What’s a Scout Rifle and Do I Need One?

In the 1970s, Col. Jeff Cooper, a rifleman’s rifleman if there ever was one (and firearm safety rules guy), pioneered the idea of a general purpose rifle that would work in a variety of roles from hunting to defense.  The concept was dubbed “the scout rifle,” and Cooper refined it over the years until his death in 2006.  Cooper believed in the “scout,” a man who “acted alone, not as a member of a team.”

By choice he did not fight, but he had to be an expert at the hit-and-run art of single combat.  By choice he did not shoot, but if forced to shoot, he shot quickly, carefully, and as little a possible. “One round, one hit and then vanish!” – that was his motto.  He did not need an assault rifle.  He needed a scout rifle.”

Colonel Jeff Cooper
Colonel Jeff Cooper

So Cooper set out to create the perfect rifle for this man.  Now, this isn’t ‘Nam, this is scout rifles… there are rules, rules so stringent that not even Ruger’s Gunsite Scout, designed with help from people at Gunsite who knew and worked with Jeff Cooper, lives up to Cooper’s vision.  I’m not talking about the political “if it has a magazine, it’s an assault rifle,” kind of rule, either, where they’re deliberately vague. Cooper’s vision was specific for very specific reasons:

Steyr Scout
Steyr Scout
  • It’s a bolt-action rifle.
  • It’s ideal weight is 6.6 pounds, but can be as heavy as 7.7 pounds, and that’s with the scope and sling.
  • It’s a meter long or less.
  • It’s barrel should be about 19 inches.
  • It should have a low-powered, low-mounted, long eye relief scope placed forward of the action.
  • Ghost ring iron sights are not required, but are preferred.
  • It should have a fast loop up sling.
  • The preferred caliber is .308 Winchester, though other calibers can be used if more power is required.  A .243 can be used if the shooter is frail, but .308 is considered the minimum for power.
  • It has to shoot a four-inch group at 200 meters.

Not so easy to find now, is it?  Cooper’s requirements come for good reasons.  A bolt-action rifle is typically lighter than a semi-auto and less prone to failures.  It has to be light-weight because whoever’s using it is running through the wilderness with it for long periods of time.  It needs to be short enough to not snag on brush as you’re walking, but the barrel has to be long enough to retain range and power.  It should have iron sights as well as a scope because scopes break.  It needs enough power to take out an unarmored target, human or animal, weighing in at 500 pounds.  The sling should be able to support your arm during a shot, not just be a way to haul the weapon around.  Bipods are okay, but Cooper felt they were almost useless in rough terrain and could become a dangerous crutch for a shooter to get addicted to.

A long-eye relief scope allows a shooter to hit a target at range while retaining their peripheral vision.  (Okay, I know this is kind of a faux pas, but it’s the best way I can come up with to describe it. You know how when you’re playing Call of Duty, and you’re using a sniper rifle, and while you’re looking through the scope, some random asshole named HelloKitty@$$Face comes around the corner and tags you in the side of the head from like eight feet away because you couldn’t see him come up on you? That’s the reasoning behind the long eye relief scope. You can see the world around you and maintain situational awareness.)

snipercaption

Cooper was big on shooting with both eyes open, and with a low power scope mounted forward of the receiver, you can do that pretty well. It also makes it easier to load the weapon with a stripper clip, and you can hold the weapon around the receiver, the rifle’s center of gravity, when you’re hauling ass away from a bear big enough to laugh at .308.  The downside is that it doesn’t do well in low-light conditions, and during sunrise and sunset you can get a glare off the glass that makes the scope useless.

So this is hardly just a rifle with a weird-looking scope.  Cooper didn’t give a dump about making the rifle look nice.  Function came before form, and yet the end results are pretty nice looking rifles.  The Mannlicher (or Steyr) Scout, a rifle Cooper approved of, has sleek lines and looks almost futuristic for a bolt-action rifle.

