I am happy to report that after what felt like forever, my “long range mountain rifle” is complete. It was really a pretty quick build but, like with a watched pot, anticipation always makes the wait seem much longer than it actually is.
In the last installment, the gun was near completion and we were making decisions about the optic. I call this a “long range mountain rifle” which is somewhat counterintuitive. Long range guns tend to be pretty heavy and mountain rifles should be ultra-light. This gun was to be fairly light, but capable of consistently hitting targets well beyond hunting distances. With a long action magnum round and a 26” barrel, the tendency is for a heavy gun. I had to pay special attention to the details to make the gun fairly light, without compromising on accuracy. A Titanium action by Pierce Engineering in Lansing, MI., and a carbon fiber stock by AG Composites provided zero compromise light-weighting. The only place that I won’t go to extremes on weight savings is the barrel and while the long Stainless tube from Hart Barrels is fluted to minimize weight and for heat dissipation, the barrel started out at .050” larger diameter that a standard Remington sporter barrel, which is a hell of a lot heavier than a typical pencil thin mountain rifle barrel.
In keeping with the light weight, zero compromise theme, our optic had to be up to the task of hitting long range targets, without being an unwieldy boat anchor. For a pure long distance gun I would probably have gone with something in 5-25 power range. I have another long range 7mm mag with a Leupold MKIV-LRT – 5-25 and it’s an awesome and accurate set-up, but it’s not light and for a hunting rifle it’s a bit overkill. 5 power as the lowest setting can be too much if a close shot presents itself. We compared many scopes for this project but based on past performance, durability, weight, value and features we chose another Leupold.
The Leupold VX-6 3-18×44 CDS ZL2 ILL TMOA side focus, made the cut. Now that’s a lot of numbers and letters so let’s break it down. VX-6 for a multiplier of 6 in the magnification range, thus 3-18. 44mm for the diameter of the objective lens housing, which is lighter and more compact than a larger 50mm objective version. At just 19oz., this scope is a lot lighter than most “high power” scopes in the 25 power range. CDS denotes that this scope includes a custom drop-compensating elevation turret which you can order, for free, matched to your exact load, to include muzzle velocity, bullet weight and drag coefficient, temperature where you’ll be hunting and the average altitude of your shooting location, all of which are very important in long range shooting. CDS dials are one of the best innovations since sliced bread. Leupold has led the industry with a huge array of extremely high quality scopes, at various price points, that can be easily acquired with CDS dials. Making long shots has never been easier, thanks in large part to Leupold’s innovations. ZL2 denotes a “zero-lock” on the turret, and 2 turns of elevation adjustment, which is a ton that should easily provide for more than 1,000 yards of “dial-to-range” capability in most hunting rounds. The push button “return to zero” feature is ideal so that you’ll never take a shot with a scope dial that was accidentally “bumped” or mis-adjusted. If a long shot presents itself, a quick push of a button allows you to dial the exact range required. After the shot, a quick return to zero puts you right back to your known zero, which you choose and set based on your preferences. I set mine at 200 yds. ILL TMOA stands for “illuminated, tactical minute of angle”. Why did I choose this reticle? Well of the huge variety of reticles that Leupold offers this one provides versatility and redundancy, …and I’ve never tried it before. I have many Leupold scopes, with many different reticles but this one is new to me. Illuminated reticles sometimes get a bad rap and sometimes deservedly so, but I’ve never had a bad experience with any illuminated reticles from Leupold. One of the rubs with some lit reticles is that battery life isn’t good, and when a battery dies, your scope doesn’t work. With Leupold, the reticle still works just fine if a battery dies, which isn’t likely to happen unexpectedly because the reticle turns itself off if the gun is motionless for a few minutes, and turns itself back on when you pick the gun up or move it, and the reticle indicates a low battery with a blink, well before the battery actually dies. There are 10 brightness settings which is extremely useful to accommodate anything from ultra-bright mid-day sunlight, to last 10 minutes of shooting light. The illuminated reticle and high quality glass allow you to acquire your target right up to the last minute of legal shooting light.
