August 05, 2020
I’ve always said you can’t buy capability. Only practice can turn you into an accomplished precision shooter. However, neither can you practice your way to great skill without certain critical equipment.
Whether you jump into the precision shooting scene with both feet and buy one of today’s excellent purpose-designed rifles or just want to stretch out your favorite deer rifle, you’ll need the right accessories. Let’s assume you’ve got the rifle or at least a foundation in the form of a potentially accurate barreled action. What do you really need to get the best out of it?
Whether you prefer wood, or composite or a machined metal chassis-type stock, it needs to be rigid to promote accuracy and stable to promote consistency. It must be impervious to whatever nature throws at it. This means laminated wood stocks, hand-laid composite stocks and well-executed machined-aluminum chassis. Wood is too susceptible to moisture, and common injection-molded plastic just isn’t rigid enough, and it becomes malleable when it’s hot and brittle when it’s cold.
If you need a different stock, research the type you prefer and shell out the money. It’s worth it. Boyds Gunstocks offers usable laminated wood stocks, and McMillan offers some top-notch models. Stocky’s Stocks carries most of the good composite versions at good prices. And chassis stocks can be found at myriad online retailers.
Opt for a model with a somewhat vertical grip, which makes for more comfortable, stable improvised field positions. Also, try to find a version with a lightweight adjustable cheek rest.Finally, be sure the fore-end is robust enough to accept your barrel profile. This latter particularly applies if your action has a heavy match tube or if you anticipate rebarreling it someday.
Some experts hold that every rifle, even those with CNC-machined bedding blocks, will benefit from glass bedding. Other experts believe the opposite.
Pick your side. I’m something of a bedding anarchist. If your action is mated to a premium, machined surface—either chassis or bedding block in a composite stock—by a top-shelf manufacturer, and if it shoots well, I’m satisfied.
However, lots of today’s bedding blocks aren’t accurately machined, and lots of actions aren’t perfectly square, true and parallel. My 6.5-300 Wby. Mag. was one such gun. There was a discerniable bend in the action as the screws drew it into the skewed aluminum bedding block. Acraglas work performed by Roland Black—a bedding true-believer—literally halved the size of the groups that rifle produces.
Plus, no matter what a manufacturer’s literature says, all—and I mean all—composite stocks need bedding. A good buddy once spent $600 on a prime McMillan but mistakenly believed he could just drop his fresh Krieger-barreled action in. Groups were dismal. We bedded it, and it became a half-m.o.a. rifle.
Critical Scope Features
Gone are the days of capped elevation turrets and mil-dot reticles. Over the past decade, Nightforce and Vortex spearheaded a feature revolution in the optics world. The innovations they made standard showed shooters a new world of capability and forced other optic companies to up their game.
In addition to clear glass, maximum light transmission and minimum distortion, today’s savvy shooters want a certain set of features on their precision optics.
First, the elevation turret must have durable, precision, repeatable guts. If it doesn’t dial predictably and last for thousands of repetitions, it doesn’t make the cut.
The turret must be equipped with a zero-stop-type mechanism that enables the shooter to dial down to his or her base sight-in distance without looking or counting dial revolutions. And if the turret has a zero lock button preventing it from inadvertently being spun off zero, that’s icing on the cake.
Lean toward turrets with easy-to-calculate rotation quantities, such as 20 m.o.a. or 10 mils per rotation. Second-rotation numbers on the dial are really nice, too.
If you’re trying to wring out precision from a hunting rifle, company-offered custom-engraved dials regulated to match your favorite load in yards are particularly advantageous.
A really important second feature is adjustable parallax. Precision shooting dictates the necessity of eliminating parallax, which is an optical anomaly that causes all kinds of grief if not eliminated. In the old days this feature was found on the front lens housing, but now the more ergonomic side focus turret is much more common.
If you want to shoot far, adequate internal adjustment is necessary. Typically, this requires the use of a 30mm main tube or even larger. Be aware that although the massive 34mm and 35mm tubes provide outstanding image quality and tons of adjustment, they are heavy, and rings are expensive and hard to find.
Bases & Rings
Scope rings are not all created equal. Neither are bases. For a precision rifle, install a one-piece cross-slot 1913-spec base. The one-piece design is not only more rigid but also squares up the two rings to one another. Apply thread lock and torque the screws to appropriate spec.
Purchase quality rings. They’re expensive, so plan to spend upward of $100. It’s worth it. Precision machined rings from Seekins, Nightforce, Leupold, Warne, Steiner, Hawkins and others typically offer perfectly round, true bearing surfaces. Cheaper rings need to be lapped to prevent scope body damage and consistency-robbing distortion when the screws are tightened.
A common tendency is to mount scopes in rings that are higher than they need to be. This exacerbates the struggle to attain a good cheek weld. Choose rings that position the scope as close to the barrel and action as possible—without actually touching. Try them first to be sure. Seekins makes arguably the best low-mount rings.
Torque scope ring screws only to manufacturer’s spec. Cranking them tighter will potentially compress the scope tube and compromise the mechanics of the erector housing and magnification adjustments.
