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The Budget Long-Range Rifle: Precision Shooting For Under $1, 000

First-time shooter? Long-time pistolero looking for a new challenge? Long-range precision marksmanship is arguably the deepest of the shooting sports; as mental as it is physical, it's a fusion of quick-thinking, a delicate knack for gauging environmental conditions, excellent posture and patience, and finally an art of choosing: Choosing the right rifle components when a fraction of a centimeter of inaccuracy compromises an entire rig.

There's no lack of cool-factor when it comes to "sniper rifles" (although calling them that may get you frowns from legitimate sportsmen such as bench-rest shooters and hunters, not to mention actual military snipers). Many of us are initially attracted to the hobby after seeing a masterpiece of firearm aesthetics and performance courtesy of high-end brands such as Finland's Sako, Britain's Accuracy International, and the USA's own iconic Barrett. That attraction can wear off in a hurry due to sticker shock; many of the previously mentioned brands have "basic" high-precision models starting at the price of a small used car, well into the multiple thousands without a scope. For a newcomer or a budget-minded hobbyist, such prices can make not only the purchase, but also the maintenance (Barrel wear? A replacement costs how much? Maybe I'll just look at it instead...) of such rifles a painful experience.

That's where this article comes in. Several well-reputed firearm manufacturers offer rifles which, although not as tacti-cool in appearance, nor neurotically precise, are built on the same fundamental operating systems and offer nearly the same modularity, all with accuracy close enough that only a seasoned competitive shooter could take advantage of the gap.

The basics:

So what are these things? The fundamentals of a precision rifle are about consistency and stability. For those reasons, they tend to be heavier than your standard deer rifle. Barrels tend to be of a lesser taper, thick enough to remain structurally sound during rapid varmint-hunting or balloon-blasting via superior heat dissipation compared to a thin or light barrel. Barrel materials vary. "Varmint"-labeled rifles will often go with a stainless steel barrel. "Tactical" rifles are usually had with a blued or chrome-moly matte look. The primary differences will be barrel life and, perhaps more so, appearance. There is no definitive answer regarding which barrel type is more accurate; so long as both are cleaned properly before and after usage and both are of high-quality manufacture, you should be good to go. Thickness varies and lengths range from the legal minimum to well over 22 inches. 18-22 inches is the norm, depending on cartridge and the amount of "burnoff" time preferred for a given propellant powder.

Since we mentioned the words "varmint" and "tactical", I'll touch a bit more upon that issue. There is no fundamental difference between a varmint rifle and a tactical rifle: Often the exact same rifle is marketed as both. Avoid paying too much attention to names, and instead pay attention to specs and features. "Tactical" is especially a double-edged sword. Few environments can test the functionality of a piece of equipment like live combat, so high-end tactical components tend to be the best of the best. However, the word is thrown around quite lazily and you'll find a lot of "tactical"-labeled gimmicks better left on airsoft toys.

Stocks are also a major point of contention when defining a proper precision rifle, being more massive than their hunting counterparts and often more accessorized, modular and adjustable. A quick browse through the McMillan line will give you the general idea. Adjustable cheekpieces are popular, as are girthy fore-grips, and even rear mono-pods. The debate on the "best" type of bedding rages on.

Wooden stocks are are due to the inherent tendency for wood, even heavily treated and laminated wood, to expand and detract in varying temperatures and humidity levels. Nearly all long-range precision rifles are dressed in stable synthetics. Bi-pods such as those offered by Harris are almost a requirement; bench rest shooters may prefer a more stable foundation such as sandbags, but if you plan to move around at all then a bi-pod is an absolute must. Most precision-oriented stocks take this into account and receive after-market stocks well, if not including their own in-house bi-pod system.

The guns themselves are nearly all bolt-action in operation. Semi-automatics have come a very long way the past few decades and many AR-based platforms deliver impressive results comparable to bolt-gun standards. However, maintenance, cost, and the extreme variability of internal moving parts keep the bolt-action dominant in the realm of pure long-range accuracy and regulate semi-autos to a "designated rifleman" (or mid-range) role.

Many precision rifles have increased emphasis on the trigger compared to all-purpose rifles, including DIY adjustment and/or a lighter break straight from the factory. A bad trigger or a very heavy break can be the Achilles' heel of an otherwise solid rifle due to the excessive pressure required to discharge the firearm disrupting aim. It's never a bad idea to see a trusted gunsmith and let him micro-adjust your trigger to your personal tastes either.

