Despite decades of evolution that led us to the useful all-around sporting rifles that most of us are familiar with, the recent trend of the rifle industry is to push rifles in two distinct directions.
At one extreme are the heavy rifles brought on by the long-range craze with thick barrels, sniper-style stocks, and giant optics with protruding dials. At the other extreme are the lightweight mountain rifles that are an extension of the “lighter is better” attitude of high country backpackers.
Modern materials and innovative construction methods have allowed makers to build rifles lighter than anyone thought possible. While they began as specialized custom tools for sheep and goat hunters, these flyweights have been embraced by many mainstream hunters and are now available as production models.
We tested four of the most innovative premium mountain rifles on the market to determine how they stack up without the marketing hype. Scales and targets don’t lie, and neither do we.
This test was designed to be as practical and as objective as possible. The only variables here are the shooter and the ammunition as everything else in the test was identical, including optics. We shot the rifles from the bench and from practical field positions and tabulated the results.
Proof Research Summit
Proof Research has quickly developed a reputation for quality and precision, and the Summit is a solid example. Built around a Defiance action with Proof’s carbon-fiber-wrapped steel barrel and lightweight synthetic stock, this rifle has the solid handling characteristics of a rifle twice its weight.
Due to tight tolerances and careful finishing, working the bolt on this rifle was as smooth as glass, and the trigger broke with zero creep.
Accuracy was simply fantastic, but the rifle did have the advantage of using premium match ammo and was a solid pound heavier than any other rifle in our test, but this is one of the most impressive rifles that I’ve tested in a long time. If it’s within your budget, you won’t be sorry that you wrote the check. Score 24 / MSRP • $5,840
Christensen Arms Classic Carbon
Christensen Arms uses a 17-4 stainless-steel 700-style receiver with a fluted and nitrided bolt and integral Picatinny rails for secure scope mounting.
Carbon fiber is incorporated into the barrel, stock, and detachable box magazine, which helps keep the rifle’s overall mass down to a minimum.
As with the Proof, the materials used to cut weight allow the rifle to achieve its weight goals without compromising its handling qualities. The Timney trigger broke cleanly and consistently and can be adjusted if its owner is looking for a lighter pull. The removable brake and Limbsaver pad cut the already-manageable .270 recoil down to nothing. Score 21.5 / MSRP • $2,795 ($2,990 with titanium brake)
MG Arms Ultra-Light
MG Arms is known for producing some of the lightest rifles around using synthetic stocks, pencil-thin barrels, and Remington actions milled extensively to reduce excess steel.
However, we encountered a mechanical issue during our testing that prevented the rifle from cocking unless fully drawn to the rear. To note, this was an issue with this particular test rifle and not something we have experienced on other MG Arms rifles.
This issue aside, the trigger pull itself was excellent. Aesthetically, fit and finish was not up to par with the other custom offerings we tested.
Accuracy-wise, this gun showed signs of greatness with a group measuring .58 inch, but the light barrel and overall mass made the gun tricky to shoot from the bench. During our field course, empty cases bouncing back into the ejection port cost the gun precious time. Score 20.5 / MSRP • $3,795
The Kimber 84L Mountain Ascent
is the only real “factory” rifle in our lineup and is, by far, the least expensive. The gun is super-light without sacrificing barrel length.
The fit and finish are good, and the three-position safety and full-length extractor are nice touches for a hunting rifle. The removable brake made recoil a non-issue, and the straight stock design was very comfortable.
The gun handled well on our field course, but benchrest accuracy was so-so. The gun would put two shots into a dime-sized pair and then throw the third round an inch or so out of the group.
Bear in mind that we tried only one factory load. I’m sure we could do better with a different load and lightening the adjustable factory trigger as Kimber guarantees its rifles to shoot MOA. Score 20 / MSRP • $2,040
We evaluated five attributes (weight, accuracy, trigger pull, ergonomics, and field performance) of each model and recorded the results.
Though this is the most objective of our test criteria, it is also the most up for debate among hunters. Not everyone loves a featherweight rifle, and some see overly light rifles as a liability rather than an asset.
How weight enters into the equation is an individual decision that only you can make when considering a purchase. The Kimber was the lightest rifle we tested, and the MG Arms ran a close second. The Proof and Christensen Arms guns were basically a pound heavier.
The weight of each rifle’s trigger was tested using a Lyman Electronic Digital Trigger Pull Gauge. Each trigger was tested three times with the results averaged. Shot-to-shot variations were noted.
All of the test guns had great triggers, but the Proof’s trigger was fantastic and received a full 5 points. At the other end of the spectrum was the Kimber’s trigger, which broke cleanly but was the heaviest by a good margin. However, Kimber’s triggers are fully adjustable.
Ergonomics/Fit and Finish
In this “catchall” category we evaluated the attention to detail shown by the rifle’s manufacturer as well as the handling characteristics and non-accuracy performance of each model.
The Proof ruled this category with no flaws visible to my highly critical eye and evidence of excellent quality control throughout the rifle’s construction. The Christensen Arms rifle was obviously built with careful attention, and it handled very well.
Each rifle was fired from a steady benchrest to determine the mechanical accuracy potential. Three, three-shot groups at 100 yards were averaged to come up with a score.
We had hoped to use a single load for each of the rifles in our test, but could not obtain four rifles in the same chambering in time for our tests due to the custom nature of some of our samples.
The Proof Summit was obscenely accurate with two out of three groups barely breaking the ¼ MOA mark. The Kimber and MG Arms showed signs of barrel heat affecting their accuracy. The carbon barrels of the Christensen Arms and Proof did a better job in this category, with the Proof appearing to be the better of the two.
Accuracy is great from the bench but few benches exist on wind-blown mountainsides. In order to evaluate the practical accuracy or “shootability” of these rifles, we devised a timed shooting course that replicates the types of shots you might encounter in the field.
Using a shot timer to keep score, each rifle was fired from three positions: standing using sticks (100-yard target), sitting (200-yard target), and prone over a pack (250-yard target). Steel targets were used.
The score was the total time it took to engage all three targets. This was clearly the most subjective of the tests, but to eliminate as much human error as possible, each rifle was put through the test two times and the scores averaged.