Col. Jeff Cooper did not invent the Scout rifle. He did define it in words. He did shape a quintessential vision of it in his mind. And he did inspire Steyr-Mannlicher to produce the vision in polymer and steel. That makes it his. The names Jeff Cooper and Scout Rifle will forever be linked in firearms history.
Cooper traced the direct ancestors of his Scout back to the Winchester ‘94 carbine so prevalent in the American West and the full-stocked Mannlicher-Schoenauer carbine which was the classic light rifle in Europe and Africa for so many years. “… they were both short, light, handy, and friendly,” said Cooper. “… they were superb for the individual sportsman or explorer faring far afield and depending on the ‘one shot – one kill’ principle if it could be had in the neatest possible package.”
This idea of a neat general-purpose rifle fit precisely the idea of the trained military scout which Cooper had carried around in his mind since his high school days, when his R.O.T.C. manual had stated, “The scout is a man trained in ground and cover, movement from cover to cover, rifle marksmanship, map reading, observation, and accurately reporting the results of his observation.” If you replace “reporting” with “acting upon,” that’s a good definition of a hunter.
The Steyr Scout’s no-nonsense ultramodern looks, combined with Jeff Cooper’s well known combat background and his insistence that the general-purpose concept of the Scout is best fulfilled with a 30-caliber military cartridge, have misled many shooters in their perception of the gun’s true purpose. The Scout is, first and foremost,not a military weapon but a hunting rifle.
In the hands of a lone hunter, scout, sportsman or explorer, the Scout functions superbly for survival, defense, sniping and bringing down game. It is not an assault rifle by any definition and was never intended to be anything of the kind. It is not overly specialized, nor is it some mediocre compromise. A lightweight general-purpose rifle is an admirable end of its own, a simple idea which seems difficult for some modern shooters to understand. Thus you have quasi-military gunwriters paying lip service to the Scout concept while bemoaning under their breath that it’s not a select-fire .223 or a 7.62x39 with a 40-round magazine, while traditional big-game hunters sniff at the .308 as appropriate only for small game and large varmints.
In Cooper’s words, he “revived” the term “Scout Rifle” in 1968 when he acquired a 6½-pound Remington 600 chambered in .308. He removed the rifle’s plastic rib and front bead sight, replacing that arrangement with a rear ghost-ring and square-notch front post. This was the first Cooper Scout Rifle, a prototype of things to come. His 17-year-old daughter Parry went on to win two open-rifle competitions with the little gun.
The first thing people usually notice about the Scout is the scope which is unconventionally located halfway down the barrel of the rifle, though this is not the first thing Cooper thought of when he was figuring out the requirements for his Scout. Only when Bushnell introduced a low-powered long-eye-relief scope did Cooper consider replacing the aperture sighting system that had worked so well on the Remington. He eventually figured out a satisfactory mounting arrangement for the scope, and continued to experiment with Scout-like configurations on other rifles. One of his favorites was built on a Sako action with a custom barrel equipped with an integral pedestal scope mount and a fiberglass stock. Cooper had a habit of bestowing pet names on many of his rifles, and the Sako Scout No. 2 he called “Sweetheart.”
Cooper said the Scout-type low-power, long-eye-relief, low-mounted scope was “the fastest ever to appear at Gunsite, and it loses nothing in precision when used for careful shots at long range.” I have heard some armchair shooters complain that the Scout scope has a narrow field of view. They just don’t get it. Used properly, as any scope is supposed to be used -– with both eyes open and focused on the target –- the Scout scope provides virtually the same unobstructed field-of-view as open or aperture sights. This is the whole idea behind the low-power forward-mounted scope and its greatest advantage in the hunting field.
The scope on the Steyr is a very compact 2½-power Leupold. Hard to take for those American hunters who regard as a key symbol of status a big variable-power scope capable of focusing on the glaring eyeball of a Cape buffalo two hundred yards in the distance, which is where they hope the animal stays while they shoot it like a whitetail deer. Easier to understand by traditional African hunters many of whom have been trained to look through open express sights over a couple of half-inch bores at man-killing animals ten yards away and closing fast.
