Last summer members of our 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, we fired a selection of borrowed rifles chambered for 223 Remington ammunition. On the flight home we 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 were the $1391 Kimber 84M Longmaster VT, the $699 Venture Predator from Thompson Center Arms, CZ USA’s $1037 550 Varmint, and the $975 Howa Talon Thumbhole Varminter package rifle complete with scope. If the lower price tag of the Venture Predator puts it in the position of being a David to the more expensive trio of Goliaths, maybe we will find out what it takes to reach the top of the pyramid. All four rifles were tested without adjustment to the factory-set triggers.
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 four 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 which rifle or rifles will be going back to South Dakota.
Kimber 84M Longmaster VT 22-250 Rem, $1391
As of this writing Kimber’s Longmaster VT is only available chambered for 22-250 ammunition. The shorter-barreled Kimber SVT, which is essentially the same rifle, fires 223 Remington. The Kimber 84M series rifles feature a Mauser claw extractor, and all actions are aluminum pillar-bedded, save for the heavier caliber models that are constructed with glass bedding along with the pillars. We measured the Longmaster VT to be 45.7 inches long from the recessed and dished crown of its barrel to the slim, tightly fit rubber buttpad. Barrel length was a full 26.0 inches and its gauge was thick, 1.05 inches in diameter at the muzzle. The matte-stainless barrel incorporated six deep flutes that covered all but 6 inches of barrel length. The robust stock was a laminate with a bold grain pattern, and the barrel was floated, leaving a narrow gap about the thickness of four $1 bills. The pistol grip was nearly vertical, and the palm swell completely filled our shooters’ hands, making it the favorite among the four rifles.
The comb of the stock was raised and nearly level with the bore line. The left side was rounded, and the right side was edged, decidedly favoring the right-handed shooter. The action was drilled and tapped for a scope mount and blued, as was the bolt handle. The Longmaster VT stored rounds in an internal magazine with a dropaway floor plate released from inside the trigger guard. Capacity was five rounds but most of our shooting was performed by loading rounds one at a time, which the Kimber was happy to accommodate. The Longmaster VT utilized a three-position Model 70-type safety wherein the central position locked the trigger but allowed the bolt to be pulled back. The bolt could also be removed in this position by pressing the lever located at the rear left corner of the action. Bolt action to lock and unlock was smooth but with some play so if the shooter manually introduced any deflection in travel the bolt could stick at the rearward position. The key was to relax and let the bolt follow along the bore which at times seemed like a continuation of the comb. The trigger face was wide and offered the shooter a very comfortable radius. Along with the palm swell these features served to relax the shooter’s hand making it easier to focus on bringing together sight picture and trigger press. The crisp single action trigger on our Kimber rifle felt lighter
than its measured 4.0 pounds. The trigger was adjustable, but Kimber recommends the user refer such to a qualified gunsmith. Viewed from the side, the amount of trigger movement was almost too small to measure.
To mount our scope we followed the recommendation of the manufacturer and used Kimber’s two piece Leupold-style mounts and rings. The widest distance between any two shots from the 100-yard bench delivered by the Kimber Longmaster VT (Maximum Spread), were as follows. The 36-grain Varmint Grenade spread 1.79 inches, the 50-grain V-Max, 1.62 inches and the two holes furthest from each other firing the 45-grain Winchester USA ammunition measured just 1.17 inches apart. The maximum distance from the center of any of our groups overall was 0.98 inches. This showed us that the Kimber Longmaster VT will shoot 100-yard sub-MOA groups with just about any ammunition you can find. The Kimber produced a best overall average group radius of .40 inches firing the 45-grain Winchester rounds, edging out the 50-grain ammunition from Black Hills. Prone from the 200-yard marker, we fired our three-shot groups utilizing both the 45-grain and the 50-grain rounds. The Winchester rounds formed one 0.7 inch group, but 1.1- to 1.3-inch groups were the norm. The 50-grain rounds scored the best overall single three-shot group (about 0.63 inches center to center), and was more consistent. With the fore end supported by a Sinclair International F-class bipod ($199 from sinclairintl.com) and a $20 Triadtactical.com Tapered Rear bag beneath the buttstock, the Longmaster VT settled in, producing 0.8-inch three-shot groups one after another.
