Our tests found that money doesn’t always buy accuracy—pricey Christensen Arms and Browning products disappointed.
The world of a long-range varmint hunter centers on his rifle and its ability to place a bullet on a small target a long way off. For varminters, accuracy is everything, including the difficult task of placing multiple heat-generating shots fired in a short time span without changing point-of-impact or accuracy. Also, varmint rifles should be shootable, which allows hunters to utilize their guns’ accuracy. Thus, varmint rifles must have a good trigger, a properly designed stock, and be well adapted to shooting under field conditions. Last, a good varmint gun should be light enough to be carried for reasonable distances, so that its owner can get makeable shots.
A number of guns purport to have these characteristics, and we decided to take a look at four production varmint rifles to see how they stacked up. Representing the lower end price point was the Savage 112BVSS, with a suggested retail price of $535. In the middle cost range we picked the Remington Model 700 VS SF at a suggested retail of $826 and the Browning A-Bolt Varmint with BOSS, which sells for a retail price of $939.95. Representing the top end of the varmint spectrum was the unique and pricey Christensen Arms Carbon One, which carries an “introductory price” of $2,750.
Here’s what we thought of each one.
Browning A-Bolt Varmint
This is certainly the prettiest of the rifles we tested. Everything on the gun was polished to a high gloss. The stock is laminated wood stained gray/black and finished in a high gloss clearcoat. A satin finish is also available. The stock’s length of pull is 133/4 inches, drop at comb 9/16 inches, and drop at the heel 7/16 inches. The butt pad is 1.2 inches of rubber with a 1/4-inch black-plastic spacer.
The forearm is flat and measures 2.3 inches halfway between the floor plate and the front end of the stock. It sits well on a sand bag, making this a stable gun to shoot from a bench rest. The forearm and pistol grip are sharply checkered. Detachable sling swivels are supplied. The drop-plate magazine features a detachable-box magazine. This did make it tricky to load the rifle single shot. The shooter could not drop in a shell and close the bolt. But once the technique of starting the shell into the chamber was mastered, this ceased to be a problem. The action is bedded front and rear in thermoplastic. The barrel was free floated.
The BOSS-equipped barrel is 22 inches, with the BOSS compensator extending it another 2.5 inches. The barrel tube measures 0.765 inches behind the BOSS, 1.08 inches where it meets the action, and .840 at the halfway point, which is thinner than most other varmint rifles. The Browning did exhibit some tendency to open its groups as the barrel heated up. Perhaps a heavier barrel would reduce this tendency.
The shorter barrel also developed the lowest velocities with our ammo test lots and the lowest average velocity. Most varmint rifles use a 26-inch barrel to achieve maximum velocity from any given load. With all other factors being equal, the higher the velocity, the flatter the trajectory, and a flat trajectory is helpful in long range shooting. Though most varmint shooting is done from a fixed position relatively close to a vehicle, there is little to be gained by putting a short barrel on a rifle, we think. The BOSS adds about 2 inches to the overall length of a rifle, but we believe the A-Bolt Varmint needs another 2 inches rifled tube to boost its velocity readings.
The action is the standard A-Bolt design. It has a 60-degree throw. A tang-style safety is mounted behind the bolt. The trigger is adjustable, but barely. The test gun’s release was set at 4 pounds from the factory. With the adjustment screw turned to its extreme limit, the trigger weight could be adjusted only down to 3 pounds. It broke clean with a little bit of overtravel; however, this is too heavy a trigger pull for a varmint rifle. Most shooters will want to replace the trigger or have a competent gunsmith lighten it, we think.
Besides allowing the shooter to accuracy-tune the A-Bolt to a given load, the BOSS system also trims recoil. That factor may not seem important in a .22-250, but it really is. Though shooting a .22-250 in a 10-pound gun doesn’t pound the shooter that much, over the course of firing a hundred rounds in a day, kick can take its toll, so any recoil reduction is advantageous. But even more important, recoil reduction helps the shooter to keep the gun on the target. This allows him to see long-range hits through the scope—an advantage when “walking in” on a distant prairie dog.
PS Recommends: The $939.95 Browning A-Bolt Varmint with BOSS didn’t perform all that well in our accuracy testing, even though we used the company’s suggested sweet spot for the load weights we examined. That said, we didn’t try to tune the BOSS perfectly for every load, so we can’t conclusively say that the gun won’t shoot better. Still, there are enough other shortcomings on the A-Bolt—its short barrel, its inability to maintain accuracy with a hot barrel, and the poor trigger—that we can’t recommend this rifle.
