The Ultimate Factory Rifle:
The Savage Long Range Precision Varminter
M.L. (Mic) McPherson
About the author
Now retired, McPherson has built custom Marlin lever-action rifles in custom chamberings from 17/23 SMc (with well demonstrated ¼-MOA accuracy!) up to the 510 Kodiak Express, which generates 5000 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. He has written extensively on that subject.
His book, Metallic Cartridge Handloading, is the modern bible on this art. He has written hundreds of magazine articles on handloading, gunsmithing, and hunting. He edited the 8th and 9th editions of Cartridges of the World (widely acclaimed as the best editions of that book ever released), the 3rd edition of Metallic Cartridge Reloading, and the 4th edition of Reloading for Shotgunners. He was Technical Editor for many editions of Handloader’s Digest and Gun Digest.
In 1989, McPherson and Ron Feldman identified the location of the Lost Adams Diggin’s — one of the most famous of all lost mines. The pernicious reality that is Hollywood-Hype spoiled the truth of that story and how they solved a 150-year old mystery; nevertheless, that telling became the single most successful episode of the original Unsolved Mysteries television show. McPherson and Feldman wrote Zigzag Canyon to chronicle the true story. For the results of that effort, the prestigious Zane Gray Society bestowed their effort with its Book of the Year award.
In the 1990s, Feldman, McPherson, and Bob Schoose formed the nucleus of a small group of interested parties, who established an organization explicitly intended to prosecute a Treasure Trove Permit dig in the Superstition Mountain Wilderness: H.E.A.T. (Historical Exploration and Treasure). They enlisted Dr. Glenn Rice, Professor Emeritus of Arizona State University, to provide archeological expertise and supervision. H.E.A.T. members then re-excavated an existing mine in the east end of the Superstition Mountain Wilderness dating to before the 1700s, thereby proving that miners of European descent had mined in what is now Central Arizona hundreds of years before historians had previously believed.
This was the first and only Treasure Trove Permit Dig in that Wilderness, according to the little tin gods in charge at the Forest service, there will never be another, regardless of Federal law. As it took Feldman and McPherson seven years to get the Forest Service to abide by Federal Law and its own regulations and issue that permit, it seems likely that said proclamation will prove accurate.
McPherson edited Jacob’s Trail, Jesse Feldman’s definitive study of the History of Central Arizona, as that relates to The Lost Dutchman Mine.
McPherson is a polymath with degrees in Geology and Electronics.
I write the following with considerable trepidation. While I am justly proud of my involvement, as described herein, I am more pleased that this rifle and chambering are now available to others. I certainly do not intend this discussion to be self-aggrandizing; however, I suspect that, inevitably, it will seem so to some readers. Those who know me will know otherwise, if anything, I tend to be self-effacing.
Synopsis: Each of us has some chamberings and guns that hold a special place in our appreciation. Savage F-Class, Benchrest and Long-Range Precision Varminter rifles, all based on the Savage single-shot action, along with the 6.5-284 Norma chambering are particularly special to me because friends of mine and I had our hands, either directly or indirectly, in many central aspects of the design of this gun, and in the standardization of this chambering.
About 1990, the late Roger Johnston introduced me to the folks at Norma. A few years later, Johnston suggested that Norma should consider standardizing the 6.5-284. Through the following six-month period, our mutual friend, Christer Larsson (then, Chief ballistician at Norma), telephoned Johnston and me, often, to discuss details of design for the potential standardized 6.5-284 cartridge and chamber. We had many hours of conversations on the subject.
What Norma settled on was imperfect, due the to the far-too-short neck, which it believed was called for by the existence of so many wildcat guns chambered to use the necked-down 284 Winchester case, with the original (too-short) neck. However, the standardized chamber design does have superior characteristics, with regard to neck-diameter, throat-length and -diameter, and leade design. In those respects, it is exactly as Johnston and I suggested it should be, and it works just as we predicted it would work, which is, excellently.
