Accuracy International AT in .308 Winchester - in-depth test and review
PUBLISHED: 12:51 07 April 2017
Chris Parkin puts this British-built tactical rifle to the test... how will the Accuracy International AT in .308 Win perform on the range?
* Fantastic action and trigger
* Superb recoil characteristics from the stock’s ergonomics
* Fit and finish quality are unquestionable
* Given the capability and quality, I won’t even question the price, but Christmas is still 10 months away!
It isn’t a stalking rifle. It might make a vehicle-bound foxing rifle and, calibre dependant, an extreme range varminter isn’t out of the question. What it most certainly is, is a gun designed to hit the target at all costs regardless of handling, care, respect or shooter ability. For those possessing the skills, it is a pleasure to use such a refined rifle that has earned its laurels the hard way.
Accuracy International AT
Calibre: 308 on test
Weight: 5.8kg (12.8lbs)
Barrel length: 24” (610mm)
Twist rate: 1-12” (305mm)
Overall Length: 1125mm/42.25” (890mm folded)
Magazine capacity: 10+1
Trigger: Two stage 1.5-2kg (3.3-4.4lbs)
Length of Pull: 365 mm/14 1/4”
Scope mounting: 20 MOA Picatinny Rail fitted
Spares available: Magazines, Sound Moderator, fitted transit cases, left hand and left fold stocks, available in black, green or tan with thumbhole stock options and adjustable butt pad
Price: £3,710 as tested
Atlas BT10 Bipod: £288
Lapua 155gr Scenar Match Ammunition
I dislike the term ‘tactical’ being applied to everything from penknives and biros to hand-axes and rifles. Sometimes you must question what it really means. Tactics are the measures you employ to approach the strategy you set out to achieve. When applied to a gun, that means making a shot to achieve the desired hit. What is more important, a hit or the energy and terminal ballistics? That is a different matter, but getting that bullet in the spot you want, regardless of being a stalker, vermin controller, deer stalker or long-range plinker, is too easily bandied around because for every scenario, the tactical requirements of the tool you use differ… and so do the tools.
Accuracy International is a name synonymous with the UK military, all the way from its ‘birth’ in the L96A1, to the current rifles we see in news stories about ‘sniper X’ shooting ‘insurgent Y’ at ‘distance Z’. I often wonder whether marketing takes over; can you believe the hype? For starters, the man making the shot is far more important than the tool because the right man will make the wrong tool work, whereas the wrong guy needs a magical tool for success. Some guns are just so damn easy to shoot well with, they make the competition look like knives in the fight.
The Accuracy International AT is the base model in the current AI range, where the AX and AXMC, as well as the larger AX50, dominate in terms of adjustability and calibre scale. But is less in fact more? The older AW model, which is for all intents and purposes identical to the AT but for the stock design, is well respected throughout the world by all users; I don’t think I have ever heard a negative word said about what is without doubt a fine tool. I had to persuade myself that this wasn’t all hype, and when a good friend of mine decided to go all in and have a two-calibre AT set-up, it was decided that I would ‘borrow it’.
The AT is available in black, green or tan, but all of these are merely skins attached to the central spine of the rifle, available either in fixed or folding format. The main visual difference of the AT over the old AW (Arctic Warfare) model is an underslung pistol grip rather than the thumbhole of old. This is a distinct benefit to me, as I found the older thumbhole uncomfortable where my fingers sat underneath the moulded-in trigger guard. Many users of that gun added aftermarket sideplates to simulate what has since become the current standard ergonomic format.
Each AT rifle is hand-assembled in the Portsmouth AI facility and attention to detail is clear to see, from inherently clever design to final fitting and adjustment. The spine of the gun is an aluminium beam which has a rebate cut across it into which the AT action’s recoil lug is semi-permanently bonded, thereby negating any bedding issues from what is already precision-machined, mechanically-interlocking aluminium and steel. You can bet your bottom dollar that these bonding agents, machining tolerances and relative thermal expansion rates have been tested in every climactic condition, from +/-50 degrees, and had to pass every test going for endurance. Depending on the exact spec of your rifle, a hinge unit separates this from the similarly skinned folding butt stock, which when folded (either handing of rifle is available on order), clips to a stud on the left side of the action just below the bolt-release lever. This hinge is utterly solid and actuated silently by a push button at its centre, locking open or clipping folded with subtle clicks. The fore-end bolted up front has AI patented ‘KeySlot’ quick-detach points on its underside for a Picatinny rail, and spigotted bipods, like the Atlas BT10, slot into the fore-end. (I liked the Atlas from Sporting Services so much it will get a subsequent article all of its own.)
