This .223 and the similar Winchester Model 70 Synthetic Heavy Varmint and Remington Model 700VS Varmint Synthetic have raised the bar in production-rifle accuracy and features.
In one sense, there is no such thing as a “beginner” benchrest shooter. Anyone who appreciates rifle accuracy believes his favorite deer rifle can outshoot the other fellow’s, and with the right rest, many of us think we can shoot tight, tight groups right along with the guys who rub-out flies on 100-yard-distant targets. However, those of us who take our medication regularly realize that we’re pretenders, that our 1-MOA production guns really can’t cut it in the benchrest shooting game.
In response, many benchrest shooting clubs create “factory” or “stock” classes to encourage new shooters to get started. Though National Bench Rest Shooting Association (NBRSA) rules don’t recognize unmodified-class guns in official scoring, this beginner’s division is a good idea, because both the costs and technology needed to compete in the benchrest game can be prohibitive. Competitive benchrest guns often cost between $2,000 to $3,000, and they are usually chambered for esoteric .22 PPC or 6mm PPC cartridges.
We set out to find affordable factory production guns whose accuracy would not embarrass us at a club or local benchrest match—and to our surprise, we found them. A family of heavy-barrelled bolt guns, typified by Ruger’s KM77VT MKII Target Rifle, Remington’s Model 700VS Varmint Synthetic, and Winchester’s Model 70 Synthetic Heavy Varmint, is closing the gap with custom benchrest guns. Recent testing we conducted with this trio of .223s showed remarkable accuracy with production .223 Remington ammo, which could likely be improved to benchrest-competitive groups with the addition of specialized handloads and case prep.
Of the set, we preferred the $684 Ruger KM77VT MKII Target Rifle, which included an unusual feature on an American-made production gun: a fully adjustable trigger. That said, the $705 Remington Model 700VS Varmint Synthetic outshot the Ruger and the Winchester Model 70 Synthetic Heavy Varmint, $746, but the margin between the guns was narrow. Most surprising to us was that we shot half-inch groups with most ammo brands we used. That won’t often win a Light Varmint or Heavy Varmint match, but that kind of accuracy points out how far these guns go toward being competitive right out of the box.
All range accuracy data was collected at 100 yards using a remote target roller. We shot the guns off a Ransom Master Rifle rest set on a solid concrete bench. We shot 10-shot strings to collect chronograph data on an Oehler 35P with the screens placed 10 feet from the muzzle. We cleaned guns with Pro-Shot Copper Solvent and then fouled between each load tested.
Our selection of ammunition included PMC’s 55-grain hollowpoint boattail round, the Winchester 50-grain Silvertip load, Hornady’s 55-grain V-Max ammo, and the Federal 69-grain boattail hollowpoint.
Here’s what we thought of each product in this evaluation.
Ruger KM77VT MKII Target Rifle
Ruger’s successful Model 77 centerfire line contains several guns ranging from the .22 Hornet to the .416 Rigby. Our Ruger KM77VT MKII Target Rifle was tagged with catalog number 7890 and an MSRP of $684.
Three of our test ammunitions gave us half-inch-or-smaller average groups at 100 yards, with the best group average of 0.42 inch coming from PMC’s 55-grain bullets. Only the Federal 69-grain boattail hollow-point round didn’t shoot well.
Also notable was the gun’s trigger pull, which drew a crisp 4 to 4.25 pounds out of the box. However, this rifle had a two-stage trigger with easily modified adjustment screws, which allowed us to drop the trigger-pull weight easily and quickly to 2 pounds. In our view, this feature gave the Ruger a leg up on the other guns.
The Ruger KM77VT Target had a full-bull barrel that gently tapered to a muzzle OD of 0.730 inches. All metal on our test gun was stainless steel with a matte target grey finish overall. The laminated hardwood stock had a nonglare satin finish and very good wood-to-metal fit, but no checkering at the grip or on the forend.
The barrel was set slightly to the left in the stock channel, but was free floated with no bedding. Pillar bedding is needed with this wood stock, in our opinion. Temperature and humidity can quickly affect wood and cause movement of the action within the stock. The stock’s 13.5-inch length of pull included a 0.5-inch-thick black-rubber buttpad. Quick-detachable swivel studs are included. The fore-end has a 2.5-inch-wide beavertail bottom with a slight curve that worked very well in our rifle rest. The gun measured 46 inches in overall length and weighed 10 pounds without scope or rings. Ruger’s integral scope-mounting system made adding a Leupold 36X scope easy and saved us the additional cost of bases and rings.
A three-position rear tang safety was smooth and easy to work with the right thumb. The safety will lock the bolt and trigger when in the rear position. The middle position allows the bolt to open while the trigger remains locked.
Remington 700VS Varmint Synthetic
Our $705 Remington 700VS Varmint Synthetic test gun, catalog number 29703, came outfitted with a dark-textured DuPont Kevlar composite stock. The classic straight-stock design included a machined one-piece aluminum frame, milled to fit the bottom of the receiver. This metal-to-metal design, strengthened with pillar-style action screws, made this stock weather-resistant and reliable. However, glass bedding around the receiver and screws might improve accuracy further.
