Browning X-Bolt SF MDT HS3 Chassis FDE - test & review
PUBLISHED: 17:00 15 March 2018
The Browning X-Bolt SF MDT HS3 Chassis FDE comes under Chris Parkin’s close scrutiny in this in-depth test and review of the classy new chassis rifle
LIKES: Superb trigger and action, mechanically and ergonomically; One of the best bolts out there and a disgracefully effective magazine system; I think it looks rather nice; 610mm barrel gets the best from 308 velocity wise
DISLIKES: Perhaps a little ammunition fussy; Stock resonance is unsettling and tiresome; Stock removal is difficult due to concealed fasteners; No left hander or folder… I’m sure the Creedmoor is coming soon, how can it not?!
VERDICT: Browning have made a great action and barrel combination with a blissful trigger, yet for all the large scale ergonomic benefits of the MDT stock, it shows niggling detail faults like the butt’s underside design and final assembly standards. The stock recoil noise/vibration resonance transmission from the rifle/brake is not something I could live with and needs attention. You can make it a lot better yourself with foam on the comb pad and some Duct Tape!
Model - Browning X-BOLT SF MDT HS3 Chassis FDE
Calibre - 308 Winchester
Material - Blued steel barrel, action and bolt
Overall length - 1174mm/42.5” (18mm L.O.P. extension)
Weight - 3.84kg/7.46lbs
Magazine capacity - 5+1 AICS compatible detachable
Trigger - single stage 1400gr pull weight
Barrel length - 610mm/24” with 8x 400mm flutes, 23mm diameter
Muzzle thread - 18x1mm inc muzzle Brake
Stock Material - Aluminium chassis with polymer side panels in FDE colouration
Accessories - Picatinny type scope rail, fitted ABS carry case and tools
Browning UK www.browning.eu 01235 514550
Winchester Extreme Point and 168gr 308 Match ammunition www.browning.eu 01235 514550
Hornady 178gr Precision Hunter ELDX ammunition www.edgarbrothers.com 01625 613177
Tier-One TAC 34mm scope rings www.tier-one.eu 01924 404313 RRP:£208
Minox ZP 5-25x56 Riflescope www.minox.com 01494 481004 RRP: £2,799.00
Sierra Bullets www.henrykrank.co.uk 0113 256 9163
Vihtavouri powders, CCI primers and Lapua Cartridge Brass www.hannamsreloading.com 01977 681639
Several previous encounters with the Browning X-Bolt action have left me with excellent memories. Due to current market trends, seeing this system adopted onto a chassis stock was expected, although Browning seemed an unlikely brand to adopt it so quickly.
Initial inspection of the rifle clearly showed Browning to have paired with MDT for their HS3 chassis, which has suited many other actions.
The gun arrives in a fully fitted ABS case and feels weighty when first lifted. An overall length of 1,174mm exhibits an ideal 353mm length of pull with an extra 18mm available from the turn screw extension beneath the butt plate.
A similar mechanism controls the adjustable cheekpiece, showing 18mm elevation from its base. Both require a 3/16” Allen key to lock and unlock any adjustment, obviously disclosing the otherwise metric fasteners on the X-Bolt action.
The recoil pad is moderately firm across its entire surface with no soft spots to divert pressure onto any relatively hard locations, and a 1/8 Allen key inserted through the grippy rubber pad allows the dovetailed aluminium base structure to raise 40mm up or 70mm down from the normal in-line location for a very comfortable fit, and a linear recoil transition path. There is no swivel/cant capability though.
Weight before a scope or bipod is added is 5.44kg/12lb including the supplied, laterally ported muzzle brake tipping the 610mm/24” heavy fluted barrel. This has a secondary lock nut to ensure it remains correctly on the 18x1 thread. Eight flutes run the length of the parallel 23mm diameter barrel just beyond the swollen chamber reinforce, as it swamps up to the action profile. A recoil lug is sandwiched between.
I like the fluidity of the profile and, although hefty, it looks well proportioned above the aluminium centre chassis, fully floating it with flat dark earth polymer sideplates screwed in position. These carry discreet Browning logos moulded into position, showing a little more amiable association between the two brands than a purely MDT-branded product.
A five-round steel magazine is supplied, adhering to the Accuracy International’s AICS format with many brands of accessories available in this, or a larger 10-round capacity. It shows a polymer follower feeding centrally to the chamber’s ramp.
Single rounds can be dropped through the ejection port onto the follower for fast single-loading if needed, and with an AICS mag too it is a really simple, clean and reliably functioning setup.
Mag release is a long ambidextrous lever central to the front of the extremely capacious trigger guard, machined and anodised black integral to the chassis.
