March 03, 2006
Surveying the state of the modern sniper rifle.
In 1966 and 1969 the late Carlos Hathcock methodically offered NVA, VC and other combatants on the opposing side the opportunity for early retirement in the forests, rice paddies and hamlets of Vietnam. His tally was accounted for using a Winchester M70, but the newly adopted standard for the Marine Corps by 1969 was the M40.
It is/was a Remington 700 that had a match barrel installed and was lovingly bedded into a wood stock, tuned, built and tested by Marine Corps armorers. It fired a 7.62 NATO round from a 22-inch barrel and used a Unertl 10X scope.
Beginning in the early 1970s the Corps updated the system to the M40A1 with a 24-inch barrel and a few other refinements. As each M40 rifle was rotated back for service, it was stripped and rebuilt as an M40A1. (Heaven forbid the Corps should buy new rifles when the old ones could be rebuilt.) And why the Remington 700; why not build on the Winchester? Simply put, blueprinting an M700 action is lathe work. If you have a large and accurate lathe, you can rebuild M700s for eternity. The Model 70 was not amenable to such efforts.
In 2005 Marine Corps snipers are offering terrorists, insurgents and other unreasonable would-be combatants in the Dustbowl an early trip to the Promised Land. For the most part, they are using--yes--M40A1 rifles. There are some M40A3 rifles being used. As in the 1970s there are some M40A1s that have been sent back for repair or rebuilding. The actions are stripped and reassembled with new McMillan stocks, barrels and rebuilt Unertl scopes.
The Army brass decided some time ago that they needed sniper rifles, too. Rather than simply adopting the M40A1, they required Remington to provide rifles that could be anything the Army wanted them to be. As shipped, they're .308/7.62 NATO, but by rebarreling them and replacing the bolts, they could be .300 Win Mag--or some other caliber. Yes, I know, you can only do that with a long action, longer than the .308 needs, but that was what the Army wanted in its M24.
What has changed through the years? Well, everything and nothing.
First, the nothing. Despite the best efforts of engineers, armorers, designers and manufacturers over the last four and a half decades, a bolt-action rifle is still more durable and less likely to lose accuracy due to rough handling than an autoloading rifle. Taking a rifle out of the safe, putting it in the back of your truck and driving to the range is not a test of a rifle's durability.
If you want to find out how tough a rifle is, do what fellow gunwriter Duane Thomas described as his government job a couple of decades ago: "Jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft going 100 miles an hour in the middle of the night with 100 pounds of gear lashed to my body to find out how much arrived on the ground with me."
Short of planned abusive testing, nothing is as hard on equipment as military use. If you want a rifle to keep its zero despite hard use, bet on a bolt action. And in long-range shooting, first hits count, and follow-up shots are not a large factor.
Before you start arguing over just what a sniper rifle is or should be, consider who the sniper works for: the scene commander in a SWAT operation or the Brigade or higher command in a military operation. He doesn't "work" for the SWAT entry team, nor the squad holding a building in Iraq. He covers a wider area, sometimes a whole side of a scene (as in SWAT), and reports more often than he shoots.
The shooter who works for the lower-level unit commanders in the military is the Squad Designated Marksman, and he often has a rebuilt M14 or a scoped M16. For the close fight, fast follow-up shots can be critical. For the real sniper, a "follow-up shot" on a target 1,200 yards away is anything that arrives within five seconds of the first shot. In a SWAT operation, instantaneous incapacitation (or as close as we can come with a shoulder weapon) matters more than fast shots. Accuracy is paramount.
What has changed since Vietnam is volume and availability. Today, getting an accurate rifle is easy. Finding accurate ammunition is easy. Finding the gear that makes up a sniper system is easy; the gear is more available and better than ever.
In the early days of sniping, as in the early days of IPSC, finding someone who could build what you needed was tough--so tough a task the Marines simply did the job themselves. Now you can have one built by any number of excellent gunsmiths, or just buy one already made. Two examples I have on hand are the H-S Precision and the FN SPR. I'll soon have for testing (and your enjoyment of the results) the Sako Tikka sniper and the TRG.
