New for 2021, Browning has released their X-Bolt Western Hunter, a budget minded rifle aimed at hunters needing a lightweight rifle capable of taking big game at longer ranges.
This particular rifle is chambered in the new Browning 6.8 Western cartridge developed by Browning and Winchester. It fires a .277″ bullet around 2,900 fps.
Sound familiar? It would to Jack O’Connor. The 6.8 Western’s parent case is the .270 Winchester Short Magnum. The main difference is that it fires a much longer, heavier bullet than those more typically loaded into .270 Win and .270 WSM cartridges.
This obviously requires a correspondingly faster twist rate, and 1:7.5 to 1:8 twist rate is necessary to stabilize the 165 and 170 .277″ projectiles these cartridges use. That 1:7.5 is the twist rate on the X-Bolt Western Hunter. The 6.8 Westen’s SAAMI specs were published in late 2020 and show a max pressure of 65,000 PSI, which will push a 175 grain bullet at 2,850 fps from a 24-inch barrel.
The 6.8 Western is appropriately named. Winchester makes the cartridge topped with the always great performing 165gr Nosler Accubond, and with a muzzle velocity of 2,970 fps. The .270 Winchester is a solid mule deer round, but typically has too light a bullet for heavier game like elk, at least at range.
At 500 yards, the aforementioned 6.8 Western commercial round is still generating over 1,600 ft/lbs of energy. Sure, it’s a flat shooting, deep penetrating bullet, but the long, thin bullets moving so quickly also buck the wind.
For a 500 yard shot with a 10 mph full value wind, you’re holding about 10″ of windage. That’s a whole lot of leeway for shooter error, and I, for one, welcome the slack.
Browning has their X-Bolt rifle barrels made by Miroku of Japan. When I was a kid, “made in Japan” was not a sign of high quality. Oh, how times have changed.
Miroku makes great guns, and their capability producing precision-at-capacity is as good as any other firearms manufacturer on Earth. Made by Miroku is a label that generally instills me with confidence.
There are several different profiles in the X-Bolt line, but one of the things that sets the Western Hunter model apart is its sporter (read thin) profile button rifled barrel. The barrel is 24″ in length, and finished with a threaded muzzle brake.
I hate muzzle brakes on anything but the heaviest magnums in lightweight guns, and prefer instead to fit a silencer on all of my rifles. That’s going to be an issue with the Western Hunter. The barrel’s thin profile means lightweight and easy carry, but also very little shoulder at the muzzle to attach a silencer. The rifle also comes with a simple thread protector.
Miroku air gauges these chambers to ensure proper headspace. In this sense, headspace refers to how well any particular cartridge fits inside the chamber.
Air gauging works well here, as it requires no actual physical contact with the metal surfaces. Instead, it uses very precise sensors to measure air pressure and flow. Pressure is inverse to clearance (remember, P=F/A), so a very accurate and precise measure of the chamber can be made.
The X-Bolt name has nothing to do an X-shaped bolt…or anything to do with the bolt itself. It actually refers to the X-Lock scope mounting system. The “X” is the four points of contact the scope mounts make on the receiver. There’s really no secret sauce here. It’s four screws holding the mount down instead of two.
Talley manufactures rings for sold under the Browning name, and a new set of 30mm rings came with the rifle for this review. I can find 1″ and 30mm rings, but nothing larger.
The bolt features a three-lug head with a single claw extractor and spring-powered plunger-style ejector. The bolt itself has a unique design that incorporates a “bolt unlocking feature.”
Set at the junction of the bolt and bolt handle, a small tab is raised when the gun is cocked. Whether it is on safety or not, press this tab down and the bolt will move back. It’s no three-position Mauser design, but it’s a nice safety feature nonetheless.
The bolt has a 60º throw. The effect is less movement required to cycle the bolt, and also more space between the bolt handle knob and the scope. I found that feature particularly useful, and I likely wouldn’t be able to mount the Nightforce SHV scope I used in the supplied rings with a more traditional bolt throw.
The raceways on the X-Bolt are slick and tight, with very minimal play at any point in the cycle. The design makes for a fast reload and smooth pull, but the design does present one possible issue.
As the bolt slides back, right as the lugs enter the back of the receiver, the bolt handle angle protruding directly to the right means that any press to the left makes the bolt stick inside the receiver. The tendency under stress for a right-handed shooter is to grab the bolt and pull it back and left, where it will stick right before it’s fully ejected the round. Pull straight back and there’s no issue at all.
