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Precision Instrument

It takes much more than a scope to turn a rifle into a sniper weapon.

September 01, 2002  |  by Jim Gardner

Your particular agency may refer to it as a sniper rifle, counter-sniper rifle, or precision rifle-regardless, it is the officer's tool of last resort. When negotiations have broken down and lives are on the line, there is no margin for error. As the sear releases the striker and the primer ignites, it's now the rifle's job to deliver that bullet exactly where it must go. Like you, today's precision rifles are up to the task.

We've come a long way in recent years. Not so long ago, most departments relied on a hodge-podge of sporting or military surplus rifles. In good hands they often sufficed, but the need for better, more reliable equipment was painfully obvious.

The Austrian Steyr SSG (Scharf Schuetzen Gewehr, or sharp shooter's rifle) was the first commercial precision rifle widely marketed to law enforcement. Its excellent performance and ready acceptance spawned a host of competing designs. New offerings now appear regularly. With that in mind, let's quickly review what makes a superior marksman's rifle and then examine a selection of today's best.

The Accurate Rifle

Any given rifle's ability to place bullet after bullet exactly where aimed breaks down into two factors: intrinsic accuracy and practical accuracy.

Intrinsic accuracy relates only to the pure mechanical uniformity of the rifle. It is determined by such factors as a fine-quality barrel, carefully crowned at the muzzle and with a chamber cut perfectly concentric to the bore.

Utmost care in manufacture must be exercised to ensure the bolt face, bolt lugs, and the action itself lie concentric and square to the bore. The stock must be affixed in such a way that contact with the receiver will be uniform and unchanging regardless of temperature or humidity. All the rifles we will examine boast a high order of intrinsic accuracy.

Practical accuracy relates to the shooter's interface with the rifle. A rifle of superb intrinsic accuracy is not mission-ready if it suffers from a 12-pound trigger pull or wears a stock so ill proportioned it can't be shot well.

If a fine barrel is the heart of a rifle, the trigger is its soul. A crisp, clean-breaking trigger pull of acceptable weight is vital. The second most important factor in practical accuracy is stock design. The most significant dimensions are length of pull, height of comb, and trigger reach. Many of the most modern rifles incorporate stocks with a high degree of adjustability.

Boltgun Or Semi-auto?

By far, the bolt-action is the most common variety of police precision rifle. It is simple, reliable, and normally holds a slight accuracy edge over competing semiauto designs. Think bolt-action and one name comes to mind first-Remington.

More Remington M700 Police rifles are employed by agencies across the country than any other model. The 700 P was the first production police rifle to offer such advanced features as a well-shaped, true composite stock and an aluminum bedding-block to guarantee stable, consistent bedding of stock to action. The Remington 700 LTR is nearly the definition of the new class of lighter, handier rifles.

Winchester's Model 70 carries a well-deserved reputation for accuracy, strength, and reliability. The new Winchester M70 Stealth has a lot to offer, including a pillar-bedded, Kevlar/ graphite composite stock. At 10.75 pounds less optics, this is a very stable rifle for prone work.

Individuals or departments on a budget should take a hard look at the Savage Model 10 FP-LE. The Savage 10 action utilizes a unique barrel attachment method. A special threaded collar locks the barrel rigidly in place. Tests of an early sample resulted in 1.75-inch shot groups at 200 meters. Outstanding performance for a value-priced rifle straight from the box.

Size Does Matter

Selection of caliber is usually straightforward. Of the bolt-action precision rifles in use across the country, over 90 percent are chambered for the .308 Win. cartridge. The .308 is superbly accurate, offers good penetration through light obstacles, and benefits from a wealth of highly developed ammunition choices.

The .223 Rem. cartridge would seem to be a good choice, as most police use of the rifle takes place at less than 100 yards against unarmored targets. However,  well-documented failures of the .223 to penetrate light cover when needed have limited its acceptance.

Officers or departments who foresee a need to engage at extreme long range or to penetrate heavy armor have new options. The .338 Lapua and .338-.378 Weatherby cartridges offer a performance level midway between common .30 caliber cartridges and the .50 BMG. With special ammunition, the .338 Lapua can  even penetrate the 4-inch thick Lexan cockpit windows of commercial aircraft.


The Weatherby name has been associated with high-performance rifles for more than half a century. Weatherby has just announced a series of "Threat Response" rifles. The most exotic of the trio is the Weatherby TRR Magnum Custom. Chambered for the awesome .338-.378 Weatherby Magnum, this rifle is a product of the Weatherby custom shop, and is built to order with powerful features.

