Building a DIY Precision Rifle
July 06, 2016
There are few things more satisfying than hearing the smack of a rifle bullet hitting a steel target at long range. Mastering a precision rifle well beyond point-blank range is a skill than eludes many shooters, because small errors in technique and puffs of wind mark the difference between a gratifying hit and a taunting miss.
Shooting reactive targets at many hundreds of yards is best accomplished with a precision rifle built for the task at hand. The market is awash in expensive custom rifles made for this type of shooting, and many of them are fantastic. But can a traditional rifle be adapted for long-range precision rifle shooting without spending five grand? We intend to find out.
Though many of us obsess over such things, finding a rifle that will hit a reasonable target at under 300 yards isn't very hard to do. Many surplus rifles that we view as little more than junk are up to the task. Beyond that range, though, things get trickier and better equipment is often required.
We need a precision rifle that will shoot with a reasonable and repeatable level of accuracy (how good is determined by the distance to and size of the target), a precision rifle that will shoot to a consistent point of aim, a stock designed to shoot comfortably from field positions, and a sturdily-mounted scope with honest adjustments to put our bullets onto the target.
We started with a Remington 700 VLS chambered in .308, chiefly because we had a new-in-the-box example on hand. Truth be told, I would have preferred a 6.5 Creedmoor or .260 Remington, as the velocity and ballistic coefficient of the great 6.5mm 140gr. bullets are ideal for long-range work, but this article is about getting it done with what you have available. So, that's exactly what we did.
While not my first choice for this type of shooting, the .308 stays supersonic out to right at 1,000 yards and numerous match grade loads are available from the factory. Remington's varmint or Sendero weight guns are generally quite accurate out of the box and are of about the right configuration and weight for shooting at extended ranges. Heavier guns are generally more forgiving to shoot than sporter rifles, and the thick profile of the barrels allow for longer shot strings without excessive heat.
Accuracy does matter in the long range game: in order to reliably hit a 6-inch target at 600 yards, a precision rifle must be capable of at least 1 MOA of accuracy, and that's allowing for zero human error. A gun that will shoot 0.5 to 0.75 MOA allows us to push that same sized target much further downrange.
Our virgin Remington .308 reliably put three-round groups of Federal Premium Match ammo under an inch with a Leupold VX-1, which isn't at all bad for a factory gun with zero tinkering. We could probably stop here and still meet our objectives, but what fun would that be?
The rifle would consistently put two rounds into a tight group with the third shot landing a thumb's width away. This could be a lot of things, but it generally means we have a good barrel mated to iffy bedding. A simple fix. With a little work, we could do far better than the 0.8-0.9-inch groups we were seeing.
In order for me to hit anything at distance, having a good trigger is simply a must. Jewell has been the industry darling for years, but the last two that I've used suffered from sear dimensions that caused them cocking issues.
Timney's answer to demand for premium 700 triggers is the Calvin Elite, a true drop-in unit that is adjustable from 2.5 pounds down to only 8 ounces. Installing one on this 700 took an honest 5 minutes and the 2-pound pull is fantastic. I have an identical model on one of my personal hunting rifles and absolutely love it.
The VLS' laminate stock is fairly well suited to precision shooting, but we would have to build up the comb in order to use the scope that we had in mind, and it showed signs of needing some bedding work. Besides, we wanted to try something new and alter the appearance of the rifle without making any permanent modifications.
We chose Magpul's Hunter 700 stock for this task, which mates an adjustable lightweight molded shell to a rigid aluminum bedding block. This stock is designed to be a bolt-on accessory with no bedding required, but I've never seen a precision rifle shoot worse when bedded properly. We added Marine-Tex to the internals to provide a custom fit between the mass-produced rifle and stock components in hopes of achieving great accuracy and consistent points of impact.
