A while ago, I wrote an article on basic rifles for the aspiring rifleman: (1) An air rifle or a .22 LR rifle. (2) A big-game rifle, not to actually shoot much, but for the lessons it teaches.
Because they are quiet, pleasant and cheap to shoot, the air rifle and .22 are ideal for learning the basics. The big-game rifle teaches (1) Centerfire ammunition is expensive. (2) Recoil and muzzle blast aren’t as much fun as we initially thought. (3) Hitting little targets way out there is fun and challenging.
Now we want to learn to use the capabilities of a centerfire rifle. It’s time for a centerfire we’ll actually shoot. For learning purposes nothing beats a .223. The .223 shoots far, fast, and flat. It will teach valuable lessons about ballistic coefficients, bullet drop, wind drift, accurate rifles, accurate ammunition and handloads, marksmanship skills. It will do so with minimal recoil, mild report, and (relatively) moderate cost.
True, ammunition costs have increased whether we’re talking factory loads or handloads. But .223 is still a bargain compared to bigger centerfire cartridges. Quality brass is plentiful, powder charges moderate, and outstanding bullets are available.
This is probably the finest .308 Win. setup for long-range shooting Dave ever shot,
or likely ever will shoot. It’s a Steyr SSG-08 rifle with a 5-15X Trijicon TARS scope.
Its only downsides are the weight, so it’s not very portable for all-around use, and uh,
the retail value of the combination is around $10,000 (yikes!).
Learn By Doing
Some think I make too much of cost, muzzle blast, and recoil. Here’s something many don’t want to hear. If you want to be a good shot, you’re going to have to shoot. I sometimes get the impression people will buy anything or try any shortcut if they can only avoid actually getting out there and shooting.
Mention long-range shooting and immediately talk starts of .30 Magnums and .338 Lapuas. But rifle/scope combinations costing $5 or $6 grand, shooting ammunition costing $6 per shot, tend to discourage newcomers.
Better to think first in terms of mid-range, in the 400- to 600-yard ranges. For this type of shooting the .223 is ideal. In fact, there are shooters doing outstanding work at 1,000 yards with the .223 cartridge. But this is post-graduate stuff. For now let’s stay in the medium ranges.
The Ruger 77 Hawkeye .223 with Black Hills “Blue Box”
77-grain Sierra MatchKing bullets delivered this 100-yard
group (above). This is what happens when you try to shoot
heavier bullets (below, in this case 69-grain Sierras) through
a .223 with 1:12″ twist barrel. Three shots and all went
through the paper sideways. This was at 25 yards, because
at 100 yards, bullets were missing the target by 2′.
Long ago the industry settled on a 1:12″ twist for the .223. For varmint shooting I like light, fast bullets in .223. They are plenty adequate for typical varmint-shooting distances, and with their high velocity provide good “hang time” when they hit. For such bullets the 1:12″ twist works fine.
For longer ranges we want longer, more ballistically efficient bullets, which need a faster twist. I tried some 69-grain Sierra MatchKings in my Remington 700 with 1:12″ twist. At 100 yards the first shot not only was 2′ off point of aim, the whirling bullet neatly broke one side of my portable target stand.
The move to faster-twist barrels has been glacially slow. I suppose from the maker’s viewpoint most shooters buy a .223 for varmint shooting, so there’s no need to invest in retooling for something only a few buyers want.
Well, there may be more than a few. Currently several factory rifles are offered with 1:9″ twists. The 1:9″ has kind of a compromise feel to it, and as with most compromises doesn’t get anyone excited. In my rifles 1:9″ stabilizes such excellent bullets as the Hornady 75-grain BTHP and Sierra 77-grain MatchKing. I can live with 1:9″ though I wouldn’t mind the little extra margin provided by a 1:8″ twist.
When Dave says you should own a .223 to learn the capabilities of a centerfire
cartridge, it doesn’t have to be a bolt action. AR-style rifles have some advantages.
Generally they come with faster twist barrels (this Armalite M-15 has a 1:7″ twist).
With free-floated barrels they are often very accurate. On the downside it’s usually
more expensive to get a quality trigger pull.
Do The Twist
Among popular .223 commercial bolt-actions the Tikka T3 is available in either 1:12″ or 1:8″. Savage rifles, notable for offering outstanding accuracy at reasonable cost, use a 1:9″ twist on most models, with 1:7″ offered in some specialty models.
Remington 700s are mostly 1:12″ but some models (look for the word “tactical”) have a 1:9″ twist. All current Rugers have the 1:9″ twist, as do Kimbers in .223.
The .223 doesn’t have to be a bolt action. AR-style rifles have a couple of advantages. Generally they come with faster-twist barrels, from 1:7″ to 1:9″. Many have free-floated barrels and flattop receivers with rails for mounting optics and, in terms of accuracy, can outshoot all but the best bolt guns.
On the negative side it is generally harder (or at least more expensive) to get a really good trigger pull on an AR. The rifles themselves tend to be more costly, though certainly not always. But a lot of fine ARs have been sold in recent years, and are capable of a lot more than just firing 30 shots in 30 seconds at 25 yards.
My current favorite “teaching” .223 is a Ruger Hawkeye All-Weather model. With one minor change (a Wolff sear/trigger return spring) it has a very good trigger pull, crisp at 2 pounds, 14 ounces. The Ruger rings let me easily switch between bulky target/varmint scopes and more compact hunting-style scopes. With its medium weight (7-1/4 pounds, rifle only) it is easy to hold steadily while still reasonably portable. Groups as small as 3/8″ at 100 yards aren’t hard to make.
Dave’s newest .223 is this Ruger 77 Hawkeye. Ruger calls it their All Weather
model, with stainless steel barrel and action, and synthetic stock. Ruger uses a 1:9″
twist in .223, and the rifle gave outstanding accuracy with heavier bullets like the
Hornady 75-grain BTHP and Black Hills ammo topped with Sierra 77-grain MatchKings.
By Dave Anderson
Maker: Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc.
411 Sunapee St.
Newport, NH 03773
Materials: Stainless steel barrel/action, synthetic stock
Capacity: 5, Length-of-pull: 13-1/2″
Barrel: 22″, 1:9″ twist
Overall length: 42″
Weight: 7-1/4 pounds