Getting the most from your new “out of the box” rifle

Don MacDonald tells how...

With today’s rifles “out of the box” accuracy has never been better, and there are not too many that won’t shoot a 100 yard group under two inches with the right ammo. Some manufacturers like Remington claim sub MOA and some like Weatherby even prove it with a test target. Most of these rifles are mass produced, with synthetic stocks and some components of questionable quality, but offer very good value for money. The accuracy of these rifles has been achieved by using better manufacturing standards and the modern machining of components. So with a seemingly good base to begin with, I asked myself, “How much accuracy can you get out of these rifles?”

For the purpose of this article I chose a new .300 Weatherby Magnum, not one of the “cheapies”, but the accurising process is the same whether your rifle is budget priced or not. The Weatherby is a high-end model that I wanted to keep as classic or factory standard as possible. I just wanted to squeeze more out of the rifle with minimal modifications. The rifle already shoots around two inch groups and I would have been happy to use it for many years of hunting with this kind of accuracy.

As an ethical hunter Don sets his rifles up for a maximum hunting range of 600 yards. He knows that his big .300 Weatherby Magnum is capable of precision shooting at that distance.

My plan for the Weatherby was to get some basic accurising done and then have a load developed for it by an expert. The benefit for the reader is that the outcome may allow you to make better decisions when you’re purchasing your next rifle, especially if you may want to develop its potential later on. It is possible that after reading this article you will feel that the cost of accurising a standard rifle outweighs the gains – alternatively it may sway you towards spending the money up-front on a pre-accurised rifle or a higher-end model.

WHERE TO START?
The first step is to shoot the rifle, and if you feel its accuracy could be better, keep the targets – you might need them later (see below). Then consider what you can do to improve your new “box” hunting rifle if it’s needed. Each rifle has its own traits and may respond differently from another of the same model and brand. Check the internet, maybe someone has done the work before, which will give you an insight into the problems and tell you what the rifle responded to best. Keep in mind that as with anything manufactured, rifles can differ from one run to the next. The best option is to have the rifle evaluated by an experienced gunsmith who will give you advice, possibly even free of charge at this early stage...?

The standard factory stock.

Prep work begins (Photo: Mitchell Maxberry).

The targets you’ve shot will provide a record of what the rifle has been doing, and usually indicate where you should be centring your attention. After evaluating this data, your gunsmith may offer some suggestions, but don’t be too disappointed if he doesn’t offer to do everything at once. Sometimes one or two small things will be all your rifle requires to deliver amazing results, and too many changes can sometimes cancel each other out.

The action screw holes are drilled out to accept the alloy bedding pillars (Photo: Mitchell Maxberry).

The pillars are sections of alloy tubing machined to match the stock contour.

THE TRIGGER
A good trigger is one of the most important things in the accurising process. You might have the best match grade barrel around, but it will be impossible to shoot your best if your trigger is creepy and heavy. To pass compliance a lot of standard US factory rifles have heavy triggers that may cause the shooter to pull shots or send the projectile down the barrel when it’s not on target.

Any competent gunsmith should be able to adjust a trigger for you for under $100. My Mark V’s trigger was tuned by Laurie Bradley in Timaru – it now breaks crisply at just on 2-1/2lb and doesn’t feel like I’m dragging my finger down a shingle road!

Renowned hunting and fishing writer, Graeme Marshall had his two rifles done at the same time on my recommendation. He found that this one process reduced his group sizes so significantly nothing more was needed. There are also some excellent aftermarket triggers available such as Timney or Jewell. These are an excellent choice that you can fit and adjust yourself; they are beautiful to use and bestow confidence in your shooting by allowing good trigger control. I have owned four Timney triggers in the past and thoroughly recommend them.

GET TO BED!
Mass produced rifles are basically thrown together. Pull a stock out of this bin and an action and barrel out of that one, then assemble. This means the action and barrel are seldom perfectly matched or sit completely flush in the stock – therefore vibration and twisting forces are unchecked. The bedding process creates a truly flush surface for the action, preventing flexing and reducing its movement within the stock. There are many types of bedding. Glass bedding is basically a blob of fibreglass compound laid down on the stock with the action locked tightly into it, creating a flush, precisely fitting surface where it’s needed. Pillar bedding, where the action is clamped down onto metal tubes (pillars) running through the stock from top to bottom, is another common technique and the one that was recommended for the Weatherby by my evaluating gunsmith extraordinaire, Mitchell Maxberry of MRMAX Ltd in Wellington.

The stock ready to accept the pillars and the surrounding bedding compound.

The finished job; lacquered, strengthened and pillar bedded, ready for the action to be dropped in.

My targets revealed a slight vertical error in my groups that I believed was related to bedding. Mitch bored out both the front and rear action screw holes and installed some precision fitting aluminium tubes. These were skilfully epoxied into place, providing a metal on metal connection between the stock and the action. This reduces unwanted vibration and stresses that you may find with wood to metal or plastic to metal contact. This removed the vertical error completely and my groups during the load development sessions were quite outstanding.

CROWNING AND ACTION WORK
The muzzles of most factory barrels have a rounded convex shaped crown, these are easy to produce and generally protect the terminal part of the bore fairly well, but they can be inconsistent in their concentricity with factory machining. I got Mitch to machine a precision target crown on my barrel to discount any errors. This is a simple, low cost procedure that can have dramatic results in increasing accuracy.

