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Ready for anything, whether it be long-range hunting or F-Class competition, this Harvester Tactical by Hill Country Rifles has every bit of the right stuff

Hill Country Rifles of New Braunfels, TX is a remarkable source for custom and semi-production rifles. I say that because the guy who runs the place, Matt Bettersworth, offers so many source and build options—along with accurizing and general gunsmithing—that it sets his operation apart from most other firms offering similar products and services.

Take accurizing for example. HCR buys new Remington 700s, accurizes them, then sells them as their Harvester series—with an MOA accuracy guarantee using factory ammunition. Their basic accurizing procedures consist of installing threaded aluminum pillars and glass-bedding the entire receiver and bottom metal unit. The locking lugs are lapped for full contact with their abutments if factory headspace allows, the muzzle is re-crowned, the Remington X-Mark Pro trigger is tuned if necessary for a crisp release, and the scope rings are lapped and trued. The gun is then fired in a 100-yard test tunnel with a variety of factory loads until one is found that best meets the MOA guarantee, though Matt says the average is closer to ½ MOA. The qualifying load and target are furnished with the gun. Matt tells me the three guys who do the accurizing there at HCR also do the shooting, and collectively they’ve pillared, glass-bedded and otherwise tuned more than 20,000 rifles!

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The Remington X-mark Pro trigger is tuned as part of HCR’s accurizing procedure

ROOTS OF THE HARVEST

The two guns normally used for their Harvester series are the Winchester Model 70 Super Grade and Remington’s 700 SPS stainless, which after accurizing, they offer at $1,695 and $1,995, respectively. If you send your rifle in, it’ll cost you $495, and you’ll get it back in 8 to 12 weeks depending on the time of year. As this was written, HCR had about 20 completed rifles in inventory, and another 10 that were in production. There were also about a dozen custom guns in various stages of completion.

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The Badger bottom metal unit with the Accuracy International magazine furnished with the test gun are extra cost options

Now thus far what I’ve described isn’t that much different from the accurizing services offered by a lot of other shops. Where HCR departs from the rest is in the rifles they build to order. While most custom shops use a specific make of action, barrel, stock and trigger to build their rifles—components which can be of their own manufacture or outsourced—HCR offers several options in each category, and they all qualify as among the very best available.

HAVE IT YOUR WAY

Where accuracy is the prime goal, the customer can choose to have his rifle based on a Remington 700, or two other renderings thereof. One is the Predator action produced by Stiller Precision Firearms of Wylie, TX; the other is the Rebel action of Defiance Machine of Columbia Falls, MT. Both actions have the same footprint as the 700, but have fluted bolts and employ either Sako or M16-type extraction systems. These are not little one- or two-man shops; on the contrary, each produces an impressive array of action types in addition to the aforementioned versions of the Model 700. Both companies use the latest EDM and CNC machinery and work to much tighter tolerances than found in typical production rifles. Naturally, building a rifle on either of these actions will cost significantly more than a Remington 700.

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The tactical-style bolt handle is longer, making it less likely that the hand will miss it as it sweeps upward on a fast repeat shot from the shoulder.

If the customer wants a rifle built on a controlled-round feed action for a dangerous-game rifle—or simply prefers that action type—HCR uses Winchester Model 70 and Dakota 76 actions exclusively. As for the barrels they use, consider that Krieger, Lilja, Hart, and Schneider are “…a few of our favorites,” says Bettersworth. Optics? HCR is a dealer for Zeiss, Swarovski, Schmidt & Bender, and Nightforce, so nothing more need be said on that score. For stocks they prefer Precision Stock Works.

Like I said, HCR is different from most shops today offering similar products and services because of the number of options offered, and the quality of the components used in their full custom rifles.

HARVESTER TACTICAL

Anxious to sample one of their more basic accurized guns, HCR agreed to send us a Harvester Tactical in .308 Win. The gun is really nothing more esoteric than Remington’s standard Varmint heavy-barreled action with a 1-in-12-inch-twist barrel, which they cut back to 22 inches, then set it into a fiberglass stock designed by Precision Stock Works. The stock itself, which is called the Rifleman, is produced for PSW by McMillan, and is a dedicated RH design that features a very high comb, and a palm swell on the side of the grip. HCR claims this stock makes a good light tactical or long-range hunting stock, and though designed primarily for prone shooting, is still comfortable from a sitting or standing position. Rather than using the OEM bottom metal unit that is furnished as standard on the Harvester Tactical, the test gun was fitted with Badger Ordnance’s M5 Detachable Magazine System. The paddle-style release lever for the five-round Accuracy International magazine is incorporated into the front surface of the triggerguard bow and is pushed forward to release the box.

Having stated earlier that aluminum pillar glass bedding is a standard HCR accurizing procedure, I think we need to examine the different interpretations of the process. Some contend that pillar bedding means exactly what it says—namely, that the pillars are fractionally longer than the thickness of the stock as measured through the receiver area, so that when the action screws are tightened, neither the receiver nor the bottom metal unit are actually pulled against their bedding surfaces. In other words, these two components are sitting on and connected only by two small tubes, and the stock is simply a handle, if you will. In an extreme example of this condition, with the barreled action locked in a vise, you would theoretically be able to move the stock a few thousandths of an inch in any direction.

