Cutting edge technology, innovative German engineering and a strong hunting pedigree. Marcus Janssen is left wondering what's not to like about Blaser.
When I had saved up enough money to buy my first hunting rifle, I asked several professional hunters for their recommendations. Well-known outfitter Coenraad Vermaak was typically forthright in his response: “Choosing a rifle is a matter of personal taste, and of course the options are extensive,” he said. “It's entirely up to you, just as long as it is a Model 70 Winchester, or Mauser 98. Oh, and make sure it's a .30-06.”
I did end up following Coenraad's advice and went for a pre 64 Model 70. And when Coenraad employed me as the manager of one of his hunting camps a few years later, I was issued with a .375 H&H and .458 Win Mag, both pre 64 Model 70s. “They're failsafe,” I was repeatedly told by both professional hunters and clients alike. Indeed, I too grew to love the Model 70, never once experiencing a jam or failure – and the barrel on that .30-06 was almost worn out when I sold it a few years ago.
So when I was invited by Blaser to come and try out their R8 range of hunting rifles at their factory in Germany, I knew I was going to take some convincing. However, a month or so later, on emerging from Blaser's indoor shooting range in Isny, I was well on my way to becoming an avid R8 fan. Everything about this rifle makes sense and it is clear that it was designed by engineers who hunt. German engineers who hunt. Admittedly I did feel a slight pang of guilt as I realised that my steadfast commitment to my American classic had been rattled by a much more modern, sportier German model.
The R8: What's new?
The Blaser bolt action, originally unveiled on their R93 range of rifles in the mid-90s, differs primarily from the classic Mauser and Winchester designs in that it is a straight pull, requiring only two movements of the bolt (straight backward and forward). The obvious advantage is in reloading speed, but the ergonomics and positioning of the bolt handle also mean that reloading without dropping the stock from your shoulder is much easier than it is with a traditional bolt action, thus enabling you to keep sight of your target between shots. Indeed, I was soon flying through .308 Win rounds (four in the magazine and one up the spout) at an obscene rate!
But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
If you are accustomed to a traditional Mauser-style flag safety catch, Blaser's ‘ultimate safety system' will take some getting used to. Unlike conventional bolt actions, when a live round is fed into the chamber and the bolt is locked into place, the R8 is not actually cocked and therefore remains 100 per cent safe. In order to cock the firing pin, the cocking lever – like an oversize shotgun-style safety catch – is pushed forward with your thumb until you feel it click. The rifle is now loaded and ready to fire.
And while there is a live round in the chamber, the bolt remains locked in place. If a shot is then taken, the bolt assembly remains cocked, so that once a fresh round has been fed into the chamber, it is once again ready to fire.
To uncock a loaded rifle, the cocking lever is pushed slightly further forward and then released back to the uncocked or safe position with the bolt remaining locked in place. In order to unlock the bolt so that a live round can be extracted from the breech, the cocking lever must be pushed part-way forward, 3mm to be precise, while simultaneously retracting the bolt handle. This may all sound terribly complicated, but before long it becomes second nature.
But what really makes the R8 an outstanding example of vorsprung durch technik is its modular system. Because the chamber and barrel is a single unit, machined from one solid piece of steel and then honed and cold forged, one rifle will take a range of barrels in different calibres. With the release of just two screws, the barrel can be removed from the stock and, when replaced, zero will not have been affected.
Similarly, Blaser's saddle mounts, which attach the scope directly to the barrel above the chamber, allow the scope to be removed and replaced with absolute certainty that zero will not be affected. The travelling hunter can take one rifle on safari, but have the versatility of several calibres.
The other area in which the R8 differs from conventional bolt actions is the magazine and trigger assembly, which form a single integral unit that can be removed. So, when changing calibres/barrels, not only do you end up with the same stock dimensions and therefore handling, but you also end up with the same trigger mechanism and settings, arguably the single most important and personal element of a rifle setup.
I was taught to shoot by a professional hunter who always maintained that after firing a rifle, you shouldn't be able to describe what the trigger is like because the shot should come before you start to think about it, almost taking you by surprise. This is exactly what the Blaser trigger does: it is crisp, creep free, and each shot comes at the perfect moment when enough positive squeeze has been exerted but, crucially, before you start to focus on the trigger rather than the target.
