So, you are interested in building a long range hunting rifle but are intimidated by the cost of some of the custom rigs that are built by members of this board. I would like to share with you my experiences over the last 10 years in building economical hunting rifles that shoot very well out to a mile.
First off, let’s define a few parameters in what is a long range hunting rifle so that we know when we get there. A long range hunting rifle is not just the part that makes noise and launches lead. It is a package of optics, rifle, ammo and rests that allow a hunter to engage game accurately at very long distances.
In its essence, long range hunting is about spotting your quarry at extended distances, determining its range to within a few yards, adjusting a scope to compensate for distance and ambient conditions, seeing clearly enough to aim precisely. It is also about a hunting rifle accurate enough to hit that game first shot from a cold barrel, a bullet designed to create a fatal wound at distance, and a shooter capable of making it happen under field conditions. Because of all the items needed to achieve this, long range hunting is not a cheap sport but let’s see how we can make it more affordable.
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Optics: Let’s just cover the basics as this topic can cover volumes of info and choices. You will need a pair of binoculars for general glassing. A spotting scope is useful once you have located the game, especially if determining horn structure is important. In my area, certain animals must wear so many points to be legal so being able to count these at long range is critical.
For this, the most economical glass I have found that works are made by Nikon. I personally use the Monarch ATB 8X42 roof prism binos for walkabout glassing, the Action Extreme ATB 12X60 for long range glassing (make sure it is the extreme line as there are some much lower grades with the Action brand that don’t really have the optics to work), and the XL 15-45 spotting scope. All are blessed with excellent glass and resolution rivaling that of very expensive products. You will see that these are some of the least expensive quality products you can find. They are also light, weather proof, making them ideal for packing into the hills. In general, Japanese brands offer great glass for reasonable dollars. Best thing you can do is try as many as you can get your hands on and see what works best for you.
Once you spot the game, you need to know how far away it is. Nothing faster or easier then a quality laser range finder. Here, money should not be saved. Leica and Swarovski make the best. The Bushnell Elite is a well priced product that many are happy with too.
Next up is your scope. This is the most critical part of your long range rifle. If this doesn’t function, you are out of luck. I have had wonderful success with the Bushnell/Bausch&Lomb Elite 4000/4200 series of scopes. Their optics are superb with tremendous resolution, clarity and color trueness. They also have the newest coatings making low light visibility as good as scopes costing many times more. The most important part is their turrets. In all of the higher magnification models, they come with low profile true target turrets. Low profile means the knobs will not be catching on everything or get bumped easily (they also have covers). A true vernier turret, they allow you to dial up your needed elevation and windage.
I don’t consider Kentucky windage viable for ethical long range hunting. There are multi-lined reticles that can also work but should have spacing no more than 1 MOA. My scopes have mildot reticles, not for ranging but for windage hold off. I always dial up my elevation and use the reticle should I miss the wind call. The Bushnell Elites are also one of the few brands that I can afford that have repeatable and reliable adjustments. I have owned over 12 scopes in various models and have not had a turret issue yet. For what they cost, this is simply a best buy. Again, Nikon makes some excellent products for very reasonable costs.
When testing scope adjustment, you have to be completely honest and brutal. Any scope that sticks or needs some polka two-step to get adjusted will fail when that buck of a lifetime trots out. The scope must dial up, first time, every time. Many scopes, even some mega dollar scopes can’t do this.
What level of accuracy do we need to be qualified as a long range rifle? I feel that consistent, dependable 1/2 MOA mechanical rifle accuracy is an excellent level of performance. Less is, of course, great but there are other considerations besides pure accuracy like functioning and feeding.
That cold barrel first shot POI must also be dead on repeatable. Test to make sure under the conditions you will hunt.
The Factory Rifle Option: The most economical way is to tune up a modern factory rifle. Options from Savage, Tikka and Remington can and should do everything we need at reasonable prices. Every rifle should be properly bedded (even alum bedding chassis stocks should be bedded), barrel free floated, and trigger tuned as light as you can safely handle. Learning to use a lighter trigger pull will also aid in increasing pin point accuracy. I don’t mean 2 oz triggers but around 1.5 lbs. My triggers are at 1 lb or less. With a bit of luck and a lot of load tuning, a modern factory rifle can delivery 1/2 MOA performance way out there. Unfortunately, there is that luck factor. If your factory barrel will not shoot, then your costs skyrocket trying to remedy that.
The Economical Custom long range 1000yds and Under Hunting rifle: How to Build a Tack Driver for under $1000. To ensure that I would be getting everything I wanted the first go round, I have focused on an action that will give you the performance with very low costs. In fact, the total of this semi custom build can be less then some factory rifles once you account for the tweaking costs.
For me, the most ‘usable’ and economical commercial action is the Savage/Stevens (sporterized surplus actions actually cost more in the long run). I have built all of my recent long range and competition rifles from these actions. They provide a superb lock-up to handle those toasty loads, a strong action, a fixed or detachable magazine that will feed improved shoulder wildcats, an awesome factory trigger (Accutrigger) or many after-market options (SSS, Rifle-Basix, Timney), ability to do home smithing if desired all for dirt cheap pricing.
