I recently had custom precision rifle built by Surgeon Rifles to use for tactical/practical rifle competitions. Those competitions typically include shots from 300 to 1,000 yards. As I walked through SHOT Show this year, I was on a hunt to find the best components for each part in a quest for the ultimate precision rifle build (or at least try out the latest and greatest to see how it stacked up to the hype). I’ve already put 600+ rounds through it, and ran it in 2 competitions. One of those was the 2014 Steel Safari, which is a grueling 3 day match in tough conditions. So I’ve become intimately familiar with the weapon, and have already made a few mods to it.
Goals for This Rifle:
- Great Ballistics to 1200 yards – I plan to primarily shoot this rifle at 300 to 1,000 yards, and may occasionally push a little beyond that. I have other rifles for extreme range, but I wanted this one to be specialized for mid to long-range targets.
- Low/Moderate Recoil – This helps spot shots in competitions to improve wind calls in the moment. The energy of the round and terminal performance doesn’t matter on targets, as long as your RO can spot the hits.
- 2,000+ Round Barrel Life – I’d prefer a barrel last a full year. I actually don’t mind having to rebarrel once every year or two, because that’s an opportunity to swap cartridges and try something new (if you want to).
- Heavy Barrel – For uncompromising precision, and longer strings of fire without the barrel “walking” as it heats up. I still want to keep the overall weight down where possible.
- Unique Look – It seems like every rifle is either all black or some shade of tan, and I wanted a rifle with a more original and distinct look. Ultimately, my rifle is a tool and I’m not afraid to throw it into brush for a quick, improvised rest. It will get scratched up from lots of use, so I didn’t want an automotive finish or anything too polished.
For the type of shooting I planned with this rifle, I knew I wanted either a 6mm or 6.5mm cartridge. I attended the Championship Match for the Precision Rifle Series last weekend, and noticed 100% of the shooters who qualified were running a 6mm or 6.5mm (view last year’s data). That’s because there are many high-BC bullets available, and the cartridges have mild recoil and acceptable barrel life. I was considering these cartridges:
|6mm Cartridges||6.5mm Cartridges|
After a lot of research and thought, I decided to chamber this rifle for the 6XC. The 6XC is a cartridge created by David Tubb, “the best, and winningest, competitive rifleman in history” according to his website. 😉 David is a fierce competitor, and he developed the cartridge specifically for 600 and 1,000 yard competitions, and won at least four national championships with it. The 6XC essentially provides the same ballistics as a 243 Winchester, but can do it with 7 grains less powder because of superior cartridge design.
Like most modern cartridges, the 6XC has a 30 degree shoulder and long neck. The steeper shoulder and shorter case body resists growth, which means less trimming and longer case life (more firings). The long neck improves concentricity and bullet alignment, and provides more consistent neck tension. The 6XC also has generous magazine clearance to allow you to continue to seat the bullet out as the barrel wears, while still keeping the bullet’s full caliber diameter out of the “doughnut.” And because it can use less powder to achieve the same muzzle velocity, the barrel life is significantly improved over the 243, with the typical accurate barrel life of the 6XC being 2,500 to 3,000 rounds.
I’m using the exceptional Berger 105gr Hybrid bullet (G7 BC: 0.278, G1 BC: 0.547), and my H4350 load leaves a 24” barrel at 3,010 fps. A couple pro shooters told me the 105gr Hybrid “likes to fly around 3,000 fps,” so that is what I was roughly targeting and why I went with that barrel length.
Surgeon 591 Action
In an issue of RECOIL Magazine a few months ago (Issue #10), Iain Harrison wrote an article with an outstanding summary of the Surgeon Action. It illustrates the extraordinary lengths Surgeon goes 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.
Krieger 5-R 24” MTU Barrel
I went with a Krieger cut-rifled, match-grade barrel with the Obermeyer 5-R™ rifling pattern. 5-R™ rifling is simply a 5 groove rifling where the sides of the grooves have a “ramped” transition to the lands. Boots Obermeyer observed that with this rifling pattern bullet jackets deform in a way that they remain closer to the lands than the sharp-edge lands present in conventional rifling. This reduces powder fouling at the corner of the grooves and jacket failures in quick-twist barrels.
Surgeon typically only uses Heavy Palma or MTU contour barrels on their rifles. Those are heavy barrels, but yield surgical precision (pardon the pun). There are top shooters in the Precision Rifle Series (PRS) running both of those contours. I talked to Dustin Morris about this build, because he took 1st place overall in the PRS last year with a 6XC. He personally runs an MTU barrel, and when I asked about the weight … he essentially said “Yeah, it’s heavy … but you want to hit what you’re aiming at don’t you?!” I believe the GA Precision Team runs Heavy Palma contours, and 5 of them ended up in the top 10 this year. So there are obviously successful shooters running both. With this rifle, I’d rather go too heavy, than go too light and be left wondering if it a heavier contour would’ve performed better.
Dustin said his first 6XC had a 22” barrel, but then he switched to a 26” barrel to get higher velocities. Then for the 2013 season, he backed down to a 24” barrel and said he really liked it. Subsequently, he won that season. He was planning to go back with a 24” barrel when he rebarreled. I talked to a couple of the top PRS competitors who ran a 6XC, and it seemed like most thought the Berger 105gr Hybrid flew best around 3,000 fps. After checking QuickLOAD, it looked like a 24” barrel would put me right there, so that’s what I went with. My muzzle velocity is currently running at 3,010 fps, so it looks like it was right on track.
