Doug Turnbull’s Lever Action Just Hooked Up With An AR-10
Story by Craig Boddington 05/21/2013
From: Book of the AR-15
What I think of as “gun movies”—“Dirty Harry,” “Winchester ’73,” “The Wild Bunch”—are rare enough that I’m sure most of us can recall “Quigley Down Under.” Remember the final scene when Tom Selleck, as “Quigley,” shot the bad guy with a sixshooter? He said something regarding handguns like, “I said I didn’t like them…I never said I didn’t know how to use them.”
That’s pretty much the way I feel about the modern sporting rifle. Except it’s much too strong to say “I don’t like” the AR frame. What’s not to like? It works, it’s accurate, and with new chamberings it’s becoming ever more versatile. But it would be true to say that I don’t love synthetics as much as I love walnut, and my preferences run toward Model 70s, Mausers and classic lever actions long before the AR. However, it would be not only incorrect, but a very grave insult to suggest that I don’t know how to use an AR.
I was among the last to train with the M14, but I transitioned quickly to the M16A1 in the Marine Corps, then to the much improved M16A2. With either platform I qualified expert every year for more than 20 years, and I like to think I’d have kept that string to 30 years except that I got too senior. As a field grade officer I could voluntarily qualify with the service rifle, but above that it was just a waste of my troops’ ammo. I regret this. Although my T/O (Table of Organization) weapon was always a pistol, I often carried an M16, and there were occasions when I was glad to have it. No, I never said I didn’t know how to use ARs, and I also never said I don’t like them. It’s mostly that I lean toward the more traditional, and that, in the way we gunwriters are typecast, few editors ask me to write about the MSR. I find this odd because, after all, the majority of folks writing about “tactical” stuff (whatever that is) have no military experience at all. But, what the heck, I do my editors’ bidding.
This being the case, I was delighted when the editor of this magazine, fellow Marine Eric Poole, asked me to spend some time with Doug Turnbull’s TAR-40. The funny thing is that it was classic lever actions that led me to Doug Turnbull. He’s a skilled-enough craftsman and gunmaker to assume any character he wishes— and get away with it—so in public you’ll rarely see him without his 19th century-style black hat and often a long duster. This personifies the gun work that he’s made most of his bones with: classic late-19th century lever actions, revolvers and shotguns. He restores old guns of this era to better than new, inside and out, and selectively he makes new guns on old designs, like his Open Range single-action revolvers and, especially, his Model 1886 Winchesters.
Recently, he broke the mold with his own 1911, faithful to the original. But, after all, the Colt 1911 is a key figure in “The Wild Bunch,” a movie that effectively, though two generations later, closed the Old West. In his lever actions he does occasionally depart from tradition: His .475 Turnbull cartridge provides the maximum performance currently available from a tubular-magazine lever action, also maxing out the ’86 Winchester action, which is the biggest of all (his slightly smaller-cased .470 Turnbull maxes out the slightly smaller 1895 Marlin action).
Part and parcel to the guns he restores and the guns he makes is his exceptional bone-charcoal color-casehardening process, yielding rainbow colors on steel. Nobody does it better, and although (grudgingly) he will do guns without it, that’s his signature. So when he told me he was interested in doing an “AR frame” Turnbull rifle, I was somewhat shocked, but I assumed it would have a color-case-hardened receiver. Because the AR has an alloy frame and synthetic stock since its inception, this is an oddball concept…until you think of all those square inches—almost acres—of bare metal that could be case-hardened.
Of course, color-case-hardening cannot be done with aluminum or alloy. It’s not a matter of strength or hardness, but pure metallurgy, so an all-steel upper and lower receiver were required. These were created, with an integral Picatinny rail on the upper—and every bit of it, including the rails, is finished in Doug Turnbull’s amazing rainbow of color-case-hardening. I cannot say if this is the only AR-10-type rifle with all-steel upper and lower, but it’s a bit unusual. Also heavy; the finished rifle weighs about 11.7 pounds and is not a sheep rifle. But, wow, I don’t think there’s another firearm on earth with this much coverage in color-case-hardening.
The barrels, sourced from DPMS and Bushmaster, are standard Parkerized finish, 16 inches of chrome-moly-vanadium with a screw-on muzzlebrake. Both bore and chamber are chromelined. The forward sling swivel is military-style and also Parkerized, likewise the MOE triggerguard, hinged for use with gloves (they’d have loved this baby at the Chosin Reservoir).
