November 07, 2019
Some time ago, while lugging my 18-pound PRS competition rifle between stages, I glanced longingly up at the Wasatch Mountains peaks above me and wondered if I could ever develop the same level of competence with a hunting rifle as I have with my competition gun.
The idea stuck with me. Eventually, I decided it not only was possible, but also was a concept worth pursuing. It would require a very special lightweight version of a PRS rifle. By regularly competing with such a rifle, I would build unprecedented capability with it.
Imagine how deadly a hunter could be with a lightweight bolt-action rifle capable of maintaining sub-half-MOA accuracy over 10-round strings—a rifle optimized for practical precision from field positions, one that a fella had shot hundreds or thousands of rounds through in high-pressure competitions. And think of the adaptability ingrained by the vast spectrum of target distances and improvised shooting positions common to PRS matches.
In the field, struggling to find the animal in the scope at the moment of truth is commonly the number one reason for failing to cash in a shot opportunity. PRS-type matches teach shooters to acquire a target, shoot, acquire another, shoot again—up to five different targets per two-minute, 10-shot stage. What could be better practice than that?
Another challenge while hunting is the struggle to get steady when laboring against a tsunami of adrenaline, with just brief seconds before the opportunity is gone. The dynamic stages of PRS competition require the shooter to improvise a position, shoot, move to another position, shoot again, and so on. Logs, fences, tripods, boulders, stumps, trees, and other naturally occurring supports are often incorporated. Some stages are shot from very steep slopes. Nothing teaches the ability to read local terrain and use it quickly to achieve a stable position as effectively as PRS shooting.
In the West, a third dynamic often comes into play and puts the kibosh on hunter success. Distance. Sometimes even when you stalk as close as possible, that’s still 300 or 400 yards from your quarry. Vast canyons, knife-edged ridges, and gnarly country cut by cliffs and basins often dictate long shots. Most PRS matches include several long-distance stages, sometimes stretching as far as 1,400 yards, and most stages include at least one target between 400 and 800 yards. This forces you to test, validate, and become very familiar with your rifle and your load’s long-distance trajectory.
When you—as a competitor—learn to achieve high hit rates on vital-size steel gongs from 400 to 800 yards, you become very capable and confident when firing at big game even at long hunting distances. I’m not a proponent of long-range hunting, but I know guys that are more ethically capable of center-punching a buck at 500 yards than most folks are at 250 yards because they practice constantly.
While conceptualizing my ideal PRS/hunting rifle, I knew it had to be superbly accurate, and it had to hold that accuracy over a 10-round string, exhibiting neither point of impact shift nor loss of precision as the barrel heated. Therefore, a 10-round detachable magazine was necessary. A good trigger and ergonomic stock were givens. And it had to be lightweight enough to comfortably pack up and down mountains.
“Comfortably” is relative. Common sense dictates no 5-pound ultralight sheep rifle is capable of the hot-barrel accuracy necessary or possesses the ergonomics and stability needed to make precision long-range shots from hastily improvised field positions. I figured a rifle in the 6.5- to 7.5-pound range mounted with a precision scope that was lightweight but capable was the best bet.
Cartridge choice was a critical decision, but it wasn’t difficult. I chose the 6.5 Creedmoor. It offers tremendous accuracy and long barrel life, and it hammers PRS steel targets with noticeable effect. Most importantly, it’s an extremely capable hunting cartridge, ideal for deer-size game, versatile enough for elk, and deadly on predators.
Premium, specialized parts, assembled by a savvy gunsmith renowned for perfection, were called for. I’ve called on Steve Pratt, owner of Elk Meadow Performance, for several rifle-build projects in the past. He’s a wizard, and precision accuracy is his specialty.
Picking components took some head scratching, but as with any custom project, that’s one of the most enjoyable parts. Most critical was the barrel. As far as I know, only one company builds barrels that are light like a mountain-contour tube but consistently accurate like a benchrest barrel, and that’s Proof Research.
