Picking a Heavy-Barrel .243: Electronic Or Conventional?
Yep, Remington’s $1,999 EtronX works, and it’s a clever idea packaged in a very accurate rifle. But you still might prefer the classic, conventional—and less costly—Ruger Varmint.
[IMGCAP(1)] The .243 Winchester cartridge has been around nearly fifty years and has many followers. It has been used to take game the size of deer or even larger, but its most reasonable use seems to be as a superior long-range varmint cartridge and for small game. Bullet selection for this easily reloaded round runs from about 60 grains up to 120. The most common factory rounds are loaded with 80- or 100-grain bullets, the lighter for varminting and the heavier for larger game.
Although the .243 is touted as an all-around cartridge within narrow limits, serious varminters like the caliber and want heavy-barrel, accurate rifles for all-day shooting sessions. We found two rifles that would serve this function because they incorporated heavy barrels and fat forends meant for long-range sniping of vermin and fun at the rifle range.
We acquired a new Remington Model 700 EtronX, $1,999, and a supply of its special electrically fired ammunition in the one bullet weight available. It was loaded with 90-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip bullets. The other rifle was a Ruger Heavy-Barrel Varmint M77VT Mark II, $685, which had a very attractive laminated stock and Ruger’s Target Gray finish on the steel. In this gun, we tested both 80- and 100-grain Winchester ammunition.
Our interests here were to compare a state-of-the-art electronic gun versus what we thought would be a solid traditional bolt action. Because of the price differences, we believed the EtronX’s technology would have to deliver substantially better performance than the Ruger to justify its cost. Did it accomplish this task? Read on to find out.
Remington Model 700 EtronX
The $1,999 EtronX system from Remington uses special primers in otherwise normal ammunition. When the trigger is pressed, a 9-volt battery hidden within the stock sends an electronic pulse through the stationary firing pin into the primer, causing it to fire the cartridge. You cannot shoot normal ammunition in this rifle, but you can buy the special primers and reload them normally. There was a red light-emitting diode (LED) on top of the pistol grip that gave the shooter feedback on the condition of the chamber and position of safety, plus warnings if something was wrong with the system, such as low battery power.
The purpose of the EtronX system is to cut lock time to the absolute minimum and to eliminate even the smallest vibration of a spring-driven striker from the system. This is supposed to enhance accuracy, and it makes sense that it would, all else being equal. It also seems to make more sense to apply this to a rifle that needs top-notch accuracy in the first place, which would leave out the average hunting rifle.
Remington’s M700 EtronX was a normal-looking, heavy, fluted-barreled rifle with a wide, flat-bottomed forend. The stock was a very dark gray, almost black, synthetic. At Remington’s website (www.remington.com), we found that the stock was a composite of fiberglass, graphite and kevlar, and was bedded on a full-length aluminum block. Obviously, Remington was serious about making an accurate rifle in this model. Besides the .243 caliber, others available are .22-250 and .220 Swift, all in the same heavy-barrel configuration.
The rifle was attractive, as most Remingtons are. There was a hinged floorplate to empty the five-round magazine. The metal finish on barrel, jeweled bolt, and sling swivel studs was matte stainless, except that the flute bottoms in the barrel were black. The aluminum-alloy trigger guard and floorplate were matte black.
The back of the bolt had a black plastic pad where the striker normally protrudes from the bolt shroud. That, along with the “EtronX” name on the side of the receiver, and the almost-hidden LED on the wrist were all that told us there was anything special about this rifle. However, as soon as we looked at the primers on the ammunition we knew something was up.
The special primers appear at first glance to be already fired. There are two concentric circles, the inner of which makes contact with the special firing pin. This ammunition will not function in normal rifles. These primers are available for reloaders, though until acceptance of the system becomes widespread, you may have trouble finding them. The primer size and intensity are identical to conventional primers, so you can use any cases, and any normal loading data for the round.
We put an Artemis 6x fixed-power scope on the rifle in Weaver rings and bases. Our first field experience with the EtronX was that we thought it didn’t work. Actually, it was our own fault, and the experience proved the worth of one of the rifle’s safety systems. We hadn’t turned on the key-driven switch, located where you would expect a normal pistol-grip cap to live. When in doubt, check the instruction manual.
While reading the excellent manual we noted, among many other things, that if the LED blinks twice, it means the battery is just about dead, and you’ll have to replace it to continue shooting. The LED could also give other messages, depending on how many times it blinked. We picked up the rifle and, sure as succotash, the darned LED started flashing twice. We had to replace the battery. This required unscrewing the buttplate. Underneath the black hard-rubber pad we found that the mark for the battery’s positive terminal was hard to see unless the light was just right.
