Many rifle shooters have aspired to shoot with great precision but think they cannot afford the tools to achieve it. You could spend $5,000, or double that, for a precision rifle and top-end scope. But did you learn to drive in a Lamborghini?
The truth is that squeezing out that last iota of performance dramatically increases the price: A rifle that shoots 0.25” 100-yd. groups can cost twice as much as one that shoots 0.5” groups, which in turn might cost twice what a 1” grouping rifle does. The very best is worth it, if you can afford it and you can shoot that well. However, few novices can shoot that well.
Cost should not dissuade you from trying your hand at precision marksmanship. I’ve long believed that a new long-range shooter can get started for hundreds, not thousands, of dollars. To test my theory, I recently explored ways to balance affordability with shootability, and then test-fired the resulting combinations of rifle, scope and ammunition.
A Suitable Rifle
Bolt-action rifles tend to be more accurate than semi-automatics, so first I considered an assortment of standard factory bolt guns and, to save even more money, opted for used factory-made rifles. In good condition, these bolt guns are moderately priced, such as Remington and Winchester heavy-barrel varmint rifles, as well as at least a dozen others from Savage and Tikka to name a few. My selected bolt-action rifles, a Remington 700, a CZ 527 and a Savage Model 11 Long Range Hunter, have a very affordable street price of $450 to $650.
How can you select an accurate used rifle? The answer is right here in the American Rifleman, which features rifle and ammunition evaluations in practically every issue, and most articles are posted online at AmericanRifleman.org. Here is where your search begins.
What about semi-automatic rifles? Target-grade semi-automatic rifles abound today but usually are priced beyond the limits of my experiment. Instead, I looked into the lower-cost alternative of AR uppers offering free-floated, heavy barrels easily installed by anyone who owns an AR platform. Therefore, atop my Smith & Wesson M&P 15 lower receiver, I tested a new Palmetto State Armory (PSA) upper assembly, which includes a bolt-carrier group and retails for less than $400.
Free-floated and incorporating a medium-weight, 20” stainless barrel, PSA’s Kris Vermillion told me his company doesn’t advertise its uppers as “match grade,” but they typically perform at a match-grade level, which I will put to the test. These PSA barrels are button-rifled from 4140, 4150V or 416R stainless steel. My PSA upper was chambered in Federal’s new flat-shooting .224 Valkyrie with a 1:7” twist rate, which should nicely accommodate heavier bullets of 68 to 90 grains, a major consideration if you intend to shoot long-range.
A Suitable Optic
When shooters ask me to recommend a scope, I ask, “How much can you spend?” My point is, there are scopes at different price points, but you should get the most capability you can afford. A rough rule-of-thumb, I believe, is that your riflescope should approximate the cost of your rifle.
But what kind of scope? Precision shooting requires exacting elevation adjustments so your point-of-aim is your bullet’s point-of-impact. Therefore, imprecise elevation holds, such as lines and mil dots and the generalized elevation settings on a bullet drop compensator, are simply too imprecise.
Precision requires target knobs, also called target turrets, so your elevation (and at times windage), can be adjusted with great exactness. A truism I coined long ago, “You cannot shoot more precisely than you can aim,” expresses such exactness. Most knobs offer incremental “clicks” of 0.25 m.o.a. or 0.125 m.o.a. I think 0.25 m.o.a. offers acceptable exactness with far less “clicking” than the finer increments of 0.125 m.o.a. Knobs are less complicated than they appear, and the internet has plenty of tutorials and instructions on their use.
To learn your cartridge’s exterior ballistics and thus your target knob settings, many ammo-maker and scope-manufacturer websites offer free data downloads. For instance, the Hornady site contains a sophisticated ballistic calculator, while Burris has software to generate a “dope card” for your target knob settings. You can further refine this data via live-fire testing.
So which scopes will I use in my experiment? Just like my selected rifles, I will economize by employing used optics from Leupold, Burris and Bushnell of at least 10X maximum magnification with target knobs, which can be had for $300 to $500. If you acquire a scope lacking target knobs, some manufacturers will retrofit them at a reasonable cost; I’ve done this several times with Leupold and Burris.
The Right Round
Continuing our pursuit of affordability, consider the cost of ammunition. My favorite long-range cartridges, the .300 Win. Mag. and .338 Lapua, are expensive, especially in match loads. By contrast, the most common calibers, such as .308 Win. and .223 Rem., offer the lowest-priced match ammo with offerings from many manufacturers. Generally, these .223 Rem. and .308 Win. match loads cost $20 to $30 per box which actually is less expensive than today’s high-end hunting loads.
To further economize you can pool money with other shooters for bulk purchases, or watch for sales, or consider commercial reloads. Among major ammo makers, Black Hills Ammunition offers reloaded .223 Rem. with 68-, 69-, 75- and 77-gr. match bullets.
