Weatherby’s legendary Mark V big-game rifle has always offered plenty of class and performance, but it’s a bit out of the reach of some budgets, so in 1970 the company introduced its more affordable Vanguard line. Vanguards have been offered over the years in at least 17 different models, from varmint blasters to buffalo stoppers and just about anything in between.
In 2005 Weatherby introduced the Vanguard Sporter model with classy-looking wood and offered it in a total of 14 calibers, from .223 Remington to .338 Winchester Magnum. Having recently come down with “new-gun fever” (an affliction common to rifle cranks everywhere), I decided I had to have another .338 Winchester Magnum, my favorite elk caliber. So I bought a new Vanguard Sporter.
The rifle features a nicely figured Turkish-walnut stock with sumptuous dark streaks and figure that belie its relatively modest price. It also sports diamond-point checkering and a spiffy rosewood fore-end tip—set, appropriately, at a 45-degree angle.
The Monte Carlo comb has a reverse slant that allows the stock to retreat from the shooter’s face during recoil—no small consideration when dealing with the larger magnum calibers. The solid-black recoil pad helps, too. It is a typical Weatherby stock, not gaudy, but functional and attractive.
The Vanguard barreled action is made by Howa Machinery Co. Ltd. of Nagoya, Japan, and the stocks are fitted at the company’s headquarters in Paso Robles, California. The action is machined from solid bar stock, and the one-piece forged bolt measures .680 inch in diameter, has two hefty lugs up front and has a fully enclosed bolt shroud at its rear. A cocking indicator at the bottom rear of the bolt can be seen or felt when the rifle is cocked. A two-position safety at the right rear of the receiver blocks the trigger and locks the bolt when in the On position.
The bolt also has longitudinal flutes that reduce weight and friction during bolt travel and make for smooth bolt travel. The bolt body proper has three relief holes in case of a cartridge case failure, although this is unlikely since the Vanguard’s barrel, bolt face and front receiver ring constitute what amounts to three rings of steel around the case head. A large pivoting extractor (reminiscent of a Sako) rides just above the right locking lug. The 24-inch barrel measures .615 inch at the muzzle, is hammer-forged and has a six-groove, 1:10 RH twist.
Vanguard triggers can be a bit stiff. I currently own three other Vanguards, and I replaced their factory triggers with Timneys. Current Weatherby literature states that Vanguards come with what are described as “factory-tuned, fully adjustable triggers.” I don’t know if this reflects a recent manufacturing change, but I can report that the trigger pull on the new .338 is three pounds, 4.1 ounces and breaks as crisp as an ice-cold chocolate bar. Weatherby boasts that the sear engagement is from .008 to .014 inch, and I can believe it. There is no discernible takeup, and overtravel is nonexistent.
In preparation for the 2010 Colorado elk season, I topped the new Sporter with a Leupold VX-3 4.5-14X scope featuring an adjustable objective and the Boone & Crockett reticle. With a modicum of calculation, I found that the reticle’s stadia bars match up with the .338’s trajectory perfectly with 225-grain loads. So equipped, the Vanguard weighs 8¼ pounds, not too heavy for toting around the mountains but with enough heft to moderate recoil.
Nowadays, the selection of factory loads with high-tech bullets is pretty broad, and there is a bullet weight, type and velocity to match just about any hunting situation. Since the .338 is meant for larger big game, I limited my evaluation to 200- and 225-grain bullets, save for Hornady’s 185-grain lead-free GMX (as loaded in the Superformance line).
One quirk surfaced during the range tests. I found that the more I shot, the larger the groups got. After cleaning the bore down to the bare metal with Montana Extreme and Sweet’s 7.62 solvents and firing a fouling shot, group sizes shrank. (This is of little consequence to the big-game hunter, of course, and was just a minor annoyance in load testing.)
The Vanguard is guaranteed to shoot a 11/2-MOA group with at least one load, and this rifle met that criterion with darn near every load tested. Best of the lot was the Federal Premium stoked with the super-tough Barnes 225-grain Triple Shock-X at 2,729 fps, which produced a 1.24-inch group average. Sure, these groups aren’t one-inch clusters. But bear in mind that this is a box-stock factory rifle with factory loads in a serious big-game caliber.
Personally, I am very pleased with this level of accuracy. The loads tested churn up from 3,500 to more than 4,000 ft-lbs of muzzle energy and have trajectories flat enough to make them suitable for elk, moose and bear as well as medium-size African game.
On my elk hunt I used a handloaded Hornady 225-grain SST at 2,789 fps, and it paid off. A fat cow was rapidly making tracks toward a little creek and the safety of the black timber just beyond. At what I later ranged as 126 yards, I fired and the elk rolled like a rabbit plastered with a charge of 6s. The shot had broken her back just ahead of the withers, and a second shot in the neck finished her. Both of the tough SSTs had penetrated completely, and neither was recovered. All in all, the performance of both rifle and load was flawless, even if my shooting wasn’t.
I own a Mark V in .340 Weatherby, I’ve taken several elk with it, and it’s a fine rifle. But this new Vanguard Sporter in .338 is about 1¾ pounds lighter, kicks noticeably less and delivers all the power and performance needed.