More Thoughts on the U.S. Optics SR-8c

One of the attributes of the scope that affect the usability more than many others is the reticle.  The reticle in this scope is called the 8C MIL.  According the the US Optics website, the reticle is designed to be versatile, work well at low magnification, and offer ranging capability.  The reticle is essentially a milliradian ruler.  In my opinion, ranging is one of the least useful capabilities of a mil reticle.  More importantly, it allows precise holdovers, wind adjustment, and compensation for moving targets, although there are other ways to accomplish all of those things than with a reticle.

8C Mil Reticle

What the picture doesn’t show of the reticle is the circle that is around the crosshair portion.  The reticle is in the front focal plane, so it gets larger and smaller in accordance with the size of the image as the magnification of the scope is adjusted.  The circle gets large enough to leave the field of view as the magnification is dialed all the way up to 8x.

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A potentially significant disadvantage of the reticle being in the front focal plane is that it can seem excessively fine at low power, and excessively coarse at high power.  This is something that can be mitigated by a well thought out reticle design.  The problem of the apparent reticle size becomes potentially more apparent on scopes with larger zoom ratios.  An 8 power zoom is quite an extreme feat.  For the record the highest zoom that I’m aware of is a 10 power.

At 8x the reticle is somewhat coarse.  The bullseye on my preferred zeroing target is approximately 0.91” (it just turned out that way).  This is approximately 0.87 MOA or  approximately 0.25 mils at 100 yards.  At 100 yards I had to really work to get the reticle centered on it.  It was one of those things where when it’s right the target can’t really be seen, but if it’s moved off center you know it because the target is visible in one quadrant of the reticle.  When I switched to the “Redneck” target, which was designed to be a 100 yard target with a true 4 MOA scoring ring and a true 1 MOA x-ring, I could see the x-ring in all quadrants of the reticle when it was properly centered.

Do I think that the reticle is too coarse?  That has to be evaluated in terms of the scope’s purpose.  With my current goal of being able to consistently hit a 4” target, I would no longer be able to easily center the reticle on target somewhere between 300 and 400 yards.  4” is not an arbitrary figure, but of course there are other size targets too.  The question is really one of terminal ballistics at that point, what job the round will reliably do, and what requirements it will fulfill.  For the purposes of this rifle, I don’t think the reticle at maximum power is excessively coarse.

Do I think the reticle is too thin at minimum power?  The lines are quite fine at minimum power or even at what I’ll call “effective minimum power” (EMP, pronounced “eeeemp!” [and hop from a squatting position, eat a banana, and scratch your armpit as you read it]), which I’ll define as power at which objects appear to be the same size as when viewed with the naked eye.  The thin reticle sounds like it could be a deal breaker.  What we want up close is something bold and easy to see.  What saves this scope in that scenario is that it has very effective illumination.

The Red Dot

The illumination on this scope is a single red dot.  It is very similar in appearance to the dot on the Aimpoint Micro that was sent with the US Optics scopes.  The difference is that the US Optics illumination has a brighter range than the Aimpoint.  I first noticed this when comparing them while there was snow on the ground.  The Aimpoint dot washed out against the snow while the US Optics dots did not.

I have been told, or have read (or both), that the US Optics scopes use similar illumination technology as the Aimpoints.  I’ve heard referred to as ‘beam splitter” technology, but I think someone was talking about Star Trek transporters.  It’s hard to describe, but the character of the illumination is very similar between the two.  I have quite a bit of experience with illuminated magnified optics, which appear to have a weaker illumination that casts a bit of red tint in the image.  There’s also something remarkable in the illumination in the Aimpoint and the US Optics scopes: the illumination is not visible from the objective lens!  The other scopes I have look like a Christmas tree bulb when viewed from the objective lens side.  This may seem trivial, unless there is a concern of being detected by the target.  Then it would seem to me that it is not very trivial.  In my mind, this elevates the US Optics scopes when one of the selection criteria is that the scope is being used on a live target.

There is a drawback to this type of illumination technology.  I have been told that it can darken the image of the scope.  My limited experience with the USO bears this out.  The images of the two US Optics scopes I am testing are noticeably darker than that of the SWFA and the Swarovski.  I don’t think that the clarity is diminished (I don’t think this is an official term someone who actually knows optics would use, but hopefully it conveys the point).

A darker image is not what you would expect with a premium optic, which is what you assume you’re getting with an MSRP of $2495.  This was disappointing when I noticed it, which was right out of the box.  Since I have it firmly in my head that I’m testing how the scopes enable or diminish my ability to perform with the rifle, I had to ask myself if the darker image will actually matter.  This is something that I’ll only be satisfied to find out with live fire evaluation, but I have some guesses.  At close to intermediate ranges (I’ll call this 0-200 yards), I notice no practical disadvantage during the daytime.  At close range (≤~25 yards) with ambient light, such as a streetlight, I find no problems getting the dot on a target.  Also, ARs  are usually equipped with lights, which also seems to work fine with the scope image and brightness range of the illumination.

There is one last significant point about the scope’s illumination.  My understanding based on my research about this scope is that the U.S. Optics scopes used to have an analog style knob that controlled the illumination.  The current scopes have a three button system, one on/off, one to increase brightness, and one to decrease brightness.  I have read a lot of complaints about this button powered “digital” system vs. the Aimpoint style knob.  I actually like the push button system a lot.  No, it’s not quite as easy to adjust as a knob, but it’s not that difficult either.  I almost always wear gloves when handling this rifle, and sometimes I wear silk liners under them in cold weather.  I have never had any problems controlling the scope.

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The reason I really like the scope’s illumination control is that it allows the scope to power itself down when it’s not being used. This can, and has for me, caused the scope to shut down between strings of fire.  That is a bad thing, but when that has happened I just used the reticle (not the end of the world or a fight stopper).  It did slow me down a bit, and it could be a problem in low light.  The big advantage for me is that I have a long and well established history of going through 2032 type batteries in illuminated optics faster than Congress goes through money.  In fact, the battery in the SWFA 1-6 was dead within the first week of me receiving the optic (that’s a long time for me).  In fact, at about 0100 hours just this morning I pulled out the Remington, checked the scope’s illumination, and luckily had several 2032s in my pack to replace the dead one in the scope.  With an Aimpoint it’s a non-issue because the battery will last a minimum of 50,000 years (only minor hyperbole).  The Aimpoint in my possession now was shipped with the illumination on and I haven’t turned it off in the last month and a half.

