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Fit For An Emperor: The Steyr Mannlicher Classic

Friday, August 01, 2008 - GUNS Magazine

The chamois herd grazed lazily on the side of the mountain a little more than 200 yards away. Guide Kefer Hubert and I sat quietly in the blind watching them through binoculars. As we watched, a fly buzzed inside my eyeglasses onto the corner of my eye. I hurriedly shooed it away, the waving of my white hand startling the chamois, an animal with excellent vision and they quickly bounded higher up the mountain. A 6,000-mile trip, a grueling hour’s uphill hike and a careful, silent walk to the blind and dummy blows it brushing away a fly. Swell.

The hunt was by invitation of Steyr Mannlicher, a company formed at the birth of the metallic cartridge in the city of Steyr, Austria, by Josef Werndl, who also designed the Austrian Army’s first breechloading rifle called, appropriately, the Werndl. Today, the Steyr firm is best known in the US for the iconic .223 Steyr AUG service rifle and Jeff Cooper’s Scout rifle. Many dedicated US riflemen remember Steyr as the makers of one of the first precision rifles with a composite stock — the .308 SSG sniper rifle.

The original Mannlicher-Schoenauer sporting rifles, made from the very beginning of the 20th century, earned a worldwide reputation for accuracy, dependability and were renowned for their glass-smooth actions, rich bluing and handsome fit and finish. The firm survived two World Wars, and Mannlicher rifles were imported into the US through all the ’tween war periods into the 1960s They still draw plenty of attention from serious hunters and collectors at gun shows.

Austrian hunting, which goes back to the dawn of civilization, has grown rich with ritual and tradition. From the sounding of the horns at the beginning of a hunt to the homage paid to the animal after a kill, a hunt is highly stylized. Today, hunting from blinds prepared long ago (some locations during Emperor Franz Joseph’s reign in the latter 19th century) is most common. Since a lot of hunting is done near settled areas or in close proximity to other hunters, the blinds are constructed in such a way as to direct fire in predictable directions for the safety of other hunters and the townspeople. (It is not uncommon to see blinds or stands constructed within 100 yards or so of the Autobahn.)

The blinds for the chamois hunt were scattered along the mountainside up from the city of Bad Ischle, a city thousands of years old and where Emperor Franz Josef hunted assiduously for decades, taking more than 1,000 chamois, his favorite game animal. Our party of hunters were given the choice of close-by blinds, or blinds requiring a bit of a hike. Wayne Van Zwoll and I chose to make the hike. I guessed my chances of getting an animal would be better if I worked for it. Since there has been hunting from these blinds for generations, I foolishly believed it would be a gentle hike.

Boys, I’d like to say I ran up the Alpine trail, but I fear I’ve met the fat, overweight out-of-shape American hunter and I am he. I had a couple of months to prepare for this trip, but sitting behind a computer all day is poor prep, even with brisk mile-long walks as part of my morning exercise. By the time I’d hiked for a 1/2 hour, I was blowing like a busted bellows, while the guides and Van Zwoll had barely broken a sweat. I slowed down our party considerably by being out of shape, I’m sad to say, but another 1/2-hour’s climb got me to the blind. Nonetheless, I have a wonderful memory of some of the most beautiful mountain scenery on Earth. (Two of our party who chose simple short walks to their blinds never got a shot.)

The .270 WSM is perfect for this type of hunting. Launching a 130-grain bullet at a blistering 3,200 fps, it shoots flat enough for virtually any type of mountain hunting and is perfect for the majority of North American hunting. Since the chamois is a rather thin-bodied little goat, the 130-grain bullet is a great choice. On this hunt, we used Norma .270 WSM ammunition topped with 130-grain Nosler Ballistic Tips.

As for the Steyr Mannlicher rifle, it is, understandably, the go-to gun in Austria and sells very well across Europe, despite the fact Steyr rifles see widespread hand-me-down status generation to generation. At 7.9 pounds with a 23.6" barrel in the magnum calibers, it is perfectly balanced, easy to carry and holds three rounds in the detachable magazine. The balance point of the rifle is right at the magazine box.

The barrel and action are finished in a glare-free matte-gray Steyr calls Mannox, giving the metal a finish virtually impervious to rust, very scuff resistant and, more importantly, the finish protects both the inside and outside of the barrel, unlike most other finishes. A Steyr trademark, it is an exceptional finish for a firearm destined for hard use. The barrel itself is cold hammer forged and displays the handsome pattern the forging process creates. The barrel, made from chrome moly, is threaded into the receiver.

The rifle has a 3-position safety centrally mounted on the tang. Off is all the way back towards the shooter, the middle position is “safe” and allows the bolt to be opened and the chamber cleared. All the way forward locks the bolt closed and a little white button pops up and locks the safety as well. Should you have the set trigger activated and decide not to take the shot, applying the safety all the way to the “locked” position safely unsets the trigger.

The single set trigger is nicely tuned at the factory and at first, I didn’t think much of it because during dry fire, as the sear breaks, there appears to be a lot of overtravel. During live fire, though, the trigger just breaks light, crisp and clean, touching off the rifle and I never noticed the so-called overtravel as the rifle rolled in recoil. It is a monumental difference in feel between practice and live fire, so don’t think less of the set trigger if the gun shop lets you dry-snap it.

The bolt handle sits close to the stock with a European-style semi-spoon or “butterknife” shape and has an extremely lively feel upon opening. It’s different from any other rifle I’ve used and gives the illusion the rifle wants to hunt like an eager dog.

Stock Cues

The stock has the Bavarian-style “razorback” comb and square cheekpiece. The fore-end has a quick taper from the magazine to the rosewood Schnabel tip. Upon mounting, your offhand slides back and stops as the stock widens forward of the magazine giving you the feel of complete control over the rifle, an aid when the gun is in recoil.