Blueprinting an action used to be a lot of work, with quite a few dimensions in need of adjusting. In this modern age of CNC machining, actions are a lot better than they used to be. Companies like H-S Precision and FN are simply shifting the after-manufacturing work that gunsmiths used to do right onto the manufacturing floor and blueprinting actions from the start.
Blueprinting an action for the gunsmith involves recutting the action threads and barrel threads so that they are concentric and centered on the action and bore respectively. Also, it involves making sure the action and barrel shoulders are perpendicular to the action and bore centerline. For a long time "close enough" was good enough. Now computers can make it close to perfect. With all the requisite tools on hand, FN can blueprint its Model 70 Special Police Rifle before it gets blued.
On many rifles, the Corps welded the bases to the receiver to ensure a permanent bond. We can use threadlocking compounds now, but the base and rings are still a potential weak link. Luckily, we have bases such as the Badger Ordnance, with a built-in muzzle rise to let you get all the adjustments in your scope in play for long-range use.
While the Marine Corps still uses Unertl scopes (not just the same model but the same scopes), there are many other choices. Scopes have better optics, better seals, better coatings and more durability than ever. The problem isn't so much getting a good one but picking one from the choices out there.
One big change from the old days is in the stock. Back when wood was king, you did your best to get a straight-grained heavy stock and then carefully inlet it before bedding with one or another exotic epoxy compound. The method worked, but not well. Today a sniper rifle with a wood stock is a curiosity. No one would do it by choice, unless he wanted the weight of a laminated stock.
Sniper stocks now are synthetic, often built of layers of fiberglass and carbon fiber cloth laid over a foam core and even compressed, heated or otherwise cured. Far tougher than wood and impervious to the elements, cleaning agents and all known solvents--including New Jersey tap water--a synthetic stock will not change its zero due to the weather. While most are light and unsuitable as boat anchors, all are tough enough to be used as emergency impact tools.
A modern sniper rifle often incorporates a bedding rail in the stock. Instead of clamping an action and base metal around a synthetic stock, a bedding rail is an aluminum or steel rail inside the stock that takes the compression of assembly and the impact of recoil. As tough as polymers and fiberglass are, they still aren't as strong for some applications as metal.
The newest stocks also incorporate adjustable buttplates and cheekrests. Until recently, such adjustments were seen only on target rifles and mostly on Olympic rifles. When you're issuing thousands of rifles to thousands of soldiers, Marines or airmen, "the standard size" is usually good enough. But for a sniper, who may be waiting in position for hours or days for a shot, a stock that fits properly can mean the difference between getting the shot and not getting the shot.
A frequent discussion topic about sniper rifles is "magazine or no magazine?"--as in detachable magazine. The military still feels that a detachable magazine is not the way to go. It is too fragile, if you lose them you're out of luck, and they make the rifle too big. The FBI obviously disagrees as the agency bought its new rifles from H-S Precision with detachable magazines. Retired Gunny Jim Owens, who saw the FN-SPR to completion in FN's development program, also disagrees with the Corps on this issue as the SPR most definitely has a detachable magazine.
A sniper rifle isn't just a rifle, not in either police or military use. You get issued a "system" when you become a sniper: a rifle, cleaning gear, sighting scope, spotting scope, log book, tools and cases to store everything in. Having just signed away your life (or at least a big chunk of pay if you lose anything) for a sniper-rifle system, you're standing there in the weapons room with a trunk-size pile of bags, boxes and books. And you haven't even been issued ammo yet.
Ammunition was always the weak point of many sniper rifles. It does you no good to build a super-accurate rifle only to feed it ammunition made to fulfill the "beaten zone" requirements of a machine gun. (If you are using burst fire from a machine gun to deny an area to your enemy, you want dispersion. Random hits in a 10- or 20-foot area are just fine.)
