Earlier this year, I started planning what I might shoot in the Nightforce ELR Steel Challenge rifle match that is held each year up in Wyoming. The past two years I competed in that match I used a 300 Norma Mag built on a Surgeon XL action in AIAX chassis. In a conversation with Scott Seigmund from Accuracy International, he asked if I’d be interested in testing their new AXSR rifle. The AI AXSR is the commercial version of the rifle they developed for the Advanced Sniper Rifle (ASR) contract for USSOCOM. While I have owned custom rifles in Accuracy International chassis, I’d never spent much time behind one of their complete rifles. I had checked out the ASR rifle at SHOT Show earlier this year, and after learning a little more about it, my interest was piqued.
Scott asked me what I’d like the rifle chambered in, and while I had considered trying another cartridge, now that Lapua makes 300 Norma Mag brass, I was compelled to stay on that horse and see what kind of improvement I might get going from Norma to Lapua brass. I received the rifle from AI in early May, which gave me about six weeks to develop a load and get comfortable behind the rifle before the Wyoming ELR match.
I ended up placing 4th overall at the Nightforce ELR Steel Challenge in Wyoming using the AI AXSR rifle. Jorge Ortiz took 1st place this year and he was also shooting an AI AXSR rifle chambered in 300 Norma Mag. In this post, I’ll share some highlights about the rifle, and give an honest perspective of both the strengths and weaknesses.
Accuracy International AXSR Rifle Specs
Let’s start with some specs for the Accuracy International AXSR rifle I tested:
- Cartridge: 300 Norma Mag.
- Action/Bolt: AI design, front locking, 6 lugs, 60-degree throw, 6mm striker fall
- Barrel: 27-inch single-point, cut-rifled, match-grade barrel with 1:8.5 twist rate in Accuracy International’s custom contour, which was 0.98” at the muzzle (easily removable using AI’s QuickLoc barrel clamp system)
- Cheekpiece adjustable for height, lateral, and forward/backward
- Butt adjustable for length of pull, height, and rotation
- Optics Rail: Picatinny with 20 MOA of taper/cant built-in
- Rail Interface: RRS compatible 1.5″ dovetail interfaces
- Attachment interfaces: Available with keylock/keymod or M-LOK (more on this later)
- Trigger: Two-Stage competition model with a pull weight of 2 lbs. 7 oz.
- Muzzle Brake: American Precision Arms Fat B*
- Magazine: 10-round, true double-stack, detachable box magazine
- Length: 51.0 inches unfolded, 41.5 inches folded (includes muzzle brake)
- 16.02 lbs. for the bare rifle with muzzle brake and empty magazine (no optics, bipod, etc.)
- 21.75 lbs. fully loaded with scope and mount, bipod, bubble level, dope cardholder, and empty mag
Here is what I added to the rifle:
With the ERA-TAC adjustable mount dialed to 40 MOA of incline plus the 20 MOA of taper/cant built into the rail on the AI AXSR rifle, I had a total of 60 MOA of downward taper. That paired perfectly with the Nightforce ATACR 7-35×56 scope and made it so almost 100% of the scopes internal elevation adjustment was useable. Only 1.7 mils of travel were “below” my 100-yard zero, which allowed me to dial up to 35.9 mils of elevation adjustment. With the ammo I used and atmospherics at the Wyoming match, that would allow me to dial all the way out to 2900 yards! (Note: If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about here, check out this post that explains it in more detail.)
Of course, the cool thing about the ERA-TAC Adjustable Inclination Mount is that I could change the amount of taper/cant in the mount from in 10 MOA increments from 0 to 60 MOA. So if I needed to be able to dial beyond 2900 yards, I could add another 20 MOA to the mount for a total of 80 MOA (including the 20 MOA in the AXSR rail) and then change to a 1000-yard zero and be able to stretch beyond 3000 yards before I had to start holding any of my elevation adjustment.
AXSR Rifle Design & Testing
The AXSR is simply the commercial version of the rifle that Accuracy International submitted for the coveted Advanced Sniper Rifle (ASR) program for USSOCOM. That program provided an exhaustive list of specifications and tests the rifle must endure to be considered for the contract. I was able to review the complete (but confidential) report Accuracy International submitted to USSOCOM itemizing each of the specs and details showing how their rifle either meets or exceeds their requirements.
While Accuracy International has a team of talented, in-house engineers, for the ASR solicitation they also teamed up with a highly respected, third-party engineering firm here in the U.S. that included some of the most experienced and serious engineers in the world when it came to rifle testing. Members of that group also had extensive experience with the unique requirements of a USSOCOM solicitation. This third-party firm helped with the chassis design, and performed much of the rigorous testing required for the ASR project.