With a new battery installed, we again tried the rifle and again it didn’t fire. Back to the manual. Reading the troubleshooting section, we learned that the LED wasn’t supposed to light unless there was a round in the chamber. In fact it lit up as soon as we pressed the safety forward. The manual told us we had a short somewhere, or that the bolt was dirty. We took apart the bolt and cleaned it, though it didn’t appear dirty. Just before we put it together we noticed the insulator that was supposed to be on its rear end was missing. We applied small pieces of electrician’s tape and hoped our field repair would work, without having to wait for the replacement part from Remington.
The tape worked, and finally we were able to fire the rifle. We suspect someone had been curious about how the rifle worked, took it apart, and lost the insulator before we acquired this Remington. At any rate, the rear of the firing pin must have an insulator in place. Without it, the battery can go dead, which is what had happened.
We had just test-fired the Ruger and marveled at its light trigger pull. The Remington seemed to require a much stronger force to get it to fire, and we would have liked it to be about half what it measured, which as close as we could determine, was 3.0 pounds. Wonder of wonders, the manual told us the trigger pull was user- or gunsmith-adjustable down, and told exactly how to do it. Congratulations to Remington for this shooter-friendly provision.
There wasn’t much special in the feel of the rifle when it fired. With a normal rifle, one cannot feel the vibration or hear the click of the firing pin as the rifle fires, so there was no apparent difference there. The electric-switch trigger stacked pressure until it fired. There was nothing to feel when it “broke.” However, there was no spring to cock on lifting the bolt handle on a fired round. The only effort to lift the bolt was that required to break the fired case free, and that force was minimal.
The Remington kicked noticeably more than the heavier Ruger, but it was still not much recoil at all. The only ammunition available to us at the time of this report was loaded with the 90-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip.
We expected accuracy, and we found it in spades. Our very first three-shot group measured under half an inch, and they didn’t get much worse during our bench sessions. One bad group of 1.6 inches threw the overall accuracy average to 0.8 inches, but most groups hovered around half an inch. Feeding was typical Remington, very smooth and reliable. Rounds entered the chamber so easily that one time we thought we hadn’t chambered a round, but the LED—which only lights up when a round is in the chamber and the safety is pushed forward —told us we were loaded and ready to go.
As soon as the round is fired, the LED goes out. The LED is always visible in one’s peripheral vision, so the shooter always knows the status of the rifle. If you delay firing for several minutes, the LED is turned off automatically to conserve battery power. Cycling the safety reestablishes power.
We shot the Remington in very cold weather, around 20 degrees, and left the rifle outside for long periods of time. The cold didn’t affect the electronics, nor did it kill the battery during our time outdoors. On a hunting rifle in deer camp, which may be left outdoors for days on end, that might be a different story, but we don’t believe this electric system is needed on a field-hunting rifle.
One slight problem we found was that the bolt-release button, located just in front of the trigger, was sticky. When pressed upward to release the bolt, the button stayed up. The first time we tried to reinstall the bolt the button was still up and the bolt fell out. This eventually diminished, and we’re sure a slight burr or roughness there was the cause and would be easy to rectify.
If you have an excellent barrel in an excellent rifle, chambered and stocked with excellence, the accuracy of the system should be pretty good. The faster the lock time of such a rifle, the less chance for the barrel to swing off target once the trigger has been pressed. Also, because there are no vibrations of a striker and its spring, another potential accuracy-killer is eliminated. Although those vibrations don’t vary much within a given normal rifle, they are there and can add to the shooter’s problems. Remington’s EtronX system eliminates all those problems.
Ruger Heavy-Barrel Varmint M77VT Mark II
This was an attractive $685 rifle, with a blonde-colored laminated stock sporting an extremely nice and well-done matte finish. After our initial negative experiences with the electronic Remington, the entirely conventional Ruger, with no gizz-whizzes or batteries or insulators needed to make it go bang, was most welcome. Besides .243, the same rifle is available in .223, .22-250, .220 Swift, 25-06 and .308.
All the metalwork except the sling swivel studs was finished in a semi-matte light color that Ruger calls Target Gray, which we found very attractive in contrast with the light-colored stock. The studs were blued. The 26-inch-long stainless-steel barrel was free-floated evenly all the way back to the action. (So was the Remington’s.) The Ruger’s bolt felt a trifle stiff at first, but after cycling it a few times, it became very slick. The bolt came out and went back in easily via the Mauser-style release at the left-rear corner of the action. Ruger’s now-standard safety, on the right rear corner of the action, felt good and worked properly. The bolt body had a bump on its left side, similar to those on pre-’64 Winchester Model 70 rifles, to help smoothness. It worked fairly well when everything was new, and even better after we shot the rifle a bit.
