Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A few (thousand) words on "Ultimate Weapons - Top Ten Sniper Rifles"

So, I recently watched the History Channels "Ultimate Weapons: Top Ten Sniper Rifles"; and as is usually the case with "Ultimate Weapons", I was distinctly unimpressed with their rankings, listings, decisions and decision making processes.

Actually, I think their ranking criteria were generally good, but when you see just how they ranked things...

Those criteria were:
  • Portability
  • Rate of Fire
  • Accuracy
  • Range
  • Stopping Power
Frankly, when evaluating sniper rifles the only other major TECHNICAL category I would include would be reliability; but I would also have to include service history and record, when judging "ultimate" or "top ten".

The real problem I have, is what rifles they chose to include, and how they ranked them.

Ok so before I get into my own personal analysis of their ratings (and then giving my own), let me present their list and rankings without comment:

10. Knights Armament M110 (also known as the SR-25)

  • Portability: 3

  • Rate of Fire: 4

  • Accuracy: 4

  • Range: 3

  • Stopping power: 2
9. LWRC (Leitner-Weise) SABR 308

  • Portability: 5

  • Rate of Fire: 3

  • Accuracy: 3

  • Range: 3

  • Stopping power: 2
8. McMillan Tac 50

  • Portability: 3

  • Rate of Fire: 2

  • Accuracy: 5

  • Range: 5

  • Stopping power: 4
7. Tactical Rifles M40-A5 in 6.5x47 lapua

  • Portability: 3

  • Rate of Fire: 3

  • Accuracy: 5

  • Range: 4

  • Stopping power: 3
6. Desert Tactical Arms Steath Recon Scout

  • Portability: 5

  • Rate of Fire: 2

  • Accuracy: 4

  • Range: 4

  • Stopping power: 4
5. Accuracy International AS-50

  • Portability: 4

  • Rate of Fire: 5

  • Accuracy: 3

  • Range: 5

  • Stopping power: 5
4. Barrett Model 99 in .416 Barrett

  • Portability: 2

  • Rate of Fire: 2

  • Accuracy: 4

  • Range: 5

  • Stopping power: 5
3. Accuracy International AWSM (Arctic Warfare Super Magnum in .338 lapua)

  • Portability: 4

  • Rate of Fire: 2

  • Accuracy: 5

  • Range: 4

  • Stopping power: 4
2. Barrett M82/M107

  • Portability: 3

  • Rate of Fire: 3

  • Accuracy: 3

  • Range: 5

  • Stopping power: 5
1. CheyTac M200 Intervention LRSS

  • Portability: 4

  • Rate of Fire: 3

  • Accuracy: 5

  • Range: 5

  • Stopping power: 5

First thing I should note is, I have fired either the exact rifle in question, or a similar variant, of all but two of these rifles (the AI AS50, and the Desert Tactial).

Though I am by no means a military sniper, I AM an experienced intermediate and long range shooter. I have regularly shot at 600 and 800 yards, and occasionally shot at 1000 yards; and I am working on building a 1000 yard rifle for tactical shooting competitions, so I can regularly shoot at 1000 yard ranges.

Also, I know, have shot with, and have had some very long discussions regarding their profession with, several active and retired military snipers; and a larger number of long range rifle shooters.

Based on this, and on a large body of personal research, I have written extensively on the subjects of sniping, snipers equipment, long range shooting, and long range rifles.

There are a few folks out there in the gun blogging community (including some of my readers and friends) more qualified to comment on this subject than I; but I don't think anyone would say I wasn't a well qualified expert on this subject. I am more than just an enthusiastic amateur here.

Let the savaging begin...

Numbers 10 and 9, the Knights M110 and LWRC SABR 308:

Now, first things first, the M110 and the SABR are functionally nearly identical, depending on how the individual operator kits each out. They are both AR-10 designs, with 20" heavy barrels; it's just the SABR has a 12" upper as an accessory, so you can mission transition the weapon in the field easily. Of course, you could do the same thing with an M110. I know guys who've got short uppers for their SR-25s.

As with the other times I've reviewed the "ultimate weapons" or "top tens", I automatically disqualify any more than one of the items that is essentially the same design. There can be only one of each basic design in the list.