I don’t honestly know what the battery life is with the US Optics scopes, but I’m still using the battery it was shipped with and it’s just as bright as ever.  The fact that it is apparently child proof outweighs its propensity to turn off after a period of disuse in my opinion.  The illumination turns on when I push the button.  That’s called reliability and I like it.

I’ll conclude the summary of my initial observations in one last article to come.

Test Optic #1, US Optics SR-8c, 1-8×27 Red Dot

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When I was first interested in testing optics on the AR, before I even put out the feelers or any requests for scopes to test, a friend at US Optics emailed me offering scopes to try out.  There was no special request for coverage or anything like that.  It was just a “hey, want to try out a few scopes?”  Does the bear use the restroom in the woods?

He sent me two US Optics scopes, the SR-8c and the SR-4c, which is a 1-4.  Curiously, he also sent a Swarovski 1-6 and an Aimpoint Micro, which both seem like interesting scopes and good points of reference.   A little bit later Ilya sent me the SWFA 1-6, and the 3-15×42, which I will be trying on the FN.

I started with the SR-8 because something with the potential flexibility of a 1-8 power scope really seemed to be the ticket.  For a rifle that has a likelihood of being used at close range, I think that having the low end of the magnification be as low as possible is more important than having a lot on the high end.  1x seems about as low as one would want.  I’ll be very surprised if negative power optics become the next big thing.  On the high end, I’ve been using 9 and 10 power optics to do most of my shooting for the last several years, so moving my top end down to 8 is not really that big a sacrifice.  Also, this is a scope that I can’t afford, so it had a certain lure right off the bat.

First Impressions:

Compared to the other 1-‘x’ optics currently in my possession, the SR-8 is set apart by its size and weight.  All by itself it looks fairly innocent, but in contrast to other scopes, on the AR, or just picking it up, it is really a big, heavy thing.  The US Optics website lists the weight at 25.6 ounces and the length at 12 inches.  My rifle without an optic was quite svelte, but also quite useless (no irons as of yet).  It was a nice feeling to put an optic this rifle.  It did make the rifle noticeably heavier, but I have never felt like it was at all detrimental or too much.  The balance of the rifle wasn’t really affected meaningfully.  The rifle balances right at the magwell.  I wish it were just slightly forward, as I don’t mind a slight bit of muzzle heavy-ness..

This scope was sent with a Larue extended cantilever mount already on it (all the scopes from my friend at USO were sent with Larue mounts).  This was a good thing because this scope is also different than the others, in that it really needs to be mounted quite far forward in order to get the eye relief correctly accounted for.  I have it mounted as far forward on my upper receiver as it will go and the eye relief is right on for me.  Even with a quality receiver and handguard such as this Noveske, bridging the mount from upper receiver to handguard just seems like it would invite trouble, so a mount like this is the only way to go without having a monolithic upper.

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Part of what could make this scope difficult to set up correctly is that the area forward of the turret saddle where the front ring attaches is quite small (see above photo).  There is not much leeway as to where the ring can go.  With a conventional upper a mount like the Larue is the only way to get it to go.  In my case the standard AR sight height is just a bit too high, so while the Larue works, I would rather have something lower.  I think that for me to find an option that would really fit me better with this scope, I would probably need to have a monolithic upper so I could put it farther forward with a lower mount or conventional rings.  Having used the keymod handguard for some time now, going to a monolithic, especially a one with a quad rail would be a huge step backwards to me.  I believe the height of the scope will be to its detriment in comparison to the other scopes in the test, but it’s part of the scope and I can’t do anything about it, so there ya go.

True 1x

I was really interested in how the scope would perform at the bottom of the magnification level.  I have read a lot about these scopes but have not handled very many or very extensively.  When I first received the scopes I spent a lot of time comparing them at low power.  What I found out was that when the scope is set to 1x to some degree they all show an image that appears to be smaller than what the naked eye sees.  The SR-8 seems to show the smallest image at 1x of all the scopes I have on hand to try.

At 1x
In most ways this is an objectively bad photo.  It is useful here because you can see the actual size of the most excellent Toyota 4Runner just outside the scope image, just off to the right.  This should give you a good indication just how much smaller the scope image appears at 1x.

At first it seemed as though setting the scope at approximately 1.75x yielded an image that was the same size as the naked eye.  Later I noticed it was smaller at that setting than as viewed with the naked eye.  Later still I noticed it was larger.  What I found out was that the apparent size of an object in reference to the object as viewed with the naked eye changes depending on what distance the object is viewed through the scope at.  Objects closer than a yard or so always appear larger than as viewed with the naked eye, even at 1x.  Step back a few yards and the scope needs to be turned ‘up’ slightly to make the image the equivalent size of the naked eye.  I found that leaving the scope at approximately 2x seems to be a good compromise close range setting.  This started me questioning the necessity, or even the utility of a “true 1x” scope.

At 1point5
The scope is set at about 1.5X in the top part of the photo (the illumination is on as well).  The vehicle is approximately 15 yards away (distance to door handle).  I did my best to retain the camera position with the zoom exactly the same and to crop the photos to precisely the same dimension.  After some trial and error with the scope I got them to appear the same size at ~1.3x.  To do the same thing with a target at 9 yards I needed to set it at 2x.

I’ll continue elaborating on my subjective impressions of the scope next time.  Thanks for reading.

Dry Fire Blues

You may remember that in the beginning of the year I had started shooting the AR in earnest after receiving my Noveske upper after waiting for it 11 months (I also prepaid for it).  A couple friends had sent me scopes to test and I was trying to get my skills up to a plateau so that the tests would be a valid basis of comparison between the scopes.

In contrast to most of my work with rifles on the blog, I was putting an emphasis on speed.  Most of my work was done in getting a single hit on a 4” target at 7 yards in the minimum time I could.  In my first week, after putting on the U.S. Optics SR-8, I spent about half a week working rather slowly just to get my movements calibrated.  My first day out getting a baseline turned out an average time of 1.29 seconds with a hit rate of 73% over 15 rounds (11 hits).

