November 1999

Precision Rifle Test: One-Hole Marvels With “Tactical” Tags

Robar’s SR 90 drills ‘em in there, but so does the Autauga Tactical. The eardrum-thumping Dakota Longbow comes close in our evaluation, but doesn’t quite earn the cigar.

[IMGCAP(1)] The problem of reliably driving one bullet into the center of a target at long range has plagued riflemen ever since the first rifled arm was created. In the quest for this holy grail, thousands of shooters have fired millions of groups over the years, and from time to time these groups have achieved incredibility. Still, after generations of riflemen, the problem is still with us.

A group of products, generically called tactical rifles in their use by law enforcement and military sharpshooters, purports to solve this problem. Instead of tactical rifle, we prefer the moniker “precision rifle,” for such a firearm is built to put one or two shots—precisely—into a very small target at very long range. These precision tools are generally heavy-barreled scope-sighted bolt-action rifles with synthetic stocks, which themselves have adjustments for length of pull, buttpad position, and comb height. The rifle typically will have an optional bipod, adjustable target-type sling swivels, and whatever else the shooter thinks will aid his task.

Such a rifle is supposed to put its first shot into a specific small target, but sometimes more than one shot is called for. However, there are generally no groups involved, no averages; just one or two shots into the target(s). Perfection would be one-hole groups no matter the range, but no rifle ever made can do that. Still, many makers have taken up the task and produce rifles that if not perfect, come close to this ideal.

We recently tested three such products: the $5,200 Robar SR 90 and Autauga Tactical rifle ($3,200), both in .308, and the Dakota Longbow Tactical Engagement Rifle in .300 Dakota, $4,250. The Dakota came with proprietary ammunition handloaded and serial numbered to that particular rifle. All three rifles came in hard cases, scoped, sighted-in, and ready to go. They were all very heavy rifles, and had a severe, business-like look with no glossy surfaces anywhere. All the stocks were by McMillan, though the Robar’s was specially made for that company and was noticeably wider in the forend. It measured 2.5 inches wide compared with 1.8 inches for the Autauga and Dakota forends. The stocks all had moulded-in roughness in place of checkering on their flat-bottom forends and odd-shaped pistol grips. The shape of the McMillan pistol grip permits a low hand position that allows pressing the trigger exactly rearward.

Leupold scopes graced all three of our test rifles, and what a costly glass they were. They included the $1,736 Leupold Mark 4 M1-10x (Robar), the $1,027 4.5-14x Long-Range Tactical (Autauga), and the $1,736 Mark 4 M1-16X (Dakota). The scopes on the Robar and Autauga had the Mil-Dot reticle, which is a series of dots spaced along the crosshairs that can aid in determining range and in dialing in the correct lead for a moving target. The 16x on the Dakota had fine crosshairs and a very small dot. All had 30mm tubes wider than standard 1-inch scope-body dimensions, and attached with a half-inch wrench onto one-piece bases.

Click here to view the Accuracy and Chronograph Data

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Robar and Autauga used the excellent flip-up Butler Creek scope covers, and Robar installed the Leupold extension lens shade onto its scope.

Both the Autauga and Robar rifles were built around the Remington 700 BDL action, and retained the magazine and dropping floorplate features. The Dakota used its proprietary action, which is a close copy of the Winchester Model 70 with controlled feed, and had a blind magazine. Here’s how the guns performed.

Robar SR 90
Our recommendation: On average, with both Winchester and Federal Gold Medal match, the Robar could be relied on to put all of its shots from a slightly fouled barrel into half an inch or less. If you’re a professional law enforcement or military officer with long-range accuracy needs—or a consumer who loves precision riflework—this gun is worth examining.

Click here to view the Robar SR 90 features guide

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Easily the most attractive of the bunch, this $5,200 rifle (as equipped, including excise tax, hard carrying case, bipod, and a special price on the scope) had a quick-detachable $375 Parker Hale (English) bipod that is a mighty nice piece in itself. The bipod had quick-extendible legs that could be instantly folded. We liked the bipod for resting the rifle on the ground.

The .308-chambered SR 90 also had a detachable front sling block (which also held the bipod attach point) affixed into a channel under the forend. This permitted quick adjustments for the support-hand position when using a target-type rifle sling. We removed the bipod and sling attach point for our accuracy testing, so they wouldn’t interfere with our machine rest.

The 13.9-pound Robar (add 1.5 pounds for the bipod) was fitted with a fluted Lilja barrel. The rifle arrived at Gun Tests without the barrel having been broken in. The superb instruction manual that accompanied the rifle (see sidebar) gave detailed instructions how to break-in the barrel, and we followed the text religiously. This required 30 rounds. The manual also required the shooter to clean the barrel after no more than five shots, following the break-in period, and again we did just that. However, we found that placement of the first shot was not the same as the following four shots in our five-shot groups.

