There’s one thing I don’t like about Kimber’s new Mountain Ascent: It only comes with a right-hand bolt. This drives me up the wall, but there isn’t a darn thing I can do about it. And, realistically, if I were a manufacturer, I’d probably coddle to the right-handed majority rather than the minority lefty market. But with this rifle it irks me, because I like it a lot.
The Mountain Ascent isn’t a fancy rifle; it’s a synthetic-and-stainless bolt action with significant upgrades, essentially an extension of Kimber’s Model 84 line in two versions: Models 84M and 84L. The 84M is a short-action rifle chambered (initially) to .308 Winchester with a 22-inch barrel. The 84L is based on a .30-06-length action with a 24-inch barrel. Chamberings are .270 Winchester, .280 Ackley Improved and .30-06.
Both action and barrel are stainless coated with KimPro II weatherproofing in an attractive shale-gray color. The stock is Kevlar-reinforced carbon fiber finished with Gore Optifade in the digital Open Country pattern. The stock isn’t checkered but really doesn’t need to be; the finish gives a feel that is almost like rubber, allowing a sure grip even with wet and cold hands (I tried it in a Canadian snowstorm).
Light Done Right
It’s arguably more pleasant to carry a light rifle up a mountain than a heavy one, but the Ascent is a full-size rifle with standard barrel lengths and stock dimensions, four-round magazine capacity and full-house performance. Nothing needs to be said about the capabilities of the .270, .308 and .30-06, but it probably should be noted that the .280 Ackley Improved in a 24-inch barrel comes awfully close to 7mm Remington Magnum performance.
And yet the weight—or lack thereof—is astounding: The 84M in .308 weighs four pounds, 13 ounces; the 84L with 24-inch barrel weighs five pounds, five ounces. To achieve these tidy numbers, Kimber engineers pretty much used every trick in the book. The Kevlar-reinforced stock, although sturdy, is very light. The rifle has a blind magazine (no floorplate), and the triggerguard is extremely light. These features alone would yield a light rifle, but not this light.
The barrel is very slender and fluted for the first half. The bolt is sort of “slim-line,” plenty big enough for the .30-06 case-head family, but I don’t think you’ll see magnum chamberings on this particular action. Finally, the engineers started shaving ounces—the bolt body has spiral fluting, and the bolt handle is fluted and hollowed out.
The basic action is essentially the same one Kimber’s been building for a long time—essentially, a Mauser/Model 70 clone with dual opposing locking lugs, long Mauser extractor, controlled-round feed and three-position cocking-piece safety. But it’s been downsized to the .308/.30-06 families, and as much metal as possible has been removed. There are some rifles that are lighter. But not full-size ones. And not over-the-counter ones either.
To Brake or Not to Break
I’ve never made it a secret that I don’t like muzzlebrakes. They’re noisy, and I need all the hearing I have left. So I prefer to steer clear of them. That said, they work. Actual recoil attenuation is hard to measure; it depends a lot on the arrangement of the holes (which also affects noise level), but the speed of the bullet makes a difference. In any case, if you told me a muzzlebrake reduced felt recoil by about 40 percent, I’d accept that number.
Generally speaking, however, I don’t worry too much about recoil at the performance level of the cartridges this rifle is chambered to. Except for one mitigating factor. Gun weight is one of the most important factors affecting recoil. The easiest way to dampen things is to add gun weight. The easiest way to accentuate recoil is to remove it. Make no mistake, even a .270 that is this light is going to kick, and a .308 under five pounds (and a .30-06 weighing a half-pound more) will belt you.
Speaking for myself, you can’t get rifles chambered to these cartridges light enough to hurt, but I do a lot more centerfire shooting than many people, and I’m twice the size of some people who might like the Mountain Ascent. So it comes standard with a muzzlebrake and I think that’s good. It is not a particularly obnoxious muzzlebrake, but if you decide to leave it on, hearing protection is strongly recommended, even for that one shot in the field.
Whether you leave it on is up to you. The Mountain Ascent’s muzzlebrake is removable, with tool supplied, and a screw-on thread protector is also supplied. This really does give you the best of both worlds. You can practice on the range to your heart’s content and not get beat up in the process. Then, if you choose, you can unscrew the muzzlebrake and leave it at home when you go hunting. Because of the very light gun weight, I do recommend using the brake on the range. Whether you should remove it for hunting is really up to you. As I said, the muzzle blast from this brake isn’t as bad as many, but it’s important to note that the blast is always worse for hunting partners and guides who find themselves to your right or left. One more thing: Check zero with and without the brake. Some rifles vary and some don’t, so you can’t accept a constant zero unless you check it out at the range.
Shoots Straight, Feels Good
While light rifles are a whole lot easier to carry up a mountain, you simply have to have performance when you get up there. I have carried a lot of heavy rifles up a lot of sheep mountains because the accuracy was worth the extra weight. It is not at all true that slender barrels aren’t as accurate as bull barrels, but they do vibrate more, so they can be especially touchy about what loads group best. One advantage is that you can reinvest some of that weight savings in glass and still not have a rig too heavy to carry. The Mountain Ascent is supplied with Talley bases and one-inch medium-height rings, which allowed me to mount a Zeiss Conquest 4.5-14X scope on the test rifle, a Model 84L in .270 Winchester. This is not a small scope, but also not a monster, and I figured it would allow me to realize the potential of both the rifle and its cartridge.
