The history of the rifle revolves around just a few men. Jacob and Samuel Hawken gave the muzzleloader respect that has remained untarnished for almost 200 years. John Browning applied a level of engineering rapidity, volume and genius of which has never been matched. And, Paul Mauser concocted a rugged, metallic work of art that, to this day, is spoken of as if it were the Holy Grail.
For what John Barsness likes to call “rifle loonies” the names of Hawken, Browning and Mauser are akin to gun god disciples. Admittedly, there are a few others. Richard Gatlin, John Garand, and Hiram Maxim left their mark too, partly because of their ingenuity but very much because their inventions carried their names.
A most revolutionary rifle advancement occurred, almost unnoticed, in the mid 1980s. That’s when a machinist, a mold maker, a high school shop teacher, and a part-time gunsmith perfected the bolt-action sporting rifle by applying as much attention and ingenuity to the stock as to the steel. This new rifle was impressively accurate and unbelievably light. Remarkably, the machinist, mold maker, shop teacher, and gunsmith were all the same person. Even more remarkable is the fact that you probably don’t know his name.
Why? His friends and associates who invested in his incredible creation insisted the company be named Ultra Light Arms (ULA) now New Ultra Light Arms (NULA). In 1985 the name seemed reasonable because light weight sporting rifles did not exist. What these investors did not foresee was that these gravity defying rifles that also defied conventional wisdom would start a trend. A plethora of copycat rifles, from manufacturers like Kimber, Remington, Ruger, Winchester, and just about everyone else emerged. And, they were marketed as ultra lights, thus marginalizing the name of the rifle that started the movement.
Because their name was descriptive of their qualities as opposed to being distinct and proper in nature, the rifles from ULA became lost in a sea of lesser quality, under performing knock-offs. These imitations found success through poor replication of a rifle that created the genre that allowed them to exist. But, the inability of mass-produced, lightweight, bolt-action rifles to deliver premium performance diminished the entire concept.
What’s in a name? Sometimes everything.
A One Man Committee
True rifle loonies tried these facsimiles because they believed, like Townsend Whelen said, “A man will travel farther, hunt over more country, have a better chance of coming on game, and be in better condition when he does if his weapon is light.” After repetitive disappointments these men learned, through the writings of other men like Aagaard, Carmichael, Barsness and Petzal, the origin of the lightweight bolt-action rifle concept. And, they learned about the man who made it a reality: a West Virginian named Melvin Forbes.
The brilliance of Forbes’ design is that a committee of different men with varying areas of expertise did not conceive it; a single man developed it with a committee of different skill sets, which he had learned over his lifetime. Forbes used his experience hunting in the hills of West Virginia to format the heft and ergonomics. He used his machining brilliance to impeccably craft the steel and his mold making knowledge to create the magical stock. And, he used his shop experience to turn the screws. When he became stumped, he turned to experts, like the aerospace engineers at the Allegheny Ballistics Laboratory.
In the end, his ability to balance his mechanical and hunting background produced a perfectly balanced rifle. A rifle like Whelen could only have dreamed of. When he took his rifle to the range it did things he’d never seen a rifle do. He found that he only had to zero it one time because the combination of the full-length bedding and the unique stock – which was stiffer than the barrel – held zero no matter the weather. He discovered that all loads shot to essentially the same point of impact. And, he realized that precision accuracy was possible without a heavy barrel.
Without a full understanding of the science at work, Forbes walked over to West Virginia University and asked them to conduct comparative tests. That’s were he discovered the true magnificence of what he had accomplished. His hand-built, one pound stock of carbon fiber and Kevlar was actually dampening barrel vibrations. In fact, barrel vibrations were non-existent after 12 inches.
Yes, Forbes had created a marvelous rifle but the hero was the stock. It was not just a wood or injection molded handle; it was a purpose-built, hand crafted chassis, designed to strengthen and enhance the performance of the steel. It was not there to just give the shooter something to hold on to. The stiffness and straightness of the stock pushed recoil back into the shooter so that it could be better controlled. The shape of the stock had a 20% higher interface with the shooter. And, its one pound weight allowed for perfect balance to be achieved.
Believing in Magic
Those who have not experienced a rifle built by Melvin Forbes cannot believe. Their exposure to the rifles designed by men like Browning and Mauser have left them skeptical of what is possible. Their disappointment with chopped down, skeletonized sporting rifles soured their lust for a true, ultra light hunting rifle. Unless they find faith in the words of those who have seen the magic, they are destined to carry a heavy load. They will forever consider a less than six pound .308 Winchester unstable and inaccurate.
Melvin Forbes had cast rifle magic. And, during the last 30 years, he has built a legion of riflemen who, while they might not understand the magic (science) they trust it. As unfathomable as it may seem, three out of four of those who buy a rifle from Melvin Forbes buy another one, often within the next 12 months. (I own four and have another on order.) What Melvin Forbes has been unable to do is wrap up all this wonderment up into a package that will fit inside a single paycheck of the average American. For this reason, and this reason alone, his name will never be as well-known some as Hawken, Browning and Mauser. But, for the fortunate few who believe, his name is just as respected and revered.
Melvin Forbes’ name belongs on the list of iconic rifle engineers because he realized the rifle stock is just as important as the rifle steel and he was the first and last to make a truly light-weight, accurate and dependable both-action rifle. Melvin Forbes is a rifle magician and magic – science – is real. If you want to experience it first hand, all you have to do is believe and write a check.
But when you do Melvin will tell you, “That’s my rifle, you’re just paying to have it on permanent loan.”
The following video was recorded at deer camp in December of 2014. We urge you to watch it and listen to master story-teller and rifle magician, Melvin Forbes.