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Heavy barrelled varmint rifles review

Official review in Australian Shooter July 2002

The term ‘varmint’ comes from the USA and refers to small furred and feathered pests. For many years, these have made challenging targets for shooters wanting to test both their equipment and their skill at longer than normal ranges.
In Australia, the equivalent targets would be crows, hares and rabbits, all of which are renowned for their cunning and ability to detect a gun barrel at considerable distances.
A varmint shooter needs a very accurate rifle that will shoot hard and flat, out to ranges that may be in excess of 300 metres. We reviewed heavy barrelled rifles in calibres .223 Remington, .22-250 Remington and .220 Swift. It is true that many long-range varmint rifles have been built on larger calibres, but these are usually ‘wildcats’ and not available over the counter from gunshops - nor is their ammunition.
As usual, we used only readily available factory loaded ammunition for the accuracy part of the review. This review clearly demonstrated that ammunition price was a very good indicator of its quality and the more expensive loads certainly performed better in most rifles. To obtain five-shot groups less than one minute of angle with standard factory ammunition is not as easy as some would imagine; but, of course, accuracy-seeking varmint hunters would always reload their own ammunition.
To add credibility to the review, we used three very experienced benchrest target shooters, all of whom are also hunters and were able to fully assess the accuracy value of each firearm.
All rifles were checked over to make sure that everything was done up tight and in order, but no attempts were made to lighten triggers or correct any bedding faults - no faults were apparent in any of the rifles tested. Rifles were indeed ‘out of the box’, just as a shooter would buy them at a gunshop. Scopes used were supplied by the distributors of the various rifles, with the exception of the Sako and the Ruger (see text for details).
Readers may wonder why some other makes and models were not included in this review. The fact is, we can only test what is available to us at the time and in some cases not all models of a particular make are imported into this country. It is simply a matter of supply and demand and the most popular numbers are the ones that will be imported in any quantity.

The range
SSAA Monarto State Range, South Australia

Scoring procedure
Rifles were assessed and scored in six categories, for a possible of 20 points, in the following manner:
• three points for price/value
• three points for design
• three points for weight/handling
• three points for ease of maintenance (cleaning/assembly/disassembly)
• three points for loading (magazine feeding, etc)
• five points for accuracy (five-shot groups at 100 yards)

The review team
Brendan Atkinson
Brendan Atkinson - Technical adviser to Australian Shooter magazine and current world two-gun benchrest champion. National four-gun champion in 1990, 1991, 1999, 2001 and 2002.
Brain Dunn
Brain Dunn - Australian benchrest shooting team member to 2001 Oceania and World Benchrest Championships in New Zealand.
Peter Hodges
Peter Hodges - Australian benchrest shooting team member to 1999 Oceania competition and winner of Oceania Heavy Varmint 1999.

Ammunition used
Federal Premium 50-grain Speer TNT Hollow Point .223
Federal Premium 55-grain Sierra Blitzking .223
Federal American Eagle 55-grain FMJ Boat Tail .223
Federal Classic 55-grain Hi-Shok Soft Point .223
High Impact 55-grain Blitzking Soft Points .223
Remington Express Rifle 55-grain Pointed Soft Point .223
Winchester Supreme 50-grain Ballistic Silvertip .223
Federal 55-grain HI-SHOK Soft Point .22-250
PMC 50-grain Sierra Blitzking .22-250
Remington Express Rifle 55-grain Pointed Soft Point .22-250
Winchester Supreme 40-grain Ballistic Silvertip .220

Equipment used
NIKKO Stirling 20-60 x 80mm Spotting Scope

Sako 75 Varmint Laminated Stainless .223
Sako 75 Varmint Laminated Stainless .223
Supplied by: Beretta Australia
Weight: 3.9kg (8 5/8lb)
Magazine Capacity: 6 rounds
Stock: Laminated hardwood matt laquered
Sights: No open sights provided, Leupold 12x scope used
Safety: Locks trigger, rifle can be loaded and unloaded with safety ‘on’
Price: $2025
Score: 18.75 Highest Scoring Rifle
The Sako is a very attractive looking rifle, with its blond and brown laminated stock and matte finished stainless metalwork. The fit of wood to metal was flawless. The 600mm (23 5/8") barrel is cold-hammerforged and features a target-style crown. Brian was most impressed with this rifle and all three reviewers commented on the smoothness of the Sako action, which allowed a single round to be dropped into the action port and the bolt closed without hangup. The six-round magazine functioned well with no inconveniences experienced. Cleaning and maintenance presented no problems. The barrel required a minimum numbers of rounds to ‘run in’. Sako’s Optilok bases and rings in stainless steel certainly complemented the outfit. On a points basis, the reviewers made this the highest scoring rifle of the test.

Winchester M70 ‘Stealth’ .223
Winchester M70 ‘Stealth’ .223
Supplied by: Olin (Winchester) Australia
Weight: 5.6 kilos as tested, with scope/mounts
Magazine Capacity: 5 rounds
Stock: Black synthetic
Sights: No open sights provided, Hakko 30mm Tactical 4-16x50 used
Safety: Operates only when cocked, locks firing pin and bolt
Price: $1820
Score: 17.75
The ‘Stealth’ is a heavy rifle and looks quite mean with its 660mm (26") chrome moly barrel and black matte finish. The synthetic H&S-style stock has a wide fore-end and sat snugly on the front sandbag. The fact that this outfit, as shot, was the heaviest of the review may have had something to do with that. The action is the proven Model 70 and the trigger was heavy but crisp. Two of the reviewers had problems with rounds not coming out of the magazine cleanly when full capacity was used; however, this may have been unique to this rifle. All reviewers were impressed with the smoothness of the barrel when cleaning and this often points to potential accuracy. The ‘Stealth’ was not particularly ‘ammo fussy’ and shot most varieties acceptably, but its best groups came from the Winchester Supreme. The Hakko scope fully complemented this outfit, as it too is a heavy duty item and, of course, a good rifle deserves a good scope.

