May 07, 2013
When I — and I'm sure many others — think of a .338 Lapua Mag. rifle, the first thing that comes to mind is a heavy-barreled precision rifle — a rig with a barrel about the diameter of a Rockwell axle capable of slapping a target at distances Matthew Quigley would shy away from. Basically a prone gun that, while capable of great accuracy, is almost heavy enough to require a wheeled Sokolov mount to cart it about.
It's certainly not a rifle you would pack on your average hunting trip when headed over hill and dale on foot. So I was a bit intrigued when I was introduced to Hill Country Rifles and its new .338 Lapua Mag. Here was a well-thought-out, handsome sporting rifle chambered for the big Finnish magnum.
I was unfamiliar with this New Braunfels, Texas-based company. I learned it was formed in September 1996 by David Fuqua and Matthew Bettersworth. The intent was to focus on bolt-action hunting rifles. Their two-pronged approach consisted of accurizing customers' rifles as well as building custom guns. Over the years this has proven successful for them, and today they have 13 employees, nine of whom are gunsmiths.
When it comes to accurizing a customer's rifle, Hill Country Rifles begins with an inspection. The barrel, chamber, locking lugs, stock, scope, mounts and trigger are all checked. Then they pillar- and glass-bed the action, recrown the barrel, ensure even locking lug contact, check the headspace, tune the trigger and ensure the scope is properly mounted. Next they test it at 100 yards to verify the results of their work. Rifles are returned with the final test target and the type of factory ammunition used during testing.
For most calibers this costs $495, and the work comes with a sub moa guarantee. In addition to accuracy packages Hill Country Rifles also does traditional gunsmithing work such as rebarreling, recrowning, trigger work, muzzle brake installation, recoil pad mounting and refinishing. Their barreling work includes complete squaring and trueing of the action, lapping of the bolt lugs, cutting a recessed target crown, matte finish applied on the barrel and barrel break-in. Barrels are selected from Hart, Krieger, Schneider, Benchmark and Lilja.
Hill Country Rifles also offers a complete line of custom rifles — including lightweight sheep rifles, Field Stalker rifles, dangerous game rifles, long-range hunting rifles and even tactical models. During an interview with Bettersworth, he told me the company was probably best known for its sheep rifles, which weigh, depending upon a customer's desires, 6.5 to seven pounds and are guaranteed to shoot into 0.5 moa
The company's most eye-catching model is the American Classic. Built on a professionally blueprinted Winchester or Dakota action, Hill Country's in-house stock maker, Michael Ullman, crafts the wood. Numerous small details combine to form a work of art any rifleman would be proud to own. Better still, even this ornate model is still required to shoot into 0.5 moa
But to get back to my test rifle. While most rifles chambered in this caliber have a definite tactical or prone gun flair to them, this one was rather different. Weighing in at just 9.5 pounds without optics, here was a .338 Lapua Mag. well-suited for hunting and position shooting. I have to say, it immediately caught my attention when I first handled it. Although long, it was quite handy.
The heart of this model is a Defiance Machine action. This is pre-hardened before machining to prevent changing tolerances during heat treating. Full-length lug ways are wire EDM-cut. It features a pinned recoil lug and oversize 8x40 base screws. Fitted to this is a 27-inch match-grade stainless barrel from Gary Schneider. It's a hand-lapped, pull-button rifled barrel with a 1:10 twist. To reduce weight it is a No. 5 contour. Bettersworth said Schneider was at first leery of doing a .338 Lapua Mag. in this light of a contour. However, the results were so good Hill Country Rifles stuck with it.
To reduce recoil, a Badger Ordnance Thruster Tactical Compensator is fitted to the muzzle. Badger machines these from stainless steel with angled ports to direct blast up away from the ground. This reduces the amount of debris blasted into the air.
Bettersworth said the company initially considered turning the compensator down to more closely match the barrel profile. However, after speaking with Marty Bordsen at Badger, the designers decided to leave it be.
Riding inside the action is a fluted, one-piece bolt body with an M16-style claw extractor and plunger ejector. This sports an oversize tactical bolt handle. To enhance accuracy, the chamber is cut to minimum SAAMI specifications. Bettersworth says this takes a bit more time but is well worth the effort
A Jewell trigger is fitted and adjusted to provide a crisp 2.5-pound break. Bottom metal consists of Badger's highly regarded M5 Badger Detachable Magazine system. Machined from aircraft-grade aluminum and hard-coat anodized, it accepts steel five-round magazines. A simple ambidextrous paddle lever releases the magazine.
