By Mark V. Lonsdale
As long as men have carried guns, they have been arguing about who has the the best rifle, the best pistol, or the best caliber. Now with the proliferation of the internet, and social media in particular, seeing posts such as, “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.
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, 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 competition for sales always has a positive effect on new products. On the custom rifle front, while there is now a significant number of rifle-smiths 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, precision and accuracy come 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.
Note: Precision is the inherent ability of the rifle and ammunition to shoot tight groups, while accuracy is the ability of the shooter to get those groups into the center of the target.
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. This was the foundation of many police sniper rifles throughout the 1980s. 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 a custom sniper rifle for me, 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 sniper rifle built on a Rem 700 action and McMillan Baker Special Prone Stock with a Leupold Mark 4 scope – 1980s
Even though I am still a fan of Rem 700 actions, in recent years I have seen several recalls, quality control and warranty issues coming out of the Remington factory. That said, factory Rem 700 tactical rifles are still an affordable way for a new shooter to get into precision shooting. There is also a reason that they were the foundation for the USMC M40A1 and US Army M24. Rem 700 actions are also compatible with a wide variety of scope mounts, bases, and M5 bottom metal with detachable magazines.
TAC OPS Lima 51 built on a blueprinted Rem 700 action with McMillan stocks and Badger M5 bottom metal
Fast forward to 2017 – I was exchanging emails 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 Stiller’s TAC30 or TAC300 or the Kelbly Atlas Tactical. 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.
This also coincided with my own findings in recent years. My last five 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; another Atlas Tactical for a 6.5 Creedmoor PRS rifle, and most recently, a Stiller’s TAC338 for a .338 Lapua Magnum. 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.
Back to the topic of the best rifle.
Once the shooter has made a commitment to reliability, quality, and precision/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, where even the simple hammer comes in two dozen sizes and weights for various applications.
Rem 700 .375 H&H Magnum ideal for large game and dangerous game. This is the most popular caliber with hunting guides in Africa, but not suited to precision shooting or long range shooting.
So if the answer is recreational shooting, then the choices are vast depending on range and accuracy requirements – from 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 close woodland environment, versus big elk in wide open Wyoming country, grizzlies in Alaska, or dangerous game in Africa. If it is for competition, then the question is what form of competition – NRA Highpower, F-TR, PRS, 3-gun, benchrest, or ELR? Each have distinctly different rules related to caliber, weight, and accessories.
Purpose built .308 Win. F-TR rifle built on a Panda action and McMillan XiT stock
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 Rem AR-15 or .308 Win bolt gun. That said, the best rifles are the ones that are purpose-built for a particular use, but a well build PRS rifle in 6mm or 6.5mm could also be used for a wide variety of hunting and long range recreational shooting.
Multi-purpose 6.5 Creedmoor rifle suited to PRS competition and long range recreational shooting. Atlas action with a Bartlein Medium Palma barrel in a McMillan A6 stock with an Accu-Tac bipod and Leupold Mark 5HD scope
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, 6.5 PRC, or .223 Rem. Why these three calibers? Because there is a variety of affordable factory match-grade ammunition available from Federal, Berger, Black Hills, or Hornady. All these 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.
Multi-purpose .308 Win suitable for PRS tactical division, law enforcement sniper applications, hunting, or just recreational shooting out to 1,000 yards. Rem 700 action with a Bartlein Heavy Palma barrel in a McMillan A3-5 adjustable stock. Scope is a Leupold Mark 8
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 may be 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 venerable 300 WinMag and 7mm Mag, and newer 300 PRC and 300 Norma Magnum 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 a heavy bullet with the best performance in terms of ballistic coefficient, velocity, and stability at extended ranges. Then building the rifle best suited to that caliber, barrel twist, 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 then quickly jumps to 375 CheyTac and 416 Barrett for 3,000 to 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.
.375 CheyTac (rear) and .338 Lapua Magnum (front), both built on Stiller’s actions, Bartlein barrels, and McMillan A5 stocks. Nightforce ATACR scopes and Accu-Tac bipods
If ELR is the direction you are headed, you will still find it useful to have an accurate .308 Win or 6.5 CM in your arsenal. This will allow for more shooting and more economical practice, while saving the barrel in the big boomer for competitions.
To conclude, this article may have created more questions than answers, but hopefully will allow the reader to ask more informed questions. After committing to quality and precision 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, match-grade barrels, 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.