The safety is a standard two-position type sitting on top of the stock’s wrist. There’s also a cocked bolt indicator built into the bolt. Note, it is NOT a loaded chamber indicator, as the little tab pokes out the back whether there’s a round in the chamber or not, as long as the gun is cocked.
A light, crisp trigger is the mark of a good rifle for a whole lot of people (it shouldn’t be) and it’s clear Browning paid a lot of attention to what so many consumers were looking for. The X-Bolt’s “three lever Feather Trigger” is crisp, with little to no slop or play.
True to advertising, I was able to use the trigger adjustment screw to bring the pull down to a pretty consistent 3 lbs. of pull weight. It comes set at 3½ from the factory, but if you’d like to handicap yourself, you can dial it all the way up to a 5 lbs. trigger pull.
The rifle doesn’t include iron sights and the barrel and receiver are not cut for them.
For the 6.8 Western, the X-Bolt includes a three-round plastic rotary magazine. This is particularly important for this relatively short, fat cartridge, as it keeps the round centered in the magazine and in line with the bore, reducing or eliminating the feeding problems generally associated with these kinds of cartridges.
The Western Hunter’s stock is a composite plastic material, so common on budget rifles. My longtime readers know I abhor these stocks, as they tend to perform very differently in the field than they do on the bench.
Some are better than others and Browning has done pretty well with this one. It’s light weight, but still rigid enough to not flex too much when properly slung or pressed into the crook of a tree limb for a hasty rest.
The forend is fairly thin, but flattened just ahead of the floorplate so it sits well. The wrist is thin, but the butt of the stock is full and includes an adjustable cheek rest.
The receiver is wet epoxy bedded to each individual stock at the rear and the forward recoil lug. According to Browning’s website, these aren’t done as batches. Each receiver is set to a particular stock.
The barrel is also free-floated to the stock’s forend with about a business card’s width around the barrel. This most basic bedding and free-floating is the same kind of thing many of us would do to any of our budget guns in our garages and home shops.
I’ve done plenty of these jobs on the kitchen table and they all result in the same thing; more consistent precision over a wider range of projectiles and pressures. It’s not a lot of work, but it makes a real difference in the field.
This T&E rifle came in very well used. There was some rust where the scope mount meets the receiver. The finish on the bolt was scraped off, the plasticky stock had been cut and gouged, and the A-TACS AU painted-on camo pattern has been worn off in multiple places.
There was some grass still stuck between the cheek riser and the stock. I’m assuming that whoever was responsible at Browning didn’t even look at the gun before sending it back out to another writer. It’s a shame, the reader deserves better, but that’s what we got.
What we also got was a poorly applied paint job/hydro-dip or however they apply the A-TACS AU camo to the stock. There are several places throughout where the A-TACS AU pattern wasn’t fully applied to the recesses of the stock, leaving the bright white material of the composite stock showing.
That doesn’t affect performance in any way, but it doesn’t lend confidence in attention to detail and quality control, either. The receiver and barrel look like they were finished right. The stock…not so much.
With a good barrel, some glass bedding, a free-floated barrel and very well-made ammunition, Browning’s laid out the basic recipe for precision. I only had two supplied rounds to shoot, both produced by Winchester, and they delivered almost identical results.
Shot from a Caldwell Stinger shooting rest, the 165gr Nosler Accubond Round printed 1.1″ five-round groups averaged over four shot groups. The 170gr Ballistic Tip rounds produced 1.2″ groups. The groups also showed the measure of a thin barrel, as the groups spread out as the barrel quickly heated up.
More importantly, those groups held up at distance. At 300 yards, groups were all around the 4-inch mark. That means that a competent marksman with good glass should be able to put a round into the vitals of an elk at 500 yards and expect a couple hundred pounds of meat to be forthcoming.
I only had 80 rounds for the rifle, and finding any more commercially at this time proved impossible. I shot all of them in a single day and experienced no issues in loading, firing, or ejecting.
The rifle performed perfectly well from the bench, off hand, and from a variety of natural rests. I wish I had more ammunition to more fully test the gun, but I see no reason for it to fail. Plus, since it’s obvious that the rifle was well-used prior to it getting to me, I think we can assume it holds up.