Starting with a slender 416R stainless-steel core that’s been cut-rifled, handlapped, and borescope-inspected, Proof wraps on carbon fiber that shunts heat—via photon transport—from the hot spot in front of the chamber down the length of the barrel. This results in efficient cooling. Plus, the fiber is laminated on via an aerospace resin with superior thermal conductivity and an expansion rate that plays nice with the expansion rate of steel, meaning no separations between core and carbon fiber. While not quite as lightweight as a true mountain rifle barrel, the result is a very light, very accurate barrel that maintains accuracy and point of impact even over fast 10-round shot strings.
Additionally, that carbon-fiber wrap has a positive effect on barrel harmonics, taming them. These barrels are forgiving about load selection and tend to shoot most factory ammo and handloads somewhere between well and superbly. Barrel oscillation is minimized, and accuracy nodes are maximized. The fact that Proof’s carbon fiber “is 10 times stronger than stainless steel and has a specific stiffness nearly six times greater” probably has something to do with this.
One other trait bears mentioning. Proof’s bores are so smooth that barrel break-in is typically very easy, and copper fouling tends to be minimal. This eliminates the need for frequent cleaning and also makes that cleaning easy.
By the way, because Proof’s barrels are in extreme demand, if you want a common length and rifling twist rate, I recommend you purchase your Proof barrel from Stocky’s (stockysstocks.com), a gunstock specialist that keeps a broad selection of barrels on hand.
Many premium rifle actions would have worked for this project, but I picked Defiance Machine because I’ve had such stellar luck with its products. I considered a titanium action, but after conversations with a few specialists that cautioned me about the malleable “coining” nature of titanium, I concluded that for a high-round-count rifle, steel was a more practical choice.
Defiance’s Mike Lee helped me iron out the action specifics. While the Deviant Ultralight offers the lightest weight, to maximize action stiffness and favor accuracy, I opted for the Deviant Hunter, which has an action-stiffening bridge between the integral, 20-MOA cross-slot bases.
I took Lee’s suggestion to have the action cut for AIAW-type magazines as well as the more common AICS design. AIAW mags house cartridges in a staggered column, so they’re shorter than same-capacity AICS versions.
I added black Ion Bond atop extra polishing. Ion Bond is extremely corrosion and wear resistant, and when combined with the polishing, makes for very smooth bolt travel.
A Timney Calvin Elite trigger completed the action. At Lee’s suggestion, I ordered APA’s RTG bottom metal. Not only does the APA metal have streamlined contours, but also the magazine latch is concealed within the front of the trigger bow. It’s a design that won’t snag and is almost impossible to bump, accidentally dropping the magazine.
I pored over stocks by Manners, McMillan, and other manufacturers and finally chose McMillan’s outstanding Game Warden with lightweight EDGE technology, a Decelerator recoil pad, QD sling cups, and a short section of 1913 rail on the fore-end for mounting a bipod.
Also, I had Pratt install his outstanding titanium muzzle brake to the 24-inch barrel and then apply Cerakote to all the unfinished metal parts to match the black Ion Bond of the action. His partner Roland Black tuned the trigger and bedded the action and bottom metal, finessing it until every AICS- and AIAW-type magazine I could get my hands on feeds rounds smoothly and reliably.
Once I had completed the barrel break-in, I set to shooting groups. To test hot-barrel accuracy, I fired several consecutive three-shot groups with various handloads, without allowing the barrel to cool. Group size did not open up, and point of impact did not shift. With loads it likes, the rifle proved to be a reliable sub-half-MOA shooter. To my great delight, out of 13 factory loads and 16 handloads tested, not one averaged more than 1 MOA. Overall accuracy averaged 0.64 inch with the factory ammo and 0.53 inch with the handloads.
At my first proper match—the NRL’s Dog Valley two-day shoot in Utah—I used Barnes Precision Match 140-grain MatchBurner factory ammo. Look at the accuracy chart and you’ll know why. I gradually improved as I got a feel for the rifle and aced four of 10 stages the second day.
By the end of that first big match, I’d become entirely comfortable and competitive with the rifle. I confess I thought the transition would be harder.
I haven’t been able to hunt with my lightweight PRS rifle yet. But I have no qualms about the 6.5 Creedmoor cartridge’s effectiveness or about the rifle’s accuracy, reliability, and usefulness in the field.