Luckily, Accuracy International did give me permission to share a few photos to help you understand some of the extreme tests the rifle was put through during their product development and testing.
Testing after being submerged in mud, subjected to excessive ice build-up, and blasted with dust:
Testing at extreme temperatures, heating the rifle and ammunition to over 160° F (71° C) and freezing them at -40° F (-40° C … yes, those are the same):
Fired for 10,000+ rounds and inspecting for surface wear:
They also did things like testing for corrosion after exposing the rifle to a salt fog for an extended period, they dropped the rifle from a height of 1.5 meters (5 feet), and a ton of other abusive tests! Below is one final photo to illustrate how unconventional some of the tests got. This test shows the sling and mounts will support at least 250 pounds!
All of this testing gave me so much confidence in the reliability of the AI AXSR rifle system that I didn’t even pack a backup rifle when I traveled 800+ miles to compete in the Nightforce ELR Steel Challenge in Wyoming. Clearly, this rifle had been put through the paces!
My Load & Rifle Performance
Before Accuracy International shipped me the rifle, they took the exact rifle I tested to see what kind of groups it shot and then sent me the photos below and this message: “These are the initial test groups from the barrel. I think it’s going to be a good one. I leaked one shot on the second group, but it’s still a 0.350” group.”
Wow! Honestly, I’ve shot out a couple of 300 Norma barrels on my custom rifle that were chambered by one of the most respected gunsmiths in the country, but I’ve never seen groups like that. I was excited to get my hands on this rifle!
You can see in the photo above, the guys at Accuracy International shot those groups with ammo loaded by Black Hills for the “ASR Program.” The ammo uses the 215 gr. Berger OTM Hybrid bullet, which is a fantastic bullet. I used that exact bullet out of my 300 Norma the past two times I competed in the Wyoming ELR match, but after doing some ballistic comparison with the new Hornady 230 gr. A-Tip, I was excited to give the A-Tip’s a shot. Here is what I found:
At least on paper, the Hornady 230 gr. A-Tip seemed to be a 15-20% improvement ballistically. The muzzle velocity I used for the 215 Hybrid was based on the real load I used in the past, and the 2930 fps with the 230 gr. A-Tip was estimated to have roughly equivalent chamber pressure. I calculated that by duplicating the energy at the muzzle from the 215 Hybrid load, which is a way to estimate what the muzzle velocity might be of a bullet with a different weight. I ran the ballistics for the 215 gr. load and wrote down what the energy was at the muzzle, and then I ran the ballistics for the 230 gr. bullet and simply tweaked the muzzle velocity until it was very close to the same at the muzzle as what I wrote down for the 215 gr. load. It turns out the real load with the 230 gr. A-Tip turned out to have a very similar velocity to this estimate, so it is a valid, apples-to-apples comparison.
Muzzle Velocity Consistency
As I said mentioned, the fact that Lapua released brass for the 300 Norma Mag is the primary reason I chose to run that cartridge again in the Nightforce ELR Steel Challenge this year. In past years I used Norma brass, and I never could get my muzzle velocity as consistent as I would like.
Now, I know guys who fixate on tiny standard deviations (SD’s) in muzzle velocity in traditional PRS/NRL style matches, and a few even want their SD’s in the 4-7 fps range (which would roughly equate to an ES around 15-35 fps). While I’d love that, I’m not sure it’s necessary for PRS/NRL matches. With 1.5-2.0 MOA target sizes inside of 1000 yards, higher SD’s typically wouldn’t result in a miss. Don’t get me wrong, more consistent muzzle velocity is always better – but you reach the point of diminishing returns in traditional long-range matches pretty quickly. However, as you extend your distance into 1400+ yards and your bullet’s time of flight extends, the consistency of your muzzle velocity starts to become critical for first-round hits.
While I was using Norma brass for my 300 Norma, I could never find a load that produced SD’s in the single digits (when firing a string of 10 shots or more). I would usually see 10-13 fps SD’s, which means 95% of my shots would be within 20-26 fps of my average muzzle velocity. If my average muzzle velocity with the 215 Hybrids was 3070 fps and my SD was 12 fps, I could expect over the long haul that 95% of my bullets would leave the muzzle between 3046 and 3094 fps. Okay, that may sound academic, so what does that mean on a target at 1600 yards?
