Updated: Nov 10
Communicating with people all over the world has been a rewarding “side effect” of ctdshooting. Since launching Connect The Dots, numerous questions about rifle related concepts have entered the inbox. However, it soon became apparent that the correct answer to many of the questions was dependent on the application of the rifle.
Those conversations inspired the idea of the precision ladder. The precision ladder is a metaphor comparing the use of a rifle to the rungs of a ladder. This simple correlation can be used to organize and accurately communicate a plethora of rifle related topics.
In general, the precision requirements for each rung increase as we move up the ladder, hence the name. However, an important concept to keep in mind; verticality does not make one rifle better than another. The ladder is another piece of evidence that rifles can be different, yet equally successful for their intended use.
Starting at the first rung, these rifles are factory, out-of-the box, that are fed preloaded (aka: factory) ammunition. The majority of hunting rifles and “plinking” rifles fit in this category. Pictured is my daughter’s Remington Model 7 chambered in .243. 100% factory and fed factory ammunition. This rifle is what Kennedy uses for coyote and deer hunting.
Moving up the precision ladder are the rifles in which the shooter handloads the ammunition. The rifle and function is essentially the same as rifles on the first rung, with the main difference being the ability to tune using handloads, thus gaining precision. Tom Block's Remington 700 chambered in 30-06 is a perfect example. 100% factory yet I developed a load for this rifle that Tom uses for all of his deer hunting.
Take another step up and we run into the precision rifles. Rifles on this rung are partially or fully custom and are tuned using hand loads. Oftentimes, these are custom hunting rifles or rifles used in tournaments. Shown on the 3rd rung is a TAC action resting in a Bell and Carlson stock with Timney trigger. The Krieger barrel is chambered in 26 Macho; a wildcat Steve Grosvenor and I designed to be used on deer sized game.
At the top of the precision ladder is the tiny group of rifles whose shooting demands the highest degree of precision and accuracy. Largely custom and meticulously tuned to shoot the smallest groups in the world. The sole purpose of these rifles is competition. At the top of my precision ladder is a BAT 3 Lug, Kelbly stock, Jewell trigger, and Krieger barrel chambered in 30 BR. This is my competition rifle used in the Light Varmint Class.
Note: There can be grey area between levels. Rifles that are in this grey area can be classified as +. (example 2+, 3+).
A great example of this is my Remington 788. The factory action and stock (the stock has been stripped and re-stained) keeps it on the second rung. What makes it a + is the Timney trigger and Krieger barrel chambered in .22-250. This rifle’s task is predators and is tuned using handloads.
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At the risk of ruffling some feathers, here is what I would say the average group sizes would be on each rung of the precision ladder. These numbers are not exact and should be used only as a rough guide for you to create your own levels of evaluation.
The values might seem large to some, but keep in mind these would be an average of five-five shot groups at 100 yards. These numbers do not represent the single, 3 shot, wallet group that was shot on a perfect day. Properly tuned and functioning rifles may also shoot bigger than listed, especially when the conditions are rough.
This information can be used to evaluate if the shooter, handoader and/or the rifle is performing the way it should. There could be shooting technique, tuning and/or mechanical issues for rifles that consistently group higher than what is listed.
“Which Lens are You Using”
The important point of this writing is NOT the actual terminology of the rungs. Rather, grasping the concept that there can be different standards and requirements for success on each rung (level, tier, etc). Rifles built for the purpose of one rung may not score the highest when judged against another classification. Identifying the rungs of the precision ladder will allow us to set and meet realistic expectations.
A common mistake shooters make is correctly placing rifles on the appropriate rungs but instead of thinking of a vertical ladder they make a horizontal line with the rifles. The owners then compare a lower level with a higher level rifle. If a fish was judged by how well it could climb trees, the fish would fail miserably. That does not mean the fish is junk or worthless. Simply, the wrong criteria was used to judge that fish. Same is true with rifles. Different rungs have different sets of requirements. The Precision Ladder helps us remember that.
