January 03, 2011
Our Technical Editor says short-barreled rifles are more accurate than their longer barreled brothers. And to prove his point, he uses Ruger's Compact series of bolt guns.
Ruger Model 77 Mark II Frontier
I have a fondness for firearms that are lightweight and handy. My preferred bolt-action hunting rifles have always been guns like the Winchester Model 70 Featherweight, the 20-inch Ruger Ultra Light, and the original 18.5-inch Remington Model Seven. Now Ruger has gone a step further and given me a gun I like even better: the new 16.5-inch-barreled Ruger Model 77 Mark II Frontier and Compact family.
It used to be that carrying a smaller, lighter weight rifle meant you had to make a tradeoff of something in comparison to full-sized guns--either accuracy or power or range (or all three). Today, thanks to improvements in firearms manufacture quality control and advances in ammunition technology, lightweight short-barrel rifles can fire cartridges with every bit as much performance as the biggest and heaviest rifles. The simple fact is that short rifles are easier to carry and handle, faster, more maneuverable, and more accurate across the board than their longer brothers. Yes, I said "more accurate." And I mean it.
Here's the deal. All other things being equal--and by that I mean equally well-specced chamber and bore, equally well-bedded action and barrel, equally clean and crisp trigger, and equal barrel weight/diameter profile--a shorter barrel shoots tighter groups than a longer barrel. The reason is simple.
A shorter barrel is stiffer than a longer barrel. It doesn't flex, writhe, or vibrate as much as a longer barrel when the bullet is passing down the bore. It is less affected by disharmonic resonance. It is, simply, inherently more accurate. The only way to make a long-barreled gun as accurate as a short-barreled gun is to make it equally stable--either by making it fatter (and heavier) or by installing some type of harmonic tuning device, like the superbly engineered Browning A-Bolt BOSS system.
The Compact and Frontier models of Ruger's bolt gun are chambered for short-action cartridges. (From Left to right) .223 Rem., .243 Win., .260 Rem., 7mm-08, .308 Win.
Many shooters don't understand the main reason long-barreled varmint rifles are fat is not to absorb heat--it's to make them stiff. Hence the increasing popularity these days of shorter, lighter "walking varmint rifles." Shooters are finally waking up to the fact that a good short, slim barrel is just as accurate as a long, fat barrel and a whole lot easier to pack around. I first realized all this in a moment of amazed delight about 25 years ago, the first time I ever fired a 15-inch box-stock Remington XP-100 pistol chambered for 7mmBR at a 200-meter target.
Three shots went 5/8 inch. My best varmint rifle was not that good with my best handloads. After a patient design engineer explained to me what was going on, I became an instant believer in short-barrel ballistics. That's probably why I went on to spend two decades as Shooting Times's Handgun Editor hunting with XP-100s, T/C Contenders and Encores, and Savage Strikers. (Long-barrel revolvers, too; same principle works there.)
There are some caveats, of course. One is projectile velocity. Individual bullets have an optimal velocity range and rate of spin, a "sweet spot" where their particular weight, configuration, and ballistic characteristics provide the most stable and consistent flight characteristics. Cartridges also require sufficient bore length for consistent round-to-round ignition, depending on their propellant burn rate. These things vary load to load, and if a barrel is too short bullet velocity will vary widely shot to shot, the bullet may not properly stabilize, and it may not provide the desired impact effect on the target. In general, long-action cartridges require somewhat longer barrels to optimize than do short-action cartridges.
Heat can also be a factor. In heavy-fire situations a light, short barrel gets hotter faster than a long, heavy barrel, and point of impact may wander from your original zero point. In practical terms, however, this is a real-world factor only in an all-day prairie dog shoot or long rapid-fire match competition, and a long barrel can in fact drift more than a short barrel when it finally does heat up simply because it is longer. So there's also a sweet spot in barrel configuration, a correct length/weight balance for the cartridge being fired, and the use for which the rifle is designed. In general, that sweet spot is a lot shorter and lighter than most shooters think. With that in mind, let's look at the performance of the short Ruger Model 77 Mark II Frontier and Compact families. How close are they to the sweet spot? Short answer: right there.
