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A Page from History: Musings of an Old Rifleman

A Page from History: Musings of an Old Rifleman

From the August 1955 American Rifleman, an article by Col. Townsend Whelen (pictured above field testing a rifle) chronicling his observations on rifle accuracy over fifty years of shooting.

An unfortunate accident has temporarily precluded field activities, and so from an armchair I have been reviewing much of my past work to see what lessons and information could be gleaned from it. For the past 25 years I have kept quite complete records of all my shooting and experimental work, which includes considerably over 3,000 tests, scores, groups fired, as well as range and field experiences. Also, for the 25 years previous to these I have kept less methodical records. I have also collated much of the experiences of other methodical target-riflemen and hunter-riflemen. These records have concerned chiefly target and hunting rifles. Some of the lessons that can be deduced from this mass of data are, I think, incontestable.

These records show quite conclusively that the weight of the rifle has considerable bearing on the accuracy that may be expected; and with pure accuracy I include constant maintenance of location of center of impact, or zero. This seems important today in view of the increasing popularity of featherweight rifles. I have written many times that the heavier the rifle the more accurate it will be, other things being alike. The weight should always be considered in its proportion to the power and intensity of the cartridge used, and to some extent, I think, to the weight of the bullet employed. Thus the most accurate rifles I have worked with have been the heavy benchrest and varmint rifles in the ultra-high-velocity center-fire .22 calibers. In their barrel weight, particularly, they have been heavier in proportion to their charge than other rifles. Among these rifles are the only ones with which I have ever averaged minute-of-angle accuracy and less.

I am here considering only accuracy with good loads. Some loads, both factory and hand, give mediocre results with the best rifles. Thus I review only the records obtained with good bullets and sensible powder charges well suited to the arms tested.

My rifles in .250-3000 Savage and .257 Roberts calibers, in weights around 7.5 to 8.5 pounds, have always averaged better accuracy than any of the larger bores of light and medium hunting weights, because their weights are greater in proportion to their charges. A rifle taking a .25 caliber wildcat cartridge of ultra-high-velocity should weigh at least a pound more to equal the performance of these light rifles. Next come the .270 WCF and 7x64 mm rifles in the same average light sporting weight, which nearly equal the .25 calibers.

Col. Townsend Whelen at the benchrest
The author at the benchrest.
I have most thoroughly tested dozens of .30-'06 sporting rifles weighing from 8.5 to 9.5 pounds (without scope or sling). Some of these individual rifles have been tested over 50 times, during the course of some 20 years. None has ever equalled the average accuracy of the very slightly lighter .25, .270, and 7 mm rifles, because, I think, the .30-'06's are lighter in proportion to their charge. A possible exception, appearing just recently, has been the accuracy at short ranges attained with the 125-grain Sierra bullet in .30-'06 rifles, which is a charge of less intensity, better suited to a light rifle. Thus I think that the weight of the bullet has some bearing on the results. However, the .30-'06 is a highly accurate caliber in a rifle of weight commensurate with its power, starting about with the Winchester Model 70 rifle with target-weight (medium heavy) barrel weighing about 10.25 pounds, and of course including the heavier free-rifles and bullguns weighing 12 pounds and over. Rifles for the .300 Magnum cartridge should weight about a pound heavier than the .30-'06 to give equal accuracy according to my records. In heavy bullguns, the .30-'06 was as accurate as the .300, only it did not buck the wind as well.

Minute-of-angle accuracy

Some writers continually allude to certain makes and calibers as being 'minute-of-angle' rifles. They would not talk so loosely had they tested a very large number of rifles, calibers and loads at the benchrest. One prominent writer recently asserted that to qualify as a long range game rifle the firearm should average minute-of-angle groups. I have yet to test a rifle powerful enough for game larger than deer at distances over 250 yards that, in a weight anyone would care to carry in the hunting field, would average minute-of-angle groups with the best ammunition, or anything like it. If a rifle gives one such group out of 10, that does not make it a 'minute-of-angle' rifle. Also, there are very few shooters who can fire such small groups at the bench except from rifles of rather light recoil.