We came very close to getting Norma to standardize a longer neck. We both wanted that, but, because of my work on the SMc cartridge concept, I knew why a longer neck would be superior and I fought hard for it. My failure to get Norma to standardize that is an enduring frustration. The longer neck would give better barrel life and allow greater neck tension and seating of the longest bullets used in the 6.5-284 Norma without the necessity of driving as much of the bullet below the case neck.
Looking back, the solution was obvious, and if I had suggested it, almost certainly Norma would have followed the good advice. What I should have advised was this: Offer two new cases; first, the 6.5-284 Norma, with a longer neck, as a factory standardized chambering; second, the 6.5-284 Winchester, with the original (too-short) neck, simply as cases for handloaders to use. That way, with one case production method, two case head bunters, and different neck trimming, Norma could have offered cases ready to load for those with a wildcat rifle chambered for the latter, while offering a significantly superior factory chambering and ammunition.
Several years earlier, I had met Ron Coburn, when he had only recently taken over as CEO at Savage. Coburn took what was a failing company and turned it around. Thanks entirely to his leadership and vision, within a few years Savage was leading the pack. Anyone who does not realize how excellent Savage rifles became under Coburn’s leadership was simply not paying attention. Sadly, Coburn is no longer involved with Savage Arms. We can only hope the company retains its focus on excellence, despite his absence.
Coburn and I immediately developed a rapport, based partly upon our mutual appreciation of the Model-99 Savage. We soon became friends. In subsequent years, on many occasions, Coburn asked for my thoughts on, and suggestions toward, improving Savage centerfire bolt-action rifle design.
Among those ideas were the following (I make no claims that I was the only person making any particular suggestion, excepting one specific improvement, see below):
The trigger project that Coburn instigated was destined to change the shooting world, enter The AccuTrigger. With that trigger, unless the trigger safety has been pulled fully rearward first, the system eliminates the risk of the gun firing even if, for any reason, the sear disengages from the trigger. In such a situation, the trigger safety will catch the sear and thereby prevent the striker from falling, see photographs.
Regardless of many similar-looking visual-copycat trigger designs that now exist, the Savage AccuTrigger system is unique. Other, similar-looking, systems simply lock the trigger until one pulls the trigger lock. Such a trigger lock does absolutely nothing to mechanically lock the striker, and it is therefore an essentially useless appendage. Explicitly, it adds nothing to the safety of the gun against an accidental discharge.
I will never forget Coburn asking me into his office, to visit, but mostly to show me why he had asked his engineers to invent what would become The AccuTrigger. Located along three walls of Coburn’s rather large office were bolt-action rifles of various makes and models. Having spent plenty of time around guns and gun people, seeing so many guns standing along the walls surprised me only slightly and only because, usually, at gun-related businesses, the guns are normally kept in a vault. (Coburn had had those rifles brought to his office that morning, specifically to show me something!)
The experience reminded me of, Fred’s house (lifelong friend), where guns of all manner covered walls and filled corners of rooms. And, you bet, they were all loaded! And, you bet, before I was allowed into that house the first time, at six years of age, it was explained to me in great detail that, any time I wanted to, I could handle any gun in the house but only with Wince, Fred’s dad, there to supervise and only after he had unloaded the gun. And, a year and some months older than me, at the ripe old age of seven, Fred was already an old hand at safe gun handling.
I’d been around guns some but this was my proper introduction to guns and the necessary safety aspect of handling guns — all guns are always loaded, and never point any gun at anything you do not intend to destroy! Lifelong lessons well taught, and well-remembered.
Within weeks, Fred and I were shooting rimfire revolvers whenever we could afford ammunition. Fred’s dad even loaded a bunch of 38 Specials at reduced velocity, so we could handle and practice shooting those revolvers. What a blessing every aspect of that was!
Coburn had two main reasons for having all those guns, handy, in his office. First, he had been studying each of those, as will become clear as you read on. Second, to give me a demonstration of what he had learned in his study of the trigger and safety mechanisms of those rifles.
As we visited, we talked about the Savage bolt-action rifle and how far it had come since Coburn had saved The Savage Arms Company from complete failure. He had systematically fixed the foremost problems with both production efficiency and product quality. The former, I had to accept as fact; the results of the latter, I had been observing for several years.