Changing or removing the skins for access or cleaning is not mandatory, but can be done with an Allen key in about five minutes. They are pretty much entirely decorative, and to limit heat transfer from the bare aluminium, except for the grip sections which, as well as clamping either side, are encapsulated with a slightly softer black rubber moulding to the rear which swells into the base of your palm. Multiple quick-release and standard eyelets are positioned along the gun’s length for appropriate accessory and sling mounting, either open or folded. At just 890mm in the latter state it is very compact for either regular travel or slotting into a backpack for hiking. It’s probably not bad for parachuting into position either, I suspect. Four spacers are supplied in 10 and 20mm thicknesses to adjust length of pull on the cross-hatched solid rubber butt pad, which sits comfortably gripping your shoulder. I left the gun at 365mm length of pull with two additional spacers in, but you can remove them or add more as you please. They are easily available from AI along with a fully adjustable pad from new, if you prefer total flexibility. You might need to get a spare set of bolts though, as if you go really short you will need to trim them, but that’s no real hassle.
The cheekpiece is adjustable for height and lateral offset, with two Allen bolts to the right side of the butt, and on its underside when removed for lateral. It is slim and radiused in profile. I liked the fact I could keep my head straight and my eyes level when shooting, thanks to the shape and ability to cast it right over. I despise having to roll my head over the top of a rifle and get dizzy with positioning. Once set, it can be left completely alone on this folder, as the action’s bolt is removed with the gun folded and won’t collide with the cheekpiece longitudinally when open. A 10-round, twin-column, staggered-feed magazine latches up into the chassis below the action with a lever at the front of the trigger guard to release it. When clicked fully upward, the 10 rounds feed and eject flawlessly, with the follower rising into the bolt’s path after the final round and preventing you closing it onto an empty chamber for a ‘dead man’s click’. Interestingly, if you pull the mag down slightly, it sits firmly in place without dropping from the gun, and you can continue to drop rounds in through the ejection port which will feed equally smoothly and eject from the top of the follower. So really, this was a win-win scenario. AT mags are very quick to reload as the steel twin-column/staggered-feed lips allow the rounds to be pushed straight down into the top from above, rather than fed from the front one by one, like the AICS magazines so commonly found on aftermarket builds.
The trigger is factory adjusted in a jig before being bolted under the action. It is a two-stage unit with first pressure of 2lbs (950g) and a second-stage break at 3lbs (1,425g). These two stages cannot be independently adjusted and, although many tell you they have lightened it, certain competition rulebooks and AI themselves tell you not to mess with it other than winding it a little heavier using supplied comprehensive instructions. The smooth-bladed trigger sits ideally under the index finger pad and is totally precise. You can drift through the first stage and then hold it on the knife edge of the second-stage pressure with total confidence, waiting for that infinitesimal instinct when your brain engages the final squeeze for a surprise release on a fast-fire McQueen, or a more defined and deliberate slow-fire approach when in a more static shooting position or course of fire. This trigger does exactly what it is designed to do and, for that, rates at exactly 100% performance. However, for those wanting a slightly more relaxed rifle, certainly for fast-fire competitions, I can understand why they would like a pound taken off each stage. A Picatinny rail inclined 20 MOA is incorporated into the top of the solid-topped action for scope mounting, and AI also offer add-ons for the fore-end to take front-mounted NV and thermal equipment.
