Friday, September 17, 2021

The Scout Rifle--Another Look

Ruger Scout Rifle in .450 Bushmaster (source)

There has been a lot of ink spilled on Jeff Cooper's concept of a scout rifle. It doesn't help that the specifications have varied over time, and some criteria that Cooper left fairly open have since been cast in stone, such as the caliber and action type.

Background: The Military Scout

    To understand Cooper's concept, you first have to understand the role of the military scout and his inspiration. The purpose of the scout is essentially that of reconnaissance. That is, to explore an area in order to obtain information about enemy forces, terrain, and other activities. Nowadays this mission is carried out with satellite and aircraft imagery and small groups of men (e.g., Army Rangers or Special Forces teams, Marine Scout/Snipers, etc.) typically transported to the general area to be surveilled where they might set up a fairly static location to make their observation, and then retreat to position where helicopter exfiltration can be arranged.

    But in the past, before detailed maps were available, and insertion and exfiltration by aircraft was not possible, scouts would precede a military force in order to locate suitable trails and roads, sources of water, stream or river crossings, updating or creating maps, and, of course, trying to gather information as to enemy location, strength, movement, etc. Some famous long range reconnaissance teams include the Alamo Scouts of WWII that provided valuable intelligence to U.S. forces during the island campaigns against the Japanese, and the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRPs) of the Vietnam War. The latter, in particular, were essentially a guerilla force of their own operating against the NVA.  

    If you are a fan of old Westerns, you might remember movies where an Indian scout, a frontiersman or mountain man, or some such would act as guides for cavalry forces in tracking down Apache guerilla bands, or whatever other tribe was the focus of the story. This was the general inspiration to Cooper, with Frederick Russell Burnham being a particular inspiration.

    Burnham was an American born in 1861 on a Dakota Sioux Indian reservation in Minnesota where he learned much of his fieldcraft. At 14 years of age, he became a civilian tracker for the United States Army in the Apache Wars. During that time and his subsequent forays into being a hired gun, smuggler, and running cattle, he learned much from older, experienced trackers and frontiersmen. In 1893, he moved himself and his family to southern Africa where he distinguished himself in the First Matabele War, oversaw and led the Northern Territories British South Africa Exploration Company expedition, and further distinguished himself in the Second Matabele War. Later, while working for the British Army, in the Second Boer War, he was also recognized for his exemplary service. He was given a military rank of major in the British Army, was invested into the Companions of the Distinguished Service Order, and became Chief of Scouts. During his South Africa days, Burnham had met and become friends with Robert Baden-Powell (the father of scouting), and Burnham later assisted Baden-Powell with formulating a program of teaching scouting to youth--what would become the Boy Scouts.

    The gist of all of this, however, is that Cooper envisioned a scout as someone experienced in fieldcraft, tracking and hunting that might be operating alone deep in the bush or forest for days or weeks at a time in order to gather intelligence on the enemy. The scout rifle was his idea of the ideal weapon for such a person but using the latest in late 20th Century technology. That is, a weapon that could be used to defend oneself against both man and dangerous game, fill the stew-pot, but was handy and lightweight to carry. 

The Criteria For A Scout Rifle

    The requirements for a scout rifle--that is, the characteristics that define a scout rifle--seem to vary from one account to another. However, as best as I can determine from various sources I found, it appears that the following characteristics defined the weapon:

