Gun Digest

New Ultra Light Arms: The Best Bolt-Action Hunter Ever Made?

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New Ultra Light Arms redefines accuracy among ultra-lightweight rifles.

I’m going to tell you a story about the best bolt-action hunting rifle ever created. What will surprise you is the name attached to this rifle isn’t Browning, Winchester or Mauser. In 1979, a West Virginia gunsmith began experimenting and quit his job as a machine shop instructor at a vocational school to introduce the lightest but most-balanced, best-shooting but easiest-carrying, hunting rifle ever made. Since 1984, he has turned out more than 7,000 examples of this perfection. Melvin Forbes of New Ultra Light Arms started this venture, not by trying to take an existing rifle and fixing it, but by creating his own.

Because his rifles have remained a custom-only offering, Melvin Forbes’ name isn’t as well-known as men like Hawken or Mauser. However, his contribution to the history of the rifle is just as important.

Forbes based his design around a cylindrical bolt-action receiver with a two-lug bolt. The bolt was fitted with a Sako-style extractor because of its shortness and reliability. It also had a plunger-style ejector, and the bolt release was located on the tang. A special trigger/safety mechanism was designed and then crafted by Timney Triggers that provides three functions from two positions. In the forward position, the rifle will fire; in the rear position, it’s on safe, but if you press down on the safety you can work the bolt, safely unloading the rifle.

A barrel was needed, and for that Forbes turned to West Virginia barrel maker Douglas Barrels. For calibers up to .30, a number-one contour is used, and it’s attached to the receiver with an uncompromised dedication to ensuring everything was centerline-of-the-bore true. This being a proprietary action, scope mounts were needed, too. Traditional mounts can add as much as a half pound or more, so Forbes designed his own. Not only do they weigh less than 3 ounces, they’re also contoured to conform to the same centerline the rifle is built on.

Not Just Any Stock
Forbes needed a stock, and in the early ’80s, all lightweight synthetic rifle stocks were manufactured using technology from the fiberglass boat industry. Though they were reasonably stable, they were heavy. A former mold maker, Forbes created a design that, with a negative drop comb, insisted that the rifle recoiled straight to the rear and also perfectly positioned the shooter’s eye in line behind the riflescope. Though the stock felt great in hand and on the shoulder, it didn’t help stiffen and support the lightweight barrel enough to deliver the accuracy desired. And, it was too heavy.

New Ultra Light Arms also makes rimfire rifles that are just as light and just as accurate as the centerfires they produce.

For help, Forbes went to a friend who worked for the Allegheny Ballistics Laboratory in Rocket Center, West Virginia. Currently, they manufacture advanced composite structures for the F-22 Raptor. At that time, they were building incredibly strong and lightweight materials for rockets. They helped Forbes understand how to hand-lay Kevlar and carbon fiber in a way that would—and you might find this hard to believe—actually make the stock stiffer than the action and barrel. Forbes took this technology and applied it to his stock, but unlike conventional wisdom still dictates, Forbes bedded his barreled action from the tang to the tip of the forend. In other words, the entire action and barrel are supported.

When Forbes’ stock comes out of the mold, it weighs an incredibly light 8 ounces, and after adding paint and a recoil pad, and fitting it to the rifle, it still weighs only 17 ounces. Most remarkable is how the stock stiffens the barreled action so that accuracy is on par with benchrest rifles. But Forbes made another discovery, and he had to seek help from engineers at West Virginia University to understand what was happening.

Forbes discovered that in his rifles would shoot all bullet weights to the same point of impact at 100 yards. Any serious rifleman knows this is, well, impossible, and Forbes wanted to understand why it was happening. With the help of some super-smart guys, they discovered that the stock was actually dampening barrel vibrations. In other words, it was making the super-thin barrel think it was very thick. Essentially, what Forbes had created was a 5-pound benchrest rifle.

Flattery Through Imitation
Associates who invested in Forbes’ creation insisted the company be named Ultra Light Arms. A plethora of copycats soon emerged, and they were marketed as “ultra lights,” thus marginalizing the name of the rifle that created the genre. Other manufacturers tried to copy his design: It’s not hard to build a lightweight rifle—but what’s hard is building a lightweight rifle that’ll shoot really well and not knock the slobbers out of you when you pull the trigger.

The two-position/three-function safety on New Ultra Light Arms rifles allows them to be loaded and unloaded with the safety on.

This was partly because these copycats simply screwed thin barrels on existing actions and then attached a conventional synthetic stock. The difference—the main difference—was the stock. These manufacturers who thrive on automation and turning out guns as fast as possible did not—and still do not—understand the technology behind the Forbes stock, nor wouldn’t invest the money necessary to have these stocks built by hand like they had to be.

An improperly balanced rifle—of any weight—is hard to shoot offhand. When Forbes created his rifle, he designed it from the front guard screw out. In other words, with a conventional scope attached, his rifles balance on the front guard screw, right between the hands. This balance is what makes them so easy to shoot well from field positions.

Executives at Colt, however, recognized what Forbes was doing, and, in 1999, they purchased his company with the intention of offering what would be called the Colt Light Rifle. At the 2000 SHOT Show, they took orders for more than 7,000 rifles on the first day. Unfortunately, due to mismanagement, Colt had to cease the Colt Light Rifle project, and Forbes bought his company back. Several thousand Colt Light Rifles were produced, but they utilized a cheap synthetic stock. Many who own them send them to Forbes for restocking.

The New Ultra Light Arms Model 20 set the benchmark for lightweight and accurate hunting rifles. It’s a mark that has yet to be reached by any other rifle.

About a decade later, Forbes was approached again about offering a commercial version of his rifle, specifically the Model 24. Forbes crafts actions that are sized to match a family of cartridges and names these actions based on their weight. The Model 20 weighs 20 ounces and is sized for .308 Winchester-class cartridges. The Model 24 weighs 24 ounces and is sized for .30-06-class cartridges. This goes on all the way up to the Model 40, which will work with cartridges like the .416 Rigby.

The new company, Forbes Rifles, was to offer a commercial, non-custom version of the Model 24. But things didn’t go as planned. Forbes’ partners thought they’d be better off by abandoning the stock he designed in favor of a less expensive version. They failed, and the leftover parts were picked up by Barrett, who called it the Fieldcraft. It underwent some changes, but its real deficiency was the use of a conventional stock. Fieldcraft rifles couldn’t perform on the same level as the rifles from New Ultra Light Arms and were soon discontinued.

Still Aiming High
Now at 74, Forbes is still building the same rifle he’s been building for 35 years. And he’s still doing it the exact same way. The metalwork is flawless, and the rifles are built on a true centerline, but the secret—the thing that makes them so special—is the stock. How special are these rifles? Consider this, they retail for about $3,500, the wait is six to eight months, and 70 percent (7 out of 10) of those who purchase one order another within 12 months. I currently own four!

The bolt release on New Ultra Light Arms rifles is located on the left side of the tang. On left-handed rifles, the location is reversed.

Melvin Forbes’ name might never be as well-known as that of Paul Mauser, but he designed a better and stronger rifle. For those fortunate few who own one of his rifles, his name is just as revered and belongs on the list of iconic rifle engineers, because he realized the rifle stock is just as important as the steel. (Forbes loaned Nosler an action for testing, and they used it for 12 years and fired 4.5 million rounds through it. It was still functional when it was retired.)

Forbes is a rifle magician, and his magic—his science—is real. If you want to experience it, all you have to do is believe … and write a check. But when you do, Forbes will tell you, “That’s my rifle; you’re just paying to have it on permanent loan.”

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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