While I can’t vouch for all Mountain Ascent rifles, this one shot exceptionally well, too well to be called finicky, but like many light-barrel rifles, accuracy varied considerably from load to load. While not all ammo is created equal, note please that this is a matter of an individual rifle’s preference rather than quality of load. For instance, this particular rifle didn’t group at all well with Hornady’s 130-grain GMX Superformance. This is a fast premium load that has worked extremely well for me in other .270s, but this rifle didn’t like it. I’ve noticed that some barrels shoot well with the various “homogenous alloy” bullets (like GMX and Barnes TSX), while others shoot better with conventional lead-core bullets. OK, but that wasn’t the case with this barrel. It rejected Superformance but shot very well with Barnes VOR-TX 130-grain TTSX.
I was preparing to take the rifle hunting and, as usual, I didn’t have much time, so I went with the VOR-TX load. That’s a classic example of the need to try a variety of loads before making a decision. However, a couple things are worth noting. First, this barrel, like many barrels, needed breaking in. Although ammo preferences remained visible, after about 30 rounds and a thorough cleaning, average group size started to shrink.
Second, while nobody wants to take out a second mortgage in order to try all loads in popular cartridges like the .270, experimentation should be ongoing. This rifle got down to solid one-inch groups with the VOR-TX load. Considering how slender the barrel is, I was pretty happy with this and felt totally confident to take it hunting. In fact, after I got back from the hunt I tried Hornady’s brand-new American Whitetail 130-grain Interlock load. This is not priced as a “premium” load and features tried-and-true lead-core bullets, delivered at standard velocities. My best group was a three-shot cluster at .45 inch, and it had no trouble keeping this economical load well under an inch. Obviously, my particular rifle liked it.
Considering the slim barrel, I generally fired three-shot groups—not inappropriate for a hunting rifle, but five-shot group weren’t all that much bigger, and the Mountain Ascent showed no sign of vertical stringing, a common bugaboo with light barrels.
With some loads that it didn’t like it showed some horizontal stringing, but most groups were round or triangular clusters, which speaks well for barrel, bedding and assembly. Kimber is cutting match-grade chambers, but the company is also—obviously—using really good barrels. It shows in the performance, which is aided by a crisp, clean adjustable trigger (factory set at 31/2 pounds) and also by the muzzlebrake, which makes good shooting easier.
Another issue with extremely light rifles is that they’re “whippy”—hard to control from less than perfect positions, especially if you’ve just done a bit of climbing and are gasping for air. I can’t say that the Mountain Ascent is free from this difficulty, but with its long (though light) barrel and full-size (though light) stock, it doesn’t handle like a super-light rifle; it handles much more like a full-size grownup hunting rifle. Hey, gunwriting isn’t hunting writing, and there are many guns I write about that I simply can’t take afield. With this one, however, the timing was right and I could.
A Mass of Mulie
I took it to the Milk River in southern Alberta, prairie country that—thanks to good management—has become one of the best places I know of for big mule deer. “Big,” of course, depends on what you’re looking for. This was my third try there, joining my buddy and salmon-fishing mentor Jim Rough at Duane Nelson’s Milk River Outfitters. Each time we saw a lot of deer and lots of good bucks, but the first time we caught a horrible blizzard that limited both visibility and access. The second time we had dry ground but winds up to 60 mph all week. But I’d seen the country and the deer, and I’d also seen pictures of the monstrous bucks Jim had taken in previous years. I wanted to give it one more try…
In 2012 opening day was cool, partly cloudy and relatively calm. We glassed several bucks and kept on looking, then we saw a buck squirt out of a bottom and go over a ridge. He had some extra points, but what struck me was the mass. He had the heaviest frame of any mule deer I’ve ever seen. I like mass, and he had it up the you-know-what. Opening day or not, this was the deer I wanted.
Of course, I figured we’d never see him again—the country looks open, but it can swallow deer in a heartbeat. Ranch manager and guide Ken Jensen knows his country, and he took us in a wide circle. We caught the buck quite easily, feeding away in a little coulee. He was distinctive, very typical on his left, very nontypical on his right.
It isn’t often that my hands shake before a shot, but they were now. I looked at the antlers only long enough to confirm Ken’s judgment that this was the right deer, then I tried really hard to ignore them. Ken turned me loose, and, backpack in one hand, rifle in the other, I finished the stalk by moving up a slight rise so I could get low and steady. I needed steady.
I put the backpack on the crest and lay down with the rifle over it. At this point the buck stopped feeding and looked back. It was about 200 yards, an easy shot in theory, but nothing is easy when you’re looking at a buck like this. Although he was facing away, old Elmer’s “raking shot” was a possibility, but I had confidence in the rifle. I had him. If he started to move I’d shoot, but just maybe he’d turn. In an instant he did, almost broadside, and that crisp trigger broke with the crosshairs right behind the shoulder. He went maybe 20 yards and was down, the best mule deer of my life.
I told Kimber’s Dwight Van Brunt that it had been an easy shot, not much of a test for the rifle. But the testing had been done on the range, and that’s why the rifle was with me on the Alberta prairie. I truly believed that, if we got decent weather, I would find a monster, and I wanted to take a rifle I had absolute confidence in. That’s what I had in the Mountain Ascent. Of course, I didn’t get to take it to the mountains. That will happen next on a chamois hunt in the Chartreuse Massif of southeastern France. A rifle like this just begs to be taken up a mountain, so before I return it I’m going to carry it up one.