This post covers the custom rifle actions the best precision rifle shooters were using in 2014. The data is based on a survey of the top 50 shooters in the Precision Rifle Series (PRS). The PRS tracks how top competitors place in major rifle matches across the country. These are the major leagues of sniper-style competitions, with targets typically in the 300-1000 yard range. This is the 3rd year we’ve collected this data. For more info on the Precision Rifle Series and who these guys are scroll to the bottom of this article.
Here are the rifle actions the top 50 shooters were using in 2014. It also shows how popular each of those actions were in the previous two years.
There is a new sheriff in town! In 2014, there were more actions represented by Defiance Machine than any other. You can see they’ve been picking up about 10% of the shooters within the top each year! You can buy actions directly from Defiance, but they also make a ton of OEM actions that are stamped with another company’s logo. For example, the GAP Templar action is made by Defiance. GA Precision says that clearly on their website, but not all companies are that transparent with their customers. In fact, a few might say in their marketing material that everything is made in-house, but in reality their action is an OEM product from Defiance Machine. Defiance just stamps that company’s logo on the action instead of their own. While this is obvious to veteran shooters, here are a few examples to show the new guys what I’m talking about. You can see these are virtually identical actions, just with different branding. Note: For the results above, I’ve grouped these actions under “Defiance”.
I had a chance to talk with Glen Harrison, founder of Defiance, at SHOT Show earlier this year. He told me all about their process for making these actions, and I was thoroughly impressed. They use advanced EDM technology and OCD manufacturing processes to achieve ridiculous tolerances. Every Defiance action starts as pre-hardened steel and then shape them by precisely shaving off tiny amounts of material. It is so little that the actions never have to be heat treated again, which is not the norm even among the top actions. The heat treat process can induce slight changes to the steel, which means you’re compromising some of those tight tolerances CNC machines are capable of. Defiance strategically mitigates that issue by using a much finer milling process and avoiding the heat treat process all together once they’ve made the first cut on the action, even though this means it takes them longer to produce a single action.
The Defiance shop features dual Kitamura 5-axis CNC machines. Defiance runs proprietary software that automates billions of variables and ensures feature compatibility before machining. Before a cut is made, every part and feature is meticulously probed with highly precise lasers in order to achieve strict and repeatable tolerances.
Defiance actions feature full-length lugs for added rigidity, a one-piece bolt with swept handle, a bulletproof bolt stop, and a primary extraction that is faster and provides more effective extraction than typical bolts. Defiance offers a ton of options, including:
- Flat, 15, 20, 30, or 40 MOA base
- Left-handed or right-handed
- Ports on either side (or both)
- Several different load ramp designs
The 2nd most popular action was the Surgeon 591 Action. The popularity of Surgeon actions was cut by 50% this year, which was surprising. We saw in the post on gunsmiths, that the popularity of their complete rifle builds had shrunk significantly among this crowd as well. I’m not certain what drove these changes. The Surgeon shop moved from Prague, OK to Phoenix, AZ during the first part of 2014, which caused some initial delays. However, they seem to be hitting on all cylinders at this point. In fact, a few months ago Surgeon started selling actions again. For the past couple years, if you wanted a Surgeon action you had to buy a complete Surgeon rifle. But they’ve apparently reached a point in their production where they can satisfy demand for their rifles and also sell actions to other gunsmiths. So I’ll be anxious to get next year’s results to see if this was just a temporary dip, because in 2012 and 2013 almost half of the shooters in the top 50 were sporting a Surgeon action.
The chart below shows the swap that happened this year, with the steady rise in popularity of the Defiance actions, and the steep 2014 decline in popularity of the Surgeon action. Once again, I’m not sure what drove this, but just know it happened.
Don’t be confused. The Surgeon action is a VERY capable action, and definitely one of the best actions money can buy. Iain Harrison, editor of RECOIL and winner of TOP SHOT, says “Surgeon 591 actions are highly regarded in the long-range shooting community, and for good reason.” Terry Cross, one of the most accomplished and respected tactical rifle competitors, adds this about the Surgeon actions: “Final dimensions are machined after heat-treating to insure perfect squareness and alignment. This action also boasts more thread length for the barrel shank. Typical barrel shanks for the Surgeon have a thread length of 0.95″ versus the 0.70″ 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 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, where dirt or debris might stop a benchrest action in its tracks.”
I included a ton of details on the Surgeon action and a comparison of it with the Defiance action in last year’s post on the 2013 results. Check it out at http://precisionrifleblog.com/2013/12/30/best-rifle-action/.
