Precision on the Cheap
September 23, 2010
The author finds two old benchrest guns and learns a few lessons.
Two examples of how one can get into precision shooting on a tight budget: a Remington 40XBR in .222 (left) and a custom rifle built on a Stolle action with Hart barrel in 6mm PPC.
One of my favorite things is to sit down at the bench and see if I can shoot little groups. I'm not interested in competition, but it is a great opportunity to learn about loads and the effect of wind and weather on bullets. I'm a collector at heart and always looking for something to fill holes, but even more than that I like to shoot. About my only limitation is that I've had enough of monster magnums to last a lifetime, so if it hurts it's out. Heavy rifles in smallish calibers are fun.
By today's standards, competitive benchrest shooting is an expensive hobby because almost everything is custom; a good, state-of-the-art rifle can cost many thousands of dollars. But if you're willing to go back a generation or two, it is a very different story.
Not long ago I stumbled onto a Remington 40XBR in .222 Remington that was made in 1972. It had a 20-inch stainless steel barrel, which was pretty radical back then, and wore a two-inch Unertl scope. It came with dies and brass and a little loaded ammo. It wasn't cheap but was probably a fourth of what a comparable outfit would cost new today.
Quite a few years ago, I found what may be the ugliest rifle ever. The stock is a gruesome orange color, but the rest is pure thoroughbred. The action is from Stolle, the barrel Hart and the scope is Leupold. It is a tight-neck 6 PPC--a cartridge that still rules benchrest today--but the owner cussed it worse than a red-headed stepchild and, for someone trying to sell something, he wasn't doing himself any favors by telling me how bad it shot.
A look at the ammo he had with it was all it took to make me say, "No wonder." The case necks looked like they were threaded instead of turned, and the powder shown on the label didn't have a snowball's chance of shooting well in the 6 PPC. I did not take advantage of the man, nor did I badmouth his gun or choice of load, I just watched and waited as few people looked at it and he began to mark down the price.
Finally near the end of the show I passed by again. I really had no intention of buying the rifle, but when the guy said, "Gimme X dollars " my wallet came out. The figure was less than half of his original asking price and by any stretch a bargain. It was an offer I couldn't refuse.
So that's how I came by two real benchrest rifles and took a detour from my normal shooting routine. We really owe a lot to our benchrest brethren because most of the big advances in accurate guns and ammo have come to us by way of their almost obsessive/compulsive search for smaller groups.
Both of my impulse purchases came with some risk because with used guns like these there is always the chance of some hidden flaw or a worn-out barrel. Actually, though, the barrels that serious benchresters call "worn out" really have thousands of rounds of useful--if not perfect--life for the average guy like me.
It wasn't much trouble to learn that neither gun suffered accuracy ailments. I am especially attracted to the .222 because back when that rifle was made, the .222 was king of the benchrest circuit--but today we have bullets and powders that were unknown then. The optimist in me calls this an opportunity.
Rifles capable of outstanding accuracy allow handloaders to get the most out of their experimentation--from trying different powders to playing with custom bullets.
Shooters are conditioned by marketers to want something new every year, and while I appreciate the need for anything that promotes the growth of shooting, we can do the same thing by looking to the past. It seems as if things are replaced with new stuff that really doesn't do anything better--it's just different.
I've had that 6 PPC I mentioned for quite awhile and, contrary to my usual practice, have never written about it and shot it only occasionally for fun. But when the .222 arrived, it dawned on me that I had two rifles with stories to tell, and it reminded me of all sorts of older cartridges with names like Wasp and Zipper that were the kings of accuracy even before the .222. I remember reading about them in the American Rifleman as a kid and can't help but wonder how they would fare with all the new stuff we have today.
Of course some of those older cartridges were wildcats, and not all survived to be popular today, but I don't think there is a single one that was even remotely popular from the 1930s on that one could not resurrect. Some of the most popular--such as the .219 Donaldson Wasp and .219 Zipper--were derived from the .30-30 and shot in the Winchester single-shot rifles that ruled back before bolt actions took over.
Both of these rifles have turned into teaching tools for me. The 6 PPC is still the virtual standard cartridge in benchrest, but to shoot it I had to learn the intricacies of neck turning to a specific diameter and explore the field of custom bullets and debate the merits of 62-grain versus 63-grain bullets. I tried lots of powders and ended up at the same choice the benchrest shooters had already established: N-133.
I've gone back and reviewed data from my PPC and found a personal record group of 0.098 inch with 25.0 grains of H-322 and a 67-grain custom bullet. But I got a more consistent average of 0.167 inch for a number of groups with 26.5 grains of N-133 and the same bullet. The bad news is that the outfit which made this bullet is no longer in business.
The .222 Remington is even more fascinating. It was a truly new cartridge in 1950. Almost every cartridge common today actually evolved from something else, but the "triple deuce" didn't and instead is the parent case for today's service cartridge and varmint king, the .223 Remington.
Today's ammo catalogs don't show too many .222 loads. Remington's figure for a 50-grain bullet is 3,140 fps. Winchester now offers a load using its 40-grain Ballistic Silvertip at 3,370 fps and might be just the ticket to revive some older rifles.
My adventures with the .222 have only just begun. Back in the day, Remington's factory 52-grain match bullet ruled, and powders were either IMR 4198 or Ball C (later Ball C2). I inherited some of those bullets
with the rifle, and both powders are still available, but there are brave new worlds of both powder and bullet to try. There are numerous small companies selling custom bullets, and all of the big bullet companies have something to try as well.
I don't have nearly as much experience with the .222 and have not even begun to explore the custom bullet opportunities. I've concentrated on using the Sierra 52-grain MatchKing. I also tried something a bit unconventional and loaded some with Hodgdon Varget, which is reportedly too slow for the .222. Maybe so, but it works so well in the .223 that it was worth a try. A charge of 25.0 grains gave 3,023 fps and an average of 0.236-inch groups. That is a bit low on the velocity scale, but I'll trade speed for accuracy any time.
Both rifles also have been educational in terms of scopes. The Remington came with a vintage Unertl BV-20 that was top of the line in those days. In fact, it is one of the sharpest scopes I've got. The image is not quite as bright as comparable newer scopes, but the sharpness and contrast are superb. Of course it would be a sin to change it anyhow.
The PPC came with a Leupold BR-36, which was a virtual standard, although I've now upgraded to a Leupold Competition Series 45X.
I need to warn you that if you ever once get a group that is less than a tenth of an inch--benchresters call those "zeros"--you will always want to do it again and might even find yourself addicted. The appeal of precision shooting is great, but you do not have to spend a bundle to find out if you like it. I always see older bench guns offered at gun shows (see sidebar) or online and careful examination and questioning can usually prevent buying pigs in pokes. I know that this type of shooting isn't for everyone, but it sure is fun for me.
WARNING: The loads shown here are safe only in the guns for which they were developed. Neither the author nor InterMedia Outdoors assumes any liability for accidents or injury resulting from the use or misuse of this data. Shooting reloads may void any warranty on your firearm.