I was originally thinking about fluting the barrel, but there was a mix-up at Surgeon and it got shipped without flutes. I had a competition 2 weeks away I was hoping to use this rifle in, so they suggested I use it and then they’d pay to ship it back to them and they’d get it fixed and turned around ASAP. But after running it in the competition (which involved hiking 3+ miles per day in tough terrain), I decided I’d just keep it as is. I did talk to Ray Sanchez, a veteran shooter, about it at the competition, and he said he wouldn’t ever flute a barrel after it had been chambered, because he was afraid it could affect accuracy. That played into my head a little bit, but overall the extra 1/2 pound didn’t bother me. Most PRS competitors don’t run fluted barrels, but often that is just because they blow through barrels so fast that it doesn’t make sense to put the extra effort or money into it. Some guys (like Shilen Barrels) believe fluting “can induce unrecoverable stresses” that negatively impacts accuracy and Accuracy International published compelling test data showing that to be true as well. But there is heated debate around that topic, so I’ll just avoid it!
I decided on a 1:7.5 twist on my 6mm barrel. I don’t plan to ever use any bullets weighing less than 105 grains, and I typically subscribe to Todd Hodnett’s approach of leaning towards faster twist rates. Here is an excerpt from an article he wrote in the 2013 edition of SNIPER magazine titled The Future of Twist Rates:
More twist rate in the barrel imparts more spin on the bullet, thus more gyroscopic stability is retained through supersonic and into subsonic flight. What we lose in subsonic flight is the loss of BC due to the loss of gyroscopic stability, which allows more oscillation, which is basically more drag, which is loss of BC. If we spin the bullet faster to fight off the effects of transonic shockwaves, we retain more gyroscopic stability, which allows us to retain more BC farther downrange. This results in better groups and less holds at distance.
We spend a lot of money on better bullets, but as we are running slow twist, we may never see the real benefit of what these bullets have to offer. For those few who are willing to step out of the comfort zone of the past, I see great things for long range when we start really optimizing our twist rates with our wonderful new high-BC bullets. The plus side is that our older-design bullets will give us better performance as well.
Thought: What if we shot bigger bullets with higher BCs and faster twist rates to maximize performance – and were able to get even more performance, but with lower velocities, which would extend our barrel life? Is this a wish or a reality? – Todd Hodnett
So that had me leaning towards the 1:7.5 twist. However, Bryan Litz did tell me a 1:8 twist is ideal for the Berger 105 grain Hybrid bullets. I believe Bryan shoots those himself out of his 243 Win, which has virtually identical ballistics, so he should know. So I was torn on this decision. But, it turns out Dustin was running a 1:7.5 twist on his 6XC, so that is eventually what I landed on. I’d prefer to err on the side of a twist that is too fast, rather than risk one that is too slow. I’m sure the 1:7.5 or 1:8 twist barrels would both be excellent choices, and I probably wouldn’t be able to notice the difference. But I have a reputation of over-thinking everything that I need to maintain!
Here is a comparison of the stability factors between the two twist rates based on my ballistics. This was calculated using the free twist rate calculator from BergerBullets.com.
The only downside of a faster twist is that it will produce more spin drift, but that is a deterministic factor that you can calculate before you ever lay down behind the rifle. Plus it is a very tiny difference, which is barely worth mentioning. JBM ballistics engine calculates that the spin drift on the 1:7.5 twist barrel would be 10.1″ at 1200 yards, where the 1:8 twist would be 9.4″. So it is less than an inch at 1200 yards … I can’t shoot between those numbers!
Manners Elite Tactical 100% Carbon Fiber Folder Stock
This was the part I was most excited about with this new custom rifle build. At the 2014 SHOT Show, Manners Stocks unveiled their new Elite Tactical line of stocks … and they stopped me in my tracks. From a distance, this might look like a typical tactical stock, but it is far from typical. First, it is 100% carbon fiber! The strength to weight ratio of carbon fiber is off the charts compared to traditional stock materials. Engineers love it because carbon fiber is 5 times as strong as steel, 3 times as stiff, yet 70% lighter.
When Tom Manners founded Manners Stocks in 2001, the 1st stock he developed was actually a 100% carbon fiber stock for 50bmg benchrest competitions. That stock still owns most of the 1000 yard 50bmg records. Since then, Manners Composite Stocks has become known in the industry as the top of the line manufacturer for super-strong, stiff, lightweight stocks. This new line of Elite Tactical stocks has been both a throw back to the early days at Manners, and introduced a new level space-age technology to the tactical world at the same time.
When you compare the stiffness of Manner’s carbon fiber stock with a traditional fiberglass stock, you can feel the difference. I attempted to capture that on a short little video clip so you could see it for yourself.
The stock I chose was Manners’ folder model. While most shooters are familiar with a folding chassis system like the AICS, it isn’t as common on this style of tactical stock. But a folding stock can make a few things more convenient. First, you don’t have to remove the adjustable cheek rest to get adequate clearance for your bore guide and cleaning rod. So it can be convenient when you’re cleaning or working on the rifle.
More importantly for me, a folding stock makes it easier to transport with a suppressor attached. So instead of having to take my suppressor off before I put it in the case (and then screw it back on next time I shoot) … I can just leave it on all the time. I know there are some suppressors with quick detach connections, but there aren’t many good reviews on those when you’re talking about precision. It’s common to hear shooters claim a quick detach suppressor negatively affected their accuracy, and even if it’s minor … they end up leaving it off more times than not. I went with a direct thread suppressor to avoid that possibility, and the folding stock gives me the option to simply leave it on all the time (and it still fit in a standard size case).
