Varmint education: Subtle features distinguish premium small-bore rifles

Photo submitted by Donnie Hulse
Donnie Hulse of Redfield recently caught a mess of slab crappie fishing on a private lake in southeast Arkansas.
Photo submitted by Donnie Hulse Donnie Hulse of Redfield recently caught a mess of slab crappie fishing on a private lake in southeast Arkansas.

Bill Pool and I had a similar experience with our varmint rifles.

Pool, owner of Arkansas Gun Traders in Benton, is an accomplished gunsmith, an avid target shooter and an ardent prairie dog hunter. He has a .22-caliber centerfire rifle that shot loose groups at 100 yards with every powder and every bullet. When shooting at a target as small as a prairie dog at long range, consistent precision is the difference between hitting and missing.

"I read an article from Sierra (bullets) that said their 55-grain boattail hollowpoint was as accurate as their competition bullet," Pool said. "I thought, 'I have some of those,' so I loaded some of them up."

He used RL 15 powder.

Pool showed me a target that had clusters of wide groups. To the side was one big, ragged hole. That was the new load.

"That's five shots," Pool said. "That's what I was after. It just goes to show you that custom barrels are often very picky."

I had a similar experience with a Savage Model 10 in .22-250 Remington. It did not accurately print Winchester white box ammo with 40-grain bullets. I reloaded those cases with all brands and weights of bullets, powders and primers. The rifle woefully under performed for a cartridge that's known for gilt-edged accuracy.

Eventually I read an article about a new Hodgdon powder, 8208XBR, which just happened to have a gilt-edged label. Coupled with 55-gr. Speer flat-based soft points, the new powder brought out the best in the temperamental Savage. It didn't have a custom barrel, but it was still very picky.

For many years, Savage and Remington ruled the varmint hunting universe, Pool said. Shooters loved Remington's small-bore rifles for their accuracy, but Remington is not currently making guns. That leaves Savage as the primary player.

"Savage rifles always shot good," Pool said. "They weren't always much to look at, but they did shoot."

About 20 years ago, new owners bought Savage out of bankruptcy. They slimmed the product line strictly to bolt-action rifles, but they added accuracy-enhancing features like the acclaimed Accu-Trigger and Accu-Stock.

Savage also lent itself to customization, which shooters appreciated. Savage's signature locknut on its actions looked ungainly and unbalanced, but it makes it easy to swap out barrels and also to precisely adjust headspace. Also, you can convert the bolt to chamber different cartridges by replacing the head. These features are very popular among ardent riflemen, who are inveterate tinkerers.

A void in the varmint rifle arena remains in Remington's absence, Pool said. Tikka, a Finnish brand, has claimed some of that market share, but Tikka is an acquired taste. Shooters that have them are fiercely loyal to them, but Tikka was long a hard sell despite its sterling pedigree. It's owned by Beretta, which also owns Sako, another Finnish brand that's renowned for its accuracy, fit and finish.

"I carried Tikka in the early days, but I couldn't sell them, " Pool said, recalling the type of dialogue that he often had with customers.

"What the hell is a Tikka?"

"Well, it's made by Sako."

"Oh, so it's a Sako?"

"No, it isn't a Sako."

"Well, then I'm not interested."

"I tried to sell CZ, but it was the same thing," Pool said. "It's made in Czechoslovakia, and people couldn't even pronounce that. They didn't even know where that is, so they didn't want that either. And it's a fine-shooting rifle."

CZ stands for Ceska Zbrojovka, and it has some accenting characters that we don't know how to make with an American keyboard, kind of like a Spanish tilde or German umlaut. We can't pronounce it either, but it stands for Czech Armory. It's part of the group that owns Colt, and it has a strong Arkansas connection.

CZ makes a fabulous rifle. It's the only production rifle we know that comes with a stock set trigger. You push it forward before you're ready to shoot. It releases with a mere touch, which is said to improve accuracy. I once had one chambered in 7mm Mauser, and I also have a CZ 457 Deluxe .22 Long Rifle. It's the most accurate rimfire I have ever owned or shot. I mean, who else would even think to make a rimfire with a miniature Mauser style action and adjustable sights to 500 meters? The front sight is adjustable, too.

People know about CZ now, Pool said, and they ask for it by name.

Pool puts a lot of stock in sturdiness and lasting workmanship. He acknowledges that Tikka rifles are very accurate. He has for sale a Tikka that guarantees one-inch, three shot groups, but Pool doesn't like its plastic magazine and its two-piece plastic stock.

"Do you know how much a McMillan stock costs?" Pool asked. "About $600. That's about what this Tikka costs lock, stock and barrel. No doubt it'll shoot, but ..."

With a dismissive shake of the head, Pool gave the Tikka a scornful look before returning it to the rack.

I asked Pool if plastic parts compromise the gun's longevity.

"I can't answer that," Pool said. "I just don't like plastic parts on a rifle."

Pool disdains certain elements of Remington's famous Model 700 action. He really dislikes its ejector assembly and says it is not remotely in the same universe as Winchester's Pre-1964 and Pre-1964 style classic ejectors. He also resents Remington putting cheap SPS stocks on many of its varminting models and passing them off as something desirable.

"You can squeeze them and pinch them against the barrel," Pool said. "If you take the stock off, you can actually twist it. You can see it flex."

Pools expression changed when I told him about my Model 700 VSSF in 220 Swift.

"That's a different animal," Pool said. "Does the stock have an aluminum bedding block?"

"I don't know," I said. "I don't take apart rifles that shoot as good as that one does."

Pool laughed and brought out a VSSF stock from his back room. It has an aluminum bedding block, which creates a rock steady platform for the action.

"It's reinforced with fiberglass cloth and hardened with resin," Pool said. "This one's used. You can see where whoever had it before sanded the barrel channel. You can see the fiberglass cloth in there."

"Mine doesn't have any of the little lines and fibers, though," I said.

"That's because they painted it black, but I'd say yours has all of that."

That revelation improved my already high regard for a prized firearm, and as always happens when I visit with Pool, I came away better informed than when I entered his door.

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