Much has been written about Jeff Cooper’s scout rifle concept. Although no one can speak more authoritatively on the subject than the late Cooper himself, I have become a student of the concept. Unfortunately, many writers have missed the spirit of the scout rifle concept using traits such as lightweight, .308 chambering, and overall length as mandates versus guidelines.
A point often missed was Cooper’s more important requirement of shooter capabilities… After all, if you cannot hit the target, it matters little how good the equipment is.
“The natural habitat of the general-purpose rifle is the field, the forest, the desert, and the mountain -– not the shooting shed with its bench rest. To be really useful, a rifle must be as short, light, and quick to use as is technically compatible with adequate power and useful accuracy. What matters is not what the equipment can do, but rather what it will do in the hands of its operator under field, rather than laboratory conditions.” ~ Jeff Cooper
Some of the more relevant Cooper’esk scout rifle discussions have been around caliber selection. Generally, everyone focuses on the .308 Winchester chambering. Interestingly enough, Cooper played around with a large number of other calibers while working with Steyr. The Cooper-influenced Steyr bolt-action Scout rifle was offered in .223/5.56, .243, 7mm-08, .376 Steyr, and obviously .308/7.62×51 NATO.
The rifle weighed in at only 6.6 pounds without an optic, and only 38.6 inches in length. By today’s standards, it still had several forward thinking features such as spare mag in the buttstock, forward mounted optic, and integrated bipod… However, it was (and still is) priced at about $2,000 today — if you can find one. Generally, the .308 is the hardest model to find.
Cooper widely recommended the .308 Winchester simply because it is effective on most manner of beast to 400 yards. It was, and still is, readily available — even in the more remote areas around the world.
Cooper first developed his scout rifle concept after looking at the very long-lived success of the Winchester ’94 in .30-30 caliber, and its effective use on a wide range of hunting and defensive targets out to 200 yards for well over 100 years. The .30-30 is, by today’s standards, considered to be a medium-weight round.
At around 800 foot-pounds of energy at 200 yards, it rivals the standard Russian 7.62×39 AK round (technically the AK round is more powerful). The .308 is clearly more powerful at distance. However, even at 200 yards, the .30-30 and 7.62×39 are both pretty deadly rounds, even for whitetail and hog hunting. I decided to expand my test a bit with this in mind.
Variants of the Cooper Scout Rifle
To test my theories about the idea of a scout rifle concept, and my ability to shoot them, I picked up two of Ruger’s newest .308 bolt actions and a Mini-30 to assemble three variations; a “quintessential” scout rifle, an even lighter weight more affordable compact alternative, and the battle proven Mini-30 design with a bit more punch than the venerable .30-30.
Ruger Gunsite – The Gunsite was specifically designed around Cooper’s concept of a scout rifle by some of his closest friends at Gunsite. It matches up well to his original guidelines. Fortunately, I have the new all-stainless version sporting a longer 18-inch barrel to test. The rifle is a brute at 7.3 pounds without an optic and feels like your typical over-engineered Ruger that could take everything you could throw at it.
With this stainless version, the action is about as corrosion resistant as it comes. I topped this rifle with Hi-Lux/Leatherwood long-eye relief variable power 2–7 Scout Rifle scope — exactly where Cooper intended… way out in front of the bolt. As equipped, this rifle matches almost perfectly to Cooper’s specs, so I was looking forward to seeing whether I could deliver from a shooter perspective.
Ruger American Compact .308 – The 6-pound Ruger American with detachable rotary magazine has never been noted as a “scout rifle.” However, with the right optic, I wanted to prove that it could be an effective alternative to Ruger’s other namesake design. The Ruger American tested is the Compact version. The barrel length drops from 22 to 18 inches and shortens the length of pull by 1.25 inches to deliver a compact, ultra-light scout rifle variation. It is about 3 inches shorter and 1.1 pounds lighter than Ruger’s Scout Rifle. It is probably the lightest .308 in production. Considering the affordable street price of the Ruger American, it may be one of the least expensive options as well.
To keep the weight down and deliver the “both eyes open” shooting capabilities noted by Cooper, I opted for something unusual on a .308 bolt action, a Nikon 1–4X P-223 AR optic. On 1X, it delivers the defensive CQB distance engagement Cooper noted. On 4X, it allows some precision at distance.
