PRODUCT REVIEW: BEST OF THE REST

Created on 26th May 2009

Last year Carl Boswell gave us an overview of front rests currently in use on the rimfire benchrest scene. Now VINCE BOTTOMLEY takes the story one step further to include centrefire benchrest and F Class

MOST OF us who shoot ‘supported' rifle probably started off using a bipod. The bipod is an excellent means of supporting a rifle forend and over recent times it has become more versatile. For a modest outlay it's hard to beat.

However, you won't see too many bipods at a benchrest match and there is a good reason for that: the benchrest rules state that the front rest must not be attached to the rifle. Even without this stipulation, I doubt that many shooters seeking the ultimate in accuracy would choose to use a bipod. As Carl Boswell has already shown us, there are much better alternatives.

Until recently the ‘machine' front-rest was the preserve of the serious benchrest shooter, but now more and more shooters are realising that to get the best out of a rifle it must be properly supported. That means eliminating most of the ‘human' element. Remember, the rifle won't move unless you move it. If you are shooting a rested rifle forget adjustable cheek-pieces, butt-plates and the like. You will not see these devices on a bench gun. For ultimate accuracy touch your rifle only with the trigger-finger and apply light shoulder pressure to control recoil if you are shooting one of the larger calibres.

When benchrest took to the grass - with the advent of F Class - a new generation of accuracy seekers appeared and the ‘effers' were not slow to pick up on the best of available equipment to maximise their hit potential. The bipod quickly gave way to the machine rest. This product offers almost perfect support for your rifle, particularly if you have a wide, flat forend on your stock. (Note: some disciplines have rules which limit the width of the forend to 3"). Combine this with a horizontal underside to the butt and you have a near-perfect set-up. Near-perfect? If you shoot F Class your back-bag will usually be resting on grass and obviously this is less than ideal. Some shooters make the situation even worse by using one of those thick rubber Target Rifle mats - about as solid as a jelly on springs!

As a long-standing benchrest shooter I'm well used to shooting off a front machine-rest. It has few drawbacks. The main one is having to adjust the rest's two controls - windage and elevation - to get back on the aimpoint. This takes time and time wasted can mean a missed wind change. An F Class shooter usually has around 45 seconds to make his shot but you will see slick benchrest shooters rattle off five shots in well under 20 seconds to catch the same wind. If you need to adjust two controls for each shot it will significantly impede your rate of fire.

Springy

When I moved my front rest off a solid concrete bench and onto the springy grass to shoot F Class I noticed a couple of other problems. Firstly, as we have already acknowledged, the rear-bag is unstable and the rifle does not return anywhere near the aim point for the next shot. This means even more twiddling of the aforementioned windage and elevation knobs. What's more, these knobs are a lot further away when shooting in the prone position than they are when seated at a bench, producing problem number two: the need to constantly come out of position to adjust. Not ideal.

A few years ago some bright spark in the benchrest world addressed the ‘two-knob' problem and invented the ‘coaxial' or ‘joystick' rest. The windage and elevation controls were cleverly combined into one joystick control. The pioneering Farley rest should have taken the benchrest world by storm but it was expensive: two or three times the cost of a normal rest. Even so, they are popular in the States and if cost was not an issue 90% of benchrest shooters would probably have one.

Although I've seen plenty of Farleys at benchrest matches in various parts of the world, Gary Costello's was the first one I saw in the UK - but not at a benchrest shoot, as Gary is an F Class shooter. A joystick rest for F Class made perfect sense - not particularly from a speed point of view, but in terms of ease of use (no more over-stretching to reach those controls). One small movement of the joystick and you are instantly back on target. Keep your hand on the joystick and if the wind flags twitch just as your index finger is tightening on the trigger it's simple enough to aim off a little.

When someone comes out with a good idea it's always an incentive for others to jump on the bandwagon - particularly if they can make the product better or cheaper, or preferably both!

When I was over at the 2005 World Benchrest Championships in America I met an Indonesian competitor by the name of Sebastian Lambang. Seb doesn't speak much English and I speak even less Indonesian! Language wasn't a problem when it came to Seb's beautiful front rest, however: it spoke for itself. It seems that it's rather difficult to get shooting stuff from America if you live in Indonesia and as Seb also happens to own a large engineering company he started to make a few of his own benchrest products - including a joystick front rest.

Seb's rest created a lot of interest at the Championships and he flew home with a bunch of orders. One of his customers was Finn Jari Raudaskoski, the new World Benchrest Champion. Furthermore, the guy who won the European Benchrest Championship in Spain in September 2006 also used one - so I decided I just had to have one! Two months later it landed on my doorstep. It's a lovely piece of equipment and is significantly cheaper than the Farley. Seb's rest also employs a twin-column design, rather than the Farley's single column - a sensible option if you are using a 22lb F Class rifle, though the Farley certainly does the job as many shooters will attest.