Coburn reiterated that since his first day at Savage, his primary goal had been to address the accuracy issue. We talked about how far he had brought the company along that line. How he had completely revamped barrel production and other changes that had measurable influences on accuracy.
I had been telling folks in articles in Precision Shooting, The Accurate Rifle, and other magazines, and showing folks at various shooting venues, just how accurate the new Savage rifles were. For example, with three custom Savage rifles I built, my sons and I perpetually dominated the Big Dog event at the Gateway Dynamite shoot. Through the dozen events in which we participated, we had accounted for more target hits among us than had all the other competitors combined, that group included at least 25 shooters.
I had already seen a change from a time when I was practically the only guy writing about, talking about, and competing with a Savage, to a situation where many others were writing about the Savage and many more were using a Savage in competitive events — chiefly because of my efforts to promote the Savage for such use. So, Coburn did not have to persuade me that his efforts to improve Savage barrels and overall Savage rifle quality were working; I already knew this.
At the time of that visit, Coburn had already revamped the barrel-production line, with better equipment and tooling; and, he had instituted better production procedures there. He had also revamped the tooling and procedures used in many other portions of the centerfire bolt-action production process. After my visit, Coburn revamped the barrel production line a second and then a third time. As such, modern Savage barrels are very close to being as good as a barrel can be.
We then discussed cosmetic issues with the Savage rifle. But, soon enough, and inevitably, our discussion turned to what our similar discussions always turned to: The limitations of the Savage trigger. I knew that design perhaps as well as Coburn did. I had tinkered and tweaked many of those to within an inch of functionality while uselessly trying to get a decent let-off for my use in varminting and target shooting. I had long-since realized the basic design simply did not, and never would, lend itself to making a truly good trigger, a trigger that worked ideally for my needs.
Then, Coburn did something that seemed a bit strange. In the middle of that conversation, he seemingly changed the subject. After his comment that I was indeed correct, “… the existing Savage trigger simply cannot be tinkered to get an excellent let-off,” he gestured past me and said, “Hand me one of those rifles, please.”
I reached around and grabbed a handy bolt-action gun. I know exactly what make and basic model it was, but, as will become clear soon, that detail is not only unimportant to this story but the critical aspect is exactly the opposite: Which particular make and model of gun it was did not matter at all. After noting that the bolt was open and the magazine and chamber were empty, I handed the rifle to Coburn.
He similarly verified that the gun was unloaded and closed the bolt and set the safety. He then picked up a six-ounce, hard plastic mallet from his desk. He hammered that small mallet, one time, on the receiver. He did not hit the gun very hard; he just hit it hard enough and in the right place. I heard the striker fall!
He then handed the rifle back to me, asking that I verify that the striker had fallen. As I did so, it dawned on me, had the chamber been loaded, that gun would have fired. I was starting to see the light.
I handed the gun back to him and he opened and closed the bolt, set the safety, and tapped on the receiver. He repeated this three more times. Each time, the striker fell.
Then he asked me to hand him a different gun. I did so. He repeated the performance. We went through one after another of those guns, of various makes and models. On some, he hit the trigger guard; on some, he hit the stock; and, on some, he hit the receiver. But always, with the application of a surprisingly mild blow in the right spot, he managed, with one tap, to make the sear disengage from the trigger, despite the — so-called — safety being set. Coburn had obviously been practicing. Believe me, he had my undivided attention.
I already knew guns could fire inadvertently; as Coburn was demonstrating this fact, events from my childhood came to mind. Dad’s Savage Model-340 instantly firing as he released the safety, although he was not touching the trigger. In another instance, my well-worn pump-action 22 firing after I pulled the trigger with the safety set, then released the trigger, and then moved the safety to the fire position. And, I knew that, inevitably, if it had not already happened many times, someone could get hurt or killed when something similar happened with some other gun and someone who was not so careful, or, perhaps, so lucky, about where the gun was pointing.
