September 04, 2012
By Patrick Sweeney
If you have ever had the experience of trying to learn to play music, you've heard the common advice; "Buy the best instrument you can." The idea is, if you buy a lousy violin, flute, whatever, your potential growth may be stunted by the awful sounds it produces. You may be so discouraged that you give up. The better instrument both eases musical production and encourages proper technique.
What if you want to learn the long-range precision-rifle game, what then? Well, the musical approach would have you plunking down $5,000 to $6,000 for rifle, scope and gear — more, in some instances. But a bolt-action rifle built for long-range precision isn't a violin. If your parents bought you a pricey violin, and you found out you had no ear for it, they can sell it for pretty much what they paid. It's hard to wear out a violin just sawing on it.
A rifle? If you find that calling the wind is more akin to magic or particle physics and you have no eye for it, your $6,000 rifle investment will sell on the used market for half that. Ouch.
Which brings me to a rule I modestly named after myself: Sweeney's Law of "Good enough gear." That is, any gear that is good enough to let you learn, especially to learn you aren't suited to it, is good enough. More money spent is more money wasted.
Which brings me to the Mossberg Night Train II. The heart of the rifle is the Mossberg bolt-action 100 ATR All-Terrain Rifle. For the Night Train, Mossberg takes the basic action and nestles it into a synthetic stock, either all-black or camo pattern, and free-floats the barrel for consistent accuracy.
The barrel is 22 inches long, button-rifled, fluted and, based on my range-testing, clearly up to the task. The muzzle is threaded 3/4-16, and on the end of it Mossberg puts an aggressive-looking muzzle brake. Since the rifle, full-up, weighs on the high side of nine pounds, a muzzle brake would seem to be superfluous.
Precision rifles need good triggers, and here Mossberg does a terrific job. The Lightning Bolt Action trigger system is all you'd want. The small bar with the lightning bolt in it is the take-up bar, safety and slack indicator all in one. The trigger is adjustable, but the one I had came right out of the box needing no adjustments. If anything, it was perhaps a bit too light. Okay, I was also shooting other rifles on the first range trip, and their triggers were not nearly so nice, so the first few times I fired the Night Train II, I practically shot my own chronograph. Once I got used to it, it was a joy to use.
The synthetic stock has a Harris bipod attached to one of the two front sling swivels as part of the standard equipment, and there's a Picatinny rail bolted to the receiver, as a one-piece mount. Also as standard equipment is a Barska scope, a 6-24x50, with solid rings and installed scope covers — and extended sun shield to boot.
The rings are bolted down via husky hex-head nuts, the scope has external adjustments (eight clicks to the inch at 100 yards, no less) with a side turret for parallax adjustments, and locking collars as well. Inside, the reticle is mil-dot all the way. As a final bonus, the reticle is illuminated, so you can dial up the power — and the power, if you follow.
Now, the stock, being synthetic, falls out of a mold in the Mossberg factory or supplier. The scope, with its 50mm objective, has to sit rather higher than a regular scope would. The cheekpiece on the stock is a bit low for this scope, so Mossberg includes (installed) a foam stock sleeve to raise your face on the cheekpiece.
The Beartooth Products cheekpiece is a nice addition, and makes shooting a very comfortable experience. It not only raises your eye line but dampens any recoil that might find its way back to your face.
The stock is a blind-magazine design, not having a magazine plate on the bottom. This makes it stiffer than it would be with a base plate. Also, the stock is nice and trim, and you don't get the impression that you're schlepping an oar disguised as a rifle to the firing line.
The bolt works smoothly, the various parts are all fitted very nicely, so why do I find myself so ambivalent about this rifle?
Let's start with the muzzle brake. I've seen aggressive brakes in my time, but this one is off the charts when it comes to redirecting gases.
I have a reputation for never blinking in shooting. Video of me shooting makes me seem almost cyborg-ish in that. This brake makes me blink. Even after I was used to it, I could only sometimes control the blink response. This brake will not make you any friends on a crowded or covered firing line.
You think I exaggerate? I had to give up keeping any notebooks, extra gear or ammo boxes (except full ones) on the shooting bench. The brake would broom them off in short order. I used duct tape to hold my chrono down and keep it where I could read it. The brake is one of the most "blasty" designs I've seen in a long time.
However, the thing sure does work. Now, a .308 rifle that weighs on the order of nine pounds isn't going to thump you very hard, but the Night Train II is very soft to shoot.