The graphic above is taken from the Weapon Employment Zone (WEZ) Analysis in the Applied Ballistics Analytics software package. It simulates hundreds of shots fired with all the various uncertainties that play into shot placement at long range. I ran the analysis on the left with a 12 fps SD and the simulation on the right with a 7 fps SD. All things being equal, this analysis predicts your hit probability would go up 8-9% due to the smaller SD, and while that may sound small, it represents a 20% improvement! You can see the vertical spread of the shots on the left is much larger, and that is simply due to the less consistent muzzle velocity. Faster shots will hit high, and bullets that leave the muzzle with slower velocities will hit lower.
In my experience, Lapua brass is the most consistent on the market, and straight out of the box it will typically produce lower SD’s than any other brand. To be clear, I’m not a fan-boy of any brand, but that is simply my experience over the past decade. And that proved true once again here! Once I received the rifle from AI, I only had six weeks before the match, so I performed what I consider “quick and dirty” load development with the Hornady 230 gr. A-Tip. The AI barrel only had 40 rounds on it when I received it, and I suspected the muzzle velocity would continue to speed up over the first 100-200 rounds before it settled in and became more consistent. I didn’t want to spend a ton of time fine-tuning a load, knowing my muzzle velocity would be changing for a while, so I figured I’d just find a load that was safe and provided decent performance that I could practice with, and then I could come back and fine-tune my load before the match and the barrel would be seasoned by that point. I’ve also learned the hard way to not spend too much time fine-tuning a load for a new bullet before you try it at distance. 😉
After firing around 40 rounds with various powder charge weights, I ended up settling on 84.5 gr. of Hodgdon H1000. I use one of the Hodgdon Extreme Series powders for most of my loads because it isn’t sensitive to temperature changes and has been a consistent performer for me. Honestly, I use either H4350 or H1000 for 90% of the loads I run in my rifles from 6mm to 338 caliber. The average muzzle velocity of the 84.5 gr. of H1000 after the first 80 rounds on the barrel was 2927 fps, which was VERY similar to the 2930 I originally estimated and used for the ballistic comparison above. According to QuickLOAD, this put me right at the top end of the range for safe pressures, but still inside it. I started off jumping the bullet 0.100” to the lands because I knew the rifling would erode over the first 100-200 rounds, and I wanted to minimize the impact that might have on my group size. I figured I’d go back and test a few bullet jumps when I came back to fine-tune my load before the match.
After that, I loaded up 50 rounds to shoot long. I started around 600 yards and stepped out the distance. I was using the Kestrel with Hornady 4DOF, and honestly, the predictive ballistics lined up fairly well before any truing. I simply had to change the Axial Form Factor from 1.00 to 1.06 to get the ballistic engine to line up with my actual impacts all the way out. And when I say “all the way out,” I really mean it! What the Kestrel called for at all distances from 600 yards to over 2000 yards was within 1 click (0.1 mils) of my actual impacts in the field! I hadn’t used the Kestrel with Hornady 4DOF much before this, but that was the simplest truing experience I have ever had. I tested it on multiple days in a variety of conditions, and it has been dead nuts on ever since I tweaked that Axial Form Factor.
At my range, we have a large 5 ft. tall x 6 ft. wide target at 1622 yards that we use for truing. During my first range long range session, I fired 9 shots that day at the 1622 yard target and 5 of those were touching! Those 5 shots are tough to differentiate in the photo of the target below, but it’s the cluster right in the center (may need to zoom in).
At the end of that range session, my muzzle velocity had increased to an average of 2937 fps. Over the next 100 rounds, my average muzzle velocity climbed to 2945 fps and seemed to settle in there. I had 300 pieces of brand new Lapua brass that I wanted to shoot through at least once before the match. During one of my range practice sessions, while I was still shooting through the new Lapua brass, I recorded the string shown below of 36 consecutive shots over my LabRadar – and it had a standard deviation (SD) of just 5.5 fps! I’ve never seen or heard of something that low over such a large sample size. (Note: If you measure SD using less than 10 shots, you should know: “For small samples, standard deviation will almost always underestimate variation.” I hope to write more on that soon, but you can read more here.)
For those that are naturally more skeptical (or cynical), I did record a video to prove I didn’t delete any shots from that string. It really was 36 consecutive shots. I was just as shocked as you at how consistent the 300 Norma load with minimal effort in load development was over that huge sample size. I did decide at that point, that “fine-tuning” my load might not be necessary. 😉
The only brass prep I did for that ammo was to sort the brass by weight, and I ended up culling around 5-7 pieces that were outliers from each box of 100 pieces. I also ran a neck expander mandrel through each piece of brand new Lapua brass. I used a K & M Precision Custom Diameter Expand Mandrel for 0.003” of bullet tension to ensure each case had consistent neck tension. I did load the ammo using a Prometheus powder scale, which always helps.
