Whidden’s Winning .308 Palma Rifle
John Whidden's Home-Built Camp Perry Palma Rifle
John Whidden is an inspiration for all of us who aspire to represent the USA in international competition. Campaigning a home-built rifle with a Winchester Model 70 action, John racked up the top score (2232-93X) at the recent U.S. Palma Team Trials. Shot prone, with sling, at multiple distances, Palma competition demands great marksmanship and wind-reading skills, along with a superbly accurate rifle. In this feature story, John explains the Palma game and gives tips on getting match-winning accuracy out of the popular .308 Win cartridge. John also provides a starter guide for the home gunsmith.
Long-range Shooting and the U.S. Palma Team Try-Outs
by John Whidden
The world of competitive shooting opened for me when I was 12 years old. I found out our 4-H club had a BB gun team and I joined up. This is where I first learned about positions and sight alignment and such. My father has always been a shotgunner and this lead me to shoot in the state Junior Olympic programs. Starting when I was fifteen, I won the state junior championships for trap a couple of times and got to travel to the Olympic Training Center. This was to shoot the junior nationals. Not having a good place to practice, I got crushed. My first experience that allowed me to see the value of serious and frequent practice was my high school JROTC rifle team. We shot 3-position air rifle. I had some success there placing second individual in the state my senior year. After graduation, I moved on to North Georgia College and shot on their rifle team. We were a College Club team, which is for schools that are smaller than NCAA schools. We were pretty strong in air rifle, but a little less so in small bore. While in college, I also managed a little time to shoot tactical pistol matches. After graduation, I got married and started into the working world. After about two years, I started missing the challenges of regular competition. Long range shooting has always held a little mystique with me, as it does for a lot of people, so I thought I’d give it a try. Luckily, I had enough gear to get my foot in the door and try it using a basically stock AR-15. I was hooked immediately and can’t seem to get enough!
Soon after getting into long-range Highpower, I learned about the Palma team, which is the U.S. National team for long-range shooting. Tryouts for the Palma team come around every four years. The most recent Palma tryouts were shot at Phoenix, Arizona at the Ben Avery range in October, 2005. I managed to place first among the team candidates. It was a great place to hold such an event and is a very challenging place to shoot. While out there, we had scheduled a practice day, four days of competition to actually make the Palma team, and two days of practice for those who made the team. Each day, we shot four strings of 15 shots each (all at 1000 yards) for the tryouts. One factor that helped my success was the accuracy of my gun and ammo combination. I had seen it drive nails enough times that my confidence in it was very high. I would suggest to a new shooter wanting to make the next team to get ones equipment shooting very well and work on shot execution. The shots going down range must be good to even begin to do well with the wind.
A Palma Gun that Started as a Varminter
The Palma gun that I shot at the tryouts started its life as my wife’s prairie dog rifle. It was a Winchester Model 70 Heavy Varmint in .222, with a post-64 push-feed action. It shot well, but with all the traveling I was doing to compete, I didn’t have time to hunt prairie dogs, so it became the action donor for the Palma gun. This Palma rifle is in the Robertson Original prone stock that I prefer. I installed an Anschutz trigger in a Briley adapter. I really like the adjustability of the Anschutz and it has proven to be very reliable in a couple of my other rifles. I pillar bedded the action to the stock using only the front and center screws. This allowed me to get by without most of the modification to the Anschutz trigger that the adapter usually requires. I use a Warner rear sight and an RPA 22mm ladder for the front. I do not shoot a lens in either sight, but I do use prescription glasses from Decot. I have a Pearson scope/sight base installed on a cant of 12.5 degrees so that the sights are level when I’m in position. The stock is painted with gel coat by David Fullerton. It is an extremely durable finish and has some texture so it’s not too slick when you’re sweating. Some of the cheek-piece hardware I built from scratch. The three-way adjustable buttplate is the basic Robertson Composites’ unit, but the articulated hook that sits over the top of my shoulder is a MEC Contact II unit from Centershot Sports.