It doesn’t take more than a few minutes of actual use to appreciate the benefits the Scout scope provides. It obscures very little of the shooter’s vision, offering the speed of a shotgun with immediate acquisition and both eyes open. The placement of the scope removes any temptation to close an eye or squint. Magnification of twice the size which is more than enough for an animal you can already see with your naked eye. Out-of-the-way mounting, making possible instantaneous eyes-off loading from the top and allowing the rifle to be grasped at the balance point during running, jumping and violent activity. A Scout scope offers most of the benefits of open sights with more clarity and easier focus, most of the benefits of a conventional scope with almost none of the usual optically induced problems.
However, a Scout scope does not a Scout rifle make.
Cooper being Cooper, the testing ground for his Scouts was the world and his methods were thorough. “I took them hunting worldwide from Norway to Africa and from Colombia to Alaska. Some, of course, worked better than others.” Along the way he established the ideal weight of the Scout at seven pounds, ideal length one meter, ideal general-purpose caliber the .308 (“only because a 30-06 would not fit into the short action”), a short action being another Scout requirement.
When the chief of design for Steyr-Mannlicher attended some rifle classes at Gunsite, for which Cooper loaned him one of his Scouts and with which the experienced Austrian hunter was duly impressed, the stage was at last set for a production Scout rifle. The Steyr Scout was introduced to the public in 1998.
Cooper wrote in a recent note to me, “The Steyr Scout is not quite perfect, but it is close, and it is a great pleasure to take afield. I am not in shape to do that anymore, but I certainly enjoy watching other people do so.” This I interpreted as an engraved invitation to drive down to Gunsite for some Scout-shooting and I promptly accepted.
Cooper’s private range at Gunsite is a great place to shoot and also serves as a private racecourse for his big hopped-up “tricycle” which he uses to get around the ranch because of recurring back problems. He is one of the few men in the world who is officially qualified to shoot .45s off horseback, and this day he demonstrated that he is also qualified to shoot .308s off ATVs.
While Cooper’s Scout requirements of a short action and seven-pound weight pretty much precludes anything bigger than a .308, Steyr also made the original Scout available in a ¾-pound heavier version chambered for the proprietary .376 Steyr, which Cooper refers to not as a Scout but as the “Dragoon.” We were equipped with both, and we blasted away at paper and steel until both rifles, total strangers to me, settled into a warm and cozy relationship. This took surprisingly little time, a testament to the gun’s handling and shooting qualities.
The seven-pound .308 and the seven-and-three-quarter-pound .376, both with 19-inch barrels, handled very much the same, which was handy indeed. The recoil of the .376 was a little more exhilarating and I found it quite pleasant. I’ve never been much of a 30-caliber fan, as I seldom hunt soft-skinned bipeds weighing 150-200 pounds which is the only game any 30-caliber rifle seems to excel at, and I liked the .376 quite a lot better. The fact is, in every way save universal ammo availability, the .376 Steyr is a far more useful “general purpose” African round than the little .308 ever could be. Universal ammo availability, however, is at the heart of Cooper’s argument for the .308. It’s a strong argument, but it only goes so far. It’s certainly true that a general-purpose rifle must be fed, and that you’re more likely to find NATO military ammo than exotic hunting ammo in most out-of-the-way places. However, you could probably find a handful of .223 rounds in your grandmother’s purse if you could find anything in there at all, but you certainly wouldn’t take it out in the hunting field. Not if you were hunting anything you would care to eat.
