September 23, 2010
If your field of dreams calls for long shooting, Barrett's .338 Lapua might just be the ticket.
For decades, traditional sniper rifles have been chambered for conventional military rifle cartridges. The United States and NATO had the 7.62x51 NATO round, France her own 7.5x54, the Yugoslavs held onto their old 7.92x57 while the Soviets, Warsaw Pact, China and many others fielded the 7.62x54R. If more range or punch was required, well, you had to step up to an anti-materiel rifle in .50 BMG, 12.7x108, 14.5x114 or perhaps even 20mm.
The problem was that all of the traditional rifle cartridges begin to run out of steam at about 800 yards. Both wind deflection and bullet drop become pronounced past this distance. While it is possible to hit out to 1,000 or so yards with these cartridges, they are not optimum for this task.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have the big guns. Possessing impressive exterior ballistics, they have a very long reach and hit hard. The .50 BMG, 12.7x108 and especially the 14.5x114 are all well-suited for engaging vehicle-size targets at 1,500 meters and beyond.
However, this family of heavy sniper rifles has its own set of problems. Their large size and heavy weight noticeably degrades the sniper's mobility. Like the rifles, their ammunition is also big and heavy, limiting the number of rounds a sniper team can carry. If a sound suppressor is not fitted, they exhibit a large muzzle blast and flash.
And despite their reputation, accuracy is often not impressive, especially if specialized ammunition is not available. Although capable of impressive feats in the hands of a well-trained team, the heavy guns certainly have their drawbacks.
The muzzle brake dramatically reduces the stout recoil of the .338 Lapua but won't blow your spotter's hat off.
It's pretty easy to see there is a huge gap between the traditional military rifle cartridges and the anti-materiel rounds. One cartridge designed to fill this gap is the .338 Lapua Magnum. An impressive round with excellent exterior ballistics, it has been steadily growing in popularity.
Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, well-known for its far-reaching .50 BMG-chambered rifles, recently added this Finnish magnum to its line. Barrett has built on its experience with the big guns to develop an entirely new model in .338 Lapua Magnum. Called the M98B or 98 Bravo, this is a very interesting bolt-action rifle intended for use at very long range.
Founded in 1982 by Ronnie Barrett, Barrett Firearms Manufacturing has become best known for its M82A1 rifle. Chambered for the .50 caliber Browning Machine Gun cartridge (12.7x99), the M82A1 is a semiautomatic design feeding from a detachable box magazine. Adopted by armies around the world, the M82A1 has proven to be a highly effective anti-materiel weapon.
Fielded by the U.S. military as the M107, Ronnie's self-loading .50 caliber rifle has seen heavy use in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Properly utilized, it is a very effective weapon at very long distances.
Barrett's new M98B is built on decades of long-range experience. While designed to compete with the likes of Accuracy International's Arctic Warfare Super Magnum and Sako's TRG-42, the M98B is quite different in form. Barrett says it "threw out the book" when its designers sat down to develop a purpose-built platform for precision long-range shooting.
The monolithic upper features a full-length top rail and accepts bolt-on accessory rails. The match barrel is fluted outside of the handguard.
Not a mere exaggeration, the M98B is indeed quite different than the norm. Rather than a conventional layout, the M98B dispenses with a traditional stock. Instead it is built on a 22.6-inch monolithic aluminum frame with integral fore-end. This is machined from 7000 series aluminum, allowing it to be rigid yet light.
The upper receiver features an integral 18.1-inch M1913 rail machined into its top for easy optics mounting. Rails can also be fitted to the fore-end. My review rifle came with four-inch rails (complete with QD sling mounts) at three and nine o'clock and a bipod stud.
Mated to the upper is a 27-inch heavy match barrel. This is fluted outside the handguard and tapers to the muzzle to reduce weight. Barrel twist is 1:10 with a right-hand twist. To reduce recoil, Barrett fits the M98B with a muzzle brake. This is a two-baffle design that's three inches long.
Riding inside the frame is a beefy nine-lug bolt that cocks on opening. Although bolt throw is relatively long, due to the size of the cartridge, bolt rotation is quite short. Overall length of the bolt itself is approximately 71„4 inches. One interesting feature of the M98B is that the bolt rides inside a synthetic guide. This also acts as a dust cover and seals the slot the bolt handle rides in.
Fitted to the frame is a lower receiver/stock assembly machined from 7075 aluminum. This attaches to the frame via a front pin and rear catch. At the front of the lower receiver is the magazine well. It is contoured to allow easy insertion of the magazine for rapid reloads from the prone position. The magazine release is an ambidextrous lever that can be manipulated with the trigger finger.