An Unconventional Twist Rate for a Palma Rifle
The most unusual thing about this rifle is the 10-twist barrel. Conventional Palma wisdom is to run a slower twist rate, such as 1:12″ or 1:13″. Tim North at Broughton supplied me with a 1:10” twist light Palma contour that I finished at 32” of length. I chose Broughton because their barrels have proven to be a step above others in the accuracy department. The Broughton crew really does an exceptional job of lapping and quality control and the results show on the target. I chambered the barrel with a ’95 Palma reamer and throated it out an additional .100” for longer seating depth. I intended this barrel to shoot the 210 grain Berger VLDs and it shoots them well. During this time period, I had become intrigued by some results my friend Burke Lott was getting with 155 grain bullets. I built Burke an F-Class gun this past spring. His barrel is a Broughton 1:10” twist that I chambered in .308 at his request. Burke tried the 155 grain Lapuas and his results were very good. At this time, I thought it was interesting that his 10-twist would shoot the 155s so well. After he brought the gun to the range about five weeks in a row and consistently shot at or under a half minute at 1000 yards, he really had my attention! I tried the Berger 155s in my 10-twist and they shot fantastically well. After considerable testing and shooting this combination at Camp Perry, I am confident that this is one of the very best shooting guns I’ve ever had.
Load Development–Reasonable Pressures and Neck Tension are Key
My load development process is a little backwards from what is proposed in the gun magazines. I will load some rounds one at a time working up quickly in powder charge and go shoot them in the yard (luckily I can do this at home). What I am looking for is some signal when I get to the upper end of workable pressures–usually primer cratering or stiff bolt lift. Now that I know where the top is, I will back off until I am comfortable that the pressure signs have gone away. This is usually about where I start with powder charge for accuracy testing. I like CCI BR2 primers and have a lot that gives me good results, so I usually don’t bother to test any others. I soft seat all of my ammunition. This means that when I take a loaded round and chamber it, the bullet is pushed back into the case. Soft seating eliminates the variable of seating depth–just set it about .040” long on a new chamber and forget about it. There is definitely some experimentation required to find the right neck tension for soft seating. I have found that when you get the neck tension worked out, the end result is worth the effort. Since I started soft seating, there is no doubt that I have had consistently good ammo.
My current match load consists of 47.0 grains Varget, with CCI BR2 primer, Winchester brass, and 155gr Berger bullets. For most of my reloading I de-cap, full-length size, prime, and seat bullets with a Dillon progressive press. However, I’ve removed the Dillon powder measure and replaced that with a funnel. I throw the charges with an RCBS UniFlow, then trickle to 0.1 grain, and weigh each charge with a Denver Instrument APX-200, a milligram lab scale. Once I’m satisfied with the charge, I pour it through the funnel into the re-sized case. Then the loading procedure returns to progressive mode.
Seating is usually done with a Forster Ultra Seater. I find this normally produces ammo that holds within .0015″ in length measured from base to bullet ogive. I also sometimes use a Wilson hand seater. I’ll use the Wilson die if I sense I’m getting inconsistent neck tension. The Wilson has a very good feel, so it sort of serves as a diagnostic tool for neck tension. It is also useful for loading when I’m away from home at a match.<
Elements of Accuracy–What Works
To me, accuracy is all about bullets and barrels. Everything else is secondary. Berger Bullets have been shooting better than anything else I’ve tried. I take them out of the box, set them on a case, and seat them. I don’t weigh or measure anything. If you have to take a bullet, sort this, measure that, trim here, and weigh to get results, why not just buy better bullets? If you can measure these inconsistencies on the outside, why should you think the inside (balance and concentricity) is any better?
I am lucky to get to test my ammo at 1000 yards, and that’s what I do. If you don’t have 1000 yards to test on, remember that the best predictor of long range accuracy is short range accuracy. The numbers over the chrono need to be acceptable (Extreme Spread less than about 25 for 10 rounds), but don’t choose a less accurate load because it looks better on the chrono. Do, however, always test at the longest distance possible. If you have 1000 yards, you can leave the chrono at home. If you’re shooting a powder charge that’s in the same range as everyone else, your velocity will be competitive with theirs. Some of the worst ammo I ever loaded happened when I was paying too much attention to the chrono. Look at the group on the target because that is what determines your score.
