July 18, 2017
A challenge to create one rifle that does everything took hold of me some time ago and tormented me during more than one sleepless night. Eventually, a set of parameters established themselves in my over-fertile imagination, and I defined the mythical rifle that might do everything as follows.
Bare rifle weight must be 6.5 pounds or less, so that once equipped with a capable long-range scope, sling, and full magazine it wouldn't tip the scales past 8.5 pounds, which is borderline too heavy for a kitted-out sheep rifle.
Accuracy capability must be consistently inside 0.5 MOA, which is much less common than the cyber-world would have one think, and accuracy must not degrade over a series of three consecutive three-shot groups without allowing the barrel to cool. Any point of impact shift is unacceptable.
As for the cartridge, it must have a high-BC bullet of moose adequate diameter and weight at respectable velocities, thus producing bona fide authority and minimal wind drift, all this without scorching the barrel inside of 2,500 rounds or kicking the stuffing out of me over long practice sessions. (This one ultimately proved to be the hardest criterion to satisfy.)
Here's a closer look at each of the three major criteria I used to build one rifle that does everything.
Although Jack O'Connor allegedly defined a mountain rifle — with scope — to weigh around 7.5 pounds, he was dealing with a different breed of optic than we have today. Typically of fixed magnification, riflescopes of his day were simple 1-inch tubes with few moving parts and fewer lenses. Inside 300 or even 400 yards, they served adequately.
However, in order to achieve the "long-range competition-capable" part of this project, a serious scope is necessary. Serious scopes, like quality camera lenses, are weighty. You simply cannot produce a superb optic with zoom, extensive elevation adjustment, parallax adjustment, and top-shelf glass without incurring weight.
Instead of defining scoped sheep-rifle weight as 7.5 pounds, a naked rifle weight of 6.5 pounds — which is about what one of O'Connor's rifles would have weighed bare — seemed appropriate. A bit more heft in the riflescope was a necessary evil.
At first I was inclined to use a custom titanium action and have Steve Pratt of Elk Meadow Performance build the rifle. However, Pratt cautioned that titanium tends to gall if too much grit or crud gets into the locking lugs. Knowing that I'd be using the rifle in various challenging environments from the desert Southwest to high alpine mountains, I decided to man up and carry the weight of steel.
Paired with a mountain-weight barrel and carbon-fiber stock, the rifle should come in at between 5.75 and 6.5 pounds, depending on action length.
Long-Range Competition Capable
Although many sheep rifles fitted with ultra-slim barrels are superbly accurate over three shots, they do not hold that accuracy over 10 consecutive shots. As a result, while they are very capable in their intended realm, they don't qualify for competitive shooting wherein extended-string accuracy and minimal point of impact shift are imperative.
Only one barrel type that I'm aware of is both sheep-rifle light and competition capable, and that's a properly constructed, carbon-fiber-wrapped barrel. No company builds such barrels better than Proof Research. Although expensive by typical match-barrel standards, the company's carbon-fiber wrapped barrels offer honest mountain-rifle weight combined with exceptional accuracy. Best of all, the barrels hold their accuracy over extended shot strings and typically have no discernible point of impact shift. As a plus, the carbon-fiber wrapping seems to dampen vibration, making for a very forgiving barrel.
To offer the consistent accuracy necessary to successfully compete in long-range disciplines, a premium, perfectly true action was called for. While I've had outstanding luck with actions by Nesika Bay, Stiller, and others, my personal favorites are made by Defiance.
Although I'd like to take credit for creating a rifle type that satisfies the criteria outlined here, I can't. All I can claim is the concept of chambering such a rifle for a cartridge both moose-worthy and competition-appropriate and pressing it into service as a long-range cross-country match rifle. Chris Polley of Proof Research happened to hand me one of the company's Summit model rifles while visiting at a tradeshow. Base suggested retail is a shocking $6,300, but it's superbly built using a private-label Defiance action, Proof Research carbon-fiber-wrapped barrel, and proprietary superlight carbon-fiber stock, and it weighs between 6.0 and 6.8 pounds depending on caliber. Both deflated and elated, I realized that all I had to do was pick the right cartridge and put a Summit to work.