The folded length with a suppressor is just 43”. For comparison, the unfolded length with a standard muzzle brake is 46.3” and the unfolded length with the suppressor is 53.3”. I’m unaware of any rifle cases that accommodate a 54” rifle, but since it folds … I can use just about any case.
Manners Stocks offers a ton of configuration options to help customize your stock. For their folding stocks, there are 2 different forends and 2 different butt sections that you can pick from (4 possible combinations). I went with the TF2 Tactical Folder configuration. Here is the full list of options I chose for my rifle:
- Model: Manners MCS-TF2 Elite Tactical Folder
- Butt: Features an adjustable cheek rest designed by Terry Cross, an accomplished precision rifle competitor. It also features a butt hook, which helps when using a rear bag or controlling the rifle with the non-trigger hand. This is similar to the T4A adjustable backend on Manners composite stocks.
- Recoil Pad: 1” Pachmayr Decelerator Pad. Manners also offers the popular Limb Saver pad, but those are made from a softer material. Some shooters claim the Pachmayr will hold up to rougher conditions in the field.
- Spacer System: I added the Manners spacer system for an adjustable length of pull. The spacer system requires them to add a metal plate, which increases the weight several ounces. I originally thought I’d order a fixed stock to minimize weight. But a fixed stock with a 1” pad will only accommodate a length of pull up to 14”. While that is enough for most shooters, with my long arms I need a fraction more to get my desired length of pull (14 3/8”). The spacer system does provide more flexibility, and resale value (although I can’t see myself selling this one!).
- Forend: Tapered T2 forend – Wade Stuteville, winner of the 2012 Precision Rifle Series, recommended a tapered forend to help when shooting off barricades or other improvised rests. The alternative to this is a forend that runs parallel to the barrel, which Manners does offer. Wade said if the forend is tapered, you can use that to your advantage, because you can slide the rifle forward or backwards on the rest to make minor vertical adjustments. However, if the forend is parallel to the barrel, you have no such adjustment.
- Hardware: I went with a Badger Ordnance Bipod Accessory Rail instead of the typical sling studs, because I wanted to be able to run a quick-detach bipod. Occasionally you may be able to get a better rest off a barricade or improvised rest if the bipod wasn’t attached. With a standard Harris Bipod connected to a sling stud, you’d need a couple minutes to remove it, but there are a few quick detach systems that work well with a picatinny rail. The picatinny rail firmly secures the bipod body, preventing the skew or twisting occasionally experienced when bipods are attached to stocks with large flat bottoms. I also added two flush cups opposite the bolt side.
- Finish: Clear Satin – Manners also offers a glossy and painted finish for their carbon fiber stocks, and both look pretty sharp. But I didn’t want a rifle that looked overly polished, and I liked the raw and unique look of the carbon fiber. I definitely haven’t seen any other rifles like it. Tom was concerned that this more raw finish wouldn’t be up to his standards, which are extremely high … and I can appreciate that eye for detail and finish. But this stock certainly exceeds my expectations. I think it looks amazing. It could show scratches and imperfections more than a painted finish, but ultimately the rifle is a tool … not a safe queen.
One place Manners didn’t try to shave weight was the folding steel hinge. Tom Manner’s definitely understands how important it is for a folding stock to lock-up with absolutely no play, and they accomplished that with this stock. If there were to be any flex in the stock, the hinge is the last place it would happen. The high-strength steel hinge is mil-spec parkarized, for added durability. The stock’s shell is actually molded around the hinge so there are no screws that could come loose or attachment systems that could fail. The entire hinge system is very simple, only consisting of a few parts. To fold the stock, you press a small checkered button, and you can lock it into the folded position with a standard flush cup button built into the butt. When you unfold the stock, the rear housing of the hinge wraps around the front portion to create a rock-solid system. It features a self-locking latch that snaps into place with a super tight, steel-on-steel lock-up.
After using the stock for a few months, and in a few competitions, I really can’t say enough good things about its performance. It is rock-solid, comfortable, and stiff. In the field, this stock is ideal, plus as a folder, it has the added benefit of making standard cleaning/maintenance and transport a little easier.
I can really only think about one thing I might change about this stock. It folds opposite the bolt, which is how most folders are designed to work. However, a few folders have come out that fold towards the bolt. That leaves you one side that is when in the folded position, so if you carried it in a pack or strapped it that way you wouldn’t have something sticking into your back.
The overall weight of this stock is 4.6 lbs., which includes bottom metal (0.4 lbs.), Badger rail (0.1 lbs.), and all spacers (but no action or magazine). For comparison, a folding AICS 2.0 chassis weighs 5.0 pounds. So we’re shaving a little weight, plus getting the benefit from the carbon fiber’s added strength and stiffness.
I was originally considering getting a non-folding model of this stock with fixed length of pull (i.e. no spacer system) to help shave a few ounces. I’d never consider not getting an adjustable cheek, because personally I think it is worth whatever weight it adds. A few people had concerns with how the rifle would balance with that approach. They thought a bull barrel combined with a featherweight stock might cause the rifle to feel awkward and difficult to maneuver. They were probably right, because I love the balance of the rifle I ended up with. If you were to trim the barrel down to a Medium Palma contour, you could likely shave some weight off of the stock and it still be well-balanced. But I definitely wanted a heavy barrel on this rifle, so this was the Manners Elite Tactical Carbon Fiber Folder was the perfect stock to pair that with.
Manners is actively working on revamping their website, to make it easier to navigate and understand what all they offer. But I scanned in their 2014 Product Catalog that I picked up at SHOT Show, and thought I’d share it here if you’re interested in learning more.
