How Do I Know What To Buy?
By Jeromy Knepp
It has come to my attention over the past couple of months that there are many new guys coming into the sport of long range hunting. This investigative reading starts to spark the question, “What do I need?” or “What caliber should I use?” These are the most common question that I see at least once or twice a month from site lurkers devouring our dry but informative conversations.
Plenty of questions regarding equipment, i.e: ammunition, optics, rifle, caliber, and effective range are common among the new. With all the terminology we throw around like, minute of angle (MOA), feet per second (fps), RL= Reloader powders, the letter “H” referring to Hodgdon powders, and a myriad of other terms that escape the mind at the moment, it can be confusing when trying to build that perfect rig. Though I am not an authority, nor do I claim to know it all in the realm of killing elk at 1000+yards, I have come to some basic thoughts as to where to start. These all stem from 2 years of consistent research and 25 years of firearms training (personal and military). Seeking knowledge for the betterment of my abilities as a shooter and using the best equipment I can afford is my number one priority.
Budget For That Perfect Rifle
So how much do I need to spend, or better yet… what can I afford? This, in my opinion, should be the first thing to consider. By knowing a budget, it helps to narrow down what it is that you can spend and the quality of equipment you can buy. Do you want a custom rig or a Wal-Mart special? Do you want a Tasco 3-9x32 or something of crystal clear quality in the upper end using a US Optics or Nightforce? How far do you want to shoot? Is it a target or hunting rifle? All these questions and more need to be included in your decision on how much to spend.
I know that it had taken me almost a year to settle on the caliber that I wanted and the rifle to start my climb into the long range shooting world. Choosing that perfect rifle will start with a click of the mouse or the turning of a shooting magazine page.
Factory package. Required trigger work and free floating the barrel. About 20 years old. Shoots sub MOA now.
Obviously the cheapest setup is going to be the factory option packages. What I mean by this is a package that offers a rifle with a scope, rings, base of some type (one piece or two), and a sling. These rifles can be very tempting when buying on a whim. They generally come with a price tag of $350 to $500 dollars respectively. When looking at it, our man hormones and Tim Taylor grunts come up out of our throats and out of the store we go. Was this the best purchase? The question of what did you want to do with it comes in to play. For a short range, (0 to 200, maybe 300 yards) it fits the bill depending on the quality of the scope. These rifles are put together for in woods hunters shooting much shorter distances where compensating and dialing elevation are not a factor. I will add that you can just re-scope some of these rifles and they are just as effective as a purpose built rifle. Savage and Howa offer packages using decent rifles. You can purchase a Savage with muzzle break and Accu-Trigger that will shoot Minute of Angle or less out of the box. Yes I know, there are other rifle packages out there that will do the same. Just an example!
For me it is not a good option. I know what I want and what I am trying to accomplish. What these rifles do not come with is the equipment to make you an effective long range shooter. The scopes are generally the cheapest thing in the cabinet and what the local store manager thought to be a good deal.
For me I would look at something like a varmint model rifle. The reason that I would choose this style is twofold. One, they usually come with a medium weight or heavy bull barrel that optimizes stability when shooting. Two, they are predominantly designed to be accurate out of the box.
With most rifles that are store bought a few things need to be considered to help make them reach their potential. Newer rifles, especially the varmint and target style rifles, are coming with adjustable triggers for the common shooter, and pillar bedding of some type. In my search for the ultimate out of the box performance I find the Savage to fit what I wanted. Is it the best? Many will argue that their rifle is better. I bought it because it fulfilled the requirements that I was looking for. I chose it over the Howa due to it having a 1:10 twist and a 26 inch barrel. Remington also offers a trigger that can be adjusted by the owner, and other companies are following suit. Howa offers a superb action. I know because I have shot one with great effect. These rifles fall in to a price range of from $399 up to and exceeding $1500 dollars. The upper end rifles are usually your target style, military tactical, or police tactical designed rifles. These rifles will come with bedding blocks, aftermarket stocks from factory, and more care in design and build.