The first model I tried was the R8 Professional Success in .308 Win. Boasting an ergonomically designed synthetic thumbhole stock and combined with a Zeiss Victory Varipoint 2.5-10x50 iC riflescope, I had no trouble producing five-shot groups of under an inch at 100m from a dead rest in Blaser's indoor range.
Possibly due to its reduced overall length – a result of the integrated trigger and magazine mechanism – and the lightweight synthetic stock, recoil did seem to be more severe than I expect from a .308. Invariably, this will be negligible in a hunting situation – which, of course, this rifle is designed for – but I did wonder what a souped-up .300 Win Mag or, worse still, .300 Weatherby round would feel like with the same, lightweight stock.
However, I then shot with the standard R8, also a .308 Win, but sporting a polished walnut Bavarian-style stock and matte grey action, and I absolutely loved it. Although I enjoyed the comfort and the ergonomic shape of the thumbhole stock, which ensures that your trigger hand is positioned perfectly for both the shot and reload, I preferred the feel and balance of the traditional walnut.
Calibres and options
It goes without saying that the same magazine and bolt head will not be compatible for everything from a .222 Rem to .500 Jeffery. However, that's not to say that each calibre requires a separate magazine insert and bolt head. The R8 comes in 40 different calibres with just four bolt head and magazine inserts, two of which account for all but seven of the 40 calibres.
The first of these two main categories includes most standard, non-magnum calibres from .22-250 to 9.3x62, while the second includes most magnum calibres from .257 Weatherby Mag to .458 Lott.
In other words, with one stock and receiver and two magazines and two bolt heads (which are then inserted into the receiver), you could choose between 30 calibres from .22-250 to .458 Lott. If, however, you do most of your hunting in the UK and therefore have no real need for a magnum calibre, with the same receiver, bolt head and magazine, you could change from .22-250, .243 Win or 6.5x55 SE to a .270 Win, .308 Win or .30-06, covering every UK deer species and every possible circumstance with just one rifle.
Now that's vorsprung durch technik.
Blaser – a hunting company
Blaser is a company with its roots firmly embedded in the hunting field and they remain as focused as ever on producing rifles and shotguns for customers whose primary sporting interests are hunting and game shooting.
In 1963, a keen German hunter by the name of Horst Blaser came up with a very clever design for a light and safe over-under shotgun and rifle combination. The German hunting goods wholesaler, Frankonia, were so impressed with Blaser's ingenuity that they immediately placed an order for 400 rifles.
But Horst didn't have the capacity to produce rifles on such a scale, so many of the main components were initially manufactured in Ferlach in Austria, but soon production started on site in Horst's hometown of Isny, where the company has remained ever since. By 1971 a new factory had been erected and the workforce had increased to 40.
The company was one of the first rifle manufacturers to use CNC machines and by the late 70s substantial improvements had been made to their manufacturing process. Today, because of their modular systems and the requirement of interchangeability of parts, CNC and CAD CAM machining has to be very precise, to within 1µm tolerance. They also have EDM technology, which can cut steel to within 0.01mm.
The company continued to grow at a rapid rate until 1985, when Horst sold to Gerhard Blenk, another very keen hunter, and growth continued under Blenk's leadership as he started to market Blaser overseas.
However, 2000 was a turbulent year for Blaser. Blenk decided to call it a day to concentrate on his own projects and, above all, dedicate more time to hunting. He resigned as MD and sold Blaser to SIG (now known as SIG Holding AG), a Swiss company best known for packaging technology. But within a year, the new CEO of SIG decided to pull out of the sporting arms division altogether and concentrate on the core business of packaging technology.
Therefore the search was on for a buyer and towards the end of the year, the private entrepreneurs and passionate hunters Michael Lüke and Thomas Ortmeier purchased Blaser, the first in what is now a considerable portfolio of sporting arms companies which include Sauer, Hämmerli, Sigarms USA and the newly-founded Swiss Arms Neuhausen (SAN). They recently added the London-based rifle makers Rigby to the list.
Under the umbrella of L & O Hunting Group, all companies have maintained their distinct identities, but in a way that complement one another. Indeed, Blaser, Sauer and Mauser, all known for their bolt action hunting rifles, have the considerable benefit of sharing the same manufacturing plant, enabling them to produce every component in-house (apart from synthetic stocks and a few parts made by partners in the automotive industry). The factory now operates almost 24/7.
Since 2001, CEO Bernhard Knöbel has been at the helm of Blaser and the company has continued to grow and move from strength to strength, now employing 370 people on-site in Isny, where Horst Blaser still lives today.