Our Team Said: The Kimber Longmaster VT weighed 11 pounds but was fairly well balanced. If you are not too concerned with mobility, then this rifle should be your top pick. It performed as well as many “sniper” rifles that typically sell for two or three times as much. Ergonomics were outstanding, but favored the right-handed shooter.
Thompson Center Venture Predator
No. 5468 22-250 Remington, $699
The Venture series bolt-action rifles feature a composite stock with Hogue rubber inlays at the pistol grip and along the sides of the fore end. The standard Venture rifle has a black finish to the stock, blued barreled action and somewhat oversized Nitride-color bolt handle. The Venture Predator was covered completely by Realtree Max 1 Weather Shield camouflage. This coating included the barrel, stock, and two-piece factory-installed Weaver scope base. The thin 22-inch barrel showed a Sporter’s taper with fluting. The barrel floated freely above the fore end. Both Venture rifles utilize Thompson Center’s 5R rifling, developed in Russia. In this system, there are five lands and five grooves. The action was mounted via conventional pillar bedding, and the Venture rifles feed from a removable box magazine. Capacity for all available calibers (including 223 Rem, 204 Ruger and 308 Win), was three rounds.
The Venture Predator offered a two-position safety. Bolt removal required pressing inward on the lever located along the left side of the action. The bolt showed three lugs equally spaced. The ejector was located beneath one lug, and the extractor was integral with another. The only other moving parts were the trigger and the release latch found on the forward edge of the magazine, which worked without flaw. Only one magazine was supplied; extras cost about $28. The Venture Predator featured an operator-adjustable single-action trigger that as delivered, snapped smartly without any grit or creep after applying about 3.3 pounds of pressure.
We mounted our Swarovski scope using a set of Weaver Quad Lock Rings with offset extension. The offset made it easier to adjust eye relief and adapt the scope to a wider variety of rifles. Quad rings are inexpensive, (about $15), but since they rely on four separate top straps, a sloppy mount can play havoc with windage. To guarantee precision, we used a set of Brownells sleeved scope-ring alignment rods (#080-918-000AD, $65).
Fired from the 100-yard line, the Venture Predator favored the 50-grain Black Hills ammunition, producing an average group radius of about .59 inches. The 36-grain Varmint grenade averaged about .70 inch, and the Winchester 45-grain rounds about .78 inch. Again, the 50-grain rounds were the most consistent, with the widest gap between hits in our 10-shot group measuring 1.46 inches.
Firing prone from the 200-yard line, we couldn’t help but notice how well the 7-pound Venture soaked up recoil. In fact, we would rate it as the second most comfortable rifle to shoot, behind only the 11-pound Longmaster VT. Perhaps it was the composite stock or the soft rubber applied to the three points of contact, fore end, pistol grip and buttstock. We found this rifle very easy to mount and rarely had to adjust our hold after bringing it to the shoulder.
Three-shot groups generated from 200 yards averaged about 1.6 inches across firing the 45-grain Winchester ammunition before we began to experience flyers after the eleventh consecutive shot. Firing the 50-grain Black Hills rounds, we found that accuracy remained stable throughout a dozen shots, rendering a smallest three-shot 200-yard group measuring 1.17 inches across and a largest group some 1.62 inches wide.
Our Team Said: The Venture Predator offered a quick, sure mount and precise trigger. Relatively light weight and low recoil makes this a better choice for alternate shooting positions such as seated or standing. The thin barrel made it more susceptible to heat, but ammunition topped with the heavier 50-grain bullets seemed to prolong accuracy better than the lighter, faster moving rounds. The higher-priced Icon rifles from Thompson Center utilize a more sophisticated method of bedding the action and claim a higher level of accuracy. But we fell in love with the Realtree Max1 camo coating that completely covers the stock and barreled action. Straightforward and charming, the Venture Predator is a versatile rifle that we would enjoy carrying into the field.
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.