The Hunter was well configured for the bench and prone shooting that we did to test out this precision rifle, and the high comb was compatible with the optic that we chose. As an added benefit, we added the Magpul magazine well, which allows for the use of polymer detachable box magazines. This system fit perfectly and fed reliably 100 percent of the time. I'm not sure who we're planning to hide from, but I added a rattle-can camo paint job to the stock to mix things up a little.
Appropriate optics are one of the most important pieces to the long-range shooting puzzle. Not only do you need a scope with sufficient magnification to see the target at several hundred yards, but a scope must have a value system that allows the shooter to compensate for significant bullet drop and wind drift- Kentucky windage with a duplex reticle isn't going to get it done.
A scope for this type of shooting must use either dials or a ballistic reticle for range and wind holds. I like to dial for elevation and use the reticle for windage, so a scope with both dials and a reticle is a best case scenario for me. I chose the brand-new Nightforce 4-14x50 F1 SHV scope with the MIL-R reticle and 0.1 MIL dials.
Nightforce is one of the few brands that I've come to trust when it comes to the integrity of the adjustments. When you dial a Nightforce for 3.5 MILs of elevation, you can bet that's what you're going to get. This scope is part of the moderately-priced SHV line but features a first focal plane reticle which means that the reticle values are accurate at any power setting. We mounted the scope using a one-piece Nightforce Picatinny rail and Nightforce rings.
With the scope mounted and the metal work bedded into the Magpul stock, we headed to the bench in hopes that the rifle's promising accuracy had improved even further. After shooting two rounds to obtain a decent zero, I settled in behind the precision rifle and focused on the razor-sharp image of the reticle. The first two rounds went into a single hole at 100 yards. No pressure. I exhaled and put a third round into the target for a group that measured .446 of an inch center-to-center.
Now, I'm not claiming that my bedding job cut the rifle's groups in half- that was the best group that I fired out of a handful and it very well could have been the upgraded scope that allowed me to get the most out of the rifle. Nonetheless, the groups were all decent, and we certainly had a rifle capable of sufficient accuracy to get the job done.
I'm only set up to shoot to 325 yards from the bench at our farm but, with a little creativity, longer shots are possible. Welocated a spot with a safe backstop where we could place a steel target 675 yards from a prone, elevated shooting position.
I chronographed Federal's 168-gr. Matchking load at 2650 fps (exactly what was listed on the box, surprisingly) out of the 26-inch barrel and loaded all of the relevant data into a ballistic app on my iPhone. With a 100-yard zero, the app called for 5.7 MILs of elevation and as much as 0.8 MILs of drift in the constantly shifting winds. I dialed for the elevation, held for the full-value wind, and cleanly missed the 10-inch circular target.
My spotter could not see a vapor trail, so I kept the same hold and put four more rounds downrange, resulting in a perfectly-clean target. So much for the theory that equipment has totally replaced skill and experience. Since I'd only fired the rifle at 100 yards previously, I was afraid that my zero was off by an imperceptible amount, but enough to cause problems at distance.
To eliminate this from the equation, I drove to 450 yards and fired two rounds with the correct dope for that range and got two perfect hits.
A trip to the target revealed a group the size of my fist in the giant oak tree behind the target, 16 inches below my point of aim. I returned to my shooting position, dialed the corrected elevation into the scope and made sure the spotter was watching. I exhaled completely and carefully applied pressure to the two-pound trigger.
I lost the target in recoil but heard the satisfying "ting!" of a hit just low and right of the target's center. Two out of my next three shots clipped the top of the target, making it three hits out of four rounds fired. That's nothing to call the newspaper about, but it is not terrible for an unfamiliar rifle with cobbled-together components.
I called it a day at this point because the point had been made. We had achieved a sub-MOA group at 675 yards in tricky wind conditions by making some minor (and totally reversible) modifications to an off-the-shelf varmint rifle. Now, I've certainly shot better groups at longer distances but not with a rifle that I was this unfamiliar with. With a little more time behind this precision rifle and some time spent diagnosing our elevation discrepancy, this would be a legitimate 1,000 yard setup.