The drawback to Winchester, Weatherby, Remington and Howa is that you need a gunsmith to adjust the trigger without voiding the warranty. But if that is the rifle you own or want to buy, it generally costs from $20 to $50 dollars for a trigger adjustment. I was able to adjust my Model 7 Remington .243 to 2 ¾ lbs., but I looked for instructions on the Net and I am comfortable working on my own rifles. This did however void any warranty that Remington would have offered for repair. These are your starting rifles and my opinionated suggestions.
We are now discussing the expensive custom rifles. This level and cost can be done using donor equipment. This would include a donor action such as a Stevens, Savage, and Remington 700 series, Weatherby, Winchester and Howa. All offer low cost rifles but give a sound action to build a great rifle. Buying a used rifle just for the action for a build is not out of the question as long as the action is in good shape. Even though you are using production actions, you can still take steps to make it very custom. Often a term of blueprinted is used to describe a process whereby an action is machined to tighter tolerance and trued so that everything lines up. Also you are now looking at adding an after market trigger such as a Timney, Trigger Basix, etc.
Aftermarket barrels of some type are also part of the process. No longer is the factory barrel worthy of such a build. In doing research you will find that there are companies that will be cheaper than others, but remember, “Buyer Beware.” Some companies definitely produce a more superior product than others. Another factor is twist rate (1:10, 1:12, 1:8), number of grooves and lands (3, 5, 6), and if you want a stainless or chromoly barrel. The stainless barrels are going to last longer but the chromoly barrels are going to tend to be a little more affordable. Another option would be a carbon fiber wrapped barrel. When choosing a barrel, it is very important to know what projectile and its weight in order to optimize the barrel for accuracy. Length and weight of the barrel also come into play. Most long range rifles are built with a minimum of 24 inches and some get as long as 36 to 42 inches. These guns are specific to their purpose and use.
If you want to go with a very custom rifle, then you start to look into custom actions. This would include actions from Badger Ordinance, BAT, Lawton, etc. These are just a few of the many builders. I don’t prefer one over the other; they were just the first to come to my mind. Then follow the remaining processes. This step into custom built actions will develop into a rifle with a lot stronger action with a pretty hefty price. By the time you choose a trick stock, barrel and action you are well on your way to an awesome rifle with a big price tag. These rifles generally start at about $2500 dollars and go as high as $10,000+ dollars. Boys and girls, your marriage is not worth it. If you have the money, buy the best you can afford.
Rings, Base, And Optics
The next process is very important. Though they are not very big and do not seem that important, the scope base and scope rings are very important. These few little pieces, can make your day in the field or at the range either exciting or very frustrating. When trying to decide on what to buy, quality and affordability are key. I use a $40 EGW base. I own two of them and they have performed flawlessly. There are more expensive single piece bases out there that will fit our purpose in a long range build, but again I have to keep mama happy. Other name brand companies offer their own brand of bases in both one piece 1913 Picatinny style and two piece bases.
One piece base by EGW 20 MOA.
The distance you are planning to shoot is important when choosing your base. The reason is that some scopes may not give you the proper elevation within its adjustments to reach the distance you want to go. This is often referred to a 20 MOA (Minute of Angle) greater or less design. That means that if your scope only has 30 MOA of vertical elevation adjustment, the 20 MOA will give you essentially 50 MOA of total elevation. 50 MOA will get most calibers to 1000 yards assuming the caliber that is chosen is designed for that style and distance of shooting.
Burris Signature Z Rings. 20 MOA inserts in the rear and -10 MOA in the front for 10 MOA extra added for more elevation adjustment.
The next thing is deciding on scope rings. Scope rings are numerous in quality and design. A few that we have used and like are Weaver, Burris XTR’s, and Burris Signature Z rings. The nice thing about the Burris Z rings is that you do not have to shim your bases or get a pre-canted design base for extra elevation in your turrets (later to be explained). The Z rings are designed with plastic inserts that allow the scope to stay on a linear plane without binding, or distorting the scope body. Sometimes bases that have been improperly shimmed can damage a scope due to binding in the rings.
