When I was stationed in Montana, I had access to an incredible shooting facility. For a mere $40 per year, I had access to 50, 200, 300, and 1000-yard ranges, among others (these are where I spent most of my time). This was where I started getting more serious about shooting. And while I spent a lot of time doing action shooting with a local 2-gun club, I was also very interested in competing with the precision rifle guys over at the 1000-yard range.
In 2012, I started down that path and purchased my first bolt action rifle, which I’ll talk about in a second. I did obscene amounts of research on the internet, reading books, and tried to figure out how to best meet my needs.
Of course, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
In reality, it wasn’t all that different of a situation than I wanted to build my first AR-15. I was full of ideas but short on cash and know-how.
I received orders to California before I could show up to my first match, and my rifle has been sitting unfinished in my safe ever since.
Well, it’s time to change that.
I’m not the kind of guy who actually names my rifles, but I do enjoy project codenames. Call me old fashioned or something.
Gungnir is the mythical spear of Odin, king of Asgard. There are very few depictions of Odin without some sort of spear by his side. Even the Marvel movies often showcased it without explaining it.
Of course, the actual mythology of the spear is surrounded in magic, power, and military might. I’m far from taking things so literally. I honestly just enjoy the spear symbolism as names for weapons I plan to use at range.
On a similar note, my Recce Rifle was Project Ascalon, after the sword of St. George.
Back in 2012, I obsessed over finding the best bolt action rifle to start with. The obvious answer, and the one that most people still take, was a Remington 700. Being the gun hipster that I am, I decided to go a different route.
That wasn’t because I wanted to be different. Rather, it was that I saw the list of modifications that nearly every enthusiast made to the stock R700 and noticed that they came from the factory on several other rifles.
Choosing the Best Bolt Action Rifle
When you get started in precision rifles like this, you’re basically choosing between two paths. Either you buy a factory rifle and modify it into something special, or you buy a custom-built action up front and build it out.
The full custom option with high-dollar precision-machined actions is the route of the rich and sponsored. My skill levels, bank account, and enthusiasm weren’t there.
They still aren’t.
Most people are just fine with the first option of modifying a factory rifle.
Back in 2012, my choices came down to the Remington 700 SPS Tactical, Tikka T3 Varmint, Savage Model 10, and a then relatively unknown Howa 1500.
Remington 700 SPS Tactical
The Remington was a known quantity. It’s the Glock of the bolt action world, with practically everyone making parts for it and offering gunsmithing services. This was back before the whole safety recall issue.
Having the most aftermarket support was certainly a selling point. But that was really about the only thing it had going for it.
Out of the box, R700s lack a lot of desirable features for precision rifle shooting and competition. The ejector design is weak, the recoil lug usually needs some beefing up, and the multi-piece bolt assembly has a lot of failure points. The bolt is also fairly awkward to remove for cleaning.
Luckily, all of these things have aftermarket support to fix, but the dollars start to add up.
Tikka T3 Varmint
I was very close to buying the Tikka. The bolt cycled just so smoothly and it has a very nice 70-degree bolt lift. The trigger was great out of the box, and they had fantastic reputations for accuracy out of the box.
Tikka, if you didn’t know, is produced by Sako rifles and shares many similar components.
The things that bothered me at the time was a severe lack of aftermarket support and the recoil lug design. Practically nobody made stocks for them, and a lot of the little bits on the rifle were plastic with no metal replacements.
The Tikka uses a unique recoil lug arrangement where the lug is actually in the stock and fits into a recess on the receiver. That makes bedding the stock a difficult proposition. There was also a lot of talk about some of the lugs not holding up to heavier calibers in the long term.
Since I wanted to make this a precision rifle, I figured that the recoil lug issue would be hard to get around. Of course, a lot of companies now make chassis systems that work perfectly with this arrangement, but they weren’t around in 2012.
For the record, the situation for Tikka rifles has improved immensely with the newer T3x series, and I happily suggest them as a quality option to get started.
Savage Model 10
The Savage was, and is, a budget-friendly bolt action rifle with a great reputation for accuracy and trigger.
What turned me away from it was the fin in the accutrigger, which I’ve never warmed up to, and a few other guys who “knew better” scaring me about the long-term durability of the bolt system.
Were they right? I have no idea. I have no proof or evidence to say one way or the other. I really like the looks of Savage’s scout rifle, and there is plenty of aftermarket support.
This is the rifle that I ultimately chose. Out of the box, it had nearly all of the desirable features that folks pay gunsmiths to add to a Remington 700. It had a one-piece bolt with M16-style extractor, push-button bolt release on the side, a great trigger, and accuracy to spare.
The big kicker, though, is that the Howa actions are flat on the bottom with a massive integral recoil lugs. These things are practically made for bedding.
The risk at the time was that of all the brands in front of me, Howa was the most unknown. From the few reviews I could find, the consensus was they were very well made and nearly trued from the factory. A few custom shops were using them to build introductory-level precision rifles, but only a few.
One of the biggest drawbacks was, and continues to be, that the barrel threads are metric. While that doesn’t seem like a big deal to me, it apparently turned off a lot of gunsmiths who didn’t want to worry about retooling for only a single rifle.
