I recently surveyed the top ranked shooters in both the Precision Rifle Series (PRS) and the National Rifle League (NRL) to learn what gear they’re running in long range rifle matches. (Learn about the PRS & NRL.) This group of over 150 competitors represent the best precision rifle shooters in the country. This post will focus on what they chose for the foundation of their rifles: the action. (View other What The Pros Use articles)
Most Popular Rifle Action
The action is the heart of the rifle. In the precision rifle game, you’ll shoot out barrels and replace them over time, and it’s likely that over a few years you might upgrade scopes, triggers, or even try a new stock or chassis … but the action is what transcends time. Those other parts are peripheral or an accessory attached to the action, which is why it’s also commonly referred to as the receiver and why it’s the “controlled part” of the firearm (i.e. the one with the serial number that has to be transferred through someone with a Federal Firearms License). If you want to replace an action on a rifle, you might be better off selling the whole gun and starting again from scratch. Ask me how I know! 😉 In a few years, the action might be the only thing you still have, so invest in a good one!
On to the data! It seems with actions we continue the theme of major shifts in what brands of equipment these guys were using. Last time I did this survey, the results were very different (see 2016 results), with Defiance on top followed by Surgeon. But at the time of that last survey, the Impact Precision action still wasn’t widely available to the general public (i.e. they were still ramping up production, so wait times were very long at the time). Fast forward to today, and Impact Precision is now the most popular precision rifle action, with 27% of these top shooters choosing to build their rifle around one.
The various colors on the chart represent the league and rank of the shooters. For example, black indicates shooters who finished in the top 10 in the PRS, dark blue is those who finished 11-25 in the PRS, and the lighter the blue, the further out they finished in PRS overall standings. The green colors represents the top shooters in the NRL, where the darkest green is the top 10, medium green is 11-25, and light green are 26th to 50th. The legend on the chart itemizes the league and ranks each color represents, but basically the darker the color, the higher up the shooters placed.
Impact Precision had the most shooters represented at 27% overall. If you just look at the top 10 in the PRS, 50% of them were running an Impact Precision 737R short action receiver! This action currently is priced at $1390. I’ll go into a little more detail on the Impact action a little later in this post.
Defiance Machine also had a ton of shooters represented, at 21%. Defiance is the only company to be one of the top 2 actions since the inception of the PRS in 2012. They’ve had a long-standing respect within the precision rifle community, and while the popularity of some actions have ebbed and flowed, many of these top shooters stand by Defiance – and for good reason! The Defiance Deviant Elite (pictured below) is priced at $1350. I’ll dive into a lot more detail on Defiance actions later in this post.
There was a host of other great actions represented, besides Impact and Defiance, although those two alone represented almost 50% of all these shooters! That doesn’t necessarily mean they are “the best” – but it does mean many of the best shooters in the country believe in them.
Bighorn actions have made this list for several years, and have grown in popularity among this crowd over the past couple years. Most of these actions are based on a Remington 700 design, but some the unique features of the Big Horn action are a floating and interchangeable bolt head, along with a Savage small shank barrel thread (so you’re able to use one of the pre-chambered Savage style barrels with a barrel nut, which can be almost half the cost of having a gunsmith chamber a custom barrel). It also has controlled round feed and a mechanical ejector, which some shooters prefer and believe are more robust than push feed and plunger-style ejector like a standard Remington 700 action. Bighorn offers more options than most manufacturers, including allowing you to choose right/left hand bolt, which side the ejection port is on, several bolt knob options, a few mag cuts including one that allows you to use double-stack AW magazines (i.e. more compact 10 round mag), three tang thicknesses, and finished in stainless or with DLC (Diamond-Like Carbon) coating. It features a pinned rail (i.e. not integral), which are offered in 0, 20, or 30 MOA, so that you can adapt it to get the most out of your scope’s elevation adjustment for your application. While the price may change based on the options you choose, these actions currently run around $1250.