Testing Bullet Jump & Group Sizes
I did go back and try a couple of different bullet jump lengths to see if I could coax slightly smaller groups from the barrel. I was averaging around 0.7 MOA groups during my original load development, but long, boattail bullets like the 230 gr. A-Tip typically aren’t known for printing tiny groups. That’s why short-range Benchrest shooters use flat-base bullets (and slow-twist barrels). I started by testing 3 dramatically different bullet jumps: 0.030” into the lands, 0.050” off the lands, and 0.100” off the lands. I measured the distance to the lands using Mark Gordon’s super-precise and repeatable method. I figured one or two of those might far out-perform one or two of them, and that would give me direction on what range to do further testing. I started with a 7-shot group of each of the three bullet jumps, but I brought everything to the range with me to do follow-up tests on a smaller range of bullet jumps after those initial groups. Here is what I found:
I recently collaborated with the owner of Ballistic-X, a phone app designed to take a photo of a group and calculate the size of it (available for iOS or Android). I recommended a few advanced statistics to add to the group analysis, like mean radius (aka average distance to center), circular error probable (CEP), radial SD, etc. Unlike ES, these metrics take all shots in the group into consideration and should allow you to have more confidence in the results. The software already had all the data needed to do the calculations, so it was just a matter of programming the formulas and displaying the results. I believe the revised version of the app with these features will be released soon (potentially with some other very cool features I’m excited about). The graphics above were based on a test version of the app we were working on, and I used it to do the advanced group analysis. I plugged the stats from the groups above into Excel and charted them side-by-side to see which bullet jumps stood out:
None of them stood out! The stats for all three bullet jumps were virtually identical, no matter which metric you looked at. I believe the stats that are most meaningful for making these kinds of decisions are mean radius or CEP, but the differences were so slight that I believe they’re “in the noise” based on the 7-shot sample size.
While a 0.7 MOA group size doesn’t sound impressive, that was over a 7-shot group. Most people fire 3 shots or maybe 5 shots, which results in smaller group sizes. I did a larger sample size so I could have higher confidence in the results. If I would have stopped at 3 or 5 shots, the groups would have measured much smaller – but may have given me a false sense of confidence. I’d encourage you to go take your 0.25 MOA rifle out and fire a couple of 7-shot groups with it. I bet they don’t average 0.25 MOA!
However, you should also understand what the other stats are saying and not just pay attention to the extreme spread. Circular Error Probable (CEP) is a GREAT stat because it tells you how big the circle would need to be for 50% of the shots to fall inside of it. In this case, the radius of that circle would be around 0.25 MOA, meaning 50% of the shots would fall inside of a 0.5 MOA group.
I also believe most people over-estimate the effect of group size at extreme long range. If you remember from my last article, the average target at the Nightforce ELR Steel Challenge in Wyoming was just 1 MOA tall (0.3 mils) – and I finished 4th overall at that match against some world-class shooters, so clearly I was able to connect with a lot of those targets, even though my 7-shot groups measured 0.7 MOA. (Learn more about the effect of group size on hit probability here: How much does group size matter?)
In fact, at the Wyoming ELR match, they had a tie-breaker stage where each competitor fired one 3-shot group through a Shot Marker electronic target at 950 yards, and it would precisely measure the extreme spread of the group. While I was writing down my adjustments for elevation and windage on that stage, I measured the wind with my Kestrel to be blowing over 20 mph. My 3-shot group with the AI AXSR 300 Norma Mag and 230 gr. A-Tips measured just 4.23 inches at 950 yards in 20 mph winds! Only 14 of the 180+ competitors shot groups under 5 inches, so clearly my group sizes weren’t that bad! I had the 7th smallest group of all the shooters at the match. The average 3-shot group on that stage at the match was 11.7” at 950 yards. Chase “Pump” Stroud had the best 3-shot group, which measured 2.03 inches! I think he was shooting a 338 EnABLR, so that is especially impressive with a big magnum like that pushing 300 gr. bullets at 3,300 fps!
My Final Load Details
After the bullet jump test, I ended up sticking with the 0.100” bullet jump because it had already proven to have extremely consistent muzzle velocities and there didn’t appear to be any measurable advantage in terms of group size by changing it.