The other definition of pillar bedding is that the pillars not be longer than the action screw holes so that the receiver and bottom metal units are pulled tightly against the stock. Under this condition, the pillars’ only function is to prevent the stock from compressing over time under the pressure of the action screws, thus reducing, or in an extreme example, eliminating entirely any dampening pressure. Injection-molded stocks can soften in high temperatures and wood stocks can both expand and contract with changing humidity. What the pillars do is maintain the same distance between the bottom metal unit and the receiver under either circumstance. When pillars are employed in conjunction with the full-length glass bedding of the receiver, changes in bedding dynamics are virtually eliminated, so it’s as close to the optimal condition as current technology allows. It is the latter system that HCR employs, and on the test gun the bedding job for both the receiver and bottom metal unit was superb. There was not a bubble or a void of any kind to be seen.

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The fastest and surest magazine arrangement on a tactical rifle is the paddle type, the release lever of which extends prominently and is pushed forward to release.

Other than the accurizing procedures already outlined, our test gun had a Cerakote metal finish on all components except the all the stainless X-Mark Pro trigger, and was fitted with a tactical bolt handle. Matt was kind enough to send the rifle with a Nightforce 3.5x15x50 tactical scope mounted on a Picatinny rail using 8-screw tactical rings already sighted-in. This 30mm scope had Nightforce’s 1,000-yard MV.5 reticle, which is an extremely fine drop-compensating crosshair in the second image plane, i.e., non-magnifying. This particular reticle is specifically calibrated to a .308 Win. 168-grain match bullet out of a 22-inch barrel, so it was perfectly matched to the test rifle. With the Nightforce scope aboard, the range-ready Harvester Tactical weighed 11.33 pounds.

HARVEST TIME

Whenever I’m testing a .308 Win., I like to use at least a couple of factory match loadings because they almost always prove to outshoot any hunting load. And with a rifle like this it’s especially appropriate. So I went with Federal’s Gold Medal 175-grain Sierra Matchking, and the 168-grain Hornady A-Max and 180-grain AccuBond Gold Match loads by Black Hills.

It took just one shot to establish that the gun was indeed rough zeroed at 100 yards, and another two shots to get it shooting where I wanted it. The very first group fired with the Federal fodder was as amazing and it was exceptional. After three shots all I could see on the target was one ragged hole that later measured 0.176 inches. But alas, that was the only group that measured anywhere near that tight. But do keep in mind that “anywhere near” suggests groups that are…what, maybe twice as large? That would mean sprawling…I say sprawling, groups measuring all of 0.350 inches center to center! And groups three times as large—like 0.550 inches, would really suck, relatively speaking. What a terrible compromise to have to settle for groups averaging just over ½ MOA!

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The pillar glass bedding on the test rifle was superbly done with not a bubble or void to be seen. The pillars are absolutely flush with the bedding surface.

As it turned out, the test gun acquitted itself quite nicely, even though it never came “close” to printing another group like the first. The Federal load averaged 0.380 inches, discounting one flier that could have been me. Next was the Black Hills 168-grain Hornady A-Max load that averaged 0.61 inches for 15 shots, discounting one flier that was me. The 180-grain AccuBonds averaged 0.95 inches. That’s a 0.79-inch average for 45 shots, discounting two fliers. Not too shabby!

The Badger BM system, in conjunction with the Accuracy International magazine, worked slickly, snapping in and out with a positive feel and click. The box was among the easiest to charge of any DM I’ve used—even the fifth cartridge was easy to slide back under the feed lips, thanks to there being enough room behind the lips for the thumb to push down the rear end of the cartridge. I don’t know if the X-Mark Pro trigger had been tuned by HCR, but it broke at a light and crisp 2.5 pounds.

The length of the tactical bolt handle isn’t much longer compared to the standard 700 bolt, but it’s enough to make a difference in cocking effort, especially when the action is cycled from the shoulder. Also, the fact that it sticks out farther from the stock makes it easier to find when a rapid second shot is needed. I find that on some rifles, the bolt handle hugs the stock too closely, making a rapid second shot from the shoulder a little less assured, particularly if one is wearing gloves.

As for the Nightforce scope, it’s a superb example of precision optics, but then with a price tag approaching that of the basic Harvester rifle, it had better be. All of the several reticles offered are a little too busy for my tastes, but then I’m pretty much old school when it comes to that. All reticles are illuminated by pulling out on the side-mounted parallax/focus knob.

The standard Harvester Tactical carries an MSRP of $2,495, but that assumes the gun is based on a standard Remington 700 heavy-barreled action with the hinged OEM floorplate. Our test gun’s Badger BM unit, AI magazine and tactical bolt handle upped the price to $2,995. The only decision here is whether or not those options are worth the extra money to you, because the gun would have shot just as well if it were the standard Harvester Tactical. For more information, visit hillcountryrifles.com or call 830-609-3139.

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