March 2005

Hot Twenty-Fives: Long-range Zappers, or Just Big Noise?

Rugerís M77 Mark II Target in .25-06 and Winchesterís M70 Coyote in .25 WSSM cut it, but Weatherbyís .257 WM Vanguard Sub-MOA didnít live up to its accuracy-defining name.

Ray Ordorica tries the Weatherby Vanguard offhand. He thought this rifle would be fine for deer hunting, though not ideal for that task. The Vanguard might be the most versatile of the three, but was not our first choice for serious long-range varminting.

Although some shooters believe the various 25-caliber rifles to be good deer rifles, many experienced shooters prefer to think of them, and use them, as long-range varmint rifles. In many windswept areas, and especially for the larger varmints at extreme range, there is no doubt the various .25s do a better job than anything smaller. We had a reader request to look into .25-caliber rifles that could take coyote-sized critters at extreme range. The suggestion caught our fancy.

We wondered which of the various .25s offered the most bang for the buck, so we acquired a Ruger M77 Mark II Target in .25-06, a Winchester Model 70 Coyote in the short, fat, .25 WSSM caliber, and one of Weatherby’s new Sub-MOA Vanguards in a caliber we thought would be the hottest, flattest varmint cartridge, .257 Weatherby Magnum.

We chose ammunition for all three calibers that used some of the lightest and heaviest bullets commonly available. Bullets of 85 to 90 grains would tell us about high speed, but we suspected 115- to 120-grainers would work better at long range. We shot the three over our machine rest, evaluating them primarily as long-range varmint rifles. Here’s what we found.

Ruger M77 Mark II Target .25-06, $870

We liked the rich look of the Ruger right out of the box. The dark “target gray” finish was uniformly applied to most of the visible metalwork. Gray steel was complemented by a well-finished laminated target stock, free-floated the entire length of the heavy, 26-inch barrel. Twist was 1:10 inches. The stock was wide across the forend, and had studs for a sling. The butt had one of Ruger’s trademark rock-hard black pads that at best offer a non-slip surface. Inletting was excellent.

The bolt was slick right from the start. There were no sharp edges on most of the surfaces of the action that the fingers would normally touch, a trick Ruger has gotten just right over the past few years. The one-piece bolt was fitted with a controlled-feed extractor, and had a bump on the side for added smoothness. The best surprise was the two-stage trigger. It took a pound of pressure to take up 1/8 inch of slack, and then it broke cleanly at 2.3 pounds total pull. This was one of the finest triggers we’ve seen on a production rifle, on a par with a Savage we tested last year. Congrats to Ruger.

The Ruger came with scope rings, saving us time and trouble mounting our 12X Leupold. This is one of the best setups in the industry. We wish more manufacturers would at least think about scope mounting.

At the range

, the Mark II’s first groups with Remington’s 120-grain Core-Lokt PSP ammunition were severely disappointing. The three-shot, hundred-yard groups varied from 2.4 to 3.9 inches. Later testing, despite an immaculate barrel, did not improve these groups with that ammo. Then we tried Winchester Super-X fodder with bullets of the same 120-grain weight, and groups averaged well under an inch. Why the problem? The shapes of the two types of 120-grain bullets were greatly different, and that might be a clue. We got decent accuracy with 100-grain Remington Core-Lokt ammunition. The lightest bullet we tried was Federal’s V-Shok load with 90-grain Sierra hollow-points, which averaged around an inch. Clearly the Ruger would pay great dividends from a thorough search for best bullets/loads, part and parcel of the average varmint-rifle experience. Recoil was essentially nonexistent, and muzzle blast was not a problem at all.

Winchester M70 Coyote .25 WSSM, $787

Winchester’s offering came with a matte-stainless barrel and blued action. Like that of the Ruger, the Coyote’s barrel had 1:10 twist, but the free-floated barrel was only 24.5 inches long (the website says it’s 24 inches). The stock was a lamination in natural colors, looking not unlike the Ruger’s. The butt was fitted with a round-edged, rock-hard recoil pad with a non-slip surface. The butt angle gave significant down-pitch. The shape of the stock at the pistol grip was not as comfortable as the Ruger’s for best trigger control. The Model 70’s forend was deeper and more rounded than that of the Ruger, and would probably adapt as well to various field-found rests. There were two blued sling-swivel mounts affixed to the stock. We didn’t get scope mounts with the rifle.