It’s spacious because the 30mm fractionally curved trigger blade is a big one. 10mm wide, with a totally smooth surface, it shows an 875g single stage break that was like glass when first out of the box, and showed only the tiniest amount of initial ‘feel’ as the gun bedded in over 150 rounds. It is 100% predictable and reliable, certainly one of, if not the best unit on any chassis rifle currently on the market.
There appear to be accessible adjustment screws, but a good blob of yellow locking compound filling their heads is enough of a hint that Browning doesn’t want them fiddled with. Were the gun mine, however, I would fully strip and tweak it to return that initial feel after the slight bedding-in process has occurred. Although seemingly ultra-light, the space and feel of the break meant shooting in gloves was no problem, and the ‘Super Feather Trigger’ name was well justified.
Given how well the trigger was set up straight from manufacture, the three-part extension/buffer tube junction on the chassis needed dismantling and fully retightening from day one, as it had an annoying rattle between the multiple item junction towards the stock. It’s not hard to see why – the bolt fastening them together is linear and somewhat concealed by the diagonal webbing of the rear end, so it’s awkward to access without misaligning your Allen wrench.
However, when done with a little patience and care, it will fully tighten to eradicate the rattle.
An AR15-compatible grip hangs below this point with a slight rearward extension in the web of the thumb region from the trigger, for significantly improved reach to the blade than standard AR15 dimensions; a definite plus point there because it helped maintain great comfort when operating the gun, with a natural position below the bolt handle for fast upward access.
A stippled rubber Hogue item is supplied with three finger grooves and excellent tactile grip, so again, an excellent specification in my mind with no corners cut.
The stock is intricately machined and split like a clamshell below the adjustable comb to facilitate the locking screws clamping all adjustments in place. The webbed structure is totally rigid, yet quite light, so aids a central balance to the gun (at the front edge of the magazine well).
Light stippling is shown on the mid-width polymer cheekpiece which does not require adjustment or removal to extract the bolt from the rifle. It is comfortable and stable without the lock nuts tightened, but unless you do, the very slight rattles might irritate you. No lateral adjustment is available, so a more rolled head position is likely, but all will depend on the shape of your cheekbones and jaw line.
There are multiple sling location points but, to be honest, I found the underside of the butt where I would use my balled-up fist or folded hand to make a secondary rest quite uncomfortable, as it is neither a radiused butt hook narrow enough for the web of your palm/thumb, or a comfortable surface if rested on top of your hand. Even using a soft bag at this point exposes the quite boxy underside shape which is incompatible with a rabbit ear bag and, while functional, it’s just not as comfortable as other competitors out there.
There are two threaded holes to accept an under-slung Picatinny rail or monopod, but nothing was fitted and it’s not something I felt I was missing out on. Had a rail been there, it would have been even less comfortable and would have required shooting gloves to be worn.
The X-Bolt is a fundamentally nice action and here shows a couple of modifications. In the shorter action format, the slim 17mm bolt no longer needs the nylon bearer to make its flow more fluid, but has exactly the same triple lug layout for 60° lift.
At 75mm separation from the action with a smooth aluminium teardrop ball end, it is silky in feel and operation with a slight rearward angle from the bore line. Regardless of how clumsily you operate or grasp it, it runs and feeds cleanly without any stuttering motion along its 98mm stoke.
A bolt release button sits to the left of the rear bridge for removal. The bolt shaft remains polished steel, unlike the rest of the blued gun, and will only ever get slicker in operation, so far requiring no lubrication!
The prismatic shape of the bolt shroud shows a small action indicator like a toe peeping from below it, and remains well clear of your face when cycling the gun.
Forward stroke sees rounds cleanly stripped from the mag before firing; extraction by the recessed claw flung clear by a sprung plunger ejector. Pulling the tang mounted safety rearward also locks the bolt closed, yet a small button rises out of the shank of the bolt’s arm and, when pressed, it allows the gun to be opened safely.
Unlike the smaller scopes mounted lower on sporting variants of this action, the big scopes likely to be seen in high mounts on this longer-range target tool will be far less likely to pinch your thumb underneath them, as the button is lifted when the bolt handle opens, but do keep an eye out for that one. You only ever do it once, and it will smart. Strong primary extraction is provided by the angled bolt shank bearing on the rear of the action, so any ‘hot’ ammo shouldn’t give you an issue getting stuck.
The ‘X’ in X-Bolt stands for the X-shaped layout of the small screws pinning the scope mounts or rail to the action’s upper surface, and a Picatinny type rail has been fitted here with T10 Torx bolts for hassle-free longevity and easy scope mounting.
