This review of the Browning X-Bolt Target McMillan A3-5 appeared originally as a feature article in the August 2017 issue of Shooting Illustrated. To subscribe to the magazine, visit the NRA membership page here and select Shooting Illustrated as your member magazine.
Long-range shooting is trending strong in the firearms world today and all the cool kids are gearing up. That’s not lost on gun makers and most have introduced a rifle or two designed to reach out and ring steel out beyond the curvature of the earth. Browning decided to test the waters with a new model at the 2017 SHOT Show with a show-special rifle, the X-Bolt Target McMillan A3-5. The company must have stirred some interest, as a Browning spokesperson said this gun will be in the catalog for 2018, as well.
Like most rifles designed for long range, the Browning X-Bolt Target McMillan A3-5 is a big ol’ beast of a thing. Long and heavy, it’s not something you would pack up a sheep mountain. It’s designed to sit on sandbags or a bipod and hit tiny targets at long distances. Also, like many new rifles hitting the long-range market, my test gun is chambered for 6.5 Creedmoor. This is the alpha dog in the precision-rifle-cartridge kennel right now. It was designed specifically for long-range target work and it has proven to be an outstanding cartridge. When a company introduces a new hunting rifle it’s a sure bet that it will be in .30-’06 Sprg. Other cartridges may be offered, but .30-’06 Sprg. will always be in the lineup. The 6.5 Creedmoor is now the .30-’06 Sprg. of the long-range world. But if that doesn’t ring your bell, the rifle is also available in 6 mm Creedmoor (2017 only), .308 Win., 26 Nosler, 7 mm Rem. Mag., 28 Nosler and .300 Win. Mag.
This Browning X-Bolt Target McMillan A3-5 has a 28-inch barrel with eight full-length flutes. It’s stainless steel, button rifled and finished with a recessed crown with a chamfer. The barrel is a heavy contour that measures .910-inch just behind the muzzle brake. The muzzle brake has a pattern of small holes around the total circumference. It’s loud and effective. It also blasts up a lot of dust and debris when prone, due to the holes on the bottom. The brake is a flush fit with the barrel with no spacers or washers as it does not need to be timed to the barrel. The threads for the brake are 5⁄8-24 TPI so that the gun can easily be fitted with a suppressor. The rifle is shipped with a thread protector if you choose to remove the muzzle brake.
The barrel is freefloated, while the action is glass bedded. The action is blued steel in the typical X-Bolt design with a 60-degree bolt lift. The bolt has an “oversize” handle that is rather petite compared to the standard oversize bolt knobs we see on a lot of precision rifles. That said, it works very well and is “just right” in size to run this gun fast and efficiently. As expected with a round bolt design, the action runs smooth with just a little “stickiness” from surface friction. No doubt that will improve with use. Actually, the bolt has a flat machined on it, so it is not truly round. This is cosmetic, as the flat lines up to be visible with the ejection port when the bolt is closed and is used as an engraving surface used on rifles intended for presentation.
The bolt has three lugs, which accounts for the 60-degree lift. One common issue with multiple-lug bolts is maintaining contact for all the lugs, so I decided to check this one. I degreased the bolt head and applied Dykem machinist’s layout fluid to each of the lugs. This will rub off and show where there is metal-on-metal contact. After the Dykem dried I inserted the bolt back in the Browning X-Bolt Target McMillan A3-5 and cycled it multiple times. Two of the lugs showed good contact of nearly 100-percent, but the third lug only had about 50-percent contact. While not the 100-percent contact you would see on a custom rifle, I suspect this is within specifications as all three are making contact.
The bolt head is a separate piece from the bolt body and is pinned in place. The extractor is an M16 style that pivots on a pin and provides a strong positive grasp on the cartridge rim. The ejector is a spring-loaded plunger in the bolt face. The bolt is polished with the handle and shroud in black. There is a serrated, red, cocking indicator that protrudes from the bottom back of the bolt when the gun is cocked.
The two-position safety is on the tang and blocks the trigger. There is a pin that rises up out of the action when the safety is “on” and pushes another spring-loaded pin up in the bolt to lock the bolt closed. This raises the bolt unlock button on top of the bolt. By pushing down on that button it overrides the bolt lock and allows the gun to be opened with the safety engaged for unloading. I applaud this feature as bolts that will not lock shut are a pet peeve for me on any rifle.
The Browning X-Bolt Target McMillan A3-5 has a gold-colored, adjustable Browning Feather Trigger. As far as I can tell, this is the same trigger that is shipped on the hunting model X-Bolt rifles. Browning says it is adjustable from 5 pounds to 3 pounds and is factory set for 4 pounds. With a new Lyman Digital Trigger Pull Gage the pull weight on the test rifle was 4 pounds 2.5 ounces. I was able to adjust that to 3 pounds 1.5 ounces. This is an excellent pull weight for a hunting rifle, but a little too stiff for a precision rifle. The trigger has a slight bit of crunchy creep before it breaks clean and crisp with no overtravel. While in my never-humble opinion it’s too stiff for precision long-range shooting, it is a nice trigger with a clean feel.
