September 2003

.243 Winchester Hunters: We Test T/C, Savage, and M.O.A.

The $562 Savage Striker and $588 Thompson/Center Encore provided bang for the bucks. But the fancy $919 M.O.A was a bust, in our view.

Loading the Thompson/Center Encore with Hornadyís VX 58-grain moly-coated round helped us shoot this half-inch four-shot group. We dropped the fifth shot, so we canít blame the Encore.

The .243 Winchester is a versatile centerfire cartridge. When it’s loaded light in rifles, it’s a comfortable varminting round. With bigger bullets, it’s plenty good for taking antelope and deer, and its modest recoil make it a favorite among people who don’t like too much action at the butt end of the gun.

But we wondered how we would like the .243’s manners when we fired it in handguns such as the break-action Thompson/Center Encore, $588; the falling block-style M.O.A., $919; and the $562 bolt-operated Savage Striker 516SAK, which also sports a two-round magazine and a muzzle brake.

Here’s what we learned:

M.O.A. .243 Winchester, $919

The M.O.A. pistol outwardly resembles the Thompson/Center Encore with a wood forend and separate wood grip, but that is where similarities end. The M.O.A. loads not from a break top but from a falling block design. To load and fire, you first pull back the hammer. On the right side of the pistol is a button that slides up and down, raising and lowering the firing pin transfer assembly. Pushing forward on the handguard drops the block away, exposing the chamber. After placing a round in the chamber, the shooter pulls in the handguard, sealing the chamber. Once the target is acquired and the shooter is ready to aim, the firing pin transfer assembly is raised into place.

The hinged trigger on our M.O.A. broke at 1.3 pounds. Actually, we found it difficult to touch the trigger without activating it, ideal for a pro shooter but tricky on a field gun, in our view. It is not the type of weapon you casually turn over to a buddy and say, “Here, shoot this one!”

We found the M.O.A. more challenging to shoot than the T/C and Savage products. As we moved through our tests of all three guns, we realized that setting the guns up properly was the key to accurate results, and the M.O.A. presented the greatest challenge. This gun is meant to be shot standing and was shipped with two different forends. One was larger and provided a grip area, which translated to better support at the bench as well. The M.O.A. did not arrive with iron sights in place (only the Thompson/Center Encore did), but it did include a set of high-quality integrated scope bases and rings instead.

However we found the accuracy of the M.O.A. to be disappointing. We tried controlling our hold with pressure on the forend and also with a weak-hand hold on the scope. Still, we were not impressed with the accuracy of this pistol. We think it would have helped if the grip were friendlier to a two-hand hold rather than being limited by a thumb rest for the right-handed shooter. The hand guard for the falling block also made any sort of two handed hold difficult.

Click here to view "Accuracy and Chronograph Data."

After about 30 rounds we had difficulty removing the spent shells, so we cleaned the chamber. Afterward, spent shells once again dropped freely and the rounds were easier to load. Towards the end of our first round of tests with the Sellier & Bellot 100-grain ammunition, we began to have trouble moving the falling block out of the way. We inspected the chamber and breech area and found no discernible debris. We lubricated with a spray of Remington’s RemOil, then later a spray cleaner. Before we could complete our first group in our second round of tests, this time with the Hornady ammunition, the block froze completely. At this point, we discontinued testing the M.O.A. gun.

Thompson/Center Encore .243 Winchester, $588

What could be simpler than a good barrel attached to a wood handle? That is the Thompson/Center design in a nutshell. To load, pull down on the trigger guard and the gun breaks open, exposing the chamber. A locator grabs the rim of the cartridge and pushes the shell away from the chamber. Insert a new cartridge, snap the gun shut and you are ready to shoot. The hammer sits back from the firing pin and cannot be forced forward to contact the firing pin. The Encore will fire only when the hammer is pulled back and the trigger pressed.

One of the big advantages of the Encore is that the shooter can swap barrels to mate the grip and firing mechanism to several different calibers sold separately. If you already have an Encore, the .243 Winchester barrel will cost only $253. The wood forend is held on by two screws. Remove the forend and a big, beefy precision pin is exposed. The break action is hinged on this pin, which is held in place by the forend. Simply push out the pin, and the barrel assembly is free. The sights leave with the barrel, maintaining zero with the iron sights or optics.

We did not test with the supplied adjustable sights, but removed them in favor of a Weaver base. We bet the supplied open sights would have matched many guns with optical scopes at this distance. The Encore shooter does not have to work hard for good results. Firing the budget Sellier & Bellot 100-grain ammunition, we achieved groups that averaged just over 1.5 inches. With our other two choices, we achieved at least one minute-of-angle group. In fact we left the range with two sterling targets. On one target we printed a 0.5-inch group, but dropped our fifth shot of the 58-grain Hornady VX bullets. Perhaps our best streak was 10 shots in succession. Subtracting a flyer borne of human error, we printed a 2.1-inch nine-shot group with the 100-grain Winchester ammunition. For us, the Thompson/Center Encore was an easy gun to adjust to and fire accurately.

Savage Striker 516SAK .243 Winchester, $562

The Savage Striker is one of the few handguns chambered for rifle cartridges that offer more than single-round capacity. Its magazine, which cannot be removed without separating the frame from its molded polymer grip, holds two rounds.

We found the bolt action to be smooth and sure. But when loading and firing one round at a time, the Striker preferred to have the single round placed in the magazine rather than simply on top of the follower.

The next feature that differentiated the Savage from the Thompson/Center or M.O.A. weapons was the polymer grip. This grip enveloped all but the barrel, integrating the grip and forend. Of the three test guns, the Striker was the only one with a mechanical safety.

Also, this model came with a muzzle brake that added approximately 2.3 inches of (unrifled) length to the barrel. This brake could be canceled by twisting it to cover the corresponding holes in the barrel. We found the difference in velocity between venting the barrel and shooting with the brake closed to be only 54 fps on average when firing the fastest of our test ammunition, the Hornady VX. Exact numbers for average velocity were 3023 fps with the brake closed and 2969 fps with the brake open.

However, the benefits of firing with the brake fully open were obvious. Muzzle rise was mild when firing the heavier bullets and thwarted completely when firing the lighter ammunition. Also effecting muzzle flip was the Striker’s 6-pound weight, 1.25 pounds heavier than the M.O.A. or the Encore.

If you plan to hunt with these guns, the Striker may be the first choice. Having the additional round at the ready is a good idea, and the muzzle brake gives much more control. The ability to follow through with the grip and call the shot is vital. It also reduces abuse to the shooter’s hands and wrists. The downside is the increase in noise. We recommend that hunters wear electronic hearing protection.

The Striker’s most consistent and accurate performance came with the Hornady ammunition that featured a moly-coated bullet that weighed substantially less than our other two choices. With more powder, the muzzle brake had more gas to work with. All groups measured 1.0 to 1.1 inches. This level of consistency is startling when compared to our performance shooting the two heavier rounds.

Gun Tests Recommends
M.O.A. .243 Winchester, $919. Don’t Buy. The gun didn’t finish our tests.

Thompson/Center Encore .243 Winchester, $588. Buy It. The most accurate gun in our test was also the most versatile. Once you buy one Encore, you effectively own several different Encores because of the ability to change to different barrels.

Savage Striker 516SAK .243 Winchester, $562. Buy It. This is a really fun gun with extra features such as bolt action and a convertible muzzle brake. Though a little heavy, it proved to be accurate and reliable.