The metal of the SR 90 was finished in Robar’s proprietary dull black RoGuard. The bolt, magazine follower, floorplate release button, and many of the inner parts were finished in Robar’s Teflon-enhanced NP3 formula, an off-white electroless nickel finish. The bolt was extremely slick in the action, and anything plated in NP3 will never rust. The bolt lugs appeared to have full contact on their rear surfaces, as did the other two rifles.

The stock was painted dull black and nicely complemented the appearance of the metal work. The trigger pull was exceptionally clean, and broke at 2.5 pounds. The barrel was free-floated for its entire length. There was an enormous gap between the barrel and the wide, rounded forend, which gives more room for air to circulate around the flutes to help cool the barrel. The buttplate was adjustable for position, and had a thin black rubber recoil pad. As on the other two rifles, the adjustable cheek rest was locked in place by screws that could be installed from either side, making the rifle a bit easier to use by lefties.

The workmanship throughout the Robar rifle was absolutely first cabin. There were no shortcuts apparent anywhere. Even if this gun shot poorly—which it didn’t—we’d be proud to own it. The rifle performed perfectly in every respect.

Accuracy, of course, is what this rifle intends to deliver, and we found that it did its job well. Any good match ammunition performed admirably in the Robar rifle. We got the best results with Winchester Supreme ammunition, loaded with the Nosler 168-grain boattail match bullet. On one target four shots (after the fouler) went into 0.19 inch. To our disbelief, the Federal match ammunition gave a standard deviation of 5 fps in the Lilja barrel. We tried it again, and it again gave only 5 fps SD, with the average velocity only 2 fps different. It did not shoot that consistently in the Autauga.

Dakota Tactical .300 Dakota
Our recommendation: This rifle bore serial number 2, so we’d guess Dakota is in the process of ironing out some minor problems, and we look forward to testing another of their Tactical rifles in the future. They are willing to listen, which is greatly in their favor, and we believe they will succeed in their endeavor to produce a rifle that is in every way a pure winner. They’re almost there.

Click here to view the Dakota Tactical .300 Dakota features guide

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This potent $4,250 rifle was fitted with a muzzle brake, and that, together with the 15.4-pound weight, reduced recoil to almost nothing. However, the report of the rifle was loud enough to defy the rules of the Geneva Convention. Heck, they could probably hear it in Switzerland. Each round made the shooter feel like a bomb had gone off, making double ear protection mandatory.

The rifle metal appeared to be parkerized, and the stock was painted dull gray. Like the Robar gun, the forend and pistol grip were roughened for better grasping, and this works well enough. This heavy rifle had an appearance that spoke volumes about what a business rifle should look like.

The Dakota action is a close copy of the pre-’64 Winchester with some excellent improvements. The safety is typical Winchester-style three-position. The bolt release is nearly invisible. To remove the bolt, one pulls outward on the release until it swings 90 degrees from the bore axis. The bolt is then supposed to come out. However, with this rifle it was necessary to first raise the cheekpiece fully, withdraw the back of the bolt into the forward portion of the cheekpiece, then swing the front of the bolt outward.

The forend was fitted with two sling swivel studs for alternate placement of a shooting sling. The front of the forend was fitted with a stud, onto which a Parker Hale style bipod could be fitted. There was a single sling stud on the buttstock. There was a stack of five quarter-inch spacers to adjust length of pull. The rubber surface at the top and bottom of the very hard German recoil pad had begun to peel by the time we were done with our testing. If we owned this rifle we’d replace the buttpad posthaste.

Workmanship of the Dakota was outstanding, particularly the inlet-ting of metal to stock. The trigger broke at just under 2 pounds, and it was crisp and clean as any trigger on one of these rifles must be. The rising cheekpiece had a soft surface for added shooter comfort. This also got warm to the touch very quickly, which would be a great boon in cold weather.

The Dakota had a two-round magazine. When we put a single cartridge into it, we were unable to make it feed. We tried this twice, and both times the round was badly distorted when we finally got it out of the blind magazine box. With two rounds in the box, the top one fed all right, but the bottom one always jammed. The Dakota people told us to look for finish buildup on the follower, but that was apparently not the problem. Therefore we did our test firing by placing one round into the action and closing the bolt over it. This worked, but the bolt was difficult to close because the controlled-feed extractor had to be forced over the round.

The 26-inch barrel, Dakota said, was made by either HS Precision or Lothar Walther. We could not determine which. Like that of the Robar, it was fully free-floated. The brake, which extended the barrel length to 28 inches, was screwed to the muzzle securely, and it had flats to remove it if desired. The brake consisted of six rather large ports on the top half of each side.