But should you get one of these general, all-purpose, do-anything, ass-kicking rifles designed by one of the most brilliant men in the firearms field since John Moses Browning descended from Heaven to present man with the 1911?

In a word, no.

In several words, allow me to explain.  I’ve heard the scout rifle described as “a solution looking for a problem,” and unfortunately, in the modern world, that’s true.  This is a frontiersman’s rifle.  It’s a rifle you use when you don’t know what you’re going to shoot tomorrow, but it’s a pretty good bet you’re shooting something.  On paper, that sounds great, but in the modern world, how many people live that life?  What it excels at is doing everything “okay.”  You can use it for hunting, but it’s not going to be as good as a regular hunting rifle.  You can use it for defense, but it’s not going to be as good as an AR-15 (Ultimate Guide to the AR-15).

Daniel Defense AR-15 Flattop, DDM4 V11
Daniel Defense AR-15 Flattop, DDM4 V11

Look, in the modern world, guns are like women’s shoes.  There’s a right kind for every occasion, and even if a person doesn’t know what kind of gun they want, they have a good idea in the back of their mind why they want a gun just like a woman may not know specifically what brand of shoes she needs, she knows she wants shoes for dancing at a wedding.  So when a person says, “I want a gun,” they may not know what kind of gun they want, but they know they want a gun for a primary reason.  If I live in a bad neighborhood, I want a gun for self defense.  Do I get a scout rifle?  If I want a gun to go hunting elk, do I want a scout rifle?  A scout rifle could do those things, but not as well as a gun that’s designed to do those things, and in this day and age, 99 percent of shooters don’t need a gun that does everything.

“But what’s the harm in getting a scout rifle if that’s what I want?” you ask.

Ruger Gunsite Scout Rifle
Ruger Gunsite Scout Rifle

Hey, I’m all for getting what you want.  And you’re right, the above reason, in itself, is not enough to determine that a scout rifle is the wrong way to go.  However, there’s another factor that, when combined with the above, makes me say no to a scout rifle.

The price.

Mannlicher Scout
Mannlicher Scout

The MSRP for a Ruger Gunsite Scout is about $1,000.  A Mannlicher Scout, the over-the-counter rifle that comes closest to Cooper’s vision is $2,000.  Custom-made scout rifles that accurately reflect Cooper’s concept can run past $4,000.  For the price of a Mannlicher Scout, I could buy my AR15 ($1,000), my Ruger American ($380) and my FNP-9 ($500).  That’s an awful lot of money for a bolt-action rifle that doesn’t hunt well during the morning hours when the deer are actually out and about.

I’m not trashing Cooper’s vision.  I just think it came too late.  The guys who explored the heart of Africa in the turn of the century probably would have been jazzed to have scout rifles with them.  It’s the kind of rifle Teddy Roosevelt would have wanted to carry while wandering around the American west.  But those frontiers aren’t frontiers anymore, and the scout rifle is a rifle that excels in a frontier.

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9 Comments

  1. I read the above, and I have to sigh a little bit. All of the author’s comments about Scout Rifles are sort of accurate, but not really.

    Full disclosure: I LOVE the Scout rifle idea. I have had two built for myself that are closer to what Col. Cooper would call “pseudo-scouts”, and I at one time had one of the Steyr Scout rifles. That rifle was sold only because I found myself in a financial crisis and selling it saved the day. These days, Steyr offers the Scout for a much reduced price (about $1500 now); expensive, sure, but not unreasonable for what it offers, and as soon as I can raise the funds I intend to buy another one.

    Sure, these days most people can have specialized rifles for specialized purposes. I even have such rifles in my safe. However, the ability to have one rifle that can do just about anything adequately, and some things better than most, is compelling to someone like me. I love the quick handling nature of the Scout, the speed with which you can hit at functional distances, and the light and lively way it carries. My Steyr was sub-MOA capable, and both of my pseudo-scouts are MOA capable. There really isn’t anything I can think of that the Scout couldn’t acquit itself adequately at the very least.

