.223 rifles review

Official review in Australian Shooter November 2003

The decision to review rifles in .223 calibre was based upon a number of factors. Firstly, there is the undisputed popularity of this cartridge, as evidenced by the sales of commercially loaded ammunition. Secondly, there is a wide variety of rifles makes and styles available in this country. Thirdly, there is the ‘comfort factor’ - the .223 is accurate and easy to load for, easy to shoot, and doesn’t upset the local population with a shattering muzzle blast. It is also an excellent entry level cartridge for new centrefire shooters, and will take game humanely up to the size of feral goats with careful shot placement.
While the .223 makes an excellent light game calibre, with a finely tuned rifle and higher powered scope it can also make a fine varminting outfit. Outstanding accuracy can be achieved with handloading, and during the test we found that some of the rifles produced excellent groups with the factory loaded offerings.
Distributors were keen to provide suitable rifles, and we eventually finished up with ten to review. As prices varied from just under $1000 to around $2500, we have divided the test into two sectors based upon price. The reader will notice that the more expensive rifles also came with heavier barrels, and more expensive scopes.
Prior to the actual range test, we assembled each outfit in the office and made sure that all screws were tight, scopes set up square-on and everything where it should be. We made no attempt to adjust triggers, and the weight of pull was the average of ten pulls measured using a Lyman digital trigger gauge. As a general rule, rifles tested from the USA have heavier triggers, described by some in the trade as ‘lawyer proof’. Buyers should be aware that adjusting triggers may have implications where warranty is concerned, and should consult their owner manuals for specific instructions. Scopes were zeroed using our magnetic Hakko scope aligner. Each rifle was ‘run in’ using the benchrest technique of one shot and clean for the first five shots. This is a necessary task, despite what some would have you believe, as some barrels tend to foul up quite badly for the first few shots. It is best to remove the build-up before it becomes a major task - a badly fouled barrel cannot be expected to shoot accurately.
A couple of the rifles had some sort of factory preservative in their barrels, and this reddish grease-like substance took a bit of shifting. Shooters should always thoroughly clean a new barrel to remove such obstructions, otherwise damage may result if fired.
It should be noted that none of the rifles were equipped with open sights, requiring that scopes be fitted. We selected what we believe to be suitable scopes for each rifle, and we have decided to quote the weight of the whole outfit in the description panel. This of course will vary with whatever a prospective buyer chooses, but it gives a good indication of what to expect.

Scoring procedure
The accuracy part of the test was conducted at the Monarto Range, and each rifle was shot from a bench rest. Reviewers were encouraged to shoot a few shots at a sighting target to verify the scope settings, and become used to the trigger pull and general feel of the rifle. Following this ‘warm up’, we fired a number of five-shot groups from each rifle with several brands of factory ammunition. At the end of the day, some offhand shooting was performed with the lighter barrelled rifles. This included a bit of rapid fire, to really test the feeding of rounds from the magazine.
Reviewers were required to write down their comments, and score each rifle out of a possible 20 points. This was made up of:
• Price and value for money - 3 points
• Appearance and design - 3 points
• Balance and handling - 3 points
• Ease of maintenance - 3 points
• Loading and feeding of rounds - 3 points
• Overall accuracy - 5 points

A rifle scoring 15 points would have created a good impression and would be a serviceable unit. A score of 17 points would be an excellent firearm, and anything over 18.5 points would have to be an exceptional rifle.
Be aware that the prices quoted are retail and may vary considerably throughout Australia. Prospective buyers should scan the trade advertisements in Australian Shooter to obtain the best prices.

The range
SSAA State Range – Monarto, South Australia

Ammunition used
• PMC Silver line 55-grain HPBT Sierra Gameking
• Federal Premium 55-grain Sierra Blitzking
• Federal Premium 50-grain HP Speer TNT
• Winchester Supreme 50-grain Ballistic Silvertip
• Winchester 55-grain PSP (bulk pack of 50)


Zastava M85 Highlander Mk X
Supplied by: Highland Sports Pty Ltd
Weight: 7.5 pounds
Stock: Monte Carlo-style European walnut
Barrel: Chrome-vanadium 20 inch, 1 in 12 twist
Trigger pull: 4.5 pounds
Scope: Nikko Stirling Platinum 3-9 x 40 WA
Safety: Locks both trigger and bolt
Magazine: 6 rounds
Buttplate: Rubber
Country of origin: Yugoslavia
Price: $900
Score: 16.5
As one of the lightest (and the least expensive) rifles in the review, the little Zastava was a bit of a surprise package. All reviewers commented on the accuracy of this rifle, and the fact that it was not the least bit ‘ammo fussy’. Five-shot groups with hunting-type ammunition were in the order of 1.1 inches, and the premium stuff produced groups just under the inch. The lightweight barrel became very warm after only a few shots, but the point of impact did not vary. Interestingly, the muzzle end of the barrel was counter bored for about one inch, giving the impression of a much larger calibre. The bolt handle was quite small, and the Mauser-type action was a bit ‘scratchy’ in its operation. One would expect that this would improve with use, and some appropriate lubrication. It was suggested that the Zastava would make an excellent entry level rifle for a junior shooter, especially in this calibre. It would also make an excellent farm rifle for carrying in the cabin of a ute or light truck, due to its compact dimensions.


