In recent years there’s been some pretty amazing advances in metallurgy, barrel-making, bullets, powders and riflescopes. Consequently, most of the current crop of factory rifles shoot very well right out of the box. In fact, it is not unusual for them to come with a guarantee of accuracy. The Weatherby Vanguard was one of the first rifles to offer a 1-1/2-minute guarantee for threem shot groups, and sometime later they brought out selected copiesthat give Sub-MoA accuracy. Today, other companies including Kimber, H-S Precision, Nosler, Thompson/ Center and Savage all advertise minute-of-angle rifles. Even the occasional economy class sporter will shoot exceptionally well, but not every hunter is able to utilize such superlative accuracy.
Such rifles are first placed in the hands of a gun writer who takes it out to the nearest benchrest, puts it through its paces and writes a glowing endorsement of its capabilities. When the gun review appears in the magazine the whole shooting fraternity will know that the Remchester Model X in a certain calibre will hold five shots inside a one inch circle at 100 yards all day long. The news has the gun nuts running around baying at the moon and racing down to their local gunshop to buy one. Alas, he becomes disillusioned when his purchase fails to live up to the praise heaped on it by the reviewer. He suffers from a bout of deep depression and ends up hating the rifle and rues the day he bought the darn thing in the first place. He may even write a nasty letter to the gunwriter accusing him of falsifying the gun test, which may not be true.
Makers of rifles offered with an accuracy guarantee are usually honest enough to specify that they will only shoot this well with ìselected loads.î In other words you shouldn’t expect them to shoot that well with just any old factory fodder or carelessly assembled handload you care to feed ëem.
Alas, many Aussie hunters have come to believe that all sporters made should be capable of that mythical minute-of-angle accuracy. When one doesn’t perform up to scratch, they spend big bucks getting the rifle rebedded and try to shrink the groups by trying hundreds of different reload combinations using premium bullets. When this doesn’t succeed they trade the rifle for one that they’re sure will. More often than not the new rifle is no better than the old, maybe even not as good, and the cycle starts all over again.
Rifle accuracy depends upon a number of factors – barrel quality, action stiffness and precision lock-up, stock bedding, ammunition quality, the scope’s optics, and just as importantly, the ability of the shooter himself. The finest rifle in the world won’t shoot well with poor ammunition, nor will the most carefully assembled ammunition shoot in a rifle inwhich any one of the aforementioned factors are less than perfect. But there’s more involved than minute-of-angle capability; for given the best rifle and ammo, accuracy will still be poor if the shooter’s marksmanship isn’t equal to the task.
Realistically, factory rifles are mass produced and made to a price and little or no handwork goes into them. Barrels are either button rifled or hammer forged and receivers are made on CNC machinery. Wood stocks are churned out in their thousands on multi-spindle inletting machines and synthetic stocks are injection molded, all to the same pattern. The metalwork is dropped into a stock as fast as they come off the assembly line. Considering the wide tolerances that exist between barreled actions and massproduced drop-in stocks, a sporter’s chances for shooting minute-of-angle are severely limited, especially when run of the mill factory ammunition is used.
After having some work done to the rifle, and finding a handload that agrees with it, a good shooter can probably gain near MoA accuracy from any sporter. But all this takes time and, money and considerable experience in handloading. Before you start out on a prolonged and time-consuming effort to transfrom your rifle into a MoA performer, ask yourself if it is really worth all the expense and trouble. Will the improved accuracy really help you take more game?
Before we can answer these questions, we need to know that that new rifle will be used for. If the answer is for varmint hunting, then it will probably benefit from the tune-up, but for use on ferals and deer-sized game it may not be worthwhile. Even the smallest of these represents a pretty large target, since the heart-lung area spans at least 30cm by 30cm. Let’s see how badly we are handicapped if we hunt this animal with a sporter that groups three shots with the best handload we’ve worked up for it, into 2 MoA. Sounds pretty bad, but is it?
Theoretically at least, this rifle will put three shots in 4-inches at 200yd., six inches at 300yd., eight inches at 400 yd., and ten inches at 500 yd. This means that even at 500yd., the rifle is capable of landing three shots inside the vital heart/lung area on any big game animal. In the real world, however, things aren’t all that cut and dried. Shots in the field aren’t taken over a benchrest like the one we used to shoot those 2-inch groups on the range. A racing heart, oxygendeprived lungs and less than steady, hastily- assumed field shooting positions all combine to make things a lot more difficult. In fact, this means that in the field we can multiply the size of that 100yd. benchrest group by at least two times. When cracking down on game, then, our bullets will more likely be grouping into 4in. at 100yd., 8in. at 200, and 12in. at 300.
It would be logical to assume that if our sporter shot minute-ofangle instead of 2-inch groups, we’d be more affective in the field, shooting two, four, six, eight and ten inch groups At 100,200, 300, 400,and 500yd., respectively. This would appear to make the effort required to cut the group size in half worthwhile.
But again things aren’t all that clear cut! Even if we manage to hit the animal we’re shooting at, will we kill it cleanly? How many cartridges used for hunting are capable of landing the bullet on target at 400 and 500yd. with enough remaining velocity and energy to achieve the kind of bullet expansion and penetration needed for a sudden one-shot kill? Darned few, in my experience. Beyond the 300yd. mark unless the bullet is perfectly placed things get a bit dicey, and a quick one-shot kill at 500 yd. requires a helluva lot of luck.
Accurate range estimation used to be a serious problem, since even a guess that came within 50yd. made all the difference between the bullet hitting or missing the vital heart/lung area. Today we have laser rangefinders that tell us exactly how far away the game is. And furthermore, we have cartridges that are flatshooting over 400yd. For example, take a .30 magnum shooting a ballistically very efficient 180gn bullet like the Hornady SST at 3200fps and sighted to hit point of aim at 300yd. At 400yd. the bullet will strike 8.72 in. below the line of sight, and at 500 23-1/2 in. low. Then the matter of wind drift must be considered. A 10 mph crosswind will drift that 180gn bullet 5.40 in. at 300 yd., 9.84 in. at 400, and 16 in. at 500. No matter what direction the breeze is blowing from, that means that at 400 and 500 yd., the bullet will probably miss the vital organs or either miss altogther or score a gut shot. Even with a powerful .30 magnum the wounded animal will most likely escape to die a slow death. A miss with a 2-minute rifle would have been worse, but the end result would be the same.
The crux of the matter is this. If you own a genuine MoA sporter, fine, hang onto it. However, if your sporter shoots 1- 1/2 or 2in. groups at 100yd., as long as it does so consistently, don’t lose any sleep over it. Few hunters have sufficient marksmanship skills to be shooting at game at much over 250yd. and should always try to stalk within sure hitting range – in any case that’s what hunting is all about.
The fact that your unmodified factory sporter shoots only 2 in. groups will never prove much of a handicap on any big-game hunt. If you are a conscientous hunter and careful stalker, it will never mean the difference between a clean kill and a missed trophy.
This article was first published in Sporting Shooter, November 2010.