2012 Gun Test: How We Test Rifles

Each year we run the toughest rifle test in the industry. Here's how we do it.

The rifle test begins long before the guns are ever taken to the range. If we were to just scope the guns, sight them in, and start shooting, we would be doing a grave disservice to the rifles and to the test.

The first step is to pull the guns apart and give them a thorough inspection. This includes a detailed look at the internal construction of the stock and action and a peek down the barrel, chamber, and other recesses with a bore scope. This accomplishes a couple of important tasks. First, it allows us to gauge the quality of the construction of the rifles and make notes on any innovative features (or corner cutting) that might not be readily apparent.

Second, it allows us to make sure the rifles are properly assembled to help them achieve peak performance. This means that the action and stock are snugged correctly and that all the screws and fasteners are tightened to spec.

This last bit is especially critical. A surprising number of new guns--based on my experience, I'd say around 20 percent--are not assembled correctly by the factory. So if you're buying any new or used rifle, it pays to strip it down and put it back together the right way, or you're risking sub-par performance.

Shooting the rifles is, of course, the heart of the evaluation. Our goal is for each rifle to achieve a perfect score, and to that end we take great pains to get them to shoot their very best. We run numerous brands of ammo and bullet styles through each gun, gathering multiple five-shot groups with each load. Even the Briarbank 200-yard bench-rest targets we use are specially designed for this work, letting us measure groups with precision.

We make sure the rifles don't get too hot, and we clean them every 20 to 30 rounds. Once we're done with the accuracy testing, we run the guns through a series of practical drills--shooting from unsupported positions, running them dry, and seeing how easy they are to reload or whether they'll 
single-feed rounds well.

As much as we like to see the rifles shoot small groups (which they did very well this year), we care more about their field performance.

When we're not shooting, we spend time inspecting the rifles, taking note of the ergonomics, the quality of the triggers, and the overall in-hand feel of the firearms.

All these factors contribute to the scores we assign for the performance, design, and value of the guns. Once we have all the data, we crunch the scores and see which guns have earned our coveted Editor's Choice and Great Buy awards for the year.