Aside from the cartridge (which I'll get to shortly), the last piece of the puzzle was an appropriate scope. Of the many fine long-range optics available, Leupold's VX-6 3-18X is the lightest scope (19 ounces) that offers the features critical to serious long-range shooting. At the time when I made the decision on the VX-6, the only limiting factor was the elevation turret, which only allowed one full rotation (20 MOA) when the zero stop was installed.
Leupold's custom shop installed a dual-rotation turret with both zero stop and zero lock, solving the issue; installed a capable MOA reticle; and Cerakoted the scope Tungsten Gray to match the Summit rifle. Optically speaking, I was in business.
From the start, the notion of a 7mm cartridge with the ballistics and long life of the 6.5 Creedmoor kept popping up like one of those trick birthday candles that won't stay blown out. Why not just use the outstanding, proven Creedmoor and be done with it? Had it not been for the "moose-capable" criterion, I would have. Yes, Scandinavian hunters have laid Nordic bulls low with the similarly performing 6.5x55 from time immemorial, but those are a smaller subspecies than North America's Alaska-Yukon moose. While possible, it's not ideal.
Fired at 2,700 fps, a high-BC 7mm bullet of at least 160 grains would provide wind drift and drop similar to a 140-grain 6.5mm projectile fired from the Creedmoor, with added frontal diameter, mass, and energy. While not exactly a fire-breather, such a cartridge qualifies comfortably as moose-capable. Importantly, barrel life would be high and recoil would be low. Mike Degerness of Proof Research exhorted me to come to my senses and go with the .280 Ackley Improved.
I considered the 7mm-08, 7mm-08 Improved, .284 Winchester, 7mm SAUM, and various short-action wildcat cartridges that would allow me to keep weight to a minimum and still make the moose-terminating grade. Each was discarded for one reason or another. Eventually, Hornady's Joe Theilen — who competes in 1,000-yard benchrest disciplines with his .280 Ackley Improved — helped me see the light, touting outstanding barrel life coupled with above-par ballistics. Plus, in a pinch I could use standard .280 Remington ammo in the Improved chamber.
With a salute to Degerness's foresight, I put in an order for a Summit chambered in .280 Ackley Improved. For readers unfamiliar with the cartridge, it is simply the .280 Remington that's had its shoulder angle and body taper "blown out" to increase internal capacity. Without doubt, it's P.O. Ackley's most popular Improved cartridge, holding the honor of being the only one ever legitimized by a major ammo company.
Today, loaded ammunition and new brass are available from Nosler. In performance, the .280 Ackley Improved typically adds 100 to 150 fps to standard .280 Rem. velocities and nips at the heels of the 7mm Remington Magnum. Best of all, it achieves this efficiently by burning considerably less powder and generating less recoil than the 7mm Rem. Mag.
The downside? It's a standard-length cartridge, so I had to accept more weight than I'd originally hoped. Plus, while barrel life is good, usually somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 rounds depending on how aggressively the shooter pushes his handloads, it's no .308 Winchester or 6.5 Creedmoor in terms of barrel life.
Proving the Project
With the 3-18X 44mm Leupold custom VX-6 scope mounted in Talley lightweight one-piece mounts, the Summit rifle in .280 Ackley Improved weighs 7 pounds, 15 ounces — lighter than I had hoped. Even at 10,100 feet elevation, which is as high as I've hunted with the rifle, it's not burdensome, yet I can lie down, rest the rifle over my daypack, and hit deer-vital-size targets to a half-mile with confidence (although I don't promote shooting game at such distances).
To try out the rifle in competition, I ran the 2016 Vortex Extreme Challenge, a 7.5-mile cross-country race with targets to 1,200 yards. Team partner Paul Dallin and I scored high in pure shooting results and respectably overall. I'm not a fast runner, but that's no fault of the rifle.
No moose or bison tags have shown up in my mailbox, so the rifle's authority on North America's biggest hooved game remains theoretical. However, it's doubtful that any astute hunter would challenge the moose-dropping effectiveness of a well-constructed 175-grain 7mm bullet launched at 2,800 fps, which produces close to 3,050 ft-lbs of muzzle energy.
Initially, I intended to shoot Hornady's 162-grain ELD Match bullet in competition and switch to the same-weight ELD-X version for hunting. Unfortunately, the rifle simply didn't give spectacular accuracy with them. Don't get me wrong; accuracy wasn't bad, regularly less than 1 MOA, but even with extensive load development it didn't offer the sub-0.5-MOA accuracy necessary for competition shooting. Nor did the 175- grain version of the ELD-X, even using same-lot bullets that reliably produce bug-cluster groups in my custom 7mm Weatherby Magnum rifle.
