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The Hunt for a Hunter Class Rifle


  Rams are set at 500 meters, or nearly 1/3 mile.  The primary aiming area of the body is only 2.2 MOA tall by 4.6 MOA wide.  Competitors shoot standing up, with no slings, no shooting coats and no excuses.


    Nicholas G. Papagalos

    13434 N. 13th Place

    Phoenix, AZ  85022

    602 906-3210 o

    602 504-3897 h

    602 702-0522 c

From forgotten, ugly duckling to high tech competitive shooting machine.

The story of putting together a hunter class silhouette rifle.

Metallic silhouette is the sport of shooting at lifesize metal cutouts of animals at ridiculously long ranges from the standing position while mumbling unprintables under your breath and spending more money than you know you should.

An evil game that has motivated many a shooter to take up golf lessons, silhouette has one redeeming attribute that keeps participants coming back to next month’s match: silhouette shooters have cool equipment.

A silhouette rifle is practically a benchrest rifle that you shoot standing up.  High tech components.  Precision accuracy.

Which brings us to my next rifle project.  I had a dusty old Remington 700 sitting in my gun safe for years.  It began life as a barreled action that I mated to a fiberglass stock to create my very first silhouette rifle in .308 caliber.  It shot like a house on fire until the barrel died after many thousands of rounds.  It then re-emerged as a .308 hunting rifle when I acquired a wooden factory stock and a take-off factory sporter weight barrel at yard-sale prices.  When the take-off .308 barrel didn’t shoot well, I screwed on a take-off .243 barrel which shot okay for awhile.  But then that barrel died quickly.  It lay inert, forgotten and unloved.

There are two classes of rifles in metallic silhouette.  Hunter class and standard class.  Hunter class is supposed to resemble a typical hunting rifle.  Standard class is heavier and offers fewer restrictions on equipment.  As I already had an extremely accurate standard class rifle, I got the bug to put together a state-of-the-art hunter class rifle. 



What was once an ordinary Remington 700 is now a pile of loose parts,

awaiting transformation into a precision hunter class silhouette rifle.


Step one:  Conform to the rules.  (Which can be like hitting a moving target.)

A hunter rifle must conform to the rules that govern equipment.  That sounds simple, but is somewhat complicated by the fact that the rules have been changing direction like a windflag in a clothes dryer.  Originally, the “hunter class” was intended to be for the hunter who wants to take his favorite deer rifle out of the gun safe and practice, without the expensive equipment race that supposedly drains checkbooks, corrupts husbands and ruins marriages.  So in the interest of marital harmony and to avoid intimidation of prospective new shooters, for years the NRA silhouette rules committees restrained the class to production rifles, with production triggers, and production stocks – all as you’d find on the rack at your local sporting goods store.    Unfortunately, regardless of the intent of the rules, very few competitors shot hunter rifle, opting for the more liberal “standard rifle” class, which is really anything but standard and produces a hot, tricked out looking competition rifle.

Much to the surprise of many, the new rulebook in 2003 radically redefined the rules for a hunter rifle.  As the rules stand at the moment, a hunter class silhouette rifle must weigh 9 lbs empty with scope.  It must have a tapered barrel no longer than 26”, though nobody knows how much or how little taper is acceptable.  It must have a hunting style stock.  Nobody really knows what that means, either.  Thumbholes were okay in 2003, but disallowed with additional rule revisions made in 2004, even though several factory rifles have thumbhole stocks.  The scope tube cannot be over 1.5” above the receiver.  The rifle must have a 2# trigger pull or greater, though aftermarket triggers are allowed now.  And the barrel must be chambered in any cartridge that is currently or was once a factory chambering.  A bore diameter of 6mm is the minimum and wildcat belted magnums are disallowed to prevent target damage.  (Most silhouette ranges prohibit belted magnums of any kind.) 

There are other rules, too, so anyone putting together a silhouette rifle should read the NRA rulebook and get the rule updates each year.  The bottom line is that there is enough ambiguity and contradiction built into the rules to allow room to bribe the match officials who must make equipment rulings before major matches.  No personal checks accepted.  Bring small bills, please.

An inch and three quarters. Aaghh.

No wonder this burned out factory barrel was missing a lot of long-range targets – even off the bench.


In silhouette, “hunting accuracy” is not good enough for a hunter rifle.

Forget gun reviews about 3-shot groups.  There are no 3-shot matches.  Silhouette matches are 40 shots.  National matches are 120 shots over 3 days.  Production accuracy is not good enough, unless you are one of the lucky few to stumble upon an honest minute-of-angle rifle that will stay MOA for 40 consecutive shots in 100 degree summer heat.

Targets are placed at 200, 300, 385 and 500 meters and the main aiming area spans from  2-3 minutes high, depending on the animal.  You need a really, really accurate rifle.  MOA is a bare minimum.  One half MOA is better.  Consistency is key.  Fliers lose animals.



Cartridges for consideration for a hunter class silhouette rifle.