  1. First, and foremost, most sources agree that the rifle had to be in a caliber that could be used to take down at least medium sized game. The size of the game varies: some sources say up to 1,000 lbs., others say 200 kg (441 lbs), and another I found stated 400 kg (880 lbs.). In Cooper's "To Ride, Shoot Straight, and Speak the Truth" he wrote: "A general purpose rifle is a conveniently portable, individually operated firearm, capable of striking a single decisive blow, on a live target of up to 200 kilos in weight, at any distance at which the operator can shoot with the precision necessary to place a shot in a vital area of the target."  Based on this requirement and his preference for short-action rifles, Cooper specified the .308 Winchester/ 7.62×51mm NATO or, for those living where civilians cannot own firearms that use military calibers, the 7mm-08 Remington. Most sources indicate that Cooper allowed for .243 Winchester for shooters sensitive to recoil. 
  2. The rifle, because of its quasi-military role, also had to be able to be loaded quickly. This meant, in practice, that the rifle had be capable of being loaded with stripper clips and/or a detachable box magazine. None of the lists I found mentioned a minimum magazine size--and it appears that internal magazines of 4 to 5 rounds were acceptable--but I would note that most rifles advertised as scout rifles (including the Steyr Scout that was produced with Cooper's input) sport 10-round magazines. 
  3.  The action had to be slick and reliable. Cooper stipulated a bolt action, but also wrote that "if a semiautomatic action were made which was sufficiently compact and otherwise acceptable, it should certainly be considered". 
  4. It was to have a trigger pull of 3 lbs. (because of it being a rifle intended for use in the field--perhaps from horseback, I suspect that this was a minimum weight rather than a maximum weight).
  5. In light of its role as being a handy rifle for carrying into the bush or forest, Cooper stipulated a barrel length of around 19 inches, and an overall length no-more than 39 inches (1 meter). (This article explains the advantages to a shorter barrel and overall length when hunting in backcountry or mountains). 
  6. Similarly, the rifle had to be lightweight. According to the sources I found, the rifle ideally would weigh 6.6 lbs. unloaded with accessories like the sling and optic attached, but no more than 7.7 lbs. 
  7. Although not all lists include this, Cooper recommended a synthetic stocks due to their light weight and durability compared to wood stocks. One source also noted that the heel of the stock needed to be rounded to prevent the weapon from catching on cloths. 
  8. It had to be fairly accurate: capable of producing 3-shot groups of 4 inches or less at 200 yards (i.e., 2 MOA). Again, nothing shocking today, but more accurate than the majority of military rifles back in the day which typically shot around 4 MOA using standard military ammunition. On the other hand, sources also indicated that Cooper did not intend the rifle to be a sniper or precision rifle, so it needn't shoot sub-MOA groups. 
  9. Cooper intended that the rifle be shot with a shooting sling--i.e., a sling that could be looped up to provide extra support for shooting without a support. Cooper favored the Ching Sling, a 3-point shooting sling designed to loop up quickly and easily compared to the traditional 1907 leather military sling.  One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Ching Sling is that it required three sling attachment points: one at the rear of the stock and two on the underside of the handguard. Riflecraft, however, has developed shooting slings that have the benefits of the Ching Sling without the need for three attachment points
  10. Finally, and probably most controversial, was the optical sight. Cooper called for a low-power (3x or less) optic with long eye relief to be mounted forward of the action. There are various reasons given for this, the main one being that it allowed for better situational awareness and quick snap shots because you could shoot with both eyes open. I've argued in the past that this was likely more driven by the need for the rifle to be capable of being loaded via stripper clips, necessitating that the action be open and accessible, and at least one source seems to agree with me. Another source indicates that "Cooper consider[ed] conventionally mounted scopes acceptable, as long as they’re low power (no greater than 4x) with fixed magnification." In any event, because the rifle would be used in austere conditions, Cooper also believed that the rifle should also have iron sights of the peep variety. I would note, however, that one source indicates that the backup sights were recommended not required.

Steyr Scout Rifle (source)

There were also a couple other items that came later and seem to generally be considered optional: 
  1. An integral bipod.
  2. A means of carrying extra ammunition or an extra magazine in the stock of the rifle.
The shooting sling largely obviates the need for a bipod; and including a bipod can only make the rifle heavier and less handy for carrying. Carrying extra ammo in the stock seems to me to be another feature where the added complexity would far outweigh the benefit. If you had to singly load cartridges, I could see attaching a set of cartridge loops to the sling or stock; I could even see having a small pocket strapped to the stock to hold one or two stripper clips of ammo. 

    However, there are arguments over the criteria listed above. Richard Mann, for instance, has taken the position that the Scout Rifle must be a bolt-action rifle. He reasons:

    Cooper was a hunter - what I would classify a sport hunter - and loved his experiences in Africa. He also felt the Scout Rifle or scout-like rifle was an ideal hunting rifle. He killed his lion with what he called the Lion Scout and took a group of hunters to Africa with the Steyr. Though you can take an AR-type rifle to Africa and hunt (Bill Wilson has done it, but it requires some hoop jumping) it is not the everyday kind of easy thing that happens. It was clear Cooper was attempting to create a rifle that would have world-wide application due to his inclusion of the 7mm-08 as a suitable cartridge.