Jewell Triggers are the gold standard for precision bolt action rifles. I went with the very popular Jewell Hunter Varmint Rifle (HVR) model trigger, which includes a safety (unlike their Benchrest BR model). This trigger is adjustable from 3.5 pounds all the way down to just 1.5 ounces.
I have a Timney #510 Trigger on a different custom rifle, and I like that trigger as well. After using the Jewell, I’ve decided I personally prefer the Timney trigger’s wider shoe. However, you are able to adjust the pull weight of the Jewell trigger without having to remove the stock, which is convenient. Also the Timney trigger is only able to be adjusted down to 1.5 pounds, where the Jewell can go down to 0.01 pounds (i.e. 1.5 ounces). I currently run my triggers at 1 pound 10 ounces, so that really isn’t an issue for me … but I know guys who like them under 1.5 pounds, and you can’t do that with the Timney.
As far as the crispness of the triggers, both are exceptional. A trigger can’t possibly get any better. There is ZERO creep, and the break is clean and consistent every time. I wish I could get triggers this amazing on all my firearms!
Surgeon Detachable Magazine Bottom Metal
For my trigger guard bottom metal, I chose the Surgeon Short Action Detachable Magazine Bottom Metal. I like that it works with the proven Accuracy International magazines. I typically use a 10 round AICS 308 magazine.
This bottom metal was originally designed by Terry Cross for the KMW Sentinel Combat Stock. It may appear like a simple part, but a ton of thought was put into this design. Here is a little description about the bottom metal and magazine system for the Sentinel design:
The conformal magazine release is easier to use, more damage resistant, and more snag resistant than most other DBM systems. This magazine release is accessible with gloves on and minimizes the chance of accidental magazine loss. Forward sides of the trigger guard are recessed to allow maximum access to the magazine release while still protecting this part from damage. The funneled mag well offers greatly improved insertion of the magazine into the weapon compared to other systems currently on the market. The stock and DBM system offers maximum vertical support of the magazine for reliable and repeatable positioning of the rounds in relation to the receiver’s feed ramp. All inside and outside edges of this unit are radiused so that there are no sharp edges.
The KMW Sentinel rifle stock features a proprietary McMillan stock, which wraps around the bottom metal mag well in a unique way.
Surgeon started with Terry’s bottom metal design, but modded it to work in a standard McMillan stock. An unintended side-effect of this approach was it left a shelf in front of the magazine (you can see in the photos above), which actually turned into a cool feature. That part actually acts as a stop/block protecting the front of the magazine. If you’re resting the rifle on a barricade, you can sometimes get a more stable position if you slide the rifle forward and lean into the barricade. This is especially true when standing. It’s common for detachable box magazine (DBM) systems to not have that protection in front of the magazine, which means you are jamming the magazine into the barricade. The weight and subsequent force from recoil can damage the magazine, and possibly even dislodge it. Not cool when an AI magazine costs $90. But with the Surgeon magazine system, the tough bottom metal would be taking the load/impact and not the magazine.
I also like that the magazine release is outside of the trigger guard. I probably don’t have to explain why that’s a good idea. But I have another custom rifle built with a Wyatt’s Detachable Magazine Bottom Metal, and the mag release on that is inside the trigger guard. And yes, I did send a round down range once while trying to eject the magazine. I realize I should be more careful … and I am … by buying Surgeon bottom metal instead. Overall, this is just a very well thought out system.
Gunsmith: Surgeon Rifles
Surgeon Rifles is highly regarded in the precision rifle community, and considered by many to be one of the premier rifle builders in the world. Surgeon began by manufacturing extremely accurate custom actions in small machine shop. Preston Pritchett was a long-time machinist, as well as a competitive rifle shooter. The measurable accuracy improvement he found in his action design, was surprising even to him. One of my friends shot with him at the time, and he recalls a competition where Preston was shooting well and my friend congratulated him on his marksmanship. Preston seemed half-surprised and blamed it on “this new action” he’d be working on. My friend thought he was just being too humble, but apparently, he really was on to something. (Of course, it still has a lot to do with the nut behind the gun!)
In 2004, Surgeon Rifles was born and they started making both actions and a few custom rifles and over time both the number of action and complete rifles they produce had tremendous growth. In fact, over the past couple years you haven’t even been able to buy a Surgeon Action. Surgeon didn’t have the capacity to produce enough actions to satisfy the demand for their complete rifle build and 3rd party gunsmiths. However, at the first of the year Surgeon moved the bulk of their operation from the small town of Prague, Oklahoma to their new facilities in Arizona. In 2011, Surgeon Rifles was purchased by Strategic Armory Corps, who also now owns McMillan Firearms and they figured there could be some synergy between those groups, although they have no plans of changing either of the products.
While the move to Arizona initially introduced some chaos and extended wait times, it looks like Surgeon Rifles is now settled in and hitting on all cylinders. Just a couple months ago, Surgeon began selling actions again, which indicates their production capacity is now aligned with the demand. I’ve also noticed an increase in the number of spec rifle builds listed on their website, which may mean quicker turnaround times on custom builds.
This website has given me the incredible opportunity to talk to world-class shooters and rifle builders. It’s humbling honestly. Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege to get to know a couple guys over at Surgeon, and I couldn’t have more confidence in them. They are honest people, who are passionate about building the absolute best rifle possible. Within my group of close friends, we have 7 different Surgeon Rifles, and our experience is that the guys at Surgeon Rifles don’t cut corners. The fit and finish, and attention to small details are impeccable. Customer service experience and turnaround time has been great as well. I’ve had some bad experiences with gunsmiths, but Surgeon Rifles certainly wasn’t one of them.