I spent the next week working on speed.  I started using the metronome to have an objective measure of how fast I was going during dry fire.  When I went to the range I saw a significant improvement over the previous week, but I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my shooting being solid, and the comment in my notes was “wild”.  My average time over 18 shots was 1.06.  My cold shot was 0.97 (no warmup), my fastest shot was 0.77, and my slowest was 1.34 (2nd shot “duh” moment).  My hit rate was 88.8% (16/18).

Based on what had happened and how I felt about it, I knew I could see a dramatic improvement the next time out, so I worked my rear end off in dry fire the next week.  By the end I had my metronome speed so jacked up it was almost a foregone conclusion that I would be taking 0.2 to 0.3 off my time while maintaining or improving my hit rate.

It was a huge surprise and disappointment when I absolutely sucked in live fire.  My average time was 1.21 seconds with a hit rate of 72%.  The only thing I can say is that I was more consistent, as the standard deviation for my times was approximately .04 less than the previous 2 times out.

I kept at my dry fire routine, thinking that my very poor results had only been the result of a very bad shooting day.  Again, I should have shown improvement over even what I thought I should have been shooting like the previous time.  When reality hit the fan the next time out, my average time was 1.13 seconds and my hit rate was an absolutely dismal 44%.

I had always thought of dry fire as something that could only help.  At worst I thought it could be ineffective.  One way to interpret these results is that a poorly managed dry fire routine can result in decreased performance.  A friend had suggested that it might be useful to temper the dry fire with a few rounds of live fire a day to keep a reality check on things.  I think this would be a catalyst to any serious training regimen, but around that time a lot of “life” popped up and I didn’t implement it in this application.

A problem with dry fire is the lack of accountability and not having an anchor to the real world.  I had considered spending some cash on one of the SIRT laser bolt carriers from Next Level Training.  The idea is that a laser indicates a simulated point of impact for every trigger press.  The hitch for me was that it’s not inexpensive, and some reviews at Brownells gave me serious pause.  In the end I decided that I didn’t really have the cash for such an unknown, but I had ammo, and big money on a gadget seemed like too much of a pain to pursue when I have a range 50 yards from the back door.

Another thing that came to my mind is that over-practice can decrease performance.  I think there was an element of that here, although I don’t think that I was wearing myself out or anything.  I can say for sure that my focus was extremely narrow and I felt like I had a lot emotionally invested in seeing a dramatic improvement.

One thing I have noticed as a pattern is that often the more often I want something and the harder I work to attain it, the more dramatic my failure and disappointment.  This used to be a real problem with me, but for the most part I have learned to accept my performance with very little (or no) emotion.  With group shooting I have learned that “dispersion happens” in real life and that despite what I may have seen on the internet if enough bullets are shot at the same point of aim, sooner or later there will be an outlier (the infamous “flier”).

As it turned out my shooting had to take a back seat to other things.  This made it harder to plan any coherent regimen of training.  The time that I did have I devoted primarily to shooting offhand groups, consisting of 10 round groups, mostly from 50 yards, sometimes from farther.  I shot at 50 yards because it was only at this distance that I could keep most of them inside my primary target at that range, which was 8 MOA at that distance.

At some point, about 2 months after my last documented 7 yard session, I must have had an extra mag, some extra time, and an extra target, so I decided to see where my performance on the 7 yards single round hit would be.  I did not have any particular performance expectations, just curious and looking to have some fun.  I shot 19 rounds.  My average time was 1.08 and my hit rate was 95%.  One of my shots had a blatant hesitation, 1.79, that brought my average down a few points, but all in all I was only a second and a half slower than my fastest day, on average and my hit rate was the best it had ever been.

The following day I did some more, but I placed my target stand so that I was looking through a narrow opening between two other target stands about a yard away from me.  In the photo below the target is in the center of the other two.  Of course the shot was no different, but there was a significant amount of visual “noise” to contend with.  I fired a full 30 round mag, one shot at a time, with an average time of 1.1, a hit rate of 90%, and a low shot time of 0.78.

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I’m not exactly sure what the lesson to take away from all this is.  First of all, I’m not satisfied with even my best times, but it seems clear that not all work is worthwhile or even helpful at all.  Apparently it can be downright detrimental.  The thing about dry fire is that there is not authoritative feedback separate from the senses of the shooter.  It’s probably safe to say that anyone who’s shot enough has been surprised by where their bullet went at one point or another.  Sometimes our calls aren’t right on.  So dry fire requires very careful observation and honesty.  I vividly recall seeing the dot from the borrowed SR-8 move very rapidly from off target to on.  I thought this was happening before the trigger break, but it could have been after.

Another pertinent question is, what is dry fire good for?  Is it ever an appropriate venue for working on speed?  With as much time as I have put in with a metronome, I have absolutely nothing in the way of measurable results that would point to it having done any good for me.  Back when I was a pistol nut and didn’t care about rifles, I had 2D replicas of Steel Challenge courses of fire, down to the angles being correct and the targets being the right size if I stood at the right distance from the wall (they were on posterboard that I hung up).  That didn’t help either, but of course I was really wanting to see a huge improvement then too.  I was even worse back then, in terms of really wanting to see results.  It could be that dry fire is most appropriate for working on perfect mechanics rather than increasing speed.  It could also be that wanting something too much brings it farther from attaining it.

More Thoughts on the AR

A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise, and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks.

–Thomas Jefferson, 1785

 

I spent January through April getting as much time with my AR as I could.  If I went for a walk for fun, the AR came along.  It gave me something to look through when I wanted to get a better look at some game.  If the dog wasn’t back by bedtime, I went on a search and took the AR just to get some time spent carrying it around and handling it.  When I was on the range, no matter if I was setting up targets, walking to check them and back, or whatever one does on this “firing range”, I had the AR with me.  In the house, except for showering (most of the time), I tried to keep the AR by my side.

