This post is about the rifle actions the best precision rifle shooters are using. It is based on what the top 50 long-range shooters nationwide brought with them to the Precision Rifle Series (PRS) Finale a couple weeks ago. These guys are all tactical/practical rifle shooters, so these are repeater actions with detachable box magazines … not single shot benchrest actions. These actions need to be stiff and extremely accurate, but also need to function reliably in some of the toughest conditions a rifle can be subjected to. For more info on who these guys are, and why you should care what they think scroll to the bottom of this article.
Best Rifle Action
Here is the list of the actions the top 50 shooters brought with them to the 2013 PRS season finale. It also shows the number of rifles that were represented at last year’s season finale in the semi-transparent gray color.
Surgeon actions were clearly the favorite among these shooters for the second year in a row. Surgeon had over 40% more actions represented than their closest competitor.
But the Defiance actions had a much stronger representation this year, with a 60% increase over last year and only 7 behind Surgeon. Defiance Machine manufacturers a few different actions, including the Deviant action which is popular among tactical shooters who demand serious accuracy. G.A. Precision brands this action as the GAP Templar v2 Action.
There were a couple more rifles present that were built on a trued Remington 700 action, and a couple more built on a Big Horn Action as well. There were 3 less shooters using Accuracy International actions.
But one of the more noteworthy trends is the steep decline in the number of Stiller actions. Last year there were 5 shooters running Stiller actions, but this year there was only 1! That’s a 80% decrease in a single year among this group of elite shooters.
If you only look at the shooters in the winner circle, and those who were in contention … there was really only two choices of which action to use: Surgeon or Defiance. Zero Remington 700’s, zero Big Horns, zero Stillers.
What Did The Independents Build On?
Of course you’d expect all of the Surgeon Rifles to be built on Surgeon actions, and virtually all of the GAP rifles to be built on Defiance actions … and that was the case. But I thought it would be interesting to look at what the rest of the rifle builders decided to use. Surgeon and GAP both have dogs in this fight (at least GAP does through a strategic partnership), so what did the rest of the guys who didn’t have ties to either action go with?
It turns out that there were 7 rifles built on Defiance actions, excluding those built by GAP. Those were built by 6 different gunsmiths. But there were 14 rifles built on Surgeon actions, excluding those built by Surgeon Rifles directly. That was also a large mix of different gunsmiths (11 total). That means for the 21 custom rifles built on either a Surgeon or Defiance action by people other than GAP or Surgeon Rifles, they chose Surgeon over Defiance 2 to 1.
Here is a look at the latest versions of the Surgeon 591 Action and the GAP Templar v2 Action made by Defiance Machine:
What Goes Into A Surgeon Action?
In the most recent issue of RECOIL Magazine (Issue #10), Iain Harrison gave a great summary of the Surgeon Action in one of the articles. It shows the extraordinary lengths they go to in order to build the most accurate action possible. On a side note, if you haven’t ever checked out RECOIL Magazine … you really should.
Surgeon 591 actions are highly regarded in the long-range shooting community, and for good reason. Based loosely on the Remington 700 design, several shortcomings of the original have been addressed. Remington’s first priority with the 700 was ease of manufacture, with accuracy being a fortunate byproduct — with more than 5-million rifles in circulation, this isn’t a dig at Big Green, which has a hugely successful lineup often used as a base for accurized custom builds. Surgeon, on the other hand, took the outline of the Remington action and transformed it into what it could have been, if the objective were to make a small number of extremely accurate rifles rather than to completely dominate the market.
To this end, the 700’s separate recoil lug has been eliminated, instead being machined as an integral part. This ensures the lug is completely square to the action body and concentric with the bolt face. Also integral is the scope mount, which comprises a 1919 rail with a built-in 20-MOA angle, running the entire length of the action. This removes any possibility of mounting screws loosening up or stripping under recoil and also increases the action’s stiffness. Instead of heat-treating action components after machining operations are completed, Surgeon uses the more difficult and expensive technique of partially machining the actions, heat treating, and then sending them back through the shop for machining to their final, finished dimensions — thus eliminating any potential warping as the parts heat and cool.
