I took a pair of one-on-one precision rifle classes with Robert “Shep” Sheppard back in spring of 2011. My LaRue .223 got a serious workout, I learned quite a bit about its capabilities and limitations, and came away knowing that a precision .308 bolt-action rifle was next on my list. I also took away a lot of straight dope on such rifles, which is summarized here.

Rifle Selection

I had been sketching out plans for an AR-308, but shooting my suppressed AR-15 disabused me of that idea. The main problem is that the suppressor doesn’t reduce the blast coming out the ejection port and gas tube, which is surprisingly loud and necessitates hearing protection. A suppressed bolt-action .308 sounds much quieter, at least at the shooter’s position, and can be shot without hearing protection. Also, blowback from the suppressor fills the upper receiver with a ridiculous amount of soot, necessitating a lengthy cleaning session after a day at the range. Some of the backpressure also comes out around the charging handle into the shooter’s face, although a PRI Gasbuster charging handle mitigates much of that.

Considering the options, handing some of them, and learning about parts availability led me to an Accuracy International Arctic Warfare .308. The rifle is also available in .260 Remington, which offers superior ballistics to .308, but I opted for .308 due to the lower cost of ammunition and availability of inexpensive surplus ammunition. I ordered a model with a plain 24” barrel, folding stock, black skins, and a Picatinny rail Mile High Shooting. Nobody had the dovetail mount model in stock, so that wasn’t an option. Mile High then cut the barrel down to 20” and installed an SAS thread-over muzzle brake (TOMB) mount for their titanium Arbiter suppressor. The TOMB requires 3/4”x24 threading on the barrel and provides 15/16”x24 threading for the suppressor. They proof tested the combination and had the rifle in my hands a week later along with an AI 18 MOA scope mount and a target showing the sub-MOA point-of-impact change between unsuppressed and suppressed.

I briefly considered the newer AX. I’m sure that it shoots real nice, but it looks like an attachment for a pressure washer. The AW has classic lines and styling like a Porsche 911 and will still look good twenty years from now, just like a 911 from the '70s still looks good today.

Optics

I had scored an SWFA 5–20x50 scope for $1k during the introductory special. A rifle like the AW should sport a high-end scope like a US Optics SN-3 or S&B Police Marksman, but I couldn’t commit the extra $2k when I was already stretching my budget to come up with $7k for the rifle and suppressor and SWFA offered such a deal on a scope that ticked the important boxes (a first-focal-plane reticle, 0.1 mil turrets, 10 mils of elevation per turn, solid tracking, and good-enough optics). The SS is a tough sell at its regular price of $1.5k, and I’d spend the extra money on an IOR 3.5–18x50 FFP for the superior glass and reticle; the SWFA’s diamonds just aren’t that useful.

I’ve checked out some US Optics scopes, and they’re definitely worth the extra money in terms of usability. I particularly like the EREK turret, image clarity, and complete customization to include a customer-developed reticle. I’m contemplating an SN-3 3.2–17x44 with a reticle that combines features of the IOR MP-8 Modified and S&B MSR. The March 3–24x42 and S&B 3–20x50 (if I can get one with the MSR reticle) also looks like fine options.

At the Range

The rifle gives a remarkable feeling of solidity and feels like it’s carved out of a single piece of steel. The folding stock locks in place like a bank vault with no play whatsoever. The action cycles rounds incredibly smoothly with no binding and a light bolt lift despite the 60° opening angle. The bolt can hang up if run forward at a snail’s pace, but backing it up a centimeter frees the pinched round and allows closure. There are no problems when running the bolt briskly, and ejection is positive at any speed. The shooter can also top off the magazine through the ejection port.

The two-stage trigger is easily adjustable and provides a light, crisp break with only the slightest hint of creep. It’s by no means a hair trigger that will fire inadvertently, and it compares favorably to the Geissele DMR in my precision AR-15.

The rifle goes about shooting in an utterly businesslike fashion. Cold-clean or warm-fouled bore, the point of impact simply doesn’t shift noticeably. I can arrive at my club’s 300-yard range, whack a 3” steel plate on my first shot, and not have to adjust zero for the rest of the day. The rifle simply doesn’t care.

