October 15, 2012
The mirage mostly danced straight up and told me the wind conditions down at the 1,000-yard line were perfect and it was time to get on the trigger. My first hour at the range was amazing, with zero wind the entire length of the range, but as the sun crawled higher, the winds picked up and, worse, were erratic. I kicked myself for not starting long and working my way back, but that's the way love goes. There were two good hits on the steel, and I wanted to finish with a perfect third shot.
Pulling the buttstock into my shoulder with the familiar A2 pistol grip, I loaded up the bipod by pushing off with my toes and dropped flatter than a dime on the dance floor. Mother Earth had a calming effect on me and, more important, the crosshairs. The mental checklist was pretty simple: double-check the come-up, double-check parallax, let the rifle find its natural point of aim, adjust the rear bag with a pinch, start the breathing cycle and prep the trigger. The NP-R1 reticle settled perfectly into the white center dot of a 15-inch bullseye, and I did not waste a second before pressing the trigger.
A pressure wave smacked my face, and the rifle rocked me back a bit, but I was able to push back into place just in time to see a wicked sight — the third round smashed the steel an inch from my first shot, giving me an overall group of just 7.4 inches. The rifle was an AR of sorts, but I was not slinging 5.56 or 6.5mm or even .30-caliber bullets. I had crushed the wind and distance with a 250-grain Sierra MatchKing loaded in brand-new Black Hills brass. Yep, the .338 Lapua Magnum ruled the roost, or at least this firing line. I worked the bolt, chambered another round and started thinking about mirage again.
Writers like me have written endlessly about the AR's versatility, but the Zel Custom Manufacturing Tactilite T1 upper I was shooting shreds the envelope and can take shooters well beyond the maximum effective range of ordinary AR cartridges. Zel Custom designers figured out a way to pair cartridges such as the .50 BMG, .416 Barrett, .408 CheyTac and, my personal favorite, the .338 Lapua Magnum and a standard AR lower with no permanent modifications. Unlike the majority of other bolt rifles chambered for these powerful calibers, an upper is relatively inexpensive.
The concept is by no means new, but Zel Custom has so far produced the best iteration. The only catch is losing semiauto capability — all the Tactilite uppers are bolt actions — but "you have to pay the cost to be the boss," as B.B. King would sing. The T1 uppers are single-shots, and the T2 uppers, available in .50 BMG and .416 Barrett only, feed from five-round Accuracy International magazines located on the upper's left side.
Zel Custom starts with a 21-pound chunk of 4140 chrome-moly steel bar stock, and after a few hours in a CNC machine, they end up with a 3½-pound receiver and a big pile of chips. The entire receiver is then heat-treated to RC 45. Bolting on rails and screwing together pieces instead of machining the receiver from one uninterrupted block of steel would be cheaper, but designers figured on making the part bombproof, a comforting thought considering the forces generated by the .50 BMG and friends.
Barrels, all of which are button rifled, come from two different manufacturers and define three different grades of uppers. Zel gets rifled blanks and does the finish work in-house, allowing them to customize chambers and barrel lengths. They have built rifles in everything from .338 Federal on up to .50 BAT, so anything short of 20mm is on the table. The basic Ultralite has a Mossberg tube, and most will hold better than 1½ MOA according to the company. Lothar Walther chrome-moly (LW19) blanks are used in the Duty models, and the stainless steel (LW50) Super Match barrel pretty much speaks for itself. The two upgraded barrels should easily shoot under one MOA.
The barrels are threaded and screwed into the receiver, obviously, and then a free-float aluminum handguard is press fit onto the outside of the receiver. Machined from a custom 7075 aluminum extrusion, the handguard has two extensions on top and bottom that are screwed into the receiver to keep it from rotating. The sample rifle had rails up and down the entire length on all four sides, but 2012 models have rails on the last three inches to make the rifle easy to rest on sandbags or shoulder fire.
Metal parts wear a variety of finishes but match perfectly. Steel parts are first Parkerized, then given a matte-black Cerakote finish, while aluminum parts are hardcoat anodized.
I have spent time with two different T1 uppers, both in .338 Lapua, and both were sub-MOA rifles with factory ammo. Recent and extensive range sessions with a T1 Duty, paired with Nightforce's excellent NXS 8-32x56mm riflescope, were a dramatic testament to just how accurate a simple, well-made rifle can be. The largest three-shot group at 500 yards was just over seven inches, but four groups measured under three inches. My smallest group at 1,000 yards was just over seven inches.