With the Vortex Extreme Challenge fast approaching, I loaded 10 test rounds with Berger's 168-grain VLD Hunting bullet, and voilÃ the rifle averaged 0.4 inch over a series of consecutive three-shot groups. Hot-barrel testing proved the load was consistent and the rifle tremendously accurate.
With the competition completed using the Berger load, I returned to searching for a super-accurate handload with the Hornady ELD-X line. No dice. Accurate? Yes. Super-accurate? No. I ran inspiringly tiny control groups with the Berger load, then tried Barnes's 168-grain LRX, a fantastic hunting bullet that I've seen take a splendid assortment of African plains game. The resulting accuracy was 0.75 MOA, which is definitely plenty good for hunting, but vague pressure signs accompanied the accuracy node I found via ladder tests. Nonplussed, I turned back to the Berger load.
Hunting with match bullets — including Berger's hunting-branded VLD, which originally began life as a match bullet — is something I've always avoided. I like deep wound channels, not to mention the generous blood trails provided by exit holes. However, I was driving the 168-grain VLD Hunting bullet at 2,835 fps, not the 3,200 fps that sometimes causes such bullets to behave like a fragmenting varmint bullet and fail to adequately penetrate vitals. I took the Berger bullet hunting.
Leupold's custom shop engraved a turret calibrated for the Berger load, marked in yards to 1,150 on the circumference and — to my specifications — with an MOA scale around the top edge. The latter enabled me to run updated ballistic calculations and dial in MOA should I end up shooting in atmospheric conditions vastly different from the 6,000 feet elevation and 50-degree temperature the turret was calculated at.
Before opening day of Utah's spike bull elk season, Dallin and I checked our zeros, and just for fun, I took two shots at 1,100 yards. Both impacted inside the 6-inch black dot spray painted in the steel target's center.
My opportunity to take a young bull elk came at about 6,000 feet on a balmy October morning — calibrated, almost, for the scope's turret. With only seconds to shoot, I ranged the bull at 472 yards, dialed the turret, snugged up behind the Summit rifle, and put a bullet precisely through the quartering-away bull's boiler room. Elk don't typically react much to getting shot, but this one shuddered, staggered backward, and toppled in less time than it takes to tell.
An informal autopsy later revealed that the Berger scrambled both lungs and the arteries at the top of the heart before exiting the point of the offside shoulder. Estimated impact velocity was about 2,265 fps, which clearly caused the Berger to expand dramatically but didn't stress it into complete fragmentation.
A month later my wife and I hauled the family south to fill her Utah mule deer tag. Jenna had never fired the Summit rifle, so we pulled off on public land to allow her to get acquainted with it. Recoil, with a SilencerCo Harvester suppressor attached, is mild. Lacking a close-range target, Jenna dialed to 460 yards and centerpunched a small rock. A similar result at 780 yards and she was sold on the rifle.
Jenna's opportunity came close, so close that she fired offhand and absolutely poleaxed the buck at 55 yards. Impact velocity with the Berger was about 2,775 fps, and the fragmenting bullet destroyed a considerable amount of meat. However, there's no arguing with the quick, clean kill.
Determined to work up a moose-capable hunting load, I later circled the handloading wagons back to the Barnes 168-grain LRX bullet, trying different powders and seating depths I struck gold, settling on a charge of 59.0 grains of IMR 7828, which produced 2,903 fps and average groups of 0.45 inch. Armed with the two handloads — the Berger for use in competition and on game up through small to medium elk and the Barnes for mature, heavy-boned, and densely muscled bull elk, moose, and bison — I'm well equipped for darn near anything.
One Rifle for Everything
Before this project, using just one rifle for every task had become a pretty obscure concept to me. Now, aside from the AR-15 I keep handy for personal protection, the Summit is the rifle I reach for most. I've competed with it, hunted with it, and helped new shooters ring faraway targets with it.
At one point my six-year-old son laid down behind it for his first-ever shot with a centerfire rifle. Homing in on the 600- yard plate, he squeezed the trigger and absolutely centered the 4-inch black dot.
It's safe to say this rifle will become a family heirloom.