These days there are many choices in the gas-operated 7.62mm sniper system world, which sometimes makes it confusing as you begin your quest for the perfect setup. I have spent plenty of my own money for lessons learned, so hopefully you won't have to.
There are a few tricky parts and accessories that attract attention, but my intention is to always have a rifle that is reliable, accurate, simple and lightweight. "Simple" is a relative term. To me it's a system that translates nicely from the M4-type carbine to the sniper system. Not only are the controls similar, but my accessories will be identical or extremely close. In the past these systems were available, but weight and reliability left us wanting. Thankfully, we now have a few choices that can cut the mustard in the lightweight sniping world. My lightweight choice is the LaRue PredatAR. This system is truly revolutionary due to the fact that you don't need a weight belt or a series of P90X workouts to be able to move effectively in a tactical environment. Running-and-gunning with a sniper system briefs well in the Team Room, but if you are blowing snot bubbles by the time you need to take a shot due to the weight of your rifle, well, that just won't work. At the very least it will make you less effective when your mates need you most.
More than just a little thought should go into the selection process of your 7.62 sniper system. The evaluation of the platform itself is obviously the most important, a reliable system that will work well with the ammunition you choose to employ or the ammunition that your department or unit issues. I normally shoot 175-grain M118LRs. As this ammo launches a 175-grain Sierra MatchKing bullet, I must ensure that the twist fits the bullet. In this case I prefer the 1:11. Actually, I have chosen the LaRue PredatAR, which has a 1:11.25 twist. This ammunition is used for two reasons. First, it is the issue ammunition for many of the military folks we train at VTAC. Second, it is very accurate. If I decide to take the same system into the hunting field — for the four-legged type of animal, that is — I jam my Magpul magazines with the Hornady 165-grain GMX load. The LaRue PredatAR is in love with this ammunition. If you haven't checked out the GMX bullet, it performs superbly when shooting through glass or into flesh. These bullets are gilding metal, which equates to a smoother bullet than solid copper and will result in less fouling.
Now that twist is confirmed to fit the weight and profile of our selected projectiles, we should look at the operating system. I am not really picky other than the rifle needs to be light, reliable and — often overlooked — ergonomically correct. Ergonomics of the AR may not be for everyone, but for those of us who cut our teeth in the military with the M16, it feels pretty natural. Reliability is an easy fix these days, but light weight is a completely different issue.
Here is where the LaRue PredatAR smokes everyone, at 7¾ pounds for a 16.1-inch-barrel 7.62 semiautomatic rifle. This equals a very attractive package for those who will be carrying more than shooting. If you plan to lie on your belly and shoot paper all day, get the behemoth blasters with heavy barrels and gadgets galore. Now that I have hung up the uniform, I spend several months a year in the mountains with a rifle, either hunting or teaching high-angle shooting and pack-animal courses. Some days are spent backpack hunting where extra weight can determine whether you get to your prey. Other times I am riding, and the extra weight is easily carried by the horse when the rifle is in a scabbard. But if you have to sling the rifle, it can crush you after a few long days hanging on for dear life. Even if you are tooling around on an ATV or snow machine, weight matters. The abuse I receive from a heavy rifle just isn't worth it for the amount of shooting I will be doing. So if you are like me and will be moving and shooting, light weight is the ticket.
Part of the weight-loss program for the LaRue PredatAR is the removable railed free-float system, which allows you to have a modular system that can be changed to fit your mission. In the past I have often been mocked for choosing this type of system. Now it is standard fare for most rifle manufacturers. Funny how things change.
Since semiauto is the selected system, we also need a trigger that is reliable for the operation of this rifle. LaRue has selected the Geissele trigger, which works out well since that would be the trigger I would choose anyway for this type of setup.
OK, the rifle is good to go. What else will we need? Optics: Leupold Mark 6 3-18X, period. There isn't a scope on the market that has the pedigree of the Mark 6. Built to the rigid specifications of U.S. Army Special Operators by a highly respected U.S. manufacturer, this glass is 11 ounces lighter, even with a 34mm main tube, as well as 1½ inches shorter than its competitors. Ounces make pounds for sure in this case, and I don't want to carry the 11 ounces without any noticeable enhancements. There are several reticles you can choose from. My favorite is the H58 that is a gridded milliradian pattern that makes hold-offs a breeze. The Mark 6 also has a pinch-and-turn locking elevation dial that is calibrated to .1 mil. This system is intuitive and only requires you to pinch the turret and turn, no pulling up or pushing down. The windage is covered, as it should be on a 7.62 sniper system, no accidental adjustments while fast-roping or crawling. This is key. If you are required to shoot long range with the H58 reticle, you will see no distortion at the edges of the glass.