Aside from that, there really wasn’t an aftermarket for parts. Don’t get me wrong, there were parts, such as scope bases, triggers, stocks, and bottom metal. But they were limited to one or two manufacturers each.
Despite the risks, this is the path that I chose. I liked the beefy action, well-thought-out features, and good reputation for accuracy and durability. The aftermarket would eventually catch up.
At least I hoped so.
If I Were Doing it Again
That decision happened way back in 2012. PRS matches have grown exceedingly popular since then, and the precision rifle market continues to grow every year.
Much to my liking, Howa has become a well-established name in the market and there is a lot more support out there, especially for stocks. There still isn’t much for triggers, but it really doesn’t need much there.
If I was making this decision today, I think my choices would fall down to one of three options: a Howa 1500 in a KRG Bravo chassis, a Tikka T3X CTR, or a Ruger Precision Rifle.
The latter of those three didn’t hit the market until 2015, three years after I originally started on this path.
Of these, the Ruger represents a more “turn key” solution for getting started in precision shooting. The Howa and Tikka are both a little higher quality, in my opinion, and lend themselves to more tinkering later on.
Of the three, the Tikka is probably the best all-around rifle out of the box, but I’d rather have a different stock or chassis on it. Given the cost of doing that, the Howa 1500 with a KRG chassis seems like a fantastic option.
So What Happened Next?
Now that I’ve walked you through my initial decision, let’s talk about modifications.
Out of the box, the Howa 1500 Varminter that I purchased came equipped in a flimsy Hogue overmold stock. That had to go.
I had to make a choice between the classic fiberglass stock, or some kind of metal chassis system.
Stocks vs Chassis
This is really a personal preference.
Fiberglass stocks have a more classic look, allow for more fitting and customization with fitting and sanding, and take well to bedding.
Chassis systems are usually more adjustable to fit the shooter, and skip past the bedding by using some kind of metal-to-metal contact with the receiver.
Both systems, executed correctly, make for very accurate rifles. Ultimately, I elected to go with a stock.
Were I to do it again, there are many more chassis options out there today that do not require any machining to the action, so a chassis would probably be my pick.
Manners T2 Rifle Stock
When I had to make this choice, there were only two chassis systems on the market for the Howa and both required gunsmith modifications to the action to work with magazines. To save myself that expense, I went with the Manners T2 stock.
It’s a classic-looking stock with bits of rail, QD cups, and all of the essentials right where I needed them. I had the pillars bedded by Manners before they sent it off.
In short, the stock feels great in the hands.
I couldn’t blow a whole lot of money on the stock, though, so I didn’t go with the adjustable cheek piece. Instead, I installed a small stock pack that carries some loose ammo, range cards, and other necessities.
I’ve been running with the factory bottom metal ever since, even though my wife bought detachable bottom metal (DBM) for me several years ago. I’ll get to that.
I’ll point out a few accessories in the photo above, but realize they aren’t all that important.
The sling in that photo, which is from 2013, is my TAB Gear Sling, which now resides on the Minuteman KISS Rifle. While I like the TAB sling, I’ve switched to a Short Action Precision (SAP) sling for my precision rifle needs.
The bipod is an Atlas, which was all the rage at the time. It’s a very nice bipod, and still one of the best on the market. Would I do it again? I dunno.
The scope is an older Vortex Viper 6.5-20×44 that I eventually sold to a friend. This rifle is currently without an optic, which brings me to….
The Build Plan
Now that you’ve seen a history of my rifle, let’s talk about the plan. Project Gungnir has sat unfinished in my safe since 2014. Once I was stationed in California, the closest range I had ready access to only went out to 100 yards. So I spent most of my time working with the AR.
That work formed the foundation of the original Everyday Marksman blog.
Now that I’m in Virginia, I’m not far from some very nice precision rifle shooting and competition facilities. I competed at one of them, the Peacemaker National Training Center, back in April 2019’s NRA ARC match.
I’ve also got a standing invitation to attend some local precision rifle training.
The first step in this project if finishing out the parts I left on the table. First, I’m replacing the hinged-door bottom metal with a DBM for AICS magazines. The one I have is from Pacific Tool & Gauge and requires proper inletting by a gunsmith to fit right.
Interestingly, the move to detachable magazines means the rifle needs the same machine work that would have been required for those older chassis designs.
At the same time, I’m having the action fully bedded into the stock for maximum accuracy.
Combining the cost of the stock, the bottom metal, and the gunsmith charges, I’m already in for more than the cost of a quality chassis costs today. So keep that in mind.
On top of all of that, I’m also replacing the small-ish factory bolt knob with a larger unit.
What About Optics?
Of course, no precision rifle is complete without optics. Clearly, this kind of rifle calls for Class IV precision rifle optics. The question is…which one?
Well, that’s going to be a future decision. I’m open to suggestions or donations if you want to see a particular scope end up on this thing!
There you go, the introduction to my precision bolt action rifle. We’ve covered a bit of history on why I made the decisions that I did, as well as what I might do differently today.
We’ve also covered the immediate future plans for the gun.
Stay tuned to follow progress on this build!