Coburn swept the room with a pointed finger, he then put it into words: “Every one of these rifles shares the same fundamental safety flaw: Given the right shock with the bolt closed on a loaded round, the gun will fire; many of these designs will do so whether or not the safety is engaged.”
Then, Coburn said, “I would like to show you something, but I need your word that you will keep it to yourself for a few months, until the patenting process has gone through.”
“Of course,” I said.
He then promised to let me know immediately upon completion of the patent process, so I would be the first person outside Savage who knew that. (And, he did so.) Thus, allowing me to be the first gun writer to submit an article about the AccuTrigger.
He picked up the telephone and asked his secretary, Jennifer, to connect him with the chief design engineer. A moment later, he asked that engineer to join us, and to bring the prototype trigger. Minutes later, the engineer arrived.
The engineer brought a prototype of the AccuTrigger in a faux receiver. He handed it to Coburn and Coburn handed it to me, saying, “Look at this and play with it.”
I manipulated the bolt and looked the trigger assembly over, to see how the system worked. After a few seconds, I commented, “Well, I see that unless this dingus (which Savage now calls the trigger safety) protruding from the front of the trigger is first pulled back, the striker simply cannot fall. Looks as if you have solved a huge safety problem. It’s also obvious that with this design you can offer a factory trigger let-off that is excellent, because you do not have to rely on the [demonstratedly undependable] trigger engagement into the sear notch to prevent the gun from firing inadvertently.”
A wry smile erupted on Coburn’s normally stoic face. For a few moments, he just sat there beaming. Then, he asked me, “Is there anything you would do differently?”
I said, “I can see only one thing you can do to improve this. You need to incorporate a secondary safety interlock on the dingus (trigger safety), so that after the sear has inadvertently disengaged from the trigger it will be impossible to make the gun fire without either re-cocking the striker (by lifting and lowering the bolt handle) or breaking something.”
Coburn responded instantly, as if he had been expecting my comment (I suspect he had already heard the same basic comment before), “A secondary interlock is unnecessary. Once the sear disengages and the trigger safety catches the sear, it takes at least thirty pounds of force to pull the trigger safety hard enough to allow the sear to fall and the gun to fire. Without seriously injuring their finger, no one could apply that much force to the trigger safety.”
And, I responded just as quickly, “Yes, and some damn fool will do whatever he has to do to make that happen, even if he has to run a screwdriver through the trigger guard and pull on that with both hands hard enough to make the gun fire. Then, Savage will be in court. But, if you add an interlock so the only way to make the gun fire after the trigger safety has engaged the sear is to break something in the trigger system, Savage will have proof of a deliberate act of negligent stupidity.”
Just as fast, Coburn responded, “You’re right. How do we do that?”
I offered an idea involving a hook on the tip of the trigger safety, so it would mechanically lock to the sear. The method Savage ultimately incorporated into the AccuTrigger trigger-safety-secondary-interlock, for its first application, the full-size centerfire Savage action, differed from my suggestion in design, but functioned identically. Interestingly, the secondary interlock system Savage used on AccuTriggers on several later rifle designs (Models 40 and 25) is functionally and physically identical to the design I suggested and drew on a notepad.
Design of the new Savage Single-Shot Action
Then, Coburn excused himself. He explained that he had prior commitments. He asked the design engineer to show me around the design room, where Savage engineers were tinkering with an improved removable box magazine and a few other projects, and to then show me the new action prototype.
The new magazine was a fine design. Savage now uses this on all its centerfire rifles featuring a removable magazine. That was interesting, but what captured my undivided attention was the prototype single-shot action.
It was exactly what I, Pete Forras, and likely others, had been begging Savage to offer. And, it was more than that. Savage had incorporated at least two significant improvements we had not thought of.
The engineer took me to a secluded lounge room, handed me a writing pad and pen, a caliper, a single-shot Model-12 receiver, and the prototype of what was to become the new Savage single-shot action. Then he excused himself, “Feel free to take measurements and notes. I’ll give you some time alone. I’ll be back in about thirty minutes.”
