Raise the Bar: Barrett MRAD .338 Lapua Mag. and REC7 5.56 NATO
January 12, 2018
A couple of bolt-action .50s followed the M82, and Barrett's first non-.50 bolt action came in 1998. The M98B isn't a variation of a sporting rifle; it was built from the ground up to be a precision rifle. Available in calibers ranging from .308 Win. to .338 Lapua, it was the MRAD's predecessor.
In 2007, Barrett unveiled its REC7. This piston-operated, AR-style rifle offers all the advantages of a piston system while keeping down weight. It is as accurate as any direct-impingement rifle, exorcising another of the demons that haunt most piston guns.
MONOLITHICS DON'T BREAK
The birth of the MRAD goes back to the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) solicitation for a new sniper rifle. The request went out for a multi-caliber rifle that allowed the shooter to fire .308 Winchester, .300 Winchester Magnum and .338 Lapua Magnum out of the same rifle. Barrett designed the MRAD around these specifications.
I've had a chance to shoot all of the finalists from the PSR program and can say that the MRAD is absolutely the simplest of the lot to maintain. It is also the least expensive.
The MRAD has a monolithic upper receiver that integrates the forend with what we'd traditionally refer to as the action. This arrangement makes the MRAD unique among its peers, as the other PSR candidates all had a barreled action married to a chassis system. The advantage of the MRAD design is that there's no way for the action to work loose due to the way it's attached to the chassis. It requires no maintenance, and it cannot fail.
Another advantage of the Barrett design is the ease with which the owner can maintain the rifle. Once the bolt and barrel are removed, we can readily access every nook and cranny for cleaning. This is a rifle I wouldn't be afraid to take into inclement weather because it's so easy to service.
Disassembly of the MRAD begins by unlocking the bolt and depressing a small lever just behind the pistol grip. The upper receiver portion rotates away from the lower, allowing us to remove the bolt and bolt sleeve. Two large torx bolts hold the barrel in place, and, once they are removed, the barrel slides out the front of the forend.
The bolt has a removable head that makes it possible to shoot the three calibers from the same rifle. The bolt head has three rows of three lugs, making for very solid lockup in the barrel extension. Headspace is set when the barrel extension is mated to the barrel at the factory, much like the AR-15 design.
The triple-lug design gives the MRAD an approximate 60-degree throw, allowing the bolt handle plenty of room to clear even the largest ocular housings found on today's precision optics. The Sako-style extractor found on the MRAD is a well-tested design and fits the robust/simple theme found on the rest of the rifle.
Another of the MRAD's attractive features is the integrated rail that runs the length of the upper receiver. It has a 20-MOA bias.
The number-one failure point on any rifle is usually the optic. Sometimes the optic fails, sometimes the rings don't properly hold the scope, and sometimes the base works loose from the receiver. With the MRAD design, we eliminate that last trouble spot.
MY FAVORITE TRIGGER
The second most common failure point on any precision rifle is the trigger. Many shooters want a 2- to 3-pound pull weight with no creep and minimal overtravel. Trying to meet these requirements just about mandates lots of small parts and pieces that don't do well when mixed with dirt, debris and the abuse that come with any service rifle.
The MRAD's trigger is a cassette-type trigger that drops into the lower receiver of the rifle. It is held in place with the safety selector. Trigger removal takes all of 20 seconds and occurs when we simultaneously rotate and pull the safety selector from the receiver. Pull the trigger assembly to the rear while lifting up, and it slips out of the rifle.
The huge advantage of this design is that it allows the owner to easily remove and replace one of the most problematic areas of any rifle. Many triggers are reliable and handle abuse well, but given enough rounds in a harsh-enough environment, most precision triggers will eventually fail. The MRAD trigger gives us the easiest and fastest way to correct the problem. It is so easy to swap triggers that it could be done between stages at a match or even in the middle of an operation. No other rifle design on the market offers this unique capability.
There are two screws with jam nuts that sit at the front of the trigger housing. One screw adjusts pull weight, and the other adjusts overtravel. The adjustments are intuitive and fast.
My only gripe about this otherwise spectacular trigger is the amount of trigger/sear engagement. Mine measured approximately .025 inch. While the amount of engagement makes the trigger very safe, it also gives it a small amount of creep. The creep is light and very smooth, but it still diminishes an otherwise spectacular product.
AT THE RANGE
Barrett frequently uses Kreiger or Rock Creek barrels for the MRAD, so I was excited to see how it would perform at the range. My excitement was somewhat tempered by the fact that .338 Lapua Magnums struggle to do well at 100 yards, and that was all the distance I had for my evaluation.