In past wars, snipers had to try various production lots of ammunition to find what was accurate in their rifle. First, the old Ball, M1 of .30-06, then the M80 Ball 7.62 NATO and still later M118. Once he found an accurate lot, the prudent sniper would lay in a supply of that lot and that lot alone. The full-metal-jacket M118 long-range match ammunition was good for the day, but it does not stand up to modern ammunition.
A big change is the use of the Sierra MatchKing bullet. Originally banned from military use except in competition due to the hollowpoint, the powers that be finally got the lawyers to see the engineering light: The hollowpoint had nothing to do with expansion, only accuracy. And that is the big weakness of the Sierra. (Ask the guys at Sierra. They will not be the least bit evasive--the MatchKing is not designed to expand.)
For military use, a match bullet that acts like an FMJ is just fine. For law enforcement use, it is not so good. Not a problem; the supply of match-accuracy expanding bullets is larger than it has ever been. For the police marksman, there is a nearly overwhelming choice of expanding bullets--Barnes, Cor-bon, Federal Tactical, TAP and more.
Sniper-rifle ammunition is still mostly .308. In the old days the reasoning was that in a pinch, a sniper could use the issue ammo. (Nevermind the potential loss of accuracy, changed zero and missed shots.) While there has always been an expressed need or demand for bigger calibers, most rifles are still .308.
Why? Because it is good enough.
A .308 has the accuracy and energy to deal with miscreants at 1,000 yards. Something bigger has more recoil, noise, greater problems with dust kicked up by the muzzle blast and delivers not much more.
Let's compare a .308 to the .300 Win. Mag. The .308 starts a 175- grain match bullet at 2,500 fps. The .300 starts at 3,000. By the 1,000-yard marker, the .308 has dropped to 1,180 fps while the bullet launched from the .300 is going 1,432 fps. That's a lot more recoil for 250 fps on the far end.
Someone might complain that I'm not giving the bigger cartridge its due; there are cases that will push a bullet faster. The fastest one I can find is the .30-378 Weatherby, which can start our 175-grain bullet at 3,300 fps (ouch!).
It ends its 1,000-yard trip with 1,608 fps. For twice the recoil, we end up with a usable but not great terminal increase.
Inside 1,000 yards, the .308 works well. Past that you need more than just a bigger case; you need something like the .338 Lapua Magnum or the .50 BMG. And in the military, where .50 BMG is a staple item (the corner-party-store equivalent of milk or bread), the Barrett line of rifles is an obvious choice.
The secret to long-range accuracy lies in two variables: distance and wind. If you know exactly how far a given target lies, you have half the variables pinned down. In the early days it was a matter of guesswork. And thus "long range" sniping was either not very far or depended on other rangefinding methods than the ones the sniper and his assistant had with them. Then and now, military snipers make range cards. From a given position, all landmarks are noted for their direction and distance. If you had to take up a position for a time, you'd look at the previous sniper's range card, but you'd make your own.
And how did we know that the far ridgeline was exactly 730 yards away? Because a Combat Engineer used a surveyor's transit to measure it. How do we know he was correct? Because Sgt. Jones of the 1/7 shot someone last week using that as his range setting.
Now we use lasers. Electronics are grand and a whole lot more portable than that Combat Engineer and his transit. We can tell that the ridge is 728 yards distant and the bad guy trying to hide over there is exactly 713 yards away from our muzzle.
To lessen the wear and tear on a rifle, you use a good case. A generation ago a case was a cloth sleeve with minimal padding that had no utility once you arrived wherever you were. Today, a case is multiple storage levels, from a hard case to a drag bag. The hard case is a Pelican or Hardigg, which can withstand more of an impact than you can.
A drag bag is what you use to pull the rifle behind you as you slither into a shooting hide. It also has pockets for extra gear, and the padding in it and its design allows you to use it as a shooting mat once you've arrived at your shooting location.
The modern sniper rifle is more than just a launching system. It's a frame of mind. And lots of extra gear.