Despite solid muzzle energy and a relatively lightweight rifle, the Browning X-Bolt Western Hunter doesn’t punish the shoulder at all. As I said, I put all 80 rounds through this gun while shooting at home and at The Ranch TX shooting range. The recoil reduction provided by the mild muzzle brake wasn’t enough to justify the incredible noise it generated, so I replaced it with the supplied thread protector for almost all of the shooting.
Part of the reason there isn’t too much recoil is that the cartridge fired gets its energy not from a heavy bullet, but from a moderate bullet weight moving very quickly. (Remember, acceleration is squared in the force equation, mass is not.) That generally means less momentum to overcome and less recoil to the shooter.
But it’s also because Browning has designed their recoil pad not to collapse straight back, but instead to also push down into the shooter’s body and away from their shoulder. This has the effect of redirecting the recoiling mass, but also has the effect of pulling the gun away from the shooter’s face. That’s great if you want to reduce as much felt recoil as possible, but it makes staying on target through the glass and watching the impact of your round impossible.
At a weight of 7 lbs. even, the Western Hunter is practically nothing to carry. Beyond hunting in the Texas Hill Country, I’ve spent the last seven consecutive seasons hunting in the mountains of Idaho and western Wyoming, and a lightweight gun is very welcome.
There are lots of downsides to a lightweight gun, but the ease of packing and handling just can’t be denied. If your plan is to walk a whole lot and shoot just a little, the Western Hunter fits the bill.
Like just about every firearm in America right now, I couldn’t actually find any retailers with the Browning X-Bolt Western Hunter in 6.8 Western in stock and for sale. Those websites that had them on backorder listed them around $900-970.
The Browning X-Bolt Western Hunter in 6.8 Western is a familiar design in an unfamiliar chambering. The use of an inexpensive lightweight composite stock with a free-floated sporter contour barrel has been put on budget guns for decades now, and it’s something all the major manufacturers make. Everybody makes it because it’s the design most hunters want and cost little enough to justify buying a new rifle for the few hunts they go on each year.
Browning went the very minor extra step to minimally bed the action. They’ve done nothing particularly new here, but they’ve made a very solid mountain rifle for under a grand, which is likely exactly what 90% of their customers want and need.
Specifications: Browning X-Bolt Western Hunter
Caliber: 6.8 Western
Barrel Length: 24″
Overall Length: 44″
Length of Pull: 13 5/8″
Weight: 7 lbs
Magazine Capacity: 3
Twist Rate: 7 1/2″
Barrel Finish: Matte Blued
Stock Finish: A-TACS AU
Receiver Finish: Matte Blued
Chamber Finish: Polished
Barrel Material: Steel
Barrel Contour: Sporter
Stock Material: Composite
Recoil Pad: Inflex 1, Small
Checkering: Textured Grip Panels
Sling Swivel Studs: Matte Blued
Receiver Material: Steel
Trigger Finish: Gold Plated
Bolt Slide Finish: A-TACS AU
Magazine Type: Detachable
Trigger Material: Alloy
Trigger Guard Material: Alloy
Trigger Guard Engraving: Buck Mark in Gold
Floor Plate Material: Composite
Drilled and Tapped for Scope: Yes
MSRP: $1,099.99 (Found Out-of-Stock online for $900-$970)
Ratings (out of five stars):
Style and Appearance * *
This was a well-used gun by the time it got to TTAG for review, but the obvious flaws where the camo didn’t cover the composite stock and the apparent ease at which it wears off is sub-par.
Customization * *
There’s not as much available for the Browning guns as some other major manufacturers. There also aren’t many options available from the factory. No iron sights are available and the small shoulder at the muzzle makes silencer selection challenging.
Reliability * * * * *
No issues experienced, although the round count was relatively low on this well-used rifle.
Accuracy * * * *
With quality rounds provided by Winchester, the X-Bolt Western Hunter is capable of plenty of accuracy to hunt any animal in North America at extended ranges.
Overall * * * 1/2
Browning’s released a budget minded option for shooters looking to push powerful pills out a little farther. The X-Bolt Western Hunter has the accuracy and reliability for extended hunts at extended ranges. It’s not much to look at and the finish on the stock appears poorly applied and not particularly durable. The adjustable comb, 60 degree bolt throw and bolt unlocking feature deserve some extra points.