I selected three loads to try in this rifle: 285-grain Hornady A-MAX, Remington's 250-grain Scenar Match and Barnes' 300-grain Match. At just over $7 a round (retail), I tried not to cry shooting five-shot groups at 100 yards.
The Hornady was first up. My best group measured .81 inch, and the average came in at .94 inch. The secant ogive of the A-MAX gives it a great ballistic coefficient (BC), but it often requires just a little bit of work to get the best results. Secant ogives are usually more sensitive to seating depth than their tangent ogive counterparts.
Both the Remington and Barnes loads used Lapua's Scenar bullets. They don't have quite the BC of the A-MAX, but they are more forgiving in factory-loaded ammunition. The results both loads produced in the MRAD were nothing short of spectacular.
The Remington 250-grain load had a best group of .55 inch and an average of .56 inch. You read that right. The three five-shot groups were all almost the exact same size. I consider this level of performance extraordinary from a factory rifle and factory ammunition.
The 300-grain Barnes load had a best group of .53 inch and a .58-inch average. Between the Remington and Barnes loads, that's a whole lot of small groups from one rifle. I've never seen such consistency across so many groups from a rifle. I think part of the reason the two loads worked so well is that they are (externally) virtually identical with an overall length of 3.64 inches. Both also use Lapua Scenar bullets that share the same ogive, and both are likely loaded at the Barnes facility in Utah. If you see either on the shelves, both are excellent ammunition.
WRECKING THE REC
Barrett's REC7 has been around since 2007, but it recently got an update. The biggest and most visible change to the rifle is the replacement of the old quad-rail forend with a newer, slimmer KeyMod forend. The 11-inch forend is slim and accepts any standard KeyMod accessory. KeyMod is popular because it is a simple and easy attachment method very low in profile. It also rides comfortably in the hand.
Most unique to the REC7 is the piston operating system. The short-stroke system has a one-piece stainless steel rod that cycles the action. The design allows the entire op-rod assembly to slide out the front of the rifle for detailed maintenance. By not requiring the removal of the handguard, the REC7 will stay zeroed even with lasers attached.
One of the big advantages of piston-operated rifles is their ability to keep the action clean, even after firing several hundred rounds. I've heard many of the arguments involved in the piston versus direct-impingement (DI) debate, but I've always appreciated how cleanly a piston rifle runs. If nothing else, they take less time to maintain.
The liabilities associated with pistons guns usually include excessive weight and poor accuracy. A quick look at the weight of the REC7 shows that it tips the scales at a svelte 7.2 pounds. Not too shabby. While slightly heavier than a traditional direct-impingement rifle with a similar barrel profile, Barrett has managed to keep weight gain to a minimum.
The next Achilles heel of the piston rifle is usually in the accuracy department. Piston guns have an additional reciprocating mass that DI guns don't, so it's harder to get them to shoot well.
I tested the REC7 with three loads and found the performance to be almost identical to any DI gun sporting a free-floated, hammer-forged, chrome-lined barrel. I didn't stop to let the barrel cool while testing, so the groups on my last load (the 52-grain Black Hills Match) were slightly larger than the first two.
The first load I tested was Black Hills' new tipped Sierra MatchKing. The tipped bullets give the classic SMK an improved ballistic coefficient, so they promise to shoot flatter and resist the effects of the wind better than their nontipped predecessors. This load did well with the REC7. The best five-shot group fired at 100 yards measured 1.01 inches and averaged 1.13 inches.
The next ammunition I tested was Winchester's new Match line loaded with 69-grain SMKs. This is my first experience with the Winchester line, and the results were excellent. The best group measured a scant .81 inch, and the load averaged .98 inch.
The Black Hills 52-grain Match ammo got the hot-barrel treatment but still managed to have a best group of 1.16 inches and an average group of 1.28 inches. Bullets this light are hit-and-miss in 1:7-in. twist barrels.
PREVIEW OF COMING ATTRACTIONS
Barrett's MRAD and REC7 refresh brought incremental improvements to already solid performers. The MRAD's new forend design is mostly cosmetic but nonetheless welcome. The overall design of the rifle didn't change much because it didn't need to. Any factory .338 Lapua that consistently groups five shots into a half-inch at 100 yards needs to be left alone.
The REC7 needed to lose the quad rail and get churched up a little bit. I've seen a couple of the old quad-rail versions, and they won't be missed. The new KeyMod forend is ideal and catapults the REC7 to the front of the piston-driven line in both performance and aesthetics. In addition to the new forend, the choice of Cerakote colors (tan, green and gray) gives the owner more options that weren't previously available.
With the renewed focus on these two rifles, one can't help but speculate what might be in the future. Additional caliber choices? New MRAD action lengths? Whether you favor precision rifles or ARs, Barrett offers premium performance at reasonable prices.