Field Tested: Savage Impulse Straight-Pull Bolt-Action
by David Herman – Tuesday, January 5, 2021
“IMPAAACT!” chimed the RO, as my 178-grain Hornady ELD-X bullet collided with far-off steel. Though it wasn’t the first time I’d heard the word that day, I grinned in spite of myself. Indeed, I was far from the only one finding success. The exclamation sounded up and down our firing line, with shooters consistently banging steel anywhere from 200 yards out to 1,000. This was our first day at FTW Ranch, a sprawling 12,000-acre exotics operation in the southwest of Texas Hill Country, which also offers a variety of ranges and hunt-training scenarios. In attendance were a healthy cross-section of gun writers and competitive shooters who had all descended with a singular purpose: to test the new Savage Impulse rifle—a straight-pull bolt-action which promises to popularize the style with a broader market.
Chambering another round, I pondered the immensity of this undertaking. While long popular among our European brethren, the American market has remained generally disinterested in the action. To be fair, this could be due largely to price-point—straight pulls don’t exactly have an affordable reputation—but culture has quite a bit to do with it as well. As hunters, we seem predisposed to the traditional almost by nature. If a standard bolt- or lever-gun was good enough for grandpa, its good enough for us. I myself am no exception; my primary fowling piece once belonged to my grandfather, and my go-to deer rifle, a Savage 111, has hunted more seasons than its current owner. Every now and then, however, a design comes along that is just too good to pass up, making us reconsider these long-held preferences.
While there will always be room for tradition on the gun rack, could there also be room to add something unabashedly different? With another satisfying ring of the steel, the Impulse took another step toward making that case.
The magic of the Impulse centers around two factors: the unique action (no surprise there), and how well Savage has incorporated it into its standard AccuTrigger/AccuStock combination. This fusion contributes not only to the rifle’s easy shootability, but to its incredibly reasonable price point. The MSRP sits between $1,387 and $1,449 at the time of this writing, comparing favorably to its several-thousand-dollar competitors. Indeed, the rifle seems a natural extension of the company’s overall rifle line, despite its drastically different design.
Of course, that is where the fun really begins. The heart of the action is a patented Hexlock design, which has allowed Savage to retain the safety and accuracy of its traditional bolt-actions, despite taking advantage of the straight-pull’s speed. Utilizing six ball bearings on the bolt head, the Hexlock mechanism locks all six balls into a machined recess in the barrel extension when the action is charged. When a round is fired, the pressure increase actually tightens the bearings for an even more robust lockup than under static conditions. This allows the action to handle magnum and high-pressure rounds.
The Hexlock itself is actuated by the bolt handle. When closed, a plunger seats forward inside the cylindrical bolt body, which pushes and locks the six balls out, initiating the process above. Once fired, a swift pull of the bolt handle releases the plunger, unlocking the balls and allowing another round to be chambered. As an additional safety measure, this operation cannot happen before the gun has been fired. To eject an unfired cartridge, a button must be depressed at the back of the bolt to allow the bolt handle to rotate and the action to open.
This system is vastly different from the majority currently on the market, which use either rotating or tilting bolt systems (some exceptions would be the Blaser R8 and Heym SR-30, which do use similar designs, but don’t play in the same league in terms of price). It allows for an incredibly consistent lockup and, interestingly enough, an easily removable bolt head. Indeed, not only are both the button-rifled barrel and bolt head removable, they are fully interchangeable with other heads and barrels. This means a short-action Impulse can be converted to any other short-action caliber available (.22-250 Remington, 6.5 Creedmoor, .243 Winchester and .308 Winchester), while a long-action (available in .300 Winchester Short Magnum, .30-06 Springfield and .300 Winchester Magnum) can be converted to any other caliber at all, short or long. Though aftermarket parts to accomplish these sorts of swaps will not be available at the time of the gun’s launch, I’ve heard rumors they may be coming within the year. Optics are similarly easy to change out and mount thanks to an integral, 20 MOA (Picatinny) AccuRail, which has been milled into the receiver.
The last thing to note on the action is the barrel extension, which moves the gun’s potential failure point forward. To be sure, it would take an astronomically unlikely amount of pressure to cause the gun’s lockup to fail at all, but in the unlikely event it happened, the bolt wouldn’t shoot rearward into the shooter’s eye—a common fear with straight pulls. Instead, the pressure would burst through the barrel extension, sparing the shooter. Let me emphasize again that this is purely theoretical—it is not a situation anyone should ever encounter. I simply note it here, as paranoia surrounding such a horrifying scenario has lingered ever since the problem was encountered in World War One, by Canadians toting improperly assembled Ross rifles.