Schmidt and Bender PMII 5-25×56 DT Scope
Okay, confession time. This is why I did that crazy, in-depth scope field test. I wanted to know what the best scope was, so I’d know what to mount on this rifle. Isn’t that ridiculous? I didn’t expect that test to grow into a 6 month project, but that is what happens when I set my mind to something. If you’re going to do it, do it right!
This scope finished #1 in the field test, so it is topping my new rifle. There isn’t much more to say about the Schmidt and Bender PMII 5-25×56, except that it’s amazing and absolutely the best scope money can buy. Some might argue that it isn’t the best value out there, and they’re probably right. But after spending 400+ hours testing and handling all of the high-end scopes, I’m convinced there isn’t anything better.
Just in case it sounds like I’m a fan-boy, I did buy this scope out-of-pocket from a retailer. Schmidt and Bender doesn’t sponsor me, and haven’t given me anything. I also own Nightforce, US Optics, Leupold, and Nikon scopes … but this is my favorite.
Schmidt and Bender is quite different than other optics companies. One big difference is they’re 100% focused on rifle scopes. Although they could easily leverage the brand, they resist urge to diversify into other optics products. You can’t even buy a Schmidt and Bender T-shirt. The only thing they have for sale is world-class, top of the line scopes. Here’s how they see it:
Since 1957, in a small town where Germany’s legendary optics industry was founded hundreds of years ago, Schmidt & Bender has been devoted to one thing only: building the finest rifle scope money can buy.
Scopes are all we make. We don’t make binoculars, or cameras, or crystal, or “amateur” optics, or anything else that would distract us from our commitment to the hunter and shooter.
Some companies build as many scopes in a week as we build in a year. And that’s OK. We’ve never been concerned about quantity. Our concern is with the hunter who has climbed all day, or sat in a blind all night, who has traveled for days or saved for years or who has braved rain and cold and snow for one shot at a trophy. Our concern is with the police officer or the soldier who may have one shot to save a life.
There is an old saying in hunting that “you can’t hit it if you can’t see it.” Our job is to make sure you see it. Under conditions that other scopes simply are not built to handle.
If you’ve not tried a Schmidt & Bender rifle scope, we encourage you to borrow one from a friend or dealer and try it. At dusk, at first light, even by moonlight. Once you’ve seen things our way, you’ll never look at -or through-a rifle scope the same way again.
Like a high-end, custom 1911, much of the assembly process is done by hand, which is why the company can only produce a limited number of scopes annually. Schmidt and Bender scopes top some of the most elite sniper rifles throughout the world, and their performance and durability in the field is legendary.
The specific model I landed on is the Schmidt and Bender PMII 5-25×56 DT with the P4L Fine mil-based reticle. A few of my friends use the P4L Fine, and they all love it and it was the reticle option I liked the best as well. I wish the intersection of the crosshairs was open and the outer posts could be a little thicker to help when you’re dialed to a low power, but other than that, the P4L Fine is a good reticle. I prefer it over the popular MSR reticle, because it is less crowded (I’ve never found myself milling targets … I carry a rangefinder), and I like its floating crosshairs.
Why Not MTC Turrets?
I strongly prefer the DT turret over the MTC. I do like that the MTC turrets are lockable, and I wish my windage knob was lockable, because I rarely dial for wind. But I’ve used an S&B scope with MTC turrets, and am not a fan. MTC stands for More Tactile Clicks, which just means the turret is designed to give feedback you can sense with touch to indicate when you’re at certain adjustments. It does that by making certain clicks slightly more “sticky” than others. On this turret those are on every whole number (0.0, 1.0, 2.0, etc.). MTC designs theoretically allow the shooter to sense where they are on the adjustment just by feel. That means you don’t have to lift their head from behind the scope or could make adjustments in pitch black. Some guys like MTC turrets, others hate them. I’m probably closer to that second group. One downside of MTC designs is that it is easy to accidentally overrun your target adjustment, because you have to apply so much pressure to “break out” of those “sticky” clicks. For example, if you need to adjust from 0.0 to 0.1, you may spin past it to 0.3 or 0.4 and then have to back off a few clicks to get to 0.1 (hopefully without landing back on 0.0 and repeating the whole process). This is especially true for the Schmidt and Bender MTC turret, because it has a stiffer clicks than most scopes. I read a review by ILya Koskin on a Schmidt and Bender scope with these MTC turrets. Here is what ILya said:
Of the two S&B scopes, the first one I got my hands on was brand new straight from the dealer, and the turrets were very stiff. When that stiffness was combined with the MTC click stop, I found it virtually impossible to go one click past the MTC. I spent a fair amount of time with that scope, and I do not think I ever managed to get confident with adjusting the turret without getting visual confirmation. … I still do not like the whole MTC business. I understand the reason for it, but it is not my thing. Every MTC implementation I have seen to date makes ‘no eyes’ operation virtually impossible for me. … Since a bunch of people out there clearly like MTC, I must be odd, which is not all that surprising. – ILya Koskin
I guess I must be odd too, because I have the same impression.
I love scopes with a Double Turn (DT) design, which just means there are only two revolutions. This virtually eliminates the problem of getting lost or forgetting what revolution you’re on. You can see the obvious revolution indicator on the DT model. If you miss that obvious, bright color while you’re staring at the turret, you shouldn’t be allowed to handle a gun. Watch the video demo below to see it for yourself.