The finest accuracy is desirable in target rifles because the skill of our best riflemen has always kept pace with the improvement in accuracy. It is also important in varmint rifles because of the small target. On the other hand, minute-of-angle accuracy is not essential in a big game rifle, even for long range. An average of anything under 2.5 minutes is sufficient to surely strike the vital portion of a large animal, and most moderate weight .30-'06 rifles will qualify. Thus, while extreme accuracy is not always a governing consideration, yet a highly accurate arm will always prove more interesting and satisfying. We will use it more, become more accustomed to it, and our performance with it under practical conditions will be of a higher order.

Lastly, I might remark that a lifetime of experience on long and hard hunting trails indicates that six ounces more weight in each shoe is far more fatiguing on a long day afield than two pounds extra weight in one's rifle.

Maximum loads

In about half the instances where I have made a test of one of my rifles with one of the maximum loads as given in tables in handloading books, the test card shows some notation as "Excessive load," "Hard extraction," or "Cases stretch." In possibly one-fourth of these tests the accuracy has not been up to the average for the rifle. That I have never had an accident is due, I think, to my work all being confined to rifles in first rate condition that were close to standard in bore and chamber dimensions and headspace. And also I measure and weigh a sample from each box of bullets opened. I do not fire maximum loads except for an occasional test for information. I do not want any of the difficulties that come with them in my target or hunting ammunition.

I fear that too many young shooters think these maximum loads are the most desirable ones. Instead they should regard them as a danger signal—"Approach with caution." Irrespective of the powder charge there are so many other variables that may put such a load way over the top in pressure—a bore or chamber a little tighter than normal, a different primer, a different case, or even a bullet that may be of the correct weight but of a different make from the one used when the maximum load was first tried. The caution to start three grains under the maximum charge, and work up gradually, should never be disregarded by anyone.

Power
for hunting

My thoughts on killing power have been formed not on range tests, but rather in long personal experience in the game fields going way back to black powder days, and in the experiences of just a few other hunters of wide and long experience who are also good shots. Experiences and opinions of others less experienced are not always reliable, and are liable to be influenced by things they have read without sufficient experience to evaluate the same.

Killing power must be inseparably connected with good marksmanship, becuase hits in non-vital parts of game will not always prove fatal, no matter how powerful the cartridge. On the other hand, the modern high-velocity bullet penetrating into the chest cavity will always prove quickly fatal, and all that is needed is a bullet of sufficient sectional density to surely penetrate through the heavy shoulder bones into the chest. A well-constructed .25 caliber bullet of 117-grains fired at a muzzle velocity of 2700 fps will practically always do this on any American game, up to 200 yards at least, and is the lightest load that can be advised. The .270 caliber 150-grain bullet at 2900 fps will invariably do it up to 350 yards, and nothing more powerful is needed. These two calibers will give fine accuracy in rifles of moderate weight. Very heavy bullets of large caliber are needed only for the heaviest game that is hunted in thick timber where the hunter may have to take the only shot offered on an expensive trip. This may be one at the hind quarters of an animal, and a bullet is needed that will smash through into the vital chest cavity. But a rifle shooting such a heavy cartridge is not ideal for long range, and few sportsmen can fire it with accuracy.

In my own hunting, if I did not feel sure of hitting in the chest cavity—the 'boiler room'—I did not fire. My record of a rather large percentage of clean kills is due to my early acquiring ability with Lyman sights to align properly and quickly on game, and to time my squeeze to coincide with the first catching of such aim. This ability is easily acquired by dry shooting.

Sights

The accuracy of any rifle is limited by the sights with which it is equipped. With the very best iron hunting sights the finest rifle is only a 100-yard rifle for woodchucks and a 200-yard rifle for deer. The finest iron target sights limit the best rifle to a possible on the standard NRA targets, but a good scope makes a large proportion of hits in the X-ring possible. Modern telescope sights have very greatly increased the capabilities of all good rifles.