Inletting of the Coyote was as good as the Ruger’s. The stock finishes on both rifles could have been done by the same team. Both finishes were excellent, with hard, glare-free, even surfaces that had all pores filled. The Coyote’s trigger broke cleanly at 4.7 pounds and needed to be adjusted down. We left it alone.

The Model 70 Coyote had a checkered bolt handle, which most of us liked. The bolt head had an anti-bind hook that worked, and a strange setup on the bolt head. The extractor was the old, odd, Winchester sliding one set into a dovetail in one bolt lug. This was the often-cursed, but quite functional “post-’64” extractor. The bolt head was recessed to encircle the cartridge head. However, the bottom of the bolt recess was cut away, so rounds could slide up beneath the extractor like on a controlled-feed bolt. It looked like a clever system that combined features of both types of action. This was probably a less costly system of extraction than a full-length spring-tempered extractor, but if it worked, it would be more than sufficient for a “varmint” rifle, and would offer some of the advantages of controlled-round feeding. The bolt body was engine-turned. The trigger guard was made of aluminum alloy, but the hinged floorplate was steel.

The biggest surprise between the Winchester and the other two test rifles was that the Winchester’s bolt throw was only about 3.25 inches, compared with about 4.5 inches for the Ruger and Weatherby. That seemed to be the biggest obvious advantage to the short, fat cartridges, if it is indeed an advantage. Some will think so, and that’s what Winchester/Browning is banking on. For us, the biggest questions were: How much will the fat cases cut down on magazine capacity, and will the new cartridges match the speed of the older ones? It was time to find out.

We mounted the 12X Leupold in Weaver bases and rings, and repaired to the range. Our ammunition was Winchester’s own Ballistic Silvertip 85- and 115-grain loads. The magazine held three of the fat rounds, and a fourth could be loaded on top. Feeding and ejection were perfect. We got our best results with the heavier bullets. The appropriately named Coyote averaged just under an inch with the 115-grain loads, just what we wanted for long-range use. We found the sort-of-controlled feed would stop a round halfway into the chamber and pull it back out, just like the “real thing.” The rifle also fed loose rounds well. But the Coyote didn’t like the 85-grain stuff at all. We got 2.1-inch groups on average.

Velocity of the hottest .25-06, 120-grain load was 3000 fps (Winchester Super-X), and we got 3090 fps from the .25 WSSM’s 115-grain Silvertip. At the other end, the .25-06 got 3431 fps with its 90-grain load, but the WSSM got only 3370 with the 85-grain load. The Weatherby got only 3163 from its 120-grain load, a mere 160 fps faster than the .25-06 and less than 100 fps faster than the WSSM. The 85-grain Weatherby load achieved only 3620 fps, about 200 fps faster than the .25-06. Our conclusion was that the short fatty didn’t give up a thing to the ‘06 case, and the Weatherby, for whatever reasons, wasn’t up to snuff velocity-wise.

Weatherby Vanguard Stainless Sub-MOA .257 Weatherby Magnum, $919

This was not a varmint rifle, but a sporter. As the name indicates, the Sub-MOA Vanguard rifles are guaranteed to shoot less-than-MOA groups. However, as of this writing no website information is available on this new model, so we didn’t know too much about what was mandated to get those small groups. We obtained the heaviest- and lightest-bullet Weatherby factory loads for the rifle, the former loaded with 120-grain Nosler Partition bullets, and the latter with 87-grain spire-points of unknown origin. The only visible difference between them was that the Partition bullets had slightly larger amounts of lead showing, and had a distinctive serrated cannelure groove visible. Otherwise, the bullet shapes and protrusion from the Norma-made cases were identical. Our Japanese-made test rifle was stainless, but there is also a blued Sub-MOA that has a lower suggested price of $799.

The stock was black synthetic. Our first impression was that the Sub-MOA looked drab compared to the other .25s. However, after getting used to its looks for a few minutes, we all thought the Weatherby was an attractive rifle with a nice, even, matte-gray finish to all the visible metal (except the sling studs), and thought the black stock complemented it well. There were no markings on the rifle that indicated the Sub-MOA was any different from other Vanguard rifles we’ve seen.

