot. Presently, the buck ambled over a ridge.
It was the break we needed, for a ranch road brought us within stalking range of the oak thickets beyond. “He’ll head there,” Troy predicted.
But would we see him? Yesterday he’d given us the slip on that same hillside.
This time we found him within range. I crawled forward, snugged the sling and thumbed the safety. Then I pressed the trigger. The lung hit turned the buck, but he kept his feet. Brush deflected a hasty second shot. Quickly cycling the bolt, I put third and fourth bullets through the forward ribs. Follow-ups are never superfluous where a thicket can swallow a deer’s exit or a carcass.
Denny Wilcox had been right. Browning’s X-Bolt is indeed field-worthy. While a dead deer won’t tell you as much about its shooting qualities as would a day at the range, time on the mountain gives you an additional perspective. Climbing steep trails and slipping through timber and brush-fields, you’ll either find a rifle good company or wish you were toting something else. If, after hunting with a rifle, you want more time on the mountain to make a fair assessment, chances are you two get along pretty well.
“Need anything else controlled on this ranch?” I asked.