Gun Review: Accurate Ordnance .223 Trainer

Having spent a great deal of time behind the trigger of an Accurate Ordnance built rifle, I’ve come to expect great, and I mean truly great, things. My AO built rifle is thoroughly, completely, and wholly accurate and consistent in ways that still shock me.

Hot and dirty, it still shoots sub MOA. And not just for three shot groups. When I do my part, it drives as many as my bank account will allow through what is essentially the same hole. Clean it up and it still shoots the same point of impact. I use it as a testing tool for silencers and scopes specifically because it’s so consistently, boringly accurate.

Ironically, Accurate Ordnance’s build quality isn’t even among the top five reasons I recommend them to friends and colleagues as my gunsmith of choice. They’ll be the first to tell you that there are no mysteries to building accurate bolt action rifles. Start with quality materials, take your time, and pay close attention to detail. Accuracy happens as a natural byproduct of those activities. In fact, if you ask Mark, one of Accurate Ordnance’s owners, about other gunsmiths he’ll happily reel off a list of trustworthy ‘smiths that he knows. He’ll even broker an intro if you’d like with a smile and an assurance that, “There’s enough business to go around for everyone.”

That humility is INSANE in an industry that seems to constantly find a way to make middle school girls look tame in comparison. But even that isn’t the top reason I recommend them.

It’s the knowledge and experience they bring to the table that sets them apart. The crew at AO has been building rifles of all types for longer than they’d probably like to admit. Any time my day job takes me to the Atlanta area, I always swing by the shop, and every time I’m there, I see a steady parade of rifles whose only commonality is the type of action they use. Truthfully, I usually spot a couple lever guns and gas guns while I’m there too.

Lightweight sheep hunting rifles, F-class rifles, tactical rifles, wood stocked sporters, and more. You name it, they’ve built it, obsessively detailed the process, and filed away as much data as possible from the owner’s experience with it.

And boy, do those guys at AO have some shooting experience as well. You can find the crew at any local precision rifle match that will have them. They shoot, a lot. And this gives them valuable data on what products, bullets, and accessories are working, and which workload they’re right for. Which brings me to this particular rifle – a “trainer” precision rifle chambered in .223 REM.

Given the amount of volume that Mark does on the range, he decided to build up a dedicated .223 trainer to complement his current competition rifle. Here’s his explanation on the why:

I built the .223 Rem as a true training rifle. Requirements for me were to have longer barrel life than my main 6.5 Creedmoor rifle, cheaper to shoot, similar weight & feel of my primary competition rifle. It is a benefit to have a light recoiling rifle for training newer shooters which I’ll also do with this. That this caliber is tougher to shoot in the wind at distance is actually a big training benefit! It forces the shooter to get better at wind reading.

The rifle has a 22″ Brux barrel with a 1:8 twist. It is an AO Varmint contour barrel, which is what we use on our MARS, TMR and Stryker rifles. My comp gun is a “TMR”. We chambered it with a “CLE” (Compass Lake Engineering) chamber, which is a hybrid between SAAMI and NATO spec chambers. Thus, I can safely shoot all ammunition in the chamber. I went 1:8 twist because I’ll sometimes shoot less expensive 55-grain ammo and the 1:8 will stabilize that just fine. The twist rate also lets me use heavier bullets, which I plan to shoot in competition.

I will absolutely use the rifle in competition! The only downside is that at further distances an inexperienced RO may not see impacts or trace well. For that reason I will limit the rifle use to matches where the COF is 90% 600 yards and closer.

As this is a precision rifle built from the ground up to match Mark’s competition gun, he started with one of their branded Stiller actions replete with a pinned 20 MOA base and pinned recoil lug. The bolt features the necessary smaller bolt face as well as a M16 style extractor.

Attached to the action is the always fantastic Timney Calvin Elite, set at a touch over 1 lb. Mark says 1.5 oz over 1 lb. My beater trigger scale says 2 oz. Either way, it’s light and very crisp.

The aforementioned Brux barrel and Stiller action are nestled in a skim bedded mini-chassis equipped Manners T4A finished in swamp camo.  The T4A features Manners’ Gen 2 DBM Mini Chassis which allows usage of AI pattern Accurate Mag 223 magazines. Flush cups abound.