Christensen Arms Carbon One
Some of the design elements found in this rifle are causing quite a stir among serious shooters, but the practical use of the Carbon One remains a mystery to most. The Carbon One is a tuned custom rifle based on a Remington Model 700 BDL action that has been lapped, faced, trued, and head-spaced minimum. This action is mated to a cutting-edge carbon barrel. This barrel features a Shilen tube that is turned to a minimum diameter by Christensen Arms and then covered with a high-modulus (stiff) graphite/epoxy casing until its outer diameter matches that of many other varmint-profile barrels. The test gun’s 26-inch barrel measured 0.915 inches at the muzzle, 1.2 inches where it meets the action, and 1.09 at the halfway point.
Supposedly, the carbon is stiff enough to dampen the vibration generated in the barrel when firing, while being much lighter than steel. Christensen Arms claims that its carbon/epoxy barrels are stiffer than the equivalent diameter of chrome-moly steel. The company also says that the carbon wrapper is less susceptible to heat-generated movement while firing multiple rounds. However, we did not find this claim to be true.
In our tests, the rifle exhibited a definite tendency to shift its groups to the left as the barrel heated. While there was not a remarkable deterioration in accuracy, this group shifting was as much as 1.5 inches after ten shots. This 1.5-minute-of-angle deflection would translate to 6 inches of shift at 400 yards, more than enough to miss a prairie dog.
The primary advantage of this barrel design, in our eyes, is in weight reduction. The carbon/epoxy sheath is 4.56 times lighter than steel. Were this barrel attached to a lightweight mountain-hunting rifle, it serves little purpose in a varmint hunting rig, in our estimation. In fact, a heavy rifle that stabilizes well in the sandbags is a lot easier to shoot and control in a prairie wind. Also, the lack of weight affected our ability to call shots. When we shot the relatively light rifle on a South Dakota prairie dog hunt, recoil would take the scope off the target. We had to use a spotter to track hits when shooting the Carbon One.
During cleaning sessions it was evident both from the relative lack of fouling and from the easy feel of a patch passing through the bore that interior finish of the barrel was very smooth and consistent. This usually leads to improved accuracy, and a smooth bore also reduces overall fouling, which is important to a varmint hunter. The less a rifle fouls, the longer you can shoot it between cleanings.
Also, the cleaning sessions are shorter and easier. Also, its smoother bore likely contributed to the Carbon One turning in the highest velocities with all the loads tested and the highest average overall velocity.
The carbon barrel is matched to the action with a Shilen heavy-duty recoil lug, and a Shilen trigger is installed. The barreled action is then glass-bedded to a Pacific Research Rimrock synthetic stock in which the barrel is free floated. The flat forearm of the stock measures 2.1 inches across halfway between the floor plate and the end. The recoil pad is 1 inch of rubber, and the stock is equipped with QR swivel studs. The stock also features a cheekpiece.
PS Recommends: The Christensen Arms Carbon One .22-250 seems like a good idea, but the carbon barrel didn’t show us much in terms of accuracy, repeatability, and other important field factors. The lightweight barrel might be helpful in a big-game rifle that has to be carried all day, but as a varmint shooter, we think this rifle falls short of what you might expect for the price. We don’t recommend it.
This rifle was the surprise of our test. It was the lowest-priced unit at $535 MSRP; it was mechanically simple; and it was the most accurate .22-250 we shot. The 112BVSS is a brute. We wouldn’t want to tangle with the man who could use it on a mountain goat hunt. At almost 13 pounds fully equipped, it is solid on the bench though, a point that no doubt helped with its accuracy. The laminated stock is stained a walnut brown. There is no checkering, and the pistol grip feels big enough to fit Hulk Hogan. Length of pull is 131/2 inches; the drop at comb is 9/16 inches; and drop at the heel measured 9/16 inches. The butt pad is 1/2-inch-thick rubber with a 1/4-inch-thick black-plastic spacer. There is a black forend cap about an inch long. Detachable sling swivels are supplied. The forearm is flat and measures 2.06 inches in width halfway between the trigger guard and the end, but it seems bigger. This gun sits in a sandbag like a rock. It is definitely designed to be used from a bench, and from that position, it shoots very well.
The bedding? Nothing fancy—just wood, in fact. The barrel channel is a rough, without a lot of finish or even clean up work completed. The rear action screw is threaded in front of the trigger instead of in the tang as is usual. The tang hole is there, but it’s filled with a plastic plug. The action is blued steel. The barrel is stainless steel. The fluted barrel measures 26 inches in length and is 0.82 inch thick behind the muzzle, 1.05 inches where it meets the action, and 0.935 inch at the halfway point. It’s locked to the action with Savage’s unique “nut” system, which keeps manufacturing costs down. There are six flutes milled in the barrel to aid in heat dissipation. The Savage did not exhibit any tendency to open the groups or shift the point of impact as the barrel heated up.