Weatherby Vanguard Stainless
Supplied by: Nioa Trading
Weight: 9.5 pounds
Stock: Injection moulded black synthetic all weather
Barrel: Stainless 24 inch, 1 in 12 twist
Trigger pull: 6.75 pounds
Scope: Bushnell 3-9 x 50 Dawn and Dusk
Safety: Locks trigger and bolt
Magazine: 5 rounds
Buttplate: Rubber
Country of origin: USA
Price: $1100
Score: 17
This is the stainless version of the very popular Vanguard model. The actions are made for Weatherby by Howa in Japan, and have some of the features of the Mark V. Reviewers were impressed by the smoothness of the fluted bolt, and no problems were experienced when feeding rounds, even from a full magazine. The trigger on the test rifle had a small amount of creep, but this could be adjusted out by an accredited gunsmith when lightening of the trigger is performed. Accuracy was more than adequate for field use in this country, with this particular rifle showing a definite preference for the PMC 55-grain loading. Reviewers noted that the scope fitted to this rifle would be excellent for spotlighting, but weighed in at 19 ounces, hence the 9.5 pounds overall weight. It was felt that it was a good pairing for feral pest destruction. Cleaning was easy and one reviewer commented on the smoothness of the barrel.


Howa 1500 Hunter Stainless
Supplied by: Highland Sports Pty Ltd
Weight: 8.5 pounds
Stock: Walnut
Barrel: Stainless 22 inch, 1 in 12 twist
Trigger pull: 5.5 pounds (fully adjustable)
Scope: Nikko Stirling Diamond 3-9 x 42
Safety: Locks trigger and bolt
Magazine: 5 rounds
Buttplate: Rubber
Country of origin: Japan
Price: $1200
Score: 17
We have tested a number of Howa rifles over the past few years, and all have been impressive. They are well made, look good, and are extremely functional. The action is similar to the Weatherby Vanguard made by Howa, but there are subtle differences. Reviewers were impressed with the smooth lines and fit of wood to metal on this rifle, which made it look like a much more expensive outfit. The walnut stock is finished with a low sheen and extremely fine chequering. The trigger was firm, but broke so cleanly that reviewers did not notice the weight of pull. A good safety feature on the Howa (and the Vanguard) is the visible cocking indicator at the rear of the bolt. For some reason this rifle was ammo fussy, and shot some types very well and some others fairly average. Overall accuracy with factory ammo would satisfy most hunters, and handloading Howa rifles in the past has produced some excellent results.


Ruger KM77RFP All Weather Mk II
Supplied by: Highland Sports Pty Ltd
Weight: 8 pounds
Stock: Black synthetic all weather type
Barrel: Stainless steel 22 inch, 1 in 12 twist
Trigger pull: 5.25 pounds
Scope: Nikko Stirling Gold Crown 3.5-10 x 40
Safety: Three positions - locks trigger or trigger and bolt
Magazine: Four rounds
Buttplate: Rubber
Country of origin: USA
Price: $1050
Score: 16.75
Solid and reliable, the Ruger impressed the panel with its simple no-nonsense design. Ruger rifles have been popular in this country for many years, and the basic design has not changed. The rifle that we reviewed sported the black synthetic stock, which one reviewer felt was too thin in the pistol grip, yet others thought it was adequate. Stainless steel and a synthetic stock make for a low maintenance outfit, except for normal barrel cleaning. The test rifle shot quite well with all of the ammunition available, although two of the reviewers commented that the trigger was a little vague. This could be easily corrected by a gunsmith. This Ruger showed a preference for the more expensive ammunition, but the overall accuracy was quite good. The side rail bolt was reasonably smooth in use, and no feeding problems were experienced. Ejection of fired cases was very positive. The test rifle wore a Nikko Stirling variable scope in Ruger rings which are supplied free with each Ruger, and at the moment some very good package deals are being offered on these rifles.


