By Dan Kidder
Close to the Arctic Circle in the beautiful and friendly country of Finland, lies a company obsessed with perfection. I recently had the opportunity and privilege to be a guest of this company and tour their facilities, and I have to say I was very impressed.
SAKO is an acronym for Suojeluskuntain Ase- ja Konepaja Osakeyhtiö, which translates to Firearms and Machine workshop of the Civil Guard. Located in the industrial city of Riihimäki, 45 miles to the North of the capital Helsinki, the company still operates in the factory they have occupied since 1927. The history of the company is as fascinating as the history of the country itself, and one could argue that if it were not for the events surrounding the creation of Finland, there would be no SAKO, and possibly without SAKO, there would be no Finland. The company itself was started in 1919, refurbishing old Prussian rifles given to the White Army during the 1918 Finnish Civil War. The company that would bear the name SAKO Oy was officially founded in 1921 and has been in continuous operation as a rifle company since then. During World War II the SAKO factories began full scale production of cartridges, producing 275 million between 1939 and 1944, in a small brick building that still stands in the courtyard of the Riihimäki factory complex and is now used as a conference and show room for all of their products.
During the 100-day long Winter War, the top sniper in the world, Simo Häyhä, also called “The White Death” used a SAKO produced variant of the Mosin Nagant to kill between 505 and 542 Russian soldiers. He was so successful as a sniper with this rifle that the Russians put a price on his head. The staggering losses to Russia and the relatively light losses to the Finns (323,000 Soviets to only 70,000 Finns) is partly credited to the excellent quality of their rifles and the hunting tradition of their people, coupled with their knowledge of the woods and ability to ski into position, strike, and ski away. That and Sisu, which we will elaborate on in a bit.
Their problems with the Soviets led Finland to ally with Germany in World War II. To avoid being nationalized by Russia as part of reparations for being on the losing side in that war, SAKO was acquired by the Finnish Red Cross and made hospital bed posts, small alcohol lamps, and “other necessary medical equipment,” which exempted them from Russian control. In fact, it wasn’t until 2000 that SAKO was owned by a company whose primary business was manufacturing firearms, when they were purchased by their current owners, Beretta Holdings Group. Prior to that, they were owned by a company that made underwater steel cables and then by cell phone manufacturing giant Nokia.
Throughout these tumultuous years, SAKO continued to make rifles, known the world over for the smoothest actions. Their current offerings include that same butter smooth action and a litany of features that make the rifles highly sought after by militaries and hunters around the globe.
Seeing the manufacturing processes for myself gave me the opportunity to really geek out. I come from a family of machinists who worked for everyone from Lockheed, Ryan, Boeing and other companies known for their precision work. It was not uncommon to pick long spirals of machined metal that had been tracked in the treads of a work boot out of the carpet in my home when I was growing up. The smell of machining coolants and oils was always present. Walking through the floor of the factory and seeing a blend of modern robotics mixed with older manual machines was a fascinating inside look at the lengths SAKO takes to marry the best of modern technology with old world craftsmanship. It was also unusual to see a busy factory so clean that one could eat off the floors and equipment benches.
SAKO uses some of the finest materials for production, giving them superior strength and reliability. Steel, aluminum alloys, woods, and polymers for their rifle production and brass, lead, tin, and copper for their ammunition. Starting at this base of quality materials they are already a leg up on the competition.
As the materials move through their various stations being crafted into precision rifle parts, each step is quality inspected to assure there is minimal deviation. Some of the quality assurance checks involve state of the art machines from Zeiss that touch each part at multiple points, measuring them for precision. Other steps are as simple, and yet effective, as a hand inspection with a magnifying glass by the trained eye of a craftsman.
Once each part has been manufactured and tested they move on to an assembly station where a single gunsmith assembles every part into a finished rifle. This single assembly stage, rather than a production line, makes sure that each part is fine-tuned to work together for superior performance. Once assembled, two over pressure loads are fired through the rifle to make sure it can withstand pressure beyond SAAMI specifications. Three more rounds are then fired to ensure sub-MOA accuracy.
It is important to note a few things that are different about Finland that contribute to this goal of perfection. First, hunting is a major pastime in Finland. It is almost as Finnish as that other Finnish pastime, the sauna. In Finland, unlike much of Europe, hunting is accessible to every person, and not just reserved to the wealthy or landed aristocracy. I heard hunting referred to as “every man’s right,” no less than 40 times in the week that I was there, by multiple people. It is a part of their national pride and almost every Finn will partake in the sport at some point in their life.
The second thing that is different about Finns is the concept of Sisu. Sisu has no direct English translation, but is a Finnish concept described as stoic determination, tenacity of purpose, grit, bravery, resilience, and hardiness and is held by Finns themselves to express their national character. It is why they were a formidable adversary on the battlefield and why they take their aspirations for manufacturing perfection so seriously. The tougher the challenge, the more eager the Finnish people are to tackle it.
Every employee in the production line at SAKO has a strong tie to the hunting heritage that is so predominant in Finland. They look at each rifle as if it is one that may end up in their own hands on a hunt and provide a special dedication to quality knowing that it could mean the difference between a successful hunt or failing to put meat on the table. This has led to SAKO’s slogan and mission statement, “a passion for perfection.”
