Is the scout rifle still relevant?
Jeff Cooper was an interesting guy. A USMC Lieutenant Colonel that served in both World War II and Korea, he also worked as a history teacher, founded a shooting school (Gunsite), and wrote for a number of gun magazines. He had a lot of ideas that started things most shooters are familiar with. I consider his top five; Cooper’s color code system for situational awareness (condition white through red), ISPC/USPSA (he was the first ISPC president), the modern pistol technique (weaver stance, flash sight picture, double tap), the Bren Ten (Miami Vice call your office), and the scout rifle.
Cooper was writing in the time before the internet, when print media reigned supreme. Back then the gun rags weren’t nearly as biased as they are now and while the omnipresent need for more advertising dollars was detectable, it wasn’t at the level it is today. It was a one-way discussion, from the writer to the reader. The format didn’t encourage feedback and the writers back then were extremely influential in shaping the perceptions of the shooter’s and shooting industry (look at NSSF data and you’ll see this has changed considerably). In my opinion, it encouraged dogmatic doctrine, some of which was good, some of which was bad.
Cooper’s “good” ideas may seem “great” at first, but many either don’t work in practice (the Bren Ten which almost put Norma out of business until Colt saved them) or transformed into something completely different than originally intended (IPSC is now a track and field event). His color coded system for situational awareness has been adopted by the USMC as part of the Combat Hunter Program and is held in high regard while his pistol technique is obsolete but paved the way for current practices.
So that’s where we are today. The color code is alive and well and in use by the USMC, the Bren Ten is dead despite intermittent attempts to revive it, IPSC lives as a track and field event, and no one under 40 years old shoots the weaver stance. So what’s going on with the scout rifle?
What is a scout rifle?
The scout rifle has the following characteristics:
- Caliber: 308 Winchester or 7-08 Remington in places where 308 is forbidden
- Trigger: 3 pounds
- Weight: 3.5kg (7.7 pounds)
- Length: 1 meter or less (39 inches or less)
- Optics: forward mounted low power scope to allow a large field of view and allow use of stripper clips
- Reserve sights: ghost ring iron sights
- Magazine: a magazine system that protects soft point projectiles and allows for some sort of disconnect to allow topping off
- Sling: Ching sling
- Accuracy: 2MOA or less at 200 Yards (4.19″)
Since Cooper wrote about the concept for years until his death in 2006, it is a hard list to get absolute consensus on. Often a rifle that falls short on the list is known as a pseudo scout.
If you are really into scout rifles you can attend training and conferences about them at the Gunsite training academy. Plus a few manufacturers offer scout rifles, while both Burris and Leupold offer intermediate eye relief scopes with five different models between the two manufacturers.
A personal history
I’ve been interested in Jeff Cooper’s scout rifle concept since I was teenager thumbing though gun magazines. I remember I wasn’t quite sure what a gun capable of shooting two minutes was, but eventually figured it out (this was pre-internet kids, you couldn’t just Google it).
My personal story with the scout rifle is one of confusion. Part of the scout rifle paradigm seems hopelessly dogmatic, while at the same time parts of it seems absurdly flexible (if I put ghost rings on my Marlin 336 is it a pseudo scout?) At some level it seems cultish, we are looking back and interpreting a pistol expert’s writings about the perfect general purpose rifle, with him no longer able to weigh in on the debate.
To me, the scout rifle is as much about a romantic vision of a lone rifleman surviving a hostile environment as it is about a firearm design. Cooper’s first writings date back to the early 80s (according to Mann, his 1984 article first describing the concept was most likely written sometime in 1983, when I was 7 years old) with a wonder rifle capable of taking 500 pound game with a single hit to the vitals from hasty field shooting positions.
Recently, I started following Richard Mann’s online book the Scout Rifle Study. Richard is an establishment writer who is, in my opinion, the current authority on the scout rifle concept. Richard’s book has sparked my renewed interest in scout rifles.
For purposes of this post, discussion of the scout rifle concept will be truncated, for a detailed discussion about the evolution of the concept, see Richard Mann’s website and book. Richard devotes entire chapters to each one of the characteristics.
Metric or Imperial?
For me, the most puzzling part of scout rifle concept is Cooper’s affinity for limited use metric system. While the rest of us are using phone apps to understand what a kilogram is and are cutting off metric threads to convert them to UNF; Cooper, a guy who always seemed dogmatic, cranky, and inflexible to me (I say that with love), appears to be an early adopter of the metric system. The mix of measurement systems is annoying to this former science major, after all we are looking for a rifle to take down 200 kilogram game with a rifle less than a meter long that had a 3 pound trigger and could hold 2 MOA at 200 yards!