I ran the gun with a Minox ZP 5-25x56 on board as I believed it fitted the likely use of the rifle for range work and long-range steel target shooting. Two-piece 34mm TAC rings from Tier-One are also far more suitable, in my opinion, than a one-piece mount. The latter would have spaced the scope unnecessarily high with limitations on eye relief positioning on an ‘action length’ rail, rather than a fully flat-topped rifle or tube gun with full-extended Picatinny rail along the whole upper. Further 160mm sections of rail are fitted laterally to the ultra-stiff fore-end for any accessories you may desire, with the further possibility to fix one to the underside if that is what your chosen bipod requires. I was pleased to see a regular stud fitted so I could mount my Harris 6-9” swivel unit.
Shooting the gun left few surprises in terms of felt recoil as it was very dead to shoot, weighing 7.2kg/16lb ready to fire, and that’s before the brake. Showing twin baffles with two small upper ports to minimise flip, it created very little ground signature, muzzle flip or physical force to allow the gun to transmit back to my shoulder, but I disliked it.
Yes, it was massively effective and easy to shoot, but the resonant ‘clonk’ through the gun’s metallic chassis rang through my cheekbone straight into my skull. Ear defenders are, of course, mandatory, and I’d research and purchase the best ones you can get for your hearing. They won’t stop the transmitted concussive feel though.
I grudgingly prefer moderators these days which are more modern in construction and materials, lasting longer and cooling quicker, removing some of the recoil, lots of the noise and usually all of the resonance that is at its very worst on a metal gunstock/chassis. I would far rather shoot with good ear defenders and nothing on the muzzle other than a brake, and as for my associates alongside on the firing point, brakes win no new friends.
A radially ported brake may show a little more ground signature on firing and is a tiny compromise to a lateral brake’s ultimate recoil reduction, but is the best bet on a civilian brake to a rifle with no serious recoil issues. If you keep the brake on, you can use some form of neoprene foam pad on the cheekpiece to insulate that resonance from direct metal to bone conduction. I tend to build them a little taller, slimmer and softer. You may call me a wimp, but I do more in a week what others may take years to get worn down by, so think ahead – why do you need to be uncomfortable?
Ammunition choice was between Winchester’s 150gr Extreme point (855m/s-2,806fps) and their Match ammo (797m/s-2,616fps) using a more conventional HPBT bullet of 168gr, neither of which seemed to really suit this gun. Neither grouped better than 35-40mm centre to centre on five shot groups, although no specific flyers were shown that would highlight mechanical problems.
I tried some of the heavier 178gr Hornady Precision Hunter ELDX ammunition, which was significantly better and consistently stayed at the magic 25mm/1” threshold over 100 yards. Velocity of 818m/s (2,685fps) was quite sparky to say the least, and retained the best performance attributes of the thankfully long barrel. In a hunting situation from a similar barrel length, that is 2,850ft/lb of energy with reliable expansion, which I used on a hunt the following week with remarkable success.
Still, I wanted to get a little more from this and as much as the resonance was ringing my skull, I went to one of my favourite long-time hand loads. 168gr Sierra MatchKings in a Lapua case with CCI BR2 primer over 44gr of Vihtavuori N140.
This was satisfactorily clover-leafing rounds on paper at 100m with a 10-round string leaving a dirty torn hole of 35mm overall in the paper. The 168gr may never be the ultimate ballistically efficient long-range performer, but is a reliable marker for further load development. I want to try the 185gr Berger Juggernauts next!
The trigger made repetitive shooting a joy, with ease of shoulder pressure and head position maintained consistently from the adjustable stock. I ran the whole time on a soft rear bag as this gave me the greatest mix of comfort and stability, and the wider underside of the butt not being suited to a rabbit ear bag. I especially liked the vertical position adjustment for the butt pad which made positional changes comfortable.
Standing shots were not impossible thanks to the neutral balance and this adjustability; it was a shame you need an Allen key to alter it every time though. There were also no engraved markings, but a pencil on the dovetail track will work just fine to mark referred positions. The anodising is quite coarse and does pick up skin dust, so will hold a pencil line well.
The FDE colour (also available in black) looks and feels like a well-applied Cerakote-type finish, and has proven so far to be hard-wearing; plus, the gun does look good, bearing a slight resemblance to an Accuracy International AT. In fact, it is a not massively dissimilar gun, using a metal chassis and polymer shells, but the vibration harmonics transmitted into the skull are seemingly better dampened on the AI, and it’s something Browning/MDT might want to have a deeper look at.
This was the only real downside to this gun in comparison to things like the Tikka Tac A1 that I also used in .308. I presume a 6.5mm Creedmoor version will soon appear and, although ambidextrous to shoot ergonomically, will a left-hander become available?
One factor I would want is a folding stock too, so Browning will need to keep an eye on the competition. So far in the chassis world, this is the best trigger without doubt.