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Steyr SM-12 Rifle Review

Though his rifle fired before he wanted due to its 3 oz. set trigger, it still worked out for our Field Editor. His buck measured 34-1/2”.
Though his rifle fired before he wanted due to its 3 oz. set trigger, it still worked out for our Field Editor. His buck measured 34-1/2”.

Our Field Editor takes to the range and to the field with Steyr’s SM-12 bolt-action rifle.

Have you ever had game in your sights and your rifle fired before you wanted it to? Three times in my 50-plus years of big game hunting that’s what happen to me, and in each case the result was the same.

The first episode occurred many years ago down in Texas while hunting axis deer with Thompson Temple. I found myself in a movement-restricted elevated chair and, the only way I could get a shot off on a nice buck that had entered my purview from behind and to the right of me, was to shoot left-handed. Having never practiced or even fired a single shot as a southpaw, my Ruger No.1, which has a sliding top-tang safety similar to a double or O/U, felt utterly alien in my hands.

Anyway, when I finally found the buck in my scope, in pushing the safety forward, my trigger finger involuntarily moved backward and the gun fired. Luckily, it fired when the reticle was in the right place and the buck went down in its tracks. How lucky was that!

Fast forward to 2008 and a Mid-Asian ibex hunt in Kyrgyzstan. I was using an H-S Precision rifle which had a very light trigger — about 2.5 lbs. as I recall. After an arduous stalk in the thin 13,000-foot air, I had a nice ram in the scope about 175-200 yards out. He was lying down, unconcerned, so there was plenty of time for me to catch my breath. But at that point I had had my gloves off for about 20 minutes and my hands were getting numb. I was prone and had a Harris Bipod deployed on the forend, so I had a near benchrest situation. All I recall is that the reticle was somewhere on the front half of the ram when the gun suddenly barked unexpectedly. Apparently, my hand was numb enough that I couldn’t feel the pressure I was putting on the trigger. Once again, Lady Luck was with me. It was a perfect heart/lung shot, and the ram simply rolled down a talus slope stone dead.

Episode Number Three took place a couple months ago, again in Texas, and again on an axis deer hunt! I was field testing an example of the new Steyr-Mannlicher SM-12 centerfire bolt action rifle in .308 Winchester on the Canyon Ranch with outfitter Mike Stroff’s Southern Outdoor Experience. After a couple of disappointing “hunts” early in my writing career hunting inside high fences, I’ve done it only a couple of times since, and then only when the hunting area was at least 5,000 acres.

I was therefore very pleased to learn that the Canyon Ranch has no perimeter game-proof fences, and where the axis, whitetails and blackbuck have 17,500 acres of unrestricted free range. It was the third morning of my 3-day hunt that I finally got a shot at a buck, and it was the only buck I’d seen up to then. I was in a ground blind when at around 8 o’clock a superb axis buck meandered into the clearing in front of me at a distance of about 150 yards. I was hoping he’d stop, but he kept walking at a steady gait, so I had to shoot before he exited the clearing.

On the SM-12 a set trigger is standard, as it is on many guns coming out of Europe today. So as I was tracking the buck in the scope, I activated the set by pushing the trigger forward. No way did I intend to pull the trigger at that moment, yet the Steyr belched anyway, because the trigger broke at what I later measured to be 3 ounces. I barely laid my finger on it. It’s not that I was unfamiliar with the gun, as I had a chance to check it out beforehand on the well-equipped range there on the ranch. I guess it was because the adrenalin rush one gets when there’s game in the sights is different than shooting at targets. In any case, the outcome was the same as my two previous premature trigger pulls: my shot took out both of the buck’s front shoulders and he made only 10 or so yards before piling up. Am I lucky or what! My buck measured 33 inches on one side, 34-1/2 inches on the other.

The SM-12 may just be the most conventional bolt action rifle coming out of Germany or Austria today because its basic mechanics are not that much different from the majority of American-built rifles. In fact, compared to the Blaser R93 and R8, the Merkel RX Helix and KR1, the Sauer 202, the Anschutz 1727, and the Heym SR30, it’s downright conventional.

For example, there are two opposed locking lugs up at the head of the bolt, which require a 90-degree bolt rotation (handle lift), and the lugs engage abutments in the receiver ring rather than in the barrel itself. That makes it similar to the Remington 700 and Model Seven, Ruger’s M77, Mossberg’s 4×4, Savage’s 110-series, Marlin’s X7 and the Kimber to name but a few. And because the SM-12 locks up with the receiver, the barrel/caliber switching capability so dear to the hearts of European hunters is lacking, just as it is with the aforementioned home-grown rifles.

The head of the bolt is also conventional in that it employs a plunger-style ejector, and recessed bolt face the rim of which is interrupted only by a Sako-like extractor. The one feature this gun does share with most of today’s European guns, however, is that it requires manual cocking for the first shot. Pushing the thumbpiece up an incline at the rear of the receiver contracts the firing pin spring and readies the gun for firing. Pushing down on a small button at the rear of the thumbpiece allows the latter to be backed down, relaxing the mainspring. This system allows the rifle to be carried in perfect safety with a round in the chamber, a very worthwhile safety feature.

The bolt glide on this gun is exceptionally smooth — like it’s on ball bearings, and there’s virtually no lateral play in it at all. And like all Euro rifles, the detachable magazine is excellent, consisting of a one-piece box of polycarbonate, with a follower of the same material. These magazines weigh less than half what a sheet steel box does, and are virtually indestructible. Twin release levers on either side of the box must be pinched simultaneously to release it.

As with most European guns, iron sights are standard on this rifle. The rear is adjustable only for windage, while the front, which is spring-loaded, is adjustable for elevation. The spring loading allows it to take hard knocks in stride.

Cosmetically, very little concession is made to American tastes. I say that because the buttstock has that drooping comb so prevalent across the pond, and the cheekpiece is of the edgy Bavarian style, which kinda’ leaves me cold. So too do the “fish scale” grip panels, and the sliver-like forend which is still popular in Europe. Me, I like something that fills my hand.

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Sundra found the test rifle to be highly accurate, particularly with match loads.

One highly distinctive feature that makes a Steyr unmistakable is its faceted barrel. Instead of polishing out the tiny flats resulting from the hammer forging process, Steyr leaves `em as they come from the machine. I think it looks kinda’ cool.

Prior to my Texas hunt, I had the opportunity to range test another example of the XM-12, also in .308 Winchester caliber, and its accuracy was superb, especially with match ammo. Running five 3-shot groups of Federal’s 168-grain Gold Medal Match ammo, I got a group average of .70-inch, with the smallest measuring .34-inch! With four other factory loads, the worst 15-shot aggregate was 1.55 inches. Awfully good for a 22-inch barreled lightweight sporter!

The test gun was the standard model, which retails for $3,495. Cosmetic stock details aside, this is one beautifully made, elegant rifle. — Jon R. Sundra

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