The Dakota Arms M76 "Longbow" is one of the most coveted of long-range rifles. Dakota sporting rifles are renowned for their precise craftsmanship. The M76 Longbow takes this same Swiss-watch-like precision and adds to it the power of the .338 Lapua cartridge.

From Across the Pond

Some of the very best precision rifles are imported. As mentioned, the Steyr SSG was widely adopted by American police agencies when it debuted in 1969. It has since been offered in a number of variations. All  are superior performers.

Accuracy International has been building the highly regarded AWP rifle since the mid-1980s. Newly announced is the Model AE, designed to better compete in the American police market. Early reports are that it shoots just as well as the legendary AWP (which is to say phenomenally well), but costs about half as much. Welcome news in these days of restrictive budgets.

SiG pistols have earned an admirable reputation for accuracy and durability. These same characteristics are found in the SiG SSG 3000. Among its unique features is an incredibly fast lock-time, and a modular design, which permits the end user to replace barrels when required.

FNH offers a wide variety of precision bolt-action rifles. The FNH "A series" rifles are based around the timeless Mauser M98 action. The A4 Special Police includes every desirable feature, including a McMillan adjustable stock, chrome-lined barrel for ease of maintenance and long service life, and a well-placed, three- position safety. These rifles are available as complete systems, ready to go to work.

One Critical Virtue

The bolt-action dominates in the role of the police precision rifle; nevertheless, the semi-auto offers unique attributes. Its most critical benefit is the ability to deliver a near instantaneous follow-up shot. Even if a second shot is not required, the reflexive manipulation of the bolt-action  every rifleman trains for may cause momentary loss of vision of the target. In contrast, the semi-auto-armed rifleman needn't move a muscle after the shot breaks.

Springfield Armory's M21 is a highly refined version of the M1A rifle. Military armorers learned long ago how to adapt the M14 service rifle for national match and sniping use. The Springfield M21 is the beneficiary of this experimentation. It's a solid and proven rifle.

The Armalite AR10 looks like yet another .223 rifle until you get a closer look. Chambered for the .308 Win. cartridge, the AR10 (T) is as accurate as a bolt-action rifle. Its heavy weight and direct gas operation make it comfortable and stable in firing. The tubular fiberglass forend assures no pressure is imparted to the barrel even when a bipod is employed.

AR15 pattern rifles have become a staple of American law enforcement. Modern heavy barreled, optically sighted variants make good multi-use rifles.
Perhaps the four best examples of this class of rifle are the Les Baer Super Match, Bushmaster's V-Match, the DPMS Panther Bull Twenty-Four Special, and Colt's Accurized Rifle. All feature floating handguards, fine quality barrels, and a flat top receiver with Picatinney rail for proper mounting of optics. Any of these would make a valuable addition to your armory.

The Built-to-Order Rifle

With the phenomenal variety of factory precision rifles available today, you may wonder why anyone would opt for a custom built rifle.

"Because good enough won't do," replied Gene Luke of Precision Arms when asked why police departments consult him on designing a rifle for their designated marksmen.

"I recently received an order for a custom Robar rifle from a police chief in Alaska. I could have shipped him an excellent commercial rifle from stock, but he had definite ideas about what he wanted. The Robar will be built just to his specifications, and he'll never need to second guess about having the best possible tool for the job."

Luke's Precision Arms in Escondido, Calif., not only facilitates orders for custom rifles from the most respected builders, he upgrades Remington and other rifles for departments across the country. His shop has become a clearing house of up-to-date info on police precision rifles and all that goes with them.

One of the best known custom rifle brands that you will find at Luke's Precision Arms is Robar.

The shop of Robbie Barrkman, better known as The Robar Companies, is justly famous for its superior rifles. Robar's SR90 is the quintessential sniper rifle.

Another popular custom rifle maker is Ed Brown. Brown is better known for building custom 1911 pistols, but his shop offers outstanding tactical rifles. Built on his proprietary action, the M702 is an impressive rifle in all respects.

Lack of space precludes looking at any reasonable sampling of America's custom rifle makers. The bottom line is there's a wealth of excellent rifles to choose from. Look at the features, examine candidly the most likely scenarios in which the rifle may be needed, and then make your selection. Add to the rifle a best grade scope and embark on a regular and well thought out training regimen. One day, should the moment come, you'll know you've prepared for it with the right equipment and the right training.

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