Wood-to-metal fit was excellent. The steel floorplate opened and closed positively to release the contents of the four-round magazine on command. The trigger pull was a dream. It broke at 2.5 pounds with zero creep, quite a nice surprise for a new American-made rifle. The Ruger literature specifies the trigger is fully adjustable, another nice feature.
We mounted an Artemis 7x50 scope in the Ruger rings that accompanied the rifle, and went straight to work. At the range we discovered a reluctance to feed rounds from the magazine into the chamber. The rounds seemed to go part way in, and then hang up on something. We had to rattle the bolt back and forth to get the rounds to go all the way in. This characteristic did not diminish during our shooting sessions. Chambered but unfired cases showed circumferential scratching halfway up the main body of the case. Close inspection revealed that the cases that hung up weren’t slipping under the “controlled feed” extractor as they came out of the magazine. Instead, they were bumped ahead of it and were forcibly held slightly downward when their rims contacted the front end of the extractor, which caused them to bind on the rear end of the chamber. The solution seemed to be to polish the rear edge of the chamber slightly, or ignore the problem and push the cartridges firmly into the chamber, and let time and wear do the work of smoothing up the feeding. Another possible solution would be to round the small squared-off lower front edge of the extractor.
Neither the Remington nor the Ruger were light rifles. At 11.0 pounds the Ruger was a pound heavier than the Remington. Felt recoil was very slight. The Ruger’s forend was much wider than the Remington’s, and as such, offered a much larger surface for supporting the rifle over sandbags, or whatever.
On the range there were no big surprises, only that the Ruger preferred the lighter 80-grain Winchester load, putting them into three-shot average groups of 1.0 inch. The 100-grain ammo averaged only 1.7 inches. Clearly, this varmint-type rifle wanted varmint-type bullets, and it would be lots of fun working up a “perfect” handload for it. Many of the Remington’s groups were half the size of the Ruger’s, but its overall average of 0.8 inch puts it close to the Ruger, and we believe a rifle that delivers one-inch average groups out of the box shows good evidence of being able to beat that with careful handloads tailored to the individual rifle. Both of these rifles clearly invited such efforts.
Gun Tests Recommends
Remington Model 700 EtronX, $1,999. Conditional Buy. We believe this rifle would have performed very well even if it had conventional ignition. Remington wants to sell this new system, so they have taken very good care to ensure the EtronX rifles have good barrels and good bedding, and that great care is taken with everything that can affect accuracy. That means if you buy an EtronX you will most likely have a very accurate rifle.
Does that justify the $2,000 list price? Probably not. The electronics appear to be very simple, and once the research and development are complete, should not be all that expensive to duplicate. The rifle has fewer moving parts by far than a conventional rifle, which means it ought to cost less, all else being equal. However, Remington put an excellent barrel into a very costly stock, and most surely took great pains to do that job exactly right. Even the crowning on the barrel is obviously very carefully done, and all that adds up to a rifle that’s more of a custom proposition than an over-the-counter item. So we’re looking at the comparative cost of a custom rifle versus an assembly-line product. Most conventional rifles can be made to be very accurate if they have, say, $1,000 of custom work done to them, without the electronic ignition.
By itself, the ignition system seems to be faultless and well worth having…except that at this writing we don’t know how much more the special primers will actually cost the reloader, or what the plans are to distribute them to your local dealer. That means, until the system is more generally in use, we guess you’d have a bit of a problem getting the primers, which cost $85 per 1,000 MSRP. Also, what happens if Remington decides to cease production of them?
No one else is making these primers, and without them you don’t have a rifle. Thus our Conditional-Buy rating. The gun worked to perfection, and had a lot of good ideas incorporated within the system, not the least of which is the easily adjustable trigger pull. However, we suggest you buy it only if you must have the very latest firearms system, no matter the cost. Be sure to buy a lot of ammunition and/or primers if you buy the EtronX rifle. You’ll get an accurate rifle for your money, but we believe you could buy an equally accurate conventional rifle for much less money.
Ruger Heavy-Barrel Varmint M77VT Mark II, $685. Buy it. Other than the occasional fight getting rounds into the chamber we had no problems with the Ruger. This was an excellent rifle that worked exactly like it was supposed to. We really liked the rifle’s looks, its trigger, and even its great weight. But we do wonder how much better it might shoot with an electric trigger!