CHAPTER 6 – PARTS 7, 8, and 9: Triggers, Stocks, and Finishes
PART 7: Triggers
Cooper was distinctly clear on his thoughts about triggers. In all his writings he left no room for assumption with regard to how important he felt a good trigger was. This is as clearly stated here as anywhere else, “Those of us who shoot a good deal are well aware that the most important attribute of either rifle or pistol is trigger-action. A good trigger release is what makes either rifle or pistol easy to hit with, and hitting is the purpose of the exercise.”43
There is and always will be some argument as to what is the best trigger. Should it be a single or two-stage? And, at what weight should the trigger break? This is mostly an individual preference but as far as Cooper was concerned, the trigger must be exceptional. In fact, he felt the rifle’s trigger so important that when responding to perspective Gunsite students asking which rifle to bring to his class he would tell them, “Bring the rifle that has the best trigger. A good trigger release, single or double, is the most important aid to ‘shootability’ in a rifle. The continued and startling superiority of Scout II is apparently not mainly due to its accuracy (which is superb), but due to its marvelous trigger.” 44
There are a number of ways to describe a good trigger and most often this is done with regard to the pull weight necessary to make the sear release. Cooper mentioned that his personal Steyr Scout Rifle’s trigger was set to release at 26 ounces but that many considered this to be, “an invitation to mishaps in the hands of the unenlightened.”45
Triggers vary a great deal in feel and function but not in purpose. When they are pulled to the rear, they ultimately release a sear, which will allow a hammer to fall or a firing pin to be released.
Explaining how to pull a trigger is not the easiest thing because it deals with feel. A trigger is a moving mechanism and terms are used to describe how it moves. It’s important to understand this movement and the terms, so you can evaluate a trigger and better understand how to pull one. You need to develop a relationship with your trigger that is more intimate than the relationship between you and your significant other, your best friend, and even your father. Short of that, your hit to miss ratio in the field will be less than acceptable.
Here are the common trigger terms, which are used to describe its operation. Let’s define each separately and examine how their functions can negatively or positively impact your shooting.
Take up describes the initial movement of a trigger before resistance is met. There are two types of triggers, single and two-stage. Both can have take-up but with a two-stage trigger you’ll feel some resistance, which can be as much as half of, equal to, or more than, the pull weight required to release the sear. Take-up on a single stage trigger is generally very light and over an infinitesimal distance. Take-up in a single stage trigger is also undesirable. A good single stage trigger has no take-up; you put your finger on it, apply pressure and the rifle goes bang.
Pull weight describes the amount of pressure, which must be applied to a trigger to release the sear. Pull weights on rifles can vary a great deal and shooters and hunters often argue about what is ideal. Here again we are talking about feel so opinions are subjective. To complicate that “feel” the width of the trigger pad impacts how hard it “feels” to pull the trigger. The wider the pad, the less pressure it seems to take.
A good place to start is with a pull weight that is no more than half the weight of the rifle. Cooper’s ideal Scout Rifle would weigh between 6.6 pounds so this would put a target trigger pull weight at about 3.3 pounds or 53 ounces. For many this may sound unusually high but if the trigger is good in every other way, it is quite manageable.
Can the pull weight be lighter? Sure. But here again we are talking about feel and what feels right to you might not feel right to someone else. And, you should consider that you might be wearing gloves and how cold your fingers might be when you shoot. Regardless, start with a pull weight that is no more than half the weight of your rifle. The reason for this should be obvious; you are in fact pulling on the rifle when you press on the trigger. If you have to apply the same or more weight to the trigger than the rifle weighs, how are you supposed to keep a six pound rifle on target when you are putting six or more pounds of pressure on it.
A good trigger will also be adjustable for pull weight so that you can tune it so it feels right to you. Based on my experience two, to two and a half pounds is about as light as anyone needs to go on a hunting rifle. I’d also add that if your trigger has no take-up, creep and minimal over-travel, you’ll not be able to see a difference on target with a trigger that has a pull weight between two and three pounds unless of course you are the great bench shooting champion Walt Berger or have very feminine fingers.
Creep describes the movement of a trigger after take-up but prior to sear release. Creep is very common in factory triggers and is why many hunters opt for an aftermarket trigger or take their rifle to a gunsmith for a trigger job. You can have a trigger with very minimal creep and still shoot with precision as long as the creep is smooth and consistent. During trigger creep is where you will often feel roughness and inconsistency. This is due to the tolerances with mass-produced and inexpensive parts, which make up many factory trigger mechanisms.