This is phenomenal accuracy from a rifle that costs $1,700. Keep in mind that most .338 Lapua rifles start at $3,000, and the prices go up from there. The Tactilite line starts at $1,400 for a T1 Ultralite in .338 Lapua and runs all the way up to $2,500 for a T2 in .416 Barrett.
The upper was paired with a Mega Arms lower machined from a 7075 billet. It is a very nicely finished part with an integral triggerguard and tensioning screw for tightening upper/lower fit. But the Zel uppers will work with any standard AR lower as long as the manufacturer managed to drill all the holes in the right place.
Swapping out a standard AR upper with the T1 upper does require more than pulling the receiver pins. The bolt stop/catch, all its associated little parts, buffer, buffer spring, buffer retainer and buffer retainer spring, need to be removed and the standard hammer and hammer spring replaced with the supplied parts. The larger cartridges have harder primers and require more force for detonation. A stronger spring and heavier hammer make sure the rifle goes boom every time the trigger is pressed. Depending on just how familiar you are with the AR, it takes anywhere from five to 15 minutes to get the new upper and parts installed.
With the buffer removed, the bolt can slide back into the buffer tube to extract and chamber a round. The bolt handle screws in and out to facilitate bolt removal and maintenance and allow cleaning the bore from the chamber end. The bolt breaks down into three parts: the bolt head, body and firing-pin assembly. Two massive, opposing lugs lock into receiver mortises to keep all the bang on the inside. An extractor sits on the right lug's face, and a plunger-style ejector kicks cartridges out of the ejection port. There were no failures to extract or eject, but you do have to take care to start the cartridge into the chamber on the front end of the loading cycle.
If your upper has an A2 stock, you are good to go, but all six-position stocks must be replaced given the increased recoil. You might as well go big and get the Magpul PRS stock with a cushy Pachmayr recoil pad preinstalled. The PRS is one of the better aftermarket stocks out there and is easily adjustable for both comb height and length of pull. More than just a cool-looking $295 piece of furniture, the PRS lets you customize the stock to your dimensions. Proper stock fit is absolutely critical when the ranges get long and helps reduce felt recoil.
Many shooters look at the big, nasty cartridge sliding into the open maw of that massive barrel and instantly wince. But fear not: The T1's recoil — at least in the .338 Lapua Magnum models — is of little consequence, somewhere on the order of a medium-weight .30-'06 sporting rifle. Its substantial weight — over 16 pounds with scope and bipod — and a really good muzzlebrake attenuate recoil wonderfully. Unlike some other Lapuas that will start to beat you up after 50 or 60 rounds, you can fire a T1 until you go broke.
Since the bolt, receiver and barrel are all machined from heat-treated steel, the surrounding aluminum bits have little to fear. Only the takedown pins catch any recoil, and after several hundred rounds, the test rifle's pins and the area around those pins showed no signs of undue wear and tear.
The only thing that really needs improvement is the trigger. With the extra heavy spring needed for those hard primers, there is only so much you can do to lower the weight. The sample rifle had an average trigger pull weight of three pounds, 13 ounces, and there was a gritty 1„8 inch of slack before the trigger hit a wall and finally broke. Good shooting form can overcome most any problem, but I figured my groups could only get better with something more match-like pinned into the lower.
Some other Zel owners I spoke with had reduced the overall pull weight by stoning the components, but the best fix would be a new trigger altogether. And that is what owners of 2012 Zel uppers will get — a redesigned fire-control group with a much lighter, cleaner pull. The entire bolt-tube assembly of the upper was modified to accommodate the new system, but old uppers can be easily retrofitted with the new parts, which Zel is offering to registered owners at manufacturer's cost.
Quite a few people will look at a Zel upper and shake their heads, asking "What the heck is the point?" And that is a fair question considering that the upper eliminates semiauto capability and weighs a ton. Look at the Tactilite T1 uppers and think 1,000 yards, not CQB. They are a great way to break into the bigbore, long-range game in an affordable manner with a lower you already have on hand. The uppers are wonderfully designed, high quality, and there is not a MIM part to be seen.
Going long with an AR is no longer limited to the last gasps of a 6- or 6.5mm bullet. You can strike steel with authority and, more important, with accuracy by pairing your AR lower with a Zel Custom upper.
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