On a moose hunt on the island of Nagu, part of the Turku Archipelago, a chain of islands in the Baltic Sea, I got to wield their current offering, the 85 Finnlight II. The Model 85 is available in dozens of configurations, six different sized actions, both wood and synthetic stocks of varying shapes, and a wide variety of caliber offerings. In total, SAKO offers the model 85 in more than 2,000 different SKU's. Each of the 85's features that renowned smooth action that makes it ideal for rapid cycling for multiple fast shots on target. For our shooting test to get our hunting license, we had to place four shots in the kill zone of a moose target at 75 meters in a minute and a half. That is a big target at a short distance with a lot of time, so I took my time and didn’t rush in the slightest. Because of the smooth action, I was able to successfully place all 4 shots from my .308 on target in 11 seconds. I was pretty proud of that until one of the factory guys told me he did it in three. Whether he was putting me on, I imagine that had I rushed I could have significantly cut the time to eject and lock the bolt by a great deal.
One of the factors for why the bolt is so smooth is obviously polishing and finishing, but it goes far beyond that. The three locking lugs are so precisely machined that they fit seamlessly into the receiver. On top of that they use fewer parts to create fewer potential failure points, and the single forged bolt leaves no weld points. This provides more surface area for positive lock-up of the bolt and a lock time of 1.3 milliseconds. It is fast, and it is smooth. The angle of the bolt is just right for comfortable operation. Couple the smoothest action I have ever worked on a rifle with an amazing trigger. The trigger is user-adjustable from 2 to 4 pounds, and many of the Model 85's come standard with the SAKO Set Trigger, an adjustable single stage short trigger pull. To activate this Set Trigger, you push the trigger forward to set it, then pull as normal for a short trigger with zero creep or overtravel. When you don’t set it, it acts just like a standard trigger. All of the Model 85's have the option of including the Set Trigger.
In addition to the amazing action and phenomenal trigger, SAKO incorporates their Controlled Cartridge Feed to prevent jams and double feeds by precisely sliding the rim of the case under the extractor, as well as mechanical ejection to rapidly clear the chamber of spent shells, reducing the time needed to fully cycle the bolt.
But the real test of any rifle is the barrel, and here is where SAKO really excels. They use cold hammer forged barrel blanks and then broach rifle and hone them for consistent and exact twist rates along the length of the barrel. SAKO will choose the most accurate twist rate for each caliber and tune the rifling to that particular cartridge and load.
SAKO Sales Manager Kim Juutilainen proved what a deadly rifle the 85 is by putting the smack down on a charging bull about 15 minutes into the hunt with two rapid shots that dropped him in his tracks. The next day, Beretta Product Manager Phillip Jones made the most amazing rapid string of shots I think I have ever encountered on three roe deer, dropping all three in what seemed like less than two seconds with five shots, using the Model 85 Bavarian with the Set Trigger. The SAKO performed well for everyone who hunted with it, and many deer, moose, and fox fell to it on the two days of hunting.
The one area where I feel the SAKO 85 could do with some improvement, is the scope mounting system. The model 85 uses a proprietary tapered rail machined into the single piece receiver. SAKO claims this tapered system is more secure by placing opposing tension on the rings. However, this system makes it difficult to find the appropriate rings and bases than the more common Picatinny system affords. There is also debate in the shooting community whether it is as solid as the more available standard rail. One answer from SAKO to these concerns was that people are using other brands of rings or bases and also that they were not torqueing them to the suggested 50-inch pounds to the base. SAKO highly recommends using only steel SAKO Optilock rings or bases and never dry fitting. Either use blue thread locker or a drop of gun oil to properly seat the screws. My rifle on the hunt had loose rings and we never did quite get the scope dead on. I know others who have had issues with getting their bases to stay tight and have experienced scope drift as a result. My suggestion is to tighten them down after every shooting session and again before every hunt to make sure they are still tight. And of course, you should always verify your point of aim/point of impact with your chosen load before a hunt anyway.
Speaking of loads, I have to say how impressed I was with the SAKO Hammerhead ammunition. Not only with the degree of precision to which it was made, but the terminal effect I witnessed on animals that were shot with it. The ammunition was precise and effective.
The SAKO factory contains their cartridge manufacturing plant and all of the components are made of the highest quality materials and formed and assembled on state-of-the-art machines. The same level of precision quality control that SAKO applies to their rifles is present in the ammunition side of the house. They use a chemical tinning process to bond the copper jacket to the lead core for high weight retention after impact. And seeing what it did to the animals it hit, I was highly impressed with the amount of damage it caused. Recovered bullets held together amazingly well with nearly 100 percent weight retention and magnificent expansion. Whether you are chasing dangerous big game, or smaller animals, they have a load that will be a great fit for you and it is currently available in 35 calibers with 114 commercial loadings.
With the combination of history, performance, and the indomitable will of the Finnish people who design and make them, SAKO continues to make outstanding rifles that perform beyond expectations. Their passion for perfection drives their continued development and manufacturing and preserves their heritage of excellence.