None of this would matter if accuracy wasn’t there, and I’m happy to say that the rifle is mind-numbingly accurate. It will happily put ten rounds into an 0.5” group at 100 yards, and I’ve shot several five-round groups at 300 yards measuring around 1”. The factor there becomes calling the wind. I’ve ended up with plenty of groups that measure about 1” high and 2” wide. Below is a five-shot group at 300 yards using Southwest Ammunition’s .308/175 SMK Standard Match ammunition on a calm day. The grid squares are 0.1 mil (1.08”), and the group measures 0.85”.


A particularly good five-shot group at 300 yards.


The rifle’s more natural home is the unknown-distance range at American International Marksmanship Academy, which offers steel silhouettes out to 1,800 yards. Hitting at 1,000 yards is no problem. At 1,500 yards, it’s an equal mix of luck and skill.

Surplus ammunition varies widely in performance. Good stuff like West German MEN will give 10-shot groups of ~1” at 100 yards while Serbian PPU is closer to ~2”. But the PPU is plenty good for shooting from unsupported positions and will reliably hit a chest-sized silhouette out to 800 yards.

There’s a lot to like about the stock, but I’ve found that shooting with my thumb through the thumbhole makes it difficult to get my finger at right angles to the trigger and pull straight back. Hence, I’ve started floating my thumb on the right side of the stock. It doesn’t provide an index point or thumb shelf, but that was easily fixed with some gaffer tape.

The SAS TOMB works beautifully to reduce recoil, and muzzle blast at the shooting position feels mild. Not so to the sides! If I did it again, I’d consider getting the barrel threaded for a removable brake for shooting in social situations. But the rifle will almost always be shot with the suppressor, so this was really only a big deal while waiting for it to arrive.

I started with a Harris bipod but switched to an Atlas model relatively quickly. I like that the Atlas bipod provides a farther-forward vertical pivot point than the Harris, giving more precise adjustments with the rear bag. The point of rotation is also closer to the centerline of the rifle for less floppy handling. But more importantly, the legs have a few degrees of play when locked. The shooter pre-loads the legs forward when setting up the shot, and the rifle can recoil backward without the bipod feet sliding across the ground for better tracking in recoil.

Suppressed Operation

The tax stamp arrived after seven months of waiting. The titanium Arbiter does a wonderful job all around. Starting with mounting, the thread-over muzzle brake (TOMB) system secures the suppressor very solidly. The brake has a set of 15/16”x24 threads behind the ports and flares outward slightly for another ~5/16" behind them. The opening on the rear of the suppressor tapers down for ~5/16” before hitting the threads. This taper provides for easy mounting and a very large bearing surface to support the suppressor. There's no play once it's threaded into place, and it did not loosen during sustained firing. Removing the suppressor was not a problem.


On its first outing, I removed and re-attached the suppressor several times, and the zero shift appeared repeatable. This will get more testing in coming months, but things are looking good. The rifle groups just as well with the suppressor as without it, and I have not noticed any discrepancy in the first shot after attaching the suppressor. The suppressor feels like it spreads the recoil impulse out over a greater length of time. It turns the kick into a shove. The suppressor adds about a pound to the rifle but does not noticeably impact its balance or weight.

A metal roof covers the 100-yard shooting positions as my range. Shooting the rifle without hearing protection is a touch loud under these circumstances. But one of the 300-yard positions is out in the open, and there it’s perfectly comfortable to shoot without hearing protection.

Practical Considerations

I purchased this rifle for target shooting, mostly at 300 yards but with a couple of trips to 600+ yards each year, and picked .308 to control ammunition and barrel costs. Match .308 ammunition runs just north $1/round, with surplus 7.62x51 available for less than half that. Barrels should also last at ~5,000 rounds. I’m approaching my first year with the rifle and will have shot ~1,750 rounds, so ammunition and barrel costs are a serious consideration.

The .260 Remington (a .308 necked down to 6.5 mm) is ballistically superior to the .308 for target shooting, offering better resistance to crosswinds and less drop at a given range. But it would bump per-round cost to $1.35, remove the surplus ammunition option, and reduce barrel life to ~3,000 rounds. For long-range hunting, the .300 Winchester Magnum makes far more sense than the .308 or .260 in that it delivers similar ballistics to the .260 with half again as much bullet mass. But it also pushes the per-round cost up around $1.75 with even shorter barrel life than the .260 Remington.

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Last edit: 30 August 2012