I’ve been shooting ARs since about 2001, but I’ve learned the difference between a level of familiarity that ‘looks’ like competence, and having it down to the point of it being an extension of your will.  I won’t say that I’m exactly there yet, but I’ve gotten a little further down the road.  I’d like to share some of my observations about the AR in comparison to a bolt action.  These are probably obvious to many of you.

I’ve mentioned before that I really appreciate the ergonomics of the AR.  The safety is right where the thumb is, the mag release is only a half inch worth of movement,  insert a mag after going dry and “why, by golly there’s the bolt catch”.  It’s just well thought out in terms of gun handling.  Duh.

I’m in love with the longer handguards, and I think the keymod system is the wave of the future.  The old carbine length plastic handguards never endeared me to the feel or handling of the AR.  I’ve never been a fan of quad rails and they were one of the things that had me biased against the AR in terms of a good handling rifle for someone who knows the difference.  There’s really something to be said for a rifle with solid, well-designed handguards, and having the gas block covered along with most of the barrel makes for a very clean appearance and easy to handle platform.

I found the handguard to be useful when shooting as well.  I have always been wary of setting my stock down on a hard object to use as support.  I went to the trouble of making a front bag (the BMF) for the front of the rifle when using an object for support.  I finally just started resting the handguard on stuff when I could use support on things as varied as piles of wood, wooden fence posts, barbed wire fences, trees, stumps, etc…  The slim profile of the Noveske handguard on my rifle also made it easy to use vertical support as well.  It’s nice to see this trend becoming the norm with other brands as well.  Oddly, my experience indicates that for me, supported standing is second only to prone in terms of steadiness.  I haven’t tested it to know for sure and I don’t know why that might be, but I have had great results from many different variations of supported standing.

I had an Atlas bipod on my rifle for most of the time I spent with it.  The rifle still handled well for me.  One thing that I got spoiled with is that the bipod, being mounted as far forward on the handguard as I could get it, put my bipod feet farther forward than my muzzle when it was folded.  This allowed for my muzzle to be protected from accidentally getting in the snow, mud, or dirt.  It might have lead to me being a little sloppier in handling my rifle than I normally would, but when you take a rifle out into the real world sometimes no matter how careful you are a distraction could create a lapse in “muzzle vigilance” and it could end up hitting the ground.  This increased use of the bipod feet may have contributed to the early demise of one of the feet.

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Where the AR completely crushes the bolt gun is in ease of carry.  I made a “tactical style” sling that had a shooting loop I could use and a quick adjustment for overall length so I could cinch it down tight to my body.  While the sling isn’t quite as refined as I’d prefer, it made the entire experience of carrying and transitioning to an effective shooting position a lot more streamlined than I’m used to with a bolt action.  When you’re doing more walking and looking than shooting (and there is no extreme imminence to the rifle being needed quickly), the ability to let go of the rifle and have it still ready to shoot quickly is extremely useful.  This is something that has been reinforced for me since getting my bolt gun back and using African carry with a traditional sling.  While African carry is not difficult as modes of carry go, it doesn’t really free up the hands like the tactical sling does.

Doing a lot of prone shooting with the AR gave me a newfound appreciation for 20 round mags.  It got the point where I would look for mags for my range session, and finding 30 round mags everywhere was an annoyance (and no, you can’t have them).

I really appreciated having a collapsible stock.  For most standing shooting, I favored a “mid-collapsed” setting, while for positional shooting of just about any kind I preferred to extend it fully.  This made for consistent eye relief through a range of positions.  The downside to this is that it makes for one other thing to do before firing.  The upside to that downside is that if you forget it’s not really the end of the world and you’re not really any worse off than with a fixed stock, except…

The CTR stock I have on my AR, while it does have that ‘lock’ on it, still is not completely solid.  When I pull back on the pistol grip to seat the butt in my shoulder pocket, I can feel a slight ‘click’.  I also wish the comb of the stock was a bit wider, as this would provide as good a cheek weld as I could want when combined with my Nightforce low Unimount.  I like the idea of the Magpul UBR, but it costs about ten million dollars and is around a hundred pounds (actually $250/1.6 lbs -two and a half times the price and twice the weight of the CTR).  There is also the Ergo F93, which was a Magpul design and the precursor to the UBR.  It’s about midway between the CTR in terms of price and weight, but it’s also uglier than sin.  That shouldn’t bother me but it does.  I’m starting to consider some of the Magpul offerings that are similar to the CTR in design and use, but are a little wider in the cheekpiece.  I can deal with the slight movement.

As for reliability, I’m a huge fan of my Noveske upper.  It might have cost me $1100 for an upper assembly, but in 1236 rounds, with only two full cleanings (full meaning I cleaned the barrel and chamber, and wiped down and lubed the rest), I have only had two slight irregularities in function due to the bolt carrier not being completely in battery.  I caused both of these incidents.  Both occasions resulted in a click instead of a bang and no firing pin indent on the primer.  Since my 1911 days I have babied my slide letting it down on an empty chamber.  Maybe I’m getting too relaxed, but sometimes the transition between dry and live has been a little ‘soft’, and while going through pre-live fire warmup just prior to shooting I end up inserting a mag and chambering a round.  I feel the round chamber, so it’s not like I’m torching one off unexpectedly, but it’s probably time to start making a clear delineation when I actually go live so that I don’t end up doing something more than just inducing a malfunction.  All that is to say that the gun has functioned flawlessly when I do my part.

It would seem as though, like a bolt gun, this AR works fine unless the operator screws something up (not operator like the telephone kind, nor of the Delta Force kind, just of the kind that work a machine).  In comparison, my FN did have some magazine issues that caused failures to feed that occurred in the 800-1000 round count range, if I remember correctly.  It’s a little skewed, because I have a lot more AR mags than bolt action rifle mags, but I have had far fewer problems with the operation of the AR than with the bolt action.  I thought that would be the case.  Taking the operator out of more of the operating cycle can be a good thing when everything is set up correctly.

The rifle seems to have decent precision.  I have shot only one load that the rifle seemed to like, but my reloading room status is the same as my sewing room status, which is to say not complete/machines in storage.

Sams Hornady 55 grain JSP\
The best I have seen due to lack of a reloading space.