Browning A-Bolt II
Supplied by: Olin (Winchester) Australia
Weight: 7.1 pounds
Stock: American walnut
Barrel: Chrome-moly 22 inch, 1 in 12 twist
Trigger pull: 5.75 pounds
Scope: Hakko 3-9 x 40
Safety: Top-tang type locks bolt and trigger
Magazine: Detachable box, hinged floorplate - 5 rounds
Buttplate: Rubber
Country of origin: Japan
Price: $1390
Score: 17.25
The Browning is a classy looking outfit, and all reviewers were surprised at the very affordable price for a rifle of this quality. Easily the lightest rifle in the review, the Browning impressed everybody with its ease of handling and general feel. The 60 degree bolt throw and angled handle were a delight to use. The gold trigger is wider than normal and very comfortable to use. The trigger was crisp, with no discernable creep. The bolt was smooth in its operation, but after removal took some time to replace in the action, as the three locking lugs have to be aligned exactly with the receiver to allow entry. Rounds may be loaded into the magazine through the ejection port with difficulty, but it is better to remove the box magazine to load up. A bit time-consuming, but it is the only way to ensure that rounds are correctly positioned in the magazine. The A-Bolt demonstrated very good accuracy with most ammo tested, no doubt helped by the free floated barrel. The stock has a gloss finish, which looks very good against the blue/black metal work. With its lighter weight, the Browning would be an excellent rifle for those who want to climb mountains chasing feral goats.


Sako 75 Varmint
Supplied by: Beretta Australia
Weight: 10.25 pounds
Stock: European walnut
Barrel: Chrome-moly 23.5 inch, 1 in 12 twist
Trigger pull: 4.75 pounds
Scope: Bushnell Banner Dusk and Dawn 6-18 x 50
Safety: Locks bolt and trigger, separate bolt release
Magazine: 6 rounds
Buttplate: Rubber
Country of origin: Finland
Price: $1775
Score: 18.75
The dark walnut stock with its precise chequering mated to the blue/black finish of the metal work really impressed the panel, and of course, this type of quality costs a bit more. The basic design of this rifle has not changed in many years, and why would it? The stock was biased towards a right-hander and featured a palm swell, and the panel felt that a left-handed person may have difficulty trying to use this particular model. The bolt and handle are smaller than many other makes, but were very smooth in operation. A couple of reviewers had a feed problem with this rifle when the magazine was full and the bolt was not worked in a firm manner. The trigger was very crisp, and the panel felt that it was probably the best of all rifles tested in this review. The accuracy of the Sako was really exceptional - even with the cheaper ammunition - with one five-shot group just under half an inch being recorded using the PMC 55-grain load. This is a rifle for varmint hunters, and careful handloading will produce very good results.


Winchester M70 Stealth
Supplied by: Olin (Winchester) Australia
Weight: 12 pounds
Stock: Kevlar/fibreglass graphite Pillar Plus Accublock
Barrel: Heavy chrome-moly 26 inches, 1 in 9 twist
Trigger pull: 8 pounds
Scope: Hakko 4-16 x 50 Tactical
Safety: Three positions - locks trigger or trigger and bolt
Magazine: 7 rounds (see text)
Buttplate: Rubber
Country of origin: USA
Price: $2400
Score: 17
This is a big, heavy and mean looking rifle, and with the Hakko tactical scope on board tipped the scales right on 12 pounds. Definitely not designed for walking around, this is a rifle suitable for precision target or varmint shooting from a bipod or sandbag rest. The one in nine twist will allow the use of heavier match grade bullets such as the Sierra 69 grain MK HPBT and others. Naturally the rifle rode the sandbags very well, but all reviewers commented upon the very heavy trigger. We realise why they are made that way, but the rifle would benefit hugely from a trigger job. The magazine will actually hold seven rounds, but the panel felt that six was the maximum for reliable feeding of the top one. The Stealth was a little ammo fussy, and shot its best groups with the Federal Premium ammo on the day. It is possible that lighter bullets used in this rifle would be over stabilised, which can have some effect on accuracy. This is purely academic of course, because shooters purchasing this type of rifle will almost certainly use only carefully created hand loads. All reviewers felt that the fitting of the Stealth with the variable Hakko tactical scope was a good combination for this rifle’s capabilities.


Remington M700 LTR
Supplied by: Raytrade
Weight: 9 pounds
Stock: Black synthetic H&S tactical style
Barrel: Heavy stainless steel fluted 20 inch, 1 in 9 twist
Trigger pull: 7.5 pounds
Scope: Weaver Grand Slam 4.5-14 x 42
Safety: Thumb safety locks trigger only
Magazine: 6 rounds
Buttplate: Rubber
Country of origin: USA
Price: $2400
Score: 18.5
Remington fans will be aware that LTR stands for Light Tactical Rifle, and a full review of one of these in .308 calibre was printed in the March 2002 issue of Australian Shooter. It was included in this review as it also makes a fine hunting rifle. Reviewers remarked on its chunky appearance, and sombre matte black finish. The reason for the two swivel mounts at the front of the stock is so that a bipod may be fitted as well as a sling. The short barrel creates a noticable muzzle blast, but that is offset by the ease of handling and the remarkable accuracy. The balance point of this outfit also allows for accurate offhand shooting. The LTR showed a distinct preference for the premium and supreme ammunition and would produce sub minute of angle groups with monotonous regularity. The hunting grade ammunition showed nice round groups, about the inch mark. The heavy trigger took some getting used to. The nine-inch twist in this barrel will suit handloaders using the heavier match grade bullets.


