Everything you have been taught about evaluating the quality of a big-game rifle is wrong. Every month, for roughly the past four decades, American hunters and shooters have been conditioned to believe that the only way to evaluate their hunting arms is to measure groups fired from the benchrest. Don’t believe me? Try to find an article evaluating any type of hunting arm that (1) doesn’t include benched groups and (2) offers any other kind of standardized test.
What is so wrong with this sort of evaluation? For starters, this is a test of mechanical precision and only relates to how well the firearm is capable of launching its bullet with minimal human influence. The multiple factors that make a field rifle great are largely ignored, such as how easily the hunter can harness the equipment’s potential in the field. Though there are rare exceptions, the fact is that a rifle’s raw precision doesn’t determine a hunt’s success or failure. Modern rifles and cartridges right off the dealer’s shelf (and by “modern” I mean almost everything manufactured by reputable makers over the past few decades) are so good now that their performance is almost never a concern for the big-game hunter.
No, I don’t work for any gun or ammunition manufacturers and I acknowledge that talented gunsmiths and handloaders can wring even better performance out of the machinery. Since the mid 1900s, back when factory gear wasn’t as precise, hard-won knowledge from benchrest competitors and gunsmiths has trickled down into off-the-shelf gear. Today, nearly any current, stock offering provides all the accuracy needed for most hunting situations.
BENCH VS. FIELD
Benchrest results are not an ideal standard, but unfortunately the gun and hunting communities haven’t caught up with this perspective. Volumes of test information have been recorded, and none of it has provided any real indication of how effective a given rifle will be in the field. Mechanical precision data is all that gets compiled when shooting from a benchrest. A review of the results of nearly any test will prove my point. At 100 yards the difference between the best group and the worst in a given rifle is rarely much more than an inch. Few hunters possess enough skill to take advantage of such a slim difference and would never notice it when taking a shot under field conditions.
The benchrest offers almost no benefit to a field shooter’s marksmanship. The basic tenet of marksmanship is to hold the gun the same way for each shot, and the best way to learn a consistent hold is to zero and practice in positions you’ll actually use in the field. The bench helps hold the gun steady and, with field rifles, is only useful for rank beginners and the feeble—people who don’t yet have the ability to hold a firearm consistently on their own.