A note on those Accurate Mags. AO recommends the Accurate Mag over the AI plastic mags  as they’ve found the AI mags usually split at some point during regular use. The Accurate Mags are much more durable in their experience.

A very nice feature of the Accurate Mag is the allowable max length you can put together with a handload. SAAMI spec for the .223 lists a max overall length of 2.260″ while the Accurate Mag that came with this rifle can handle an extra .100″ which allows for a bit more flexibility during load development.

With apologies to the Manners team, I really don’t prefer their bottom metal design. The barricade stop portion means that the magazine really has to be straight up and down to feed into the well properly. I have a CDI on the rifle that AO built for me, and I find that I can be a bit sloppier (read = coarser) on a reload than I could with this system.

I also find that I don’t like their latch system as much. I’m sure with practice, I’d come to like it, but the AK style lever with the CDI system feels more natural and requires less tactile precision on my part. I’m certain that Mark and team have thoughts on the pros and cons of each system and if you’re split on the decision, they’d be happy to guide you as part of the build process.

Other than the bottom metal, the T4A is as fantastic as you’ve probably heard. The forend is wide and flat, perfect for shooting off barriers, backpacks, and barricade bags like Armageddon’s Game Changer bag.

Mounted to the bottom of that forend is AO’s in house produced bipod rail. It’s a bit longer than most bipod rails and has a slot on one end that allows it to work with a variety of stocks and their inherent differences in swivel stud spacing. I really liked the extra length as it allowed me to move my bipod further back for use as a barricade stop, or further forward for a bit more stability shooting from the prone.

Out back, the A in the T4A lets you know that there’s an adjustable cheekpiece to allow for perfect eye positioning behind your scope of choice. The cheekpiece is adjustable laterally and has enough wiggle room to allow the user to move the cheekpiece away from parallel should your face prefer it.

Everything is locked in place by a hex key clamp bar in the stock body. This does mean that you can’t have toolless adjustment, but it also means there’s nothing external to the stock to snag on gear.

One of the best features of the T4A is the C-clips used on the pillar to set “memory” for the riser height. Should you ever need to remove the riser to provide enough room for your cleaning rod, you can put your cheekpiece right back where you left it thanks to the clip system. This is such a thoughtful and simple system to address one of my biggest grips with the adjustable cheekpiece on my McMillan A5.

If you’re not a fan of the rear hook, the Manners T2A might be a better fit, and again, that’s something that Mark and the crew can consult on for you.

Out front, this rifle features a Rugged Suppressors brake, standard on all AO Signature series rifles. This is capable of hosting a Rugged Surge or Razor 7.62 silencer, something that Mark regularly uses on his rifle.

At 13.2 lbs as tested (including scope), the tiny .223 REM isn’t passing along much of a shove, so the addition of an aggressive brake is the final nail in the coffin for recoil – this rifle simply doesn’t come off target.

Therein lies the joy of this rifle. It has all the recoil of a .22 with the grown up sensibilities of a full power rifle. You can still push a 75+ grain projectile at relatively absurd velocities if you’d like, and ballistically, it will hang just fine with either .308 WIN and 6.5 CM.

In fact, an .223 80 gr. ELD pushed to 2800 fps and a .264 140 gr. ELD at 2700 fps drop within 2 inches of each other out to 600 yards. At those same velocities, the lighter ELD will drift some 10 inches more in a fifteen mph wind. This is in line with Mark’s original design consideration. Shoot all week with this rifle, get better at reading the wind, and see the trophies pile up over the weekend.

I didn’t happen to have much in the way of factory match .223 REM laying around, but I did find a couple boxes of Eagle Eye 69 gr. squirreled away which allowed me to put together the group pictured above. That’s a .401″ (.383 MOA) eight shot group, the best I put on paper during the testing process. When I did my part, pretty much everything of quality shot sub 3/4 MOA. Super cheap brass cased ammo that shoots about 3 MOA in my ARs was good for roughly 1.5 MOA five shot groups at 100 yards.

That last part is important. With most brass cased .223 ammo back down to the $0.30/round range, practice can be incredibly affordable. Given that this rifle will easily shoot inside of a six inch circle out to 300 yards with cheap ammo when you do your part, you can get your practice in working on trigger press, breathing, and setting up your shots.