I started taking measurements as I carefully examined that receiver. I quickly did some math. Owing to the drastically smaller ejection port, the prototype receiver had more than four-times as much rigidity in the vertical plane as the original M-12 single-shot receiver had. I also noted that the new action had bigger barrel threads. I calculated that this modest-seeming 1/16–inch difference in barrel shank diameter would increase barrel rigidity at the chamber end by more than 12% (1/8!) in guns chambered for cases of 30-06 diameter. The rigidity advantage would be progressively greater in guns chambered for cases with progressively larger head diameters. Knowing that rigidity equals accuracy, I appreciated the advantages of this design change.
I was dumbfounded. Who would have thought it, a gun company that actually listened to good advice! I had grown so used to the, “… not invented here,” syndrome, among gun makers, scope makers, component makers, and tool makers, that it never occurred to me that anything else was even possible.
That basic new Savage receiver design was to become The Long Range Precision Varminter (LRPV) action, which is now used in all Savage single-shot centerfire rifles.
This action has many excellent design features. Besides being unusually rigid, due to the lack of a magazine port and the use of a small-as-feasible loading and ejection port, which leaves a solid top on the receiver tube; it comes with a specially tuned version of the AccuTrigger. This trigger has adjustable let-off, down to about 6-ounces. And, in the dual-port version, this action is unusually handy for varminting and certain competitive events, where rapid shooting is critical.
The newest version incorporates one of those little things that matter all out of proportion: It has an elastomer insert on the bolt handle that mitigates mechanical shock when one closes the bolt vigorously. This insert reduces the chance of the sear disengaging from the trigger upon bolt closing (harmless but aggravating) and it improves accuracy by preventing the propagation of vibrations between the bolt handle and the receiver as the sear releases, the striker falls, and the gun fires.
Addition of a third action screw is one of the biggest advantages this action has over other action designs. Soon as I got home, I started converting the old-style M-12 Savages I owned, to include a third screw, intermediate between the original screws. With a pillar, an extra action screw, a piece of wood, epoxy, and a few hand tools (as described in a Precision Shooting magazine article), that conversion is a simple process.
Even before visiting the Savage factory, I had begun tinkering the laminated Savage stocks used on the M-12. My goal was to make the stock handier and more precise on the bags. I flattened the bottom of the forearm and thinned it toward the muzzle end and I removed a wedge of the buttstock, along the bottom, that was about 1½-inches thick at the recoil pad and tapered to zero width a few inches behind the pistol grip. As such, I had been able to dramatically reduce the difference in angle between the bottoms of the forearm and butt sections. (I also described this in a Precision Shooting article.)
Flattening the bottom of the forearm makes the gun ride the bags better, and this makes it easier to keep the gun level, side-to-side. These angle changes dramatically reduce the change in barrel-pointing direction as the gun slides back on the bags as the bullet accelerates through the bore, and as the propellant charge vents from the muzzle. This makes it easier to see hits and misses, because the gun stays more closely on target; and, it improves accuracy, because the slight variations in gun-to-bag interaction from shot-to-shot make less difference in where the barrel is pointing as the bullet exits the bore.
With its F-Class stock, Savage took this approach to the limit. This stock has a very wide and flat bottom on the forearm. This makes it easier to keep the gun level, and it limits torque reaction as the gun fires. Unlike in the Benchrest game, F-Class rules allow non-traditional stock designs. Savage took advantage of this and designed a stock with nominally zero bias between the angles along the bottom of the forearm and buttstock sections. This stock also has a comfortable and ambidextrous pistol grip. As such, it is an excellent design for use at the bench.
(This stock is rather heavy and one of my goals with a recent project was a handy bench gun — I am getting old enough now that I can envision a time when gun weight will matter. I have solved the weight problem by skeletonizing the stock. In a separate article, also in Precision Shooting, I discussed how I reduced the weight of a Savage F-Class stock from 4½ pounds to 2 pounds, while maintaining at least 90% of original rigidity.)
Of course, I shared these stock modification stories with Coburn. Savage incorporated many of my suggestions, and did more, as it progressively improved design of the M-12 stock. Then it moved forward with other stock options.
