By Kelly Young, American Rifleman
Ruger’s series of Mauser 98-derived Model 77 bolt-actions enjoys a long history of rugged reliability, as was so ably chronicled last year by Editorial Director John Zent (December 2018, p. 44) in commemoration of the turnbolt’s 50th birthday. Throughout that half-century of production, however, the M77 line has included precious few dedicated match rifles—the family tree being populated up to this point predominately with hunting models—and as a result, it has rarely been associated with long-range precision shooting, despite the platform’s inherent suitability for such pursuits.
But the company bucked that trend in 2018, however, with the introduction of the Hawkeye Long-Range Target (HLRT), chambered in .300 Win. Mag., an M77 variant that seemingly swims upstream of the line’s prevailing venatic heritage by offering a suite of features meant to facilitate long-range competitive use. And this year, Ruger has stepped even further down this diverging new path by announcing two additional members to the HLRT family. Shortening its receiver allowed the company to chamber the rifle in Hornady’s duo of short-action .264-cal. cartridges—both darlings within competitive-shooting circles—the omnipresent 6.5 mm Creedmoor and its jacked younger brother, the 6.5 mm PRC.
The Model 77 has a long history as an early adopter of freshly developed chamberings. At the time of this writing, the HLRT stands as one of only two venues for the 6.5 mm PRC in Ruger’s catalog—and one of the few non-custom-shop options for the new chambering in the entire industry. For me, this made the decision to use the longer, more powerful 6.5 mm cartridge to evaluate Ruger’s new Hawkeye an easy one.
For all its much ballyhooed (occasionally by me) virtues, the 6.5 mm Creedmoor takes advantage of the .264’s typically long-for-caliber, and therefore intrinsically aerodynamic, projectiles but doesn’t push them to particularly speedy velocities, limiting their ballistic potential in favor of highly manageable recoil. The Creedmoor launches Hornady’s 143-gr. ELD-X Precision Hunter and 147-gr. ELD Match loads at 2700 f.p.s. and 2695 f.p.s., respectively, at the muzzle of a 24″ test barrel. Squatter and with a case length 0.11″ longer than 6.5 mm Creedmoor—resulting in a 14.4 percent larger case capacity—the identically barreled 6.5 mm PRC, on the other hand, speeds the 143-gr. ELD-X up to 2960 f.p.s., an increase of 260 f.p.s. relative to the Creedmoor, while propelling the 147-gr. match load at 2910 f.p.s. for an increase of 215 f.p.s. over the Creedmoor.
Using the same projectiles, when zeroed at 200 yds., this extra speed allows the 147-gr. ELD Match ammunition to drop 7.09″ less at 500 yds. when fired through a 6.5 mm PRC-chambered rifle (36.35″) than through a 6.5 mm Creedmoor (43.44″). And the result is even more pronounced in the hunting load, which drops 44.58″ at the same distance through the Creedmoor and 35.84″ through the PRC—a difference of 8.74″.
Meanwhile, a 10-m.p.h. crosswind knocks the Creedmoor-fired match projectile 12.63″ off course at 500 yds., but moves the identical PRC-fired bullet only 10.89″ at the same distance, and likewise at 500 yds. deflects the 143-gr. Precision Hunter load 14.3″ from the 6.5 mm Creedmoor but only 11.88″ from the 6.5 mm PRC. To those who don’t shoot at long range much, small differences of mere inches may seem trifling, but to the seasoned precision shooter who regularly engages targets out where every shot is a curveball, they’re a big deal. And the additional speed also allows the 6.5 mm PRC’s projectiles to remain stabilized out to greater distances; the 147-gr. Match load goes transonic after about 1,600 yds.—staying supersonic 200 yds. farther down field than when fired through a Creedmoor.
A big gun, the HLRT weighs approximately 11 lbs. sans scope, bipod and other assorted accoutrements that will be needed to fully take advantage of its abilities. Despite looking a bit out of place alongside its hunting-model brothers, the rifle bears all the hallmarks of a third-generation Model 77. Its controlled-round-feed action makes use of dual locking lugs and a Mauser-style claw extractor that doesn’t take hold of the cartridge immediately as it leaves the rifle’s detachable box magazine, but does assume control prior to reaching the chamber.
The 4½”-long, non-rotating extractor rides along the right side of the bolt, and a fixed-blade ejector on the left side of the receiver then dislodges the case once the bolt has been pulled fully rearward. Slowly retracting the bolt causes the brass to gently tumble from the ejection port for easy policing of cases, while smartly bringing the bolt back will send them flying. The one-piece, stainless steel bolt cocks upon opening and utilizes an easy-to-rack 90-degree throw, yet due to the height of the gun’s optics rail, still has plenty of room for scope clearance.
