The Ultimate Heavy Bolt Action Varmint Rifle: Savage 12VSS Varminter


by Jeff Quinn

photography by Jeff Quinn

September 21st, 2005




Heavy varmint rifles, and by that I mean rifles weighing over ten pounds ready to go, are a very specialized type of weapon. They are built for precision long range shooting. They are much akin to the heavy-barreled sniper type weapons used by the military and by specialized law enforcement units. The main difference is the targets. Both types of rifles demand precision, sometimes at extended ranges. Both usually wear heavy barrels, have decent triggers, and wear quality scopes built for shooting at long range. Savage builds several rifles that fit into one or the other categories, that they market to law enforcement and varmint hunters. However, they only have one that they call the "Varminter", and it is featured in this article. The Savage 12VSS Varminter is, in my opinion, the ultimate heavy varmint rifle. The one featured here is chambered for the .22-250 cartridge, which is the quintessential varmint cartridge. The rifle is also available chambered for the .223 Remington and .308 Winchester cartridges.

The Varminter features all the goodies. It wears a Choate synthetic stock that is built for long range shooting. The stock has an accessory rail under the forearm for mounting of a bipod. It has an adjustable spacer kit to vary the length of pull. It comes with two cheek pieces to properly align the shooterís eye with the scope. The Choate stock wears sling swivel studs on either side of the forearm and buttstock, and has an adjustable monopod under the buttstock that, when used with a bipod, gives a three-point rest that is very stable shooting from prone or from a bench. It is an exceedingly comfortable stock to use for extended shooting sessions.

The Varminter wears a heavy profile fluted stainless steel button-rifled barrel that is free-floated into the Choate stock. The stainless action has the safety mortised into the tang, just as it should be. The Varminter wears a large bolt handle knob for easy operation, and the internal magazine holds four cartridges. The rifle weighs eleven pounds and four ounces, and of course, it has that wonderful AccuTrigger that allows a shooter to adjust the pull weight down to a crisp one and one-half pounds, for precision work.

The ultimate varmint rifle also deserves the ultimate varmint scope. For this, I chose the Leupold VX-III Long Range scope with the Varmint Hunterís Ballistic Aiming reticle. This scope has a matte black finish and is built on a 30mm tube. It has a side mounted focus and finger-adjustable windage and elevation turrets with one-quarter minute click adjustments. The Varmint Hunterís reticle allows the hunter to estimate the range to target, and then hold directly on the aiming point which correlates with the distance to the target. It also has markings to allow for wind deflection at various ranges.  The picture shows a view through the scope, but the illustration below shows more clearly the reticle, and the chart shows the ballistics of two different classes of varmint cartridges, which determines which setting on the scope that the shooter uses for his particular rifle. I lifted this chart from Leupoldís website, to better illustrate how the reticle works.

This Leupold scope is just perfect for the ultimate varmint rifle. While the 12VSS is Savageís best heavy varmint rifle, in my opinion, every one of their varmint guns that I have tried has been accurate and trouble free. The stock on the 12VSS makes it easier to shoot accurately than their other varmint guns, but all use the same high quality actions and barrels, and all have the AccuTrigger. Choosing any of their varmint rifles would not be a mistake, and I recommend them often. However, there is something really special about this particular 12VSS Varminter that makes it, for me at least, the ultimate varmint rifle. You see folks, I built this rifle with my own two hands.  I didnít order a stock and bolt the action into it. I went right up to the factory and built it myself, with the help of the skilled craftsmen at Savage Arms.

Back on April 7th of this year, I received an email from the Marketing Services Manager at Savage Arms, inviting me to come up to Massachusetts to build my own rifle. I was both pleasantly surprised and humbled at the same time. I didnít know why they invited me, but I decided that I better get up there before they changed their minds, so it was not long before I headed the Harley towards the Mason-Dixon line. Hearing of the horror stories of entering that anti-gun region, I decided not to pack a weapon with me. After a bit more thought on the subject, I decided to pack a weapon that I could, if necessary, throw away. Since the statute of limitations has not yet expired, I will not go into any further detail on that subject.

It was a very pleasant ride up through the mountains, and I found that part of the country to be very scenic and relaxing. I was making good time, so a side trip to Gettysburg battlefield was in order. Visit there if you ever get a chance. Crossing Connecticut was an interesting experience. Those folks drive their cars like they just stole them! The speed limit was 55, so I finally got over into the right lane and slowed the Road Glide down to about 80 and let everybody go on by.

Arriving the afternoon before I was scheduled to build the rifle, I was treated to supper at a very nice place by two members of Savageís management, Brian Herrick and Paula Iwanski, enjoying a good meal, fine company, and an interesting discussion of upcoming products to be introduced into the Savage line, laced a bit with some interesting history of Savage Arms, and the New England gun industry in general. I naturally begged for the reintroduction of the grand old Model 99, but it most likely will not happen. Too soon the evening was over, and I was returned to my hotel to make an attempt at getting some sleep.

I was picked up at 6:30 the next morning and driven to the factory, which was a sight to behold in itself. It was the same old brick building that I had seen pictures of since my youth.  Stopping at the guard shack, I was given a name badge that they had prepared for me, and proceeded to the lobby.