Remington M700 Varmint Laminated .223
Remington M700 Varmint Laminated .223
Supplied by: Raytrade
Weight: 4.85 kilos as tested, with scope/mounts
Magazine Capacity: 4 rounds
Stock: Laminated hardwood
Sights: No open sights provided, Simmons 4-12x56 Pro 50 used
Safety: Two position, locks trigger only
Price: $1920
Score: 18 Most accurate rifle with factory ammunition
Another very attractive rifle for those who prefer wood and metal. This Remington featured a laminated blond and brown wood stock and matte black metal work. One reviewer felt that on sheer looks this was the most ‘aesthetically pleasing’ of the six reviewed. All reviewers were impressed with the general ‘feel’ of the stock and the excellent Remington trigger. The 660mm (26") barrel is chrome moly and showed a distinct preference for the more expensive ammunition. In fact, it shot the Federal Premium 50-grain loads into less than 25mm (1") with ease. All reviewers agreed that it would be interesting to handload for this rifle and explore its full accuracy potential. The Simmons Pro 50 scope was a good choice for this rifle and assisted in the shooting of the smallest groups. Overall, it was the most accurate rifle tested with the factory ammunition.

Remington M700 VSSF .22-250
Remington M700 VSSF .22-250
Supplied by: Raytrade
Weight: 4.75 kilos as tested, with scope/mounts
Magazine Capacity: 4 rounds
Stock: Black synthetic
Sights: No open sights provided, Simmons Whitetail 4-12x50 used
Safety: Two position, locks trigger only
Price: $1980
Score: 18
The VSSF is an impressive looking rifle, with its black synthetic H&S-type stock and the 660mm (26") stainless fluted barrel. This style of barrel is often found on sporter and light varmint benchrest rifles and it is no secret that the Rem 700 action has formed the basis of thousands of benchrest target rifles throughout the years. The Simmons scope, as fitted, was a good choice for this rifle and calibre. Two of the reviewers commented that maintenance and cleaning was hassle free. This is one of the major benefits of stainless steel. No magazine feeding problems were experienced during the test. This rifle shot best with the Remington Express loads and the groups obtained would most probably satisfy many hunters. The .22-250 probably gives an extra 100 metres of useable range over the .223, depending upon shooter ability.

Howa M1500 Custom Varminter .22-250
Howa M1500 Custom Varminter .22-250
Supplied by: Highland Sports
Weight: 5.25 kilos as tested, with scope/mounts
Magazine Capacity: 5 rounds
Stock: Boyd’s Wood Laminate Target Stock
Sights: No open sights provided, Nikko Stirling Gold Crown Tactical 4-12x50
Safety: Two position, works only when cocked, cocking indicator on bolt
Price: $1700
Score: 18.5 Best All-round Value
Previous reviews with the Howa range of rifles have impressed and this sample from the Howa Custom Shop was no exception. Peter commented that he was amazed how smooth the action was and how well the rounds fed from the magazine. All metalwork on this rifles was in stainless steel and this would be a major contributor to Peter’s findings. A fully adjustable match grade trigger is standard. The stock is very impressive and is another of the laminated wood breed; this one finished in a grey two-tone called ‘pepper’. Purists may not like it, but for those who desire something different, it’s worth checking out. Accuracy from factory loads showed a distinct preference for the PMC offering and five-shot groups of less than an inch were achieved with this load. Taking all aspects into consideration against what you pay for one of these, we deemed it to be the best all-round value rifle tested.

Ruger M77 HB .220 Swift
Ruger M77 HB .220 Swift
Supplied by: Adelaide Gun Shop
Weight: 4.5 kilos as tested, with scope/mounts
Magazine Capacity: 4 rounds
Stock: Standard Ruger wood
Sights: No open sights provided, Weaver T-16 used
Safety: Three position, safety ‘on’ locks bolt and trigger
Price: About $1500 secondhand
Score: 17.25
Astute readers will note that this rifle is the superseded model heavy barrel, but it is still available new in many shops. We were unable to obtain a current model Ruger .220 Swift at the time of the test. Nevertheless, this Ruger is indicative of the quality that these firearms deliver. The 660mm (26") barrel is ideal for this calibre, which is the ‘hot-rod’ of the available .224 varmint calibres. All reviewers agreed that a shorter barrel would produce unpleasant muzzle blast and detract from performance of the Swift. The standard Ruger trigger was firm but crisp at let-off and would benefit from adjustment. The Ruger fed rounds from the magazine easily and the stock design was easy to shoot from the sandbag position. Reviewers noted that the chrome moly barrel needs to be cleaned more often than other calibres, due to the amount of powder burned and the high velocity of the .220 Swift rounds (in the case of the 40-grain Ballistic Silvertips, velocity was in excess of 4000fps).

All of the varmint rifles tested were fine examples of what is on offer - there were no ‘lemons’ in this lot. It was obvious that these rifles would benefit from careful handloading to extract all of their accuracy potential. The reviewers felt confident that half minute of angle groups would be possible with any of them. Of course, the fanatical varmint hunter would never entertain a factory load, except perhaps for ‘running in’ a barrel. A new rifle buyer could confidently purchase any of the rifles tested - it is only a matter of choosing what calibre suits their needs and putting a good quality scope and mounts on top.
In any contest there have to be winners and at the end of the day the tally sheets revealed the following conclusions:
The Sako was the top point-scoring rifle, achieving a perfect score in five out of six of the categories.
The Remington 700 Varmint Laminated proved to be the most accurate with factory loads.
The Howa M1500 Custom was the best all-round value rifle.