Truing the action is another recommended process that works well on some rifles but it requires a good gunsmith to get it correct. Lapping the bolt lugs to ensure an even and congruent fit, and squaring the action to the bore as well as squaring the bolt face are the usual processes. This sort of work was not required on the Weatherby but for many rifles it pays to have it done.

LOAD DEVELOPMENT
With the above accurising done it would be a shame not to complement the work with some hand loads tailored to the rifle. If you are new to reloading or really want precision, it’s worth getting an experienced load developer to do this for you. You will save a considerable amount of time and money. I found this out the hard way. I used a lot of components, wasted barrel time and suffered a lot of frustration for average results. I have found it much better to get an expert to do it, or at least have him guide me, then use his recipe from then on.

Don does plenty of bench time, making sure he and his rig are in tune.

It is also worth noting at this point there are many rifles capable of shooting sub MOA (I” 100 yard groups) or even half that again. Unfortunately few people themselves can shoot sub MOA consistently so it may also be helpful to get some shooting tips from your cartridge developer, most of these guys are very straight shooters – they have to be).

For the Weatherby’s load development I chose my good friend Craig Boswell in Wellington. There’s not much that Craig doesn’t know about load development, or bullet and powder performance, and not a minute goes by that Craig isn’t thinking about rifle configurations and the perfect loads for them.

Don’s friend, Craig Boswell, is a master load developer and soon had the Weatherby delivering its best.

Rifles get sent to Craig from all around New Zealand and he has a good history of getting them to shoot, including improving some real dogs. He is particularly good at tuning loads for .30 cal rifles and big cannons like the .338 Lapua. He can work out a suitable and accurate load pretty quick. Like Mitch, Craig has a lot of experience in the field of target shooting and has developed many of his own wildcats such as the tack-driving .30/404 Boswell, good for 3650fps with a 165 grain pill.

When it comes to load development Craig is a real guru and I can’t recommend him enough. He will not only tailor an accurate load for your rifle but for you the shooter also. My requirements were for an accurate load with readily available components that was not too heavy on the shoulder and that would perform humanely on game animals out to 600 yards. Craig also holds a database of all the loads he has done for people who do not do their own reloading. As long as the components are available these people can send back their empty cases to be reloaded at a cost that’s not much more than good factory ammo.

THE GRAND LOAD
After Craig worked his magic on the reloading press we headed to the range with a selection of loads using the .308 cal, 208 grain Hornady A-Max driven by ADI 2225. The accurising work done by Mitch, and Craig’s first load recipe, had the desired effect, reducing my previous groups by almost two-thirds. The groups were consistent and the rifle seemed to have lost the vertical error, until bore fouling reared its head.

I was happy with the way it was going and thought one group looked usable with the A-Max and 88 grains of 2225. Craig reckoned we could do better though, and returned to the bench, working on a recipe of 86 grains pushing a big 220 grain Sierra Matchking with a cartridge OAL of 3.825” to counter the Weatherby’s free bore.

“This will shoot,” he said with a grin and true to his word the first two 3-shot groups dropped into a small cloverleaf at 100 metres. To get an idea of exactly how they were performing Craig worked up a drop chart and tested the loads at various distances from the best long range bench in the country. At 700 metres they seldom went above 2.5 to 3 inches although Wellington’s strong coastal winds provided a slight horizontal error.

Three shots at 700 metres – accuracy like this gives Don confidence that he can drop animals humanely at his closer chosen hunting limit of 600 yards.

PROOF IS ON THE PUDDING
With my newly accurized rifle and matching loads I was keen to find game. We managed a morning goat shoot and it didn’t take long to find some worthwhile targets; these were dispatched in high winds out to 250 yards with one shot each. Back at home in Fairlie I was itching to get out and try for a deer or tahr. One evening out, not long afterwards, I got my chance with a fallow buck wandering along at 420 yards. Getting a good rest I sent a 220 Sierra Matchking away. Thanks to Mitch and Craig’s expertise I was confident and placed the projectile bang on my aiming point, flattening the deer. The load performed perfectly and I had meat for the freezer.

Wellington area goats were culled with one-shot kills at ranges out to 250 yards.

CONCLUSION
Buying a factory rifle is a bit of a lottery but thankfully most rifles in our sporting goods stores are quite good and able to lay down 3 shot groups of around 1-1/2 inches with good factory loads. This makes them worthy of doing some basic accurising work to, as they are already reasonably good to start with, and you may find that they can be made to shoot exceptionally well with very little work. My advice when going down the accurising track would be first to find a competent gunsmith. Start with the very basic jobs such as trigger development, crowning and bedding. Then get your rifle to someone like Craig to tailor a load for you and your rifle, based on your hunting and shooting requirements.

There are many excellent gunsmiths in the pages of NZG&H who are always willing to help NZ Guns & Hunting readers. I would like to thank both Mitch and Craig for helping with this project. They are a bit like the A-Team, as they don’t tend to advertise. But if you have a problem – if no one else can help – and if you can find them, you will have among the very best of accurising and load development expertise in the country.

Don

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