November 2004

.308 Tactical Bolt Actions: Package Versus Custom Built

Thinking of trying long-distance shots? Savage Arms makes it reasonably affordable. Roger Davidís Gun Shop makes it special.

308 tactical rifle

Starting with a top of the line Shilen barrel, we turned to Brownells catalog, (800) 741-0015, for additional parts and gunsmith Roger David, (337) 527-5089, for precise assembly. The HS Precision stock let us switch setup for shooters of different sizes with fingertip adjustment for cheek height and length of pull. The matte finish of the stainless steel Shilen barrel and the matte blue finish of the Remington Short Action made for a tasteful coordinated appearance. Combined with the Rapid Reticle scope, we found that it was the ideal weapon for long-range target shooting.

Rifles with tactical design elements, which resemble the tools of the military or police sniper, are not just found in the context of warfare. One of today’s fastest growing rifle competitions is the NRA’s “F” class. This is long-distance shooting strictly from the prone position, and its advancing popularity shows hitting targets from long distances can be fun. “F”-Troop enthusiasts are wise to begin with equipment used by the pros, and this means military or police tactical rifles chambered for .308 Winchester.

We recently wanted to get into long-range competition shooting, and in the course of choosing equipment we learned there were two primary ways to go long. One would be to build a gun to our personal specifications, regardless of cost, and the other was to find an affordable package that included rifle, scope, bipod and case. The Savage Arms Model 10FPXP-LEA sells for just $1861 and comes with a Leupold Mil-Dot scope, a Harris bipod, a rolling case, plus other accessories. We wondered how this all-in-one Savage would compare to a custom rifle when we weighed performance versus cost, so we polled shooters, gunsmiths, and other knowledgable firearms sources to hunt up a good riflesmith. We lucked out finding Roger David, a little known but well respected riflesmith, to build our custom gun. Total cost for the custom rifle was $3074, including $650 in labor and current MSRP for all components including scope (most of the parts are available from Brownells).

Here is what we learned about these two different approaches to long-distance shooting equipment:

Savage Arms 10FPXP-LEA .308 Winchester, $1861

In the October 2000 issue we tested an inexpensive rifle and scope package offered by Savage Arms, the 110 GXP3, that exceeded our expectations. For our tactical rifle package, we checked www.savagearms.comand found the model 10FPXP-LEA in .308 Winchester in the Law Enforcement area. (Despite the words Law Enforcement, this rifle package is available to civilians.) We thought the suggested retail price was very low, and theorized that this rifle must be aimed at smaller departments or personnel that are required to buy their own equipment. Certainly anyone breaking in to NRA F-class competition or someone who aspires to a career in military or law enforcement can afford to start learning with this rifle, we surmised.

The package included an aluminum rolling case, sling, Harris 1A2 BR (“bench rest”) bipod, a 6- to 9-inch unit with rubber feet, a 3.5-10X40mm black matte Mil-Dot Leupold scope mounted on a one-piece steel base with flip-open lens covers, and Choate stock. The Choate stock was synthetic with a vertical pistol grip and accessory rail. The stock included front and rear swivel studs and a third stud for attaching the bipod. Removable cheekpieces for the stock offered versatility. The cheekpieces added 0.7-inch and 1.0-inch heights, respectively. A leveling knob beneath the stock raised the butt for three-point support. The knob could elevate the buttstock 2 inches, but the knob began to get wobbly after extending it about 1.5 inches. We listed height measured from this point of extension to the top of the scope knobs as being 12 inches but from the bottom line of the stock to the center of the bore was about 6.3 inches. Length of pull (LOP) could be altered by adding or subtracting spacers between the stock and the 1.375-inch-thick rubber ventilated buttpad. Spacers came in 0.25, 0.5, and 0.75 inch lengths. Minimum LOP was 12.5 inches. The stock also featured alloy bedding blocks with integral pillars. The button rifled barrel offered a 1-in-10-inch twist, and it was fed by an internal box magazine rated for four rounds, but we had no problem filling it with five rounds. The action, barrel, and oversized bolt handle were each matte blued. The Leupold scope had military-style target knobs for easy click adjustment. According to the manufacturer’s specs, the 10FPXP-LEA weighed in at 11.25 pounds, but our scale said 13 pounds, including scope and bipod.

