There are only a few thousand of them at most. When they get together, a crowd of 60 to 80 is considered a major happening, and their biggest event of the year will be attended by only a few hundred. They call themselves “benchrest shooters,” and the object of their game is simple: firing 5 (sometimes 10) shots into a single round hole no larger than the diameter of the bullet. This may seem like a pointless enterprise, especially since after decades of trying no one has quite yet managed to do it, but along the way this small but intensely dedicated band of marksmen has changed the face of riflery.
The common image of benchrest shooters is of a bunch of wild-eyed accuracy geeks with odd contraptions that look more like Star Wars laser guns than ordinary rifles. This conception–or misconception–is reinforced from time to time by pictures of these iron monster rifles in various shooting magazines. Usually these rifles are pictured only as curiosities, without sufficient explanation that they represent a relatively small and steadily diminishing segment of organized benchrest competition and no longer stand on the razor’s edge of rifle evelopment. That’s because several years ago, some of the wiser heads in the benchrest game realized that despite their ingenuity and fascination, the monster rifles were taking them down a one-way street. The search for the Holy Grail of pure accuracy was largely a fool’s errand, and if benchrest shooting was to have any lasting purpose beyond the swapping of ingenious ideas, their rifles would have to be more like–well–like rifles ought to be.
This is why if you visited a major benchrest competition such as the Firearms Industry Super Shoot, you would see scores of rifles that, other than looking like they have been painted by a graffiti artist, are not all that different in shape and weight from, say, your Savage Model 12 Varminter or Remington Sendero. Surprise!
This by no means is to imply that we should expect our factory hunting rifles to be as accurate as bench rifles. Winning performance in the varmint classes of benchrest rifles will be five 5-shot groups probably averaging about two-tenths of an inch or less!
By contrast, of the hundreds of factory and non-benchrest custom rifles I’ve tested over the years, only a skimpy handful have delivered even one group that small, usually quite by accident. Never mind those Internet chatterboxes who proclaim themselves possessors of hunting rifles that will print half-inch groups “all day long.” The “gold standard” for a really accurate hunting rifle is one that will deliver 100-yard 5-shot groups that measure about 1 inch on a more-or-less regular basis. Among heavy-barreled varmint rifles, a true half-incher is a jewel. In either case, extremely good ammo is necessary for fine accuracy, which complicates matters considerably.
The point here, however, is not to compare hunting sporters with expensive custom-made (figure $2,000 and up, plus a scope) benchrest rifles. It’s to make clear how the rifles you now buy off a dealer’s rack, the ammo on his shelf and even the very definition of accuracy have benefited greatly from developments first tried and proven by benchrest shooters.
RIFLESCOPES Take, for example, the effect benchresters have had on scopes. I’ve yet to meet a benchrest shooter who was entirely satisfied with his scope (or anything else for that matter). They are constantly barraging scope makers with complaints and suggestions. Scope makers tend to pay close attention to benchrest shooters, which is why there has been a constant stream of improved target- and varmint-type scopes over the past several years, with more and more optics makers getting into the act. New developments in scopes proven at benchrest shoots filter down to hunting-type scopes. This is readily apparent when you compare the quality of hunting scopes made today with the best of those made a generation ago.
BARREL BEDDING If you’re like thousands of other new rifle buyers, you practice “breaking in” a new barrel. This accuracy-enhancing trick originated with benchrest shooters several years ago and became very much in vogue even among non-benchresters after being revealed in OUTDOOR LIFE [Shooting, March 1999]. But by the time such advances become common practice in the general shooting world, newer and better discoveries may have rendered them obsolete in the esoteric benchrest arena. A case in point is the accuracy-improving technique known as “pillar bedding.” Benchresters were doing this years ago, but by the time it was adopted by everyday gunsmiths and gunmakers, it had already been abandoned by bench shooters in favor of the even more accurate glued-in bedding method. (Don’t try this with your hunting rifle.)
BULLETS Though it would be unfair to say that benchresters taught ammo makers how to make accurate bullets, there’s no denying that they picked up on the benchrest concept, not only liberally applying the term “benchrest” to their most accurate bullets but also borrowing the hollowpoint profile of the handmade bullets laboriously cranked out one at a time by benchrest shooters themselves. Nowadays there are a dozen or so makers of custom bullets who cater to the benchrest market, and though their jewel-like bullets are suitable only for punching holes in paper or varmints, they set the standard for accuracy that other bullets are measured by. By continually raising the bar on accuracy performance, these custom-made benchrest bullets have forced ammo makers to race against each other to produce increasingly accurate cartridges, so everyone wins.
The best-known fallout from benchrest is, of course, “fiberglass” stocks. They were developed by bench shooters who wanted a combination of strength, light weight and stability. Chet Brown was one of the first makers of fiberglass stocks and loaned me one of the very first to shoot with in a tournament back in the early 1970s. Painted a bright yellow, it caused quite a sensation. Nearly everyone loved wood back then and most allowed they would rather date the bearded lady at the county fair than be seen with a fiberglass stock like the one I was shooting. This opinion was widely shared by hunters when synthetic stocks began appearing on hunting rifles, but their resistance didn’t last long.
Nowadays synthetic stocks are about as common as camo T-shirts. Meanwhile benchrest shooters have continued to improve on fiberglass with even lighter and stronger materials, such as carbon fiber. Paradoxically, wood stocks have now returned to the bench game with stock makers like Terry Leonard and Bob Scoville uniting wood with carbon fiber for stocks that are amazingly strong, light and even rather pretty. I expect it won’t be long before this latest benchrest development makes the leap to hunting rifles.