Shooting the scout
Steyr offered the first, and perhaps best factory iteration of the scout rifle. Approved by Cooper himself, it is recognizable by many riflemen around the world. The current version shown below is nearly identical to the original introduced twenty years ago.
Despite being designed in the mid-90s, the Steyr Scout is remarkably modern in appearance. This one is chambered in 308 Winchester and has a Mud brown stock. A loaner from Steyr, that came with some wear but it still seemed capable of holding a minute straight out of the box.
I equipped this scout with a V-TAC sling (my generation’s Ching Sling) and Leupold 1.5-5x33mm VX R Scout Scope. After obtaining a zero and testing for accuracy I decided to run a couple of drills with it.
I grabbed a white IPSC cardboard target and a box of IMI ball ammunition. In the spirit of the scout rifle I started each drill standing at low ready with the muzzle below my belt line and rifle on safe. I recorded my times to hit an IPSC target (I used the entire ISPC as the scoring zone, this exercise was about quick hits in unexpected encounters). Results are shown in the table below:
Moving to kneeling, sitting and prone positions, the Steyr Scout, with its scope set to 1.5x provided equally impressive results. Starting in the standing position, I was able to put two solid hits on a ISPC target at 100 yards in just over 8 seconds (8.12).
Despite dropping to the concrete slab in a set of shorts and chopping up my knees (I was rolling Rhodesian Bush War style) I still managed solid hits in reasonable times. The scout performed quite well.
Limitations of concept
The more I read about the scout rifle, Cooper, the conferences and the intensd following behind it, the more I wonder why no one ever walked into a machine shop with some parts and pile of money. None of this is particularly difficult to accomplish and any skilled machinist could easily give you a rifle that meets these specification. A few makers do offer guns like this, however, it doesn’t seem like this has been done a heck of a lot. Maybe because it hasn’t ever fully caught on?
A lot has changed since Cooper first proposed the idea; the nature of warfare, optics technology, bullet technology, and knowledge of mid-range shooting (what I’ll call the 300-600 yard range) are leaps and bounds ahead of 40 years ago.
I can’t help but think Cooper had a vision of using the scout rifle as a military man. This is one of the largest limitations of the concept.
I can’t think of any scenario where a modern “scout” in the military sense, wouldn’t want a rifle with NVG compatibility, a suppressor and an optic with a BDC capability to accurately place shots. In the military sense of the word, I don’t see a need for a scout rifle as Cooper described. My scout rifle would be this:
Shooting this thing in complete darkness is better than playing Call of Duty. Switch on the PVS-22, slap the throw lever on the Specter-DR and you are in business. If I was worried about the game requirement, I’d switch to a 6.8 SPC upper with bonded bullets. Maybe throw a can on it and roll suppressed. Would I take it bear or moose hunting, no, but for anything else I would.
Find a better rifle for 0-500 yards, anytime, any weather, any time of day. No moonlight, 2AM, no problem. Need to make a 500 yard shot, I got it. But that isn’t the point.
The scout rifle lives
Getting behind the Steyr was a complete blast. I shoot a lot of cool guns often. But hammering away at that ISPC target was more fun than I had in a while. The Steyr Scout is the antithesis of shooting one of my heavy precision rifles. The low magnification meant I wasn’t lost in the scope. The light weight was refreshing. I was rapidly engaging targets from varying positions as a rifleman.
With the exception of dangerous game, I’d take this Steyr Scout hunting any day and anywhere.
In my opinion the scout rifle has no place in modern military use as specified, however, some of its key features certainly do. You’d be hard to find a contemporary combat rifle that didn’t have a low power optic with wide field of view, back up iron sights and a sling that aides in positional shooting. Perhaps the die-hard scout rifle fans can grow a little less dogmatic about the scout rifle and realize that many modern guns are filling a very similar role today.
I wish Cooper had specified a performance standard with his scout rifle concept. For instance, be able to hit a target of a specific size at specific distance in a set amount of time. This would have helped clarify expectations.
Cooper left us with a lot of ideas. Some were great (his color coding system in the USMC Combat Hunter Program is saving lives today) and some weren’t. Regardless of what you think of scout rifles, you can’t argue that it has certainly sparked debate about what a rifle should be and has influenced modern rifle design.
In many ways, the scout rifle is the one gun solution, or better yet, the ultimate truck gun.