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The Scout Rifle: The One Rifle To Have If You Could Only Have One


Firearms come in many forms, with some designed deliberately for distinct undertakings, such as long-range marksmanship with a precision rifle or a micro subcompact built for concealed carry. Others may fill multiple roles, like an AR-15, which can be used for plinking, hunting or competition.

However, there is one type of rifle designed with excruciating detail that fits a spectrum of uses, meant to be “the one rifle you would have if you could only have just one rifle: the scout rifle. 

Former Marine lieutenant colonel and firearms instructor Jeff Cooper, the founder of the legendary Gunsite Academy in Paulden, Arizona, is the architect of the versatile scout rifle concept. A leading expert on rifle shooting and marksmanship – he authored the rifleman’s tome “The Art of the Rifle” – Cooper envisioned a general-purpose rifle that could be used for hunting and fighting. 

(Graphic courtesy/NRA Publications)

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Cooper began prescribing the characteristics of what would constitute the scout rifle, named so as it would befit the lone rifleman –he described the scout as “a man who acted alone, not as a member of a team” --heading into unfamiliar and potentially hostile environments. To meet the demands of the uncertain, Cooper thought the scout rifle should be lightweight and maneuverable, but use a full-power cartridge capable of stopping large game or other threats to the shooter’s person. 

While Cooper’s ideas weren’t groundbreaking by any means – the Germans employed forward-mounted scopes on their Mauser K98K rifles in World War II – it did bring together a series of features not before purpose-engineered in one rifle. The characteristics outlined by Cooper included: 

  • Bolt-Action: Cooper didn’t specify any particular style of bolt-action, as long as the action was reliable and operated smoothly.
  • Weight: Scout rifles were to be 7 lbs. or lighter WITH the optics and sling, as the gun would need to be carried potentially for long distances in remote terrain.
  • Size: The scout rifle was effectively a carbine, with Cooper’s design calling for a barrel of 19 inches or less, and an overall length of 39 inches or shorter. Nowadays these shorter barrels on bolt guns are more common, but when Cooper was building the scout rifle concept, carbines were not as common or well received.
  • Ammunition: The scout rifle needed to be able to neutralize threats up to 1,000 lbs. with one shot with a conventional, widely available caliber. Cooper decided on the .308 round, which was to be fed by box magazine or stripper clip.
  • Sights: Because the scout operated alone, Cooper determined the shooter must be able to shoot with both eyes open and not compromise peripheral vision. To facilitate this, scout rifle utilized a forward-mounted low-power scope. Since optics can be damaged or fail especially in austere situations, the scout rifle should include an iron sight system, preferably a ghost ring aperture, with a front sight that wouldn’t snag on clothing or brush.
  • Support: The scout rifle should have some quick-loop sling; Cooper favored the Ching Sling, but any sling could be used so long as the sling could be looped up to provide support for shooting, not just carrying. Cooper also advocated for built-in bipods, which few rifles could pull off due to the added weight and heft especially when trying to keep the whole gun in a light, tight package.
  • Accuracy: Cooper prescribed acceptable accuracy for a scout rifle at 2 MOA (minutes of angle), wherein the user could shoot three-shot groups at four inches at 200 yards.


(Photo courtesy/GunsAmerica)

Managing to pack Cooper’s demands into one gun proves difficult (as many modern scout rifles feature most, not all of them), but together the aforementioned elements, in his estimation, would produce the most versatile firearm for survival alone against the unknown. 

In 1983, Cooper assembled gunsmiths, instructors, hunters and other experts at Gunsite to discuss modernizing rifle design, the scout rifle amongst the discussion items. He introduced the concept to the experts, and lobbied for the design in his Gunsite training courses and the myriad columns and books he penned. 

Initially, those wanting a scout rifle had to visit a gunsmith and request a custom rifle, which was a expensive, time-consuming venture. However, Austrian gunmaker Steyr Mannlicher was interested in Cooper’s vision, and produced the Steyr Scout, incorporating most of the design elements outlined in his requisite features list. 

(Photo courtesy/Personal Defense Network)

As the concept grew in popularity, other manufacturers followed suit and began producing rifles that borrowed heavily from Cooper’s concept. While many of these guns failed to meet every requirement to be considered a true scout rifle, most boasted enough distinguishing features to be placed into a class setting them apart from conventional bolt guns. 

The rise of the AR-15 as the everyman’s Jack-of-all-trades long gun pushed the scout rifle somewhat into the rearview mirror as the ultimate utilitarian survival tool, as its light weight, small footprint, modularity, versatility of use and cost turned it into “America’s rifle,” and one that shooters from across the spectrum could find a role for. 

(Photo courtesy/Liberty Tree Blog)

Regardless, scout rifle aficionados (and the late Jeff Cooper) would maintain that the scout rifle clings to its advantages, such as the use of a full-power cartridge and reliability of its bolt action, over the common AR-15. 

Today, scout rifles and quasi-scout guns are still available from several manufacturers, a testament to the staying power and popularity of Cooper’s design. While modern manufacturing and firearms tech allow gunmakers to produce lighter guns that outperform their predecessors, the frontiersman-like survivalist mentality and rugged rifleman ethos of Jeff Cooper lives on in the scout rifle. 

Based on the deserved reverence of the late Cooper and his contributions to defensive shooting and marksmanship, we’re like to find the odd-looking yet effective guns slung across the shoulders of would-be “lone riflemen” everywhere for years to come.


(Main and marquee photo courtesy/OutdoorHub)

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