In 2010 members of the Gun Tests staff toured South Dakota and found a haven for open range hunting. At the 17,000 acre Rifle Ranch, (605-985-5516), located about one hour from Rapid City, they fired a selection of borrowed rifles chambered for 223 Remington ammunition. On the flight home they discussed additional options for shooting small targets at greater distance and decided to gather a selection of bolt-action rifles chambered for a round that packed more powder, the 22-250 Remington. They included CZ USA’s $1037 550 Varmint.
Here’s what they said:
Our primary accuracy tests were performed from the 100-yard benches at an outdoor range effectively sheltered from the wind. But we also visited a public range that offered characteristics much closer to what we would expect in the field to fire three-shot groups from the prone position at 200 yards. American Shooting Centers is located in one of the largest public parks in North America and the topography was open and rich. For this section of the test, we used only the rounds that had performed the best in the individual rifle from the 100-yard bench. Temperature, humidity, and wind speed remained constant for all four of our 200-yard test days. The only variation was day four, where in the 6.1 mph average gusts shifted from a benign 5 o’clock, over the shoulder direction to in our faces from 2’oclock. We also suffered changes in light and even some rain. Days that followed were much worse, so we had to be satisfied with the results. We think we made the correct choice of caliber for our next trip to South Dakota because the flat trajectory and high velocity of the 22-250s tempted us to ignore all but the strongest crosswinds.
Our test ammunition featured three different weight bullets. Premium choices from the Black Hills Ammunition Gold lineup were the 36-grain Varmint Grenade and the 50-grain Hornady V-Max rounds. According to Black Hills Ammunition, the word premium is used to describe “a niche product wherein best was the only way to go.” For example, the 36-grain Varmint Grenade featured a lead-free frangible bullet designed to meet mil-spec standards for limited collateral damage. We chose the Varmint Grenade and the 50-grain V-Max rounds after seeing spectacular results from gelatin tests. Our budget round was the 45-grain JHP ammunition rounds from Winchester USA.
For optics we chose the Swarovski Optik Z5 3.5-18X44-L-BT scope with plex reticle. The primary appeal of this scope was that its visual definition was so exacting that we didn’t need to use the scope at full power magnification for any of the shots required by our tests. In addition this scope offered the Ballistic Turret option. The Ballistic Turret (BT) is a system that allows the shooter to have up to four different distance settings immediately available by dialing the elevation to a preset stop. Based on a 100-yard zero, Swarovski’s online guide can tell you how many clicks to raise elevation for just about every available commercial load. Or, you can enter the ballistic coefficient of a specific bullet and the velocity of your load to determine “come ups” for distances of choice. For example, if you know a specific landmark such as a stream is 170 yards away from your tree stand, you can develop a preset for the exact point of aim. The system is best explained by a video posted on YouTube by the manufacturer. On YouTube, search for “Swarovski Optic Ballistic Turret.”
At Rifle Ranch the expansive field of view made it difficult to judge distance by the naked eye. Thankfully, a Nikon 550 LRF range finder was able to correct us. In the open field the BT option and the Nikon range finder would have been an unbeatable combination. But, for our test process, wherein our chores were to zero different rifles, with three different rounds of ammunition, disengaging the Ballistic Turret temporarily was the answer. For mounting components we visited AGR Outdoors (www.agroutdoors.com). With all these tools at our disposal, let’s find out whether this rifle will be going back to South Dakota.
CZ USA 550 Varmint No. 04164 22-250 Rem $1037
The term “black rifle” has taken on a meaning of its own. Generally referring to AR-15 rifles, perhaps the CZ USA 550 Varmint rifle should be listed as definition number two. The action was dark blue but the stock was black. More thought provoking was that the stock, which offered a wide fore end outfit with dual front sling studs, was constructed of Kevlar with aluminum reinforcement. With a comb that was nearly straight on to the bore, a vertical drop pistol grip with palmswell on both sides, (but slightly favoring the right-handed shooter), the 550 Varmint looked and felt like a modern sniper rifle.
The CZ’s barrel measured 25.6 inches long and was about 0.86 inches in diameter at the muzzle. The edges of the muzzle were beveled, and the crown was recessed about 0.45 inches. The aforementioned dual sling studs meant we could attach a bipod and still have facility for a sling. Given the weight of this rifle (10.4 pounds with scope mount), we limited our use of the sling to adding stability in combination with the long legs of Caldwell’s new Sitting Model bipod made especially for shooting from the seated position, ($85, from battenfeldtechonlogies.com). This bipod’s aluminum and glass-filled polymer construction was a perfect match for the CZ’s rigid black stock and fully floated action.