Interestingly, my muzzle velocity with once-fired brass ended up being slightly higher at 2968 fps and was slightly less consistent. Where I had an SD of 5.5 fps over that long 36 shot string with brand new Lapua brass, my SD with once-fired brass averaged 9 fps (over 20+ shot strings). I did anneal with an Annealing Made Perfect machine, full-length resize with Redding dies, and expand the neck using the same K & M mandrel between firings. While a 5.5 fps SD is awesome, I wasn’t too worried about that creeping up a little but still being in the single digits. Here is what my final load details were that I used for the Wyoming match:
- Bullet: Hornady 230 gr. A-Tip (Litz BC’s: G1 = 0.821, G7 = 0.421)
- Powder: 84.5 gr. of Hodgdon H1000
- Primer: Federal 215M
- Case: Lapua 300 Norma Mag Brass
- Neck Tension: 0.003″ (using K&M Precision neck expander mandrel)
- CBTO: 2.808″ Base to Ogive (for a 0.100″ bullet jump, COAL: 3.671″)
- Muzzle Velocity: 2945 fps with new brass, 2968 fps with once-fired brass (from 27″ barrel)
I do feel like this load with the 230 gr. A-Tips gave me a competitive advantage, especially in the extreme 20-30+ mph winds we experienced at the Wyoming ELR match. On one stage, in particular, I remember during my stage prep writing down wind brackets of 20 and 25 mph, meaning I didn’t expect to need to hold for winds below 20 mph or above 25 mph (and it was a full-value wind from 9:00). On that stage, we were shooting steel targets in the shape of wolves at 1278-1478 yards. My 20 and 25 mph wind holds for the 1478 wolf was 3.4 and 4.2 mils respectively, which narrow enough that my entire bracket fit on the target, similar to the diagram below.
I ended up cleaning this stage (i.e. made all first-round hits), but I remember at least one impact hit a wolf in the face (far left side) and one impact was in the butt (far right side), meaning I used my full bracket. But, what if instead of using a 300 Norma with those super-aerodynamic 230 gr. A-Tips I was shooting a 6.5 PRC with the Hornady 147 gr. ELDM? That was also a popular choice at this match. For that load and distance, the 20 and 25 mph wind holds would be 4.8 mils and 5.9 mils. So instead of the bracket being 0.8 mils wide, it would be 1.1 mils wide for the same wind. While that isn’t a huge difference when you try to center that larger bracket on the wolf’s body it doesn’t completely fit. It spills off either side, meaning if the wind is 21-24 mph you’d hit, but if it was 20 or 25 mph you’d likely miss. It may seem like I’m splitting hairs with all the uncertainties we deal with in those kinds of long-range shots, but I saw a ton of shooters miss BARELY off the edge of a target on the left or right side. But, the super-high BC of the 230 gr. A-Tips pushed near 3000 fps results in tighter brackets for the same wind and made my wind calls slightly more forgiving.
Now, some guys were using 338 and 375 caliber rifles with better ballistics than my 300 Norma, although few of those guys ended up placing well overall. Clearly, it takes more than good ballistics to win here. In the example above, if I would’ve called the wind at 22-27 mph instead of 20-25 mph, I would have likely missed at least two shots on that stage. But, I will say I was very happy with this 300 Norma load that I ended up bringing to the match, especially when the wind started howling.
My Thoughts On The AI AXSR Rifle: The Good & The Bad
I ended up firing almost 500 rounds from the AI AXSR over the couple of months that I had it, so I’d like to share with you guys a 100% honest review and full disclosure on what I loved about it and what I didn’t like.
Things I Loved
First, I thought the overall weight and balance of the rifle was pretty ideal for a 300 Norma Mag. If anything, I may have preferred it to weigh 2-3 pounds more for this type of competition use. However, I know there are elite military units that carry the AI ASR rifle through all sorts of terrain, and for that, I think it’s the ideal balance for carrying weight, shootability, and ability to spot your own impacts even through recoil.
10-Round Double-Stack Magazine
I also absolutely loved the 10-round double-stack magazine – even more than I thought I would! My custom 300 Norma rifle that I built on a Surgeon XL only has 5 round single-stack magazines, which means in past matches I’ve had to do mag changes while on the clock. That didn’t seem like a huge deal to me until I got to experience how nice it was to have a 10-round magazine. This magazine was built for the wide Accuracy International action, but it was also specifically made for the 300 Norma. These magazines fed flawlessly, and I can’t remember having a single issue with them. Not having to change magazines mid-stage meant that was one less thing I had to think about while I was on the clock. The 10-round magazines aren’t any taller than the 5-round magazines I’ve been using, so I can’t see any downside to these higher capacity magazines.
QuickLoc Barrel Clamp System for Easy Barrel Swaps
Another thing I loved was how quick and easy it was to remove the barrel. You just need a hex key and a crescent wrench, and I could take it off and reinstall it in under 2 minutes – maybe even under 1 minute! This would not only allow you to change out the barrel to another caliber completely, but it made it also made it easy for me to remove the barrel periodically to measure the distance to the lands, to see how much the rifling had eroded. Overall, I don’t see any downside to AI’s QuickLoc Barrel Clamp System, and it sure makes it convenient to remove and install a barrel without having to drag out a barrel vise and specialized tools.
