Inside The World Of Tactical Rifles

Shooters or snipers? Civilians dig deep for heavy, accurate rifles with no-nonsense profiles.
Inside The World Of Tactical Rifles

With the increased popularity of “tactical” styled semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 and AR-10, it wasn’t long before the genre exerted its influence on the longgun world.

And despite appearances, not all beefy rifles with black or camo-painted stocks are bound for SWAT vans or Marine units on the hunt for hostiles. Short .308 “patrol” rifles and leggier “sniper” magnums also sell to citizens with no access to police or Pentagon funds. To further broaden their appeal, manufacturers have started to call these “precision” or “long-range” rifles. And the growing variety of bolt-action rifles that take the form vary widely in price and configuration.

By common definition, a long-range rifle pairs a long, thick barrel in a magnum chambering with a varmint-style or adjustable stock. The precision label applies to long-range rifles, but also to those with shorter barrels in calibers like .223 and .308, for shooting to about 600 yards. You could call either a tactical rifle — if it has a black synthetic stock. That term applies more to cosmetics than mechanics.

The sporting-style stock on relatively long, heavy rifles is a nod to hunters who expect to shoot far but must carry their magnums in steep country and perhaps shoot without bipod assist. An adjustable stock like the McMillan A-5 bumps a rifle’s cost and limits both its application and its market. A less expensive model with the same barrel and action may move at retail faster and return more profit.

Smart dealers keep a close watch on costs and inventories. Even without adjustable stocks, long-range rifles can list for several times the price of sporters. Tactical models from Surgeon, Christensen and other revered names blow through the $3,000 ceiling that for years defined a cap for even classy hunting rifles. At the retail rack, money tied up in specialty firearms isn’t available for more popular models.

But interest in long-range rifles is on the upswing. F-class shooting, VLD bullets and scopes with dials keyed to specific loads are a few of many contributing factors. So dealers without at least a few SKUs for this market are missing out.

Yet even mid-point in the price spectrum is still a costly place to park. CZ’s Tactical series in .308 Win to .338 Lapua retails for between $2,000 and $4,000. That price range applies also to Kimber’s new entries: Patrol Tactical, Advanced Tactical II and Advanced Tactical III SOC. The Patrol wears a Manners MCS-T6 stock of reinforced carbon fiber. The Tactical II has a folding Manners stock (an MCS-TF4 with adjustable comb). It and the Tactical III, with adjustable, folding alloy stock, sport forend rails and accept detachable magazines.

Weatherby plays to the power-conscious crowd with its Mark V Accumark in .30-378, .338-378 and .338 Lapua with a retail price of $2,700. A limited edition Chris Kyle commemorative in .300 Win lists at $3,400. Unlike earlier Weatherby Threat Response rifles with adjustable synthetic stocks, these current models have sporter profiles — no adjustable comb or butt, no rail, no vertical grip.

Hardware You Should Know

To get a sense of where this market was headed, I spoke with several manufacturers who make these Gucci longguns.

Kimber’s point man claims the company’s new trio of tacticals is attractively priced compared with others in the market, bearing similar high-end features.

“Our New York plant now has several people of tactical bent and experience. These rifles show their influence,” the Kimber rep said. “Demand is strong. We predict many new shooters who climb the AR-15 ladder will graduate to accurate, long-range bolt rifles.”

Industry-wide, manufacturers are ramping up production of rifles with long-range potential — and drawing attention for their efforts.

“Our MMR (Montana Marksman Rifle) was named by Field & Stream as one of the top five rifles for 2014,” says Jeff Sipe, who runs Montana Rifle Company. The MMR is available in .308 and .300 Win Mag, also in 6.5/284 and .300 WSM. The Montana Tactical Rifle comes in .338 Lapua and .338 Norma (a slightly shortened Lapua).

Remington has added several tactical and long-range rifles to its Model 700 stable, including the Model 700 Tactical Chassis; the SPS Tactical and Target Tactical; the 700 Sendero and Long Range; the VTR and the XCR Compact Tactical and Tactical Long Range. All three top calibers in the tactical spectrum — .308, .300 Win and .338 Lapua — appear in the 700 Tactical Chassis rifle. But it sells in .223 and .260 as well.

“The .308 still leads the pack in our tactical rifles,” Remington’s John Fink says, adding that demand for these rifles will likely spur development of more tactical models.

Browning has also scrambled to add long-range rifles to its line.

“Our A-Bolt Target in .223, .308 and .300 WSM has an adjustable comb and an amazing single-set trigger,” Browning’s Scott Grange points out. “The A-Bolt M1000 is designed for long shots with hunting cartridges from .22-250 to .300 WSM.”

He tells me Browning’s X-Bolt will soon displace the A-Bolt action in such rifles. “There’s no doubt shooters want more tactical and long-range options,” he says.

To join amigos firing from bipods at distant gongs, shooters needn’t raid their offspring’s college fund. Nor must retail shops carry a full range of tactical or precision rifles to draw customers. Affordable MVP Varmint rifles from Mossberg feature laminated Benchrest-style stocks on solid actions with fluted, heavy barrels in .204, .223 and .308. Detachable magazines are standard, as are adjustable triggers. While these rifles don’t cost millions of rubles, they’re quite handsome and can be surprisingly accurate.

Savage also caters to the budget-conscious, with six rifles in its Law Enforcement series. These Model 10s (short) and 110s (long) come in five calibers, .223 to .338 Lapua. Three wear top-quality stocks from McMillan and H-S Precision. But list prices are modest: $1,545 to $2,375. The company’s Target and Varminter lines include more stout rifles with long reach, in laminated and synthetic stocks and eight calibers. Savage also catalogs a couple of Long Range Hunters. Prices for these and most Target and Varminter rifles: $1,100 to $1,600.