Tighter machining clearances are apparent when manipulating the bolt, which glides in raceways that are cut with a wire EDM, rather than being broached. To give dirt and debris somewhere to go instead of gumming up the works, spiral relief cuts are machined in the bolt body, which, like the action, is finished in black Cerakote. Another quality touch is that the base of the bolt handle is machined from the same chunk of 4140 steel as the rest of the bolt body, unlike that of the 700, which is brazed on in a separate operation. One aspect of the Remington design that has always been regarded as value engineered is the bolt stop, which is stamped from sheet steel and can hang up at an inopportune time, causing the shooter to accidentally remove the bolt instead of cycling it. The Surgeon action features a side-mounted bolt release acting in the left raceway, which is beefy and shielded to prevent inadvertent operation.
Terry Cross, veteran shooter and perennial winner of many tactical-style rifle matches, has pointed out a few more benefits of the Surgeon action:
This action also boasts more thread length for the barrel shank. Typical barrel shanks for the Surgeon have a thread length of 0.950″ versus the 0.700″ thread length in Remington Model 700 style actions. This provides a 37% increase in barrel engagement. This action is built to perform and survive in the grueling environment of tactical-type field shooting as well as Law Enforcement and military sniper applications. It is built to the same precision and squareness as the best benchrest action but has fit tolerances that allow it to function under harsh conditions, and where dirt or debris might stop a benchrest action in its tracks.
A Fairly Objective Overview of Action Choices
I’ve read what seems like hundreds of forum threads about what is the best rifle action, and you probably have too. One thing you’ll quickly notice is this is a heated topic, with very passionate people on just about any side of the fence possible. So it was quite refreshing when I came across a post that seemed unusually objective, and it sounded like it was from someone who actually had a lot of experience with the entire gambit of tactical rifle actions. I asked them if I could share their thoughts here, and they kindly obliged.
Our shop has built 1,000+ rifles on Defiance actions, 500+ on Surgeons, and probably close to 100 Stillers. They’re all great actions.
I prefer the Defiance/Templar action because of its primary extraction and extractor. I also like the fact you can go to a flat 15, 20, 30, or even 40 MOA base. It’s available in lefty or righty, with ports on either side, or both if you want. They offer several different load ramp designs, and have a bulletproof bolt stop, and one-piece swept bolt handle. Their finish is second to none, flawless customer service, etc., etc., etc.
Surgeon would be my second choice, primarily because it lacks the options of the Defiance actions. It’s built like a tank, and is very nicely machined as well. Finish is great, but not the super-polished of the Defiance action. Many shooters love the Surgeons and they do well in all the matches.
Stiller has made some huge improvements. Their current action has a one-piece bolt, which is a huge plus. I’m not a fan of their bolt stop, but hopefully they’ll change that soon. The most recent batch of Stiller actions that came in look really nice.
We’ve only had a half dozen Big Horn actions through the shop so far, and haven’t had any big issues yet. They do not fit a Remington inlet very well, and the large tang does not fit many stocks well. That is the only real gripe I have with them so far. The design seems good. The Big Horn action takes ideas from several different actions. I can see Remington, Savage, Winchester, and Surgeon ideas integrated into its design.
Those comments are from George Gardner, President/Senior Rifle Builder at G.A. Precision. George obviously has a ton of experience with all of these actions, so his words carry some weight in my view. I couldn’t agree more with his words “They’re all great actions.”
Meet The Pros
The Precision Rifle Series (PRS) is a championship style point series race based on the best precision rifle matches nationwide. PRS matches are recognized as the major league of sniper-style rifle matches. At the end of each year, the scores from 15 different matches are evaluated and the top 50 shooters nationwide are invited to compete head to head in the PRS Finale Match. The info below is based on the equipment those pros brought with them to the most recent finale. This is a great set of data, because 50 shooters is a significant sample size, and this particular group are also considered experts among experts. Thanks to Rich Emmons for allowing me to share this info. To find out more about the PRS, check out What Is The Precision Rifle Series?
Other “What The Pros Use” Articles
This post was one of a series of posts that look at the equipment the top 50 shooters in the country use. Check out these other posts:
- Best Rifle Calibers & Cartridges
- Best Long-Range Scopes
- Best Gunsmiths
- Best Actions
- Best Barrels
- Best Stocks
- Best Precision Bullets, Powders & Brass
- Best Muzzle Brake & Rifle Suppressor
- Best Shooting Rest Bags