AI actions are also made to such strict standards that you can buy a new, pre-chambered barrel off the shelf, and just spin it onto your rifle and go. You never have to send the action off to a gunsmith to custom chamber a barrel for that rifle. There are a few other actions that allow you to do this, like the Impact Precision action, without having to use a barrel nut to set headspace. That means they hold the tolerances of their components and the assembled actions to extremely strict standards, otherwise slight variations in chamber headspace could be very dangerous. That shows how far manufacturing has come in the past few years, and AI has been able to sell pre-fit barrels off the shelf for any of their actions for several years. That is just one example that shows they’re truly an industry leader because that is absolutely the way of the future.
The folding stock is also nice, especially with a long 27-inch barrel like this 300 Norma has. Folding the stock reduces the overall length by 9.5 inches (from 51.0 to 41.5 inches). I especially liked that the butt folds towards the bolt, which not only captures the bolt to ensure it doesn’t get knocked around or move in transit, but it also leaves the other side of the rifle completely flat. If you did want to sling it while it’s folded, there wouldn’t be anything digging into your back, because both the butt and bolt are on the opposite side.
One new addition on the AXSR chassis over previous models is a full-length arca-rail on the bottom of the handguard and forward of the magazine. This allows you to quickly clamp into an RRS-style tripod for a rock-solid platform. If you’ve never felt how solid a rifle with an arca-rail can be locked into a nice tripod, you are missing out! With a few advanced techniques and practice, you can get almost as stable standing and shooting off a tripod as you can from a prone position. The full-length arca-rail was first introduced on the Masterpiece Arms BA Competition Chassis, but the flexibility an integral rail provides in the field has caused it to be adopted by virtually every manufacturer offering a chassis built for serious long-range use. This is a welcomed modern touch, and I was glad to see AI embrace it.
Ergonomics & Adjustability of AI Chassis
I also loved the ergonomics and adjustability of the AI chassis. It’s certainly hard to beat! All the adjustments are toolless, quick, and once you lock it back they’re rock-solid and you won’t have to think about it again. Being able to adjust the rifle to fit your body and shooting style is such an important thing, in my opinion. I know many other world-class and even world-champion rifle shooters that would say the same thing. If you aren’t comfortable behind the rifle, it is very difficult to be consistent behind the rifle – and consistency is everything in the long-range game!
Finally, I loved the overall performance! As a reminder, Jorge Ortiz (pictured below) was also using an Accuracy International ASR rifle chambered in 300 Norma to take 1st place overall at this year’s Nightforce ELR Steel Challenge in Wyoming. (Read about Jorge’s rifle and ammo.) I finished 4th overall, so 2 of the top 4 shooters at a flagship, national-level extended long-range competition were using this rifle platform from Accuracy International. That proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that this rifle is capable of performing at the absolute highest levels. You can’t fire 4.2” groups at 950 yards or get SD’s down to 5.5 fps over 36 shots if the rifle you’re using isn’t extremely high quality. The AI AXSR is clearly one of the most capable rifle platforms on the market.
Things I Didn’t Love
I have a strict commitment to full disclosure with my readers, so as I was using the rifle I kept a running list of all the things I didn’t like or had issues with. Here they are:
Some Trigger Issues
The biggest thing is I ran into issues with the trigger during the match. We literally measured wind gusts at 50 and even 60 mph at the match, which means dust and sand got in the tiniest places. Towards the end of day 1 of the match, I would occasionally close the bolt and the rifle wouldn’t cock the firing pin back. When that happened, I’d go to pull the trigger and it just felt mushy and nothing would happen. This happened on the clock on 2-3 stages on day 1 and another 4-5 stages on day 2, and likely cost me a couple of points in the match. It caused me to time out on one stage and not even engage a couple of the targets, and on another stage, almost half of my time was gone before I coaxed the rifle to fire the first round. That can add a lot of stress while you’re on the clock, and it did cause me to rush some shots. Luckily, I’m used to the fast pace of PRS/NRL style matches, so I can put rounds downrange quickly – but that’s less than ideal for this type of match.
Now, even without this equipment failure, I wouldn’t have won the match. I’m certainly not claiming that. Jorge shot lights out! He scored 98 points overall and I was only at 91. He flat-out out-shot me, and everyone else there! I’d suspect the trigger issue cost me 3-6 points total – but not 9. And all three of the guys who beat me may have had to overcome their own equipment issues during the match. Firing that many rounds over two days certainly doesn’t always go off without a hitch!