But it gets worse. They rate the SABR as 5 in portability, when in actuality, if you're going to carry both uppers into the field, it's LESS portable than the M110. If you're only carrying the 20" its the same portability. If you're only carrying the 12" sure, its more portable, but the accuracy and range go way down.

Then, for some reason, they mark the SABR down as having a lower rate of fire than the M110... When they use the same basic operating mechanism (though the SABR is piston operated, while the M110 is direct gas impingement), and the SABR has a handguard and barrel better suited for rapid fire heat dissipation.

They DO mark the SABR down 1 for accuracy, which is probably correct since it is biased towards modularity, and reliability, over accuracy; and because it's a piston based AR, making it slightly less accurate inherently. Actually, it's more like a half point difference, but there are no halves in this game.

Both get marked down on range and stopping power, being 7.62x51 based rifles; as they should be, at least in comparison to other sniping cartridges, such as .300wm, .338 lapua, .408 CheyTac, .416 Barrett, or .50bmg.

Oh and for both, the show said that the AR-10 was based on the M16... A major case of Did Not Do The Research (in case you don't know, it's the other way around. The M16 is a reduced size and power version of the original AR-10 design).

Do I think the AR-10 should be in the top ten of sniper rifles? Sure. It's doing the job every day in the field right now, and it's doing it better than any but the best hand built/rebuilt M14s did. Its just silly how they presented it here.

Number 8, the McMillan Tac-50:

I have no objection to the McMillan Tac-50 being on this list. I've fired one. I'd buy one. If I had to depend on a rifle making a kill shot at over 1200m, it would be one of my top choices.  It's a great rifle, a great design, and a great company.

Finally, it's got one of the longest confirmed kills on record (Canadian Cpl. Rob Furlongs 2,430m kill in Afghanistan), and one of the longest histories of established performance; with variants dating back to the Mid 80s. I would wager it's the number three .50 cal individual rifle for confirmed kills (behind Barrett and Accuracy International).

What gets me, is how they rate it the same portability as the M110? It's almost fifty percent longer, and more than twice the weight. One or the other is rated improperly. Same thing for stopping power; there are .50 cal rifles here rated as 4, and some using the same chambering rated as 5. Given that all the .50 cal rifles here have similar length barrels, there really shouldn't be any difference between them.

Number 7, the M40-A5 in 6.5 lapua:

I also have no objection the the Marines M40 rifle as a whole. It's an excellent rifle, and counting all variants over its service history (of more than 40 years), it probably has more confirmed kills than any other 7.62x51 sniper rifle (though the M24, M21, and AI family are all going to be contenders for that number as well).

...but why pick the -A5 variant in 6.5x47 Lapua?

The M40 is a long running series of Remington 40x short action based rifles, with custom bottom metal in McMillan stocks. The A5 is a modification of the now 15 year old A3 configuration, using Badger Bottom metal with a 5rd box, a 24" Schneider barrel with a 1-12 twist (optimized for 168gr bullets), and a McMillan A5 variant stock with a new rail system (with integral NVD mounts) and muzzle brake. However, the standard issue chambering is 7.62x51 nato. I have never even heard of it being issued in 6.5 lapua.

The standard issue M40 actions are built by Remington (as custom shop 40x actions, NOT Rem 700 actions as is said in the show; though the 40x is a 700 type action, it isn't actually a 700), and then the components are shipped to the Marine Corp marksmanship unit armorers; who blueprint the actions, assemble the components for each rifle (unlike the Army M24 which is delivered to the Army fully assembled, with scope, by Remington), and do their own riflesmithing; including hand selecting, crowning, threading, mounting and lapping barrels to actions and bolts. As far as I know every single one of them is chambered in 7.62x51 nato (they have a separate rifle using a long magnum action for .300wm, and .338 lapua chamberings. It's the same basic rifle as the M40 but isn't designated as such).

Tactical Rifles is a great company. I've done business with them, and I wouldn't hesitate to do so again. If you want an out of the box sniper rifle you don't have to mess with, they're one of the best choices to buy it from. As far as I know though, they are not making any M40s for the Corps.