Accuracy International Actions
There were 5 shooters in the top 50 using Accuracy International actions this year. AI experienced some serious business issues in the early 2000’s that caused it to declare bankruptcy in 2005. But a few leaders at AI rallied enough interest to restart the business just a few days later. That served as a major wake-up call for AI, and they instantly made radical changes in strategy and production. They implemented a Six Sigma rate-based-workflow, and invested in cutting-edge CNC machines, software, and fixtures. They completely remodeled their plant to provide additional space for manufacturing equipment and assembly, and added a new building as well. They adopted the latest in development techniques including high-speed cameras and rapid-prototyping using 3-D printers.
10 years later, AI is a different company. However, even during the roughest years … AI’s accuracy never came in question. When one of the company’s founders was an Olympic gold-medal rifleman and “Accuracy” is literally in the name … you never lose sight of accuracy.
AI’s action has a distinct blocky look. The 2013 issue of SNIPER magazine included some interesting background on the development of this action in the mid-1980’s by AI’s founders:
Craig and Walls [AI founders] had engineered their own flat-bottom action that’s readily identifiable by its flat side slabs, another feature carried into following AI models. When asked if the shape was designed to increase rigidity, Walls said no. “We didn’t have a round bar of the right size,” Wall remembers. “We only had a piece of rectangular bar of the size needed to make the action body. This hiccup led to stumbling on the design of the most famous rifle in the history of sniping. It was easier and faster on our machines back then to cut them from flat than it would have been to make the action round, and this enabled us to use a 10-shot double-stack magazine.”
The (apparently unintentional) blocky design has stuck around, and is still what I saw at the PRS Championship Match on these guys’ rifles.
AI’s double-stack magazine is a cool feature, and envied by shooters on other platforms. Many shooters aren’t aware AI actually has a few different magazines. The most common is probably the single-stack magazine, which is the standard supported by Remington 700 actions and others, like Surgeon, that are based on a similar design. But AI also offers a double-stack magazine, and that is what is standard on rifles built on AI actions. It’s common for competitions shooters to run 10 round magazines, and for that capacity, a double-stack magazine is much more compact. You can see in the photos below that the double-stack magazine has a wider mouth, which the action has to support (the cut-out in the bottom has to be slightly larger).
Remington 700 Actions
5 of the top 50 shooters were using trued Remington 700 actions. If you could look at what guys were using 10+ years ago, most were probably using Remington 700 actions. Iain Harrison explains “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.” So although a Remington 700 action is a relatively accurate action straight from the factory, the tolerances aren’t in the same league as these custom actions. Gunsmiths have a process of taking a stock Remington 700 and “accurizing” it, which is commonly referred to as truing or blueprinting an action. What this involves can vary slightly by gunsmith, but here are some examples: Score Hi Blueprinting Process, Rifle Accuracy Reports: Accurized Rem 700 Action.
Desert Tech Receiver
3 shooters in the top 50 were using Desert Tech actions. Saying that Desert Tech (previously Desert Tactical Arms, DTA) makes an action is an understatement … Desert Tech makes a versatile sniper rifle system named the Stealth Recon Scout A1 (SRS-A1). It has a unique bull-pup design that makes it nearly a foot shorter than traditional bolt action rifles with identical barrel lengths. The compact design shifts weight and center-of-gravity rearward, creating a well balanced and relatively short sniper rifle.
The SRS is quickly convertible between the following calibers: .308 Win, .260 Rem, 6.5×47 Lapua, 7mm WSM, .300 Win Mag, .338 Norma Mag, and .338 Lapua. The caliber conversion and return to zero is simple and takes less than 60 seconds. Oh, did I mention that it maintains 1/2 MOA or better accuracy?! Desert Tech says the SRS is able to achieve its superb 1/2 MOA accuracy in all those calibers because it’s built around 3 core components:
- Match grade (free-floated) barrels, chambers, and crowns
- High quality match trigger
- Solid, repeatable return-to-zero barrel mounting system (receiver securely clamps around 6” inches of barrel)
The monolithic receiver serves as a full length mounting chassis, eliminating the need for any sort of receiver-to-stock bedding interface. Ergonomic stock panels attach directly to the receiver.
Big Horn Actions
Of the top 50 finishers in the PRS, one shooter was using a Big Horn action this year. Big Horn’s TL2 is their 2nd generation tactical action. With this action, the guys at Big Horn explain “We have given up some on aesthetics here to have a stiff action.” It’s designed with stiffness as a number one priority, and everything else is secondary. For example, it has a closed top with a narrow port for added stiffness. But that means the constricted ejection port doesn’t allow top loading, so it must be fed from detachable AI magazines. It also has a thick tang for stiffness, which sets “proud” on most stocks (i.e. the rear tang of the action sticks up above the stockline).
The Big Horn action features a floating bolt head, which is a popular feature among many precision marksmen. It also features a solid, one-piece bolt for strength, with a shorter handle that will fit into scabbards for all you horseback hunters. 😉 The integral 0.25” recoil lug gives a much longer barrel tenon, with more barrel/action engagement for a sturdier connection. Big Horn believes this aids in accuracy when using heavier barrels.