Canting a rifle isn’t a big deal inside 200 or even 300 yards. Past that, it can be a real headache, so get a scope level bubble.
A couple of years ago an old hunting mentor of mine lay behind a superbly accurate rifle and aimed at one of the biggest Wyoming mule deer he’d seen in a half-century of hunting big bucks. It stood 430 yards away, on a steep ridge that fell sharply off to the one side.
The buck also stood at a steep angle, his hindquarters dramatically lower than his shoulders. With one or two steps, the buck could vanish into heavy brush.
My friend dialed up his Nightforce scope, got steady and sent his bullet. Unfortunately, it was a whisker right—just enough to miss over the giant deer’s back. He later figured out he’d canted his rifle strongly due to the angle of the ridge.
My favorite economy-priced scope level is made by Burris and costs about $35. Mount it on the main tube just behind the front objective bell so you can see it with your non-shooting eye when in firing position. Calibrate it to the flat top of your scope turret.
Several competing models are available, too. Look for the offset versions; otherwise you have to lift your head from the stock and take your eye from the scope to see the level.
For a high-end product, serious shooters trend toward Accuracy 1st’s version, which costs a cool $100 but offers more precision and is less likely to get sluggish in very cold conditions. Another premium, innovative level is Warne’s $100 collapsible Skyline model.
Few modern scopes can be mounted low enough to allow a good cheek weld. This is especially so with precision scopes because of their large lens diameters and large main tubes, as well as the robust, cross-bolt type bases and rings precision shooters favor for their strength.
Stock makers have compensated as much as possible by designing high combs. However, there’s a limit, because the rifle’s bolt has to be able to clear the top of the comb when removed for maintenance.
A good cheek weld is critical. A while back, a good friend struggled with a fine new custom rifle. He was frustrated because he couldn’t get the gun to group better than 1.5 inches at 100 yards.
I cut some cardboard, rolled out the packing tape, and stacked shims atop his comb until he could lie prone with his neck completely relaxed, eye centered in the scope. His five-shot groups instantly shrunk to 0.75 inch.
For a price, shooters can order a precision stock with an adjustable cheek rest. That price comes in two forms—dollars and pounds—although recent cutting-edge versions from McMillan and Manners have shaved those pounds to ounces.
If you’re getting a new stock, and if you don’t plan to climb big mountains with your rifle, by all means get an adjustable cheek rest. If not, order an AccuPack strap-on by Spec-Ops Brand. Unlike most strap-ons, which add just a quarter inch of height and are basically useless, the AccuPack comes with closed-cell-foam shims and is adjustable for height. Weight is just four ounces. I use them on all my mountain rifles.
Properly used, a bipod provides benchrest levels of accuracy. Modern technique consists of lying straight behind the bipod—rather than at an angle as many competitive shooters learned. This directs recoil straight back through the body, which minimizes muzzle jump and particularly sideways muzzle jump.
Additionally, the bipod is typically “loaded,” meaning the shooter puts forward pressure against it by scooting the body forward. You not only get increased stability with this method, loading your bipod provides superb recoil control as well.
Use the non-shooting fist beneath the toe of the stock to provide rear support or, even better, a bunny-ear sandbag or lightweight field bag. The instructors at the SAAM School at FTW Ranch recommend a padded shooting mitt for the non-shooting fist.
More Harris bipods are in use around the world than any other, and provide a great benchmark. They’re of high quality, attach to the forward sling stud, work beautifully and cost little more than $100. However, they’re also heavy, noisy, prone to snag in dense brush, and don’t have great amounts of adjustability.
Bipods that up the game—and triple the price—typically offer more adjustment, particularly in forward and rearward leg positions. Sometimes they’re lighter, too. Various interchangeable feet are available. Atlas, Warne, Modular Evolutions and Spartan Precision offer great options.
To get the best out of a super-accurate rifle, you’ve got to have a crisp, light trigger, ideally without discernable overtravel, which is rearward movement that occurs after the trigger releases the sear.
Heavy, gritty, inconsistent triggers interfere with clean shot execution. No matter how perfect your position, sight picture, and technique, practical shots from field positions unavoidably suffer from a poor trigger.
Thankfully, excellent aftermarket triggers are available for most rifle models. Cost runs from about $125 up to $250.
Jewell, Trigger Tech and Geissele are great manufacturers. Timney has a broad selection, including triggers for models infrequently pressed into service for precision work.
Many options are engineered for a specific task. Beware of accidentally ordering a two-ounce benchrest competition trigger. My favorites are adjustable to a crisp two pounds, which is heavy enough to prevent negligent discharges and light enough for really precise field work.
Whether you’re interested in getting into long-range rifle competition such as Precision Rifle Series or want to get a hunting rifle ready to handle any precision task, paying attention to these features will go a long way toward achieving your goals.
It’s not that difficult. Just think stock, bedding, optics and optics accessories, cheek rest, trigger and bipod, and you’re on your way.