The rifle came with sling swivels to fit the studs, and there was a target included with the rifle that got our attention. Three shots made a 100-yard group just over half an inch. We noted it was fired with 100-grain bullets, not the heavy nor light ones we had on hand. But the factory had clearly established the rifle would shoot at least one reasonable weight of bullet into a group that was well sub-MOA.

The Monte Carlo–shaped stock had a cheek piece, and had molded-in checkering that worked. There were no sharp flashing edges on the stock, and it was comfortable. The rifle felt better in the cheeked position than either of the other rifles. The pistol-grip shape gave good trigger control. To our surprise, we found the barrel was fully bedded into the forend. In fact, the fit of metal to the plastic stock was better than on either of the other two test rifles. The stock appeared to almost have been formed around the steel, the fit was that good. The stock had a decent, thick, soft recoil pad that promised to make shooting the Vanguard a pleasure.

The 24-inch, 1:10-inch barrel was not really a heavyweight, so the entire rifle was much handier than the other two. The trigger broke at 4.8 pounds, and had no creep. The bolt had a recessed head with plunger ejection and an external spring-loaded extractor. The bolt was vented with several holes designed to let leaking gas out the side of the ejection port. Bolt throw was slick, and just over 4.5 inches, about the same as the Ruger .25-06. The bolt had two lugs and turned through 90 degrees to open or close. Like the other two rifles, the Vanguard had a hinged floorplate to empty the magazine. Like the M70, the floorplate was steel and the guard and magazine housing were aluminum. Ruger’s were all steel.

With our 12X Leupold installed, the Sub-MOA gave us groups that were decidedly not sub-MOA. Our first three with 120-grain Partitions went into a disappointing 2 inches. For the first group we used the bench rest normally, but in light of the noticeable recoil, we decided to try Elmer Keith’s bench method, gripping the rifle firmly with both hands and bedding the forward hand, not the forend, on the machine rest. Our next group was the best we got from the Weatherby, 0.6 inch. However, even with diligent barrel cleaning, we were unable to duplicate that tiny group no matter what we tried. Groups averaged just under 2 inches with the 120-grain Noslers. The 87-grain load averaged 1.7 inches, again not as good as we had hoped. Most groups tended to string out, often with two shots nearly touching. We suspected bedding, but action screws and the scope mount all seemed to be in order. Feeding and ejection were fine, and there were no real problems with the rifle. However, the velocity of the 87-grain Weatherby load is advertised (website) to be 3,825 fps. It wasn’t. We got 3620 fps on average, 200 fps less than advertised. The ammunition was kept warm before we loaded it. We got only 3160 fps from the 120-grain Partition load, but we got nearly 3100 from the 115-grain WSSM. Where was the Weatherby advantage?

Gun Tests Recommends
• Ruger M77 Mk II Target .25-06, $870. Buy It. There were no problems with the rifle, and it shot well with several loads. Like most Rugers, the rifle was well made, and performed like it looked. Based on our mixed but generally good accuracy results, we thought it would be rewarding to search for the very best loads. The price was reasonable, we thought (street prices would be even better), and we would be happy with the Ruger as our only .25 varmint rifle. We liked the rifle’s looks, fine trigger and good performance, and think you will too.

• Winchester M70 Coyote .25 WSSM, $787. Buy It. We were quite taken with the Winchester Coyote. Both the cartridge and rifle worked exactly like they were supposed to. There were no problems with the rifle at all, though we would adjust the trigger to a lighter letoff if we owned it. Then we’d get some loading dies and have some fun, but we’d try to get some plain brass instead of the nickel-plated test rounds. The fat cases worked well in this setup, giving up nothing to the ‘06 case. We thought this was a pretty good rifle.

• Weatherby Vanguard Stainless Sub-MOA, .257 Weatherby Magnum, $919. Conditional Buy. The Weatherby’s barrel got hot quickly, even though our test environment was 30 degrees. One would probably not want to use this rifle when the shooting was fast and furious. However, for occasional long-range shots at big varmints, we thought the Vanguard would do just fine, and with suitable load selection could be a versatile rifle within its limits. It would be a better deer rifle than the other two, being much handier. With careful load selection and maybe some tuning, we think the Vanguard would give better accuracy results. We don’t think it would work as well as either of the others strictly for varmint shooting, hence our Conditional rating. The great velocity advantage we thought this cartridge would have with heavy bullets was not there. Despite that, the Vanguard might be just right for your uses.