Throwback Thursday: This is an updated / condensed version of the first article I wrote about Melvin Forbes and New Ultra Light Arms. It was first published in Gunworld magazine in 2003.
The Reese Cup may just be the ultimate candy bar: Peanut butter surrounded by just the right amount of milk chocolate that has pleased pallets since the 1920s. Now, you may not like Reese Cups but you have to admire their engineering and balance. Harry Burnett Reese did something unique in the American food industry; built a company that thrived on the manufacture of a single product. What does that have to do guns? Balance. Balance like you find in the Nosler Partition hunting bullet. Partitions offer a near perfect equilibrium between expansion and weight retention and are commonly considered the bullet by which all others are judged.
The perfect hunting rifle is balance personified. The formula for it’s construction must contain the perfect mix of accuracy, tolerable weight, good fit, unquestionable reliability and resilience. But putting them all together into a solvable equation is the trick. If you look at most factory rifles and many built in custom shops they will possess the proper amount of one or more these elements but when weighed and measured they will be found lacking in others.
In 1979 a West Virginia gunsmith began experimenting and a couple years later he quite his job as a machine shop instructor at the local vocational school. He had solved the equation. Since 1985 he has turned out thousands of rifles displaying Reese Cup consistency. Melvin Forbes of New Ultra Light Arms started this venture, not by trying to take an existing rifle and “fixing” it, he created his own.
Sending some other manufacturers action to Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig in an effort to cut weight like many gunmakers do was not acceptable. Melvin’s concept action is machined from 4140 heat-treated steel and while they all look the same they are sized for the particular cartridges they will house. The model 20 (which weighs 20 ounces) handles standard short action .308 Winchester sized cartridges. There is a model 24, 28, 32 and a model 40 for big boys like the 416 Rigby. In each case the model designation indicates the weight of the action.
The Metal Parts
The bolt utilizes a Sako type extractor and it will feed rounds right side up, upside down or sideways. Tolerances are kept to within two, ten-thousandths of and inch and hand lapping ensures 100% engagement of both locking lugs. This manufacturing exactness and concentric alignment produces an action that is creamy peanut butter smooth. Cartridges are housed in a blind magazine and glide effortlessly into premium Douglas barrels. Melvin uses Douglas barrels because he says “they are absolutely straight and bored true center”.
Riflestocks have always hindered builders seeking to create the ultimate hunting rifle. Wood, in all of its beauty, does not offer the consistency or durability needed. Unfortunately no one offered a stock that would meet the strength and weight requirements Melvin had established as a minimum for his rifles. Synthetic rifle stock technology came from the fiberglass boat industry and could not provide the necessary rigidity. So Melvin, with the help of some friends at the Allegany Ballistics Laboratory, designed his own riflestock out of a composite Kevlar/Graphite fabric. NULA stocks are individually hand bedded from the tang to the tip of the forend. They are built around each barreled action. These unbelievably stable stocks allow NULA rifles to commonly shoot all bullet weights to the same point of impact and maintain a forever zero. How? Because they are stiffer than the barrel, because they eliminate barrel vibrations at about 12 inches. Essentially, make the barrel think it is much thicker than it really is.
Fit & Function
But that’s not all. The perfect hunting rifle should “fit” you. The comb on these stocks is extremely high and cast a little out at the toe. A wider than normal butt, capped with a rubber pad and cut to the customers correct length of pull tames recoil. When one is shouldered it feels like your best pair of hunting boots: comfortable. You may think that Melvin strayed from the principal of the world’s most famous peanut butter cup when he set his rifles’ weight to be so light. Light rifles kick harder. Right?. Not exactly. All things being equal, a lighter rifle will have more recoil energy than a heavier one. But, less mass equals less inertia, which equals less “felt kick”. Sound like a sales pitch? Consider this, the heavier an object is the harder it is to slow down or stop. The fast push of the lighter rifle happens over a shorter period of time. But the magic is the stock’s shape and construction. Like a lion tamer controls a big cat, the stock manages the recoil for you.
The Go Switch
The fire control system is relies on two quality devices: great triggers and NULA’s own two position – three function safety. In the forward most position the safety allows a perfectly adjusted Timney trigger to light the fuse on your cartridge of choice. In the rear position the bolt is locked and the rifle will not fire. Push down on the safety in the rear position and the bolt unlocks but the rifle is still on safe.
A completed rifle built on the model 20 action will weigh about five pounds depending on how large the hole is in the barrel. (Melvin can provide exact figures to the ounce if you give him a call.) With scope the whole package will come in at about 6 pounds and balance perfectly on the front guard screw. This makes carrying the rifle effortless and when it is on your shoulder the weight is evenly distributed between your hands. This means you can actually shoot the rifle to your full potential.
Do NULA rifles cost more than a factory rifle? Yep. Are they worth it? There are five of them in my safe and they all come from a little shop in the mountains of West Virginia and are built by a hunter and master gunsmith, who like H.B. Reese, has built a successful business around one good product. I once told Melvin every hunter should experience a NULA rifle. He grinned and said “I can help with that. Somewhere, somebody, is pulling the trigger on one of my rifles right now.”
Melvin will make you one too. Of course you could just stick with a plain factory rifle and eat a lot of Reese Cups. You’ll still have some balance in your life, just not the kind you can hunt with.
For 2015 New Ultra Light Arms is celebrating their 30th anniversary by offering a limited edition rifle, signed by Melvin, with a special trigger from Timney. While Melvin’s granddaughter is away at basic training they are also offering a discount.