To account for what it would cost to buy this rifle in parts rather than as a package, we first looked at a comparable gun from Savage. The 10FP-LE2A, which features the same stock as our test unit but comes with none of the accessories, sells for $698 MSRP. We learned our provided Leupold riflescope was out of production, but previously listed at $834. A similar Leupold scope currently in production was the MK IV LR/T M1, (catalog No. 52128), which sells for more than $1000. A less expensive scope in the Leupold catalog, the MK IV PR ($775), also had a Mil Dot reticle but came without the military-style adjustment knobs. The Choate stock sold separately costs $176, and the Harris bipod commonly sells for as much as $79. In rough math, depending on how you outfitted your own gun, it was possible to save a few dollars buying these components as a package.

The Savage rifle featured the adjustable Accu-Trigger. The most noticeable characteristic was that the trigger face included a center section that must be compressed before making contact with the face of the trigger. Some triggers are so light they can barely be touched before the shooter is ready to fire. But the shooter can engage the Accu-Trigger in stages. Savage claims adjustment in trigger pull weight ranging from 1.5 to 6 pounds. Delivered trigger pull weight was 3.5 pounds, which is heavier than most would expect in a precision rifle. But we left it alone because it was smooth and consistent.

The bolt action operation was smooth, and the oversized bolt handled helped our shooter work the action. We observed how easily the magazine loaded and how smoothly rounds were fed into the chamber without hesitation. The safety was mounted directly behind the bolt, and the bolt release was above the handle on the right side. Removing or replacing the bolt required pressing the trigger and the bolt release simultaneously. The only problems we came up with were the cap on the front of the scope would not fit tightly, but adding a piece of tape fixed that. Also, the forward stud that was necessary to attach the bipod (Harris bipod adaptor 6A) was not included. We bought this part for $6.60 and went to the range.

To gather accuracy data, we chose a 100-yard range with good protection from the wind. On our test day the sky was overcast, spreading an even, muted light. We used a Ransom Rifle rest and sandbags to stabilize the buttstock. We shot three 168-grain selections: Winchester Supreme’s Ballistic Silvertip; the Black Hills red-box boat-tail hollow points; and Black Hills’s Gold series rounds, which feature a blue-and-gold hollowpoint Barnes “X” bullets. Each of these rounds shot an average group size of 1.0 inch or smaller at 100 yards. Throughout, the Savage rifle produced greater muzzle energy than the Shilen-barreled custom rifle. The Savage shot the Winchester Supreme Ballistic Silvertips the best, with three-shot groups ranging in size from 0.5 to 0.8 inch.

Accuracy & Chronograph Data

Roger David Custom Rifle .308 Winchester, $3074

We started building our custom rifle with a Shilen .308 Winchester barrel cut to fit a Remington Short Action. The Shilen tube had a 1-in-10-inch twist. We mated it to a Remington rifle action from Brownells, (800) 741-0015. Other parts from Brownells included an HS Precision adjustable stock. Next came the glass, and our pick was the Pride-Fowler Rapid Reticle scope, ($589, from www.rapidreticle.com). This scope features a first plane reticle etched with cross hairs and windage markers specific to caliber and bullet weight within a narrow range of velocity and ballistic coefficient. Of the two Rapid Reticle models currently available, a 3-9X42 variable model and a fixed 10X scope with side-wheel focus, we chose the latter.

The last step was to find a craftsman to assemble this rifle. We scoured our contacts throughout Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico and finally Louisiana. We were directed to a one-man operation in Sulfur, Louisiana, David’s Gun Shop. Roger David (pronounced daw-veed) has been quietly turning out high-quality rifles for 20 years. We delivered the components personally, and David took us through the process of planning the rifle. Rather than refine the Remington trigger, he recommended a replacement Jewell trigger for its ability to offer a very low pull weight without the danger of accidental ignition. We decided on a barrel length of 24 inches to limit weight, and cryogenic treatment for the barrel. Leupold scope rings and base were added. The aluminum pillars that came with the HS stock were discarded in favor of Roger’s hand turned product. A matte stainless finish would be applied to the barrel to contrast with dark matte finish of the action. The cost of a project like this is really up to the customer and how he chooses components. We calculated the price of this rifle based on the suggested retail prices found in Brownells catalog and independent suppliers such as Jewell Triggers of San Marcos, Texas (512-353-2999). Total cost was $3074, including labor charges of $650.

But the best news was that because we delivered the parts well in advance of hunting season, our rifle was ready to fire in just three weeks.

