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The importance of rifle balance

The importance of rifle balance

A recent talk with a colleague reminded me that in our zeal to embrace the new, we sometimes lose sight of the virtues of the past.

Before you get all worked up and start calling me a “Fudd”, understand that I love the things modern technology has given us. Whether in firearms, electronics, or anything else, I’d never want to give up the progress we’ve made.

I’m writing this on a modern computer, sending it into the modern internet, where (according to my site statistics) you’re probably reading it on a modern tablet or smart phone. Technology has given all of us access to information that we would never have had if we’d not made radical progress over the last few decades.

I like progress. But it has its downsides.

Progress isn’t always good

At the same time, though, I think our progress has caused us to lose some really great things. Take, for instance, modern riflescopes.

Today even relatively cheap optics make the very best glass from the mid-20th century look pathetically bad. Yet our scopes have gotten bigger, forcing us to mount them high above our bore and bringing about significant issues with cheek weld and trajectory compensation.

They’ve gotten heavier and more complex as well. Don’t get me wrong; I love the 1-4x Meopta scope that’s currently mounted on one of my defensive rifles. It’s amazing and incredibly useful. However, I still look at my old Weaver K1.5 and marvel at its compactness and utility. I’d go crazy for a reproduction with modern optics and build quality, because it has virtues that can’t be found today.

Another one of the many things we’ve abandoned, and thus forgotten about, is the idea of a balanced rifle.

Balance in rifles

Back in the “olden days”, a good rifle would have a center of mass that would typically fall about where the trigger was (give or take a bit). A balanced rifle, almost regardless of overall weight, could be carried in one hand amidships and stay level with the ground.

The balanced rifle was easy to swing onto target, and would (for lack of a better term) seem to “hang” there, making it easy to steady long enough to touch off an accurate shot.

One of the reasons I still enjoy lever-action and bolt-action rifles is because of their generally good balance. They almost seem to shoot themselves, and it’s a feeling familiar to those who’ve spent time with those patterns.

Balance makes for good shooting

Shotgunners understand balance very well. A well-balanced shotgun is essential to the reactive shooting of the shotgun sports, and serious competitors will spend large amounts of money making very small changes to dimensions and balance to get the gun to operate like an extension of their hands.

That doesn’t happen much in the rifle world these days, and I believe it’s why so many people have problems shooting at anything much longer than “CQB” distances. It’s hard to hold a rifle steady when all the weight is at the muzzle. Most AR-pattern rifles, by far the biggest sellers in this country, are terribly front-heavy. This is particularly true with the ubiquitous 30-round magazines sitting in front of the control point.

We’ve also developed such a mania for minimum overall weight that we shave it in ways that force the center of mass forward. A very light rifle with a large, full magazine in front of the trigger isn’t going to balance well, and that’s the overwhelming choice of most shooters today.

Good rifle balance really helps when shooting offhand (I.e., from a standing position without other support.) That’s the position from which most of us do most of our shooting, and a rifle with neutral balance (or even slightly rearward balance) makes that easier.

It isn’t about the weight

A well balanced rifle feels lighter than its overall weight. For instance, the Steyr AUG bullpup’s balance is at the control point — the pistol grip. It’s also a heavy rifle compared to today’s average AR-15, by a considerable margin.

At the same time, though, it feels lighter because it’s easier to move the muzzle; there isn’t a large mass in front of the control point to move around.

My wife, for instance, is an accomplished shooter but not necessarily a rifle enthusiast. She says the AUG is easier to manage and shoot than her AR carbine, even though it’s much heavier. She says it doesn’t require a lot of muscle to move it around to get aligned on target, and doesn’t take as much effort to hold on target.

She doesn’t necessarily know the intricacies of rifle balance, but she intuitively understands how it helps her.

How did we get to this point?

Amazingly, I’ve heard people whose rifle shooting experience begins and ends with the AR-pattern guns describe balanced rifles as “feeling awkward”. To someone who shoots ARs all the time the balanced rifle seems foreign, and they never give it a chance to prove itself.

If they did, I suspect they’d find it easier to shoot well than what they’re used to, again regardless of the overall weight. It’s possible to have a better-balanced AR than what you typically find, but it requires a change in attitude.

My AR, for instance, wears an “old-fashioned” A1-length buttstock as opposed to an adjustable model. This adds some badly needed weight to the rear of the gun, and it has room inside to add more weight to balance the gun to my tastes.

I use 20-round magazines almost exclusively, largely because their reduced mass takes some weight off the front end. I also don’t put any accessories on the handguard. All this results in an AR with dramatically better balance than what I seen students come to class with, but it’s not very tactical-looking. In the end, I don’t care what it looks like, I only care that it works well!

If you’ve never experienced what a well-balanced long gun (rifle or shotgun) can do for your shooting, you should do yourself a favor and spend some time with a good lever-action rifle, or a bolt-action which is optimized for hunting (as opposed to precision target shooting). You might be surprised at what those “obsolete” guns with their “old fashioned ideas” are capable of.

You might even get a better idea of what you’re capable of!

— Grant

P.S.: My personal manifesto on the defensive rifle, Protecting Your Homestead: Using a rifle to defend life on your property, was recently released to rave reviews. In it you’ll find a lot of no-nonsense information like what you just read. You’ll also find practical, easy to understand information on using a rifle to protect the lives on your property. It’s the only book of its kind, and it’s available in paperback, Kindle, and iBooks formats!

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  • Posted by Grant Cunningham
  • On May 14, 2018
Tags: bullpups, carbines, mythbusting