Finally, the Impulse adds yet another level of customization to the gun beyond the AccuStock and AccuTrigger systems. While the ejection port is only on the righthand side on current models, the bolt handle can be toollessly removed, its angle changed, or even reversed entirely for a lefthanded shooter. While you may have to deal with some brass arcing over your support arm (the port is designed to throw the shells more up than out, so direct impacts would be rare), this makes the gun fully accessible for lefties, and a perfect fit for those rare birds who like to train ambidextrously.
Of course, the gun’s design is all well and good, but that could just as easily have been explained in a boardroom. We were at FTW to see how the gun performed in as many real-world settings as we could throw at it, and I’m here to tell you, it passed with flying colors. The gun weighs in between 8 and 9.1 pounds, depending on if you’re hefting the long-barreled “Big Game,” the short-barreled “Hog Hunter,” or the AICS-magazine-compatible “Predator” model. For reference, the former two guns are fed by flush-fit detachable box mags. This, clearly, does not put it on the ultralight side of the hunting-rifle world, but leaves it still maneuverable enough to truck through the woods, into a treestand, or even long miles through the backcountry, provided you don’t mind a couple extra pounds. The upshot, of course, is that the weight makes the gun absorb recoil more smoothly. Being that the name of the straight-pull game is quick follow-up shots, this makes for an exceedingly well-balanced package—everything from the gun’s weight, to its ergonomic stock, to its silky action work together to keep you firmly planted in the scope and on target.
We put the gun through three main scenarios: long-range precision drills; close-range drills on moving targets and targets of opportunity; and finally, medium-distance positional shooting drills, where we were forced to situate the gun as best we could from often contorted firing positions, using our surroundings and whatever equipment we had with us.
At extremely long ranges, the gun surprised and impressed with its easy accuracy. While there were some questions coming in as to whether the straight-pull bolt would be capable of Savage’s traditional bolt-action accuracy, the Impulse quickly put such doubts to bed. After sighting in, I stepped a Hog Hunter chambered in .308 Winchester from 200 to 700 yards in increments of 50, without missing a shot. Later, I took the same rifle out to 1,200 yards, before exchanging it for a Big Game chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor, with which I consistently drilled a 15-inch plate at 1,400 yards. That’s not even a half-inch over 1 MOA, and based off the impacts I saw on nearer targets, the rifle is capable of shooting far below that. On the shooter’s side, a lot of this is down to the AccuTrigger. User-adjustable from 2.5 to 6 pounds, it is decidedly crisp, and can be lightened enough for effortless precision.
Positional drills, which saw us reach from 300 to 500 yards, were tackled with similar ease. The gun’s middling weight was enough to keep it stable on odd surfaces like rocks and tree limbs without too much trouble, without being so heavy that supporting it off a tripod, or simply with a strap, became tedious. To be fair, this particular segment tested the shooter more than the gun, but if you were doing your job, the rifle would do its part without complaint.
Where the gun really shone, however, was in the sub-150-yard snap-style shooting the majority of hunters tend to encounter in the field. We ran the gun through several scenarios like this with targets both moving and stationary. Indeed, some resembled dangerous game, and were mounted on tracks coming straight at the shooter. It was here that the straight-pull action really came into its own.
Whether moving or stationary, the ease and simplicity of the gun’s straight-pull design allowed me to stay on task and on target. Whether it was simply a laterally moving slip of paper or a charging buffalo, the motion of the target quickly put into perspective how much the gun’s simplified operation contributed to quick and accurate follow-up shots. Particularly with the shortened barrel of the Hog Hunter, the rifle was as fast and maneuverable as I could ever have dreamed, allowing me to bury a near-continual stream of accurately placed lead into my target(s) of choice.
Further, the detachable-box magazines allowed for quick and easy top-offs when necessary, without having to fumble around single-loading individual shells into the action. The bottom line? This rifle delivered fast and accurate follow-up shots on multiple, near-simultaneous targets without breaking a sweat. For the majority of hunters’ needs, which involve downing a single animal at a time, this rifle is beyond adequate. The simplified straight-pull motion will allow you to keep hair in the scope with far less trouble than a conventional bolt-action, and is much easier for a new shooter to familiarize themselves with. The tang-mounted safety is also a boon, making it easy to go from stalking to shooting in a hurry.
As our time wound down at FTW and we were forced to turn in our rifles, I felt a real pang of regret. Though all my targets had been paper, I had formed something of an attachment to the little .308, playing out scenarios in my mind of how it would fare in the woods of my native Virginia. I look forward to when I can snag an Impulse of my own, to live out its days dropping deer next to the Shenandoah, and maybe even game farther afield. In the offseason however, it will reside in the rack high on the wall, right below my venerable old Model 111. Looks like there’s room up there for the new and different after all.