The major event of the rifle in terms of function was the breaking of the Rock River 2-Stage hammer after 1236 rounds with this upper.  I would add approximately 200 rounds to the round count on the trigger from when I had this trigger installed in one of my light weight ARs.  I just replaced it with a Geissele SSA-E trigger today.  Hopefully it fares better.

What should be obvious is that this is not an apples to apples comparison of the AR vs. a bolt action.  They have different roles and capabilities, most significantly the cartridge.  This is just a list of the things that have struck me about the platform.  There was a time when I had contempt for the AR platform.  I am definitely willing to reconsider a lot of my former beliefs in this regard.

The FN, Mark 2 Close Up

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Early in September 2013 I took my FN PBR-XP to a gunsmith I was familiar with in Spokane Valley, WA.  If you were reading the blog last summer you may remember that I was going insane thinking that I must have been doing something terribly wrong to cause my groups to be irregular.  It was impossible for me to move past it because I love to beat myself up.  Also the conventional wisdom that the gun is more precise than the shooter, that the bullet goes where the sights are pointed when the gun goes off, that I should pay attention to technique instead of gear, etc., etc, etc., had me barking up the wrong tree.  What I think I figured out about that is that there are a lot of shooters that those things are true for.  For most of those shooters, telling them those things won’t help, because they can’t believe it.  That’s why they are that type of shooters.  For the ones to whom those things don’t necessarily apply, they will go crazy beating the crap out of themselves unnecessarily.  Life is ironic (so is irony).

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Initially I wanted pillar bedding, trigger work, and truing if necessary.  The lead time was quoted at 2-3 weeks.  I told him that I wasn’t worried about time.  He told me never to say that to a gunsmith.  I figured out that he was right.  Lesson learned.

Later on the phone he described what happens when a barrel goes bad.  It sounded like he’d been looking over my shoulder the entire time I’d spent at the range being insane.  So at first I had a realistic idea of my budgetary limitations, and talked with the gunsmith about what I could do without having to buy a new barrel, which I thought would be bedding and action truing.  He said it might not (probably not) help that much, but we agreed that a barrel could be installed any time so why not give it a try?

A couple weeks later I had a few beers and, momentarily forgetting my petty budgetary concerns, ordered up a Bartlein .308, Remington Varmint contour, 1-10 twist blank and had it sent to the gunsmith.  That’s how it’s logically possible to come to the conclusion that in order to increase your precision, drink beer.

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Fast forward about 8 months and I got it back.  The barrel was finished at 20” and ceracoated.  The chamber was cut for the .308 ammo I’ve been using for a while now and the bullets are just touching the lands.  The stock is pillar bedded to the action.  The trigger breaks about about 2.25 pounds.  I also had a Limbsaver pad put on.  The length of pull is the same as it was before.  The balance of the rifle feels perfect to me, with the balance point at the front 3rd of the magazine.  It had been a little muzzle-light before.

For lack of something more profound to call the rifle in its new iteration, and also from watching too many Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, I decided to call it the FN, Mark 2 (alternately the Mark Deux).

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In my conversation with the gunsmith, here’s what I remember as the high points:

-The barrel was very good.  He said that it’s one of the best he’s seen from Bartlein.
He’s been making machines to build cut rifled barrels, so he’s got a lot of measuring
equipment on hand.  He said it was nice.

-I was not planning on doing a special break in because I think it’s a waste of time.  Iasked about that.  Specifically I asked if I could just “plug and play”.  He said that the barrel was hand lapped (by Bartlein), the chamber was polished, and the throat was polished.  Essentially, he said, there isn’t anything to break in.  He suggested I might clean at 35 rounds to check for copper fouling, and then at every hundred or so.

-McMillan stocks tend to be easy to work with because they are dimensionally
true to start with.  Some other (less expensive stocks) end up needing more work.

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Before

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After

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Before

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After

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Before

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After

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I noticed when loading it that the bolt is not as easy to work as it is locking.  I was not sure at first if the headspace was a little tight, but later found that the bullets are touching the lands.  I’m okay with that.

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I shot five rounds from 104 yards and took a photo for measurement (0.448 MOA).

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Then I continued with the same point of aim until I had a 10 round group.
1st 10 rounds through rifle

I shot a second group.

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2nd 10 shot group, 1.394 MOA

The next time out with the rifle I chrono’d a few loads.  The FGMM came in at an average of 2655 feet per second.

At the point I had 59 rounds through it I decided to follow the gunsmith’s advice and clean it.  I used Patch Out with Accelerator.  I expected a dark blue patch from copper fouling following that many rounds.  I saw only a trace of blue, which appeared to be in a small droplet form (about a millimeter), different than the rest of the patch, which showed only carbon fouling.  I have been stunned by that lack of copper from that barrel.  On a subsequent cleaning with just over 50 rounds I saw no evidence of copper fouling.

Here are a few 10 shots groups from 100 yards, first in their original, one shot per target form, then in their aggregated group done with On Target TDS.  Note that although it’s most tempting to look at the group size in terms of extreme spread, the second measurement given, mean radius (labeled as “average to center”) is much more useful statistically.  Also notice that while the extreme spread may appear to be drastically different, especially with an aggregated 40 round group, the mean radius doesn’t change much.  It doesn’t necessarily grow with more rounds, but the number represents a greater confidence of prediction due to the larger sample size:

10 round composite FGMM

FGMM composite 5-1-14

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5-2-14 composite

Amax Test
10 rounds Black Hills 155 grain A-Max.  You’ll be seeing a lot more of this later.

40 round cumulative group made up of individual 10 shot groups:

May Cumulative FGMM 40 Shots

200 Yard shots on targets and then aggregated into a 10 shot group:

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200 Yard 10 shot composite
About a minute.  Not bad.  The 0.381 MOA mean radius is consistent with my 100 yards groups.

As for the precision of the rifle, I am pleased.  With just a few rounds it will do the “I have a half minute rifle” thing, so I don’t have to feel left out from all the other internet commandos.  With 10 rounds it’s generally just under a minute, sometimes just over, which I think is reasonable and generally good performance.