Ahhh... and the biggest sticker shock of them all: Scopes. Optics, glass, whatever you call them, they're those tubes you look through to aim. What's one of those going for these days? 50 bucks? Think again. A top-notch scope can cost as much as a top-notch rifle, surging into 5-figure price tags. Don't worry! We're here to help.

The options:

by now you either skipped through everything else I've written or you're growing impatient and want me to tell you what to buy. Let's do it. How close you stay to the $1, 000 mark will depend on incremental increases in quality, especially regarding optics.

The Tikka, Savage, and Remington lines all offer budget-savvy options for an aspiring ballistics artist. So do many more, of course, but those are my top picks.

The pros and cons?

Tikka:

Tikka is a Finnish sub-brand of also-Finnish high-end rifle-maker Sako, which is in turn affiliated with one of the most respected and senior names in firearms, Italy's Beretta. The Tikka T3 line starts in the upper-mid hundreds and ends in the mid one-thousands. As you may have guessed, the high-precision models are the ones in the thousands. What does the extra cash get you? Mainly, a beefier (but not all that beefy) stock, and one of the best deals in precision barrels on the planet. The flagship of the Tikka line, the T3 Tactical is also covered in modular attachment railing, making scope ring compatibility child's play. Tikka triggers are excellent and action is very smooth for the price. Accuracy is, out of the box, perhaps the best in this bunch. Expect to be consistently under .75" at 100 yards with a 3-5 shot group. The cons? Well, as mentioned, they're a little bit more pricey. Being foreign and less known, the accessory market is downright absent compared to the other two options I cover.

Remington:

Remington needs no introduction: It's one of the largest, most famous American firearm brands. The Remington 700 is the standard when it comes to bolt-action rifles, hunting or target. Multiple branches of the US military use a modified variant of the 700 as a sniper system and the 700P and its siblings are massively popular to civilian target shooters as well as police marksmen. The pros? When you buy a Remington 700, you're not only buying a rifle but the keys to thousands of other possible rifles. The after-market is practically infinite: Nearly every major precision stock maker bases their line around the 700 and builds for other actions as an afterthought. Magazine kits, exotic chamberings, drop-in triggers, you name it. The cons? Remington doesn't have the best reputation as far as out-of-the-box accuracy, especially regarding the low end models in our price range. A "trigger job" and tuning of the action from a qualified gunsmith are often recommended as a must, and further fine tuning goes from there. Think of it this way, however: You can start out with an $800 Remington 700 easily capable of 1" groups at 100 yards, see if you like it, and if you do, make that very same rifle into a rig capable of going toe-to-toe with high-end customs via after-market parts. We're talking .25" groups down the line.

Savage:

The savage I'm covering here is the 10fp/110fp (depending on chosen cartridge). These rifles are built around function. With a bit of know-how, barrels can be changed at home. Triggers are DIY adjustable. The 10fp seems from the ground up to be designed around immunization to gunsmiths. Out of the box accuracy is impressive for the price, under 1 inch at 100 yards just like you could expert from a Remington. The price? The 10fp has the most bang for your buck, available at under $600. That leaves you $400 for a scope and bi-pod and you'd still be under $1, 000. The after-market for this rifle is strong, and that's a good thing; the basic 10fp comes with a flimsy, rubbery-feeling stock which is an obvious candidate for early replacement. Another con? The name Savage won't quite make other shooters drool like a shiny new 700P or exotic pseudo-Sako. In fact, Savage has a reputation for being downright cheap, boring and Spartan. Exactly what we want in a budget "sleeper" rifle.

Scopes:

So you've looked at rifles and decided on one and now you're completely lost when it comes to scopes. This may be the most valuable part of this article because I'm going to run you through a simple step-by-step list of features you may need/want on a precision rifle scope.

First, choose a reticule. The standard fine cross-hairs on a hunting scope are fine if you plan to manually adjust your scope with external turrets for every shot (for ultra-precision work, you may be doing that regardless of reticle), but aside from that, the mil-dot is the way to go. The mil-dot reticule is just that, a few dots on a reticule. These dots can, with a bit of simple practice, be used not only to find out the approximate range of a target but as alternate aiming points. After shooting your rifle enough, you'll be able to tell what amount of ballistic drop each vertical dot on the mil-dot represents. I highly recommend a simple laminated paper slide rule called the "Mil-dot Master". If you're not convinced you need a mil-dot reticle, then you just opened up a lot of great scopes like the lower end of the Zeiss line, perhaps the best value in glass clarity under $1, 000.

