Gun test: Bighorn Arms TL3 in .224 Valkyrie

Bighorn Arms TL3 in .244 Valkyrie

The impressive Bighorn Arms TL3 in .244 Valkyrie - Credit: Chris Parkin

Chris Parkin takes a look at a custom Bighorn Arms rifle in the new, and very intriguing, .224 Valkyrie chambering...


A 20 MOA. Picatinny rail is fitted to the action, note the bolt release catch

A 20 MOA. Picatinny rail is fitted to the action, note the bolt release catch - Credit: Chris Parkin

Valkyrie Rifles in South Yorkshire was an early UK source for either AR-15 or bolt-action rifles chambered in the new .224 Valkyrie cartridge which, although sharing a name, is not a wildcat cartridge attributed directly to Dave Wylde or his company - it's just a happy coincidence that no doubt holds appeal. The .224 Valkyrie stems from Federal in the USA and their desire to neck down the 6.8 SPC case for a heavy .224 calibre bullet, with tuned neck and throat length to optimise the round for Modern Sporting Rifle competition.

.224 Valkyrie on the left with a 90 gr Sierra SMK, .223 Remington on the right with 77gr TMK

.224 Valkyrie on the bottom with a 90 gr Sierra SMK, .223 Remington on the top with 77gr TMK - Credit: Chris Parkin

The technical standard of this rifle is superb with a 1 in 6.5" twist Sassen barrel fitted to the Bighorn TL3 action, all in matching stainless steel with bead-blasted finish. It’s a slick operating unit with a plethora of options, made to the finest tolerances and, like many peers, is based around the footprint dimensions of Remington 700’s action.

A laterally ported brake is fitted to the (18x1) thread at the 20mm diameter muzzle, although I fitted an ASE Utra moderator during review. The brake cuts nearly all the recoil and I could see bullets land at 100 metres with no sight picture disruption, so I can see some of the benefits of a brake when spotting bullet ‘trace’ in flight.

The fitted brake made recoil almost completely imperceptible, I personally like to feel a bit of the

The fitted brake made recoil almost completely imperceptible, I personally like to feel a bit of the firing impulse so used a moderator - Credit: Chris Parkin

I personally like to feel the rifle’s recoil and with no brake on or the mod fitted to highlight character, the McMillan shows impeccable manners with a firm, 25mm recoil pad transferring the minimal disturbance into my shoulder. Although not fitted here, McMillan make length of pull adjustment spacers, and models with adjustable combs offer lateral as well as height adjustment to align your head to optic.

This Bighorn ‘Bix’n Andy’ TacSport two-stage trigger, breaking crisply at 700gr, offers adjustment from 250-2,000gr. It has an interesting safety catch to the right side of the stock with back for safe/forward for fire, requiring slight lateral pressure to unlock its detent, which becomes intuitive and prevents accidental application. The 34mm round action features an integral recoil lug to simplify barrel changes, mating perfectly without stress to the fully pillar-bedded action inlet.

bighorn 224 valkyrie

“Bix’n Andy” trigger is fully adjustable with a 100% crisp feel on the two-stage pull - Credit: Chris Parkin

This is done by hand to an impeccable and deep thickness and is not to be confused with skim bedding jobs or those that crumble when disassembled. The aluminium bottom metal is also bedded in position with slight modifications made for the magazine position to feed the slimmer Valkyrie cartridge rather than the .308 it was originally designed to feed.

Integral recoil lug allows the fully bedded action to offer a switch barrel capability with alternat

Integral recoil lug allows the fully bedded action to offer a switch barrel capability with alternate bolt heads/face also available - Credit: Chris Parkin

The stock has a vertical pistol grip with a parallel comb, with a dark timber-like pattern to the composite moulding’s gel coat and stippling for the grip, both fore and aft. The butt shows an underside tapered sporter profile with studs for sling and bipod attachments. I own a few McMillans myself and have experience with composite mouldings, so I tend to notice the minor evolutionary details on the newest stocks over the older units.

