Ten years ago I got the chance of a change of beat. With it came the opportunity for a lot more deer stalking and a fine excuse to treat myself to a new rifle. I needed little persuasion for either.
It was around then that moderators for centrefires were just becoming popular – ‘a la mod’ as it were.
I decided to jump onto that strangely quiet bandwagon while I was at it. So my tired old .243 BSA CF2 was pressed into service a little longer while the shiny new .25-06 Tikka T3 went to the local gunsmith for threading.
At the risk of bringing my journalistic career to an untimely end, I’ll let you into a secret: I’ve never really considered myself an ‘expert’ rifle shot.
In magazines and pubs, rifles are ‘tack-drivers’, groups are ‘thumbnails’ and 300-yard foxes perish like lemmings. While I have managed all these things, on the infrequent times I lay down to punch paper, groups of 1.5in at 100 yards were, sadly, more the norm.
While the BSA was still on the go, I could put it down to lead poisoning – the barrel was so worn I reckon the bullets rattled like stones down a drainpipe.
But when the Tikka returned, resplendent with its Reflex T8 can, I have to say I was a little disappointed. The groups I could produce stubbornly remained on the depressing side of an inch and a quarter.
Reluctantly, I reached the conclusion that this was simply the limit of my abilities. So I shrugged my shoulders and went to the hill.
Paradoxically, the hill is a great leveller. Minutes of angle go out the window when you’re in the grip of a howling northerly.
It’s your angle of dangle that is more likely to occupy your thoughts when you’re hanging by your toenails for that steep downhill shot.
If I made a poor job of a shot, it was nearly always a misjudgement on my part, rather than down to the fact that I couldn’t shave half an inch off my groups. But for most of the time, the rifle went bang, the quarry fell down and I was happy.
There was, however, one fly in the ointment: this outfit seemed to go off zero with monotonous regularity. I put it down to a difference in my shooting position or an unnoticed bump during mile after arduous mile on the hill.
At one time I thought I had the problem solved when I investigated and found a slack screw. It was the screw that secures the ring to the base in the Optilock system.
Talking with others, it appears to be an Achilles heel – and one you can’t check without removing the scope. I recommend using thread glue on them. But for me this intermittent problem remained after this.
Despite my indifference to paper-punching, it was this that finally gave me a clue to the root of my problem. I had shot a group and was about to leave when I found the now hot moderator had become slack.
I tightened it and, as an afterthought, decided to see if that eighth of a turn had affected the zero. To my amazement, the second group was two inches off the first.
They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I’d heard about barrel ‘harmonics’ and reckoned the slack moderator was changing the way the barrel was flexing.
I re-zeroed the scope and scored tiny aligning marks on the back of the moderator and the barrel. This, I thought, would mean that whenever the mod was removed I could ensure it being returned to the exact same place.
That evening I nearly popped a vein trying to get the moderator unscrewed. Eventually victorious from battle, I tried putting it back on. With the can now cold, there was no way the marks would align again.
It was obvious to me that the moderator was becoming slack when it expanded with the heat of shooting. On investigation, I could scarcely believe how hot the Reflex was getting underneath the neoprene sleeve, even after just a handful of shots. The sleeve was redeployed to the back of a drawer.
Another step I took was to fashion a bung out of rubber, which I drilled through so it was a tight fit on the barrel. This I slid up the barrel before screwing the moderator on.
When I slid the bung forward, two pins located into grooves in the Delrin bush on the back of the mod and stopped it from turning.
This pretty much dealt with the wandering of my groups – but it didn’t do anything to shrink them. However, I still had it in my head that this was the limit of my shooting ability.
What could I do? I shrugged my shoulders once again, and headed off up the hill to shoot another 1,000 deer.
Fast forward to 2012, and one of the estate rifles needed to be looked at.
I took it to a riflesmith who had been recommended to me. I decided to take my Tikka along for the ride.
This riflesmith turned out to be a farmer, but for a lad who grows tatties he certainly knows his onions.
He’s Russell Gall of RG Rifles, and happens to be an international benchrest shooter.
By the look of his workshop, he might also do some brain surgery on the side – the place was immaculate.
Having two jobs must be popular in these parts because it didn’t take Russell long to reach a diagnosis: my gunsmith from all those years back was a bit of a butcher.
The threads he’d cut for the mod were squint, meaning it sat eccentric to the barrel.
Furthermore, he’d created a spigot at the end of the barrel, which meant the mating surface between the muzzle and the mod was only a couple of millimetres wide. This allowed the mod to ‘ride up’ on the spigot rather than lock solid in the same position every time.
In short, the bullets had had varying paths through the moderator – none of them down the middle. The resulting uneven escape of gasses was destabilising bullets in much the same way as bad crowning can.
However, in one particular position, the bullets were even more destabilised – they were grazing the baffles. I was incredulous when Russell showed me the marks.
That was the diagnosis. The cure was to lose an inch off the barrel and re-cut the threads. The price for this would be a few dozen feet per second off the muzzle velocity, and £150 (including re-proofing). Of course, I had to ask the question, even though I dreaded the answer: “Is that barrel worth spending the money on?”
Russell brought a borescope to the operating table and fell silent while he peered into the instrument. “The bore’s fine at the muzzle,” he declared, and I let out a breath I hadn’t realised I was holding.
Then he went to the breech and lingered there. “You’d better have a look at this,” he said quietly. I felt a strange fluttering in my chest – I think it was my wallet trying to hide.
Having never used a borescope before, it took me a few seconds to understand exactly what I was seeing. However, the picture suddenly came to me like a Rolf Harris mural – except that this was no oil painting.
The throat of the barrel was badly fire-cracked and had a scaly appearance. It was also impossible to tell where the rifling actually started. I decided there and then that it was time to bite the bullet.
A few weeks later I took delivery of my Tikka from Russell. It sported a 21in Krieger barrel, fluted, screw-cut and with a matt, shot-blasted finish. To offset the weight of the heavier profile barrel, I’d also asked Russell to source a Hardy moderator.
The new set-up looked like a million dollars. Which is just as well, as all I could do was look at it for a week while the country was blasted by gales and blizzards. When the weather eventually settled, I grabbed a couple of twilight breaking-in sessions.
Despite the pantomime of removing the moderator and bolt and cleaning the bore between shots, I still managed two 10-shot, one-inch groups. I was delighted.
A few days later a friend phoned for help. He’d taken over the deer management in a wood that had been neglected for a while, and it was more than one stalker could handle.
We met up on a beautiful, still spring morning. Within minutes of entering the wood we came across three roe, moving away from us slowly.
They were 150 yards off before they presented for a shot. My Tikka took the first in the ribs through a narrow gap.
The others ran another 30 yards and stopped momentarily. I dropped the second through an even smaller gap. Euan took the third.
The rifle felt familiar but different – longer but less muzzle-heavy.
My confidence in it felt superb.