New Standard for Long-Range AR Performance
What comes to mind when someone mentions that they are looking for a specialized long-range precision rifle? By “long-range,” we are talking about 800 yards plus. No offense intended to the .308Win, but 800 yards and beyond is a realm best served by cartridges that push high ballistic coefficient bullets downrange. A decision will need to be made in terms of the role/mission this rifle will satisfy. The benefits of calibers other than .50BMG are immediately obvious: both the weapon and ammunition become more portable, thanks to their reduced size and weight. The type of rifle will also have to be decided—bolt-action or semi-automatic?
Frankly, the accuracy potential of a quality AR-10-type weapon often matches or exceeds that of a bolt-action. Over the last few years, the AR-10-type rifle has evolved to escape the limitations of the .308Win cartridge (its most popular chambering). This is all thanks to cartridges that have been developed to fit into the footprint of the .308Win while offering vast improvements in ballistic performance.
Identifying the “perfect” rifle and cartridge combination is the impetus of many gun designers and manufacturers. The basis of this search is often adapting military-pattern weapons and calibers. In so doing, industry takes advantage of the time and effort expended by various nations’ armed forces, which have done the initial legwork to discover what works in terms of reliability and effectiveness. This is not to say that military weapons are to be blindly followed as the optimum development of a rifle, just that millions of dollars and countless hours of research and development should not be ignored as a starting place. For example, the AR platform has expanded beyond Stoner’s expectations in terms of adaptability and flexibility. The modular nature of the design and advances in CNC machine technology allow for rails and other enhancements beyond what could have been imagined 50+ years ago.
It is no secret that the AR is the best-selling civilian and law enforcement rifle in the U.S. This has caused many manufacturers to jump on the AR bandwagon in recent years by offering their versions. Savage did not enter into the AR market without serious forethought and conscious efforts to separate their MSR (Modern Savage Rifle) AR from other offerings in a cluttered market. When Savage Arms introduced its lineup of AR-style rifles early in 2017, AR-15 and AR-10 style models were included. The MSR 10 Hunter and MSR 10 Long Range’s initial chamberings were .308Win (a given) and—more excitingly—the 6.5 Creedmoor. Savage ARs are direct-impingement-operated semi-automatics.
Not so long ago, most sought to “improve” the AR platform by developing piston-driven ARs as successors to Stoner’s original gas-impingement design. Whether or not piston-driven ARs are superior to their gas impingement brethren often generates heated discussion. However, the market has spoken, and direct-impingement-operated ARs have reasserted their place as the dominant method. Savage decided to up the ante with the AR by taking the alternative route of cartridge enhancement in the form of the 6.5 Creedmoor.
The 6.5 Creedmoor was created by Hornady in 2007 for long-range target shooting. Hornady designers exploited the compact, efficient cartridge concept by using the .30TC case as its basis. The .30TC evolved from the .308Win. The 6.5 Creedmoor typifies the short and efficient cartridge principle. The reputation of the 6.5mm cartridge for a high ballistic coefficient (BC) rating as well as sectional density (SD) while firing 120–140-grain bullets has always also attracted hunters and tactical/target shooters. It is hard to beat 130-grain bullets moving at 3,000 feet per second. SD is the ratio of a bullet’s mass to its cross-section. All things being equal, a cartridge with a high SD penetrates better than one with a low SD. BC is a measurement of how well a bullet moves through the air. Higher BC ratings mean that velocity loss and the impact of wind drift are minimized as the round travels downrange. The final sweetener is having to deal with only moderate recoil. Why deal with the retina-detaching recoil associated with heavier rounds fired at similar speeds if you don’t have to?
Savage has two MSR 10 models currently in the lineup: the Hunter and Long Range. Each are offered in .308Win or 6.5 Creedmoor chambering. The Long Range is the focus of this review. A quick tale of the tape leaves no doubt that the Savage MSR 10 LR is not a walk-around-and-stalk type of weapon. The MSR 10 Hunter would be your candidate for this, weighing less than 8 pounds. When empty, the Savage MSR 10 LR rifle weighs 10 pounds and measures 43 5/8 inches with a 22-inch barrel.
The barrel features 1:8RH 5R button rifling. 5R rifling was developed by Barrett “Boots” Obermeyer. 5R differs from conventional rifling by changing the shape and configuration of the lands and grooves; it uses five lands and grooves versus the more common four or six land/groove profile. This puts lands opposite to grooves. Another tweak is that the transition from the top of the land to the groove is sloped. 5R reduces the deformation of the projectile as it passes through the bore during the firing sequence. A more uniform projectile means better accuracy. 5R rifling is easier to clean and less prone to accuracy-robbing fouling. All of this is more than just theoretical; 5R rifling has developed a dedicated following among target shooters who swear by it.
Savage, a Vista Outdoor company, utilizes sister company BLACKHAWK!’s AR Blaze two-stage target trigger and Knoxx AR pistol grip. A Magpul PRS Gen3 stock and free-float M-LOK handguard serve as furniture. The wonderful Magpul PMAG 20 LR/SR GEN M3 magazine feeds 6.5 Creedmoor as well as .308Win thanks to similar case dimensions. The Magpul PMAG 20 has become the industry standard for AR-10-type rifles. Further Savage tweaks with the MSR 10 LR include an adjustable rifle-length direct-impingement gas system accessible from the forend. The MSR 10 LR is distinguished by custom-forged upper/lower receivers with a non-reciprocating side charging handle to augment the traditional charging handle above the receiver. Exposed metal is coated with a matte black hard coat after anodizing the aluminum receivers and forend. The barrel interior receives a Melonite QPQ finish. This is a thermochemical nitrocarburizing process that produces a finish harder than chrome and a lower coefficient of friction that provides both long-lasting wear and corrosion resistance.