The removable, rotary box magazine holds four rounds in the 6.5 Creedmoor and similar cartridges. With magnum cartridges the capacity is three rounds. It is a proprietary magazine and the Browning folks tell me that there are no aftermarket magazines and that Browning does not offer a larger-capacity magazine. This may be an issue for a tactical or competition rifle, as larger-capacity variants are usually required.
Scope-mounting options are plentiful, thanks to the rifle’s 20-MOA Picatinny rail. The rail uses four mounting screws in front and four mounting screws in back, a system common to the X-Bolt. This came into play with the X-Bolt as it was designed due to one of the bolt lugs being centered on top and making the receiver metal too thin to reliably hold a mounting screw. The fix was to move the mounting screws from the center to the edges where the metal was thicker. With eight screws holding the rail to the receiver this is a solid fit that should give no problems, even with a big, heavy tactical scope.
One note on that: the Browning X-Bolt Target McMillan A3-5 came with a 3-18x44 mm Leupold VX6 scope with a second-focal-plane reticle. I have recently been dragged kicking and screaming into using first-focal-plane reticles. For competitive shooting and some tactical applications, they make some sense, but this scope reminded me that I still like second-focal-plane reticles for 90 percent of my long-range shooting. I know that puts me in the minority, but I have always enjoyed that status in most things.
The stock is the McMillan A3-5, which has a comb that is adjustable for height as well as horizontally to allow perfect alignment of the shooter’s eye and the optic. The stock has textured gripping surfaces and a palm swell for a right-handed shooter. It is fitted with a Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pad. Unlike the A3-5 stock that McMillan sells, this one has a fixed length-of-pull at 135⁄8 inches and is not adjustable.
There is a swivel stud for bipod mounting and two QD swivel cups, one in front, mounted about half way between the swivel stud and the front-guard screw. Another is in the rear, on the bottom center of the stock, where the stock would contact the toe bag or rear support.
Applied with a hydrographic dipping process, the stock color is A-TACS LE camo. There is a well-defined seam the full length of the sample rifle, both top and bottom. The patterns do not match and in places there is a gap of varying width. There are also some blemishes where the coating was not applied smoothly. It makes no difference in the performance of the gun of course, but aesthetically it is less than pleasing. Other than that, fit and finish for this rifle is excellent.
At the range, the flat bottom of the fore-end on the stock sits well on sandbags and is very stable. The rear has a flat bottom that also sits well on a sandbag. My toe bag was too high for this deep stock, but a small, flat sandbag worked nicely. The result was a very stable rifle off the bench. The grip is large with a palm swell and it’s nearly (but not quite) vertical to position the shooter’s hand and align the trigger finger. The adjustable comb allowed me to align my eye exactly with the optical center of the scope. As a “full-faced” man I appreciate that there is a horizontal adjustment as well as vertical. That is accomplished by loosening two Allen-head screws on the top of the cheekpiece and moving the cheekpiece side to side until the positioning is correct. The same two screws lock it in place.
As expected the brake is quite loud. I know, all of them are, but it seems this style with ports all around the circumference are more so at the shooter’s perspective. I was testing the Browning X-Bolt Target McMillan A3-5 from a bench inside a small building and if the brake was inside the walls it about tore the roof off. It is however, effective and helped to stabilize the gun against recoil movement and allow the optic back on target quickly.
With the recent popularity of the 6.5 Creedmoor cartridge, there have been numerous new entries into the ammo market. I wanted to use some of them to test this gun and to cross the spectrum with three different types of ammo. My plan was to use Hornady’s hunting ammo, Federal Premium American Eagle budget ammo and Browning’s ammo. However, I discovered that Browning does not offer this round yet, so the company directed me to Winchester, who makes its ammo anyway, and I added the company’s match-grade 6.5 Creedmoor to the lineup. The gun is capable of good accuracy as demonstrated by this Winchester Match load. The average for five, five-shot groups at 100 yards was .78 inch. The accuracy results with that ammo put this rifle just about in the middle of all the factory-produced precision rifles I have recently tested.
All the ammo shot well and if this were a hunting gun it would be outstanding. However, from a precision-shooting point of view, where MOA accuracy is considered the upper end of acceptability, the Browning is a bit fussy about ammo and showed a very clear preference for this Winchester load. The American Eagle ammo just missed cracking the MOA barrier and it’s a close second. The Hornady ammo showed outstanding hunting accuracy, but fell a little short of MOA from the Browning rifle. On the other hand, each rifle is unique and that same Hornady ammo has demonstrated excellent, sub-MOA accuracy from my custom 6.5 Creedmoor, so it’s the rifle—not the ammo.
If you are into whacking targets in the next zip code and are a Browning fan, the Browning X-Bolt Target McMillan A3-5 is for you. It has all the features of the tried and true X-bolt design, but in a package that precision shooters can appreciate.