There I was, sitting quietly at one of our magazine’s industry functions, sipping coffee, when I nearly snorted my latest mouthful out of my nose. Representatives from Ruger were up in the front of the room, telling us about their latest products. And the remark I had just heard was provocative: “The Ruger M77 Hawkeye is the best Model 70 ever made.”
As a long-time admirer of the Model 70 and a gunsmith for a couple of decades, my reaction was “Them’s fightin’ words.” And I happened to have an unmolested Winchester Model 70 in my safe. There was only one thing to do: Lay hands on a Ruger M77 Hawkeye and prove them wrong.
Being a cynic, I figured if I told Ruger what was up, they’d send me a ringer—a tuned Ruger M77 Hawkeye—so I just wrote a check and bought one.
Which is better: the legendary pre-’64 Winchester 70 or today’s Ruger 77 Hawkeye?
A bit of background on the Model 70, for those who haven’t absorbed all the gun lore going back three-quarters of a century. Introduced in 1936, the Model 70 was the Winchester-refined Mauser action that several generations of hunters and long-range rifle competitors lusted after. As a fast, slick, reliable action, it was, and is, hard to beat. Made of the finest steels Winchester could procure, it is a hunting tool that is hard to beat.
Alas, it had some drawbacks. One was that the design was finalized when steel was expensive and labor was cheap, and it required an impossibly large amount of hand-fitting to produce.
For gunsmiths, the barrel is a nightmare. The “coned” breech, which acts to funnel the cartridge to the chamber, means that rebarreling one requires a numbing number of “screw the barrel in, measure, unscrew and cut” operations. The cone requires a slot, which has to be machined after all the fitting is done, for the extractor to reach the case rim. (The venerable Mauser action, with its flat breech, does not require this.)
But the user-adjustable trigger, the controlled-feed design, the handling and the durability all outweighed those problems. Well, they did until the early 1960s.
Winchester by then had had enough: The Model 70 was too expensive to produce. The company redesigned it, and the post-’64 Model 70 fell flat. The stamped checkering was bad, the aluminum floorplate was awful, but the worst part was it was no longer a controlled-feed action. Shooters rebelled, sales were miserable, and Winchester had to correct all those faults.
My Winchester predates the change. In fact, it predates World War II, having been produced just before we entered the war. As a result, it has the “backwards” safety lever, and it lost its barrel-band screw long ago. Otherwise it is unchanged. And, as a bonus, I have two stocks for it. One is the original, and the other is a later stock, fitted, glass-bedded and given a recoil pad.
While Winchester was struggling with the problems of its creation, Ruger was working on its own rifle. Introduced in 1968, the Ruger M77 Hawkeye offered many things: low cost, great looks and the appearance of controlled feed. While the Ruger M77 Hawkeye had a long-external extractor, it did not have controlled feed; it was a push-feed, using a spring-loaded ejector.
Well, Ruger took notice of shooters’ desires, and in due time the Ruger M77 Hawkeye gained controlled feed, a blade ejector and more. So now, in 2016, we have a Ruger M77 Hawkeye to compare with the great Model 70 of old. Let’s jump right in and compare them, head to head.
First is the amount of hand-fitting needed. Ruger still does a lot of hand-fitting on the Ruger M77 Hawkeye, but it’s hardly any compared to what Winchester had to do back before 1964. Parts fit without the need to file on them, and barrels screw in and torque up without repeated in-and-out operations. Actions drop right into stocks, and no one needs a scraper, sanding paper, marking grease or fitting screws.
Second are the barrels. Winchester was rightly proud of its barrels, but they were expensive and slow to produce. So much so that during World War II, when Winchester attempted to produce barrels to assemble into the M1 carbines it was making, the Carbine Committee told them to knock it off. Inland would produce all the barrels Winchester needed. Ruger makes its own barrels, cold-hammer-forged, in impressive quantities and of exemplary quality for the Ruger M77 Hawkeye.
When it comes to actions in stocks, designer Jim Sullivan and Bill Ruger knocked the Ruger M77 Hawkeye out of the park. You see, the Model 70 uses three screws: the front and rear action screws and a middle, bottom-metal screw.
The Model 70 action has a flat bottom, but this is only partial help. All the hand-fitting and filing, grinding and adjusting meant the Model 70 had to be hand-fitted to its stock. The overwhelming feature that makes the Ruger M77 Hawkeye superior in this regard is the angled front action screw that draws the action down and back into the recoil shoulder of the stock.
If you want a Model 70 to be properly bedded, you have to deal with at least four surfaces, and there are four or five others that can gum up the works if they happen to be troublesome. If you want to glass-bed the Winchester action, in order to save yourself a lot of hassle you have to bed the whole thing. Front to back, from the front action screw and recoil shoulder, all the way back to the tang and the rear action screw. And while you’re at it, you’d be wise to bed the center screw, too.
The Ruger M77 Hawkeye? If you need to glass- bed it, and most don’t, all you have to bed is the recoil shoulder.
On the original Ruger M77 Hawkeye, the safety was mounted on the tang, so it worked just fine for right- or left-handed shooters. As clever as that was, shooters wanted a safety on the cocking piece, so Ruger moved it. While the engineers were at it, Ruger also took another great leap; they built it to take scope rings.
The original Ruger M77 Hawkeye, just like the Model 70, was drilled and tapped for a scope base. To mount a scope, you had to bolt down a correctly machined base, then install rings in the base, and then install your scope. When Ruger upgraded the Ruger M77 Hawkeye, it cast bases into the receiver (the Ruger M77 Hawkeye has always been a cast receiver, tougher than tough) and shipped each rifle with rings.