I’ve been pretty careful to get my head centered up so my eye is addressing the ocular lens correctly, especially left and right.  For the height I’ve been largely depending on the cheekpiece, which I set at about 13.3/16” front and rear.  I have noticed a tendency of my head to move left, which I only notice by rechecking via side to side movement, so I have to stay on top of it.

Something I’ll be looking into in the near future is the actual effect of parallax error on my precision downrange.  Thanks for reading.

Through the Ringer: Scope Testing Protocols

In an attempt to quantify what the AR scopes I have on hand for testing will do for me in a more objective manner I came up with five tests to run on all of them to try to measure a few specific things.

Test #1: Close Range Single Target Acquisition

1 round at 7 yards on a 4” target.  20 repetitions total for each scope.  Measuring time and hits.  The basic rubber hitting the road as quickly as possible.

Test #2: Ease of Target Acquisition: Close range transitions- the “X Box drill”.

The purpose for this test was to get at an attribute that Jeff Cooper was trying to maximize with his forward mounted scope, which I think is best expressed through asking, “How easy is it to ‘pick up’ targets?”  After giving this some thought, what seemed like the best way to test this was to work on transitions to targets that are initially outside the field of view.  I didn’t want to incorporate only side to side transitions, but also up, down and diagonals.  I figured out that with four targets I could cover each direction of transition, left, right, up, down, diagonal up/right, up/left, down/right, and down/left in nine shots without repeating.  The first shot comes from low ready, so it doesn’t count for a directional transition.

To set up this course, I left the 1”x2” boards for the target stands uncut so that are 8′ tall.  I placed a target at the top and at the bottom of each stand.  Using two stands, I set them approximately 7 yards from one another.  I originally intended to place my shooting position 7 yards from each, but my terrain didn’t allow for that, so I was approximately 10 yards from each.  The engagement order is as follows:

From low ready, safety on, scope illumination on, round in chamber:

1.  Upper left
2.  Upper right  (right)
3.  Lower Left  (down/left)
4.  Upper left (up)
5.  Lower right (down/right)
6.  Lower left (left)
7.  Upper right (up/right)
8.  Lower right (down)
9.  Upper left (up/left)

This puts three shots in the upper left target and two shots in all the others.  The target is just over 4” and is printed on an 8.5”x11” sheet of paper.

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Just ignore the center target in the right array.  That’s the 7 yard target.  It helps to be efficient.

When I actually set this drill up I was surprised at how wide the transitions were.  They are way outside the scope’s field of view.  Quite a bit of movement is necessary to transition.

Test 3:  Speedy Sight Acquisition in a Variety of Positions

This is a modification of an existing drill.  The original drill calls for a paper plate at 50 yards.  Begin with a magazine of 5 rounds.  5 shots standing, reload with a magazine of 10 rounds.  Shoot five rounds from kneeling, shoot five rounds from prone.  A passing score requires all hits in 15 seconds or less.

One difference in me from when I started the blog is that I have a more realistic idea of my abilities and limitations.  Therefore, when SLG described this drill to me I did not think I would be able to pass it.  Therefore the main modification I made to it is that it is a scored test instead of a pass/fail.  The big disadvantage of a pass/fail test is that once one passes the test there is no further external motivation to improve.  A test is more effective if there is no way to max it out, so I made a scoreable target and removed the par time as a hard limit.  I did still want to respect the original intention of the test, so I decided that all points scored after 15 seconds has elapsed will be counted as half of the target score.  To accomplish that I decided to deduct from the best hits on the target in accordance with how many shots after the 15 seconds were required.  Each position has its own target in my version of this drill, so it’s possible to narrow the shots over 15 seconds somewhat.  Score is points over time.

The other modification I made to the original drill was to make it in congruence with my goal of being able to hit a 4” target under a variety of circumstances.  I reduced the primary target size to approximately 4” (approximately by half) and reduced the shooting distance to 25 yards (exactly by half).  Since both the target size and distance from the original drill were cut in half, this should not affect the overall difficulty of the course.

Test 4: Eyebox Ease in Relation to Precision.

From a standing position I simply dropped to bipod prone and fired a singe round at 10 different targets.  I completed a total of 3 repetitions of this drill, each time on fresh targets.  I analyzed the results by using On Target TDS, which allowed me to aggregate each run into a 10 shot group, and to further aggregate the three 10 shot groups into a single 30 shot group.  There was no specific time to aim for or beat, but I did time each run for splits and total times.

Test 5: Using the Reticle for Holdovers Beyond Point Blank Zero Range.

Most ARs are set up with a point blank zero and aren’t used much outside of that range.  I wanted to see how much versatility each optic would allow for in terms of going beyond a point blank type setup.  I set up my scoreable target on the 8.5”x11” paper at the following ranges (in yards): 170, 230, 270, and 330.  This is not exactly what is generally considered to be “long range”, but considering my goal in terms of target size, this, for me and the ammo I have on hand, is pushing the outside of the envelope.  The average distance of the drill is 250 yards.  I zeroed all of the magnified scopes at 100 yards.  That means that every target in this drill required at least some holdover.

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The targets as they appeared from just in front of the firing line… uh, the next day, after some of them were blown down.

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Um, from the same day I shot the course with the U.S. Optics SR-8, from the 170 yards line target.  I realize I was a bit disorganized with the photography.  I had a fiddle jam to play guitar at and I was running late, okay?

The goal for the drill was to transition between the targets in a way that made each shot a new one, in that I needed to re-adapt each time and change my point of aim and holdover.  To accomplish this the targets were set up randomly left to right.  I also calculated every permutation of possible transitions from one target to another and organized the engagement order so that each permutation would receive a similar number of repetitions.  I fired a total of 36 rounds in this drill, so that each target would receive 9 hits, which would give me something statistically significant to work with.

One problem with tests 4 and 5 is that I don’t have my reloading equipment set up at the new place yet, and therefore did not have access to any ammunition more precise than XM193 in sufficient quantity to perform all the tests with all the optics.  This is bothersome to me, because my groups will, as is my trademark, look too big, but it doesn’t invalidate the tests.