From left to right:  .308, 7mm-08, 7 BR, 260, 6.5x55, 250 Savage, .243, and 6 BR.


Which caliber to shoot?

The whole point of a custom rifle project is to select exactly the right components for the intended purpose.  The first decision is to select the bullet to use, then the cartridge case.  Essentially, we will be engineering this silhouette rifle from the hole in the barrel outward.        

As previously mentioned, the cartridge chosen must have been a factory-loaded round now or at one time.  So let’s take a look at the ones you are likely to see at a silhouette match.


308 Winchester

The venerable .308 Winchester was the original favorite of silhouette shooters back in the 1970’s, but is now shunned because it kicks too much.  A .308 is overkill, but if you have one in the closet that shoots good groups, you’ll still shoot fine scores.


7-08 Remington

Early on, silhouette shooters necked down the .308 to create the 7-08 in an effort to increase the bullet’s ballistic coefficient and reduce recoil.  Remington later legitimized this wildcat by making it a factory chambering in the 1980’s.  It is still popular with silhouette shooters and can usually be loaded down to milder velocities without losing accuracy or rams.  At the 2003 Nationals, this caliber was by far the most popular for hunter rifle among those competitors who completed an equipment survey with their entry form.


7 BR

Surprisingly, this diminutive cartridge has adequate knockdown momentum on the rams, while offering mild recoil and good ballistics.  New rules have made this a legal caliber for Hunter Rifle, as Remington produced factory ammunition for it in the 1980’s.


260 Remington

The 260 Remington is the .308 case necked down to 6.5mm.  It is coming on strong due to modest recoil, low wind drift, and adequate knockdown power.  At the 2003 Nationals, this was the second most popular caliber for hunter rifle among competitors who completed an equipment survey.


6.5 x 55 Swede

The Swede’s case is slightly longer than the 260 and has greater body taper.  Powder capacity is roughly comparable, though the 6.5x55 is factory-loaded to lower pressures and lower velocities in deference to the old military surplus rifles that are still appearing at gun shows in this caliber.  The 6.5x55 was the third most frequently mentioned caliber for hunter rifle at the 2003 Nationals.


250 Savage

I honestly can’t ever remember seeing a 250 Savage on a silhouette range.  However, the case is highly appreciated by wildcatters for its reduced powder capacity compared to a .308.  The case has been used as is or blown out and/or shortened when coupled with 6.5mm and 7mm bullets to create an efficient round for silhouette.  So I am including the 250 for comparison in my list of cartridge candidates.


243 Winchester

The ubiquitous .243 is popular at matches, probably because most people have one standing upright in their gun safe awaiting hunting season.  Unfortunately, a .243 burns out barrels.  A deer hunter who shoots a box of ammo a year won’t ever notice.  But for a silhouette shooter who fires thousands of rounds a year, barrel life is a consideration.  A .243 will knock over most rams with conventional 100 grain boattail bullets, but it is better to use the heavy 105 or 107 grain VLD styles which need a special fast-twist barrel.


6 BR

The 6BR as a silhouette cartridge?  Yes, that’s right.  The 6BR is a relative newcomer to the game, but is showing up regionally due to low recoil, low cost to reload, ability to resist wind drift forces, long barrel life and a reputation for accuracy. For the 6BR in silhouette, the heavier bullets are better.  From a rifle, the efficient 6 BR will push a 107 grain bullet 2700-2800 fps with only about 32 grains of powder, while a .243 takes 42 grains of powder to push a 107 grain bullet 2900 fps or more.  Remember that a 105 or 107 grain VLD style bullet will require a special fast-twist barrel of at least 1:8. 

The big surprise is that the 6 BR will indeed knock over rams.  Scattered reports are that the 6BR’s slower velocity produces better knockdown reliability on the rams than the same bullet at .243 velocities.  The theory is the slower bullets are not disintegrating upon impact, but rather are transferring more of their kinetic energy to the target.  Hmmm. Sounds plausible.  On the other hand, it could just be unconfirmed shooting range babble.  A good rule of thumb is to never believe anything a gun owner tells you about his firearm or his gun dog until you witness both in action firsthand, repeatedly.

There are other factory chamberings that are legal to shoot, such as 30-06, 280, 25-06, and 257 Roberts.  But they almost never show up in equipment lists compiled for major national matches.  They have too much case capacity for the game.


Ballistic criteria

We will consider three primary ballistic criteria for our case/bullet selection:  minimal wind drift, adequate momentum to knock over the rams, and minimal recoil.  An engineer would call this a classic optimization problem.

First, let’s consider wind drift.  The main aiming area on a turkey is roughly 15” wide and is set at 385 meters.  The main aiming area on a ram is roughly 25” wide and is set at 500 meters.  That is only 3.6 MOA and 4.6 MOA wide, respectively.  You can see that you need a bullet that resists wind drift.  The gentlest tickle of a breeze that would barely move leaves on a tree can push a streamlined 168 grain 30 caliber boattail a foot off point of aim at 500 meters.  There are few things more frustrating than to break the shot well in the animal and have your spotter who is looking through a spotting scope call it 3” off the side due to an unexpected wind shift.  At short ranges, most bullets perform adequately.  But at the long ranges, long, heavy, VLD style bullets with high ballistic coefficients work best.

