A question of accuracy, the tale of three .223s

John Hill


If a shooter intends buying a really accurate rifle they usually end up with something heavy-barrelled and weighing 6kg or more, while the addition of a high-magnification scope increases the weight (and price) further. Yet weight’s an advantage when it comes to accuracy and a heavy-barrelled rifle will perform well when fired from a shooting bench with support of a few sandbags – such a rifle should have the potential for groups of ½ MOA at 100m on a regular basis. You only have to visit a SSAA rifle range on a general practice day to realise heavy-barrelled rifles in various calibres are a popular choice.

I’ve owned a few heavies which over time have found new owners. Heavy rifles and increasing age are a poor combination and my rifles are now much lighter. For most of my life I’ve been a small-game hunter more than a dedicated target shooter, so why carry a rifle weighing twice as much as something far more practical in the field? A small-game hunter is better off with an accurate, lightweight rifle more suited to hunting on foot, as carrying a backpack and half-a-dozen rabbits is enough without a heavy rifle adding to the burden.

During the past 10 years I’ve bought three light-barrelled rifles chambered for the popular .223 Remington cartridge – a Stevens 200, Tikka T3 Lite and Savage Weather Warrior – light-barrelled, synthetic stocked hunting rifles with the Savage weighing about half a kilo more than the others. Even at 4kg (8.75lb) total weight the Savage can still be considered a relatively light rifle, though as far as I’m concerned it’s heavy enough. Other lightweights in my gun safe are a Martini at 3kg (6.6lb), Brno .22 Hornet at 3.2kg (7lb) and a few others of similar weight.

In this modern era, mass production manufacturing techniques have been perfected to such an extent even relatively cheap firearms shoot well. Rifles like the Stevens 200 (the cheapest bolt-action centrefire that could be bought at the time) shot just as accurately as those twice the price. With the proper handloads the old Stevens regularly shot sub-MOA and has put in many a 5-shot group that would please the most fastidious of shooters. The Stevens may have been a budget-price rifle but no-one could question its accuracy.

One of the reasons for buying the Stevens was I was after something different, though there were a few negative aspects with this rifle – awkward magazine loading, flexing in the fore-end and a creepy and unbelievably heavy trigger. Yet the rifle shot well after some of these issues were addressed, especially the trigger.

Much the same can be said about the blued synthetic Tikka T3 Lite and while it cost a few hundred dollars more than the Stevens it shot just as well and is also a sub-MOA rifle. Yet the Tikka had a couple of aspects I didn’t like, the plastic magazine for one and the synthetic stock lacked ‘grip’ around the pistol grip and fore-end. The Tikka was also reluctant to chamber single rounds, otherwise it was an accurate and well-made rifle (don’t confuse it with the later-model T3X).

Which brings me to my latest acquisition, the Savage Weather Warrior, a stainless synthetic with Accustock and Accutrigger. Most shooters would be familiar with the Accutrigger by now but the Accustock may need some clarification. The Savage Accustock contains an aluminium bedding insert moulded into the stock and is designed to bed the action in a positive manner while leaving the barrel fully floating. This aluminium insert extends up into the fore-end making it ridged, whereas some synthetic stocks are inclined to be too flexible up front. I like my rifles well-bedded with fully floating barrels as that formula’s as good as any when it comes to consistent accuracy – gone are the days when rifle barrels were carefully bedded into the stock.

The stock on the Savage also has moulded chequering around the pistol grip and fore-end which offers surprisingly good grip. Furthermore, the rifle’s removable steel magazine appears to be far more robust than one made of plastic. Unfortunately the Savage cost almost as much as the other two combined, the rifle being stainless and fitted with an Accustock obviously pushing the price up significantly.

While all my .223s have regularly grouped sub-MOA the .223 Remington cartridge also deserves credit. Firing a 55-grain bullet at 3300fps almost guarantees good accuracy at medium ranges out to 200m. Bullets, once they leave the muzzle of a rifle, are subjected to both wind and gravity and the faster they travel the less time exterior forces have to influence their flight path to the target. While the .223 is by no means a super-fast cartridge it’s a good compromise between cost (ammunition and barrel life) and performance.

The .223 has proved to be an accurate and useful cartridge and during the past 30 years or so has become a popular choice and will remain so, one reason being it covers both small and medium-game hunting reasonably well. Any cartridge smaller than the .223 is inclined to be a bit inadequate on medium-size game.

Real accuracy doesn’t just happen, it’s a combination of things. Careful bedding, a fully floating precision-made barrel, a light creep-free trigger, quality optics, compatible ammunition, a sturdy shooting bench with sandbags, good weather along with the shooter’s keen eye and steady hand. As the best of rifles are unlikely to shoot well with budget priced ammunition, most target shooters handload using the best components.

That’s my approach to handloading and possibly one of the reasons my light-barrelled rifles shoot so well. Each one of them has put in the odd half-minute group but that doesn’t mean they’re genuine half-minute rifles. The difference between a good lightweight hunting rifle and purpose-built target one is the target rifle’s capable of shooting smaller groups more often, though it’s unfair to compare as they’re designed for different purposes.

There’s one particular load which has shot well in all three of my .223s yet in theory it shouldn’t. It’s loaded with the Hornady 40-grain boat-tailed V-Max, a short bullet which leaves the muzzle at 3400fps and the unusual aspect is this bullet has around a 4mm ‘jump’ to the rifling lands. Because the bullet is short and boat-tailed it actually leaves the case neck before entering the rifling, yet despite these unfavourable conditions the 40-grain V-Max shoots better than you’d expect.

Other bullets also shot sub-MOA in my .223 rifles – the 52-grain Sierra, 52-grain Speer, 53-grain V-Max and 55-grain Nosler all putting in good performances. It’s only by firing at least four 5-shot groups and averaging the results these quality bullets can be graded in order of excellence. When comparing the accuracy of different bullets by group shooting, many groups should be fired and the shooter must be competent and not pull any shots.

Some competitions, namely benchrest, can be won or lost by the thickness of a hair and hefty, super-accurate rifles must be used for this discipline. Benchrest rifles are often custom-built with no expense spared in their preparation, yet when it comes to accuracy, most light-barrelled sporting rifles are good value for money compared to what a benchrest rifle can cost. Many sporters are capable of shooting ½ MOA but to improve on this, extraordinary amounts of money must be spent on the rifle, scope and reloading equipment.

While the rifles mentioned cover a wide price bracket from cheap to moderately expensive, they all shot sub-MOA out at the target – and that’s where it matters. The three .223s I bought proved to be outstandingly accurate rifles though one (the cheapest) needed lots of help in the trigger department. Based on their accuracy alone I’d no trouble finding new owners for the first two.

So I ended up with the Savage Weather Warrior and it seems to fulfil what I like in a small-game hunting firearm. It’s a good, practical rifle and being a stainless synthetic makes it the ideal combination for hunting in the wet. It’s also heavier than the others which makes it that bit steadier when shooting off a bench. A knowledgeable shooter from the distant past once said: “Only accurate rifles are interesting.” I’d have to agree but might add: “Some rifles are more interesting than others.” I find my level of interest in the stainless Weather Warrior far exceeds what I had in the Stevens as while both shot accurately, one has a touch more class.

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