As membership secretary of a large club, one of the questions I’m frequently asked – “What’s the best way to get started in F Class?” My club has an F Class shoot every couple of weeks at ranges from 300 to 1000 yards and, not surprisingly, it’s very popular.
Target Shooter magazine has always supported and followed F Class. We reported on the formation of the GB F Class Association and participated in their very first League competition at Bisley way back in 2005 – ten years ago – how time flies!
A cold November morning in 2005 – the first GBFCA shoot at Bisley
Although the rules of F Class have hardly changed in those ten years – which means they must have been pretty well correct when drafted – other things certainly have changed.
FTR or Open Class?
From a shaky start way back in 2004, the FTR Class is now proving as popular as Open Class and, at GBFCA League shoots and club shoots, many shooters choose to start with a 308, shooting off a bi-pod – in other words FTR. In Open Class, the 7mmWSM soon established itself as the ‘must have’ cartridge – if you wanted to win but, the WSM’s appetite for barrels eventually brought another 7mm cartridge into play – the 284 Winchester. This 50 year old stalwart was revived a decade or so ago as the 6.5-284 and indeed this cartridge found some favor with F Class pioneers – before the potency of the WSM was discovered.
Now, the fashion is to neck-up the 6.5-284 to 7mm and try and push that 180 grain Berger at 3000 fps. Of course you can’t and many shooters are finding it difficult to run the 180 bullet at much over 2900fps with respectable accuracy. However, any doubt as to the effectiveness of the 284 Win. was well and truly dispelled by the Australian Team at the last F Class Worlds in America in 2013 – they defied the odds and beat the favorites – Team USA!
So, it’s a clear choice – if you don’t mind shelling out for a couple of barrels per year (barrel life is about 750 rounds with the WSM) go for the 7mmWSM but, if you require a decent round-count, then opt for the 284 Win. and learn to read the wind a bit better!
So, an Open Class rifle that would ‘cut the mustard’ ten years ago could still be competitive – providing you’re not using the same barrel but what about the FTR Class?
I was fortunate to be present at the very first American F Class Nationals at Camp Butner way back in 2004 and I think that was the first proper competition where FTR rifles were recognized and had a separate class. Camp Butner is an active army base and a few of the guys based there wanted to join in with their issued kit – 308 Remingtons. Also, the local Police force fancied a go and they also turned up with their Remingtons. Plenty of civvy shooters were also using ‘off the shelf’ rifles as well so a lively competition ensued – and the FTR Class was well and truly established.
Camp Butner USA is where the first American F Class Nationals were held & FTR had its own class
The first F Class World Championships were in Canada (the birthplace of F Class of course) in 2001, the second one in South Africa and the third in England at Bisley Camp. The 2009 shoot at Bisley was the first ‘Worlds’ to recognise FTR as a legitimate class and a ‘secondary’ World Championship was held. I say ‘secondary’ because it catered for four-man FTR teams, unlike the ‘proper’ Worlds, which is for eight-man teams. In 2013 however, FTR came of age and gained parity with Open Class and eight-man teams were the order of the day at Raton USA. (Team GB won the FTR Bronze Medal by the way).
At Butner, the FTR Class was very much a beginner/entry-level class – where any shooter could bring along his 308 and shoot against like-minded and similarly armed competitors. At club level, the same is true today and this is how most shooters experience the fun of F Class shooting for the first time. It’s the way to try the sport and see if you like it – by competing with your current rifle. If your current rifle is a 308 then you will be shooting against other Remingtons, Rugers, Savages, Howas, Tikkas and the like. The famous level playing-field.
All the aforementioned are very capable rifles but their weaknesses will begin to show up at extreme ranges – 800 yards and beyond – short barrels of 24 or 26 inches just will not allow the 308 Win. to demonstrate its full potential – something longer is required if your chosen bullet – be it 155 or 200 grain – is to remain supersonic and thus stable and accurate at 1000 yards.
The alternative is a custom build and this is where it can get expensive for it’s no cheaper to build a custom FTR rifle than an Open Class gun. However, there is one option – Savage. Savage – and no manufacturer but Savage – produce a rifle which is truly ‘out of the box’ competition-ready at a sensible price.
The Savage FTR rifle shown here with the unusual Flex Bipod
The 308 Savage FTR with its 30 inch heavy profile barrel will do the job admirably all the way out to 1000 yards and it is available at a very competitive price. Any custom-built 308 will almost certainly cost you at least £1000 more. Savage even run their own FTR team, who reputedly run these rifles exactly as they come out of the factory. They are that good. If you live in the UK, you should be paying around £1500 for your Savage FTR rifle – read our test report in Target Shooter from a few weeks ago.
But, let’s say you can afford something better than the Savage – though in what area it would be better, it’s hard to say. The button-rifled barrel is not perhaps up to ‘match’ standard but it is capable of half MOA accuracy with good hand-loads. The Savage action has a solid bottom and small ejection-port, making it stiffer than most other factory offerings and the Accutrigger is more than acceptable for FTR work. The wood-laminate stock is stiff and long and comes with an accessory rail already installed, meaning you can take advantage of one of the many FTR bi-pods on offer.