I shoot my Palma gun quite a bit. A Palma gun has to be a .308 with iron sights. I enjoy shooting sights and shoot them frequently in practice. The rifle is a Winchester action with a 1:10” twist barrel from Broughton. I have played with a number of different load combinations and twist rates in these guns, everything from 210gr VLDs to 155s. Right now I’m using Varget, but have shot a lot of N550 in the .308. Primers are CCI BR2 and the brass is Winchester. The big bullets are a lot better in the wind, but the recoil is significant. I have seen that I shoot better with less recoil, and have recently shot a lot of 155s in preparation for the Palma tryouts. Let me say here that 155 grain bullets are required at the Palma tryouts, but at other matches the shooter can usually shoot whatever they wish. The 155 Berger VLDs that I shot at the Palma tryouts are the most accurate thing I have ever shot from a .308, and I have used them exclusively since I tested them.
Being Competitive–Pure Accuracy Always Helps
Prone rifles these days need to shoot .75 MOA at 1000 for 10 shots to be competitive. The best guns I have will shoot about .4 MOA. I think anything under .6 MOA is a competitive advantage, anything over .8 MOA needs further work. Rest assured your top competitors will be at that level or better.
There aren’t any really ground-breaking rifle projects coming down soon for me. I have made a serious effort in the last two years to reduce the weight of my rifles and have also seen the benefits of reduced recoil. Consequently, I will be shooting my Winchester-actioned .243 quite a bit this coming year. I don’t plan to change much before next year with my loads or equipment.
The US Palma Team represents the USA in international long-range competitions. Long-range shooting is not an Olympic sport, so it’s fair to say that the Palma team is comparable to the Olympic team, but for long-distance events. At Palma events, we shoot under generally more restrictive rules than under NRA Long Range. For example, a Palma rifle has to be a .308 with a bullet less than 156 grains, has a minimum trigger pull weight of 1.5 kg (3.3 pounds), and the rifle can’t be heavier than 6.5 kg (14.3 pounds). For most NRA competitions, these rules don’t apply.
The next Palma International Match and World Individual Championships takes place in Canada in 2007. These matches are held every four years, so naturally the team tryouts are on a four year cycle.
Most Palma rifles are built on custom single-shot actions. All Palma rifles are required to be shot with iron sights only. Any of the repeatable rear sights will work, but team members are required to have half-MOA clicks. RPA ladder front sights are popular because of the need to shoot at 800, 900, and 1000 yards. Barrels are usually 30” or longer to keep the bullet supersonic to 1000. A wide variety of stocks and triggers are used depending on the preference of the shooter.
Of course, there are a lot of things besides the rifle that contribute to success in Palma shooting. For example, I work hard to be efficient on the shooting mat while I am in position. By this I mean that my ammo is very close, my spotting scope is very close, and my movement between shots is kept to an absolute minimum. I do not remove the rifle from my shoulder between shots. For regular visitors to this site, I will say that my shooting style is similar to German Salazar’s in these respects. See the 6mmBR.com article by German Salazar and Scott Parker on Prone Shooting. This offers the advantage of being able to shoot quickly when conditions dictate.
Palma shooters also require a jacket, sling, glove, mat, and spotting scope. Selecting this gear involves personal preference. Most brands and styles of it are quite workable, but be sure to buy quality when you buy. I use a Kurt Thune jacket and sling, and the fit of the jacket is unparalleled. This is important to keep the jacket in place while in position. My spotting scope is a Kowa TSN-822M on a Freeland tripod. I have a shooting bag with all of the necessary tools and my ammo beside me while I’m shooting. I can solve most common problems using the tools in the bag while I am on the firing line. Anything more serious will probably require attention in the shop anyway.
For more information on Palma competition or the U.S. Palma team, visit USPalma.com.
Since becoming a long-range competitor, I have managed to acquire a couple of prone rifles. I am a cartridge junkie at heart, so shooting long range has given me an opportunity (read excuse) to play with several different cartridges. Right now, I’m seriously shooting four cartridges and each of them has a place. It’s a lot like golf where you have different clubs for different purposes.