The numbers on the Schmidt and Bender PMII scope are huge, and easy to read from behind the gun, even while under stress. The clicks are extremely crisp.
The only downside is it is heavy, weighing in at 2.5 pounds. While that isn’t the heaviest scope out there, I’ve heard more than one shooter lovingly refer to this scope as a “boat anchor.” It probably could pull double-duty if needed.
Spuhr Ideal Scope Mount
From an engineering standpoint, Spuhr mounts are stunningly elegant. Every millimeter of this mount has been carefully thought-out. I’ve used this mount on a magnum precision rifle for a couple years, and it is just tough and ideal in every way.
Here are some of the notable features:
- Built-in Bubble Level – You need a cant level to achieve consistent hits at long-range. This mount features a bubble level that is integrated into the rear of the mount in a way that is easy to see from behind the rifle, but doesn’t add any bulk. I personally don’t like the idea of attaching a ring-mounted level to my scope, because those typically need to stick out away from the scope to be seen, and if it gets hit or caught on something … the level essentially becomes a lever that is applying mechanical force on the scope tube. Scopes are too expensive to be damaged by a cheap bubble level. This is an beautiful solution.
- Super-Compact Profile – The rings on the Spuhr mount are cut at a 45 degree angle, which keeps the mount from obscuring the knobs. This makes it easy to see your exact adjustment with very little head movement.
- No Lapping Required – The Spuhr mount is a one-piece mount precisely machined from a single billet of aluminum, which means there is no need to lap the rings. The rings are perfectly aligned, which ensures more surface contact with the scope tube and also prevents stress on the scope tube, which can dent the tube, distort the reticle, and cause adjustment problems.
- Extensibility – The Spuhr mount has built-in attachment interfaces all over it for mounting a variety of accessories directly to the mount. This could include reflex sights, lasers, cosine indicators, picatinny rails, nightvision equipment, thermal attachments, flashlight, etc. There are really no limitations to what can be attached. I’ve even seen a camera mounted to a Spuhr to catch all the action. This just provides a lot of flexibility.
I bought the SP-4001 model, which is a designed for a 34mm scope tube, mounts to a standard picatinny rail, and doesn’t have any cant built-in. Cant is also sometimes referred to as slope or tilt, and essentially pitches the scope forward to allow you to use more of the scope’s internal elevation adjustment. The integrated picatinny rail on the Surgeon Action already has 20 MOA of cant built into it, and since the intended range of this rifle is out to 1,200 yards, it didn’t make sense to add more than that.
One downside of the Spuhr mount is that it has a ton of screws to tighten. The rings alone have 6 screws … each. That makes it time consuming to mount or adjust, but its secure. If I have to choose between rock-solid and convenient … I’d pick rock-solid every time.
Another downside is it costs about the same as a kidney on the black market. $400 for rings is hard to swallow. Remember when we used to buy $25 rings from Walmart? Oh, the simpler days. I guess I never got that rifle to shoot to a grand though.
JEC Customs 6mm Recoil Reduction Muzzle Brake
Aren’t all muzzle brakes the same? Nope. There are a lot of muzzle brake designs out there, and some are simply more effective than others. So when trying to decide on which muzzle brake I should use on this rifle, I first looked at what the pros are using. Of the top 50 shooters in the PRS from this past year, 1 in 3 used a JEC Recoil Reduction Muzzle Brake (see the data). They had almost twice as many brakes represented as any other company. I know some of the shooters, and have immense respect for their opinion. Those numbers include shooters like George Gardner (founder of GA Precision), the entire GAP Team, Wade Stuteville, the Surgeon Rifle Team, members of the legendary US Army Marksmanship Unit, and many other knowledgeable shooters who represent the best in the country. When guys like that talk, you listen.
Although there isn’t any hard data out there on how effective different muzzle brakes are at reducing recoil, the next best approach is to simply go with what the experts are using. So I thought I’d try out a JEC Customs muzzle brake on this rifle.
One thing I liked right off the bat, was that I could order a caliber-specific muzzle brake. Many muzzle brakes are only available in 30 caliber, similar to suppressors. But JEC Customs offered options for 22 caliber, 6mm, 6.5mm, 7mm, or 30 caliber. In theory, it seems like this would make the brake more effective … but at this point, I have no hard data to support that. I definitely like the idea. I ordered the 6mm version.
You can also select either a stainless steel or black model. I actually chose stainless steel and had the guys at Surgeon Cerakote it along with the barreled action. The brake is directional, which means Surgeon had to time it on my barrel. JEC also offers shim kits and crush washers as DIY alternatives. I prefer the shim kit option.
The JEC brake was designed with competition shooters in mind. It features a standard 5/8×24 TPI thread, which was important for me since I was also planning to run this rifle with a suppressor at times. Its 1.0” outside diameter was a great fit on my MTU barrel.
The JEC brake has outstanding recoil reduction compared to other brakes I’ve used. After shooting my rifle, one of my close friends replaced his Badger muzzle brake with a JEC brake. There was noticeable improvement behind his 6.5 Creedmoor. Now, they are loud … really, really loud. That actually is a sign that a brake is doing its job. I’m wearing hearing protection anyway, so that isn’t a huge drawback for me … but it could be for the guy on the line next to you.
Thunder Beast (TBAC) 30P-1 Suppressor
Choosing a suppressor seems like such a big decision, because of the ridiculous lead-time involved with getting government approval (mine took 11 months). But once again, since there is virtually no hard data or objective comparison available on precision rifle suppressors, I went with the next best approach to figuring out what to buy, which is looking at what the successful shooters and experts in the field are using on their rifles. Of the top 50 shooters in the PRS from this past year, most of them actually used a muzzle brake instead of a suppressor in competition. This is likely due to the reduced weight and improved maneuverability a muzzle brake provides compared to a suppressor.