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Some competitors sometimes show flaws, bubbles in gel coat or gaps in fillers, yet this McMillan shows how even they have improved their quality control maintaining superb consistency, crucial to long-life composite structures. The firing cycle offers ‘feel’ without hollow knocking sounds if bumped. Stocks like this are the ultimate bridge from walnut’s ergonomic styling, looking towards ultra-modern mechanics and durability on a rifle that would certainly make a potent varminter.

The .224 Valkyrie at 850 metres on Steel targets

The .224 Valkyrie at 850 metres on Steel targets - Credit: Chris Parkin

Pushing the limits
Pushing the limits of long-range is nice, but so much is to be enjoyed and learned at the intermediate distances and this, to me, is where the heavy, high-BC .224 calibres are at their peak. Not everyone has 2,000 metre range access, so 69 to 90gr bullets at moderate speed are a pleasure to shoot in realistic locations with appreciable ballistic benefit over 40-55gr equivalents as distances extend.

The varmint-profile, 24" barrel is fully free-floated without any intermittent contact between it and the stiff Game Scout stock, from any shooting position, bipod or not. The action has a 20 MOA Picatinny rail for simple scope mounting and its twin lug, 90-degree lift bolt features a replaceable head with controlled feed from the underside AICS magazine. This has a modified follower for the shorter/slimmer cartridge and holds ten rounds with slick feeding.

Strong primary extraction is supplied by the 70mm bolt handle with 21mm diameter knob. The ‘short’ action features a 101mm bolt stroke, meaning you could run switch barrel larger cartridges like Creedmoors or .308, with a larger bolt head/face of 0.473" and an extra magazine. The bolt’s internals and firing pin spring allow further fluidity in the action, whose manual ejector allows the valuable .224 Valkyrie brass to be ejected as vigorously as applied bolt speed dictates.

bihorn 224 valkyrie safety catch

The safety catch needs slight lateral pressure to release its position when firing - Credit: Chris Parkin

Small delicate details like this easily go unnoticed, but all contribute towards a rifle’s precision and accuracy from shot to shot with delicacy shown to the ammunition itself for both longevity of the brass and feed damage to the bullet when chambered. 

Although factory ammunition is available in the cartridge, I have never seen a rifle whose consistency didn’t benefit from handloads and people don’t tend to have rifles built to these standards to feed it anything other than the finest hand-tailored ammo.

custom-made orange magazine follower

Note the custom-made orange magazine follower to assist smooth feeding of the short, fat Valkyrie cartridge below the control feed bolt face - Credit: Chris Parkin

Ammo specs
Technical cartridge details can be excruciating and dependant on exact loading specification, but both this and .223 are rated to 55,000 PSI by SAAMI (Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute). With respect to that, consider the Valkyrie more about improved packaging than increased power alone. Recent decades have shown a surge in shorter cartridges perceived to give superior burning characteristics than long slender ones, but there are no specific examples of the oldies no longer being good – they have benefits too.

Customised ten round AICS magazine loaded for action

Customised ten round AICS magazine loaded for action - Credit: Chris Parkin

Shorter cases can be harder to magazine feed as they physically bridge across the gap of the action’s bolt abutments before reaching the chamber. This Bighorn TL3 action may well be one of the finest available, yet still shows personalised customisation, particularly in the magazine and feed angles for the short shell. Some rifles like the bolt run fast, some prefer it slow; here either will show the rounds chambered or ejected with zero interruption or damage visible. Serious handloaders pay massive attention to bullet concentricity in the case neck; would you waste that time jamming a round roughly into the barrel?!

Case capacity is only fractionally greater than .223 Remington with a shorter case body length of 1.600" compared to the 1.760" of the .223. Longer, high-BC bullets are now more easily proportioned into AR-15 straight pull, or slightly less critically, bolt action, rifles. The case is fatter with a 0.422" versus 0.376" body diameter and the boat tail of the bullet within the neck is not stealing from powder capacity.
Rather than judging the case as bigger being better ballistically, it’s more about efficient packaging of long bullets.