Load up a better bullet, either as a handload or a factory offering, and get some longer range practice fighting the wind. The cost justification evaporates at those levels as match ammo for .308 WIN, 6.5 CM, and .223 REM all hover around the same price these days, but your wind reading skills will still have to be on point. And with barrel life that will certainly go past the 4000+ round mark, you won’t have to constantly rebarrel like you might with a hot overbore like 6.5 CM.

Shooting AO’s 223 Trainer was enlightening to say the least. First, and most obvious to me as a current owner of an AO rifle is that it is absurdly accurate. It wasn’t until I spent serious trigger time behind a “built” bolt gun that I started to really appreciate natural point of aim, consistent trigger press, and controlling my breathing.

One of the most obvious examples of this happens when I’m shooting for groups at 100 or 200 yards and I start to see some horizontal dispersion in my groups. Without fail, I’ve started to apply some gentle pressure with my support hand to the stock, and I’m pushing shots left from my point of aim. It’s a nasty habit of mine, and one I have to be consistently aware of.

This sort of data fades into the background noise of a factory rifle, but with a custom gun, you can start to pick out those behaviors in  yourself. Having an accurate rifle has made me a better shooter, and this rifle is no different.

The second bit of enlightenment that came from shooting this rifle was the psychological impact of seeing your groups “open up” downrange. Looking through the scope, I’d beat myself up for a poor group, but the calipers would show that I’d shot a .6 or .7 MOA group.

In an attempt to explore this concept further, I opened up Excel, fiddled with numbers until my laptop battery nearly died and came to the objective conclusion that if I shot identical sized groups with my AO rifle chambered in .308 WIN and this AO rifle chambered in .223 REM, the 223 group would look bigger. Practically, I found myself constantly trying to shoot smaller and smaller groups than I would with my 308. Given that I’d never gotten down group sizes down into the .3’s until I shot this rifle, I think it worked.

The last and most important thing I learned while shooting this rifle was about my behavior as a shooter during the microseconds after breaking the shot. Every coach and trainer worth his salt has told me to “watch the shot” break which is fantastic advice that’s really very hard to implement in real life. There’s usually a cacophony of noise and violence when the shot breaks. The scope’s reticle is lost in the chaos and diagnostic information is lost. You can make up for this with lots and lots of dry fire, but there’s no replacement for the real thing.

With this rifle, there’s just not any of that movement. Load the bipod just a bit, and when you break the trigger, your aiming point will be essentially right where you left it. Focus on your reticle as you break the shot and you can watch the entire scene unfold. Take that information down and let it inform your next shot and each one after that. Get better at reading the wind while you’re at it. Take all that information back to your more powerful and capable competition rifle and start moving up the ranks every weekend. Simple no?

 

What it is: An Accurate Ordnance TMR in .223 REM
How I got it: Accurate Ordnance loaned me a complete rifle including a Nightforce SHV F1 nestled inside a Pelican case. I paid to check it on the way back from Atlanta and paid to ship it back. I also paid for ammo and range fees.
Retail Price: $4395
Street Price: Pretty much the same. Maybe more. Could be less if  you supplied an action you already had. You can also find some AO guns on the second hand market.
Who is it for: AO counts a variety of people as customers. Everybody from hourly blue collar workers to millionaire titans of industry and finance. Custom rifles are for everybody. This particular rifle is really great for the serious competitor looking to shoot more, spend less, and really develop their skills as a shooter. Master this rifle at distance with a stiff wind, and you can shoot anything well.
How I tested it: Shot a variety of factory and hand loaded ammunition at various distances and from a variety of positions.
What I found: I expected an accurate rifle and I wasn’t surprised. I did find that this rifle pushed me to be a much better shooter as it eliminated recoil from the equation and psychologically forced me to focus on shooting tinier groups. I’m a better shooter for having spent time with this rifle.
What I think: On paper, I was sold on the .223 trainer concept, but now that I’ve spent time actually using one, I’m a convert. I think there’s a valid case to be made that shooting a less expensive round at typical engagement ranges, and being forced to fight the wind a bit harder will make for more productive practice sessions. The part I struggle with is the cost of an entire “clone” of your main competition rifle. I’m not at the level where I can justify the acquisition of another $6000+ of rifle and optic. For me, that money is better spent on ammo, reloading equipment, and barrels. Your mileage might certainly vary. Either way, the guys at AO are standing by to help you make your decision.

 

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