This creep is where the “surprise” idea comes from. Your fingers are just not sensitive enough to differentiate between one or two pounds of pressure, and between movements of less than a 1/132nd of inch. This is even truer when you are in the field shooting at a trophy or an adversary. So, the wisdom has been, just keep applying pressure, and if you’re lucky, the rifle will fire while your sights are still on target. This is lottery like shooting and while it is great practice for training, should not be employed by an experienced rifleman in the field. (Trained military snipers I’ve interviewed have the same opinion; you should know the exact moment when your trigger will break. The only surprise in the equation should be the target’s when it get hit.)
The importance of over-travel is probably the most misunderstood aspect of a trigger. Over-travel relates to the movement of the trigger after the sear has been released. Very few triggers have no over-travel but a good trigger will have very little or an almost unperceivable amount. Why is over-travel so important?
As hard as it may seem to believe – considering that bullets leave rifle barrels in excess of 2700 fps – the movement of your finger on the trigger after the sear has been released can move the rifle before the bullet exists the barrel. The flight time of most bullets through a rifle barrel is between 1.0-1.5 milliseconds. The lock time – the time between trigger press and primer ignition – for most conventional rifles can be five times that long. Any movement to the rifle prior to the bullet exiting the barrel will affect your point of impact and excessive over-travel will cause this movement.
In essence what you’re doing when you pull a trigger with excessive over travel is inducing movement to your launch platform. It’s kind of like you’re trying to throw a curve ball.
Consistency is probably the most important aspect of any trigger regardless of pull weight, creep, take-up, or over-travel. When I was a young lad I had a Marlin model 782 .22 Magnum. I shot thousands of rounds through this rifle on the range and while hunting. The trigger was atrocious with a pull weight I’m guessing, as heavy as 10 pounds. But, it was consistent. I shot that rifle enough to learn that trigger. In a good relationship you know what to expect from your partner and I knew what to expect from that trigger.
Building a good relationship with a bad trigger is not an excuse for not having a good trigger. But the point is that, just like with people, you cannot build that relationship without consistency. This consistency is why companies like Timney are in business.
PART 8: Stocks
One of the most surprising things to me about Cooper’s Scout Rifle definition is the lack of attention focused on the stock. On one hand Cooper was reasonably specific with regards to what the stock should be made of and some of its features. But at the same time, he was rather vague about how it should interface with the shooter. If you’re going to shoot with precision and speed from field positions, the way you interface with the rifle’s stock is critical to performance.
We’ll get more into this in a moment and later in the book as well. For now, lets look at what Cooper did tell us about the Scout Rifle stock. At the 1983 conference the preference was for a traditionally styled stock without a cheekpiece or the famous Monte Carlo or Weatherby hump. This position remained, as did the idea that a synthetic stock would be a better choice than wood because synthetic stocks weigh less. Interestingly, why a cheekpiece or Monte Carlo hump were black listed, is left to speculation.
Somewhat surprisingly was the absence of a required recoil pad. Cooper mentioned several times over the years that a recoil pad was not necessary on a Scout Rifle. I guess he felt you should learn to shoot a rifle correctly, and man-up and take it. To some extent he has a point, proper technique helps to eliminate felt recoil. But, at the same time, proper stock design and construction does the same thing, and, there is no reason a shooter should have to be uncomfortable when pulling a trigger. Those who believe a good butt pad on a rifle cannot mitigate the felt effects of recoil are simply mistaken.
The most poignant observation Cooper made with regard to rifle stocks was in 1984 when he wrote, “One index of handling ease in a rifle is the vertical distance between the line of sight and the little finger of the shooting hand – the less the better. We are going to call this the “handiness factor,” and apply it to Scout designs.”46
Cooper was on to something here but I believe he was struggling – though given his command of codifying almost anything that seems unbelieveable – to explain the handiness he was experiencing. In a later chapter we will address this in depth but I think what Cooper was trying to explain was the relationship between the comb of the rifle and the sights. The problem was that in 1984 rifle stocks were all very similar in shape and measurement and they all exhibited drop between the nose and heel of the comb. I think Cooper was looking for a way to distinguish between rifle stocks that allowed less separation between the comb and line of sight and he found this measurement elsewhere.