Since this site attracts a lot of 6mm BR shooters, let’s start there. My 6BR is a Winchester-actioned gun with a Schneider 1-8” twist polygon barrel. It shoots pretty much anything I put in it except Lapua bullets. [Editor’s note: Lapua Scenars measure a couple ten-thousandths smaller in diameter than Sierras or Bergers.] For a load, I have settled on the typical Varget with CCI BR2 combination under a 105gr Berger VLD. I also shot a number of the JLK 105s when they were available. I shoot the BR a lot for practice because it’s economical and accurate. The feedback that I get from the shots is very good. It’s a more challenging cartridge to shoot in the wind and I don’t consider it competitive at 1000 yards for that reason. I shoot 600-yard monthly matches with it fairly often, and the wind handicap at that distance isn’t too big. I wouldn’t shoot the 6BR in difficult wind conditions at a big match.
When I do expect big wind at 600 or am shooting a 1000-yard match, I usually shoot a cartridge of my own design. I wanted a shorter, fatter 6.5-284, so I came up with the 6.5 Blister. It’s called the Blister because that’s what you get on your hands when you form them. I took a .270 WSM, necked it down to 6.5mm, and pushed the shoulder back about .225”. The capacity is only a tiny bit larger than a 6.5-284. I shoot N165 over a CCI BR2 and drive a Berger 140 VLD at about 3050 fps. I shoot the 6.5 Blister in a Gilkes-Ross actioned rifle with a Broughton 1:8” twist barrel. It is very accurate. In the wind it is inside anything else I shoot. The recoil is very manageable, though somewhat more than a 6mm cartridge. I gave it a long neck hoping to help the barrel life. Judging what I see in the borescope at 600 rounds, I don’t think there is much difference versus a 6.5-284. I am very happy with the cartridge, but making brass is a real job.
The cartridge that I may be most enthusiastic about right now is my plain old .243. This gun is also a Winchester action with a Broughton 1:8” twist barrel. I shoot the 105 Berger VLDs on top of a charge of N165. I break from the CCI BR2s here and use Federal 210Ms. My testing time was limited this summer and I tried the 210Ms because I’m low on my favorite lot of BR2s. They shoot very well, but I will probably go to the BR2s when I can get to the range and wring out this combination. I am currently using Winchester brass. This gun is a little behind the really hot cartridges in the wind, but there is a good deal less recoil. I tend to shoot very good quality shots down range with it because I don’t anticipate the recoil. It scored well at a monthly match recently, shooting 200-14x with iron sights at 1000 yards, just 2xs under the national record. I will definitely be shooting this gun a lot in 2006.
I will briefly mention some other cartridges that I have used. A barrel is still around for most of these, but I’m not actively shooting them. I have a .300 WSM that is unbelievably accurate at 1000 yards. I shoot the 210 grain VLDs, and have found that I anticipate shots due to the recoil. I have shot the 6.5-284 and it is great. Everyone has one of those, and I like things that are a little different. I have tried .284 and 7mm WSM in years past. I couldn’t get consistently good results and passed on them (guess I should talk to Jerry Tierney).
Each of these guns has a place and I wouldn’t want to be without any of them. If a shooter is just getting into the prone game, I would suggest they go with a .308 with a 1:10” twist. Since it qualifies as a Palma gun, this gun will let them shoot the whole Long Range National Championships at Camp Perry. This is a very easy cartridge to work with and there is plenty of load data. The 10-twist will allow the flexibility to shoot most any of the match bullets available with good results. This is the most versatile of the cartridges that I work with.
Shooters share a natural curiosity about why some guns shoot better than others. Pretty soon, the more mechanically inclined will start to tweak something. Usually the results are encouraging, and we tweak something else. A few slip all the way down the slippery slope and begin to build their own rifles.
Stock work is where a lot of people get their start on more serious projects. Those who are interested in wood may refinish something. Those folks who are interested in accuracy may try to bed an old hunting gun. Having a Dremel type tool and some good bedding epoxy will go a long way to letting someone bed their action into the stock. Bigger jobs such as starting with an un-inletted stock are best done on a milling machine. The small mill-drills are quite workable for these projects, but a full size milling machine with significant travel on all three axes is better. Stock work doesn’t require extreme precision from the milling work, and so an older milling machine that shows wear is usually quite acceptable.