The supplied steel four-round removable box magazine was capped with a polymer base pad. Additional magazines cost $59. Release was controlled by a button located inside the trigger guard. The bolt stem was curved rearward and tapered slightly, ending in an oversized ball. On the right side of the action was the two-position safety, and on the left side was a lever to be pushed forward when releasing the bolt. But the release lever was only exposed when the bolt was pulled to the rear. The body of the bolt assembly, including the Mauser style extractor, was polished but the tail section was blued. The only other visual accent was the polished trigger. The buttstock was capped with a rubber pad by Pachmayr that was soft and tacky and measured about 0.70 inch thick.
To mount our Swarovski scope, we applied a single-piece Weaver adapter scope base (#19011, $75 from cz-usa.com) to the 19mm rail that was machined into the top strap. We drove it into place with a mallet and brass driver. The mount was secured by two cinch plates front and rear that included two Torx screws each. The rear cinch plate interlocked with a notch in the receiver, so there was no need to use Loc-tite.
The 550 Varmint lists a single-set trigger, but this actually meant that two different trigger actions were available. The set trigger was revealed by cycling the bolt and pushing the trigger forward. Offering 2 pounds of resistance, the movement was short and surprising. We could recognize a small amount of grit in its movement, but CZ recommends that only a factory-trained technician attempt to adjust the set trigger. The owner’s manual states that the rifle is not to be carried with the trigger in the set mode. Returning the trigger to standard mode was accomplished by activating the safety and pressing the trigger.
The standard trigger presented about 4.3 pounds of resistance. There was more creep than expected, and it took us a few shots to develop predictability and complete our tests. Afterward, we checked with CZ USA, and they said that readjustment should clear up the much of the problem. According to the owner’s manual, the standard trigger was user adjustable in terms of pull weight, travel before discharge, and travel after discharge. With the action supported upside down inside a rest, we removed the two screws at each end of the trigger guard. After lifting off the guard and the stock, we rotated the travel screw clockwise one full turn. The result was a clean 3.0-pound trigger break. We also double checked integrity by testing the safety in both standard and set trigger mode. Given the difference between the trigger modes was so dramatic, we think the shooter should choose one mode or the other. Initially, we felt that training with the set trigger would ultimately prove superior. But after readjustment, most of our staff preferred shooting the standard trigger.
At the range we found it easier to load the magazine into the rifle with the bolt back. Seating the magazine with the bolt closed sometimes resulted in the top round being pressed downward instead of extracted from the magazine. We think the large radius extractor was partially at fault, as we had difficulty single-loading the chamber as well. Also, spent shells were not always fully ejected unless bolt movement was sharp and energetic. Indeed, a CZ representative recommended we not be afraid and work the bolt hard.
In terms of accuracy the CZ 550 Varmint finished a close second to the Kimber in terms of average group radius (AGR). Firing the Black Hills 50-grain rounds, the AGR computed to 0.46 inch. But the distance between the two widest shots in our 10-shot group of 50-grain rounds measured only 1.11 inches, tops in our test. Average group radius computed to 0.53 inches firing the Winchester 45-grain rounds and 0.64 inches firing the Black Hills 36-grain Varmint Grenade ammunition. But neither round was as consistent in terms of maximum spread as the heavier bullets.
From the 200-yard line shooting from the prone position, results firing the 45-grain rounds and the 50-grain ammunition were similar. Our best three-shot groups measured about 0.9 inches and 1.19 inches across for the 45-grain and 50-grain rounds respectively. Average group size for each round was very close as well. The 45-grain rounds averaged 1.6 inches and the heavier 50-grain rounds averaged 1.75 inches across per three-shots. The widest groups each measured about 2.3 inches. If there was any alibi at all for the variation, it would be that our 200-yard tests of the CZ 550 Varminter were performed on the notorious fourth day where the wind crossed our paths at nearly full value.
Our Team Said: Statistically, the CZ 550 Varmint put up a stellar performance, but, as delivered, the action was a little rough. Trigger refinement was easily addressed by the operator. The CZ scope mount was clever and rock solid. The black Kevlar stock offered an intimidating look, and with just a little refinement the CZ 550 should be one scary-good rifle.