I could have spent all day in the lobby, especially if I could have opened those glass showcases and fondled the guns within. There were many rare Savage rifles in there. I would sell a kidney to obtain a trim little scaled-down model 99 prototype that was chambered for the .32-20 cartridge. On second thought, I would sell both kidneys and go on dialysis for that little rifle! There were so many old rifles in there, that it was like history was alive just beyond the glass.

After lusting over the rifles and steaming up the showcases, it was time to go to work. Entering the factory floor, I was immediately impressed by the vast amount of machinery that it takes to build a rifle. There among the latest high-tech computer controlled machines were many old Pratt & Whitney lathes and boring machines. There were milling machines, rifling machines, and one old machine that does nothing but straighten any slight bend in a barrel, making it perfectly straight. They all looked straight to me, but the man peering down each and every Savage barrel made certain that they were perfect. I was impressed with the broaching machine that pulls a long broach through the receiver to cut the square raceway for the bolt lugs. I had never seen that done before.

I was allowed to do any operation that I liked, and I tried them all. I was surprised at how much hand work goes into a rifle. Of course, I was closely supervised by the machine operators at each station to assure that I screwed nothing up. Since the gun that I was building was stainless, I did not get involved in any bluing, but I did get to observe the polishing tank into which the barreled actions were placed to achieve that highly polished finish. It was much like a huge cartridge case tumbler, loaded with ceramic stones. This process allows Savage to produce a beautiful polished blued finish at a low price. A good example is the Savage Model 40 .22 Hornet that I recently reviewed. It is finished better than some rifles costing more than three times its price.

One person was assigned to take me through the factory, as I worked at different stations building the rifle. While at each station, I got to meet and learn from the folks who do that particular operation every day, and it was with these people that I was most impressed.

Some of the craftsmen (and craftswomen, if that is a word) have been at Savage Arms for many years, and some of those years were pretty lean times for the company. Others that I met had been working there for only a couple of years. However, everyone with whom I spoke, and I got to talk with a bunch of them, were truly proud of the products that they were building. It was the kind of good old Yankee Union pride that is sadly missing from many companies these days. I had really expected to meet a bunch of rude people in Massachusetts. I was wrong.  These were some of the nicest folks that I have ever met, and each one of these union workers had nothing but great respect for the management that brought Savage Arms back from the brink of extinction a few years ago. After building the rifle, I proof fired it, and it was sent to get a serial number assigned while they fed me a fine lunch that I got to enjoy while visiting with some more of the executives at the outside screened gazebo. We mostly discussed the cost of living in New England. I honestly do not see how these folks make a living up there. They are taxed beyond belief on their homes, and the prices of homes up there is unbelievable to me. The fact that they can produce fine, accurate weapons and sell them at a price consistently below their competition is a testament to the efficiency of their workers and the design of their rifles.

After lunch, Paula and I went upstairs to the range to to test fire the rifle, then we went back downstairs to meet Effie Sullivan, who knows more about Savage rifles and how to build them than you and I will ever learn. She knows her guns, and is the head troubleshooter should you ever experience a problem with any of their products.  The Varminter was then packaged up and shipped back home for me, where it was waiting at my dealerís shop when I got there.

The Savage 12VSS is a fine rifle, as accurate as any that I own, and a lot more accurate than most. With the right ammo, it will shoot one-hole groups at 100 yards. I highly recommend it. I wonít get into different loads and pictures of group sizes in this article as I normally do, for that is not really what this story is about. It is not as much about the rifle as it is about Savage Arms, and Savage Arms is about people. I went to New England to build a rifle, but I came back with much more than that. I gained a greater respect for the people that build our guns.  Before the guns show up on the dealersí gun racks, there are many good people involved in many different operations to turn that bar stock and forgings into an accurate, reliable weapon.  They are people who take pride in their work, and in the product that leaves the factory. At least it is that way at Savage. I hope that it is this way at other gun companies also.  Long after the newness wears off of this rifle, I will remember with fondness my first trip to New England, and the genuine hospitality that I enjoyed at Savage Arms.

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Jeff Quinn


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Savage's 12VSS Varminter.



Savage is known for making some of the most accurate factory rifles available anywhere at any price, and Jeff's 12VSS is no exception.



As a "custom touch", Savage laser-etched Jeff's signature on the gun's bolt, right above the Savage logo.



Savage's AccuTrigger: the finest trigger ever offered on a factory rifle, the AccuTrigger is superior to, and safer than, many custom triggers costing hundreds of dollars.



The man who invented the AccuTrigger.



Author builds and test-fires his 12VSS.



Any company is no better than the people who work there, so it was no surprise to Jeff to find that the folks at Savage are fine examples of the American worker. They take pride in their work and are experts in their assigned tasks, combining Old-World craftsmanship with modern manufacturing techniques and cutting-edge technology.



Barrels are polished in ceramic media before bluing.



Broach for cutting bolt lug channels in receiver.



Rifles awaiting shipment.



A fine rifle deserves an equally fine scope, so Jeff chose Leupold's VX-III Long Range scope with Varmint Hunterís Ballistic Aiming reticle for his 12VSS.