Tactical Rifles

When I was in the Army, I was once herded to a class on anti-tank weapons, during the course of which the instructor repeatedly used the phrase "neutralize the enemy." Someone asked the sergeant what "neutralize" meant. The sergeant smiled a slow and beautiful smile and said: "You'll blow the living s**t out of him."

"Neutralize" was a euphemism, and so is "tactical." A tactical rifle is a firearm designed for shooting people in a precise manner, as opposed to New York City Police Department doctrine, which is to empty the magazine as fast as you can in the general direction of everything standing and hope for the best.

If a gun company were to announce its new model so-and-so people-shooting rifle there would be hell to pay. So the easy way out is to simply call the gun a tactical rifle and everyone is happy.

Tactical rifles, like sporting clays guns, didn't even exist not so long ago. The military cobbled bolt-action hunting rifles for its snipers, and there were bull-barreled target guns that did double duty, but nothing existed that was close to what we have today.

At least one rifle maker produces a "tactical rifle" by putting a bull barrel and a target stock on its standard rifle and adding a thousand dollars to the price. But it's not a true tactical rifle. The real thing consists of the following:

All tactical rifles are either bolt or semi-auto. The former is simpler and probably still slightly more accurate than the latter, but the semi-auto allows you to engage multiple targets more efficiently and does away with the need to work a bolt when you're trying to hide from people who would like to see where you are so they can kill you.

But since most of us are civilians, and to keep this post at a manageable length, I'll stick to bolt-actions. A tactical shooter must manipulate the bolt with snap and precision, so the standard knob is replaced with a much larger one. The rifle can feed either out of a standard magazine or a detachable box, with the latter being preferable.

Calibers are limited. They include the .223, .308, .300 Win Mag, and if you really want to reach out, the .338 Lapua.

Barrels are invariably heavy--around Number 6 contour--stainless rather than chrome-moly, and premium grade. Some tactical rifles have barrels as short as 22 inches, but most are 24 and the .338 Lapua requires 27 or 28 inches to burn its horrific powder charge efficiently. The muzzle should be threaded for a brake, suppressor, or flash hider.

Triggers, contrary to what you might think, are not set to varmint-rifle pulls. Tactical shooting is a high-stress business, and the last thing you want is a trigger that releases before you're ready. So most are adjusted like big-game-rifle triggers--2 ½ pounds at the minimum and 3 to 4 pounds typically. But they are dead clean, which is far more important than weight.

And, speaking of weight, this is one thing you get plenty of in a correctly designed tactical rifle. These guns are fitted with variable scopes that run north of 20X, and you can't hold a high-powered scope steady in a light rifle, and heavy barrels don't walk when they heat up from repeated firing. So, for the typical tactical rifle, 12 to 13 pounds without scope is average, and complete weight is around 15 pounds.

Only one mounting system is even considered--the Picatinny Rail, which is a standardized version of the ancient Weaver mount. The Rail is heavy, ugly, very strong, offers lots of fore-and-aft latitude and, if you have a rail with a 5- to 20 MoA slant to it, you get lots and lots of added elevation for very long distances.

Right now there are two kinds of tactical-rifle--a synthetic stock with a true pistol grip, target dimensions, and adjustments for comb height and length of pull. The other, which will probably be the dominant form in time, is the chassis stock--a metal frame in place of the Kevlar and fiberglass. Chassis stocks have even more latitude of adjustment and some of them fold at the pistol grip to make them handier to carry. Either style should have two sling swivel studs up front, one for the sling, and one for a folding bipod, which is the tactical shooter's best friend. Sights are strictly optical. At the ranges where tactical rifles are expected to be effective, iron sights no longer pack the pork. They are invariably variable and equipped with mil-dot reticles, although "grid" reticles are probably the next thing.

Tactical rifles are required to shoot at least minute-of-angle at 100 yards, but I think the norm is closer to half that.

Ah yes, the price. About the least you can pay for a good tactical rifle is $1,500. The Montana Marksman Rifle shown here is $2,925, and is a great value. You can pay a lot more. McMillan tactical rifles can sell for as much as $9,000, and I once saw a Belgian tactical rifle, cased, with every imaginable accessory, that had a $25,000 price tag on it.

What can you do with one? Well, unless you're in the military or a sworn law officer, you can't shoot people. But if you get one in .223 or .308 you can shoot in Sniper Class matches, and with the .223, light up prairie dog towns. In .308 or .300 Win Mag you have an exemplary beanfield rifle. Some makers, like Montana Rifles, offer chamberings such as .260 Remington, 6.5 Creedmoor, and 6.5/284, which will enable you to compete in F Class matches, where you will learn more about shooting under pressure, doping wind, and achieving real long-range accuracy than anywhere else. Or you can simply shoot for fun. Remember fun? It's very far from tactical, but it's worth trying.