There are lots of examples to illustrate this point; NASCAR versus Indy race cars, sledge versus claw hammers. Maybe the best example would be players on a football team. Offensive lineman need a different body shape and set of skills than defensive backs. Each can be outstanding in their respective position, but switch their roles, and they wouldn’t make the traveling team.
Top rung rifles are designed to shoot groups whose measurement starts with a zero. However, they are also heavy, have wide/flat forends, usually two ounce triggers with no safety, and tolerances so tight that any debris can have a serious impact on how they perform. Take a bench rifle to the treestand and it might earn an "F" on the report card. Matching the rifle up with the intended rung allows us to pick the correct lens to judge the rifle through.
Knowing the rung of the rifle and the desired precision level gives the owner an idea of the time they will spend to achieve their goals. This is similar to drag racing. To make a 14 second car really isn’t that difficult. To get a 10 second car takes a tremendous amount of time and effort.
We can apply the same analogy to our rifles. It is not difficult to get a first rung rifle to shoot a two inch group. However, decrease that group size to half inch and now there is serious work to do. In many situations, getting a first rung rifle to consistently group a half inch will be impossible. It is no fault of the shooter, the rifle itself is the limiting factor. Consider moving up a rung or two if the goal is a 1/2" rifle. Just like every car can not be turned into a ten second car, not every rifle can be made to shoot a 1/2".
I sometimes see this in the competition world. Competitors will spend tremendous amounts of time, effort, and money trying to get a second or third rung rifle to be competitive against a fourth rung rifle. Very seldom do those shooters end up in the winner's circle. They simply are handicapping themselves too much. (A major exception is for the individual who enjoys the challenge of getting the most out of every rifle. More on this later.) The rungs of the precision ladder help us remember that our time is valuable. Spend it wisely.
“I Don’t Have Enough Money to Spend it Twice”
Speaking of spending; deciding which rung the rifle is on can save us money. Unfortunately, I have failed to learn this lesson.
Countless times, I have bought an inexpensive piece of equipment that worked fine for one rung. Yet, when I wanted to move up the ladder, I had to update that piece of equipment. In the end, I had to spend money twice.
The ladder also gives us an idea on how picky we need to be with our equipment choices. There are hundreds of examples, but a quick one is the resizing die. Virtually any mass produced die is going to work great for level two rifles. Moving up the ladder requires a little more planning if we want the rifle to perform at its' potential. By the time we get to the top rung we have entered the realm of custom made dies specific to the chamber.
My suggestion; when there is an internal debate about what rung you are purchasing for, always hedge toward the higher rung. Even if this means waiting while you save some cash. As the saying goes; “Buy once. Cry once.”
Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder
The definition of success is subjective. I mentioned earlier that some competitors handicap themselves too much...that is true only if their definition of success involves displaying some fake wood. If the value is determined by making the rifle shoot the best it can, they may be the most successful people at the match. This example applies to all rifles on all rungs of the ladder.
The definition of success is also individualized. The precision ladder should be used to judge our rifles, not someone else’s. This is incredibly important to remember when discussing rifles with other people. It does not take long to earn a negative reputation when you downgrade someone's favorite rifle.
“Makes an A$$ out of You and Me”
The most important reason for the precision ladder is for proper communication. When questions are asked about shooting techniques, equipment, reloading, etc, the correct answer often depends on which rung the rifle is on. When the level is identified, we can properly convey our experience to help the shooter.
When the level is not clearly stated, it is up to the one answering to assume. Assumptions leave the door wide open to miscommunication. We all know what happens when we assume.
“Moral of the Story”
The moral of the story is to understand each rifle can be placed on a certain rung of the precision ladder. Each rung has a different standard for success. This knowledge will allow us to pick the correct lens to judge our rifle through which can save time and money. Most importantly, using the idea of the precision ladder will help us ask and answer questions more accurately. Until next time, enjoy the experience.