The trigger is adjustable, but it is still one of the negatives in this rifle. The trigger uses far too many stamped parts and would never be called refined, in our view. When we adjusted it to break below 3 pounds, the gun would often slam fire when closing the bolt. This is totally unacceptable and very dangerous. A good gunsmith could improve it with careful stone work, but in our eyes it still is a cheap trigger and the best solution is a replacement.
The bolt and action are of the 110 design with a two-lug locking system and a tang safety. The bolt has the Savage name engraved on it, which adds a touch of class. The rifle features a blind magazine with no drop plate. This is not a problem because most prairie dog hunters will load rounds in single-shot fashion, and this gun is not going to see a lot of use elsewhere.
The Savage may well be the lowest-priced gun, and by a considerable margin, but it whipped the other products in accuracy testing. It was the only one of these .22-250s to turn in average-group sizes under 1 inch.
PS Recommends: We can only imagine what this rifle would be capable of with a decent trigger and a quality bedding job. We still like the Remington, but dollar for dollar, the Savage is by far the best buy. If you are going to shoot from a bench and don’t mind tugging on the trigger, this is the gun to buy. For premium performance, however, the trigger is a liability that has to be addressed. For $100 or so, the shooter can have a replacement trigger installed, and for another $75, he can have the barrel free floated. Even with those upgrades, the Savage 112BVSS would be a lower-priced package than the Remington, and it would likely shoot the pants off the Model 700. If you’re willing to replace the trigger, we can recommend the Savage 112BVSS.
Remington Model 700 VS SF
This newest incarnation of the Remington varmint rifle got off on the right foot when the very first group fired after sighting it in measured less than half an inch. That group was not shot as part of this test, but it nonetheless opened our eyes to the potential of the VS SF. We fired that group with 55-grain Hornady Varmint Express ammo at a target 100 yards distant. Four shots sizzled past the Oehler 35P Chronograph at 3,576 fps. Before the shooter made the classic mistake of checking the group through the spotting scope, the first four rounds tore one ragged hole that would later measure 3/16 inch. Predictably, the last round of the five-shot string was a flyer that opened the group to half an inch. Our accuracy testing would later verify that our first impression of this gun as a shooter was correct.
Its stock is Kevlar with a rough texture, no checkering, and a pattern of gray swirls throughout. Length of pull is 133/8 inches; drop at comb is 5/8 inches; and drop at the heel is 5/8 inches. The butt pad is 1/4-inch-thick rubber with a 1/4-inch black-plastic spacer. The forearm has a slight radius and measures 1.16 inches halfway between the floor plate and the end. Detachable sling swivels are supplied.
The stock features a molded-in aluminum frame that reinforces the stock from pistol grip to the forend. This also is machined to provide a precision bedding platform for the receiver. The barrel is floated free from the stock.
The action and barrel are stainless steel, with the fluted barrel measuring 26 inches. It measures 0.82 inches behind the muzzle, 1.25 inches where it meets the action, and 0.99 inches at the halfway point. There are six flutes milled in the barrel to aid in heat dissipation. The Remington did not exhibit any tendency to open the groups or shift the point of impact as the barrel heated up, which is how a good varmint rifle is supposed to behave.
The Remington 700 still has one of the best factory triggers available. Not so much because they are good out of the box—they are not—but because it is adjustable by someone who knows what he is doing. A good gunsmith can usually adjust the trigger to 2 pounds with little trouble.
The action is the standard 700 with a two-lug locking system. The rifle features a drop-plate magazine.
Our test rifle had seen extensive use on coyotes and prairie dogs in the past four months, and our field impressions of it were favorable. On a South Dakota prairie dog hunt, it saw the most use and accounted for an embarrassing number of dogs. The longest shot we made with it, measured with a laser rangefinder, was 434 yards. We believe we made even longer ones, but our laser device wasn’t accurate to more extended ranges. The rifle handled the heat of multiple firings in 90-degree ambient temperatures without a problem. The gun fit well on the sandbags and was easy to shoot off a portable bench, even during stiff winds.
In spite of its comparatively heavy total weight, the gun carried well. While hunting coyotes in Texas, we also found it shot easily from a sitting position. It tracked running coyotes smoothly, and thought it is a little heavy to be carried around all day, it is a great dual-purpose varmint/predator rifle, we believe. This rifle was extremely close to the Carbon One in total accuracy, coming in only 0.04 inches behind the more expensive gun in group average. That difference is so small as to be immaterial, and the barrel, when heated, did not shift point of impact like the carbon-covered tube.
PS Recommends: At less than one third the price of the Christensen Arms Carbon One gun, the Remington Model 700 VS SF is a much better buy, in our opinion. With its aluminum-frame bedding, good adjustable trigger, and outstanding accuracy, this rifle is worth its $826 price tag. We recommend it.