Curtis Customs actions are a relatively new name, but are already represented in significant numbers. They are also based on a Remington 700 footprint, but feature a 3 lug design which means they have a shorter 60° bolt throw (instead of the traditional 90° you turn a bolt on most Rem 700 actions). Their flagship tactical action, the VECTOR, accepts true, double-stack AW magazines (i.e. more compact 10 round mag), and has a quick-change barrel feature (notice the screw above the recoil lug?). The VECTOR action is fully DLC (Diamond-Like Carbon) coated. Here is what I noticed Defiance says about DLC coating on their FAQ page: “Although it’s the most expensive coating, we feel it is the hardest, slickest, most durable option. This is the premium treatment for our actions, and we can provide it for an added cost.” Curtis Customs completely DLC coats the VECTOR, which just shows their no-cutting-corners, the-best-at-every-turn approach to building actions. The VECTOR is currently priced at $1400, and their Axiom action is priced around $1100.
Those top 4 actions represented 67% of what these shooters were running. The other companies who had several shooters represented among this group of precision riflemen included Lone Peak Arms, Accuracy International, GAP’s Tempest action, Kelbly’s, American Rifle Company, and Surgeon. Each of those are extremely capable actions, and have their own unique and compelling features. There have never been more talented people competing in this space than now, and it’s resulting in a lot of innovation. While going into detail on all of these actions is beyond the scope of this post, I’d encourage you to check them all out if you’re on the market for a custom action for your next precision rifle build.
I did notice a slight variation in action popularity by league. The graph below shows the same data sliced a bit differently. Instead of the total number of shooters, it charts the total percentage of shooters and shows different bars for each league.
I’m not sure what to make of this, other than regional variation. You can see Impact Precision was more popular in the PRS, but Defiance was more popular in the NRL – although both were clearly very popular in both leagues. Lone Peak Arms was almost twice as popular in the NRL, which could perhaps be because people closely related to that Utah-based company compete in more NRL matches than PRS. I have a feeling that none of these differences between the leagues are “statistically significant,” (i.e. we probably shouldn’t draw conclusions from it) but it was just interesting to see it broken down this way. Ultimately, these actions are all very capable of long-range precision, and are a massive step up from the old factory Remington 700!
Because Impact Precision and Defiance Machine made up almost 50% of the shooters, I wanted to share more about those companies and a few unique aspects about their products that may have played into why so many of these pros chose to build their rifle around one of these actions:
Impact Precision Action
The Impact Precision 737R is a short-action receiver designed by Wade Stuteville and Tate Streater who are both accomplished shooters in the PRS world. Wade was the overall PRS Champion in 2012, and has been a perennial top 100 shooter year after year. Tate Streater has won several national-level matches like the Steel Safari 3 years in a row (2016-2018), the 2015 Sniper’s Hide Cup, and the 2014 Heat Stroke. Wade and Tate became friends shooting rifle matches together, and both know first-hand what it takes to compete at the highest level of the precision rifle game.
But the real power comes when you combine their first-hand, pro-level shooting experience with their unique professional background. You see Wade was a founding partner, designer, and later the General Manager at Surgeon Rifles for a few years before it was moved to Arizona. Surgeon was machining a ton of the premiere actions at the time, and building hundreds of really high-end, custom rifles too. Wade is now the owner and rifle builder at Stuteville Precision, and one of the most respected gunsmiths in the country for precision rifles, with big-name customers like Accuracy International trusting Wade to chamber some of their barrels. As it turns out Tate and his father-in-law, Robin Smith, run a company named Tape-Matics, which is a modern machining facility that makes parts with extremely tight tolerances for the aerospace industry, the Department of Defense, the oil and gas industry, and others, and has been doing it since 1979! In fact, Tape-Matics is AS-9100C compliant, which is a standard for quality management in the aerospace industry that basically takes ISO 9001 standards and puts them on steroids to satisfy strict quality requirements from NASA, the Department of Defense, and the FAA!
Wade, Tate, and Robin partnered to form Impact Precision Shooting. Two of them with experience actually winning precision rifle competitions, one with a ton of real-world experience building and troubleshooting high-end actions and custom rifles, and two with extensive expertise in machining extremely precise parts – what a powerful partnership! When you understand the guys behind the product, it shouldn’t be surprising that those three were able to design and produce an action that is already a huge success!