Maybe the most interesting advancement with Scout Rifle stocks came in 1986 when Jeff Cooper met with Melvin Forbes. Forbes is a gunsmith from West Virginia who had created an unbelievably light, bolt-action rifle. These rifles were stocked with a Kevlar/Carbon fiber creation Forbes developed while working with the Allegany Ballistics Laboratory. Unlike the other synthetic stocks of the day, which were based on the technology used in the fiberglass boat industry, Forbes’ stocks were constructed with technology used to build rockets. These stiffer than barrel steel stocks come out of the mold weighing only eight ounces and a completed 308 Winchester, with a 22 inch barrel, will weigh less than five pounds.
At any rate, Cooper was in the process of building Super Scout IV – a rifle he would ultimately use to shoot his lion – that would become known as the Lion Scout. He contracted Forbes to stock this rifle. “The new stock on Super Scout IV – which we hope will become the “Lion Scout” – will be carefully heat-cured at Ultra Light [Ultra Light Arms – this was the company name for New Ultra Light Arms prior to its purchase by Colt and reacquisition.] before bedding, and also fitted with aluminum pillars to take up the strain at stress points. We hope this will work. Synthetic stocks are definitely better than wood stocks, but only if they are properly constructed.”/“The Ultra Light stock, of boron-reinforced Kevlar, is now being constructed at the factory, and fitted with a butt magazine handmade here at Gunsite.” 47 Forbes did the work, sent the completed rifle to Cooper, and never heard from him again. Sadly, this relationship between the man who had conceptualized the Scout Rifle, and the only man who could actually make a stock that would allow a rifle to easily meet the three-kilo weight limit, would never flourish.
It was clear that Cooper was happy with Super Scout IV and after getting it back from Forbes; he wrote glowingly of this rifle numerous times. In fact he used the words “perfectly satisfied”48 However, when Forbes sent the rifle to Cooper he also sent an invoice for the work. It should be noted that in the more than 30 years New Ultra Light Arms has been in business, Forbes has never given a rifle to a gun writer. He will give them a reasonable discount but they get nothing for free. As far as Forbes was concerned, Cooper was no exception.
A few years back, when I found out that Forbes had stocked Super Scout IV and built a Fireplug-Scout, (Cooper’s name for rifles chambered for the 350 Remington Magnum) for American Handgun editor Cameron Hopkins, I asked Forbes to build me a Scout Rifle. His answer was unequivocally, “No.” When I asked him why he told me the story of doing the work for Cooper and that Cooper never paid his bill, spoke to him again, or wrote about the work he did for him. Forbes had no desire in furthering Cooper’s concept since Cooper still owed him money.
The sadness of all this is that between Cooper and Forbes we could have had the Scout Rifle Cooper had always envisioned; an American made rifle meeting all of the Scout Rifle criteria, including the seemingly unattainable, less than three kilo weight limit. But, due to the personalities of both men, it was not to be.
Interestingly, after receiving Super Scout IV and writing that Kevlar seemed to be the material of choice for building a stock for a Scout Rifle, in 1992 Cooper wrote, “The stock should be of a high quality, synthetic material affording greater strength per unit of weight, and of uniform non-skid finish. (The exact configuration and specifications of the stock are matters for further conference, but length of pull is not to exceed twelve-and-one-half inches.)”49
Without question Cooper and Forbes did not become best buddies and while we can speculate on the reasons its more important that we focus on the last part of the above passage. Cooper felt that the length of pull for a rifle should be short rather than too long. He was right in his observation that a shooter can work with a short length of pull rather easily, but cannot manage a length of pull that is too long.
PART 9: Finishes
There are not a lot of references for what Cooper thought the proper finish on a Scout Rifle should be. However, by examining the Scout Rifles he described, and looking at those he owned, it’s clear that a subdued, non-reflective finish was the preference. In describing Super Scout or Fireplug IV Cooper explained its finish as being, “…non-reflective black on all metal parts, and ‘Kalahari Thorn’ on the stock.”50 This is also a reasonable description of Scout II as well as many un-numbered Gunsite Scouts that were built to reasonably replicate Scout II.
At the 1983 conference is was agreed that the barrel of a Scout Rifle should be stainless steel that was either Parkerized or blued but it seems that a Teflon coating was preferred. The application of some basic common sense here is most appropriate. A rifle to be employed in a scouting or hunting role should not be one that is easy to spot due it’s glossy or reflective finish. The finish on a Scout Rifle should probably best be described as simply, subdued.
Check out this new rimfire-scout from Steyr.