In order to hit, to know the vagaries of a rifle, the setting of the sight required for various distances, winds, and charges, sights must be capable of accurate adjustment, and to be able to put these adjustments on record for future reference and study, it must be possible to record these adjustments precisely. The vernier sights on the old Sharps match rifles, the Pope micrometer adjuster for the Springfield '03 rifle, the Lyman 48 receiver sight, and the mounts of modern target telescope sights permit of adjustment and recording in terms of minutes-of-angle, and with such adjustments valuable data can be recorded for field use and detailed study.

In recent years the reticle adjustments of hunting scopes have been largely freed from lost motion, but except in three or four models the reticle dials of these scopes are totally inadequate for accurate changes in sight adjustment and for recording such adjustments. The graduations are crude, hard to read, not numbered, and in most cases there is no zero line and no place on the dial housing where a zero line can be scratched. You do not know where you have been, where you are, or where you are going. This applies even to some of the finest and most expensive hunting scopes that are perfect optically. Clicks are provided and these suffice to enable the average sportsman to sight his scope in for one distance and one load, but the seriously-minded rifleman will learn little about his rifle and loads if he is limited to such adjustments only.

Reliability

The longer the distance at which a target can be surely hit, the more efficient and reliable the rifle. The first shot is by far the most important and is almost always delivered from a cold rifle; often from a barrel that is both cold and clean. Do you know where a bullet fired under these conditions will hit? Ordinarily you have no sighting shots at game or on the battlefield.

This first shot does not always hit where the subsequent shots of a score center. Do you keep a record that will tell you where the first shot will likely hit, and what allowance you must make for it? If you do not, you are not likely to connect with that first important shot.

Col. Townsend Whelan's data card
Col. Whelan's record card for the 32nd test of an FN Mauser rifle. Description of the rifle appears on another card. Cards measure 5x8 inches and all tests on each rifle are filed together.

If you are a target shooter the chances are you do not keep such a record. You may know your approximate sight adjustment for a certain distance for a warm, fouled bore, but you depend on your sighting shots to place your center of impact in the X-ring. You keep no records that would help you to hit with the first shot.

I seem to have been impressed with the importance of hitting with the first shot at an early age, probably because I was a hunter long before I became a target shooter. Thus, from almost the very first, my records have included the conditions for the first shot each day—sight adjustment, wind, temperature, ammunition, and shooting position. And the spot where this first shot struck has been noted, usually by the notation "ICC" on the target diagram on the score sheet, meaning "first shot from a cold clean bore."

For reliable hitting without a sighting shot a notation of the firing position is also necessary, because so many rifles shoot to at least a slightly different center of impact when held in various positions, particularly with or without a tight gun sling. But too much attention should not be given to very slight changes in hitting point caused by one changed position, because my tests have clearly shown that there is almost always a slight change, most likely due to how the recoil is taken up on the shoulder—not much, but possibly up to 3/4 minute plus or minus each time one starts to shoot prone or from benchrest.

Work in recent years seems to indicate that rifles with free-floating barrels are most reliable in placing their shots from different firing positions, and with different conditions of bore, close to the center of impact of the subsequent series of shots; that is, the zero is more consistently maintained under all conditions.

Thus to my one-track and simple mind it has always seemed that the best and most efficient rifle was the one with which you could most surely hit a small object the first shot at the longest distance—a distance that often had to be more or less estimated. And I think that such a rifle will usually give the smallest groups, and thus be best for competitive target shooting. It pays to keep records—a score book.

Col. Townsend Whelen was a rifle shooter who fired on the Army team in the first National Trophy Rifle Team Match in 1903. He hunted widely over North America and was an intense student of firearms and author of 11 books and innumerable pamphlets on guns and shooting. Additionally, he was an accomplished benchrest shooter.

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