Feed is from a 10-round staggered-column, dual-feed detachable box magazine. A beefy unit, the polymer magazine is also easily stripped for routine maintenance. It locks easily into place with a simple upward push.
The stock features an adjustable cheekpiece and a soft rubber recoil pad, and an easy-to-adjust monopod helps get and keep the rifle on target.
The rifle sports a fully adjustable and removable match trigger module. As received, it was set up to provide a very light two-stage pull. I noticed a bit of creep during the first stage, but then it broke very crisply at approximately three
Mounted to the left side of the lower receiver is a rotating safety lever that moves in a short, 45-degree arc. The M98B comes with an ergonomic pistol grip, but if you don't like it the rifle will accept any standard AR pistol grip.
At the rear of the lower receiver is a skeletonized butt that's fitted with a soft rubber buttpad to reduce felt recoil. The cheekpiece can be adjusted vertically and locked into place via a large thumbnut. To aid stability, an adjustable monopod is also fitted to the butt. Overall length of the M98B is 49.7 inches, and it weighs 131„2 pounds without optic or accessories.
Out of the box, Barrett's M98B is an impressive-looking precision rifle. A cursory inspection revealed it to be nicely made and well put together rifle. While long, it is surprisingly light and feels good in the hands. Bolt operation was smooth, the magazine inserted and ejected easily, and the safety was well placed. While different than a traditional precision rifle, I have to say that I like the design.
The heart of the M98B is a robust, multi-lug, manually operated turn-bolt that rides in a sleeve.
Big Rifle, Big Scope
For testing I called up HuDisCo, importer of Hensoldt military optics, to request a 6-24x72mm Tactical scope. Currently standard issue with the German Army this is an impressive, albeit large, optic. It's built on a robust 34mm tube and has a huge 72mm objective lens. The fat tube gives it a nicely balanced look despite the large objective. More importantly, its large diameter also provides a wider range of movement for the erector system.
While objective lenses this large are highly unusual, they do offer some very real advantages. Both resolution and low light performance are surprisingly good. Consider that this optic generates a 6mm exit pupil when set at 12X. The trade-off to the large diameter objective is, of course, a higher center-line and more glass to reflect light and disclose the sniper's position.
Elevation and windage adjustments are made via large, well-marked target turrets with tactile and audible clicks in .1 mil (1 cm) increments. Total adjustment available is 20 mils (200 cm or 78.7 inches). A mil-dot reticle is mounted in the rear focal plane. In place of the conventional dots are doughnuts that do not cover a small target at long range. In addition a choke rangefinder is included that allows ranging a one-meter-tall target from 200 to 1,000 meters.
I mounted the Hensoldt in Barrett 34mm rings and zeroed at 100 yards. Four match loads were utilized during testing. Loads consisted of Black Hills Ammunition's 250-grain Scenar, 250-grain MatchKing, 300-grain MatchKing and Lapua's 250-grain Scenar.
Rounds loaded easily into the magazine and fed smoothly into the chamber. The bolt operated easily, and ejection was positive. The trigger proved very light, actually a bit lighter than I prefer. Recoil? Thanks to the muzzle brake and soft pad, recoil proved surprisingly light. Even prone it was mild. The Barrett's bark was attention-getting, but I was never bothered by the blast from the brake.
Accuracy was very good despite the windy conditions. The Barrett greatly preferred Black Hills Ammunition's 300-grain load. This posted a best of three rounds in 0.25 inch. It averaged 0.5 inch at 2,699 fps. Unfortunately I only had one box of this load. Lapua's 250-grain Scenar shot almost as well averaging 0.6 inch at 2,905 fps. Black Hills 250-grain MatchKing and Scenar loads both averaged 0.9 inch.
Next I engaged an Action Target hostage target at 300 yards. Two three-round groups fired prone from the bipod using Black Hills' 300-grain MatchKing load averaged two inches.
With the Hensoldt set at 12X, I fired two five-round groups at a La¬Rue Sniper Target sitting at 500 yards. The average of these two groups was four inches
I spent the rest of my time engaging LaRues, in the head, from 300 to 600 yards. Using the mil-dot reticle for holdovers, it was relatively easy to consistently hit a LaRue in the head at 500 and 600 yards.
All in all the Barrett/Hensoldt combination worked very well. I strongly suspect the Barrett is a good deal more accurate than my limited testing suggests. With more time behind the rifle, and better conditions, I feel I could cut my group-size averages down a bit. But to be truthful, this rifle is just getting started at 600 yards.
The rifle performed very well and I liked the short bolt rotation, 45 degree safety, magazine system and adjustable stock. Unfortunately, Barrett's M98B retails for $4,495 (the Hensoldt is no cheapo at nearly $4,000). However, if you can afford the price of admission, they are both impressive performers.