I was a little hesitant to spray anything down into the trigger, so I simply cleaned off the sear on the bolt and the trigger with a toothbrush after day 1 and then between every stage on day 2. Looking back, I probably should have sprayed carb cleaner or lighter fluid down into the trigger, and it may have immediately fixed the issue. I even had a can of cleaner in my hand at least once, but I felt like I was shooting well, and I just didn’t want to risk that it might cause the trigger to stop functionality altogether – especially since I didn’t have a backup rifle.
I called Scott at Accuracy International after the match and shared the issues with him. He certainly seemed surprised to hear of any issues with the trigger. A few guys at the match ask me if it was the AI’s standard trigger or their competition trigger, and I honestly didn’t know. One shooter at the match told me he had never had a single issue with his standard trigger, and I know several guys at the match were running AI rifles. So my issue could be an isolated one. I asked Scott if it was the standard trigger or competition trigger, and he said it was their competition trigger, but it had a different spring set that they were trying out. So I guess it was a “custom” trigger that I was beta testing! 😉 Scott still was surprised to hear about my issues and said he was anxious to get the rifle back and take a closer look for himself.
Single-Stage vs. Two-Stage
The AI trigger is also a two-stage trigger, and I personally prefer single-stage triggers, like the TriggerTech Diamond. I am fully aware of the safety benefits of a two-stage trigger and can understand why they went with that design choice. However, I’ve been running a TriggerTech Diamond in all my rifles for a couple of years and it’s still my personal preference. The TriggerTech Diamond is adjustable down to 4 ounces, although I usually run mine from 10-14 ounces. Recently I read an article in Precision Rifle Shooter magazine where someone asked TriggerTech’s VP of Operations, Quinn Richardson, if the 4-ounce Diamond trigger could handle a drop test without firing. A bit to my surprise, Richardson replied, “The 4-ounce pull weight minimum on the Diamond allows for the shooter to run the bolt very quickly without worrying about the firing pin following the bolt body. It can also safely handle some jarring, but that trigger wasn’t meant to be dropped.” While the AI two-stage trigger can handle a drop test, I did measure the total pull weight of the trigger five times, and it averaged 2 pounds 7.0 ounces. That is heavier than I’m used to, but I didn’t feel like it handicapped me or caused me to pull any shots. About half of that pull weight is in the first stage, so breaking that second stage only feels like a little over 1 pound. Call me old-fashioned, but I still personally prefer a crisp, single-stage in that 10-14 ounce range. I’m certainly not looking to replace my TriggerTech’s after this experience!
Cheekpiece Needs Some Padding
Another thing is there needs to be some kind of pad on the cheekpiece. I ended up buying a HopticUSA Saddle Blanket, which is simply a 1/8” thick polyethylene pad with an adhesive backing. I tried the one that was laser-cut for other AI rifles, but it didn’t fit for the AXSR – so I used the standard Saddle Blacket and cut it to fit. It was only $16 and it made all the difference in the world. Before I added the pad it felt like with each shot my face would get a light electrical shock from the cheekpiece. I guess the recoil and harmonics flowing through the rifle were just slapping me in a funny way, but adding a thin neoprene pad took that away completely and made the rifle much more comfortable to shoot.
Adding Thumbshelf for Those Who Don’t Use Wrap-Around Grip
One thing that might sound knit-picky, but would have been a welcome feature is a thumb shelf for those of us who don’t use a full wrap-around grip. I typically don’t wrap my thumb around the grip to ensure I don’t torque the gun and it theoretically makes running the bolt slightly faster. I leave my thumb on the same side of the grip as the rest of my fingers. Honestly, with the thumb shelves on most chassis and stocks, it’s simply more comfortable, in my opinion. However, there wasn’t anything to index my thumb on with the AI AXSR chassis. It seems like there is room and clearance for at least something to index off of, and I think it would have made it more comfortable and helped ensure the grip is repeatable for those of us that don’t do a full wrap-around grip with our thumb.
M-LOK vs. AI’s Keyslot Interface On Handguard
The rifle I tested featured a handguard with AI’s keyslot interface, which looks similar to keymod – but is apparently different. Like many people, I’ve read the 2017 study conducted by USSOCOM that seemed to clearly show M-LOK was superior to keymod, and since that study, it seems like most manufacturers have migrated toward M-LOK. So I would have preferred the handguard be configured for M-LOK. The rifle Accuracy International submitted for the ASR program did have a M-LOK handguard, but the AXSR that is commercially available only comes with AI’s keyslot interface. However, AI told me you can purchase the alternate handguard with the M-LOK interface as a replacement, but there isn’t currently a way to order an AXSR rifle that comes that way from the factory. (Note: Victor Company makes a handguard for the AIAX chassis featuring M-LOK and a full-length, acra-rail along the bottom to make the rifle more flexible for mounting to tripods, bipods, barricade stops, etc.)