Cooper, naturally, sees the whole thing from a different angle, as is clear from his response to my question about the virtues of the .376 as a plains-game rifle. “As you know, I consider the .308 to be a general-purpose cartridge, and the .376 to be somewhat specialized. The latter is practically perfect for the bushveldt, which is not exactly ‘plains hunting,’ but it will do well for that too. ‘Plains game’ is one of those terms that got off to a bad start and is now often used even by those close to the problem to denote anything short of buffalo, whether taken on the plains or in the bush. Today the elephant is pretty well out-of-reach, as is the white rhino. The black rhino is totally forbidden, except to the more influential wabenzi. The hippo is not considered to be a game animal, though I think under the right circumstances he could be as sporting as anyone could wish. That leaves the buffalo, so an African rifle is basically a buffalo gun. I think a buffalo gun should be a heavy (Cooper’s buffalo gun is a custom-built 460 G&A), but certainly you can take a buffalo properly with any serious caliber, if you use the right bullet and place it right. Thus the .376 is, in my opinion, somewhat over specialized, but I am not going to make an issue of that.”
In fact, Cooper’s original thinking about the Scout included a second version which was variously referred to as the “Super Scout” and the “Lion Scout,” and which Cooper envisioned chambered in .350 Remington Magnum, an excellent if underappreciated cartridge which approaches the .376 Steyr in performance. The ballistics of the .350 Remington Magnum are clearly superior to both the .308 and 30-06 and are virtually identical to those of the illustrious .35 Whelen, the particular virtue of the .350 being the fact that its short, fat, belted-magnum case can be used in short-action rifles. There is a political problem with a .358 bullet, however, as several African countries specify .375 as the minimum bullet diameter for dangerous game.
The .376 Steyr is essentially a shortened and blown out 9.3x64mm Brenneke. It accepts bullets which are standard in the .375 Holland & Holland Magnum, the indisputable paragon of one-gun African hunting. The .376 Steyr is, if you will, a .375 H&H short. Hornady loads the cartridge, which has no need for a belted case.
If the .376 Steyr is not quite an African buffalo gun, and if American elk, bear and moose hunters for whom the .376 Steyr is ideal aren’t buying enough of them to make Steyr happy, then hunters of large thin-skinned African game from Lion to Kudu surely are. The cartridge is very well suited to most African game –- “whether taken,” as Cooper says, “on the plains or in the bush” -– and the cartridge is justifiably respected there and is the engine in quite a few custom rifles.
Old Africa watchers tell me that certain gun-savvy hunters in that vast open-air ballistics lab long ago developed the practice of downloading the ubiquitous .375 Holland & Holland because slightly lower-velocity loads with 300-grain bullets gave better terminal performance on everything they shot with it, which was and is everything shootable in Africa. At certain velocity threshholds a lower velocity produces greater penetration, which is also why some Professional Hunters still prefer the 9.3x62mm Mauser (.365”-diameter bullet), the most widely used medium-bore throughout Africa until it was finally nudged out of first place by the .375 H&H, and whose ballistics are virtually identical to those of the .376 Steyr. Many of those same hunters are now duplicating the performance of the downloaded .375 H&H with 300-grain handloads in the .376 Steyr for use in the Scout Rifle, a much handier proposition than the heavy magnum-length action required for the .375 Holland. Alas, the excellent .376 Steyr no longer appears in the Steyr-Mannlicher catalog, and we must wonder about its future.
Discussions of what caliber constitutes a general-purpose rifle aside, the objective of same is far easier to define. As Cooper says, “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.”
I’ve long been a fan of the Scout’s honorable ancestors, the Winchester ‘94 and the Mannlicher carbine, but I could never have fully appreciated the Steyr Scout had I not spent an afternoon putting it through its paces. After that range session with Cooper, I was left wondering why the gun is not one of the top sellers in its rather elevated price class. Cooper says, “I guess the reason that the Steyr Scout is not more fully appreciated is that very few gun buyers or gun writers are gun shooters. The many advantages of the Scout are only apparent to people who use the piece afield, and most customers would rather sit around and talk.”