The third part of the accuracy triumvirate is a quality optic to go along with the cartridge and rifle. Another Vista Outdoor company was turned to for a suitable optic. A Bushnell Elite Tactical XRS II 4.5-30×50 optic was mated to the upper receiver rail with 34mm rings. The XRS II features a G3 illuminated reticle, with other patterns available based on user preference. The XRS II is Bushnell’s flagship optic. The 4.5-30x zoom is impressive, and the 50mm objective lens aids in acquiring and identifying targets at extreme distances. The XRS II is not your grandpa’s Bushnell; it is comparable to other world class optics. The Bushnell XRS II can be fitted to the biggest magnum boomers, due to the constant 3.74-inch eye relief at all magnifications. The Bushnell’s tough construction deals perfectly with the inertial forces experienced during recoil. Making adjustments is a simple and accurate process, with a lockable windage turret and an elevation turret featuring a RevLimiter Zero Stop that will not turn past zero. Meanwhile, 10 milliradians per revolution for the elevation and windage turrets allows for exact and quick adjustments. All of this lends itself well to long-range shooting adjustments.
The Bushnell XRS II features multi-coated Extra Low Dispersion (ED) glass. Based on research for this article, ED glass prevents or lessens chromatic aberration, because it concentrates and directs the wavelengths of light more effectively. Generally speaking, the better the aberrations are controlled the cleaner and brighter the image will appear. This is especially important for long-range, high-magnification observation. ED glass is usually reserved for premium optics due to its cost. Other notable Bushnell characteristics incorporated into the XRS II optic are its first focal plane reticle, its locking diopter that ensures the scope’s focus, its Throwhammer removable lever that enables quick magnification changes and its EXO Barrier coating, which is molecularly bonded to the glass and repels water, oil, fog, dust and debris. The point is that the Bushnell XRS II is a good fit for the long-range 6.5 Creedmoor Savage MSR 10 LR.
The Savage MSR 10 LR was initially sighted in at Echo Valley Training Center’s (EVTC’s) Range #2 with a 100-yard zero. Different 6.5 Creedmoor loads were fired from the bench to determine a base accuracy level. Various loads from Hornady and Federal consisted of a mix of hunting and match loads to illustrate the ballistic flexibility inherent in the 6.5 Creedmoor. These specific loads were Federal 120-grain Trophy Copper, Gold Medal Berger 130-grain Hybrid Match and Gold Medal 140-grain Sierra MatchKing. Hornady offerings were represented by 129-grain SST, 140-grain ELD Match and 120-grain GMX. This is just a small splattering of the 6.5 Creedmoor loads available from each company, with other companies offering even more. Overall, the accuracy was impressive, with no load producing groups over 1MOA at 100 yards and some bordering on ½ inch. The BLACKHAWK! two-stage trigger was superior to any MIL-SPEC trigger. The only thing that sat badly with me was the pistol grip. Nothing was fundamentally wrong with it. It just did not fit my hand in the way I preferred. Not a big deal, as this part is easily switched out by an end user.
Witnessing the accuracy achieved from the bench caused a break in the typical protocol; the 300-yard stepped berm range was skipped, and I moved directly to the EVTC 600-yard Known Distance Range. EVTC is properly set up to handle extensive test firing of a precision tactical rifle like the Savage MSR 10 LR. As expected, recoil was minimal with the MSR 10 LR, due to its weight of over 14 pounds with ammunition and an optic. It was possible to spot your own trace and bullet strike on steel. It proved very feasible to place multiple rounds on man-sized steel rapidly at a distance of 500 yards. At times, it seemed that a round was still in the air, with the previous shot making the steel target ring out on impact.
Another interesting observation was just how easy the Bushnell XRS II G3 reticle made hitting targets at a distance. The benefit of holding directly on target after dialing in the correct adjustment is obvious. However, the ability to place an appropriate hash mark on the target is invaluable if in a hurry or in a target-rich environment with opportunities presenting themselves at various distances. The XRS II G3 reticle is also a great tool for estimating range to a target. A favorite reactive target has always been the dastardly 4 ½-inch-diameter clay pigeon. A 100-yard zero easily translated into holding the correct hash mark below the main horizontal wire directly on target, causing easy hits at 300 and 500 yards. While the rifle certainly cannot be considered svelte when married with an optic and loaded 20-round magazine, the Savage MSR 10 LR was more than manageable while carrying and when engaging targets from the standing or kneeling position. After all, it is an AR, which is renowned for basic ergonomics.
Many contend that the 6.5 Creedmoor chambered in an accurate semi-automatic like the MSR 10 LR is clearly superior to the .308Win for long-range personnel interdiction because of better ballistics, reduced recoil and power delivered downrange. In the same vein, the semi-automatic MSR 10 LR offers other advantages relative to a bolt-action rifle. A powerful accurate rifle like the MSR 10 LR capable of fast follow-up shots from its 20-shot magazine is invaluable. Yes, first round hits are paramount. However, do not underestimate the importance of fast follow-up shots after observing initial impact or if more targets are available. A trained marksman will definitely be able to put to good use the ballistic advantages offered by the 6.5 Creedmoor MSR 10 LR thanks to its precision long-range semi-automatic firepower.
Sites of Interest
Echo Valley Training Center