Barrels And Bullets

Rifles sell faster if you talk intelligently about them, since long-range aspirants are increasingly savvy as they ponder where to put their dollars. Many questions have to do with barrels. Each one looks like the next. But details like rifling twist are important.

Not that long ago, standard rate of spin for a cartridge worked well enough for all loads, but that’s not so any more. In .223, with bullet weights of 40 to 80 grains, appropriate twist ranges from one turn in 12 inches to one in 7 — the longer the bullet, the sharper the twist.

Shooters with long shooting in mind may need a bit of coaching, as they’ll need heavy bullets for distant targets. Even .30s and .33s can be twist-sensitive. Recently, a .338 Norma that drilled half-minute groups with 300-grain Sierra MatchKings surprised me by spewing 285-grain gilding metal bullets sideways. All keyholed, though these spitzers were less than .1 inch longer than the MatchKings. A .308 that excels with 168-grain boattails may not with 190-grain bullets of the same design. A shop selling long-range rifles had best carry appropriate ammo, and VLD bullets for handloaders since not having them may nix a rifle deal.

Competitive shooters know that there’s no accuracy advantage with stainless barrels. Their ability to resist rust and corrosion (stainless is not rust- or corrosion-proof), adds a few dollars to the cost of a rifle. Some barrel makers say that on balance, stainless doesn’t cut as cleanly as chrome-moly steel.

As for rifling processes, a cutting tooth, a carbide button and a hammer-forging machine can all produce barrels that deliver one-hole accuracy. Air-gauging has nothing to do with rifling technique — it’s the way bores are later checked for uniformity. As the gauge moves through the bore, constant pneumatic pressure records variations — to 50 millionths of an inch.

Heavy barrels are not intrinsically more accurate than svelte barrels, though thin steel moves more readily when hot. Ace rifle maker D’Arcy Echols insists slim 30-caliber barrels (.544 at the muzzle) can shoot teeny three-shot groups. Flutes add cooling surface and reduce weight without sacrificing stiffness. Length affects barrel “spine,” which is why single-shot pistols and short patrol rifles can be very accurate. Long barrels give bullets more speed.

During the 1990s, steel tubes with thin walls were paired with carbon-fiber jackets to trim weight. Dave Smith of Vancouver, Wash., was a pioneer in this field.

“My Magnum-Lite barrels have been proofed to 129,000 psi,” he says. “Twice the operating pressure of most magnums.”

Smith tests barrels at distance. A 7mm on a Sako action, and a 6.5/284 Nesika, have fired half-inch groups at 300 yards.

What’s In A Stock?

Though some long-range rifles wear laminated hardwood stocks, synthetics are more common. Heavy barrels free-floated in thick forends make stability a non-issue.

These days “plastic” applies to few synthetic stocks. Zytel has gone the way of the Stegosaurus. Fiberglass still appears in many stocks, though it is less common now. Most stocks now are of injection-molded polymers (with the mold seam evident on comb and belly), or they comprise hand-laid shells of fiberglass or carbon fiber around a foam core.

“We sold stocks to Savage as early as 1989,” recalls Fred Choate, president of Choate Machine and Tool. “Varmint rifles were the first with a bedding block and a rail.” In 2009, six years after Savage unveiled its AccuTrigger, an alloy rail/bedding block became part of the molding process.

Hand-laid stocks feature multi-layer composite shells formed in an open mold, then foam-filled, and these weigh less than injection-molded stocks. They also cost more because of the expensive materials and labor.

At H-S Precision, stock shells are of carbon fiber, fiberglass, and Kevlar in resin. Tom Houghton, who runs the business started by his father, says the core is of “reaction injection-molded foam.” A gob of this goop put in a paper cup climbs as it cures to form a bulb above the cup.

“The heat of reaction forces this pudding into stock crevices,” Tom explains. “It forms a tough, firm but resilient core.”

Like H-S, Bell & Carlson includes alloy bedding blocks and fashions its stocks for drop-in fit. A typical Bell & Carlson stock weighs more than some hand-laid models, but it is solid throughout and stronger. Now 17 riflemakers install B&C stocks, including Montana, Cooper, Nosler and Kimber — as well as Browning, Remington and Winchester. I’ve used Bell & Carlson stocks on GreyBull Precision rifles to hit gongs as far as a mile off. (OK, those were as big as chest freezers, and I still missed a lot.)

McMillan is perhaps the best known of all firms producing synthetic stocks; the company started making M40 sniper stocks for the Marine Corps in 1975. Company rep Dick Davis has an insider’s knowledge of McMillan stocks, and shoots with them.

“We use hand-laid fiberglass,” Davis tells me. “Eight-ounce S-weave cloth with a resin binder. We prefer graphite (carbon fiber) to Kevlar, as it’s a third stiffer. We tailor fill to the stock and often use different fill in different places.”

The buttstock and forend get lighter, more flexible material than the action well. McMillan stocks do not carry metal inserts. The company supplies stocks that fit more than 200 types of rifles.

New target games and diminished shooting opportunity on the hunt have fueled interest in long-range shooting. Steel gongs and powerful scopes add to the fun. Computer programs that chart bullet arcs and drift feed the fever. Leaning heavily on their equipment to fare well at distance, shooters are poised to profit dealers who offer appealing rifles — including powerful optics and rail-friendly rings. And helpful advice!


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