Gun Review: Weatherby Vanguard Carbine

In the world of budget bolt action rifles, there are a few names that immediately spring to mind: Mossberg, Savage, Marlin, and even Remington. You immediately think of hunting stands at dawn and target practice out on the farm. But the name Weatherby typically evokes images of a finer experience, perhaps well dressed gentlemen hunting on the open plains with brandy snifters sitting on the dashboard. There was a time I thought a Weatherby was too fine an instrument for my mediocre shooting abilities. And then I realized that I could own one of their rifles for less than $100 more than I spent on that Mossberg 100 ATR.

The Weatherby brand earned its reputation as a maker of fine sporting rifles starting in 1945, when Roy Weatherby began producing production rifles based on Mauser actions. For the more elite customer, Weatherby offered to custom build guns using whatever action he was provided, so long as it was strong enough to handle the desired load. The modern rifles, however, are built using a proprietary action that Weatherby designed in the 1950s and is still in use today.

Weatherby makes a couple different “classes” of their rifles. At the top of the line are the Mark V series of rifles, which are around the $1,500-$3,000 price range depending on how pretty and how accurate you want it. Those are the rifles Weatherby is known for, their super-accurate precision machines. Their magnum opus, if you will.

Then there’s the Vanguard, which is based on the Howa 1500 rifle and produced in Japan. The standard Vanguard rifle is in the $400-$600 range, putting it in competition with Remington’s 700 rifle as well as Mossberg and Savage’s offerings. For a little bit more dosh, Weatherby has a “Sub-MOA” designation which claims a guaranteed 3-round group from a cold barrel of 1 inch or less at 100 yards. Ben Shotzberger has been playing with one for some time and will be giving a report on it as soon as he gets off his lazy butt and writes it.

The rifle in question is the “Carbine” variant of the Weatherby Vanguard. With a barrel length of only 20 inches it’s the shortest of the Vanguard series, making it much more maneuverable and also a tad lighter than the rest of the pack. In exchange for this portability, the rifle loses a touch of its accuracy. Despite the missing 4 inches of barrel, the rifle is still guaranteed to the same 1.5 MoA minimum accuracy as the rest of the Vanguard line.

Simply holding the rifle in your hands, there are a number of differences between this rifle and the Mossberg 100 ATR or even a similarly priced Remington 700. The first thing you immediately notice is that the rifle is finished in a smooth high-gloss blue, as opposed to the matte finish on the other rifles. This gives the Weatherby a much nicer and sleeker appearance, which I personally find very appealing. Another improvement over the 100 ATR is the existence of a hinged floorplate that allows rounds loaded in a magazine to be removed without having to cycle them through the chamber of the firearm.

The bolt on this gun is what sealed the deal for me. On the Remington 700 or the Mossberg 100 ATR, the bolt is rough. And I mean that not only as in “rough to move,” but also “rough to the touch.” The matte finish combined with the stippling and angular edges makes working the bolt with just the side of your hand a mite bit painful. While most people would simply grab hold of the bolt handle and use that instead, old habits learned with the Penn State Rifle Team die hard (and flipping the bolt open in one fluid motion with the side of my trigger finger just feels so cool). Weatherby’s bolt in comparison is amazingly smooth in both respects, making flipping it using the side of my hand a lot easier. The bolt handle also fees a lot nicer than the Remington or Mossberg offerings, with a more smooth feeling and a classier look in general.

The safety is also pretty nifty. Yes, the safety is getting its own paragraph, deal with it. On most rifles the safety will allow you to cycle the action while engaged. The Weatherby is having none of that, locking the bolt in place when closed or preventing it being closed when open. I thought that was a great feature, something the Mosin Nagant m1891 got right and then was repeated not often enough in firearms designs.

And then we get into the issues.

