Test protocol includes three distinct, but overlapping, phases. Before a single shell or cartridge is loaded, each firearm is inspected, measured, weighed, cleaned if necessary, and in the case of the rifles, scoped up. This time-consuming process is what we use to build the data sheets provided to each tester, which list all the vital statistics about the firearm. We’re so picky during this process that we even assign number grades to reflect the quality of the machining on the bore and rifling, for instance. Suffice it to say there’s no nook or cranny on these rifles and shotguns, all of which are field-stripped and disassembled, that isn’t inspected.

Breaking down the firearms to this degree allows us to spot interesting or innovative features that are not otherwise visible. (Or, as is sometimes the case, to make note of manufacturing shortcuts that the gunmakers would prefer the public did not see.)

With the baseline data in hand, the shotguns and rifles are ready for the range, which is the second phase of testing. We shoot the rifles for accuracy off solid benches to see how well they handle a variety of ammunition. By using these sturdy concrete benches, and quality shooting rests from the likes of Sinclair, we minimize human error.

The data we gather during this type of shooting, while invaluable, isn’t enough. The rifles must also be tested under practical field conditions. So we shoot them prone off backpacks, while kneeling unsupported, sitting, off-hand, and off rests like fence posts. Will they work well while the shooter is wearing gloves? Can you single-load them once the gun runs dry? Does the rifle balance well in hand for comfortable field carry? How quickly can it put shots accurately downrange? All these considerations, and more, factor into the grades.

The same rigor is applied to the shotguns. We shoot them to see how well they break clays, but also to analyze specific handling characteristics. One of the golden rules for our test team members is that if you’re only concerned with breaking clays, you’re not paying enough attention to the shotgun.

We also devote time back at our headquarters on Boone and Crockett’s Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Ranch to picking over the guns in fine detail. For each firearm, there is a checklist of attributes we take into consideration, covering all the cosmetic and mechanical features of the guns, from butt to muzzle.

Only after each test team member has completed his data sheets do we learn which shotguns and rifles will be anointed with an award. Since we do not share our scores with each other during the test, the final results are unbiased and reliable. We wouldn’t have it any other way.