Block That Kick!

Ruger’s M77 Hawkeye Varmint Target
in .308 Was “Just What The Doctor Ordered.”

Fully rigged out, John’s Ruger is no lightweight, but it’s set up for easy, superbly accurate shooting.
The scope is Leupold’s VXR 4-12x40 with a Fire Dot reticle.

My first dedicated hunting rifle was a sporterized 1917 Enfield .30-06 with a club of a stock. It must’ve weighed at least 10 pounds, but I was young and strong and carried it up and down the Idaho mountains.

But even as young as I was, it still got awfully heavy. So I switched to hunting with a Smith & Wesson 6-1/2-inch .44 Magnum or a Ruger 7-1/2-inch Blackhawk or Super Blackhawk—all in Mexican loop holsters of my own design on a wide cartridge belt. For the past 50 years my life has been spent mostly with handguns, however, there have also been a lot of rifles—especially leverguns. I’ve shot a lot of heavy loads, especially in .45-70 leverguns, as well as such bolt-action favorites as the .338 Winchester and .375 H&H. Now I’ve come full circle and I’m back to a heavy bolt action—the Ruger M77 Hawkeye Varmint Target. How did this come to pass?

On September 23, 2010, everything changed dramatically. The day dawned beautifully and I awoke at 6 a.m. to get everything ready for a day of shooting. But first I had to deliver Diamond Dot and her friend to the bus depot at 7:30 so they could catch the bus to Portland and spend the weekend at a quilt show. Once I got them on the bus I would head for the desert south of town to meet my friend Denis for some shooting, followed by lunch at a Mexican restaurant. Friday would be more of the same and Saturday the kids and grandkids would come over to watch football. It all added up to great plans for an enjoyable weekend.

I got dressed and prepared to load the pickup. As I walked out of the bathroom I experienced the most excruciating pain of my life. It’s often hard to pinpoint where real pain is coming from, but this seemed to be coming from my back and throat. At first I thought I’d pulled a muscle and could just tough it out. Then the dizziness came and I knew something was drastically wrong. I worked my way to the other end of the house and told Dot she better call 911. I went into the front room to sit down and wait for the paramedics. They were there in what seemed like minutes and I remember them putting me into the ambulance and starting to drive. However, I do not remember arriving at the hospital. The rest of the day—plus some of next—is just a blur.

Turns out if Dot had not called 911 immediately I would’ve died within a few hours. What had happened was a tear in the artery to the aorta of my heart. I was on my way to bleeding out. The emergency operation took almost 6 hours. They had to open my sternum from top to bottom and then spread it apart to get to the artery and repair it. Afterward I was informed my chances of survival were less than 20 percent (actually closer to 10).

But evidently it was not my time to go and I did survive. However, I thought it would be a good idea to avoid heavy-recoiling rifles, so I set the .243 as the maximum recoil I wanted to experience. I definitely missed the bigger rifles but I decided to err on the side of caution. But as great as the .243 is, I wanted to experience something somewhat larger. But I remained cautious.

Weight Is The Answer

As I watched several of my friends shoot their .308’s, I wanted to do the same, however, I just didn’t think it was a good idea. When my son-in-law told me he wanted to go deer hunting for the first time with his friend, I thought about breaking him in on the couple .308’s I still had in the safe. Naturally, I would have to shoot them first to make sure they were sighted in.

My spirit said yes. My head said no. So I went with the Ruger .243. My son-in-law had never before shot any long gun except a .22, however, he proved to be a quick learner and with a minimum of effort was shooting the .243 extremely well and his deer season was successful. However, I still wanted to shoot something larger and began my search. I didn’t want to experience the relatively heavy recoil of the sporter-weight .308’s I had. I began looking for a solution. It was not difficult to find as Ruger was advertising an M77 Hawkeye Varmint Target rifle in several calibers, including .308. As I looked at the specs I saw the weight was just over 9 pounds. This would be my answer. Almost.

A call to Ruger had one on the way and I looked for solutions to outfit this .308 to make it as pleasant shooting as possible. First I ordered a Ruger muzzlebrake to tame the recoil even more. I dropped the rifle and brake off at my gunsmith at Buckhorn for installation. I soon got a call from them telling me this particular brake had too small of a diameter to fit the heavy barrel of the Varmint Target. I told them to order a proper one and I’d put the smaller one on a Ruger Mini-30.

A look through the Brownells catalog revealed a Shrewd muzzlebrake in satin stainless finish with a diameter of 0.860-inch. This was ordered and definitely required the work of a gunsmith, as not only did the barrel have to be threaded, it was also necessary to open the .22 exit hole of the brake to 0.020-inch over the bullet diameter to be used. This had to be done correctly or accuracy would suffer. The Shrewd brake has multiple offset-pattern gas dispersion holes with a 7-degree forward brake with a length of 2-5/8 inches. This adds approximately 2 inches to the already lengthy 26-inch Ruger barrel. The Shrewd muzzlebrake is designed to reduce recoil and muzzle flip, moving blast and sound forward. I was soon to find it worked.

John renews his acquaintance with a .308 bolt action—in this case, the Ruger M77 Hawkeye Target Varmint.

This Shrewd muzzlebrake from Brownells really helps soften things. That, plus the rifle’s heft may
account for John’s surprised “Where’s the recoil?” expression.

While the Ruger was in the shop I asked the boys to order and install a quality bipod. I had looked at a couple of the cheaper ones they had in stock, but I wanted something substantially stronger with a quality to match the rifle. They went with the Harris Engineering Ultralight Series 1A2. I would be doing the major part of my shooting from a bench and I needed a bipod which would extend a few inches. The Harris works perfectly, extends easily and the legs are locked securely in place. When not in use, the unit folds forward out of the way.