Like other Hawkeyes, the HLRT’s receiver is a flat-bottomed and flat-sided design. Two screws secure the 4140 chrome-moly steel receiver to the stock, the front of which bears the Ruger signature of angling forward to create rearward tension and improve the interface between the receiver’s integral recoil lug and the stock shoulder. In scaling the .300 Win. Mag. rifle down to accommodate the two new short-action chamberings, company engineers shortened the receiver, and thus the rifle as a whole, by half an inch. Ruger does produce southpaw versions of the M77 action, however, at this time, the HLRT is a strictly right-handed endeavor.
Integral scope mounts machined directly into the receiver—another trademark of the M77—are present on this rifle as well. Unlike most Hawkeyes, however, the HLRT comes from the factory with a 5½” segment of Picatinny rail, canted for 20 minutes of angle, already affixed to the mounts. Secured via four Torx-head No. 8-40 screws, the 13-slot rail can be removed by the user should he or she prefer to mount rings directly onto the receiver. In familiar Mauser fashion, the front portion of a lever riding the left side of the receiver must be pivoted outward to remove the bolt from the gun, but it is not necessary to manually manipulate this lever in order to re-install the bolt.
Contoured with competition shooting in mind, the gun’s stock shares no resemblance with the one designed by Lenard Brownell for the 1968-vintage Model 77. A gently sloping underhook in the belly of the buttstock allows either the shooter’s support hand or a rear pinch bag to stabilize the back of the rifle. The pistol grip is shaped to hold the shooter’s hand nearly perpendicular to the barrel, a common orientation on tactical and competition rifles—but potentially fatiguing for users with smaller hands. Meanwhile, the HLRT’s fore-end is flat and wide enough for convenient sandbag use, its slightly oblate nose is suitable for solid purchase when pushing the gun up against a barricade, and a 9″ section of M-Lok-compatible slots is flush-fit with its bottom surface, allowing for the easy installation of a bipod.
Made in house by Ruger of wood laminate and then painted brown, the stock features black speckle across its entire surface for the purpose of adding texturing in lieu of the more traditional application of checkering on the pistol grip and fore-end. This practice is popping up more and more around the industry in recent years, and, in general, I’m not a huge fan; I found the pattern to be just coarse enough to anchor the rifle in the hand during recoil, but I question whether the gun might be better served by standard checkering. A traditional sling swivel stud is found on the bottom of the buttstock, and QD sling sockets are located on either side of the buttstock and the left side of the fore-end.
Length of pull (LOP) and comb height (CH) are both adjustable on the HLRT, and Ruger borrowed from rifles already present in its product lineup for the parts. Three 1/2″ spacers, identical to the ones used by the company’s Scout Rifle and Guide Gun models, ship with the gun—one of which was already installed on our test sample upon arrival—giving it an overall length of 47¼” and an LOP of 13½”. These figures can be altered by simply removing the rubber buttpad and either adding or subtracting spacers. Meanwhile, the rifle’s method of CH adjustment comes from Ruger’s Precision Rifle (RPR): a plastic cheekpiece held in place by the tension of a tightened cam lever. The system is capable of up to 1″ of up-and-down adjustment, and a 2″ slot cut into the stock allows this piece to be shifted forward and backward as needed.
The HLRT feeds from AICS-style, single-stack magazines that are inserted into the rifle’s aluminum magazine well/trigger guard assembly. Ruger advertises the 6.5 mm PRC HLRT’s steel magazine as having a capacity of only three rounds, but I did find the follower spring to be pliable enough that a fourth cartridge could be squeezed under the feed lips with just a little effort, and that doing so did not have a deleterious impact on reliability. The single magazine provided with the rifle clicked audibly into place once properly seated, and did not drop free of its own accord when the M14–style release lever was depressed.
All three HLRT variants make use of a 26″, cold-hammer-forged, 4140 chrome-moly steel barrel with right-hand 5R rifling. The 6.5 mm PRC model’s barrel features a 1:8″ twist rate, and is cut to the very bottom of SAAMI’s spec for bore and groove diameter for the cartridge. The free-floating, heavy-contour barrel measures 1.16″ wide at the receiver, tapering to 0.83″ at the factory-installed Hybrid Muzzle Brake—another component appropriated from the RPR. Should the user desire to remove the brake, to mount either another device or a suppressor to the gun, the barrel’s muzzle is threaded 5/8×24 TPI, what has become the industry-standard thread pitch for .264-cal. rifle barrels.
Like the rest of the Hawkeye line, the HLRT uses a Model 70-style three-position safety situated just aft of the bolt. In the rear-most position it physically blocks the bolt from retracting while also deactivating the trigger. The center setting frees up the bolt but not the trigger, and pushing the safety fully forward readies the rifle to fire. While obviously designed to be manipulated by a right-handed shooter’s thumb, I’ve personally always found this arrangement to be fairly easy to work with as a lefty.