    Fortunately, we don’t live in a world where we can only one one rifle. If we did, I can guarantee you that my choice would be a Scout.

  2. I have to say that I disagree with the article as well.

    I, too, have rifles in the safe that can do specific tasks very well. But I’m also very rural. There have been days when having a handy rifle that can address many tasks is a blessing. I have coyotes in the back 120. I also live on a fast blacktop back road that’s only 20 minutes from major metro areas. I also jump from the Jeep to an ATV to a tractor. I have a 7# Ruger GSR that’s been up to the task quite well.

    I have a bull barreled AR with a 4-14x scope for predators. But it weighs 12 pounds. I have a short barreled shotgun for defense, but range is limited. I have a pencil thin bolt action .270. But it’s too pretty for rough work.

    Those of us in the midwest and the west that are rural dwellers aren’t as rare as many assume. A rifle like this fills the niche.

  3. If the concept of a scout is to deliver on range, mobility and power more efficiently than your typical rifle, the rifles mentioned above are simply mediocre choices and represent limited/dated examples of quality scut rifles…whether you are looking to spend less than 1k or more than 2k, you can do bether even in stringent states like ca. I own and appreciate both a steyr elite and the ruger scout referenced above, and do not believe they are what Col.Cooper would drop his money on in today’s local gunshop.

    1.
    M1a scout squad or socom…dominates in this discussion, if you arent sure why, you don’t know the first thing about the springfield m1a…google it and get an education!
    2.
    Sig Sauer 716…just like the scout squad above, .308, detachable mag, goes distance, forward mount pictanny…but better in that it has more ergonomic pistol grip
    3.
    Remington sps 700 16.5 inch barrell…out the box more of a snubnosed .308, but with some economical upgrades can be converted into a detachable mag turns this otherwise stubby looking rifle into a tactical beast-despite it being a bolt action
    4.
    SAIGA .308 short barrel…an AK style rifle in .308 with detachable magazines and an incredible balance…not in the same league as the previous 3 or those from the original article, but honestly for a rugged field rifle that satisfies the aims of a scout, and the best choice on a budget if you are planning to be looking down iron sights

  4. Like Jamie Rullestad said the scouts make a great ranch gun. I have a lot of rifles, many of which are quite specialized but the Ruger GSR is the one I grab 99% of the time. It’s short, handy and fires a powerful round. My first GSR (that was stollen) with it’s favorite handload would easily shoot sub MOA. My replacement GSR doesnt have a scope yet but I’ll be curious to see how it compares to my first in the accuracy department.

    I dont see any way that a hunting rifle would be any better for hunting big game. Out to 400 yards it wouldn’t make a difference. A .308 does great out of shorter barrels.

    I also have never understood the low light argument against the scout scopes. Obviously a larger objective lens on a scope will gather more light but the scout scopes I’ve tried have gathered enough light to shoot past legal big game hunting hours here. If you need to shoot in the dark get a light just like you would on an AR. They also argue that the sun can get behind you and cause glare on your eyepiece but living out here in the desert I’ve never experienced it. Not once and the tallest thing we have growing out here is sage brush.

    On the other hand, the other side of the scout scope argument is that you can shoot with both eyes open. Never understood that one either. I’ve been doing that with every scope I’ve ever owned for close to 20 years 3-9’s mostly but I do have one 4-12 and it works with all of them. I was rather surprised when I was first issued an ACOG in the Marines and read about the BAC.

    It wouldnt be my first pick if I knew a gunfight was coming but I wouldnt throw my hands up and surrender if it’s all I had when the time came either. Nearly two pounds lighter and close to 4 inches shorter than my LRB M14 Tanker, much easier to put a scope on and vastly superior accuracy… The M14 stays in the safe while the GSR is out working, either in the truck or on the four wheeler or begin carried.

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