The stock is a radical departure. Naturally, it’s walnut; it has to be. Standard is premium American walnut with upgraded wood available. The stock on the test gun is decent walnut, not especially fancy but with a good, straight grain and oil finish. The butt wears a “rifle” recoil pad with black spacer and has a stud for conventional detachable sling swivels. The styling of the butt is essentially straight AR, except that there’s a small sculpted cheekpiece on both sides, thus making it pretty much ambidextrous. As a lefty, I notice these things. I noticed, too, that the safety is not ambidextrous, but the SAFE and FIRE positions are marked on both left and right sides of the action, so the right-hand safety lever (on the left side of the action) could easily be switched out for a left-hand or ambidextrous safety.
The forend is matching walnut, a conventional two-piece AR forend that wraps around the barrel and gas tube. The forend is actually quite short, just six inches, but beefy in diameter with deep horizontal finger grooves. It offers a very good feel and to my eye is somewhat reminiscent of early-20th century military forends such as the Krag and Springfield.
Other than the walnut stock and color-case-hardened steel receiver, the TAR-40 is essentially a straightforward 7.62mm AR-10. This is not damning with faint praise. Whether on the 5.56mm or 7.62mm frame, this is a long-proven system that holds neither mysteries nor secrets. I’m told that more than 80 companies are now manufacturing rifles on one or both actions, so the Turnbull TAR-40 likewise holds neither mysteries nor secrets, but it is a one-of-a-kind walnut-stocked AR carrying Doug Turnbull’s unique signature.
This, of course, is the fantastic color-case-hardening he’s famous for. As I said, this required a steel receiver, which carries a price in gun weight. On the other hand, it might also carry a dividend in durability. My suspicion is that some guys will buy this rifle to look at, but a lot of folks do a lot of shooting with their ARs, and I suspect you could go through a bunch of barrels on that massive, all-steel receiver. The extra weight also carries a dividend in shootability. With almost any sight you choose, the rifle is going to weigh over 12 pounds, so recoil is understandably very mild. Off the bench or from any rigid position like prone, the rifle feels more like a 5.56 than a full-house 7.62.
Whether your primary interest is having such a rifle as a wallhanger or as a shooter, it’s not an inexpensive piece, so you have some reasonable right to expect it to function properly and shoot straight. Again, this is a proven system. And Turnbull is a proven name in the world of firearms. The TAR-40 is a whole lot different from the lever-action rifles and single-action revolvers Turnbull has been best known for, but it’s actually a simpler action that is much easier to tune.
To date I have run several hundred rounds through the test rifle—not because I wanted to see how long it would take to fail, but mostly because it’s a real pleasure to shoot. So far there have been no jams, malfunctions, stoppages or any other problems. Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to matter what I feed it. I haven’t even tried military hardball. Everything I’ve run through it has been an assortment of .308 Winchester hunting loads, including 150-, 165- and 180-grain bullets. These have been a mix of conventional lead-core bullets with exposed lead at the tips, polymer-tipped bullets and homogenous alloy bullets. No problems. It digests standard-velocity loads and Hornady’s fast Superformance load with equal ease, throwing empties to the right and back with significant velocity.
The TAR-40 has a full receiver rail but is supplied without iron sights or fixtures for same. Sights are “owner’s choice,” but the obvious intent is some sort of optical sight mounted on the receiver rail. The test gun wore a Leupold VX-1 3-9x40mm, a versatile scope with enough magnification to allow the rifle to demonstrate its accuracy. Like most .308s—and most ARs—this one shoots very well. Group size varied with the load, but five-shot groups averaging right at one MOA seemed fairly routine. I haven’t tried it with competitive match ammo, but accuracy is impressive enough with hunting ammo that I don’t need to, and I’m pretty sure it will respond favorably.
One comment on the AR: Magazines are the most common culprit when malfunctions occur. The TAR-40 is supplied with one 10-round magazine and one four-round magazine (required by some states for hunting). The supplied magazines are from DPMS, and both worked flawlessly and interchangeably. In theory any AR-10 magazine should work, but AR magazines are not created equal, so it’s wise to check functioning with any brand of magazine before buying a whole bunch.
The Turnbull TAR-40 isn’t going to appeal to everybody, and at $4,995, not all of us can afford one. It is unique. Some may find the wooden stock and color-case-hardening a bit too much, but I showed the rifle to quite a few friends and Kansas neighbors, most of whom aren’t “AR guys,” and so far everybody has commented on its good looks. Me, well, the functionality of the AR can’t be questioned, but I’ve never thought of it as a “good-looking rifle” until this one came along. It’s a rifle I know how to use, and I like it. So if you demand looks as well as performance, the Turnbull TAR-40 may well be the ultimate AR. For sure it’s going to turn a lot of heads when at the range.