One shooter in the top 50 was running a Stiller action. Stiller is known for their Tactical and Predator actions, and around half of their actions are OEM. Both the Tactical and Predator actions feature a full round back, and smaller port which result in a much stiffer action. All actions come with a pinned recoil lug, not integral like most of these custom actions. Pacific Tool makes the bolt bodies, which are factory lapped and coated with black iron nitride for hardness and durability. The bolt hole is gun-drilled and then wire EDM’ed with the rails to ensure exact tolerances and size control. The bolt fit to body is typically .004-.006”. Stiller includes a detachable 20 MOA rail by default, but other tapers can be requested. Stiller offers both right-handed and left-handed models.
McMillan ALIAS Action
There was one shooter in the top 50 running a McMillan action, and it was on a McMillan ALIAS rifle. The ALIAS concept has its roots in a design that was introduced on the high power competition field as the Tubb 2000 rifle (aka T2K). Rock McMillan originally designed the rifle from a clean sheet of paper, with lots of input from world champion high power shooter David Tubb. McMillan continued to refine the design and it evolved into today’s ALIAS Target rifle. Out of the box, this rifle has won numerous high power and long range championship events.
The strength of the design lies in its superior ergonomics and absurd adjustability. Buttstock, cheekpiece, forend, sight position, and trigger almost every component of this rifle is fully adjustable so that a shooter can customize the rifle to fit their natural point of aim from virtually any shooting position. Each component is indexed to ensure adjustments are easily repeatable. The idea is that no matter how your body is built and what position you’re shooting from, this rifle can be customized to fit you like a glove. To help drive the point home, here is a diagram that shows the butt positions David Tubb prefers to use for various shooting positions. (Diagram courtesy of DavidTubb.com and ZedikerPublishing.com, shared with permission.)
The ALIAS action is designed to provide high-speed, low-effort bolt operation. With less than 5 pounds of upward 75° bolt lift, it is easy to quickly run the bolt with minimal effort using one finger. The bolt can be easily operated without requiring the shooter to raise their head or use their whole hand to operate the bolt, which means you never lose your sight picture and can have quicker follow-up shots.
David Tubb explains “Lock time is the amount of time between the trigger break and primer ignition. The flight time of most bullets through the barrel is 1.0-1.5 milliseconds, while the lock time of conventional bolt action rifles varies between 2.6-9.0 milliseconds. A reduction in lock time will cause your rifle to hit closer to where you held the crosshairs when you pulled the trigger. Everyone’s rifle is moving when it’s fired. The amount of movement may be almost imperceptible, but that’s all it takes. When lock time is reduced, the probability of the misses and lost points is reduced.” The lock time of the ALIAS is just 1 millisecond. What that means is by the time the firing pin has reached the primer on most rifles, the bullet has already left the muzzle on the ALIAS!
McMillan isn’t promoting the ALIAS as a rifle, but an innovative action that serves as a modular platform with interchangeable components that allows you to customize the rifle to your exact application. Get it? ALIAS: One rifle with multiple identities. To this end, the ALIAS features a features a switch-barrel design supporting multiple calibers, and quick-detach buttstock that mounts on the side of the action for compact transport. McMillan also claims the stockless design has proven to increase accuracy, because without a stock or chassis to flex, the rifle is stiffer and barrel harmonics are better managed.
I couldn’t find much online about the McMillan ALIAS, so I’m not certain McMillan Firearms is still making it. I’ve tried to reach out to them, but hadn’t heard back from them before I went to press. I’ll update this here if I hear back. Until then, I at least wanted to provide a brochure I had saved with details on the ALIAS rifle.
FN SPR Actions
Of the top 50 shooters, one shooter was using a FNH action. The FN SPR (Special Police Rifles) actions are based on the legendary pre-‘64 Model 70-style action. It features a Mauser style extractor for reliable feeding. It includes a one-piece steel picatinny rail made by Badger Ordnance, which features a 20 MOA taper for long-range shots.
I wanted to point out a few new actions that were recently released or were coming out in the near future. You’ll likely see some of these on the list of actions used by the top PRS shooters in 2015.
Impact Precision Action
Impact Precision is a new company, but the owners include familiar names like Wade Stuteville (winner of the 2012 Precision Rifle Series, 20th overall in 2014) and Tate Streater (finished 15th overall in the 2014 Precision Rifle Series). Wade was involved with Surgeon Rifles since its inception, including product development, testing and evaluation, and as a gunsmithing process advisor. Wade was the General Manager of Surgeon Rifles for the past few years, but when Surgeon was relocated to Arizona earlier this year Wade decided to stay behind in Oklahoma.