AT’s bolt handle is a polymer ball sited directly in line and above the trigger, which, as your hand leaves the grip, leads index and middle fingers straight to it so they want to flick it up. Six lugs on the bolt, in two rows around the push-feed head, unlock from their abutments in the action with a 60-degree arc before the bolt will slide back and fling the easily extracted brass clear from the receiver. A single extractor claw on the bolt’s periphery, and a plunger ejector in its face, handle their assigned tasks with aplomb and, given AI’s brand image, I’d love to hear of anyone breaking this system without the use of a helicopter to throw the gun from. The bolt’s handle is a slim steel bar, almost like a wire extension welded from the side of the shaft out of its extra locking slot, but somehow it just feels right. It is not weak or spindly at all, yet aesthetically it is the only delicate, slender and graceful component of the whole gun. The characteristically cuboid shroud to the rear of the bolt holds a three-position wing safety lever, whose serrations allow silent finger/thumb operation with confidence in gloves. The firing pin is locked on ‘safe’, as is the bolt, with the lever fully rearwards. The central position allows safe bolt operation, with forwards to enable fire. As a point of interest, I examined this bolt alongside that of the Mauser M12, and although I will never accuse either of copying, both have very similar design characteristics. I think it is no coincidence that, in their specific fields of firearms usage, both totally dominate their markets, in my opinion. Operation of the bolt is accompanied by a smooth airlock-style ‘zzzzzzzzzpppp’ every time it slides. It never jams, no matter how carelessly operated or deliberately taunted, and I say with great caution that it’s just one notch higher on ‘The Ladder of Superb’ than any other similar ‘Tac’ rifle I have ever shot. Those flutes aren’t all for show either – they are there to clear dust, debris and ice.
Unlike the AXMC, this AT is not a quick-change barrel, but swapping over isn’t exactly difficult or slow either. All that is needed is a 4mm Allen key to slacken a pinch bolt to the lower right side of the receiver before manually unscrewing the barrel from the action. It is easier to undo when vertical because the weight of the 24” tube is not straining on its threads, but it’s certainly not impossible and takes about a minute to unwind. The barrel’s threads, like all machining on this gun, are impeccable and without flaws of any type. Either replacing it or changing to another calibre is simply a reverse of the process, with the barrel nipped up hand-tight and about 5Nm of torque applied back to the external pinch bolt. Barrels, like actions, are all head-spaced to a specific dimension or pattern, rather than to each other individually, so each component head-spaces afterwards to the action itself, not the bolt head or chamber.
This gun arrived in .308 with a 24” varmint-weight barrel, capped with an AI brake over the 18x1.5mm threaded muzzle. A second barrel has arrived in .260 Remington, which will be shot in due course, but so far it’s without fault and has head-spaced within tolerance without a problem. The .260 barrel from Sporting Services is slightly larger in diameter than the 21.6mm of the AI original but, similarly, is Cerakote-finished for a matt, durable, corrosion-free lifespan. AI offer brakes and moderators compatible with the muzzle thread, or integrated units that have a quick-detach mod over the brake for multiple uses. They do get pricey, however, and zero will shift between set-ups anyway, but that’s just life with any gun. In .308 the rifle has remained within 1 MOA between barrel changes, which in the real world is acceptable because no target shooter will take a switch barrel gun for granted, or needs to. In the military world, well, your life may depend on certain things, but are you likely to change a barrel under fire? It’s not my place to say, but I don’t see it as very likely either. The thing is, you buy an AT for life, so if and when you need or want a new tube, just buy one and screw it on. If you stay with the same bolt-face family, things really are that simple!
On paper, a 24” barrelled .308 ‘Tac’ rifle might not seem that special, and buyers may just want every bell and whistle known to man – a Picatinny rail close to every latch, screw or orifice – but other than serious foxers wanting forward-mounted NV, will you really use it all? Probably not, but what I will say of the AT is this – it is a delicate joy to use. Some big ‘Tac’ rifles are like tanks. They have monopods that are slow to set up; huge, bulky grips; ridiculously tall actions with scopes towering above them; sharp Picatinny rails all over the place; knobs, buttons and screws exposed; and generally seem to want to appeal by way of their brash, inelegant looks, which proclaim indestructibility. But the AW did all that very quietly in L96 format for 30 years with nowt but some duct tape and foam padding! I wanted to prove the AI lovers wrong because I shoot against them, don’t own one myself, and can’t afford one, but when my best friend bought one I had to re-evaluate. I wanted to find flaws but not insult my friend’s choice. I wanted to have an opinion on the gun he would shoot side by side with me and base it on real-world experience. So, round to his house I went. I asked what distance it was zeroed at (100 yards) and calmly assured him it would be well cared for, not cleaned and returned 48 hours later.