Speaking of range-finding, once you get the basics down do yourself a favor and set a few hundred bucks aside for a laser range finder. Finding out the exact range of a target is the basis of all long-range precision shooting. Between a mil-dot, a laser range-finder, and a lot of practice, you can average out distance estimations with surprising success.

Second, choose a magnification type and amount. Fixed or variable power? A fixed scope is all about simplicity, cost, and ruggedness. There's not much moving around inside of there and sometimes a fixed-power scope will even have a slight advantage in image clarity over a variable-power sibling, assuming all other factors are equal. Variable scopes offer the ability to "back off" a target and widen your field of view before zooming back in for the shot. For a long time, the military specified a fixed power of 10x magnification for "sniper" rifle scopes. For extreme precision target shooters, magnifications may get into spotting-scope territory, but often a rule of thumb is that you don't need more than 1 or 2 levels of magnification per 100 yards. That means for 800 yard shooting, anything from 10x to 16x magnification would do the trick.

Fixed or variable is your call:; simply a matter of preference. It should be noted that due to the position of the focal plane on most scopes, the mil-dot reticle will only work at a specific magnification on a variable-power scope. Sometimes this is 10x, sometimes 12x, sometimes the maximum setting. Included manuals or web documentation should specify.

Third, choose a level of adjustment. A standard hunting scope has "capped" adjustment turrets. You find zero, cover 'em up, and forget about it. You don't have that option in precision shooting. Turrets are finger-adjustable in small intervals so that you can make on-the-fly alterations to your zero based on range, elevation, wind, temperature, and a multitude of other factors. If you must skip one feature, I recommend skipping this one least of all.

The importance of tube diameter is hugely exaggerated. a 30mm tube and 1 inch tube will not make a world of difference to a casual shooter, but in general 30mm and wider is sometimes considered preferential. At this price, you'll only be wasting time being tedious and picky about the physical dimensions of the scope: Go for decent clarity and as many accuracy-oriented features as you can.

The "Super Sniper" line is a major budget-shooter favorite. At around $300, this fixed 10x42 scope has a mil-dot reticle, adjustable turrets and a mixed past. It was once tested for a Navy contract and apparently some found their way into usage before the original manufacturer met some financial woes. Now resurrected, quality seems to have risen again to the original Navy contract candidate. Why so cheap? At that price, you're buying a scope made in none other than China. From my experience, these are decent scopes all around and exceptional for the price. I've even personally seen photos of one on a soldier's high-caliber rifle in Afghanistan, although I've never seen one used in a serious civilian target match. Slap one of these on a Savage 10fp, pick up a Harris bi-pod, and you have a weapon only marginally less accurate than an expensive custom, for a small fraction of the price.

One step up and you're looking a double that fraction. The Burris XTR line is USA-made and themed around being simultaneously heavy-duty and precise. Occupying a unique sub-$1000 price niche between entry-level options like the Super Sniper and "pro" options like the Leupold Mark 4, the XTR is my all-around pick. Finish options, reticule options, and power options are generous.

I also highly recommend the Burris XTR rings and mounts, even if you're not using an XTR scope. they're both light and heavy-duty.

And finally, ammo. I will say this once and say it bluntly: .308 Winchester.

There are a great many rounds which surpass the .308 in various areas in performance, but none have the all-around combination of availability, brand and design variety, bullet weights, and perhaps most importantly, thorough ballistic documentation in virtually all conditions. When you move into a higher end rifle you may want to look into cartridges like the .300 Winchester Magnum or .338 Lapua, even .50 BMG, but at this level the .308 will take you to 800 yards and perhaps beyond without killing your wallet or requiring from-scratch math. If varmint shooting or anything under 600 yards is your game, the .223 Remington is also a viable option.

So there you have it, the basics of a cheap long-range rifle. Using the Savage 10fp as a platform and a scope like the Super Sniper or XTR, you can get into the game for less than a single component on an Accuracy International rifle might cost.

By Rock Griffin -





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