As to chambering in 6.5 lapua, the only reason I can think to do that is for tactical competition, because I'm damn sure the Marine Corps isn't issuing anything in that chambering. It's a great chambering (especially for long range competition shooting), but it is NOT a military chambering; nor is it a chambering I believe any sniper would carry into action, because of supply issues. You can always get 7.62x51, you aren't going to be able to get 6.5x47 Lapua in a constrained supply situation.

All that said, I don't have a major issue with their ratings. Just a little quibble, because they don't give half points.

In 6.5 Lapua, you're going to get more retained energy downrange, a better .bc, a higher velocity, and a slightly more accurate chambering than 7.62x51, in a slightly more inherently accurate platform than the M110... For accuracy, maybe it should be a 4, maybe a 5. If I had the option I'd give it a 4.5 not a 5, but I won't quibble.

Same thing on range and on stopping power. It's probably a bit better than 7.62... certainly at extreme range it will be harder hitting and more accurate, though enough to push it one full rank higher... probably not.

Number Six, the Desert Tactical Recon Scout

You might think I would have a problem with it being a bullpup. Nope, I don't. Actually I think sniper rifles are one of the use cases where bullpups make sense. The weapon is 10" to 12" shorter than a conventional rifle with the same length barrel; and when you are using 24" barrels or longer for .338 lapua, that's a big advantage.

Also, it's nice that it's a modular weapon, with changeable barrels and chamberings. I don't like that it requires tools to take it down, but for a sniper system that's less of an issue than on a battle rifle or assault rifle; and it only requires tools for full takedown, not for a field strip.

In .338 Lapua., I take no issue with their ratings. If the weapon is built to proper standards (and I have no reason to suspect it isn't), then those ratings should be correct.

The only issue I have here, is that there is no history. Nobody issues this weapon. No forces I know of have purchased this weapon. The company itself didn't even have a web site until late 2008. They've only got 18 authorized dealers (several of which are very good companies I wouldn't hesitate to do business with though).

I think it's probably a good weapon; but I can't agree with putting any untried weapon in any kind of "top" list.

Number Five, the Accuracy International AS-50

Accuracy International on the other hand, has a relatively long, and very distinguished history. Simply put, they are one of the best, if not the best, company in the sniper rifle business (well... at least as far as the actual rifles goes. They aren't exactly very good at staying in business).

The AS-50 is an excellent design, with guaranteed 1.5moa accuracy at 1500m, and it takes down in 30 seconds without tools. It isn't as accurate as some other .50 cal sniper rifles, but it has a VERY high rate of fire (if it were belt fed, it would run 800rpm), it's considerably lighter than comparable .50 cal semiautomatic rifles but because of its operating mechanism there is generally less felt recoil, it is EXTREMELY reliable, and is just generally very effective.

It's also ungodly expensive, and very rare (production numbers are not released, but best guess, there's less than 500 out there, there may be less than 200), with only a five year operational history (though I understand it was actually in development and testing with SEALS from around 2001, and internally long before that).

Based on that short history, I don't know if I could put it on a list I was making, but I'm willing to give it a shot here.

I have two quibbles with their ratings. First, they give it a 4 for portability... It's more portable than some .50 cals, but no gun thats 54" long and weighs more than 30lbs can get a 4 out of 5 for portability, even if it takes down into two pieces (both of which are as long as a normal rifle... especially when they only gave the M40 and M110 ratings of 3). Also I have to say, that with a 3 accuracy, a 5 range doesn't mean much... and I don't think 1.5moa at 1500 is a 3, I think it's a 4.

Number Four, the Barrett Model 99

Barrett would be the other top choice for a .50 cal semi-auto sniper rifle, or even a bolt action repeater like the Model 95...

...So its kind of odd that they chose to represent the company here with the Model 99, a SINGLE SHOT COMPETITION RIFLE, in a chambering other than .50; the .416 Barrett, which was primarily created to get around civilian .50 cal bans in California and elsewhere.

Is it a good weapon? Absolutely. Is it an accurate weapon? Certainly.

It is not a military weapon.

It is not a sniper rifle.

It is a single shot competition rifle, for long range tactical competition.

It's 5 round box magazine repeater actioned brother the Model 95 IS a military rifle; in fact it is being purchased and issued by several military forces around the world, including several units in the U.S. military. THAT might make some sense to put on this list... the model 99 does not.