As I mentioned, the Barska scope is a 6-24X variable, which is cool. Getting nestled in behind it to punch groups at 100 yards is a lot more fun at 24X than at 6X. But the field of view at 24X is narrow, and the eye relief is not very forgiving.
It takes some practice to get behind it consistently, and even then you will have to hunt a bit. It is crisp and clear, though, and, again, it has all the power you could want.
On the good side, if you learn with this scope, all others will be so easy you won't notice having to position yourself behind them. The scope is so big, though, with the sun shield attached, that its size and weight also throw off the balance, making the rifle top-heavy. Even just plinking, not under stress, shooting the Night Train II offhand is more a yoga-like exercise in "How do I hold this?" than marksmanship practice. But then this is not a gun you're supposed to be shooting offhand; it's a long-distance tool that you're going to be shooting either from prone with a bipod or from a solid rest/cover of some sort.
Although capacity is listed as 4+1 rounds, I could not get my fingers in to press hard enough to get the bolt to override a magazine with four rounds in it. The Picatinny base, bridging the front and rear receiver rings, provides scant clearance for getting a round into the magazine. So I really think the capacity is four rounds in total. Also, if the Night Train II had bottom metal — a hinged floorplate of some description — it would make unloading easier. But, it would do so at extra cost, extra weight and a stock with reduced stiffness.
So the trigger is a joy, and the Harris bipod is, well, a Harris bipod, and an essential component of a precision rifle. The bolt is smooth, easy to work, the safety is natural. So what about the most important aspect, the accuracy?
As a full-time writer and paid trigger-puller (one-way ranges only) I and my brethren come to expect one m.o.a. rifles as practically a birthright. If we're handed a dedicated long-range precision rifle, we sneer at gear that can't deliver sub-m.o.a. and expect half-m.o.a. as the norm.
If you can't get a Night Train II to shoot sub-m.o.a., either your technique is bad, or your ammo sucks. As a tool to learn if you're cut out for precision shooting, the Night Train II is a great big gold nugget, waiting for you to unearth it.
Still, as much as I love the guys and gals at Mossberg, I think they have to change two things about the Night Train II — or, as I'll explain in a moment, you, the purchaser, have to change them. Not the trigger, leave it alone. Not the bipod, stock, cheekpiece or mount. Those are all rock solid and need no attention.
However, I can't live with the muzzle brake, and I'd be perusing the pages of Brownells, looking for a replacement brake. But Mossberg does provide a solution. With a regular rifle, you'd have to send it off to a custom gunsmith to have the muzzle threaded before you could install a muzzle brake — or, more to the point, a flash hider or suppressor mount. Mossberg saves you that step, the shipping costs and the downtime thanks to the factory threads.
Once you have settled on what to do about the muzzle brake, there is the scope. Do you want that much power? Do you want to learn or mess around with mil-dots? This scope allows you the opportunity to find out. And if you find this scope is not for you, it won't break your heart or wallet to take it off and set it aside. You can then, with the shooting experience the scope has given you, settle on a replacement scope (and rings, if you feel the need) to suit your own needs and skills.
If this is indeed your first foray into precision rifles and you decide to buy the Night Train II, your choices abound. One, you could decide that you love the endeavor and only a custom rifle will do. Once you have decided what you want, sourced the parts and found a gunsmith who is willing and able to build your new treasure, you'll wait. And in some instances, wait a bunch more (which will be good because you'll need to save up some serious cash).
While you're waiting, you can be using the Night Train II, and if you've worn the bore smooth by the time your new rifle arrives, well, you'll be a much better shooter for it.
If you find that you just aren't cut out for this, that precision shooting is not your thing, you can sell it without taking a crushing hit. In fact, you may be down only a couple of hundred dollars. Somebody else at your gun club may want to have a go at precision shooting or decide that a tack-driving bolt gun is just what they want.
Or you could, as I suggested earlier, simply replace the muzzle brake with another brake or device (or just leave it plain with a thread protector) and the scope with options more suited to your tastes. Then you'd have a superbly accurate rifle with a good trigger that didn't cost you the equivalent of a couple of mortgage payments.
Value for money is a concept we should all get behind. In this case, it comes as part of a somewhat odd-looking rifle, with an odd name, but the performance you get, for the money you spend, should be what catches your eye. If your buddies won't stop ribbing you, show them the targets.