Testing these rifles was more time consuming than the process for evaluating handguns or even AR15s. This was because barrel break in was both tedious and time consuming. Some people think that break in is not necessary, but that is not what Savage or Shilen says. We followed each manufacturer’s break-in process to the letter, firing and cleaning in specific pattern. After 75 shots apiece, each rifle was broken in and ready to go.

For the David gun, we chose test ammunition suited to the Pride-Fowler scope, because choosing ammunition other than 168-grain bullets moving at 2650 to 2700 fps or 175-grain bullets moving at 2600 to 2625 fps would through off the scope’s calibration marks. Both Mickey Fowler and John Pride (legendary shooters in their own right) said that the zero for this scope was based on 600 yard “pin zero” with the 168-grain bullet. Admittedly, this scope is not as flexible as the Leupold Mil Dot found on the Savage rifle, but the purpose of this scope was not convenience but speed. In fact, when we consulted with a Houston Police Department sniper, he said that most competitions that mimic the job of a sniper are unrealistic. In actual sniper work the target is much closer. The real problem is not distance but the brief window of opportunity to make the shot. We liked what we saw through the scope because the reticle covered very little of the desired point of impact. In terms of reading the Rapid Reticle, the same effect could theoretically be duplicated by assigning distances to each separate Mil Dot. For example, the center Mil Dot could be zeroed to represent 400 yards just as the center cross hair does in the Rapid Reticle sight. But the dots themselves would block much of the target.

From the looks of the HS Precision stock that was obviously more complex than the Choate stock on the Savage Arms rifle, we expected our custom rifle to weigh more, and it did. But the difference was less than 4 ounces when outfitted with scope and bipod. The stock allowed us to dial in length of pull ranging from 12.5 to 14.5 inches, and also cheek height from zero to plus 2 inches rise at the comb. We liked being able to change these relationships as we moved from standing, to bench rest, to prone positions. This also assured the correct eye relief would be available to a variety of shooters.

The stock featured a pair of sling swivels up front to accommodate both a Harris bipod and a sling simultaneously. We chose the series S model L Harris bipod. This bipod offered muzzle elevation ranging from 9 inches to 13 inches in height and a rotating top mount that let us compensate for uneven ground. We replaced the slotted mounting screw with a Tank’s Gun Shop Speedy knob, ($6.40, Brownells) that could be set and released without a screwdriver. The Speedy Knob was standard equipment on the Savage Arms rifle. The Remington action included a safety lever directly above the trigger where the Savage Arms rifle carried its bolt release. Bolt release on the Remington was via a press-in control lever just above the trigger.

The bolt, which rode into place like it was on glass, could be inserted without setting the trigger by maintaining pressure on the release as the bolt was inserted.

The Jewell trigger on our Remington action was completely different from the Accu-Trigger found on the Savage Arms rifle. Only a practiced hand was able to contact the trigger and not break its 1 pound of resistance. Our test shooter, a Master Class High Power competitor, was able to print sub-MOA groups with all three test rounds. The best single group was fired using the Black Hills 168-grain boat-tail hollow point, measuring just 0.3 inch center to center. With a largest group of 0.8 inch, the average group measured 0.6 inches. This feat was nearly duplicated with the Black Hills Gold 168-grain Barnes “X” Bullet. Groups ranged from 0.5 to 0.8 inches for an average group just 0.7 inches across. The Winchester Ballistic Silvertip trailed with a respectable 1 MOA average group. Comparing the best combinations of ammunition and rifle, the Savage Arms package gun broke minute of angle 33 percent of the time (one out of three ammos). But the Roger David custom gun delivered sub-minute of angle accuracy 66 percent of the time (two of three ammos), but the volume of sub-MOA groups the gun shot with randomly purchased ammunition was impressive.

Gun Tests Recommends

• Savage 10FPXP-LEA, .308 Winchester, $1861. Best Buy. Piece by piece, there is no way the average consumer can recreate this rifle for the package price. We shot sub-MOA groups with one of our test rounds, and we bet it will with other rounds, as well. Of course, the serious shooter will handload for the gun, and we would hazard a guess that with a tuned load, the Savage will shoot half-MOA all day.

• Custom Tactical Rifle by Roger David .308 Winchester, $3074. Our Pick. You can’t do better than best. We were completely satisfied with the accuracy and performance of this rifle, not to mention the advice and personal service that came with it.