By Mark V. Lonsdale
As long as men have carried guns, they have been arguing about the best rifle, the best pistol, or the best caliber. Now with the proliferation of the internet, and Facebook in particular, seeing “What is the best rifle?” from rookie shooters has become a daily occurrence.
The obvious response should be “What do you want to use it for?” however, all too often the responses are either snarky sarcasm or a reflection of the ill-informed bias of an individual. If you ask an old codger for his opinion he will tell you a 30-06, or if you ask a guy who has just spent $7,000 on a custom rifle, he will preach the gospel of his rifle. You will also see groups of aficionados such as 6.5 Creedmoor nation, RPR owners, Tikka owners, Rem 700 owners, etc., who all have their own loyalties and biases.
Factory Rem 700 SPS .308 Win in a McMillan A3-5 fiberglass stock
So let’s see if we can give a more helpful response.
Application and biases aside, any firearm worth taking into the field should be reliable, well made, have a smooth action, and be accurate. If your life may depend on a particular firearm, it should be reliable above all else, and part of reliability includes quality manufacturing and quality parts. This would include personal defense firearms, military weapons, or rifles for hunting dangerous game.
For the competition shooter, whose life does not depend on the pistol or rifle, then he or she may be willing to sacrifice rugged reliability for extreme accuracy. An example would be a rifle built to extremely tight tolerances where any dirt or irregularity in ammunition would jam the action. But for IPSC, IDPA, 3-gun, and PRS competitors, they demand a balance of reliability and accuracy, knowing that a single malfunction will put them out of the top ten and out of the money.
So are all rifles well made? The simple answer is no. Apart from cheaply made rifles that are rough at best, there are also major name brand manufacturers who have allowed their quality control and quality assurance to suffer. Fortunately other factories have stepped into the precision rifle market and that competition always has a positive effect on new products. On the custom front, while there is now a significant number of riflesmiths turning out very high quality rifles, we still hear horror stories about self-professed gunsmiths who are little more than hacks and gun butchers. So do your homework.
This brings us to two valid axioms: “Caveat emptor – Buyer beware,” and, “You get what you pay for.”
Very rarely do the words “cheap” and “quality” go well together. Similarly, accuracy comes at a price. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve run into shooters on a public range claiming how they had just got a killer deal on a rifle or scope. With only one or two exceptions, their new rifles could not group 3 inches at 100 yards and the scopes and mounts were $30 worth of junk.
Back in the 1980s I could take a Rem 700 Heavy Varmint rifle, bed the action, float the barrel, and drop in a Jewell trigger and have pretty good shooter. Then, when I met Gale McMillan, I discovered the value of quality fiberglass stocks such as the M40A1. Things got even better when I met Robbie Barrkman of Robar Guns and he built me a custom sniper rifle, complete with a McMillan stock and slick NP3 finish on internal parts. I still have that rifle and it still shoots sub-MOA.
Robar SR60D built for the author in 1986; built on a Rem 700 action, a match-grade barrel, bedded into a McMillan Baker Special prone stock. Badger M5 bottom metal with detachable magazine was added later.
Fast forward to 2017 – I was exchanging emails this week with a very reputable rifle builder with an interest in having him build a rifle for me. Since I had an extra Rem 700 action and a Bartlein match-grade barrel, I asked if I could send these up and have him build a rifle. His response was that he no longer trued and blueprinted factory actions because it cost more to true the action than to just begin with a quality custom action such as the Kelbly Atlas. This made sense to me when I crunched the numbers, plus you were starting off with an action with features that a stock factory action simply did not.
308 Win multi-purpose rifle built on a Kelbly Atlas Tactical action, Bartlein Heavy Palma barrel, in a McMillan A5 adjustable stock. Scope is the Nightforce ATACR 7-35x56mm
This also coincided with my own findings in recent years. My last four rifles were built on custom actions: a Kelbly Atlas Tactical action for a custom competition rifle; a Panda action for an F-TR rifle; a Stiller TAC 408 for a .375 CheyTac ELR rifle; and another Atlas Tactical for a 6.5 Creedmoor PRS rifle. Three things that all these actions have in common: they a very well built; they have extremely smooth actions; and they have all earned reputations for reliability, quality, and accuracy.
Custom F-TR rifle built on a Stolle Panda action and McMillan XiT stock
Stiller TAC 408 action for an ELR rifle in .375 CheyTac. Image shows a .375 CT in comparison to a .308 Win round.