Here the bipod is used to gain improved stability while using cover. Pressure is pushed from the rear of the gun into the wall, helping to control recoil.
Tools of the modern sniper rifle from bottom left: Torx wrench set, Leupold lens pen, small level, half-inch wrench for detaching rings from base, T-handle with 65 inch-pounds torque wrench and Wheeler's FAT adjustable torque driver with bits.
A good sling allows for the operator to quickly stow the rifle and climb if needed.
The bipod can be used as a vertical grip for CQB operations.
Place the buttstock in the crook of your elbow to measure for correct stock fit.
Although obnoxious, the muzzlebrake is nice for recoil control as well as allowing for the connection of a SureFire suppressor.
Having a good bipod that can be quickly moved closer to the rear of the gun comes in handy. This is especially true when shooting from nonstandard platforms.
Unlike iron sights, magnified optics are magic. OK, maybe not magic, but you can get away with a lot more. One example is shooting around obstructions such as through steps or from drain holes in the parapet of a building. If you look at the hole and there is enough room for the barrel and a small portion of your optic, you might be good to go. Get into position, and see what it looks like. More times than not, the target may be slightly hazy, but you will be able to see well enough to engage easily out to 400 yards.
Optics and rifle make a nice package, but to truly get your money's worth out of the system there are a few enhancements that I won't leave home without. First would be a good weapon-mounted light. I use a VTAC-L4 that is made by SureFire. I prefer to use the protected push button vs. a pressure pad, which ensures that there won't be a white-light accidental discharge while moving into my final firing position or during normally required crawling and climbing. I mount the SureFire in a VTAC light mount. Made from glass-filled nylon, it is also light and rugged. Next would be backup iron sights. I have found that the Troy DOA is one tough sight that can stand up to daily abuse. Some believe backup sights are not needed for this type of setup. All I would say is, "You never know." If your optic were to fail, you can't simply transition to your sidearm and make a 300-yard shot.
For sound and flash suppression, I favor the SureFire muzzlebrake, which adapts to the SureFire suppressor. This system will help keep you on target during rapid-fire situations and makes attaching and removing your suppressor extremely easy. Using the suppressor with full-up ammunition will not make the rifle completely quiet, although it will help to confuse the enemy as to where the shot came from and help eliminate muzzle flash. Either way, the bad guys should be confused, and that is what we are after.
A couple of other ancillary pieces of kit that are a must on the 7.62 rifle are the sling and the bipod. Of course, I use the VTAC MK-2 padded sling or the VTAC sniper sling, which is essentially the same setup with the addition of a quick-release cuff, which comes in handy in certain shooting situations. This sling allows you to use it as a shooting aid and can be quickly tightened to hold the rifle securely on your back when climbing.
The bipod I use is the Harris. Although not very sexy, it is extremely reliable and not too heavy. I have tried a few others, but I keep coming back to this setup. More notable is the use of the bipod and where you attach it. There are a few tricks I have learned along the way, one of which is to turn the bipod backward so the legs point to the rear when collapsed for rural movement. This will alleviate the issues of vegetation continuously opening or grabbing your bipod legs.
Once in position, you can easily disconnect the bipod and turn it around if you see fit. Additionally, I prefer to keep the bipod in a position closer to the magazine of the rifle when operating in an urban environment. By simply moving the bipod to the rear six to 10 inches, you are able to transition much faster from target to target as well as elevate or depress the rifle when shooting over parapets or from rooftops. This also puts the bipod closer to the center of gravity, making the rifle feel a little lighter. If you haven't tried this, I highly recommend you give it a go. You will immediately see a difference in the amount of movement you can get from this simple change.
The last bit of advice I would give you as a former Special Forces sniper would be this: Get on the range and shoot. Don't lie down and shoot groups. Get a solid zero, then shoot from realistic positions. And shoot a lot.
The best way to learn is by doing.