The .416 Barrett is an excellent chambering. Although it was created primarily for the purpose of circumventing .50 cal bans, the .416 is actually substantially more ballistically efficient than the .50bmg; so it is generally more accurate, and even though it is smaller and lighter, it actually has greater power at all but the most extreme range, against soft targets.

Unfortunately, because it has considerably lower mass,  it has a small wind drift disadvantage and is not suitable as an anti-materiel round to as long a range as high precision .50bmg.

What it comes down to though, is that with no magazine and a hard to supply chambering, this is not a military sniper rifle, or a military snipers cartridge.

The ratings are probably right, though if they're going to give any of the big bores a 5 in accuracy (and they do with the McMillan big .50) this rifle probably also deserves a 5; and it's rate of fire should probably be a 1, since it is a single shot rifle with no magazine (which makes it more accurate, but less suitable as a military weapon).

Number Three, the Accuracy International AWSM

Back to Accuracy International for their AWSM... and this weapon belongs on the list, no doubt. I wouldn't put it at number 3, but it's certainly a top ten sniper weapon. It is incredibly accurate, reliable and rugged, well designed, ergonomic, well made, and it's in the best long range soft target military chambering there is, .338 Lapua magnum.

AI makes several rifles of this same basic design family, which is a custom manufactured Remington 700 style action, with a lot of differences (it's sufficiently different that I wouldn't group it in with other Rem 700 type rifles like the M40 and M24). They make it (or have made it. I'm not sure what is currently in production) in four sizes, depending on the chambering (from 7.62x51, all the way up to their .50 cal bolt action); with stocks and accessories to match, some of which fold, and/or take down.

Realistically, for the purposes of this list, this rifle represents the whole family of AI rifles of similar design; and it can be fairly said, this is the most accurate, and best all around chambering, in the best featured model, of the line.

It's got the longest service history of any .338 Lapua rifle in military service (it was the first widely issued .338 Lapua military rifle), and it's got more confirmed kills than any other .338 in military service. It's the standard issue large caliber (as in over .300wm) sniper rifle for more militaries than any other (and including the other chamberings in the family, it is the sniper rifle issued as standard by more different militaries than any other... Though part of that is because it's the official choice of the UK, and most of the nations they support militarily. The U.S. focuses much more on either dedicated anti-materiel work with Barrett .50s, or lighter sniper cartridges like the 7.62x51 or .300wm).

In .338 Lapua, I have no quibble with any of the ratings, except to note they gave a single shot bolt action .50 a 2, and I think the mag fed bolt action .338s should be a 3 in comparison (but as I said above, I think the M99 should really be rated 1 in ROF not 2).

Number 2, the Barrett M82/M107

And we see-saw back to Barrett, for the M82/M107, the first standard issue .50 cal sniper rifle for any military, and the very first semi-automatic .50cal sniper rifle.

Prior to the Barrett, there had been some custom made .50 bolt rifles out there, and a few people had converted some .50 cal machine guns for sniping use (including notably, Carlos Hathcock); but in 1982 Ronnie Barrett released the first dedicated purpose produced .50bmg sniper weapon, with the M82.

This is the big daddy. There is no question, it is the number one .50 cal sniper rifle of all time. It has been in service for almost 30 years, with a spectacular record of success. It has more confirmed kills than any other .50 cal sniper rifle; and has more long distance vehicle kills, remote detonations, and other anti-materiel missions than ANY other individual rifle (as in non-crew served, man portable rifle)

The M107 is guaranteed under 2moa accurate to at least 2000m (most samples are 1moa or less out to 1500m with Barretts own match grade ammo), and it even has a suppressor for it (it's more than two feet long, but it works really well to reduce the signature of the shot. The earlier M82 models were incompatible with suppressors due to the HUGE and awkwardly shaped - but very effective - muzzle brake).

Again, the problem I have with their ratings is relative to the other .50s. The M107 is an accurate gun (as accurate as any .50bmg semi-auto can be anyway), and should be rated 4 not 3. On the other hand, it is 57" long, weighs 31lbs, and does not take down for carriage; it should be a 1 or 2 for portability.

Number One, the CheyTac Intervention M200 LRSS

Ooooh boy... I have real problems with this one.