However, there were 13 shooters using suppressors out of the top 50, and the most popular was Thunder Beast, also known as TBAC (see the data). I’ve known a few shooters who’ve bought TBAC suppressors, and none of them regretted that decision. I’ve personally talked with Zak Smith and Ray Sanchez (the guys running TBAC) at the Steel Safari the past few years, and they’re passionate and accomplished long-range shooters. Zak has even shared some about the state-of-the-art CNC machines they’ve invested in as they’ve grown. It sounds like an impressive operation, and a lot of world-class shooters are using them … so I thought I’d give it a shot.
I ordered the Thunder Beast 30P-1 Suppressor. Here is what TBAC has to say about that model: “The model 30P-1 is our flagship long-range precision rifle suppressor. It offers best-in-class sound suppression levels in a very light weight format, and is built with accuracy as its first priority.”
Here are a few key features about the TBAC 30P-1:
- Titanium – 360° fully-welded baffle cores are made from 100% billet titanium (takes 15” of bar stock to produce the baffles for this 9” suppressor). Titanium provides an outstanding strength to weight ratio. My 30P-1 suppressor weighs 17.6 ounces, where some stainless steel suppressors weigh double that.
- CNC Precision – Baffles and other parts are precision machined using cutting-edge CNC equipment (not stamped or cast). Manufacturing processes ensure baffles are perfectly aligned with the bore, and the axis of the threads and rear should are perfectly square with the bore. They hold tolerances to 1/1000th of an inch on most parts. Precision of threads is critical, so they thread to a Class 3 thread standard using a single-point CNC lathe.
- Expert Tuning – They have a secret tuning process they run through on each individual suppressor to ensure the highest accuracy potential for every unit they ship.
- Designed with Accuracy as 1st Priority – Incorporates specific design features and construction that support accuracy, even though they increase manufacturing costs.
- Magnum Rated – The 30P-1 is rated up to a 300 Win Mag, so it can take anything you can throw at it. But it’s ideal for popular long-range cartridges like the 6XC, 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5-284 Norma, 7mm Rem Mag, etc.]
The results? I know a lot of guys using TBAC 30P-1 suppressors, and have met many shooters using these suppressors at competitions I’ve been in. I’ve never met one that wasn’t completely satisfied, and didn’t report rock-solid POI repeatability. In fact, Ray told me he did an experiment in 2011 while competing in the Steel Safari, which is a competition that attracts talented shooters from across the nation. He wanted to prove the claims about the TBAC suppressor’s POI repeatability, so he actually removed the suppressor between each stage and screwed it back on before the next string of fire. Ray got 1st place that year. Now that’s hard to argue with.
I’m using a thermal mirage cover made by Armageddon Gear, which is what the guys at Thunder Beast recommend. Suppressors can really heat up, and this ensures the created by that heat doesn’t disrupt your sight picture.
Harris Bipod BRM-S with LaRue LT706 QD Swivel Mount and JEC Spikes
While some shooters have opted for an Accushot Atlas bipod, the lions share of precision shooters still use Harris Bipods. They’re just tough. They’re what are decorating most sniper rifles in Afghanistan, and what demanding shooters are using in competitions as well. I’ve personally used them for years, and they’ve never let me down.
But I was hoping to get a bipod with some kind of quick detach, so I could remove it rapidly in a competition. Occasionally you may be able to get a better rest off a barricade or improvised rest if the bipod wasn’t attached. With a standard Harris Bipod connected to a sling stud, you’d need a couple minutes to remove it, but there are a few quick detach systems that work well with a picatinny rail.
I started by buying a Harris RBA-1 RotaPod Adapter. This adapter provides a quick detach feature, and allows the bipod to rotate left and right. The rotate feature sounded interesting, but I really liked the idea of being able to use it with all my existing Harris bipods. However, after using it for a couple weeks … I hate it. It increases the distance to the bore, and I underestimated how much that would affect the feel behind the rifle. It just doesn’t feel as stable. That adapter quickly found its way off my rifle into a drawer somewhere.
Next, I bit the bullet and bought the LaRue-improved version, which they call the Harris Bipod BRM-S and LT706 QD Swivel Mount Combo. The spine is a Harris S-BRM (aka BRMS), which has adjustable 6-9” legs with notches, and it swivels side to side. LaRue then replaced the Harris OEM stud attachment with a custom chassis featuring an integral, low-profile, LaRue Quick Detach lever mount. This eliminates the possibility of the stud screw or grabber becoming loose. In the process, they lightened it slightly and lowered the profile by 0.25”. They even added a large knob to adjust swivel tension.
While it was hard to stomach paying over $200 for a bipod … the LaRue Harris Combo is exceptional. Like most things LaRue produces, it feels so solid. I think I could drive over it in my truck, but I’m not going to try it for $220! There were a few clunky things about the Harris design that they modernized, and the result is great.
As if the LaRue upgrade on the Harris wasn’t enough, I actually decided to change out the feet as well. Loading a bipod is important (i.e. leaning into the rifle with a consistent amount of force to take the slack out of the bipod). But sometimes when loading the bipod, the rifle may creep forward. This usually happens most when you’re shooting off hard dirt or rock/concrete that has a thin layer of lose dirt on top. You either won’t dig in as well as you’d like, which can send shots high, or you waste time trying to dig the legs into a little hole, and hope it holds until you can get the shot off. Am I alone here? Come on, you know what I’m talking about.