Not only does a bullet have to buck the wind for 500 meters, but it must retain enough oomph to knock a fifty pound ram over when it arrives.  While one may be tempted to believe that energy is an appropriate measure of knockdown ability, it is not.  Elgin Gates, a pioneer in the sport of silhouette, claimed that momentum is a better measure.  I’m inclined to agree.  The formula for energy is 1/2 x M x V2 and momentum is M x V.  Thus, energy places greater emphasis on velocity, while momentum places greater emphasis on the mass of the bullet.  Experience supports the belief that slower, heavier bullets have greater knockdown ability than faster, lighter bullets, all else being equal. 

Other factors come into play, too.  Tough, thick-jacketed bullets seem to knock down animals better than thin-jacketed varmint bullets. Headwinds make animals harder to topple than tailwinds.  The condition of the animal’s feet and the rail it sits on matter.  Low hits are less reliable than high back hits.

You could solve the wind drift and momentum problem definitively if the rangemaster would let you use a 500 grain 50 BMG. (don’t ask, he won’t)  But remember you have to pull the trigger at least 40 times offhand without a sling or shooting coat at a target that is 2-3 minutes tall.  No matter how macho you are on a football field or in the local saloon, the nerves that govern fine motor skills are delicate.  Recoil is a ballistic waste product.  The less recoil, the easier it is to shoot precision events.

By the way, unlike a real hunting rifle, flat trajectory is irrelevant for a hunter class silhouette rifle.  All animals are stationary at known distances.  Most competitors write down their scope settings and tape them to their scope, verifying them to local conditions before each match.


The following table shows the relationship between wind drift, recoil and momentum for cartridges under consideration.



6BR 107 Sierra MK

.243 107 Sierra MK

250 Sav 117 Sierra SBT

6.5x55 Swede 142 Sierra MK

260 Rem 142 Sierra MK

7BR 168 Sierra MK

7mm-08 168 Sierra MK

308 Win 168 Sierra MK

Ballistic Coefficient









Bullet weight (grains)









Initial velocity (ft/sec)









500 m velocity (ft/sec)









Wind drift with 10 mph x-wind at 500 meters (inches)









Recoil with 9# rifle (ft-lbs)









Momentum at 500m (kg-m/s)









 (sources:, Sierra Reloading Manual, Ballistik Pro ballistic software program)


Based on all the rifles I’ve shot, I decided to limit recoil to 10 ft-lbs or less.  That excludes the .308 and 7-08.  The 260 has phenomenally low wind drift, but its recoil of 13 ft-lbs put it out of contention, too.  Ditto for the 6.5x55.  I‘m willing to sacrifice two or three inches of wind drift at 500 meters for a gun that’s more fun to shoot.

All the .243s I have shot are pleasant, but they are barrel burners and needlessly consume a lot of expensive gunpowder. 

We’re down to three, now.  The 7 BR ranks high on my list for my hunter rifle project, especially with the 168 Sierra Matchking or the 162 Hornady A-Max bullet. The 250 Savage is a contender, too, even though it rarely shows up on the firing line.  A VLD-style bullet would probably make this a much more prevalent cartridge.  Bullet-makers, are you listening?

But the 6 BR caught my attention. It has extremely low recoil and excellent wind drift figures.  Is it enough gun, though?  I’ve spotted for several shooters using the 6 BR in matches. Yes, their rams indeed went down, despite the fact that the 6 BR has the lowest momentum of all cartridges considered. 

A custom barrel plus the necessary gunsmithing is expensive.  Dare I risk a 6 BR?  If I chambered it in 6 BR and it failed to take down rams, I might be able to rechamber to .243, I thought.  As I was contemplating the matter, I ran across moly coated 6mm 107 grain bullets on sale at a price I couldn’t afford to pass up. That sealed the decision.  A 6 BR it would be.  So I purchased about 3,000 bullets, or roughly half the expected life of the barrel.  The project officially commenced.

Beginning with the 3,000 bullet order, I started amassing gun parts for The Perfect hunter silhouette rifle. 

Stay tuned in an upcoming issue for part II of this article, where we select the rifle’s components, bolt everything together and see how the gun shoots.  Does anyone care to take bets on whether it will it knock over rams?

About the author:  Nicholas Papagalos actively competes in rifle silhouette, benchrest, pistol silhouette and bullseye pistol.  When not shooting guns, cleaning guns or reloading for guns, he is president of Papagalos Strategic Communications, an advertising and public relations firm, where he works on clients in the gun business.

 Part I: The hunt for a hunter class rifle.

From forgotten, ugly duckling to high tech competitive shooting machine. The story of putting together a hunter class silhouette rifle.

Part II: The hunt for a hunter class rifle.

Selecting, smithing, assembling and testing the components.  How accurate is it and will it really knock over the rams?


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