Ok, the rifle is an excellent rifle, no doubt... but for one thing, it isn't actually a CheyTac. CheyTac doesn't make their own rifles, it's actually an EDM Windrunner sold under CheyTacs private label.

The rifle is guaranteed sub MOA to 2000 meters when using their ammo. There is no other company that will make that claim. It can generally achieve under 1.5 MOA to 3000 meters, if wind conditions allow it.

There's a reason for that. The rifle basically consists of a very long, very heavy barrel, bolted into solid machined aluminum and steel, with a trigger, handgrip, and a buttpad grafted on. EVERYTHING on this rifle is precision machined metal.

The .408 is an excellent chambering. It is possibly the most ballistically efficient extreme range chambering there is (almost certainly the most efficient relatively widely available chambering. There are some rare wildcats which may be better); and with the high BC bullets at high velocity that it shoots, it is more accurate, and carries more energy out to 2500 yards than a .50bmg.

To my knowledge, there is no regular production big bore rifle that is capable of greater accuracy at range, or greater range at 1moa accuracy, than the CheyTac; or rather, the EDM windrunner in .408 CheyTac.

The ratings... again I see no reason why the portability of this 53" long 31lb rifle should be anything other than a 1 or a 2, especially when they gave rifles with identical measurements lower ratings (though it does take down for transport). I see no reason why the rate of fire should be a 3 when they gave a semi-auto .308 a 3, and all the other big bore bolties a 2.

The show made a big deal out of how CheyTac offered a fully integrated system, with specially selected optics, accessories, ammunition, a ballistic calculator etc... But in reality, you can do that with any weapons system. This isn't really an inherent advantage to CheyTac.

My real problem though, is CheyTac the company, and the history of the weapon.

The CheyTac has been tested, and rejected, by every major special operations force in the world except Poland and Turkey (the only acknowledged military customers); not because it isn't an excellent weapon, but because it isn't a reliable company for military supply.

That doesn't mean there aren't CheyTac rifles out there in service; but they aren't a standard issue or standard procurement item.

As I said, CheyTac doesn't manufacture their own weapons. The CheyTac rifle is actually an EDM windrunner. EDM is basically one guy in Utah, Bill Ritchie. As of late 2009, I believe that EDM has severed their relationship with CheyTac, and I don't know who is currently manufacturing the rifle for CheyTac, if anyone. There are a couple other manufacturers who have licensed the design however, and of course CheyTac has a license for their own specific variant. Also, EDM is still making the windrunner, including variants in .408 CheyTac.

CheyTac also doesn't manufacture their own bullets for their proprietary chambering, they WERE made by Lost River Ballistic Technologies, which was a 2 man company before they recently folded. I don't know who CheyTac has manufacturing their bullets now, but last I heard they were still loading from their existing stock of lost river bullets.

CheyTac themselves employ about a dozen ... maybe.... because at times it has been reported they have been up to over 50 people, and at times have been two people... The "about a dozen" is speculation based on people who have recently done business with them.

What I can confirm, is that over the last 10 years, they have employed, and then either terminated, or had leave on them, over a dozen highly respected people from the long range shooting community; most of whom say they would never do business with the company again.

At one point, they took the position that they were not going to sell their "system" to civilians. That caused massive backlash and they quickly backpedaled.

Overall, CheyTac has a horrible reputation in the long range shooting community for poor customer service, and extremely long delays in delivery; with orders frequently taking over a year to deliver.

I personally have never dealt with the company (though I have shot a Windrunner in .408 and quite liked it), so I can't directly confirm the above; but these reports come from people I trust.

There is simply no way that a large military could deploy the CheyTac system; because it couldn't be supplied. There couldn't be enough rifles made, nor enough ammo made, to do so.

I understand there are a few dozen CheyTac rifles out there in JSOC land, but I haven't been able to confirm any use in action, or any known confirmed kills (I have unconfirmed reports, but nothing I can count on).

Based on this history, there is no way I could put this rifle on any top ten or ultimate kind of list.

Now the even more controversial bit, MY pics for top ten:

Alright, as I mentioned above, I believe I need to add another criteria, and that's history. I don't see how one can meaningfully evaluate something as an "ultimate" without looking at its record.