The most important performance feature on the Remington was its superb accuracy. The 700VS averaged 0.56-inch-groups across four test ammunitions—remarkable considering the variation in brands and bullet styles. The Remington’s overall group average was 0.07 inch larger than the Winchester and 0.06 inch smaller than the Ruger. Our best group average (0.43 inches) with this test gun came with the Hornady V-Max 55-grain bullet.
The gun’s trigger broke crisply at 4.75 to 5 pounds and showed very little overtravel. To make the trigger more suitable for benchrest shooting, we adjusted it down to 2 pounds and could have gone lower. The gun measured 46 inches in overall length, 26 inches of which was in the barrel. The receiver was drilled and tapped and worked well with Weaver bases and rings, which we supplied. The gun weighed 9 pounds 10 ounces without a scope.
Metal on the barrel and the receiver’s metal were blued steel with a black matte finish. The muzzle diameter was 0.61 inches; the barrel widened as it moved toward the receiver.
The 700VS’s forend bottom was 1.75 inches wide and rounded, which was a little harder to settle into our rifle rest. The stock’s length of pull measured 13.5 inches. There was no checkering on the gun, nor was it needed. The synthetic stock produced a sufficient grip surface. The butt had a 0.25-inch-thick black-rubber pad. Sling swivel studs were standard, but we found that removing the front stud worked better when shooting off a rest.
Winchester Model 70 Synthetic Heavy Varmint
Our Winchester Model 70 Synthetic Heavy Varmint test gun, catalog number 12344, was the priciest gun in the test at $746. The classic stock design, similar to the Remington’s, also included pillar bedding and a full-length aluminum block, machine-cut to fit the receiver, and built into the stock. Glass bedding around the front and rear stock screw area of the receiver was included. The charcoal-grey composite stock had a 2.5-inch beavertail forend with a flat bottom. This improves stability and repeatability on the rest, where free recoil is important. This means the gun sits free in the rest and is allowed to recoil on its own when firing. Under ideal recoil conditions, the gun will move straight back with minimal disturbance in the sight picture. The flat forend keeps the gun upright during recoil, and after the shot, the shooter simply pushes the gun forward into the rest, where a stop on the Ransom Rest ensures the gun starts in the same position.
The Winchester’s overall accuracy groups averaged 0.49 inches with four test ammunitions. This overall group average was only 0.07 inch better than the Remington’s tally. Our best group average with this test gun came with PMC’s 55-grain HPBT bullet: 0.38 inches.
The Winchester’s two-tone metal finish made this a good-looking firearm. A satin stainless steel finish on the gun’s 26-inch free-floated barrel contrasted nicely with the blued receiver. At 10 pounds 4 ounces, this was the heaviest of the test guns. A 0.87-inch-thick muzzle diameter accounted for the extra weight.
Compared to the other guns, the Winchester’s trigger pull was disappointing. It broke crisply at 4.5 to 4.75 pounds and showed a little creep. This trigger is somewhat adjustable, but it will have to be broken down and honed to get a lighter, smoother pull. The receiver is drilled and tapped and accepted Weaver bases and rings.
Performance Shooter Recommends
We can only wonder how well fine-tuned reloads would shoot in these guns. Though the Winchester shot the best overall, a close reading of the accuracy data shows that with the right ammo, each gun shot groups right at 0.50-inch averages. In our experience, this is an unusual finding. Often, the best gun in a test will outshoot the others with nearly every brand of ammo, which makes picking an accuracy winner easy. Our results this time suggest that these guns are superbly accurate with the right load, and their downrange performance is only limited by the shooter’s ability to tune a handload for them. Thus, we felt compelled to make our buying recommendation based on features, flexibility, and price.
On those points, the $684 Ruger KM77VT MKII Target Rifle gets the nod. Its benchrest-shaped laminated stock and two-stage trigger give it an edge over the Remington. Also, if you choose to adapt the Ruger to fit NBRSA weight restrictions, you’ll have an easy time keeping the 10-pound gun under the 10.5-pound maximum weight of the Light Varmint–class rules. Of course, it should easily stay within the 13.5-pound Heavy Varmint class maximum. That said, however, we believe the gun needs glass-bedding and pillars to realize its full accuracy potential.
Pricewise, the $705 Remington 700VS Varmint Synthetic is nearly a wash with the Ruger. On the plus side, the Varmint Synthetic features a topnotch bedding system the Ruger lacks, but its stock shape wasn’t as appropriate for benchrest shooting. Also, though the Remington trigger is adjustable, the shooter must know his way around the trigger in order to modify it properly. A safer bet is to employ the talents of a trigger-savvy gunsmith, we think. The Ruger’s trigger is easier to manipulate, and we like the two-stage option the KM77VT offers. Like the Ruger, the Remington can likely compete in the Light Varmint class.
The Winchester Model 70 Synthetic Heavy Varmint shot well, has an appropriate forend design for benchrest shooting, and has a solid structural underpinning, including a bedding block and a glassed-in action. These additions could justify its $746 price. However, the trigger’s limited adjustability will take a competent gunsmith’s attention to make it competitive, we think. Also, the gun’s heavier weight means it can’t make Light Varmint–class weight, so it would have to compete in the Heavy Varmint class. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the Winchester might be able to win on a good day. It just can’t go down a weight class as easily as the other guns.