The length of pull on the Ruger Compact Model 77 is a half-inch less than for the standard Model 77.
Advantages Of A Scout-Style Rifle
Both the Ruger Compact and Frontier series are configured basically the same, with 16.5-inch barrels and one-piece stocks that provide a half-inch shorter pull and a shorter forend than standard Model 77s. Total stock length is 5.25 inches shorter than a standard Model 77 stock. Overall Compact/Frontier length is just 35.5 inches. Depending on stock material, their weight runs from 5.75 to 6.75 pounds.
All typical Model 77 features are present in the new guns, including a diagonal front-screw bedding system to firmly anchor the receiver into the stock inletting, a one-piece bolt with nonrotating, Mauser-type controlled-feed extractor, and a fixed blade-type ejector that positively ejects the empty cases as the bolt is moved fully rearward. Both series feature Ruger's patented floorplate latch, mounted flush with the front of the trigger guard, to secure the hinged floorplate against accidental dumping of cartridges yet allow quick unloading of the magazine by simply pressing from the outside of the guard. An easily accessible Mauser-type three-position safety allows the shooter to lock the bolt, or to load and unload, with the safety engaged.
The Model 77 Compact version is set up in typical Model 77 form with integral mounting dovetails on the receiver for Ruger's patented scope rings (included) and no metallic sights. Stock and finish options include blued steel with American walnut stock or stainless steel with black laminate stock. Model 77 Compact rifles are curr
ently available in .223 Remington, .243 Winchester, .260 Remington, 7mm-08 Remington, and .308 Winchester.
A Weaver mount adapter comes standard with the Frontier versions, and it allows the use of non-Ruger rings to barrel-mount different optic types "scout" style.
The Model 77 Frontier series is basically the same, but with the addition of a 6.625-inch "scout rifle" barrel-mounted rib that accepts Ruger scope rings or a Weaver-style scope base adapter, both included at no extra charge. The receiver mount dovetails are still there on the Frontier models as well, so you have the option of either receiver-mounting or barrel-mounting your optics. Stock and finish options for the Frontier series include blued steel with black laminate stock or stainless-steel Target Grey finish with black laminate stock. The Frontier rifles are available in .243 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington, and .308 Winchester.
Of the two, I much prefer the Frontier setup, because of its additional sighting options. With the Weaver-type base adapter attached to the barrel rib, you can use quick-detach rings to instantly switch between, say, a fast both-eyes-open electronic dot sight or long-eye-relief scope depending on your hunting/shooting situation and personal preferences. Or you can mount a conventional eye-relief riflescope on the receiver with the Ruger dovetail rings. Since the primary benefit of a short "scout-rifle" design is handling speed, I'm a strong advocate of the forward-mounted sight and both-eyes-open aiming with the Frontier. Most shooters squint or close their nonaiming eye when looking through a riflescope; both eyes open is much more effective. It only takes a very short amount of time to get the knack for it--a half-hour's practice snapping quick-acquisition dry fires at a practice target. And once you do you immediately notice that you've become aware of all sorts of things through your other eye that you'd otherwise miss.
When hunting, this is a great advantage, particularly with a forward-mount scope. Out on the barrel, the scope does not block as much of your vision with the nonaiming eye and is very fast to get on target. Just fix on the target with both eyes open and bring the rifle up to the shoulder. Don't move your eye to the scope lens to try to find the target, keep your gaze steady on your quarry, and let its image just "appear" in front of your eye through the sight as you raise it into your line of sight.
In just a few tries you will naturally align the sight, and you'll be far more aware of your surroundings and what your quarry is doing than when your vision was restricted to the scope's field of view with just one eye. Play with it a little bit. You'll see what I mean. Once you get used to a forward-mounted scope you'll be hard put to go back to any other setup for close-in, fast-shot hunting, and you'll find yourself keeping both eyes open even when using conventional receiver-mount riflescopes for long-range high-magnification shots.