Yes, I have no doubt that the  .408 CheyTac is both more accurate, and more powerful, than any sniper rifle in .30-06 or .303 British. Based on history alone however I can't rate it over either the M1903 Springfield sniper variants, which were in active service from 1914 until 1969; or the SMLE Enfield Sniper variants, which have been in service since 1914, and are STILL IN SERVICE TODAY, nearly 100 years later.

That said, history isn't everything.

Based on both length of service, and on the number of confirmed kills, by far the most successful sniper rifle of all time is the M1891 Mosin Nagant. The basic rifle went into service 120 years ago, and is STILL the most common purpose built sniper weapon used by our enemies in Afghanistan. It almost certainly accounts for more confirmed kills than all other purpose built sniper weapons COMBINED; if only because of the winter war, and the Russo German campaign of WW2.

Based on those factors, it has to be on the list...


There is no way I would put it any higher than say 3rd; because compared to just about every other sniper weapon ever made, it is horrendously inaccurate and imprecise. The reason it has been as successful a weapon as it has, is because there are simply more of them out there, for longer, than any other purpose built sniper weapon; and because Soviet tactics for sniping emphasize getting an advantageous position at short range, to maximize the strengths, and minimize the weaknesses of the weapon.

The Finnish national hero Simo Hayha for example, universally credited as the most successful sniper of all time; made the majority of his confirmed kills at less than 80 meters (and all of his confirmed kills were under 300 meters. All but 20 or so under 200 meters) with an iron sighted Mosin Nagant rifle, or a Suomi submachine gun; using concealment, stalking skills learned as a hunter, the cover of darkness, and sheer balls.

Hayha killed between 500 and 800 Russians (505 or 542 claimed confirmed depending on the source, about 200-300 claimed uncomfirmed), all but 50 or so engaged individually or in small groups (those 50 or so he killed in two blitz attacks using a submachine gun), almost all at night,  in weather ranging from zero, to 20 below zero Fahrenheit, and all in less than 100 days.

On his 99th day in combat, half his face was shot off. He recovered, went on to train snipers for the Finnish army, and then was a professional hunter for the remainder of his life.

It's not the rifle that makes the sniper, it's the skillset, and the heart.

Also I need to discount history entirely for one weapon; the AK47.

What? Waitasec, why are the words "sniper" and "AK", even mentioned in the same paragraph never mind sentence?

... Because if you go by the role, rather than by the weapon; the most successful sniper weapon of all time is the AK-47 and its variants.

A sniper is someone who engages individual combatants, at medium to long ranges, from concealment; choosing targets for maximum effect, and not engaging in general infantry combat except at last resort. That is a role, not a weapons system. As I said above, its the skills, the role, and the hear (or the balls if you will) that make a sniper, not the weapons system.

If you look at the history of warfare since WW2, more combatants have fulfilled that role using the AK-47, than any other weapon. Much as I said with the Mosin, it's most likely true that the AK has been used by combatants in that role more than with all other weapons (certainly more than purpose built weapons systems), and most likely with more kills than all other weapons used in that role, combined.

That's why I used the caveat "purpose built sniper weapon" above.

That said, there is no way I can, with a straight face, refer to the AK47 as a sniper rifle; no matter how often it has been used in that role.

So, what's my list?

Ok, here goes:
10. HK G3 system rifles, including the PSG1
9. Dragunov SVD
8.  AR10 platform rifles
7. Barret M82/107
6. M14 based rifles, including the M21
5. Remington 700 family based rifles, including the M24 and M40
4. AI bolt action family rifles, in all chamberings
3. Mosin platform rifles
2. Enfield based rifles, including the L39 and L42
1. Mauser 98 action and DIRECT clones including the 1903 Springfield
Yes, I'm cheating a BIT in grouping so many rifles into families; but not too much. They are substantially identical within families so at that point you're quibbling over small details; which is why I didn't group the 700s in with the mausers, and why I separate out the Accuracy Internationals.

If you wanted to get very broad, the Mauser, 1903, Rem 700, and AI rifles are all Mauser based actions; but the 700 is enough of a development from the Mauser to classify it separately (though the Winchester Model 70 probably isn't, and the Springfield 1903 definitely isn't), and the AI is enough of a development from the 700 to classify IT separately.

Debate and discuss...