    Cooper wanted everyone to have a Scout.

Mann goes on to note that while having a semi-auto rifle was not an issue a few decades ago, many American states and foreign countries now restrict or prohibit semi-auto rifles. He continues:

    The semi-auto is no longer world-wide applicable; its not even coast to coast America applicable. Because of that, from a hunting standpoint, in my mind it can not qualify. From the standpoint of a SHTF rifle, who cares if it is legal or not. (My at SHTF rifle is an AR15) Additionally, I think the 16-inch barrel is an issue because it is clearly outside the length specification. Nor can a 16-inch barrel reliably deliver the ballistic performance Cooper desired. (Did you ever wonder why Cooper specified a 19-inch barrel and a longer barrel for the 243?)

    Kudos to those who have created an AR that makes weight. I've hunted with several AR10s that were not too heavy and taken elk, deer, and other critters with them. They are fine rifles. But, to me, as a hunter I would want a Scout Rifle that I could take hunting anywhere. After all, it is supposed to be the one and only rifle you need short of buffalo and bigger, right? If your needs and rifle desires are more localized, then for you it is probably a non issue. If you are like me, then in addition to your AR Scout, you would need another rifle to do some of your hunting. To me, this clearly falls short of the one rifle (Scout) answer.

    While Cooper may have used his scout rifles to hunt, I think that Mann is missing the point that it is a scout rifle, not a hunting rifle. If the scout rifle is simply a lightweight bolt-action hunting rifle, there are plenty of manufacturers out there that have sold or continue to sell lightweight mountain rifles and light weight hunters that meet the weight requirement--a few even meet the overall length requirement. In fact, the ideal lightweight bolt action rifle for a scout rifle may be the Sig Saur Cross Rifle. Cooper's inspiration, Frederick Russell Burnham, undoubtedly hunted, but that is not why he is remembered and respected. Rather, it was his exploits as a scout in various military conflicts.

    I would also mention a forum post by someone writing under the nom de plume of "Enforcer" who discusses the primary criteria and offers additional insights and thoughts. But one of the points he raises is that, according to Cooper, there was more freedom as to the sighting system. Cooper apparently stipulated:

Sighting system: Typically a forward and low mounted (ahead of the action opening) long eye relief telescope of between 2x and 3x. Reserve iron sights desirable but not necessary. Iron sights of the ghost ring type, without a scope also qualify, as does a low powered conventional position scope.

In other words, while the forwarded mounted scope was preferred, it was not required. You could use no scope (as long as your iron sights were ghost ring sights) or mount a low power scope in the standard position. 

This is set to start at about the 7:30 minute mark where Ian voices some of the main problems with bolt action rifles.

My Return To The Scout Rifle Concept

    I've ridiculed the scout rifle concept in the past because the idea of a "do-it-all" bolt-action rifle for use against critters and enemy soldiers seems antiquated (see the video, above). Bolt-action combat rifles were already obsolete by WWII and quickly replaced by almost all countries in the subsequent two decades, and for good reason! As one author described from his experience shooting a scout-rifle match with a bolt action:

But even with expert guidance from our Gunsite instructors, Il Ling New, Mario Marchman and Gary Smith, the compounding learning curve during three days of training in 108° F high desert heat began to take its toll and showed in bolts that were sometimes inadvertently short-stroked or not fully closed, which resulted in misfires and missed shots. And since we were shooting for score at paper targets from 25 to 200 yards, from standing, kneeling, sitting and prone, all that movement did nothing to improve our concentration on the targets or our shot placement.

I also thought that some of the other criteria (as I understood them at the time) were too rigid. So I had put the scout rifle concept behind me.

    But earlier this year, I walked into a gun store and noticed hanging on a wall a Springfield Armory M1A SOCOM rifle which sports a 16.25 inch barrel. I was impressed with its compactness, but not its nearly $2,000 price. I've since been considering that a light-weight "do-it-all" semi-auto rifle would be nice in the prepping/survival setting with the added benefit that I could use it for hunting. 