The final step was the scope. I found a Leupold VXR 4-12×40 on sale for nearly 40 percent off and bought it without hesitation. However, when I went to install it I found it was not a standard 1-inch tube but actually required 30mm rings, so the project was held up for about a week while I ordered the right rings from Ruger. This particular scope is a “Fire Dot” which means pushing a button on the left side of the scope results in a red dot in the reticle which can be adjusted for varying intensities. With the muzzlebrake, bipod and scope installed, the total weight came to 11-1/2 pounds. No, it’s not a rifle I would want to carry, however, off the bench it is especially pleasant to shoot—exactly what I was looking for.

The Varmint Target is equipped with a non-rotating Mauser-type controlled-round-feed extractor, a 3-position safety which allows the shooter to lock the bolt or to load and unload the rifle with the safety engaged. The barrel is cold-hammer-forged with a target crown. The 2-stage adjustable trigger has a short take-up stage and breaks at just under 3 pounds with no creep or overtravel.

I chose the .308 not only for its effectiveness and long-range accuracy, but also for its historical significance. Winchester introduced it commercially in 1952. In 1954 the military version (7.62×51) arrived. In 1955 the .308 was necked down to become the .243 and necked up to become the .358 Winchester. By 1958 the wildcat 7mm-08 arrived and in 1980 was standardized as the 7-08 Remington. Another wildcat, the .338-08 became the .338 Federal in 2006. I have had extensive experience with both the .243 and 7-08 and found them to be extremely accurate cartridges. But for this time around I wanted a .308.

I believe in breaking in every barrel “properly” Taffin-style. Regardless of the type of firearm, I break in every one by shooting it. I do not go through the long and laborious shoot/clean, shoot/clean process which many shooters do. I am too old to waste my time working this hard. For the Ruger .308 I fired three rounds at 25 yards to make sure it was on paper. This was followed by three shots at 100 yards which resulted in a desired point of impact about 3 inches high. My first serious group (shots No. 7 though No. 9) was then fired at 100 yards. It measured 1/2-inch. The ammo? Trajectory Technologies Trajetech load featuring a 168-grain Sierra MatchKing at 2,632 fps. With this very first group I knew I had an extremely accurate rifle.

Four different .308 Match Grade loads from Black Hills were then used as well and they exceeded my expectations. Their 168-grain Sierra MatchKing load clocked out at 2,691 fps and delivered a 3-shot, 100-yard group of 3/8-inch. The 168-grain Boattail HP (2,637 fps) grouped at 3/4 inch. Black Hills’ 175-grain Boattail HP (2,607 fps) also stayed at 3/4 inch. But their 180-grain Nosler AccuBond load ( 2,531 fps) proved to be the most accurate load thus far with three shots in 5/16.

All groups were fired using the Harris 1A2 bipod. I am not a rifleman by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve never learned the “breathing techniques” and I’m too impatient to shoot slowly. This makes these groups even more astounding. As I was testing the Ruger, a shooting friend handed me a box of 173-grain military match loads from 1965. It clocked out at 2,658 fps and grouped 3 shots into 3/4 inches. So much for questioning the performance of old ammunition!

John tested his rifle with four Black Hills Match Grade .308 loads (from left): 168-grain
Sierra MatchKing, 168-grain Boattail HP, 175-grain Boatttail HP, 180-grain Nosler AccuBond.

Targets shot at 100 yards (above) with various Black Hills .308 loads show the rifle’s tackdriving potential.
More of the same — the Hawkeye M77 Target Varmint can do this as long as you can (below).

Making Plans

I pronounce my “Fragile Old Man Rifle” a resounding success. However, this is not the end but only the beginning. The next step is shooting at 200 yards and I’ve also made arrangements with the Black Powder Cartridge Rifle shooters to shoot my .308 at 500 yards on their range. I also have some gas-checked cast bullets loaded up in .308 brass and I will find out how they shoot.

Then there are 700 rounds of factory moly-coated bullets which have been sitting on my ammo shelf for a couple decades just waiting to be tried. These will come last as I have inquired about the use of moly-coated bullets from three knowledgeable people with three different answers. One says it is a real chore to get the moly-coating out of the barrel, another says it cleans out easily, and another says it can be shot out using regular jacketed bullets. I’m in no hurry for any of this so time will tell.

What about hunting with this Varmint Target Rifle? I’m long past the age of walking the Idaho mountains, let alone when carrying a cumbersome 11-1/2 pound rifle. But perhaps someday I’ll get a chance at a long-range coyote, or even at a nice buck while sitting in a deer stand waiting for the sun to come up. No hurry.

We’ll see what develops.

Black Hills Ammunition
P.O. Box 3090
Rapid City
SD 57709
(605) 348-5150

200 S. Front St.
Montezuma, IA 50171
(800) 741-0015

Federal Cartridge
900 Ehlen Dr.
Anoka MN 55303
(763) 323-2300

Harris Engineering
(203) 266-6906

P.O. Box 1848
Grand Island NE 68802
(308) 382-1390

1400 W. Henry St.
Sedalia, MO 65301
(888) 223-3006

Trajectory Technologies
3765 Roundbottom Rd.
Newtown, OH 45244
(513) 233-6585

Winchester Ammunition
600 Powder Mill Rd.
East Alton, IL 62024
(618) 258-3340

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