Keep in mind that, as a precision shooter, you need not consume a lot of ammunition. Unless I’m zeroing a rifle or preparing for an event, I typically fire just 20 rounds per weekly range session, with each shot planned, recorded and analyzed. Between shots, I dry-fire several times and then load only one round to focus solely on that shot.
I jot down detailed data for each shot I fire. If I’m firing a semi-auto rifle, I still load one round at a time. Shoot less and make each a quality shot. Dry-fire often. That’s the best practice possible short of live-firing, and you can do it almost anywhere.
Which is the most accurate load for your rifle? Even assuming you’re firing match-grade ammunition, different loads can produce different results, mostly due to your rifle’s rate-of-twist. To fire heavier .223 Rem. bullets, your rifling twist rate should not be 1:9”. Savage, Browning, Ruger and Tikka currently offer .223 Rem. bolt-actions with 1:7” or 1:8” twist rates, as do a number of AR manufacturers. No matter the caliber, once you’ve found your rifle’s most accurate load, shoot only that specific load.
In addition to these cartridges my test includes two ballistically impressive, but moderately priced rounds: Hornady’s 6.5 mm Creedmoor and Federal’s new .224 Valkyrie, which stays supersonic to 1,300 yds.
And Just How Accurate?
My used rifles are unmodified, factory-made and sell for well under $1,000, several at half that or even less. They are economical, entry-level rifles for a novice precision shooter. The scopes are also used, costing $350 to $500 apiece. The ammunition is factory-loaded, match-grade.
Though we’ll be firing five-round, 100-yd. groups off sand bags, this firing is for demonstration not for American Rifleman evaluation, which requires five consecutive five-shot groups. What interests us is whether these rifles, scopes and ammo can yield 1” groups or better, which most shooters consider the precision-shooting threshold. When you can consistently produce groups this tight, you’ll be ready to consider a further investment in rifle and optics.
The first rifle I fired was a used Remington 700 BDL with a 24” heavy-varmint barrel in .308 Win. This rifle is nearly 40 years old and unmodified in any way, except an expert gunsmith reduced its trigger pull to 3.5 lbs. The optic is a used Leupold Vari-X-III, 6.5 – 20X with target knobs. This rifle and scope produced a 0.56”, five-round group firing Black Hills Gold 168-gr. Match; Black Hills Tipped Match, 168-gr. yielded a 0.60” group; Black Hills 178-GR ELD-X MATCH shot 0.65 inches. Hornady 168-gr. BTHP Match fired a 0.95” group while Federal’s 185-gr., Juggernaut Open Tip Match shot a 0.78” group, and Federal’s 168-gr. Match fired 0.69”. Keep in mind, these were five-round groups.
The next bolt gun was a 15-year-old, wooden-stocked CZ-USA 527 with a standard-weight barrel and a set trigger (which is factory-standard) in .223 Rem. It was topped by a used Burris Black Diamond 3-15X scope with knobs. Firing Black Hills 52-gr. Match yielded a 0.96”, 5-round group, while Black Hills 52-gr. Match reloads shot a 0.78”. Though the CZ 527 is light, handy and accurate, repeated shots can heat up its thin barrel, reducing accuracy.
Our last bolt-action was a recently acquired Savage 11 Long Range Hunter in 6.5 mm Creedmoor, just as it came from the factory. The scope was a used Bushnell Tactical, 6-24X50 mm with knobs. Weather conditions weren’t ideal the day I fired, but we still yielded sub m.o.a., five-round groups. Through previous firing, I knew this rifle did not like 120-gr. loads, so I started with Federal 140-gr. Match, which yielded a respectable 0.76” group. Three Hornady loads, 140-gr., 147-gr. ELD Match and American Hunter 140-gr., all provided groups slightly under one m.o.a.
Our other flat-shooting round, the .224 Valkyrie, was shot using an affordable Palmetto State Armory upper atop my used S&W M&P 15 lower. The PSA upper incorporates a stainless, free-floated, 20” medium-weight barrel. Because the Valkyrie cartridge base is wider than that of a .223 Rem., it employs a wider bolt face and a 6.8 mm SPC magazine (Both the 6.8 mm SPC and the .244 Valkyrie case are derived from the .30 Rem. cartridge).
Atop the PSA upper, I mounted a used Leupold Long Range 3.5-10X with M-1 target knobs and fired Federal’s 90-gr. match Valkyrie load. As this was a new upper and a newly fielded cartridge, I chose to fire five, five-round groups with impressive results. The groups measured 0.82” 0.85” 1.15”, 0.93” and 0.98”. Average group size was 0.95”.
I think these results prove my theory. Despite these bolt actions being used “factory” rifles, or in the case of the PSA, a new upper on a used lower receiver, and employing used riflescopes to fire moderately-priced ammunition, you can yield one m.o.a. or better groups, which is the threshold of precision shooting. Thus, for a modest investment any shooter can begin a lifetime of precision marksmanship and join the rest of us, firing long-range matches, hunting long range and shooting distant steel targets.
And who knows? Maybe someday you can afford that Lamborghini.