Ruger Mini-30 – At first glance, aside from the 7.62×39 chambering and forward-mounted optic, the Mini-30 is the semi-auto version of the Gunsite scout rifle — brutally tough and infallibly dependable. The $799 street priced Mini-30 tested was a simple, blued, 16-inch barreled version that included about the same accessories as the Scout. It comes complete with a birdcage flash hider, virtually the same iron sights, two 20-round magazines, 1-inch scope mounts, and a weaver scope mount rail. This rifle shared the same Nikon 1-4x P-223 optic with the American.
Some writers inaccurately note a precision accuracy requirement for a scout rifle. This was not true, as Cooper’s definition was a rifle and shooter capable of field accurate 4-inch groups at 200 yards. This is not particularly accurate for today’s modern factory rifles from the bench. However, delivering that accuracy in the field under less than optimal situations is a bit harder. From the specs, any of these rifles should be capable of this accuracy, but let’s see if I am.
Testing the Concept
I set up four tests, varying the shooting positions and respective distances — standing – 50 yards, kneeling – 75 yards, sitting – 100 yards, supported prone 200 and 400 yards. Standing, kneeling, and sitting positions were stabilized via a national match-style sling. The 200 and 400-yard supported prone position was shot with the rifle supported over my pack.
The idea was simple to hit a large 4-inch can of corn at each distance out to the 200-yard line, and then be able to ring the 400-yard 12-inch gong — and do it at a brisk pace. Hit a can of corn with a .308 or 7.62×39 Hornady Z-Max round and you know it… “Corn! It’s what’s for dinner in a 20-yard radius.” That day, the deer at the range were well fed.
In most cases, this pace meant that if I hit each shot of the entire five shot string, the entire test would be over in around 30-40 seconds with a rather joyous spray of corn everywhere. This was also a no-excuses test repeated three times. If I screwed up, flinched, or didn’t concentrate on the fundamentals of the shot, then it reflected in my performance.
Ruger Gunsite – The Ruger Gunsite delivered a near perfect performance. Running the four corn-can gauntlet three times with the Scout delivered only one miss on the 200-yard line can. However, this was more my fault than the Scout’s. My first run was at 32 seconds, the second at 29, and the third, I got cocky and missed the 200-yard can. That cost me with a 44 second time.
Ruger American Compact .308 – With the American, things were not so easy the first round. Part of this was that the 1-pound lighter gun and shorter (read that as 1-inch too short for me) may be lighter to carry, but it is harder to stabilize offhand. It also packs a brutal recoil on multiple shots.
After the first very brutal round, I added a slip-on LimbSaver over the existing buttpad. The American was suddenly transformed into something I wanted to shoot. The result? Attempt one at the 50 and 200-yard lines required second shots. However, once the extra pad was on, I nailed every shot on the next two runs, save another miss on the 200-yard line. My first time was just under 60 seconds, one under 45, and the perfect last run timed in at 35 seconds.
Ruger Mini-30 – The Mini-30’s performance shocked and stunned me. The Mini-30 was the clear stopwatch winner. This was true, even though I had to send a couple extra rounds downrange on the 200-yard target for two runs and one extra shot on the 100-yard can on what would have otherwise been a perfect run. With all the extra bullets downrange, two of the runs were under 30 seconds, and one was under 40. It required the highest round count but delivered the best times.
Oddly enough, the 400-yard 12-inch gong was by far the easiest target off all to hit. It was the 200-yard corn can that gave me the most issues with all guns.
This exercise will certainly get your heart rate up as something a bit more entertaining than a formal PRS event. It will show ALL your horrible flaws in less than three 1-minute sessions. Cheap training is grabbing your trusty .22 LR and connecting with 25–100-yard spinner targets.
I also proved that an affordably priced Ruger American rifle can make a pretty decent scout rifle with just a fat buttpad, and the right low-powered optic attached. It delivered performance almost as good as its higher priced big brother. I also proved to myself that although you may be limiting yourself from a longer range power perspective, the Mini-30 is one surprisingly accurate scout rifle with a decently powerful cheap-to-feed cartridge.
Get off the bench, I double dog dare you. Your abilities change considerably once you add a timer and force yourself to transition between each of these shooting positions…. Now, go buy some cheap canned corn and create your own perfect scout rifle.