The well thought out pistol grip has a gentle palm swell, positions the hand well for access to the trigger and is capped with rosewood. The triggerguard is large enough for use with gloves. The checkering is sharp and just coarse enough to give good control even if wet. The rifle is fitted with a rubber buttpad giving some recoil reduction, but not a lot, is snag free, not slippery and gives good purchase on the shoulder. The stock is finished in a matte hand-rubbed oil finish.

The 2.5-10x50mm Helia C Kahles scope is mounted in Steyr Quick Detachable mounts, an excellent accessory if you carry a spare scope or occasionally like to use the iron sights. The iron sights are fully adjustable for windage at the rear and for elevation at the front.

The scope, with a 30mm main tube, is clear as a bell. The reticle is on the first focal plane and magnifies as the power ring is turned. Fitted with a standard American Plex reticle, its magnification was no impediment to viewing the animal.

Steyr’s American division sent me a .270 WSM Classic set up identically to the one I hunted with in Austria for photography and a more thorough shooting session at the Angeles Shooting Ranges. I assembled three loads for the test, two from Winchester and one from Norma, all topped with 130-grain bullets. One Winchester load had the Ballistic Silvertip and the other Winchester’s new Supreme Elite XP3 controlled expansion bullet. The Norma load was topped with the proven Nosler Ballistic Tip, the load I used on the hunt.

Shooting

The day at the Angeles Shooting Ranges was exceptional, with moderate humidity, 74 degrees temperature and no wind. There would be no weather alibis this day. All accuracy shooting was done from a Bald Eagle benchrest and rear bag. I wasted half a box of each load before discovering this particular gun likes to be held with both hands. Once I began holding the fore-end, the groups tightened and became consistent. I fired a total of 60 rounds during the test, which included chronographing.

Recoil of the .270 WSM is quite manageable and anyone who has shot a .30-06 is fully capable of shooting the .270 WSM well. There were no surprises during the shooting; all loads fed, extracted and ejected without problem. The cases pop out of the ejection port and land just to the side about a foot away for easy retrieval. The safety is easy and intuitive to use. The action itself is quiet in operation.

Of the loads tried, the most consistent performer was the Norma, delivering several 3/4" groups into several nice little 3-shot clusters. The Supreme Elite gave nice 3-shot groups of 3/4" as well with two shots going into 1/4" time and again. The Steyr liked the Ballistic Silvertips the least, delivering groups into a still respectable 1-1/4".

The magazine is easily removed even with gloved hands and the fat little Short Mags are just pushed straight down into the mag for loading. Loading the mags is easy and could be done in semi-darkness. Unloading the mags is straightforward. Just push the rounds straight out from the rear and they’ll pop right out.

The Hunt

The herd of chamois, startled by my hand movement, finally settled down again, now 276 yards away, higher up the Alpine mountain. Guide Hubert pointed out the aft end of a young tan chamois grazing. His coat hadn’t begun to turn dark for winter, unlike the others. We waited patiently for him to turn broadside for a shot. I watched him through a pair of Kahles 10x30mm compact binocs. The gun was sighted in to shoot 2" high at 100 meters, which in theory would allow me to simply keep the crosshair on the animal.The little chamois finally turned broadside to us and I carefully sighted the rifle using my hat as a rest. I had practiced with this rifle using the excellent single set trigger standard on all Steyr rifles. Of course, I forgot to set the trigger as I took aim. No matter. The trigger broke clean and crisp. The rifle roared and the chamois dropped at the impact of the Nosler bullet. The goat struggled to stand and Herr Hubert said to shoot again. The second shot finished him, but on cleaning the animal, he would have died shortly from the first shot.It was a very memorable hunt and one I almost blew on the last leg. But I got my little goat and the performance of the rifle was everything I expected. I believe Emperor Franz Joseph himself would be proud to hunt with this rifle.

If you’d like to see how an Austrian hunt starts, go to the Web Blast section at www.gunsmagazine.com. There you’ll see and hear a horn concert as played prior to an Austrian driven hunt for pigs. The driven hunt was part of this same trip, but that’s another story.

Shooting Facilities provided by:   
Angeles Shooting Ranges
12651 Little Tujunga Road
San Fernando, CA 91342
(800) 499-4486
www.angelesranges.com

The Luxus

With the dollar in decline against the Euro, Steyr Mannlicher realizes their rifles are a much harder aspiration for many American hunters than they were just a few years ago. To that end, the company will most likely push their higher end products for awhile until some reason returns to the international exchange rates and more gun shops will be able to floor the bread and butter guns such as the Classic tested for this article.

One of the new innovative rifles the firm has created is the Luxus modular rifle system with a receiver of one size only made from high-strength aluminum. What makes the rifle so special is the caliber can be changed in seconds from a long belted magnum to a small or medium game caliber with interchangeable barrels, bolt heads and detachable magazines.

The Luxus may just prove to be the best choice for the traveling hunter, since a wide variety of calibers from .243 Winchester to .375 H&H are available.

As befits its name, wood comes in three mostly high and higher grades. The receiver has detachable sideplates and can be fitted with wood, aluminum or steel. The steel sideplates are the perfect platform for engraving. Base price of this model is $3,099, not much more than the classic, while offering considerable versatility of application.

The Steyr factory has quite a custom shop offering a variety of finish options for their arms from receiver case hardening to an exquisite electric classic blue applied as a hardening process virtually impervious to corrosion. The odd thing about the blue is it reflects the blue when no oil is on the gun. Put oil or even fingerprints on it and it turns purplish. Wipe off the oil and it turns blue again. Better, it needs no oil as a preservative.

Original article