Recently, Wade partnered with Tate and Robin (a machinist with around 40 years of experience) to form Impact Precision, and they’re working on a new action design. The action is built on the standard Remington 700 footprint and features an integral rail and lug, similar to the top custom actions mentioned earlier in this article. But Wade has also incorporated several new features to address various issues and opportunities he’s seen over the last decade. Here is a quick breakdown of the major features of this new action:
- Integral rail and lug
- Remington 700 footprint, with exterior features designed to more easily fit in existing stock and chassis designs that support the Remington 700 without additional gunsmithing
- 90° bolt lift (like the Rem 700)
- Bolt has enhanced clearance, primary camming geometry, and finish to promote smooth operation when dirty
- Improved extractor design for increased reliability
- Every detail of the manufacturing setup and process is focused on ensuring precise alignment of critical features
They’re hoping to have prototypes of this action out before the end of the year, and start filling orders for their short action model in spring 2015. They hope to have a website up by the end of January with more info, and I’ll post a link when I hear about it.
Kelbly’s Atlas Tactical Action
Kelbly’s is well-known for the popular Panda benchrest action, designed by Ralph Stolle. But, they’ve recently released a tactical repeater action called the Atlas Tactical action. Kelbly’s has collected advice from top tactical shooters, and turned those ideas into an ultra-rugged, reliable, steel action. Here is what how they describe it: “We start with our in house manufactured Atlas Action, made in Ohio from All-American Metal and turn it into a dirt eating machine. We have opened the action tolerances up to .005” bolt to body clearance to allow bind free use of the bolt, even in the grimiest of conditions. We then flute the bolt body, so that all that dirt and grime has a place to go while cycling the bolt.”
The Atlas Tactical action features a pinned picatinny rail with a 20 MOA taper. It also has a dual pin recoil lug, instead of the integral lug like some of these other custom actions. Kelbly’s beefed up the bolt stop to prevent sheering while cycling the bolt. The Atlas Tactical bolt features a TG Mechanical Ejector, and an American Precision Arms (APA) Tactical Bolt Knob. The action accepts both AICS single-stack and AI’s AW double-stack magazines. They also apply a black nitride coating, which increases the surface hardness and makes it possible to run the action dry. No lubrication is required, which reduces the amount of dirt that sticks to oils and grease.
American Rifle Company M5 Mausingfield Bolt Action
I found American Rifle Company (ARC) at SHOT Show 2014, and was blown away by the innovative products they’re cooking up. While it’s taken them longer than expected to get these products to market, they now have their M5 Mausingfield Bolt Action in production. Funny name, but the action features the legendary Mauser 98 extractor and the famous ‘03 Springfield ejector … I guess Mausingfield seemed fitting. 😉 Here is a run-down of some of the cool features:
- Toroidal bolt lugs do not require lapping and naturally self-center when the bolt is closed, patent pending (YouTube demo)
- Mauser 98 extractor
- ‘03 Springfield ejector (YouTube demo)
- Integral recoil lug
- ARC proprietary keyed rail interface provides the security of an integral rail with the ability to change angle of inclination at a later time (YouTube demo)
- Compatible with Rem 700 accessories
- Compatible with Savage small shank barrels and lock nuts
- Compatible with Accuracy International CS magazines and Alpha magazines
- Aerospace grade materials used throughout
- Interchangable bolt knob
For more photos and details on American Rifle Company and their M5 Mausingfield Bolt Action, check out an interview I had with the founder, Ted Karagias, at SHOT Show 2014.
Meet The Pros
You know NASCAR? Yes, I’m talking about the racing-cars-in-a-circle NASCAR. Before NASCAR, there were just a bunch of unaffiliated, regional car races. NASCAR brought structure by unifying those races, and created the idea of a season … and an overall champion. NASCAR identified the top races across the country (that were similar in nature), then combined results and ranked competitors. The Precision Rifle Series (PRS) is like NASCAR, but for rifle matches.
The 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 around 15 different national matches are evaluated and the top shooters are invited to compete head to head in the PRS Season Championship Match. We surveyed the shooters who qualified for the finale, asking all kinds of questions about the equipment they ran that season. 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. It includes guys like George Gardner (President/Senior Rifle Builder of GA Precision), Francis Kuehl, Wade Stuteville, the GAP Team, the Surgeon Rifles Team, shooters from the US Army Marksmenship Unit, and many other world-class shooters. 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 PRS shooters use. Check out these other posts:
- Calibers & Cartridges
- Tactical Scopes
- Scope Mount
- Rifle Actions
- Rifle Barrels
- Custom Rifle Stocks
- Reloading Components (Bullets, Powders & Brass)
- Muzzle Brake & Suppressor
- Shooting Bags
- Rifle Sling