It doesn’t take long to decide how friendly and shootable a rifle is, and the Steyr Scout is definitely both. It comes up fast, on target, feels steady and balanced in your hands and handles recoil well. Steel targets at 100 - 200 yards were easily dispatched offhand. At 300 yards it helped to have the branch of a nearby Juniper tree to lean on. On the first guns out of the factory, including Cooper’s, the factory setting of the very fine Steyr adjustable trigger was 24-26 ounces, an ideal weight. Ham-handed lawyers got involved in later production, as is their rude habit, and you now have to take your Scout to a gunsmith to have its excellent trigger pull restored. Bolt throw is short, quick and smooth. I shot first, pumping the five-round magazine dry as fast as I could into the steel silhouette 100 yards downrange. Afterwards, it looked like the colonel was smiling approvingly at me. But, when I thought about it, I decided it more likely that he was grimacing in pain, as his back was bothering him that day.
The length of pull on the Steyr Scout can be adjusted from 12.68 to 16 inches by adding or subtracting buttstock spacers. With two buttstock spacers, the overall length is 39.57 inches. The weight, empty, with two five-round magazines and mounted scope, is 6.93 pounds. The barrel is hammer-forged, fluted, free-floated and 19 inches long. The receiver is made from a 6061 T6 aluminum alloy extrusion and has been black hard-anodized. The integral Picatinny scope rail accommodates mounting of the long-eye-relief Leupold Scout Scope. Emergency iron sights are included, with a flip-up ghost-ring rear sight adjustable for elevation and a spring-loaded front-sight post adjustable for windage. The action has four front locking lugs, and the lift of the classic Mannlicher-Schoenauer butterknife bolt handle is 70 degrees. The stock is Zytel and has an integral folding bipod and a rail on the underside of the forearm to attach accessories. The underside of the stock's butt end contains a compartment for storage of a spare five-round magazine. The detachable staggered-column box magazines feature a double-detent and are also available in 10-round capacity. Three-point flush-mounted sling sockets are provided.
Other Voices, Other Scouts
Jeff Cooper’s vision of the general-purpose Scout Rifle has inspired manufacturers other than Steyr as well as a host of custom makers to develop rifles which partake to greater or lesser degrees of the Scout concept and which may or may not meet Cooper’s uncompromising definition of what a Scout rifle must be.
One man’s general-purpose rifle may not be quite the same as someone else’s, depending on where he lives and hunts, how competent he is with firearms, what game is of principal interest to him and other factors which define what his general purpose is.
For instance, to say that any 30-caliber is a good general-purpose round in Africa, where the universally acknowledged general-purpose round is quite specifically the .375 Holland & Holland Magnum, strains credibility. Same in Alaska and parts of Asia. I know plenty of big-game hunters in the American West who regard the .308, 30-06 and .300 Winchester Magnum as varmint rounds. Their idea of a general-purpose rifle begins at 35-caliber and goes up from there.
Likewise, there is nothing magic about the seven-pound weight limit. Quite a few frequent hunters of my acquaintance do not find an extra pound or two any particular burden, and prefer a heavier rifle in a heavier caliber for all of their shooting. Nor do they find the slightly longer bolt throw of a standard or magnum-length action any great difficulty. At the same time, certain qualifying characteristics of the Scout, such as a short barrel and a fast sighting system, may be desirable features on almost any rifle, general-purpose or otherwise. On the other hand, it is easy enough to work within Cooper’s stated parameters in a custom or semi-custom rifle and to do so at no more cost, and perhaps significantly less cost, than the Steyr implementation.
The Scout concept is a brilliant one, developed by a gifted and accomplished man with a lifetime of relevant experience. In its purest form -– the Steyr Scout –- it is a unique rifle offering a high level of effectiveness and a satisfying shooting experience that can be appreciated by anyone who could possibly be called a rifleman. As is true of any concept of such strength and purity, its lasting importance is to be found, not in any particular realization of the concept, but in its broader influence on rifle design and shooting in general.