The trigger is a pivotal component in the design of a precision rifle. Although it has no direct influence, either positive or negative, over the firearm’s inherent mechanical accuracy, the trigger does, however, dictate just how accessible that accuracy is to the shooter. There’s no sense in going to all the effort and expense of developing an otherwise finely tuned precision instrument if a subpar trigger renders that accuracy moot. A bad trigger makes it virtually impossible to keep the gun pointed precisely where it needs to be at the moment of ignition. On the other hand, a good trigger makes a rifle easier to shoot well by essentially getting out of the way and allowing the firearm’s underlying accuracy to shine through. The HLRT’s target trigger is an exceptional one.
A two-stage design, the first stage consists of approximately 1/8″ of slack, with the second stage breaking crisply with no overtravel. Using a Lyman Trigger Pull Gauge, the 10-pull average of our test sample came to 2 lbs., 2 ozs., of pressure, with no result deviating from that mean by more than 4 ozs. This pull weight may be a bit light for some—dry-fire practice with a new firearm before heading to the range is always prudent—but I found it to be conducive to fine results both at the bench on paper and in the field on steel. The trigger is adjustable, however, it is a fairly complex process best left to a professional.
Field testing of the new target Hawkeye involved two separate guns. Accuracy and function testing was first conducted at NRA Headquarters in Virginia with one rifle, and then later on I had the good fortune to spend three more days shooting steel targets at long range at FTW Ranch in Barksdale, Texas, with a second HLRT. Both performed similarly, with zero malfunctions through approximately 400 combined rounds of ammunition, and although I did not have an opportunity to measure the Texas rifle’s pull weight, it seemed to closely match the calibration of the Virginia gun’s trigger.
My accuracy results with the rifle at short range were superb; there’s a special pleasure in shooting one-hole groups, and the HLRT gifted me with a couple. Both Hornady loads managed a sub-m.o.a., five-shot, five-group average, Precision Hunter turning in a 0.86″ result and ELD Match besting that slightly with a 0.78″ average. There were no malfunctions during my testing, however, the bolt was a bit sticky from the factory, an issue that was quickly cleared up by applying a bit of lubricant.
For those unfamiliar with FTW, or the Sportsman’s All-Weather All-Terrain Marksmanship long-range precision and safari training courses taught there (ftwsaam.com), the operation takes place on a 12,000-acre ranch crisscrossed with 35 rifle ranges up to 4,549 yds. (2.58 miles) in length—so it’s basically Disneyland for those of us who see a golf course as the wanton waste of a potential gun range. I had, on previous occasion, connected on an 18″ steel plate out to a mile with the .300 Win. Mag.-chambered HLRT, and on this most recent trip to Texas was able to duplicate that feat with the 6.5 mm PRC—albeit at a much more comfortable level of recoil.
And while we’re on that topic, the recoil impulse of the 6.5 mm PRC isn’t terribly substantial, but it is relatively fast and sharp, which I could see being an issue through a lighter rifle, but in a fully laden HLRT probably won’t be flinch-worthy for most shooters. As a detachable-box-fed Hawkeye, the HLRT shares more than a little bit of DNA with Ruger’s Scout Rifle, and in my estimation, the test sample for this story kicks less than does my 7-lb., .308 Win.-chambered Scout. All things considered, it’s a very reasonable amount of recoil given the rifle’s extreme-range capabilities. On the other hand, between the cartridge’s sizeable powder charge and the effective diversion of gases by the barrel’s Hybrid Brake, the blast produced by our test sample was pretty impressive.
Ruger has set the MSRP for the HLRT at $1,279, and while that amount certainly isn’t chump change, the rifle offers quite a bit for the money—costing less than the RPR while offering accuracy that rivals it and a much more conventional profile. The Hawkeye is among the most economical controlled-round-feed rifle platforms still on the market today—if not the most economical—and the Long-Range Target isn’t particularly expensive within its own line. Priced only a couple hundred dollars above what the baseline hunting models cost, the target M77’s MSRP is identical to those of the family’s more tricked-out hunting variants, the Alaskan and the FTW Hunter.
The Ruger Hawkeye might not have much of a name as a match rifle yet, but I have a feeling that we won’t always be able to say that, as the HLRT is a pretty firm foundation upon which to build such a reputation. For a first try at a competition-ready long-range rifle on the platform, it provides both the performance and the features that target shooters want. And pairing it with the new ballistic hotness of Hornady’s 6.5 mm PRC really showcases what both the rifle and the cartridge are capable of.