Well, over the past couple competitions … I’ve developed a hatred for that. One of my friends had replaced his feet with spikes, and that looked like the ticket. So I bought some JEC JPEGs Harris Bipod Spikes. These are replacement feet designed for the competitive shooter that require no adapters, and are installed by simply removing the roll pins from the existing feet and installing the new feet with the provided roll pins. Well, it’s not exactly that easy. Removing the roll pins from the OEM feet can be a chore if you’ve used it for a while. JEC recommends you soak it in oil overnight, and that might help. While the process wasn’t enjoyable, the results are.
The problem of a sliding rifle is a thing of the past. Now I have a new problem of scratching up my wife’s dining table or anything else these spikes come within 5 feet of. They’re awesome for shooting, and terrible for furniture and marriages. So I picked up some little rubber caps from an auto parts store that slip over the spikes, and now it’s the complete package. JEC say they’re working on a (more professional looking) product like this that will be released soon, but these will keep me out of marital counselling for now.
Tenebraex Tactical Tough Scope Covers
The Schmidt and Bender PMII 5-25×56 came with Butler Creek Scope Covers. I had tried those on a Nightforce scope in the past, and broke off the eyepiece cover the second time out. But on Nightforce scopes the entire eyepiece turns when you adjust the magnification, so when I tried to quickly change to a lower magnification as a 300 pound hog approached … I snapped the cover clean off (see the pic of the hog on the About page, and notice the absence of scope covers on the rifle).
During a 3 day match a couple months ago, the Butler Creek Scope Covers on my Schmidt and Bender got hit on something and tore slightly. Then at my next big competition, they broke clean off. I know a lot of people use Butler Creek … but I’m done with them. We just aren’t compatible.
I remembered hearing Todd Hodnett, an authority in the long-range world, talk about some kind of scope covers on The Art of the Precision Rifle training DVDs (which are 5 star by the way). I went back, and found it and made a little video clip of what I’m talking about:
It took some creative Googling to figure out how to spell it, but it turns out he is referring to the Tenebraex Tactical Tough Scope Covers. I just installed these, but I have a feeling we’re going to get along great. They feel much less fragile. While I’m sure they’re technically some form of plastic like the Butler Creek, they feel more rubbery/malleable and less rigid/brittle.
Keep in mind these don’t mount like typical scope covers. The objective cap will not mount to the scope without an adapter. So you actually need to buy 3 parts. Here are the specific parts I bought for my Schmidt and Bender PMII 5-25×56:
Cerakote: Flat Black
I got the guys at Surgeon to Cerakote the barreled action and muzzle brake in flat black. I thought that would look go with the scope and mount, and also compliment the carbon fiber stock. In related news, did you know painting a Schmidt and Bender scope voids the warranty? The warranty period is only 2 years, but that was surprising (and confirmed by Schmidt and Bender representatives).
Cerakote is an extremely durable, weather- and corrosion-proof, ceramic-based protective finish that resists scratching, chipping, and abrasive cleaning solvents. It is spray-on and ovencured. Hardener and paint chemically bond into an ultra-thin coating that adheres to almost any surface for a clean, professional finish. There are similar products out there, but none compare to the how tough Cerakote is. To see the difference, the results from a lab abrasion test for popular coatings are provided below (view more details).
After I published this, several guys asked me what a rifle like this would cost. Sorry I didn’t think about adding that from the start. I honestly hadn’t added it up … probably out of fear mostly. I bought parts from different places over the past year, and it took me a while to pull all the prices into a spreadsheet. The breakdown below should include everything I highlighted in this post.
Note: All prices are as of Oct 2014 and are for informational purposes only. For the current price, please contact the individual companies. Prices are subject to change without notice.
|Surgeon Rifle Build (configured as shown, excludes buyer-supplied stock and muzzle brake)||$4,400|
|Manners Elite Tactical Folding Stock (configured as shown)||$1,294|
|JEC 6mm Recoil Reduction Muzzle Brake||$110|
|Thunder Beast 30P-1 Suppressor||$1,095|
|Armageddon Gear Suppressor Mirage Cover||$70|
|Schmidt and Bender PMII 5-25×56 DT P4L Fine Scope||$3,739|
|Spuhr SP-4001 Scope Mount||$410|
|LaRue’s Harris Bipod BRM-S and LT706 QD Swivel Mount Combo||$220|
|JEC Harris Bipod Spikes||$40|
|Rubber Caps for Bipod Spikes||$8|
|Tenebraex Tactical Tough Scope Covers||$76|
|Accuracy International 10rd Magazine||$88|
|Total (before shipping, taxes, fees, etc.)||$11,550|
Wowza! That is painful to see honestly. I told the first person who asked that I’d guess it was just under $10k … but that was apparently pretty optimistic! This does include the suppressor, so without it you are closer to $10,400.
Honestly, I didn’t cut any corners on this rifle. I tried to pick what I thought was the best possible part for every single component, and then I might have upgraded or modded it further if I thought it would help. I have a friend that literally has 25+ rifles, but not a single match-grade rifle that he has confidence in. On the other hand, I only own 5 rifles … but they’re outstanding. This 6XC is the crown jewel of my collection. For the first time in my life, my favorite rifle isn’t “the next one!” It’s this one.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the founder of a famous car company. It encapsulates how I feel about this rifle:
The quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten.
– Sir Henry Royce (Co-founder of Rolls Royce)