Nikon Buckmaster 6-18X40 with side focus and target turrets
Now comes the most or least expensive part of a rifle build. Optics can make or break a person’s ability to be a competent long range hunter or marksman. I can tell you from experience that I did not know what I was missing until I tried a quality glass scope. Growing up, I was used to the old reliable (so I thought) Tasco or Bushnell Banner. These scopes are okay for in the woods shooting to some extent. Because they are less expensive optics, they will not gather light as well as a well made scope. It really didn’t matter for me because I was generally the first one out of the woods with my tags filled at 10:30 a.m.
Adjustable turrets for long range hunting and target for better precision.
As my need for affordable optics grew, I discovered that Tasco was not going to get me where I wanted to be. They may offer target scopes, but I can assure you that even under the recoil of a .308 Winchester they come apart. I did many searches and a lot of discussion with hunters, law enforcement snipers, and military snipers, narrowing it down to a few scopes. I settled on a Nikon Buckmaster 4.5-14x40. This scope is more than capable of yardages up to and beyond 1000 yards with the proper set up. With my .308, Low Burris XTR rings, 20 MOA base, I could dial in almost 1100 yards. It has approximate 45 MOA of vertical elevation. There are other good scopes that I have used and also would suggest. Some of these are the Vortex Viper series, Nikon Monarch, Nikon Buckmaster series, Bushnell 3200 Elite Tactical, 4200 Elite Tactical, and there are others that are a little more expensive. I will say the only drawback to the Buckmaster 4.5-14x40 is sighting small critters. At 1000 yards the reticle would bury a groundhog, making it hard to make a well placed shot. I have since upgraded to a Buckmaster 6-18x40 with target turrets (knobs to adjust elevation and windage) and a 1/8 MOA target dot. This has proven to be a very good move.
The more expensive options are the more prominent scopes specifically designed for the applications that long range shooters desire: clarity of glass, quality of clicks within the adjustment of the turret, and choice of reticle. These can be found in higher end scopes such as US Optics, Schmidt and Bender, Nightforce, IOR, and Leupold. These scopes in these configurations can start at $1000 and go as high as $4500 dollars. Are they worth the money? You bet your butt in a firefight they are. More U.S. soldiers have trusted a Leupold Tactical model and Nightforce than any other optic on the market. In the UK, Schmidt and Bender is the preferred optic for their snipers in theater. Benchrest shooters will tell you that they could have never won the match had it not been for one of the above scopes giving them the clarity needed to slide that last 10x in. I can not begin to tell you how many times I have read somebody writing, “Sure, buy the SPS, or the Savage 12FV, and that will give you more money for purchasing GOOD GLASS!”
This is the second most important question when deciding on a new weapons system. Is this a daily shooter? Is it a weekend plinker? Is it a once a month gotta get away from the wife and kids affair? Or is it going to be Old Bessy sitting in the closet coming out once a year to fill the freezer? The less you plan on shooting, the less you want to spend.
In answering these questions we turn to the decision of caliber. The application of caliber can be time consuming, confusing and downright frustrating. One guy will tell you bigger is better. Another guy will tell you that a smaller caliber will suffice. This is an important decision because it will determine how far you can effectively harvest game or accurately hit a target in competition.
Here are some suggestions that I have come to on my own through research and a lot of questions. If you are going to use the rifle for target applications and small game, i.e. crows, rabbits, ground hogs and squirrels, smaller calibers are the ticket. These calibers such as 17 to 6mm/.243 calibers are quite capable of getting you out to 600 yards and further. The further you go with a small caliber, the more specific you have to be in the purchasing of equipment. A .224 caliber rifle with a heavy bullet will require you to have a tighter twist barrel, and is capable of harvesting coyote size game well out to 800 yards. I know that in my family we have harvested numerous deer in Pennsylvania woods using .222 Remington, and a Ruger 22-250. These however were generally very well placed vital shots within 100 yards or mainly head shots. My grandfather is a master of his .222 Remington.