GUN CARE AND CLEANING
Cruise the gun-care departments of a gun shop or thumb through a shooting-gear catalog and you’ll see plenty of products that were incubated in the benchrest hothouse, such as Shooter’s Choice bore solvent and Butch’s Bore Shine. (Butch himself is a benchrest shooter, as is the dad of the Shooter’s Choice CEO). Both of these first showed up on the bench range, and their general success followed their acceptance by the benchrest clan.
Bench shooters are notoriously persnickety about what they stick in their barrels and look with disdain upon ordinary cleaning rods. Several years ago benchrest shooter John Dewey got fed up with existing rods that he suspected were hurting–even ruining–fine barrels. He introduced the line of super-slick “Dewey” rods, which are now widely used by benchrest shooters and becoming popular with non-benchers. Other, even further improved rods, such as those bearing the Bore Tech name, were hatched in the benchrest game. If you figure you’re up-to-date with your cleaning equipment and methods, you’re mistaken, because bench shooters are forever seeking better equipment and techniques, and last year’s latest innovations may now be woefully obsolete.
Despite this constantly growing list of rifle improvements, if I had to name the most lasting contribution benchrest shooters have made to all of us who hunt with rifles, it would be the revolution in our understanding of accuracy and in the attitudes of makers of guns and ammo. Benchrest shooters and their rifles established reasonable benchmarks of accuracy and thereby served notice to the gun industry that their customers should expect a certain level of performance. There was a time, not too long ago, when gunmakers didn’t want to talk much about accuracy, as if it were some sort of immoral subject best kept hidden from inquiring minds. Sure, their advertisements unfailingly described their rifles as being “accurate,” but only in the most nebulous terms.
Gunmakers can’t get away with such behavior these days. That’s because two benchrest organizations, the National Bench Rest Shooting Association (NBRSA) and International Benchrest Shooters (IBS), sanction benchrest tournaments and regularly publish new records plus the performance winners and also-rans of bench matches. This has put real numbers before the shooting public and flushed gunmakers out from hiding behind their mysterious “within our specifications” wall.
Previously unknown terms such as “sub-minute-of-angle” have become part of our everyday shooting lingo, and now when gunmakers claim to make “accurate” rifles, they had better be ready to back it up.
If you’re interested in learning more about pure accuracy, log on to www.benchrest.com. You’ll find experienced benchresters engaging in an ongoing open forum there, and you’ll be amazed by the exchange of accuracy hints and techniques.
“Mendacity” is a useful word. As commonly used, it simply implies an untruth. Used more correctly, however, it conveys an aura of subtle but infinitely sinister deceit. Tennessee Williams got it right in his play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when Big Daddy (remember Burl Ives in the movie version?) rages against the permeating mendacity of his dysfunctional family.
To my mind, mendacity includes the unspoken lie, an atmosphere of casual deception. Mendacity is also “honesty” being measured by its degree of believability. “If you believe what I say, it proves I am honest” being the self-deluding mendacity of politicians, which we’re going to see a lot of in this election year. Sometimes mendacity is rewarded, as was Michael Moore’s “documentary” film Bowling for Columbine, which won an Academy Award though it was corrupt with distortions of fact.
The anti-gun press (is that redundant?) persistently relies on mendacity–the unspoken lie. One subtle-but-classic example is the “horrific” rate of gun accidents they report without acknowledging that, in fact, firearms rank well down the list of causes of accidental death and injury.
A recent and all-too-classic example of anti-gun mendacity was a directive from the corporate office of The New York Times (anyone surprised?) wherein the newspaper went to some effort to let everyone know it would not allow its reporters and photographers to carry self-protection weaponry on assignment. (Does that mean they toted guns previously?) Ordinarily, a company’s in-house directives are not released to the public, but apparently the Times couldn’t resist letting this one out, if for no other reason than to reaffirm its unwavering anti-gun sentiment. What the editors all but forgot to mention was that henceforth their supposedly defenseless writers and photographers will be allowed to take along armed bodyguards. Now that’s mendacity.
WEIGHT SAVERS: The varmint classes of benchrest competition led to the development of stocks and actions that yield extreme accuracy with a minimum of weight. The graphite-reinforced fiberglass stock on Linda Carmichel’s “Purple Passion” benchrest rifle weighs only 24 ounces, and the stiff Stolle action only 30.5 ounces. This allows a heavier, more accurate barrel to be used while staying within the 10.5-pound weight limit. These weight-reduction techniques are now common in hunting rifles as well.
SUPER SIGHTS: The constant demands of benchrest shooters for better optics have led to similar improvements in hunting scopes.
ULTRALIGHT TRIGGERS: Benchrest demands for safe, finely adjustable, light-pull triggers not only led to such precise mechanisms as this 2-ounce-pull Jewell trigger, but prompted gunmakers to follow with more shootable triggers such as Savage’s AccuTrigger.
ADVANCED BEDDING: Action-bedding techniques that improve accuracy, such as “pillar bedding,” have long been pioneered by benchrest shooters. Most rifles now used in benchrest competition utilize an even more advanced bedding method, where the action is actually glued into the stock, making the action and stock a rigid, one-piece unit. Don’t try this with your hunting rifle.
HIGH-TECH STOCKS: Stocks made of fiberglass and other non-wood materials were first made and used by benchrest shooters, beginning a trend now widely copied across the entire shooting spectrum.
STAINLESS BARRELS: Benchrest shooters were first to demonstrate the advantages of stainless-steel barrels, leading to the widespread use of stainless steel for mainstream hunting rifles.
For more shooting information, go to www.outdoorlife.com/shooting