Weatherby Mk V Accumark
Supplied by: Nioa Trading
Weight: 8 pounds
Stock: Monte Carlo-style composite with bedding block
Barrel: Krieger Criterion stainless steel fluted 24 inch, 1 in 12 twist
Trigger pull: 5 pounds (see text)
Scope: Leupold Vari-X II 3-9 x 40
Safety: Locks bolt and disengages trigger
Magazine: 5 rounds
Buttplate: Pachmayr Decelerator
Country of origin: USA
Price: $2450
Score: 18.25
Based upon the Weatherby Mark V action, this is a serious hunting rifle with a serious price. All panel members commented on the ease of handling of the Accumark. The smooth action of the bolt and 54 degree lift no doubt contributed to this. There were some problems experienced feeding five rounds from the magazine, if they were not carefully placed at the rear of the magazine. This is not uncommon with actions that have magazines designed for longer calibres that have been modified to suit the .223. The factory trigger setting is claimed to be four pounds, but was five pounds on both of the Mark Vs tested. This trigger is said to be fully adjustable, but reviewers were quite happy with the crisp five pound setting. The 24 inch fluted barrel featured a recessed crown. The panel also gave a nod of approval to the stock finish, which is a black matte gel coat overlaid with a grey spider web pattern. The Accumark shot very well with the more expensive ammunition, and still managed to produce groups under 1.3 inches with the cheapest. This should be more than adequate for many hunters, who would choose suitable rounds for this gun. The Leupold variable scope was a sensible choice for this rifle and was appreciated by all who tested it.


Weatherby Mk V Super Varmint Master
Supplied by: Nioa Trading
Weight: 9.75 pounds
Stock: Monte Carlo-style composite with bedding block
Barrel: Krieger Criterion stainless steel fluted 26 inch, 1 in 12 twist
Trigger pull: 5 pounds (see text)
Scope: Leupold Vari-X II 3-9 x 40
Safety: Locks bolt and disengages trigger
Magazine: 5 rounds
Buttplate: Pachmayr Decelerator
Country of Origin: USA
Price: $2450
Score: 18.25
The panel noted that this is a purpose-built varmint rifle made with very high quality components, and with a price to match. With its varmint-type stock, it is not intended to be a walk around rifle, even though it weighed in at less than ten pounds all up. Panel members shooting from the bench commented favourably on the raised comb Monte Carlo-style stock. The fatter front end allowed the rifle to sit very comfortably on the sandbags. The fluted Krieger button rifled barrel features an 11 degree target crown, and felt extremely smooth in the bore when cleaning took place. Krieger barrels have established a respected name in benchrest circles - the toughest accuracy school of all. All panel members liked the stock finish which was a spider web pattern over tan. Accuracy, as expected, was very good. The Winchester Supreme shot best in this rifle with groups well under the inch. No doubt serious varmint shooters who buy this rifle will only use hand loads to extract every bit of accuracy they can find. The trigger is fully adjustable, but panel members were comfortable with the five pound factory setting.

The review team

Brendan Atkinson - review chairman and technical advisor to Australian Shooter. Better known for benchrest achievements, Brendan is an active member of Hunting and Conservation Branch, and hunts on a weekly basis with both rifle and shotgun.

Tim Bannister - Executive Director of SSAA Publications, he is the originator of the Australian Shooter Official Firearm Reviews and is well versed in all forms of shooting and hunting. Tim is also a member of the SA Gun Club and SSAA’s SA Indoor Range.

David Hume - artist, photographer and shooter, David has had wide experience with a number of firearms. He has attended all reviews conducted by Australian Shooter and is a keen hunter of small game.

Kym Just - Kym is an Infantry Officer in the Army Reserve with the rank of Major. A shooter with 40 years’ experience, Kym’s expertise with the .223 was a welcome contribution to the review results.

Conclusions
All of the rifles tested were fine examples of current production, and were eminently suitable for Australian conditions.
In all contests there has to be a winner, but in this case there were no losers. With four people reviewing and marking, it was remarkable that the final scores revealed only two points between the highest and the lowest. As stated earlier, we divided the review into two categories. The results came out like this:
Less than $1500
Highest point scoring rifle - Browning A-Bolt II
Most accurate rifle - Weatherby Vanguard
Easiest to maintain - Ruger Mk II
More than $1500
Highest point scoring rifle - Sako 75 Varmint
Most accurate rifle - Remington 700 LTR
Easiest to maintain - Weatherby Accumark