The accuracy of the Dakota was almost outstanding, but it had some problem that we couldn’t pin down. It tended to put one or two random shots from a five-shot group into a location that was always vertically displaced from the others, and about an inch out of the otherwise tiny group. Of the ten test targets shipped with the rifle, five of them showed this same condition to varying degrees. We suspected a bedding problem, but could not prove it.

The bolt of the Dakota was nowhere near as slick as either of the two other Remington 700-based rifles, though it extracted well and reliably, and provided positive ejection. The bolt showed wear spots in its finish by the end of the test, though its function wasn’t harmed.

The Dakota was often astonishingly accurate, which made us think there was some simple problem with it that prevented perfect performance. In one case, a groups measured 0.23 inch for three shots, but 2.11 inches for five. Another group measured 0.10 inch for two shots but 1.3 for three. We also shot one group that measured only 0.42 inch for four shots, but 0.9 inch for five. This sort of thing happened all during our testing, with several shooters involved.

We finally determined why. We took time to explore the scope mounts and base attachments to the rifle. We discovered the front two screws holding the base to the action were loose. We tightened them, cleaned the barrel, fired one fouler, and put the next four shots into 0.45 inch. This was an oversight by Dakota, albeit an easy one to fix, once we figured it out.

Autauga Tactical Rifle
Our recommendation: It shot very well, way more than well enough, and if it’s possible to have a best buy in this niche, we would pick it first for value received. Based on the Remington 700 BDL, the $3,200 Autauga Tactical rifle came with camouflage-painted McMillan stock and a variable scope. We were told the barrel was already broken in, and we would not have to clean it very often. We tried it both clean and dirty, and it shot its best when clean and then slightly fouled.

Click here to view the Autauga Tactical Rifle features guide

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This 13.9-pound rifle was quite simple-looking, yet perfectly effective. It had a 26-inch heavy barrel that stayed cool to the touch during strings of fire. No it didn’t have the neat-looking and functional fluting found on the Robar, but we don’t feel it needed them. Note that the Robar weighed essentially the same, so the balance of the two rifles was significantly different. The muzzle-heavy bias of the Autauga would tend to make offhand hits easier, but that’s not how you use these rifles.

The Autauga stock finish was muted camouflage. Like the Dakota, the Autauga had two sling swivel studs under its forend and a single one under the buttstock. The recoil pad adjusted vertically by loosening a single screw., and it was fitted with a 0.25-inch-thick black rubber pad.

The barrel was free-floated for all but the first inch of its length. The action was glass bedded into the stock, and we could see the bedding here and there. The metalwork was given a dull black coating that had begun to peel very slightly at the muzzle by the end of our test firing. We rated the overall workmanship as very good, but not up to the standards of the Robar SR 90.

Trigger pull was 2.5 pounds, clean and crisp like those on the other two rifles. There were few frills on this rifle, but not much was left off. There was no apparent way to attach the handy Parker Hale bipod. We particularly liked the powerful variable scope Autauga installed, because it adds usefulness to this rifle. There were no problems and no surprises, just great performance. The Autauga could be relied on to put all its shots into 0.6 inch. This rifle also had bursts of brilliance, putting four out of five rounds into groups measuring 0.53, 0.50, 0.20, and 0.27 inch.

Gun Tests Recommends
We placed the accuracy of the Robar first by a small margin. That of the Autauga was not quite as good, though more than adequate for any task to what this rifle might be put. We rated the Dakota’s accuracy as almost, but not quite, what it should have been, because of its tendency to sling one bullet out of each string.

Best Buy. Autauga Tactical Rifle, $3,200. If we were on a budget, we’d pick the Autauga, because it shot well enough and was made well enough to do the job. It lacked the frills, but hey, so what. It’s a mighty fine rifle.

Robar SR 90, $5,200. If we had the money available, we’d pick the Robar first because of all the little extras you get, such as the superb, long-lasting, corrosion-resistant finishes afforded by RoGuard and NP3. Also, the Robar showed a slight edge in absolute accuracy, but in all fairness it was difficult to pick one rifle over another.

Dakota Longbow Tactical Engagement Rifle, $4,250. Since we didn’t diagnose the scope-base problem on this gun until after we’d finished testing, we can’t say conclusively that it is a match for the Robar. Still, even if it is the sweetheart we think it can be, it has some trade-offs worth mentioning. The .300 Dakota is a high-performance round, and it’s also proprietary. The other two guns shot factory match loads superbly, which gives them an edge in our book. At this price, we think every rifle that leaves the shop should feed properly, and this one didn’t. At this point, we’d buy the other guns first.