Back to the topic of the best rifle.
Once the shooter has made a commitment to reliability, quality, and accuracy, then the question becomes, “What are you going to use it for?” Rifles are like any tools, in that there is always the right tool for the job. Just look in any hardware store for the proof – even the simple hammer comes in two dozen sizes and weights for various applications.
So if the answer is recreational shooting, then the choices are vast depending on range and accuracy requirements – 22LR plinking all the way up to 1,500 yard gong shooting. If it is for hunting, then the questions become big game or small game and at what ranges. There is a significant difference between small deer in a woodland environment versus big elk in Wyoming or grizzlies in Alaska. If it is for competition, then the question is what form of competition – NRA Highpower, F-TR, PRS, 3-gun, benchrest, ELR?
Is there one gun that can do it all – plinking, hunting, and competition? Yes, but within reason and with some compromise. There is a lot of versatility in a well-built .223 AR-15 or .308 Win bolt gun or match-grade gas gun. That said, the best rifles are the ones that are purpose-built for a particular use, but for example, a well build PRS rifle in 6mm or 6.5mm could also be used for hunting and long range recreational shooting.
American Defense Manufacturing .223 topped with a Leupold 2-7x and a ADM detachable scope mount.
For the rookie looking for a first rifle that will be competitive in a number of disciplines, and does not want to reload ammunition, then the choices would be .308 Win, 6.5 Creedmoor, or .223 Rem. Why these three calibers? Because there is a variety of affordable factory match-grade ammunition available from Federal, Black Hills, or Hornady. All three calibers are available in very accurate bolt guns or gas guns on AR platforms. Because they are military calibers, .308 Win and .223 (5.56mm) are the only calibers you can shoot in F-TR and PRS Tactical division, and both can also be used for hunting.
Highly versatile .308 Win rifle that could be used for PRS competition, hunting, or just recreational target shooting. Stock is the McMillan A3-5 adjustable and the scope is the Nightforce ATACR 5-25x56mm FFP
Once the shooter makes the decision to go with one of the more exotic high performance calibers such as 6mm Creedmoor, 6×47, 6.5 GAP, 260 Rem, and 28 Nosler, then he or she is committing to hand loading for optimum performance. Most medium sized deer or hogs can also be taken with these calibers. It is only when you step up to long range, open country, big game that the 300 WinMag and 7mm Mag come into their own.
Then there is the discussion of the best rifles for Extreme Long Range (ELR) shooting. Even the best shooters in ELR cannot agree on the best caliber or rifle, but there are some known facts to consider. Basically the ELR shooter is looking for the bullet with the best performance, in terms of ballistic coefficient and velocity, at extended ranges. And then building the rifle best suited to that caliber, chamber pressures and anticipated muzzle velocity. While a rookie ELR shooter can cut his or her teeth on 300 WinMag out to 1,500 yards, the game really begins with 338 Lapua Magnum, out to 2,500 yards, and quickly jumps to 375 CheyTac and 416 Barrett for 3,500 yards. Keep in mind that with each step up, the cost of rifles, optics, and ammunition can increase disproportionately. Where 300 WinMag may cost $1.50 a round, 375 CheyTac will be $7.00 per round.
Hill Country Rifles .375 CheyTac built on a Stiller TAC 408 action and McMillan A5 Super Magnum stock.
To conclude, this article may have created more questions than answers, but hopefully more informed questions. After committing to quality and accuracy, the biggest consideration is the intended application and range; and it may be that there is more than one “best rifle” in your future. For most of us, we have lighter weight hunting rifles, heavier multipurpose rifles, bolt guns and gas guns, and really heavy competition rifles for F-TR and ELR. In addition, while a factory rifle may meet all your needs when you are starting out, as you seek more performance and greater accuracy you will gravitate to custom gunsmiths and custom rifles. You may also come to realize that purchasing a complete custom rifle from a reputable builder may work out more cost effective than trying to upgrade a factory rifle.
Finally, and at the risk of contradicting myself, there is a lot of wisdom in the old saying, “Beware of the man who only owns one rifle.” Why? Because he probably knows how to use it. So even if you own multiple high grade rifles, you will find yourself gravitating to the one that shoots the best. The most accurate rifle will invariably become your go-to rifle.