A lathe will open up possibilities with barrel and action work. The barrel is where the bullet lives and is the most important part of the rifle for accuracy. My first lathe wasn’t much at all, but it still did good work. I won a couple of state championships with barrels from that lathe. It was an old Craftsman and was so light that I could almost pick it up by myself. I had to go slow with it, but it shows that quality work can be done with a relatively inexpensive lathe.
There are two methods of chambering a barrel in a lathe. One method is to put the barrel in the chuck. This will require a lathe with a hole through the spindle that is big enough to stick the barrel through. The other method is to use a steady rest. This will require a lathe long enough to put the barrel out over the bed. Either method can produce match-winning barrels. As for a minimum size, the spindle of the lathe must be large to accept the barrel through the chuck, or the bed must be long enough to hold a barrel between centers. Lathes are measured by the largest diameter work they will accept and the length between centers. An example would be 12×36 inches, which is a popular size for home rifle-barreling.
There is considerable debate as to whether a home shop is best outfitted with new imported machines or old American iron. There is no doubt that the old American machines offer features and quality that are not found in new imports. The problem is that most home shop machinists to be are not knowledgeable enough to shop for used equipment. If they don’t know enough about buying it, they probably don’t know anything about repairing it. If you go this route, find someone with experience to help you shop for a machine.
I have purchased a couple of newer, imported machines. I will admit that the quality of them is generally better than I expected. They are mostly ready to use when they arrive. There is also a company standing behind them with a warranty should anything be wrong. Certainly I would rather have an old Monarch lathe than my Chinese-made Enco, but the Enco has so far served me well.
Getting into this sort of thing is not for everyone. If you like handloading and do well with it, you will probably do fine with this sort of work. When getting started, finds a mentor if you can and just get some cheap materials to learn on. You can practice your stock inletting on a 4×4 post and you can thread and fit a steel bar to your action. This will reduce the cost of mistakes until you are comfortable working on stocks and barrels.
Home rifle-smithing is very rewarding and I encourage anyone who is interested to get started!
A comment from a fellow shooter:
You will notice that those who rise to the top in long range prone matches this day in time MUST have more than just shooting skills — they must have a vast knowledge of accuracy loading techniques with none of the “just load and shoot” mentality. John is not only a precision loader, but has a great analytical mind when addressing everything in his “shooting package” — from ammo to gun prep to NPA — and barrel twist. John thinks outside the box, which assists him in keeping his shots inside the high value circles.
Oh yes, John shoots all the time at 1000 yards which has given him a great education on reading the wind. I saw John shoot in the Stars and Bars (River Bend Gun Club, Georgia) at 600 yards during wind gusts up to 40 mph and just drill them in there as if it were dead calm (beat the heck out of all us F-Class shooters).
>Planning, hard work, determination and more than a little skill has placed John Whidden up there with the “Best of the Best” and the international shooting community is just learning what we all knew about this South Georgia country boy. I am very pleased that 6mmBR.com has, once again, scored a 10-X by allowing John to share his shooting techniques and story with all of us. — Jim Hardy
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Topics: Palma, U.S. Palma Team, .308, 308 Win, Winchester, 155 Lapua, 155, 6mm, 6mm BR, 6BR, 6.5-284 BS, 7mm, 300 WM, 6.5 Blister, .243 Winchester, 6.5-284, 300 WM, 270 WM, Model 70, Push-Feed, Ladder Sight, Warner Tools, USPalma.com, Norma, Hart, Lilja, Krieger, Shilen, 1000 yards, IBS, NBRSA, F-Class, Benchrest, 1000-yard, 1000, 1K, thousand-yard, Nationals, Jewell trigger, Benchrest, BR, Bench Rest, Single-shot, competition, rifle accuracy, Norma, Hodgdon Powder, Varget, Nosler, Berger, Lapua Scenar, Sierra, MatchKing, Competition Shooting, stocks, Master Class, MasterClass, Robertson Composites, gunsmith, gunsmithing, stainless barrel, reloading, powder, case forming, neck-turning, Lapua Brass, Scenar, bullets, precision.