The Impact Precision 737R action is machined with such strict tolerances that one action is virtually identical to another, which means you’re able to buy off-the-shelf, chambered barrels that can be user installed. No more sending your favorite match rifle off to be rebarreled! Because the individual parts and overall assembly are held to such exact dimensions, you can even order bolts with different bolt faces along with a chambered and pre-fit barrel in a different cartridge. For example, your match rifle might be a 6mm Creedmoor, but just swap the bolt and barrel and in less than 20 minutes it’s now a 223 trainer rifle or a 300 WSM hunting rifle. No joke! And you can order those bolts and barrels straight off their website, and they can ship direct to you – no need for a gunsmith or FFL. Want to convert to a 6mm Dasher? Just order the chambered barrel off their website and you can install it next week! You just need a simple barrel vise and action wrench. You can have multiple barrels in different calibers, but only need one action, stock, trigger, and scope instead of buying everything multiple times.
Note: The pre-chambered barrels for an Impact Action are different from pre-chambered barrels for Ruger Precision Rifles, Savage, or “Rem-age” setups. Those barrels have no shoulder to headspace from, but instead require a lock nut and a qualified individual with headspace gauges to carefully set headspace. In contrast, barrels for Impact actions headspace off the shoulder of the barrel, just like a custom barrel would if you sent your action off to a gunsmith. No need for a lock nut or to carefully adjust headspace – just screw it on and go.
While the Impact Precision action is held to exact tolerances, it was specifically designed with clearances that allow it to run in the toughest field conditions. Many of us have likely been to a rifle match where we saw someone’s action get dirty, and blowing dust and grit eventually caused it to completely lock up. That can ruin a good day of shooting! Wade and Tate know how important it is for an action to be able to continue to run, so they very carefully chose the geometry, dimensions, clearances, features, and coatings. Fluting on the top and sides of the bolt body carry dirt away while a smooth bottom portion ensures smooth cycling. The black carbon nitride finish also improves operation by increasing surface hardness and lubricity.
I’ve personally ran this action in sandy West Texas for over a year, where the wind and dust are ALWAYS blowing! This environment can bring Benchrest actions to a grinding halt, but Impact Actions never fail to perform and run slick. In fact, I’ve never felt a bolt run as smoothly as an Impact Precision action. I’ve also been at major rifle competitions and noticed shooters checking out a rifle built on an Impact Action on a prize table, and every single one of them grins when then run the bolt. I really do mean every single one of them, and many turn to their buddy and say something like “You’ve got to feel this” – because it is ridiculously smooth. It’s the result of a great design, extremely precise manufacturing, advanced coatings, and tight quality control – in other words, a lot of work!
The Impact Precision 737R features an integral recoil lug and integral 20 MOA picatinny rail. Here is what Wade and Tate say about those features: “Don’t settle for pinned rails or recoil lugs. Our receiver body is a made out of one single piece of material, ensuring the most rigid end product with no chance of warping or your rail coming lose when you need it most.” The Impact action also features a trigger hanger, which makes it easier and quicker to replace a trigger out in the field – something that can be handy for a competition shooter. Of course the Impact Precision action is based on a Rem 700 footprint, which means it’s compatible with most stocks/chassis and aftermarket triggers. They recently announced they’re now accepting pre-orders for left-hand versions of this popular action.
Here is a quick video from Impact Precision where Tate shares more about the Impact Precision action, and you can see them putting them together:
Defiance Machine was founded by Glen Harrison, and they’ve been designing Benchrest-quality bolt actions since 1992. They’ve been one of the top actions among these elite shooters since the beginning of the PRS, and for good reason. Their machining practices and end products are truly world-class. Glen uses accuracy-enhancing design features he learned while competing in Benchrest and building Benchrest rifles, in all the Defiance actions. They make almost every part in their facility, which allows them to tightly control quality to ensure components fit properly and you get the best accuracy possible from the action.