Another problem is that I really wanted to be able to shoot well enough to give all the scopes the best showing I could.  I realized early on that I wasn’t going to be able to shoot well enough to satisfy my expectations.  The only thing I can say is that I think that my level of skill was consistent throughout the tests, and should provide an illustration of how well these scopes worked for me in comparison to one another.

I would be able to reach more conclusive and accurate conclusions if I were able to perform more repetitions of each test with each scope, and if I could get other shooters to do the same tests under the same conditions my results would be more applicable to the general population.  Lastly, I wanted to test the scopes in lower light and with moving targets, and was not able to perform these two tests for lack of resources, mostly time.-

With any luck I’ll get you some results pronto.

Knowing the Score

Sometime in the last few months I realized that to accomplish my shooting goal, which is basically most easily summed up with “4 inch target, 200 yards and in, any time, any conditions,” I would need to realign my thinking to be more aware of accuracy as it relates to the specified target instead of thinking primarily in terms of precision.  My old favorite target lent itself well to making as small a group as I could at 100 yards.  It was a bull just under an inch.  Since my hopes of hitting it consistently with the rifles I was using weren’t great even under perfect conditions, I never worried too much about hitting that small circle or where my groups were, so long as they were as tight as I could get them.

Another thing I had to change was the tendency to convert every shooting performance to an angular measurement.  I always felt that I’d be doing okay if I could keep my shooting under ‘x’ MOA.  While that is a good way to check consistency of performance and to see how conditions affect it, it does not encourage dynamic adaptation to environment.

Close range often brings with it a requirement for swift engagement.  Likewise, sometimes circumstances outside the shooter’s control dictate the pace of engagement.  That means that it’s a smart idea to make ready to deliver a hit in the shortest time possible.

On the other side of the coin, maximum range on a fixed size target is a rather inflexible thing, especially if a miss is out of the question.  Even if a shot group seems great in terms of size in minutes or mils, the only thing that matters is whether I can hit the target at that distance.

I had already made a target that would basically suit my needs.  It was patterned after something a friend had come up with for a four position shoot that he used to host on the 4th of July every year.  It was called the Redneck target in homage to him. That was an approximately 4 MOA target.  A hit was one point and a miss was no points.  I made my version as close to exactly 4 MOA (at 100 yards) as I could and had put in a 1 MOA “X” ring as a tie breaker.

What I wanted instead of the Redneck target was to have a finer way to evaluate my accuracy.  Making your own target means that you get to tailor the scoring to suit your goals and priorities, which is a really cool thing.  I decided that since the generic paper plate, usually just over 8”, is basically the standard for most shooters, I would allow 1 point for a hit on an 8 MOA (at 100 yards) circle.  The edges of an 8.5” x 11” target are just outside the printable area for my printer, so the sides of that circle are cut off.

The primary scoring circle of my new target, in accordance with my current shooting goal, is as close to 4 MOA at 100 yards (4.188”) as I could get it.  Don’t ask me why I didn’t use straight inches rather than MOA, especially since I intended to use this target at random distances.  It was just habit, I guess.  I decided that this should be worth a lot more points than the 8″ target, so the primary scoring circle is worth 5 points.

The next question was whether or not to make more scoring circles inside the primary circle.  It would seem at first glance to be unnecessary, since a hit is a hit, and a hit is the goal.  What made me decide to include finer scoring rings was that I could not disprove that a centered hit is “better” than an edge hit.  Why should that be, when a hit is a hit?  Because a shooter with “tighter tolerances” of shooting performance increases his chances of hitting his target, especially when conditions are sub-optimal.

Take a good shooter, wear him out, put him in a high wind and rain when it’s difficult to see the target and stay steady, and the quality of his shooting will decrease appreciably.  A mediocre shooter, who could perhaps hit the 4” target at 75 yards under ideal conditions, will be close to completely worthless to hit it at any distance under poor conditions, time stress, and exertion.  Is barely being able to keep the hits on target at any given range within a given time equally as good as getting well centered hits within the same amount of time?  I don’t think so.  So I decided that a center hit was better than an edge hit.

Since there are 5 points for a hit in the 4” zone, for every doubling of accuracy I decided to allow one additional point, with the highest score for a single shot being 8 points for a hit in the center ring, which is just barely over a half inch.  Since I pretty much always use On Target TDS to analyze my targets, I created a reference line exactly 4” long.  One of the first things that needs to be done in that program is setting a reference distance, so having a relatively long one handy makes it nice.  Sure I could use the paper length or width, but sometimes you want to zoom in a bit more.

New Target
Click here to download full sized target.  If you want to print it make sure to print it in actual size.

After shooting this target for a while, I found that it was easiest to get an idea of how I was shooting if I calculated the average points per shot.  That way I can compare different shooting sessions regardless of the number of rounds fired.  If my average is over 5, I figure that I’m doing well enough.  It takes a lot of really good hits to make up a miss, so the average really does give me a good idea of how well I’m hitting my target.

It would be nice to get an average score of 8, but keeping in mind the type of shooting I’m after, which is practical, I should be balancing speed and accuracy, especially in practice.  I should also constantly be working to extend my maximum range to hit the target, especially in positions like offhand, where I have a lot of work to do.  That means if my average points per shot is much higher than 5 I could probably be getting my hit sooner or setting my targets out a little farther.  If I had to take a shot for real I would do everything I could to get closer and get steadier of course.

 

Scopes Galore

When I decided to go deep into the AR dark side, I had certain vague ideas of what I wanted to be able to do with the rifle.  I have spent a lot of time shooting ARs with aperture sights and EOTechs, but ARs with magnified optics on the “mouse gun” (ease up, it’s a term of endearment) were something completely out of my experience.

I was hoping to get some help gaining firsthand knowledge of some scopes that would be optimal for an AR.  I was not disappointed.  I have 5 optics that I will get to try on my AR to see what exactly they can do to make my rifle as useful as it can be.

I want to make it very clear that I don’t intend for this to turn into some kind of gear review blog.  Initially I wanted to limit that kind of thing to one item per month.  In this case I wanted to address a specific issue and I was so fortunate to have help come in the way of people crazy enough to send me what turns out to be over $9000 in scopes (including an SWFA 3-15×42 that is not part of this test).  Understand that I have no agreement even to write about them, let alone to color my opinions in any way.  I was simply given the opportunity to try some really cool stuff out and see how it works.