If you know you are going to be hunting in heavy brush, it is important that you use a caliber capable of busting through brush with as little deflection as possible. My family has been using 270 Winchesters and 150 grain round nose with proficient results. My uncle shot through a 2 ½ inch sapling with a .308 Winchester, killing the doe on the other side. He said that was not his intention, but it happened. Other calibers that are popular for busting brush are 30-30 Winchesters, and heavy calibers such as 300 Winchester Magnum, 338-06, 30-06, 8mm Remington Magnum, 325 Winchester Short Magnums, 300 Winchester Short Magnum and many others that are not mentioned. These calibers offer a wide variety of heavier bullets necessary for busting through the brush.
When hunting open plains and open wooded areas, other calibers come into their own. The 6mm/.243, .257, 6.5mm/.264, .277, 7mm/284 offer some splendid bullets to get you out there. I hesitated to put in the .277 caliber because it is hard to find bullets that offer a high enough ballistic coefficient or BC (the ability for a bullet to maintain stability in flight and retain its energy for a specified amount of distance) for long shots. I have found that speed sometimes will trump the ballistic coefficient, allowing it to really reach out. I think the .277 caliber is also a very underrated caliber. These are prime calibers for knocking over whitetail, blacktail, mule deer, and antelope at ranges of 400 to 800 yards. The 6.5mm/.264, and 7mm/.284 are very capable of taking like sized game to 1000 yards.
A .308 Winchester would also be a good caliber for training and use in this type of hunting as well. These calibers also see a lot of use in benchrest competitions. Because of the speeds they are capable of, selection of target style bullet, and lesser recoil, they are ideal for long range target shooting. In fact, from what I have read, the 6.5x284 is tearing up championships worldwide. I will caution that shots at these ranges should only be done by those who have spent time behind the trigger, and are very competent at reading wind values and placing well placed shots in the vital organs of the animal. If you really want to know more about ballistics, Brian Litz’s book, Applied Ballistics for Long Range Shooting, will provide better understanding about bullet behavior and capabilities.
When going that extra mile literally, you need the big guns. These are miniature Howitzers on bi-pods. These calibers are .308 calibers and not limited to .338 calibers. The Remington Ultra Magnums and wildcat calibers by Shawn Carlock and Kirby Allen are designed with the intention of knocking down elk size game at distance from 1000 yards to in excess of 1700 or 1800 yards. There are some on this site that have pushed the limits and have either made the shot or witnessed shots of over 2000 yards harvesting game. These are extraordinary circumstances and should not, I repeat, SHOULD NOT be attempted with any run-of-the-mill caliber. These rifles are specially built and designed for these applications. I know that Kirby Allen of Allen Magnums also offers calibers of .375 and .416 (sorry, Shawn, don’t know what you build in calibers). These calibers are not for the faint of heart. They require that you are able to reload, and demand to be shot on a regular basis so that you are familiar enough with your system to attempt these shots.
So you can see there are many things to consider when choosing to enter into long range hunting and shooting. This sport requires dedication to practice regularly to achieve the goal of shooting 10x’s or harvesting game waaaaaay out there. I hope that I have been able to offer some insight on the basics and a glimpse into why some guys decide to build expensive custom rifles and others settle on an out of the box package. Just remember these questions when trying to make a decision:
1. Budget: what can I afford?
2. Application: Target rifle, Hunting rifle or both? You can put together a rifle system to serve both applications. F/TR class rifles are a perfect example.
3. Optics: Do I really need the big fancy knobs, or am I just going to be sitting in the woods?
4. Distance: Short and sweet, or am I going to shoot well beyond 500+ yards?
Answering these questions will get you well on your way. Shoot straight and keep your eye on the target.