If you can see the sense of a joystick rest but you already own a front rest, there is a third way. Several firms, including Farley, now make just the top, which will fit your existing rest. These piggy-back devices work quite well and it's one way of having a joystick rest for modest outlay.

Using a machine front rest

When you do get your new rest please take time to get used to it. Like any new piece of equipment it takes a little practice to get the best out of it. The most important bit is setting up your rest and back bag properly. Whether you are shooting from bench or grass the principles are similar. If you are using a rest with a tripod-style base place it so that the two legs of the ‘Y' base are facing forward. If you are shooting from a bench get the rest as close to the front edge of the bench as possible to ensure the muzzle of your rifle is forward of the bench-top.

Although it's tempting to align the front feet with the front edge of the bench, make the effort to point the rest towards your target along the line of sight. Set the rear speed screw (if fitted) to a midway position. Use a small spirit level to ensure the front bag is absolutely level. Now align your back bag so that target, front rest and back bag are all in a line: the line of sight.

When you are happy tap the front spikes lightly with a mallet so that they dig into the bench top. If you are shooting off grass you might need something to stop the spikes sinking in too far. Now you can place your rifle on the bags and set the elevation with the central column, which usually works on a rack and pinion principal. If you have done your work you should at least see your target when you look through the scope. Fine tune as necessary, so that the crosshairs are centred on the target.

Next, take up any slack in the front bag clamps so that the rifle's forend is lightly gripped. Beat the top of the butt with your fist to settle it into the back bag, then run your rifle backwards and forwards over the bags several times in a sawing motion to settle the bags and help your rifle ‘track' perfectly. Look through the scope as you do this: is it returning to your aim point on the target? The more you saw, the better it will return. Finally, set the front stop to restrict the rifle's forend travel; check the front-bag clamps again; and make final adjustments to your aim point. At last you are ready to shoot.

When you take your first shot the rifle will, of course, recoil. Before you open the bolt push the rifle forwards, up against the front stop. Now open the bolt; eject the spent case; chamber another round; close the bolt; adjust; and fire. An accomplished benchrest shooter will do this five times in around 15 seconds. Dry practice at home!

If you are shooting F Class off the grass the principles are similar, but you will find it difficult to get a firm back bag position. The bag will be rested on your shooting mat, which in turn will be placed on springy grass. You can remove some of the spring by using a thin ground sheet rather than a padded mat. Some shooters even resort to cutting a hole in their mat so that the bag can sit directly on the ground: effective but drastic!

An unstable back-bag will mean that you will not return to anything like your point of aim on the target and more knob-twiddling will be needed between shots - this is where the joystick rest is such a boon for the F Class shooter. The joystick knob lies just forward of the trigger so is readily to hand - there's no need to stretch to reach the controls.

Bag squeezing

If you don't have a joystick you can employ another technique to avoid reaching forward: bag squeezing. If you hold the rear bag with your non-trigger hand you will find a slight squeeze moves the point of aim significantly - and very quickly. If you are going to bag squeeze you need a bit less sand in the bag - keep the ‘ears' well packed, though. Bag squeezing has its drawbacks: when you let go of the bag to chamber a round the rifle will go significantly off-aim (don't cross-shoot!) and of course you need to have a very firm, solid grasp to hold the bag absolutely steady while you take the shot. A lot of top American BR shooters are bag squeezers, simply because early front rests didn't have windage adjustment or a speed screw for elevation adjustment. The technique is not, however, popular in 1,000 yard BR and as I shoot both disciplines I prefer not to use it.

Finally, whether it's off grass or bench take care not to disturb the back bag by leaning on it. The last thing you want to do is accidentally nudge the bag when squeezing off the shot. You are most likely to do this if you are wearing thick clothing or waterproofs. Incidentally, most bags are made of leather. Leather is good - until it gets wet! Choose a leather bag with cordura ears and always use a cordura front bag. This
material can be lubricated with a silicone spray (available from motorist shops).

To maximise your solid set-up you ideally need to shoot free-recoil, or a version of it. If you are shooting a light calibre like .223 or 6BR you can shoot true free-recoil. With heavier calibres like .308 or 6.5-284 you can allow the rifle to recoil a small amount, then catch it with your shoulder. The bullet will have left the barrel before the rifle has recoiled more than a quarter of an inch. With the really big kickers - Magnums and the WSMs - you will need to shoulder the rifle and absorb the recoil, keeping your shoulder in contact with the butt as the rifle recoils. This is quite easy to do if you are sat at a bench but is not so easy prone off the grass. That's the price you pay for shooting a kick-ass calibre!

Here are some useful benchrest websites: www.farleymfg.com; www.sebcoax.com; www.benchrestjoystick.com; www.varidecicognani.com; www.benchrest.com; www.sinclairintl.com; www.ferrariotello.com



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