Here’s what I have on hand.

1.  U.S. Optics SR-8, illuminated, 1-8×27.

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This is one of the higher end “true 1x” scopes on the market.  It has a milliradian-based reticle in the first focal plane and an illuminated dot in the second focal plane, which means that although the etched reticle changes size with the magnification (which is to say that it really is always the same size in terms of subtension), the dot is always the same “just right” size.  It’s a big, tough, heavy scope.

2.  Swarovski Z6i, 1-6×24.

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This is in pretty stark contrast to the SR-8.  This is a sporting optic.  It’s relatively light, sleek, and is amazing to look through.  The field of view is huge, which contrasts with the surrounding eyepiece that is incredibly unobtrusive to the vision.  The reticle is also mil-based, but is sort of an abbreviated arrangement, and is in the second focal plane.

3.  U.S. Optics SR-4c, illuminated 1-4×22.

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This is basically a little brother to the SR-8.  It’s a little smaller, a little lighter, a bit easier to get behind, but obviously offers a bit less in terms of magnification.

4.  SWFA SS 1-6×24 HD.

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This is a scope I’ve wanted to get my hands on since quite a while before it was released.  The reticle design seems to be (in principle) brilliant.  It’s an illuminated first focal plane design.  It stands apart from the rest by being considerably less expensive (almost in my price range!!!).

5.  Aimpoint T-1 Micro. No magnification, so reticle, just a dot that never goes away.  I think it must run on a nuclear fuel cell or something.  All I know is that it never goes off.  I think if one were to try to turn it off it would detonate or something.  This sight is kind of a control to see how fast the others can be in comparison.

I contacted Bushnell to see if I could get my hands on either the 1-6.5 or 1-8.5.  No luck.  It went kind of like this:

Me: ‘Do you know who I am?  Think carefully on this.  This is a career decision you’re making here.” (I find that pushing my weight around usually works great).

Them: (crickets chirping)

I really didn’t try to push my weight around, but they really didn’t respond.  Of course, they really have nothing to gain from letting me try it out, but neither do US Optics or Ilya.  I didn’t even bother contacting Leupold, although I would be interested in trying the Mark 6 and/or Mark 8.

I’m not an optics expert.  I think that frees me up to look at the optic purely as it applies to the task it was designed for.  I understand that things like brightness and clarity are good things, but I am interested to see how necessary attributes such as those are to the end performance.  Sometimes what looks or even feels better subjectively doesn’t coincide with how well it works.  It’s too easy to get wrapped up in how nice the $3000 optic I just bought is, and that can sometimes be enough to turn off the filters of critical evaluation right there.  Luckily I don’t have that bias here, and I do have some different things to compare and contrast.

Since my current shooting goal involves hitting a 4” target I’m working that into this AR experience so that I don’t get totally sidetracked by cool new gear.  Close ranges speed up the tempo, and 4” is not a very big target when speed is very important.  4” is also small enough so that there is not really a point blank zero that will work for it.  Up to 10 yards, and just a bit farther, the bullet would pass under the target due to the mechanical offset on a standard AR.  That means that at those close ranges the shooter has to compensate somehow.

On the other side of the coin I want to see how easily the scope allows the shooter to compensate for trajectory beyond the point blank zero (if I could really have one).  Holdovers seem to make more sense with dialing with an AR, but it all depends on application, and sometimes what seems like a good idea turns out to be impractical.

In addition to giving you my subjective opinion, I’ll be running each scope through a series of courses of fire to test different performance aspects.  I’ll elaborate on those in the near future.

Thanks for reading.

The Reports of My Demise Have Been…

 

…nonexistent.  I don’t think anyone realized I stopped posting.

I apologize for having been gone so long. Things have been really busy for me, and I thought it better to avoid a meltdown and drop a few activities rather than to go full burnout. Usually when I take a break it’s just because I run out of things to write about temporarily due to some lull in my shooting. This time I had plenty of things to write about, I just had no opportunity to sit down and organize my thoughts. The fact that the doctors wouldn’t let me out of the straight jacket and restraint chair didn’t help much either. The sling sewing is still a ways out before I can resume, I’m sorry to say.

I haven’t let up much on my shooting, although I haven’t kept up with my hopes for making full use of the new property. I’ll give a quick rundown of the high points of what I’ve been up to and will elaborate in the near future.

As of this moment I have shot approximately 1236 rounds through my Noveske uppered AR since mid-January. Most of that has been in preparation for my scope tests that I’ll be going into more detail with later. I’ve completed testing of the U.S. Optics SR-8 and have the Swarovski Z6i 1-6×24 mostly done (although my rifle has hit a snag for the time being). I will also explain at that time why I don’t recommend the Rock River 2-Stage match trigger.

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I also suffered a broken bipod foot on the Atlas. I figure it must be like needing a new set of tires occasionally.

I experienced a measurable decline in performance in a particular facet of shooting with a particular rifle, which I’m pretty sure was a result of a dry-fire routine (yes, a particular one). It was an interesting experience. What was more interesting is what happened with my performance about two months later after little or no practice in that same drill.

Saturday I shot the 3rd annual Sportsman’s Challenge shoot put on by Caleb Hallett near Spokane, WA. The shoots just keep getting better and the prize table more impressive each time. On this occasion the shoot turned out to be a wind reading clinic for anyone who cared to pay attention, which is to say that ostensibly it was a rifle match, but the big opportunity was to learn about wind and share information with other shooters.

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Not a picture of me, but of someone else, because it’s easier to take pictures of other people shooting.

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She was dirty after the Sportsman’s Challenge.

One week ago I got my FN back from the gunsmith. New barrel, bedding, trigger work, etc. She shoots. I’ll elaborate later.

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The first five shots after getting the rifle back. 0.487” at 104 yards.

Lastly, and more importantly, the due date for my goal statement was the 1st of May. It was overly ambitious by quite a lot. I’m sure I fell short of ‘arriving’ at the goal, but within the not too distant future I’ll give it a test and see where I’m at so I can set the goal for the next phase.