When I handle the Savage F-Class or Benchrest rifle in 6.5-284 Norma, I feel a degree of pride. Perhaps justifiably so, I had at least a small part in practically every significant aspect of these models — chambering, receiver, trigger, and stock.
When I examine the newest LRPV receivers, I have one more reason to feel a bit of pride. A long-standing, and potentially dangerous, weakness of the Savage receiver was the necessary end-to-end channel cut into the interior, in which a corresponding protrusion on the gas baffle runs as one opens and closes the bolt. This channel prevents the bolt from tipping out of endwise alignment with the receiver and thereby smooths bolt operation. For feasibility of production, this cut extends full length of the receiver.
This was always a weak point in the Savage receiver, because it thinned the receiver wall through the barrel threads and adjacent to the locking-lug boss. However, receiver-wall thinning was not a serious problem, the receiver was plenty strong, despite this slot. But, this channel did create a serious problem, nonetheless.
The problem: This channel created a massive stress riser along each square corner, at the bottom of this rectangular cut. In the event of a massive overload resulting in a case-head failure, the receiver was likely to fail along this zone. When this happened, the receiver would split, endwise, down the side. This often led to a secondary failure, resulting in the action separating, forward of the locking lug bosses — Savage had seen examples of exactly these failures.
My recommendation to Coburn was that Savage simply modify this channel, to round the bottom. This is exactly what Savage did. This dramatically reduces stress concentration and makes the receiver much stronger against a catastrophic failure, in the event of a massive overload. As a bonus, the new rounded bolt guide on the gas baffle works smoother than the original square one did.
Soon as these rifles were available, we compared the Benchrest and F-Class Savage rifles, both in 6.5-284 Norma, using two factory match loads (Hornady and Nosler), and my reproduction of the discontinued Black Hills match load. Years later, with two new rifles, we repeated those tests, see pictures at the end of this article.
Black Hills chose to discontinue its excellent 6.5-284 Norma load after suffering unending problems resulting from the fact that Cooper Arms chambers rifles that it marks as 6.5-284, but it does not use the reamer design specified by SAAMI for the 6.5-284. Hence, its rifles are actually chambered for the wildcat version of the 6.5-284, which differs from SAAMI specifications in throat and leade design.
As such, regardless of what the barrel script indicates, Cooper rifles are not chambered for the SAAMI specification 6.5-284 Norma (which is now, officially, the only standard version of the 6.5-284 chambering). What Cooper chambers for is a wildcat version of the 284 Winchester case necked down to 6.5mm. The distinction matters because the throat length is much shorter on the Cooper chamber. As such, Black Hills 6.5-284 Norma ammunition, and, likely, any other factory 6.5-284 loads using typical match bullets will not chamber in Cooper 6.5-284 (wildcat) rifles.
Unfortunately, Cooper refuses to either abide by SAAMI specifications or mark its rifles uniquely, to indicate that those are not the standardized 6.5-284 chambering. In utter frustration, Black Hills chose to limit its exposure by discontinuing what had been an excellent 6.5-284 load, one that worked perfectly in factory Savage rifles and was even recommended by Savage.
As the pictures show, these rifles are phenomenally accurate. It will be interesting to see what we can do with handloads tuned to each gun. We have started that process with a rifle owned by Jesse Feldman (O.K. Corral, Superstition Stables, Apache Junction, Arizona), we might get around to developing an accuracy load for his brother’s rifle this year (2022), who knows.
The new Savage single-shot action might well be the finest target rifle ever offered by any mainstream manufacturer. The floating bolt head and other design features give this design the accuracy edge over any traditional bolt action. I can find very little that could be improved; however, there is one thing.
Despite the safety and quality of the Target version of the AccuTrigger, this trigger is not good enough to suit the needs of the most discerning of target shooters. Unfortunately, the basic design of the Savage action precludes the incorporation of a two-ounce trigger. This just is not feasible. Many trigger manufacturers have tried, all have either failed, or have concluded that producing such a trigger is beyond the capabilities of their equipment, or that any working design is infeasible. This is too bad, maybe some day that situation will change.