Plus, with the Model 77 Frontier's scope on the barrel, it's completely clear of the rifle's ejection port, so you have zero problems with the sight interfering with case ejection. Also, you have instant total access to the port for loading. You don't have to fumble under the scope with gloved fingers to insert cartridges into the magazine, and you can see openly down into the magazine. Add these features to the shorter buttstock of the Frontier and Compact versions, and you have an overall package that won't snag, drag, or get tangled up with your packstrap or a bulky hunting coat when you need to shoulder it in a hurry.
|SHOOTING RUGER's 7mm-08 MODEL 77 MARK II COMPACT
|STANDARD DEVIATION (fps)
|200-METER ACCURACY (inches)
|Remington 120-gr. HP
|Federal Hornady 139-gr. SST
|Hornady 139-gr. SP Light Mag.
|Federal 140-gr. Nosler AccuBond
|Remington 140-gr. AccuTip
|Winchester 140-gr. Ballistic Silvertip
|Winchester 140-gr. Power-Point
|Speer 150-gr. Hot-Cor SP
|Accuracy is the average of five three-shot groups fired from a sandbag benchrest at the range specified. Velocity is the average of five rounds measured 10 feet from the gun's muzzle
I've never handled faster pointing rifles than these short new Rugers.
Short Barrel, Long Reach
Now, how about ballistic performance? The "standard" barrel length for most bolt-action hunting rifles is 24 inches, which is the most common barrel length ammunition manufacturers employ to establish the nominal ballistics for centerfire rifle ballistics. The 16.5-inch Compact and Frontier rifles are 31 percent shorter. How much does that reduce their ballistic performance? Another short answer: not enough to even consider.
For example, the nominal manufacturer's velocity specification for Winchester's Supreme 7mm-08 140-grain Ballistic Silvertip load through a 24-inch test barrel is 2770 fps. I chronographed that load through my review sample 16.5-inch 7mm-08 Ruger Model 77 Compact; the re
sult was an average 2647 fps. That is 95.5 percent of the nominal velocity. And the standard deviation round to round in that average was only 10 fps. In other words, the performance of that ammunition in the short 16.5-inch Ruger Compact is essentially dead center of the optimal performance specification both for the bullet's ballistic characteristics and for the ignition consistency of the cartridge. The same holds true for the other chamberings currently available in the Model 77 Compact and Frontier.
This might not have been true about shooting centerfire rifle ammunition in short barrels only a few years back. But today ammunition manufacturers employ advanced propellants that allow much faster ignition at much lower pressures than previously so that bullets get up to their specced velocities in less length of bore with less pressure and more consistent propellant burn than was formerly the case. This is the main reason we are seeing so many shorter new rifle models in ever-more-powerful chamberings from so many rifle manufacturers these days.
As for the accuracy of the Ruger Compact and Frontier models, the ballistics should tell you what to expect. Ruger Model 77s are already well-known to be exceptionally accurate with superbly specced chamber and bore characteristics.
Compared to the standard-size Model 77, the Compact version (R) is scaled-down both in stock configuration and barrel length, but it's just as effective in the hunting fields.
I set up the 7mm-08 Compact with a 6-24X varmint scope (looked funny, but I wanted maximum aiming precision) and fired a series of groups with eight different loads of commercial 7mm-08 ammunition at 100 and 200 meters. Individual loads varied--of course: all individual guns have individual tastes in loads--but the overall average for all combined was well under a minute of angle even at the longer distance (just like my old 15-inch XP-100 pistol). I'd have no hesitation taking a 300-yard shot with any of these little guns.
At the other extreme, last year I had the opportunity to hunt Sitka Blacktail deer with one of the new Frontier models in the rain forests of southeast Alaska. The terrain was literally a jungle, with steep slippery slopes and near-impenetrable tangled brush. Visibility was mostly measured in feet rather than yards. Other hunters were constantly fighting to drag their long-barreled rifles through the thickets.
My little Frontier handled like a dream. When a Blacktail buck suddenly appeared right in my face at only 20 yards in a rare small opening the gun was up and on my shoulder before I even had time to think about it, and he was on the ground in about five seconds total elapsed time. I'm probably going to wind up having one of every chambering Ruger offers in this series. I also want Ruger to offer the Frontier with some bigger-caliber cartridges like the new .338 Federal or even the classic .358 Winchester. They'd be perfect for working thick bush for bear or other dangerous or angry game.
Once you try these new little tools you'll never go back.