Browning X-Bolt SF McMillan Range ATACS AU CK in 243 - test and review
- Credit: Archant
With one of the best actions in the business and the ablity to swap instantly to “deer mode”, this Browning varminter did well in its test with Chris Parkin
LIKES: One of the best actions in the business; Looks set to appeal to a new market; A nice balance for a reliable varminter with 58gr fodder; Swaps immediately into deer mode with versatile handling and 10gr bullet performance
DISLIKES: Length of pull is too short, and no spacers available from Browning; Needs a pillar or sleeve on the rear screw at least; No left handed option
VERDICT: The “Macmillan” was not quite the type of rifle I would have associated with Browning but, other than the short length of pull that the Americans seem so determined to ruin the gun with, its star quality and function shine through. If you want one, get some spacers made!
X-Bolt SF McMillan Range ATACS AU CK in 243
Calibre: 243 on test, (308, 7mm rem Mag and 300WM also available)
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Material: Cerakote finished barrel, action and bolt
Overall length: 1125mm/44”
Magazine capacity: 4+1 detachable
Trigger: single stage 1150gr pull weight
Barrel length: 610mm/24” with 6x 460mm flutes
Muzzle thread: 14x1mm inc invisible thread cap
Stock Material: Macmillan Composite
Accessories: Weaver scope bases, Muzzle Brake, trigger lock and 1-year warranty
RRPs: X-Bolt SF McMillan Range ATACS AU CK in 243 Threaded £1,799
Kite KSP HD2 2.5-15x56 Riflescope: £1,147
X-Lock 30mm scope mounts £74
CONTACT: Browning UK www.browning.eu 01235 514550
Winchester Extreme Point and Ballistic Silvertip ammunition
www.browning.eu 01235 514550
Tier-One Spartan III Sound Moderator
www.tier-one.eu 01924 404313
Sierra Bullets and PPU ammunition
www.henrykrank.co.uk 0113 256 9163
Vihtavouri powders and Lapua Cartridge Brass
www.hannamsreloading.com 01977 681639
I was impressed by the attention to detail Browning paid the X-Bolt actioned rifle in its standard deer stalking format, so the combination of a more varmint-oriented rig in a Macmillan Game Scout stock was an interesting prospect from this well-known composite furnisher. With a mouthful of a name, the X-Bolt SF McMillan Range ATACS AU CK was delivered to me in what many consider the ultimate UK cross species rifle – the .243 Winchester – which is the smallest calibre available for this model. I’m a bit marmite with .243 myself, as it’s a bit bigger than I need for vermin and generally on the small side for the deer I pursue, but for foxes, muntjac and roe it is utterly masterful with the right bullet in England. For most .243s staying at 95gr is a world apart from the marginal stability a 10” twist rate offers the 100gr pill, so we shall go deeper.
Cerakote is a popular choice these days. It appeals to the buyer who likes the looks of the (here) mid-tan finish with corrosion resistance, as well as the manufacturer who actually requires a slightly rougher surface for the ceramic finish to adhere to, with less fine finishing required! The barrel is a medium profile swelling from 18.7 behind the 14x1 metric threaded muzzle up to the action, pinning a 6.4mm recoil lug between itself and the working receiver of the rifle. The barrel carries six flutes ending just at the swell around the chamber reinforce, whose profile blends well to the unusually shaped action. It shows a general octagonal profile, but with uneven facets, a radiused underside and larger radius to the top. This sounds more awkward than it looks, with quad threaded holes on the front and rear bridges to accept the supplied Weaver scope bases that are fastened in position with T15 Torx screws. An ejection port opening, approximately a quarter of the action’s profile, to expel the spent brass allows the action to maintain plenty of stiffness, with a larger underside opening to facilitate the magazine feeding rounds into it from below. A bolt release catch rests within the rear bridge’s left wall opposite the straight 76mm bolt handle, capped with a teardrop knob angled back very slightly to rest less than 15mm above and ahead of the trigger blade. Disassembly shows an almost straight 9mm blade breaking at 1,150g in a 95% crisp single-stage pull, which is totally predictable with just the tiniest element of creep before minimal 1mm overtravel. This hangs below the action with a rearward tang carrying the two-position safety catch, the rearward stage of which also locks the bolt. Safe opening of the gun is enabled by pushing a button at the base of the bolt handle; just remember to lift your thumb clear otherwise it will trap under the scope’s ocular bell as the handle rises.
I think the X-Bolt is one of the finest action designs out there. Its three-lug push-feed bolt opens from a 60-degree lift with an ideally proportioned handle and the addition of Cerakote that, yes, will wear a bit in use at contact points, but it makes it even slicker. The bolt is in fact nearly impossible to deliberately jam in its stroke. A polymer insert sunken on the right side assists the shaft’s tracking along the raceway to perfection. It is very good, with a single claw extractor in the upper right third for forceful extraction of fired brass in both primary and secondary stages, before the sprung plunger ejector pin flings spent shells clear of the action.