All of a sudden, shooters could mount a scope on their Ruger M77 Hawkeye and be sure things were straight. If they wanted to change scopes, they could even remove the scope and rings together and install another scope—giving hunters an easy option to have different (and pre-zeroed, for the most part) scopes ready to go for a single rifle. This feature was so clearly superior that I had the occasional customer ask if I could machine their rifles to accept Ruger rings. Oh, if only I could.
In 1991, with the Model 77 MkII, Ruger changed the rifle to a controlled-feed design, using a blade ejector. The safety got moved to the cocking piece, and the trigger was redesigned. The trigger on the original Model 77, like that of the Model 70, was user-adjustable. If you had patience and a bit of knowledge, you could tune your trigger to your tastes.
On the MkII (and the Ruger M77 Hawkeye), Ruger made the trigger non-adjustable. But that isn’t a problem, as it is a very nice trigger indeed.
Both the Ruger M77 Hawkeye and the Model 70 have controlled feed, blade ejectors and an anti-bind lug on the bolt body. Both bolts can be disassembled for cleaning, and the bolt handles on both are bent for use with a scope.
The Ruger M77 Hawkeye lacks the iron sights that the Model 70 came with, but in this day and age the number of shooters who opt for iron sights on a bolt-action rifle is vanishingly small. The Ruger M77 Hawkeye also never had the barrel-band screw that the Model 70 was saddled with. Well, that’s perhaps a bit harsh. Back in the early 1930s, while rifle accuracy was reasonably understood, some things just had to be there in order for a rifle to sell.
And as if all that wasn’t enough, the Ruger M77 Hawkeye is lighter, too. My Model 70, bare of sling, scope, bases and ammo, tips the scales at seven pounds, 14 ounces. Ouch. Add a scope, sling and ammo and I’d be toting more than nine pounds worth of rifle. When I bought it, a nine-pound rifle was no big deal. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate a lighter gun. The Model 77 in the same state is six pounds, 14 ounces—a full pound less.
I bought the Winchester back when Ronald Reagan was president. It soon acquired a Leupold base and rings (they came off of a Winchester Model 70 in a rare caliber that a collector wanted to return to original configuration) and a Bushnell Sportview 3-9X scope.
I figured if I was going to have an economy scope on one, I’d do the same for the other. Bushnell no longer makes the Sportview, so I put a Bushnell Legend on the Hawkeye. Mounting it was easy, as all I had to do was use a large screwdriver to tighten the rings to the receiver, and then use the included torx wrench to fasten the ring caps down.
So with a selection of .30-06 ammo (no new-fangled calibers for the Model 70), I headed to the range.
For loading and unloading, they are the same. You stuff rounds, one at a time, down through the top. To unload, you open the bottom plate and let the rounds fall into your hand.
The safety on both is three-position: Fire; Safe, with the bolt free to work; and Safe, bolt locked. Now, if we were comparing the two on an NRA High Power course (and my hat is off to those who use a bolt gun across the course), I think the Model 70 would win. But then, my sample has had the bolt worked a bazillion times, and the sheer volume of cycles has burnished the parts.
The stocks both fit me, but then I’m pretty forgiving of stock size and fit. The triggers are both exemplary, but again the Model 70 has had the trigger tuned until it is everything you’d want in a trigger.
Both fed, fired and ejected flawlessly. Both tossed the empties a good distance, but that is more a function of how hard you work the bolt (and I work them hard) than the design of the ejector or the stiffness of the spring it has.
Which leaves accuracy. Now, the .30-06 has had the benefit of 110 years of testing, manufacturing, refinement and use, and if you have a rifle that won’t shoot any factory .30-06 accurately, then your problem does not lie with the ammunition.
I used three types: Hornady American Whitetail, Winchester Power-Point and Remington Core-Lokt. I knew exactly what to expect with the Model 70 because I’ve tested it many times before. With the factory-bedded stock, it is a good, solid, two m.o.a. rifle.
Hey, that was superb hunting accuracy back in 1942. Heck, it still is. Two m.o.a. means a six-inch group at 300 yards, and that’s accuracy enough—and power enough—to get the job done on the North American continent.
Now, if I swap the barreled action into the glass-bedded stock it tends to shoot a smidge better with some 180-grain ammo—sometimes under two m.o.a.—but with 150s it doesn’t change much. For this test I used the glass-bedded stock.
And the Ruger M77 Hawkeye? One m.o.a. all day long, and on a warm day when I’m not shivering, I’ll bet I could squeeze off five clean shots that would go sub-m.o.a.
In short, the Ruger M77 Hawkeye not only measures up to the legendary pre-’64 Model 70, in some areas it surpasses it. In handling, features and weight, the Ruger M77 Hawkeye matches the Model 70. For trigger pull, scope mounting ease and accuracy, it handily beats the Model 70. And it does all that for a price that is almost painful to contemplate.
The standard Ruger M77 Hawkeye in .30-06 has a list price of $979. That’s $450 in Reagan-era dollars, and I can tell you that my Model 70 cost me more than $450 back then. The listed price in 1936 was $61.25, which comes to a bit more than a $1,000 in 2016. No matter how you price it, the Ruger M77 Hawkeye is one heck of a deal, a heck of a rifle and probably the classic against which others will be compared for the 21st century.
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