The barreled action is carefully bedded into a Precision Stock Works' Rifleman stock. Hill Country has three 'smiths who do nothing but glass bedding. Two of them have been bedding rifles for more than 20 years.
The stock itself is well-suited to the task at hand. As it's intended for a long-range hunting rifle, the design has been influenced by tactical-style stocks. By this I mean the comb height, grip angle, fore-end shape and overall weight are optimized for long-range field shots. It is fitted with two studs in the fore-end to facilitate mounting both a bipod and a sling. A recoil pad adds comfort when firing heavy loads, and firing heavy loads is what this rifle is all about.
It's a good-looking rifle with an olive Cerakote finish that is both handsome and practical. Workmanship was excellent from muzzle to recoil pad. Search as I might, I found nothing to gripe about. Due to its 27-inch barrel and muzzle brake the rifle's overall length is rather long at 49 inches. Empty weight without optics is 9.5 pounds.
This combination of numbers adds up to it feeling like an early 20th century infantry rifle. So while long, it shoulders and handles fairly well. It is comfortable in traditional positions as well as field positions other than prone. Unlike a traditional .338 Lapua Mag. precision rifle, it actually holds rather nicely offhand. Basically it has enough weight to be steady yet is not so heavy to be burdensome.
Documentation provided with the rifle showed it would keep three rounds inside 0.5 inch at 100 yards with two factory loads. So I was interested to see what I could squeeze out of it. I started testing by selecting a proper scope for it. This is a hunting rifle, not a tactical rifle so I wanted an appropriate piece of glass. I found what I was looking for in Premier Reticles' 3-15x50 Hunter. Built using sniper scope technology, it is an impressive optic built specifically for the long-range hunter. I mounted it using a set of Tactical Rifles' titanium Chimera rings. While expensive, these are glorious rings and the perfect interface for such a fine optic and rifle.
Ammo for the .338 Lapua Mag. can be a bit hard to find, but I had three loads in my bunker. These consisted of Black Hills Ammunition's 250-grain MatchKing and 250-grain Scenar along with Lapua's 250-grain Scenar. So I put the rifle to work with these three loads from the bench at 100 yards.
I immediately noticed how comfortable the rifle was to shoot, even from the bench. Magazines loaded and locked into place without issue. The bolt operated smoothly, and rounds fed cleanly with little effort. The Jewell trigger was excellent.
Plus when the trigger broke the Badger brake, stock design and pad soaked up the recoil. Recoil was mild, but the gun was loud — to the point a neighbor asked me the next day what was barking so loud on my range. Extraction and ejection were 100 percent; zero issues of any kind experienced during testing.
Firing five three-shot groups from the bench provided excellent accuracy, as you can see in the accompanying chart. Chronographing the loads also revealed that the long barrel squeezes a lot out of the .338 Lapua cartridge. Take a look at the average velocities in the chart.
Let's be honest though, shooting a .338 Lapua Magnum at 100 yards is, well, boring. So I snapped a Harris bipod onto it and climbed up my shooting tower. Going prone I lined up on my farthest steel plate — an Action Target silhouette at 800 yards. I admit I had been lazy and didn't bother to make a data card for the load I was shooting. Instead I stuffed three rounds of Black Hills' 250-grain Scenar load into the magazine, checked the wind and held up 4.5 mils on the reticle. Sounded about right. Boom.
I had the scope back on the silhouette by the time the Scenar rocked it. A first-round hit at 800 yards. I was pleased. Although the hit was low left, I fired two more rounds using the same hold to see how the gun would do.
I drove down to the target and measured the three hits — discovering they were just 4.2 inches center to center. So my first try was almost 0.5 moa at 800 yards, which is pretty impressive.
After letting the barrel cool, I reloaded the magazine and then carefully shot two more three-shot groups at 800 yards. Black Hills 250-grain Scenar load averaged 4.7 inches at this distance. I did note that the relatively thin barrel does heat very rapidly. So I let it cool and then I fired 10 rounds at a rapid pace (less than 30 seconds). During this test the shots strung vertically as the barrel heated, and I dropped the last round off the steel (high). But this didn't come as a surprise. The barrel is thin, and this rig is not intended for long strings of fire.
All in all I was very impressed by Hill Country Rifles .338 Lapua Mag. It is handsomely made, functioned with zero issues and was very accurate. It definitely would invoke pride of ownership. Here is a rifle light enough to hunt with yet capable of driving an extremely efficient 250-grain bullet at 2,900 fps. The downside is simply price: $5,995. Still, with the Premier Reticles' 3-15x50 aboard it proved an excellent package.