A 1 in 7" twist rate on the barrel was first mooted by Federal but a 1 in 6.5" twist rate is preferred for the 90gr bullets, representing the highest .224 calibre BCs, to remain stable. I was supplied with handloads for the rifle with muzzle velocity for the Sierra Matchking bullet, boasting a 0.504 G1 ballistic coefficient, at 2,666 fps, on what were preliminary ‘experimental recipes’ using Federal small rifle primers and RS52 powder. Charge weight is ~23+ grains (I can’t detail it, but all the usual safety warnings apply).

A five-round group at 200 metres from primary test loads before true customisation began

A five-round group at 200 metres from primary test loads before true customisation began - Credit: Chris Parkin


Field testing
This preliminary test load gave me sub-inch 5-round groups at 200 metres with a best of 0.692", sub-half MOA. At that time, Dave thought RS52 may not be the optimum powder choice and no specific COL. (chamber length) finetuning had been done, but results at that early stage were more than acceptable.

This review is not so much testament to the specific cartridge, just the capability of a full custom rifle using consistent handloaded ammunition at ‘starting capability’. Comparing this to my own ‘.223 Wylde’ rifle with the 77gr TMK bullet in a 1 in 8" twist barrel of 20” at 2,842 fps, the trajectory advantage from the .224 Valkyrie is marginal with about 30 extra metres of truly supersonic flight, getting close to 1,000 metres. The big difference is the higher BC 90gr bullet shrugs the wind far better, an 800 metre shot showing 20cm less wind drift in a 5 m/s crosswind from the ‘Valkyrie’.

wind drift chart for Sierra 77gr and 90gr HPBT TMK bullets

Comparison of wind drift from the two different bullet weights - Credit: Chris Parkin

Rifles like this are built to personalised specifications, and although I like premium components, I look at detail, paying more attention to the almost invisible elements showing the rifle builder’s craft. Here, things like the tuned magazine position and floorplate are the subtle crowning factors superseding even metal finishing standards, barrel work and threading.

A bedding job showing zero action stress are 100% expected in rifles of this quality, but customised magazine followers are not the work of pure machinists; these show the attention to detail of a truly experienced craftsman working in something of a dark art. I don’t think the .224 Valkyrie will quite reach the popularity of the Creedmoor. It is a little more niche, but it certainly has intrinsic accuracy and excellent ballistics for those needing a more modest powder burn and less muzzle energy without sacrificing accuracy or precision at longer ranges. 

Impeccable deep pillar bedding standards

Impeccable deep pillar bedding standards - Credit: Chris Parkin

Pros

  • A beautifully built rifle with performance to match
  • Fine trigger
  • Easy clean barrel
  • Custom magazine work shows the capability of the builder to tailor any cartridge

Cons

  • Realistically, one for the handloaders

Verdict
The Valkyrie is an interesting new cartridge yet this review is more about the detail and craftsmanship available when specifying your own personalised rifle, nobody else will have one quite like yours!

Specifications
Model:    Bighorn Arms TL-3 Custom
Calibre:    .224 Valkyrie
Barrel:    24” 1 in 6.5” twist Sassen Lapped and polished
Weight:    4.58/10lb
Overall length:    45 ¾ ,1160mm
Trigger:    Bix’n Andy two stage set at 700 grams
Magazine Capacity:    Customised ten round Accuracy International AICS detachable
Scope Mounting:    20 M.O.A. Bighorn Picatinny rail fitted
Stock:    McMillan Game scout composite, fully pillar bedded
Length of Pull:    14.25”

Approximate Price:    £4500  - for this unique rifle, but significant variation is an option.

Contact
Valkyrie Rifles
Tel: 07889 388378