The nice thing about the Mossberg 100 ATR wasn’t the iron sights (IRON SIGHTS!) or the included scope rails (which were nice, but only about a $10 savings). The nice thing was the factory free-floated barrel. The stock did not touch the barrel, which improves accuracy. The Weatherby Vanguard has no such thing. With the Vanguard, the stock is so flimsy and thin that the weight of the barrel forces the fore end to contact the barrel. I tried relieving some of the material in the front in the hopes that the stock would “man up” and keep its gritty hands off my barrel, but I had no such luck. The stock just warped, contacting the barrel anyway. With closer shots this doesn’t matter so much, but at 1,000 yards the slightest bit of pressure on the barrel can ruin your day.

Another issue I had was with the cheek piece on the stock (see a pattern here?). It put my eyes in perfect position to use iron sights, but the rifle had none. It was designed to be used with a scope. Even using the “low” rings, I had to install a cheek riser to get my eyes on level with a sufficient cheek weld to keep parallax at bay.

The trigger, while certainly nicer in both feeling and pull than my little .22lr rifle, is nowhere near the glass smooth break of the Timney trigger I reviewed a couple of months ago. There is a small amount of stacking present in the pull, which is slightly annoying. And by “slightly annoying” I mean “close to maddening.” Nothing ruins a good gun like a bad trigger, but I get the feeling that the stack will eventually go away with time as I use the gun.

Long story short, the stock is awful and the trigger is “meh.” But how does it shoot? Does it live up to its 1.5 MoA guarantee? Can its accuracy make up for the amazingly horrible stock?

We (myself and Nate, contributor at The Firearm Blog) brought it out to the Clark’s Brothers range in Warrenton, VA to find out, and were pleasantly surprised.

The innermost circle in that target is exactly 1 inch across. Placed at 50 yards, the Weatherby Vanguard maintained a most decidedly sub 1.5 MOA group for about five rounds. The 9 o’ clock and 6 o’ clock rounds I’m going to attribute to Nate (and Nate will in turn complain in the comments that it was my crappy shooting), but I’m pretty sure that one of us pulled those rounds and the rifle isn’t to blame. It’s not the one ragged hole that I would like to see, but it’s certainly a far sight better than the 100 ATR’s grouping.

The Weatherby Vanaguard Carbine seems to be the superior rifle among the “budget” guns. It looks better, shoots straighter, is lighter, and feels better than almost anything else out there. And while it does have some issues, those are readily fixed thanks to the availability of quality aftermarket stocks. If you’re in the market for a good bolt action rifle, this is very definitely a safe bet.

Weatherby Vanguard Carbine

Caliber: .308 Winchester (7.62×51 NATO)
Barrel: 20″, 1:12 twist
Size: 40″ overall length
Weight: 6.5 lbs.
Operation: Bolt action
Finish: Glossy blue
(Rifle DOES NOT come with bipod, scope or mounts)
Capacity: 5+1
MSRP: $523 (typically closer to $410 retail)

Ratings (Out of Five Stars)

Accuracy: * * * * *
1.5 MoA out of a non-free-float gun is nothing to sneeze at. Once you get this puppy free floated I wouldn’t be surprised if it gives its Sub-MOA branded brethren a run for their money.

Ergonomics: * * *
The barrel and the action feel perfect, but the stock is far from it. The cheek piece is too low for me, and the plastic just feels tacky on such a nice gun.

Ergonomics Firing: * * * *
Everything feels right with the recoil, but the trigger leaves a little to be desired. Not a lot, mind you, but it can still be improved.

Reliability: * * * * *
There aren’t many things to go wrong with a bolt action. The fourth star was restored (compared to the 100 ATR) due to the nice chunky follower and the floorplate in the magazine.

Customization: * * * * *
Swivel studs are nice and in place, there are TONS of aftermarket stocks, and the receiver is drilled for scope mounts.

Overall Rating: * * *
Personally, I would like those 4 inches of barrel back. And a nicer stock. But for what I paid (and thank you Paragon Defense in Charlottesville, VA) it’s a damn fine rifle. EDIT: Knocked down to three stars after the Series 2 came out.