Now we’ve mentioned bi-pods let’s briefly explore the market. Unlike the Open Class rifle, which may weigh a massive 22lbs, (10kg.) the FTR rifle has a maximum weight of 18lbs (8.25kg) and this includes the bi-pod and scope. The Savage weighs 12.65lbs out of the box so add a couple of pounds for a scope, rail and rings and we are left with just over two pounds for the bi-pod. If you choose to fit a heavier scope – like a Nightforce for example, it will leave less than two pounds for the bi-pod.
Large or small – they need to be light
Fortunately, the market is aware of our plight and an array of bi-pods is on offer and most weigh less than two pounds. Weigh your rifle and buy the heaviest bi-pod you can. All are adjustable – some easily with the turn of a mariner wheel from the prone position, others will require a little more effort but, most importantly, the bi-pod must offer a wide footprint for stability and provide a rigid shooting-platform.
Check out the bi-pods from Evo Leisure, Sinclair, Dolphin, Mystic Precision etc. Prices range from £150 to £250 and more. What about the Harris? It’s light and yes, you could shoot off it but, how many do you see in serious FTR competition?
Before you buy your bi-pod however, you will need a scope and again, it’s a minefield. If you will be shooting 1000 yards then I would recommend at least 32 power and preferably a variable – like the 8-32. The cheapest ‘useable’ scope in this range is the Sightron. It’s a great scope for the money and at just over £800 it’s half the price of its nearest competitor. It’s also light – at 1.5lbs – and there are some great reticles for the F Class shooter – like the LRMOA.
The scope at the top of the picture will cost you over two grand. The one at the bottom less than £200. All will do the job but if you’re serious, the scope is not the place to skimp.
Why a variable? If you choose a fixed-power scope in the 32 power region, it’s likely that your own target – and only your own target – will be visible to you. Most F Class shooters will turn down the power and keep an eye on their competitors’ targets on either side – as a secondary wind check! Very useful.
Other options are the excellent March and, if you can take the weight, the Nightforce range. The 12-50 Schmidt & Bender is another excellent scope but far too heavy for an FTR rifle. Whatever you chose, go for a scope with a side focus – it’s much easier to operate from the prone position. Illuminated reticles are not needed. Choose a scope with turrets marked in MOA rather than milradian – the F Class target has half MOA rings – makes things much easier.
If I haven’t convinced you to buy a Savage FTR rifle, then what are the options? The next step up will be a full custom rifle. This will give YOU the choice of stock, action, barrel, trigger etc. but expect to pay at least a £1000 on top of the price of the Savage. Will it shoot any better? Maybe. But, to take advantage of your custom rifle you will need to learn to read the wind and be meticulous with your handloads.
With a factory Savage FTR, you will be competitive in any club competition. If you choose to swim in a larger F Class pond – i.e. the GBF Class Association League, you will find a different world – a world with few factory Savages! The FTR Class has evolved far more than Open Class and now, it is anything but the ‘entry level’ class it was meant to be.
The current crop of FTR shooters have pushed the ballistics of the humble 308 Winchester to the extent that it is almost competitive with many Open Class cartridges. Just check out the scores at any GBFCA League match – often there are but a few points separating the two classes. Pushing the 308 at over 3000fps has transformed the cartridge into a long-range target-round but created pressures capable of destroying brass cases after two or three firings. Most serious shooters now use the small-primer Lapua Palma brass which was produced to cope with these pressures.
I’ve seen many a club shooter really struggle to be competitive with a 308 rifle – particularly if it doesn’t have a long enough barrel. This can be off-putting for the novice. The answer – why not try Open Class? Whereas Open Class was always the class for the experienced shooter, this is no longer the case. If you shoot at club level, you’ll probably enjoy your F Class a lot more with an Open gun. Again, Savage produce a great rifle – the 6.5-284 but a 6.5×55 Tikka would make a great starter rifle. If you don’t shoot beyond 600 yards the 6BR version of the Savage would also be a great rifle.
Ten years ago, prior to the arrival of the 7mmWSM, the 6.5-284 dominated F Class. The Americans were still using it at the 2009 World Championships. High quality brass is available from Lapua and Norma and, ten years ago, we didn’t have the superb Berger bullets now available. The 6.5-284 is still a very capable 1000 yard cartridge and will comfortably outshoot the average 308 at this range. The Savage has a great laminate stock with a three-inch beaver-tail fore-end to suit the machine front-rest allowed in Open Class or, if you prefer, you can still shoot off a bi-pod. With a permitted maximum weight of 22lbs you can use any scope or bi-pod.
A typical Open Class rifle – built without compromise with one thing in mind – long-range accuracy
If you choose to go the custom route, then an Open gun will cost exactly the same as a custom FTR gun. The choice of calibres with a custom gun is endless – you could try 6.5×47 if most of your shooting is at 600 yards or less but for a new shooter, I wouldn’t go bigger than the ‘straight’ 284. The WSM can be an expensive beast to feed and it delivers a fair kick to boot – don’t forget, muzzle-brakes are not permitted in F Class competition.
So, a lot to think about. But, F Class is great fun and really, it’s the only long-range competition available if you want to shoot a rested rifle with a telescopic sight. Next time, we’ll have a look at everything else you need to get started in F Class.