The following day, after nothing more than a couple of dry fires with the gun, I dropped into the 300-yard firing point at my club with a box of factory Lapua 155gr Scenar ammunition and wound 3½ minutes of elevation onto the scope. A couple of clicks sorted out estimated average wind patterns to compete in an F Class shoot. First sighter scored a ‘3’; second sighter claimed a ‘V bull’. Hmmmmm… I will convert that one and crack on! So, after 19 more shots, and one ‘4’ after I missed the breeze reversing on a generally calm day, I walked away on a 99 ex 100 with eight ‘V bulls’. I was a little surprised myself… how? All my shots were strung horizontally across the ‘5’ ring with one ‘4’, and never any vertical spread beyond the ½ MOA ‘V bull’. I can handle a gun and shoot pretty consistently but my wind-reading ability isn’t perfect, so it was a pleasant surprise to see none were lost high or low to lack of recoil control or poor trigger manipulation. I attribute this success to two factors. Firstly, I have shot horrific ammo that will hold a nice group on target at 100-150m for hunting purposes, but literally falls to pieces with vertical spread beyond 200-250m. The Lapua held velocity consistently to ½ MOA vertically at 300 yards, which is no small compliment. Secondly, the gun made it so easy to hold that recoil in place that I could fully appreciate the consistency and capability of the ammo. I just threw this gun and ammo in at the last moment with no personal preparation at all, but then again, isn’t that what an AI is supposed to do? Well, it did for me.
In honesty, I’m no muppet, and although I’m not really a target shooter it was an easy enough day. What struck me about this gun was how easy it was to shoot well and, more subtly, the character it shot with. It was stable to aim from a grass firing point with a soft beanbag under the butt hook. It took shoulder pressure very evenly and longitudinally with zero muzzle bounce, and yes, it was braked to minimise recoil, but here is the key fact – it never felt ‘dead’. Heavy guns that are braked-up never kick hard and often stay so still on target through the recoil cycle that you see your bullet impact on target even at close range before the gun settles back into battery. The AT just gave a gentle shove to keep all the tactile nuances in sequence. Rather than a rapid snap of movement with no force, the force seemed to remain but was vastly slowed down, and the design of the brake and stock have to take full marks for doing something so indescribably subtle to the way the gun reacted.
I have since shot the gun again from improvised positions in the field, rested on beanbags, from differing bipod positions, and from both concrete floors and soft, muddy ground. I have never experienced a gun with quite such an identical feel and, more importantly, unaffected point of impact, regardless of soft hold, hard hold or support system. The lateral ports of the brake can be angled slightly and offset from true horizontal to ‘tune’ the way the gun moves under recoil. Being able to twist it and nip it tight with the pinch bolt over the threads is a handy trick to play about with. I’m not sure if it’s totally psychological or not, but when you watch the muzzle movement under recoil in slow motion with a consistent shooter behind the gun, it does show variation depending on its rotational aspect. Handling and balance are well weighted, and I can’t help but thank the bipod for contributing to that too. I decided to stay with the Lapua throughout this test as it seemed foolish to break up such a harmonious marriage, and my only regret is that I didn’t get to take the gun out further; not to test the ballistics, but to really play out. I have always had a fondness of shooting more ballistically capable calibres than the lowly .308, but the ability to shoot that large and relatively visible bullet (in terms of air-bound trace at longer range) is intoxicating, so much so that I’d forgo that second barrel and really learn to love one gun in what is a superb, if slightly ‘vanilla’, calibre.
Lifting the bolt and recycling the gun from the fixed firing point never saw it drift more than a couple of scoring rings off centre point. It wasn’t sluggish to handle and when the firing pin dropped there wasn’t an irritating metallic ‘ping’ transmitted through the entire gun. There was no vibration transmitted to my cheekbone and I could have kept shooting all day. The brake didn’t even seem to project noise badly, and I know that because I regularly shoot alongside this gun during McQueens with my mate. I can’t decide whether I like this gun because of all the things it does so well, or because of all the things the competition do comparatively badly, but I returned it the following day and told my best friend, “That is a good gun!” I can’t think of a better mate to be jealous of, or a better brand to congratulate. We don’t make many guns in the UK any more, but it is nice to know that the ones we do make, in that Portsmouth ‘shed’, are among the very best.