Howa Talon Thumbhole Varminter
Combo HWK86101P+ 22-250 Rem, $975
The Talon Thumbhole Varminter rifles, of which more than 40 are listed at legacysports.com, were distinguished by a synthetic buttstock of polymer and alloy construction with two distinct features. First the thumbhole consisted of a near vertical pistol grip connected at the bottom to the underside of the buttstock. In our view the image was that of a cross between a standard rifle stock and an AR-15. The side panels and the rear surface of the pistol grip offered rubber inlays. The buttstock had a storage compartment beneath the soft rubber pad from Limbsaver. In addition, recoil was buffered by a mechanical assembly inside the stock. Currently marketed separately by Blackhawk, this was the Knoxx recoil reduction system that dissipated energy by working against a heavy coil spring mounted approximately inline with the bore. The forward portion of the stock, which utilized aluminum pillar bedding, was attached to the buttstock immediately behind the trigger guard beneath the tail end of the action. The action was a conventional Series 1500 bolt-action unit by Howa. The various model designations depend on caliber, barrel profile, barrel length and whether or not the rifle is shipped with a scope, scope mount, and rings (the combo package).
Our Talon featured a heavy-profile blued barrel measuring 24 inches in length. We actually ordered the rifle without optics, but when a combo package arrived we decided to pay the extra money, (the non-combo rifle cost $850). The scope was a 4-16X44mm Nikko Stirling Nighteater with plex reticle, 0.25-inch click adjustment, side focus, and made in China. Like the Swarovski, this scope was built on a 1-inch tube, so we actually shared this scope with our other rifles at times during our shooting sessions. Also included in the combo was a set of Nikko Stirling rings and a mount from Evolution Gun Works, ($40 from www.egw-guns.com).
The action assembly featured a three-position safety. Bolt release was via push button on the left side directly opposite the oversize bolt handle. The bolt face offered two opposing lugs with the ejector and the extractor located in between. The internal magazine held five rounds, the most of any of our rifles. The magazine could be emptied by pressing on the latch that worked directly against the rear edge of the bottom plate immediately in front of the trigger guard.
Not only was the rear of the stock assembly somewhat radical but the fore end rode far beneath the barrel. This was fine for shooting from sandbag support, but as we found in our 200-yard prone session, there was too much flex to be used precisely with a bipod. Instead we used a Caldwell Tack Driver bag to support the fore end. To regulate elevation, we used a low-profile GA Precision beanie bag from Triad Tactical.
The Nikko Stirling Nighteater scope produced a usable sight picture but light transmission was somewhat cloudy. Nevertheless, we were able to produce the same quality groups as we did with the Swarovski scope. But shooting from 200 yards we needed to use the Nighteater at its full 16X power. Here we switched to the Swarovski scope which we rarely turned above 10X power. Our main complaint about the Nighteater was the mushy elevation and windage adjustment. Open-range shooting demands precise repeatable adjustments. An audible click is a luxury, but what a shooter really needs is tactile feedback as each setting ratchets into place.
Comparing accuracy data from the 100-yard bench, it was easy to lose sight of just how accurate these rifles were. Average group radius produced by the Howa rifle varied from 0.55 inches firing the Winchester 45-grain rounds to the 0.72 inches shooting the 50-grain Black Hills ammunition. The 50-grain rounds produced the smallest gap between the two widest shots in our 10- shot group (1.22 inches). This was very good accuracy but a look at the ten different shot radii used to compute AGR revealed a wide deviation.
From the shooter’s perspective we found that the trigger, despite weighing only 4 pounds, was mushy and less predictable than we would prefer. Unfortunately the trigger was not operator adjustable. The deviation between group size carried over to the 200-yard line. The Black Hills Ammunition 50-grain rounds produced three-shot groups that ranged from 1.0 inches to 1.7 inches across; The Winchester 45-grain rounds varied from 1.4 inches to 2.1 inches center to center.
Our Team Said: The Howa action is a proven commodity that, aside from our recommendation for some trigger refinement, is a good, economical buy. The Talon stock seemed to work as advertised, but would probably be more advantageous applied to a larger caliber that produces heavier recoil. We think the flexible fore end also rules it out for use with a bipod. This may not be an issue for those who fire from a bench rest. Some of our staff felt that this same rifle/caliber combination would be a better choice seated in a more conventional stock. The combo package was a good starter kit, because the supplied rings and mount were very good quality even if the scope itself was limited, in the view of our testers.