All of my rifles were built using out of the box actions. No blueprinting was done nor required (savings of at least $200 compared to a Remington). With that floating bolt head, many woes that plague every other solid bolt action are eliminated. The first way to a dirt cheap semi-custom is to get a Savage w/Accutrigger in the action length and bolt face you want (HB 110FV come in 7RM and 300WM and make great rifles). If the factory barrel doesn’t shoot as desired, sell it and spin on a quality pre-threaded/pre-chambered barrel in a cartridge of your choice.
Barrels from Pac Nor, Shilen, or Lothar Walther will give you the performance you want and are very well priced. Most are around $200 to $350, which is a steal considering you don’t have the install costs. If desired, most any gunsmith will headspace that barrel for you for a few bucks. You can also buy a barrel blank and have it installed. It will end up costing a few dollars more, but you have the option of wildcats and headspacing off the barrel shoulder.
You can get lucky with barrels from MidwayUSA and ER Shaw but if going this route, I would just stick with the factory barrel. Most factory Savage barrels shoot very well…for factory barrels. Contour, length, fluting and other dimensions I will leave to your tastes and style of use. I personally do not want a very heavy bulky rifle as mobility is important. No more then a 26″ #5 or fluted #7. I want an overall weight of around 10lbs. You don’t need a heavy barrel to be accurate. If building a true bench rifle, then much higher weights/sizes can be used. Finish on that barrel can be as simple as a bit of spray paint or a few bucks if going with the new baked on finishes or bluing. In my hunting rifles, I am more concerned about performance then looks.
For stocks, again, there are now so many choices. Personally, I use the factory plastic stocks. They work surprisingly well once bedded, forend opened WAY up, and reinforced. A bit of elbow grease and a can of spray paint, they look like many composite stocks today. I would certainly replace the recoil pad for a Limbsaver or Hogue. The most economical after-market stocks are the Boyds laminates, Bell and Carlson composites, then the Brownells/Stockade composites. You can easily replace that plastic stock for $100. If interested, Ebay can also provide lots of options.
The Biggest Bang for the Buck Build Up: Another route is to use the Stevens 200 rifle as the donor getting rid of most of the factory parts and using the action which is identical to the Savage. This is the route I have taken because I want very light trigger pulls that only the after-market triggers from Sharp Shooters and Rifle-Basix can provide.
A stripped Stevens is around $150. The Sharp Shooters Supply trigger (under 1 lb pull) unit is $85. A ready-to-install Pac-Nor match chrome-moly barrel in the white is $280. Weaver scope bases are $15. Burris rings w/ inserts are $35. Recoil pad is $25. Boyds laminated stock is $85 if you don’t mind a bit of finishing, $150 if factory finished. Bedding is only the cost of materials if you do that yourself – $10. Total: Under $700 if you do the work yourself. $725 if you want an after-market bolt handle. Even less if you modify the factory stock – around $600 to 675!!!
My rifles built this way are shooting in the 2′s out to 300 meters. That is near match rifle performance in a rig that can handle the rigors of hunting and costless then many factory rifles.
The Muzzle Brake: One item I feel should be on a long range rifle is a muzzle brake. This rifle is not intended for snap shooting but rather planned static shooting from a ‘hide’. So I will have time to put on ear plugs. A muzzle brake not only reduces recoil but more importantly, allows me to spot my own shots. It is always advisable to have a spotter with you because two sets of eyes are better then one!
Given the distances, you need to know that the bullet arrived as desired or it missed. Odds are the animal will move after the shot and if you don’t know what that bullet did, you are likely having a miserable time tracking or loosing game – not good! Also, shot recovery is much faster so follow up shots, if needed, can be sent on their way promptly.
The most economical brake I use is by Miculek and is his AR-15 style. The bore is opened up to match my caliber and spun onto the barrel. These brakes work very well and cost around $45 at Brownells. Installation cost is around $25 to 50.
With handloads, you will have a rifle that can hold the boiler room of most large game as far as the effectiveness of your cartridge. All for under $1,000. That’s economical.
How accurate does the long range hunter have to be? Here are some personal thoughts on the subject. Many focus on the performance of their equipment but how many focus on the practice needed to shoot well under field conditions? My personal requirement is being able to engage a gallon milk jug first shot EVERYTIME as far as I want to hunt under the conditions presented. A smaller target would be chosen if hunting game smaller then a deer. In dead calm first light air, that might be 1,000yds. In a snow storm, it might be 100yds.
I can honestly say that the many experienced long range hunters on this board have that ability or else they pass up the shot or get closer. This is not target shooting where a miss is simply lost points. A long range hunter must have the same certainty of delivering a fatal shot at extended distances as a hunter jumping a deer at 75 yards.