In terms of redundancy, which is one of my favorite features in any piece of hunting gear, the VX-6 has the TMOA hash marks, which allows for very accurate ranging and targeting when using a range finder, wind indicator and ballistic calculator. For this scope I didn’t need a first focal plane scope which is more important when you’re using the actual reticle as a range finder, especially with a Mil-dot reticle. This scope sub-tends minute of angle at max magnification and can thus be used to range with the right formula, but it works very well with a ballistic calculator set for MOA adjustment. Used alone or as a cross reference to the CDS dial, it provides great redundancy and utility. Since this scope only features a CDS dial in the elevation range, MOA adjustments are required for windage and the scope features ¼ MOA adjustments, but the MOA reticle hash-marks are also very useful to quickly adjust for wind, based on what your calculator spits out. Bear in mind that most of what I’ve just stated is for long range target shooting, and probably doesn’t matter much for hunting, but knowing your gun and practicing so that you can make quick adjustments and calculations, can only help your hunting experience. Another feature is the “in-reticle level”, which is redundant to the scope-ring level from Hawkins Precision that holds the scope in place. The reticle level feature lets you know if your gun is tilted to the right or left, by flashing the illuminated reticle until you bring the gun back into a level position. This is another important feature, especially in the mountains when aiming at extreme up or down angles, which makes it hard to tell if anything is level.
With a 3 power starting point and side focus adjustment, this scope can perform at almost any range. If a big buck, or sheep steps out at 25 yards, you won’t be over-scoped, yet if a 500 yard shot is required, dialing to 18 power and twisting the CDS dial to the 500 yd mark to make the shot, should be fairly simple.
At the range, the gun and scope didn’t disappoint. The image in the scope was sharp from edge to edge. Not surprisingly, there was no hint of optical distortion at any magnification, and focus was crystal clear. Eye relief was generous which is always nice, especially for hard kicking magnums. Once set up on a bench I was occupied first by establishing a zero. First at 25 yds to make sure my bore-sighted gun was on paper, than 100 yds and out to 200yds. I shot a variety of loads and kept myself busy recording muzzle velocities and group sizes. I own and have shot many custom rifles, built as tack drivers, but still I was astonished at how accurate this gun is. It didn’t seem to matter what load I fed it. Everything grouped ½ MOA or less. That is unusual. Most guns will prefer one load over another, but so far, of the 5 different loads, ranging from 162 grains to 180 grains, and from 2900 to 3100 fps, everything punched tight clover-leaf groups with no flyers. My CDS dial is built for Hornady ELD-X 162 grain bullets moving out at 3,050 fps and that is what I intend to hunt with, but it’s nice to know that I can move up to a heavier bullet if I chose to. I will probably order another CDS dial for a 175 grain bonded bullet, moving at 2,900fps, that I would chose for moose or brown bear. The overall build quality of the rifle and the incredibly good Leupold scope and TriggerTech trigger set at 2 lbs. made tight groups pretty easy.
Building custom guns is interesting and fun for me, and having a tool that is so confidence inspiring as the final outcome is icing on the cake. I look forward to putting in many miles with this gun slung over my shoulder.
Knowing that at crunch time, it’ll do its job, just inspires me to walk further and explore new vistas. Perhaps the next time I mention this gun here, it’ll be resting next to a large buck, elk, goat, bear or sheep. Check out the Leupold VX-6 at Leupold.com, Pierce Engineering Rifles at pierceengineeringltd.com, AGcomposites.com, TriggerTech triggers, Hart Rifle barrels and Hawkins Precision.
Brandon Vaughan has over 40 years of personal and professional experience in a broad array of hunting and fishing disciplines, from Alaska to Belize. Past professional experience includes working as a professional guide in Alaska and around the Great Lakes region. In addition to hunting and fishing throughout the lower 48, Canada and Central America, Brandon has been an Orvis Endorsed Fly-fishing guide, a fly-fishing and fly-tying instructor, a hunting guide and shooting instructor.