One year I had a conversation with Glen Harrison at SHOT Show, and I was blown away as he told me about their machining process. They use advanced EDM technology and manufacturing processes that border on Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder 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 custom actions. Glen explained that 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 Deviant line of actions is their flagship product and what most tactical shooters run, and it is likely the model most (if not all) of these top shooters were using. There are several options within that line of actions:
The Defiance Deviant Elite was released within the past couple years, and is perfect for a competition rifle. It may look like a standard Remington 700 clone, but it features a lot of cool enhancements:
- 0.850” additional barrel threads and bedding surface forward of recoil lug, which also extends the scope rail further forward
- Coned nose, control round feed with sliding plate extractor, so the bolt captures the round as it strips it from the magazine instead of a round simply being pushed lose and into the chamber
- Mechanical, Winchester M70 style blade ejector
- Improved firing pin design minimizes vibration and reduces bolt lift
- Still maintains the Remington 700 short action footprint
Defiance offers more customization options than any other action manufacturer, so their customers can choose the exact options that fits their individual needs. Defiance doesn’t believe in a “one size fits all” product. They make each action individually to the customer’s specs. For example, many actions with integral rails are only offered with 20 MOA of cant/incline, but with Defiance you can choose 0, 10, 20, or 30 MOA! They’re able to pull off custom options because of their proprietary manufacturing software, which allows them to machine custom products efficiently in a production facility. That means you’ll never need to wait an extra two months because you ordered a left-handed action. They have 20+ options, but here are a few I was able to itemize for the Defiance Deviant line of actions, although some options may not be available on all models or may add cost:
- Options for Integral Rail: 5 variations to pick from for striking the right balance between weight and rigidity, from an Ultralight at 26 ounces to the beefy, no-compromises Elite at 37 ounces
- Options for Rear Tang: Standard or Heavy
- Options for Cant/Incline Built Into Integral Rail: 0, 10, 20, or 30 MOA
- Options for Action Length: Short, Medium, XM, and Long to accommodate most popular factory chamberings and extended length handloads
- Options for Magazine Cut: Single shot, AICS magazines (i.e. double stack, single feed), AW magazines (i.e. true double stack)
- Options for Bolt Face: ALL standard and wildcat cartridges
- Options for Bolt Nose: Cone, Flat, Recessed, Control Round Feed, or Control Round Feed with Plate Extractor
- Options for Bolt Fluting: None, Shallow, Standard, Deep, Extra Deep, or Diamond
- Options for Bolt Shroud: 3 position safety, Faceted, Remington Style
- Options for Bolt Handle Angle: Defiance Handle or Modified Handle
- Options for Bolt Handle Knob: Ball, Teardrop, Tactical, Long Tactical, or Extra-Long Tactical
- Options for Finish: Bare Polished Stainless or DLC (Diamond-Like Carbon)
- Available in right or left handed configurations
What?! That’s a lot of options! Defiance offers a fully customizable custom action! It’s a custom, custom action! If you aren’t familiar with all those options or terms, don’t be overwhelmed. Here are photos of several options to quickly see the differences, but the Defiance customer service pros can talk you through all this to make sure you get the perfect setup for your application. You don’t have to be an action expert – they will provide you with one when you call. This is just a significant way Defiance is able to differentiate themselves in the market.
Defiance is different from some other action manufacturers in another way: You can buy actions directly from them that are branded “Defiance,” and they also make a ton of OEM actions that are stamped with another company’s logo. For example, the GAP Templar V2 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 makes the action to that other company’s specs, and then simply 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 very similar actions, just with different branding.
At the risk of coming off as a Defiance fan-boy, I have to share one final way that impressed me about Defiance Machine: The Defiance Guarantee. In a world of limited liability, and everyone trying to maximize their own profits, I have immense respect for a company that takes this bold of a stance to put customer satisfaction as the highest priority. Here is what Defiance says: “If you don’t like it, we’ll change it, swap it, or refund your money. We want all of our customers to be 100% satisfied with the quality of our product. We’ll even pay the return shipping. Guaranteed.” Wow! You have to really believe in your product to put something like that in print! When is the last time you saw a company do that?!
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