Four rounds fit into the rotary polymer magazine that feeds centrally up to the feed ramp, and I didn’t have a single failure or obstruction at any time – and I shot it a lot more than most… because it was a pleasure to shoot, just for the sake of shooting.
I still had some of the X-lock scope rings from the previous Browning, and mounted the same 2.5-15x56 Kite Scope into them. A gun I see primarily as a light varminter needs a good fine reticle to pinpoint the bullet’s impact on a distant crow, and the Kite’s ultra-fine reticle with intermediate magnification suited it to a tee.
Accuracy on target was immediate, with little work required to clean the residue left by fierce proof rounds. I ran a selection of 58gr varmint and 95gr ballistic-tipped hunting bullets through the gun, finishing with 100gr soft points and even a few of my own 87gr handloads. Accuracy from the 10” twist definitely favoured the lighter bullets, and when I say that, I mean they really were clover-leafing three rounds into an easy sub ¼” on a consistent basis. With 1,134m/s (3,722fps) and accuracy like this, the Winchester Varmint X was a revelation to me as a lifelong accuracy seeker through handloading, as the gun did the same with those too. Ninety-five grain Winchester Ballistic silvertips were the most consistent hunting load, but I failed to get a chronograph reading with them, although the regular copper 95gr Fiocchi SST managed a fast 909m/s (2,983fps) to make a convincing 1,877ft/lbs for deer. North of the Border for the 100gr bullet requirement, Lapua soft points made an extra 10m/s (up to 3,016fps) to nudge just over 2,000ft/lbs and show the benefit a 610mm/24” barrel brings to a calibre that gains its energy rating from speed, not just bullet weight (although still fully stabilised they were the least accurate of the lot, but still reliable for actual deer stalking).
All bullets in the 95-100gr band showed less accuracy with ¾-1” performance. Importantly, though, testing on steel targets at 200m showed every single one maintained point of impact within expected accuracy potential with no flyers, adding further weight to my opinion that the longer barrel gets the best consistency, not just speed, from factory ammo. None of this was of great surprise to me as the stiff fore-end of the composite McMillan stock keeps the barrel floating at all times, with a round profile generous enough to fill your hand, and moulded-in stippling like that at the vertical pistol grip to aid grip on the light recoiling rifle in any weather situation. I wasn’t surprised to find bedding compound directly positioned around the action screws to either side of the magazine well, to ensure absolutely no stress was transmitted to the action. Although well inlet, that bedding makes a glove-like, almost vacuum fit for the mechanics to perform within, and coupled with the absolute stability of the composite in all atmospheric conditions this gun will not lose zero for whimsical reasons.
The camouflage finish of the stock is a film dip application with a signature joint line on the comb and underside of the butt. Its matt finish prevents reflections as the pale/mid-tan colour mix, with areas of darker brown disruptive patterning, is discreet without looking out of place. The stock showed a machining gap ahead of the rear pillar where the material is very thin, and perhaps would have benefited from pillars or at least a thin sleeve, but the bottom metal is well seated and solid. This ensures the full stock is compressed, not just a small area, and I have no real qualms about the layout or setup even though it may look ‘cracked’; it’s just a manufacturing compromise dependant on the rear action screw’s exact location. Bottom metal is equally well Cerakoted with a catch ahead of the well to drop the magazine into your waiting palm, without any hindrance in either loading or unloading drills. Secure bipod mounting is assured with a sling stud under the fore-end with a QR socket under the butt of the gun. Perhaps Browning should supply a QR fitting for this, as they can be a faff to obtain sometimes.
Now, this gun has done no wrong so far, yet it does have a shortfall – the vertical pistol grip and tall slender comb assure fantastic reach to trigger and good head positioning behind the scope, but the stock is too short. A 25mm recoil pad seats to your shoulder beautifully but at only 341mm (13 7/16”) from the butt pad’s centre to the trigger blade, the gun suits standing or bench rested shooters, but makes it hard to maintain correct eye relief when shooting prone. What annoys me is that the standard synthetic X-Bolt has a 14” length of pull (355mm) and includes two extra 5mm spacers, so somehow Macmillan’s involvement has taken the glint of perfection away from this fantastic light varminter that I would willingly carry anywhere. There are just no faults with the Japanese-made action and barrel, yet the stock dimensions let it down. The Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pad is a great product but glued to the stock (because it is hollow inside with no anchor points for a screw), which means you will have to seek more difficult modifications than simply removing two screws and adding a spacer, even if it is one you have made yourself. A muzzle brake is supplied that is perhaps of better use on the 7mm Rem or 300 WM calibres, as they are very noisy, and which is not particularly useful on something with as little recoil as such a well-proportioned .243. The flip side of the short stock was how good it was to shoot standing or from improvised positions, even with a moderator on, which is unusual for a varmint-stocked rifle.