    Why a do-all rifle? In one of my early blog posts I discussed the advantages of a small battery of firearms over a large, extensive collection. In that article, I quoted a passage from the book High Country Hunting by Lloyd Bare where he also discussed the simplicity to having a small collection of hunting weapons. Bare noted the amazement and disapproval he generally encountered when other hunters learned that he used a .300 Winchester Magnum BAR for all of his big game hunting, be it deer, sheep, elk or bear. He explained:

In my gun cabinet you'll find one big game rifle (the BAR), one .22, one varmint rifle and one shotgun. In other words, I'm a hunter not a “gun nut” and I say that with kindest regards to gun experts and aficionados. Some of my best friends own a closet full of guns, one for every purpose. 

(High Country Hunting, p. 208). This has merit for the prepper, especially one with tight finances or who anticipates having to "bug out." 

    I have now returned to Cooper's scout rifle concept, not because I intend on using an obsolete rifle action, but because his idea of a military scout's rifle has some merit: particularly his weight and size requirements. Although the size of the M1A SOCOM was appealing, it is out of the picture not just because of its price but also because of its weight: over 9 lbs. While a Browning BAR hunting rifle with a synthetic stock would meet most of the requirements, the .308 version only holds 4-rounds in the magazine which seemed too little for a rifle that might be pressed into combat. I also didn't want to spend $1,600 for that rifle, either.

    I have handled and shot most of the popular .308 battle rifles, but the weight of rifles like the HK91, CETME, and FAL similarly take them out of the running. And, because of the heavy steel receivers and reciprocating mass, there is little that can be done to significantly reduce their weight.

    That left an AR-10/AR 308 style rifle. Like the AR-15 pattern, the AR 308 is almost endlessly customizable. You can find barrels of almost any length you could need, and in different weights and profiles. Magazines my not be as cheap as those for the HK91/CETME, but neither are they as expensive as for the FAL or M1A. And they are easy to find. Having assembled a couple of AR15s, I know that I could easily maintain or repair the weapon. And, most important, it is possible to build them lightweight: I saw articles and forum posts boasting of AR 308 rifles that weighed in at 5.5 lbs. or less. 

    But the real challenge is keeping the costs down. There are many receivers and other parts available to help you save weight, but they cost. For instance, a lightweight BCG typically runs nearly $500 dollars. So I had to find relatively inexpensive options that would still give me the weight savings I wanted. There was no way I could build a sub-six pound rifle without using expensive parts made of titanium, magnesium, or other expensive options, but with careful research, I think I came up with a list of parts that will get me to 6.5 lbs. (sans scope or sling) without breaking the bank. This is the same weight as the Ruger Scout Rifle pictured at the top of this post. Over the next 6 months, depending on money and availability, I hope to collect the parts that I need and assemble my AR 308 "Scout Rifle". 


  1. Good one Mark. Thanks for posting it. Now are waiting for a similar feature on the original scout rifle the lever action carbine! These days I suppose it could be called the "Poor Man's Scout Rifle" as, after 150 years of almost continuous production, they are abundant, relatively cheap, and can already be found in many people's households. Additionally, they are unencumbered by restrictive gun laws in certain states, and can be safely toted around while traveling across borders. I'm talking 1892, 1894, 336 and the like. Especially in .30-30 and in pistol calibers like .45 Colt, .357 and .44 mag. With the latter chamberings, it opens a whole other dimension of pairing up a revolver and lever gun in the same caliber. Back in the Old West, this was the original "scout rifle" and those folks discovered the concept long before Cooper was even born!

    1. Thank you! I agree. If the Scout Rifle doesn't require a 10-round magazine, but a 4 or 5 round magazine is acceptable, the .30-30--especially if loaded using the Hornady FTX (flex-tip) bullet--would be a good candidate. I don't know about you, but is far easier for me to work the lever on a lever-action without removing it from my shoulder than the bolt on a bolt-action. And I do like the pairing of the lever action pistol caliber carbines with a handgun. With a 16 to 18 inch barrel, you give up a couple-few rounds, but 7 or 8+1 still beats a revolver and most bolt actions. (Actually, it is sort of funny that you raised this, because I was watching "For a Few Dollars More" a couple days ago, and shook my head at the script having the main characters stick with their SAA revolvers when there were lever actions with higher magazine capacities hanging on the walls and stacked in corners).


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