When I gave this feedback to the guys at Accuracy International, they educated me on their keyslot interface. After lots of testing, they feel like their keyslot design is superior to both M-LOK and keymod because it provides stability in all directions and there is never any doubt if the fasteners are fully engaged. If you’ve ever installed something with M-LOK, you know that you have to be careful to ensure each of the backing nuts are turned perpendicular to the hole, and apparently, there isn’t a way to “do it wrong” or not have full engagement for all the fasteners on AI’s keyslot design.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that those claims are correct, and AI’s keyslot design is truly a superior design to M-LOK. Despite the merit of the interface, there are still drastically more aftermarket products available for M-LOK. For example, remember that I would have preferred the rifle weigh 2 to 3 pounds more? It turns out Dave Preston from Gray Ops CNC makes an external weight kit that can mount via M-LOK – but he doesn’t make keymod/keyslot version. I did notice that Jorge’s AXSR rifle had a handguard with M-LOK, so he seems to be with me on this one. (After asking around, it turns out Jorge bought a limited edition version of the ASR rifle, which was identical to what AI submitted to SOCOM and M-LOK was part of that solicitation.) While AI owns the intellectual property for the keyslot and it might have a few advantages over M-LOK, if I bought one of these rifles I’d prefer M-LOK so it was compatible with more attachments without extra hassle.
Improved, But Proprietary Platform Limits Trigger Options
Finally, the last potential downside with an AI rifle is that it is a proprietary platform. By that I mean the action isn’t a Remington 700 clone, like most other high-end rifles on the market which share most of the same dimensions and basic design as the original Rem 700 action. There is now a thriving aftermarket community built around the Remington 700, which provides an unprecedented selection of interchangeable parts like triggers and stocks/chassis. However, the AI AXSR chassis doesn’t leave much to be desired. I doubt many people buy an AI rifle and then want to swap it from the AI chassis to another chassis or stock. So the only real drawback you’re stuck with triggers that were specifically designed for the AI action, and there aren’t many options.
Now, AI didn’t make that departure based on ignorance. While sticking to the Rem 700 footprint may allow you to pick from a ton of triggers and stocks, it also means you may be stuck with design decisions the original Remington engineers made in 1962, and some of those are less than ideal. Iain Harrison explains, “Remington’s first priority with the 700 was ease of manufacture, with accuracy being a fortunate byproduct — with more than 5-million rifles in circulation, this isn’t a dig at Big Green, which has a hugely successful lineup often used as a base for accurized custom builds.”
The Accuracy International action is the only major outlier among popular precision rifles, but because it departed from the Rem 700 design it can offer a few novel features. For example, the safety on most Rem 700 clones is part of the trigger and works by blocking the sear, and the full load of the cocked firing pin must be maintained by the trigger when the safety is engaged. In contrast, the safety on the AI is part of the bolt, and when engaged it mechanically blocks firing pin and is delinked from the trigger. It’d be hard to argue that isn’t a better design! Also, most Rem 700 actions have a cylindrical design, compared to the beefy AI actions which are made from square bar stock. That square action is what makes them a natural fit for true, double-stack magazines – like the ones I sure loved using with this rifle! Clearly, there are pros and cons when you depart from the Remington 700 footprint, but I thought it wouldn’t be fair to not mention that as a consideration.
It’s hard to argue with the results! I’d finished in the top 20 at the Wyoming ELR match in past years, but 4th place is the highest I’ve ever finished in national level competitions. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if the rifle wasn’t capable of performing at the highest level. Jorge finishing 1st with his AI ASR that was also chambered in 300 Norma Mag just seems to put an exclamation mark on that point!
I can honestly say that I really enjoyed using the AI AXSR and may even end up buying one of my own to use at next year’s match. While there were a few drawbacks, overall, I was extremely impressed, and the pros seem to outweigh the cons. Of all the things I described under “Things I Didn’t Love”, the only one that I’d consider a serious drawback was the issues with the trigger. While that is a concern, that match was in very extreme conditions, and even then, there were a ton of other shooters using AI rifles without any issues. It could be due to the “custom” spring set that happened to be in the trigger AI sent me for testing. It also may have been fixed with one squirt of cleaner into the trigger, but I just didn’t know enough about the AI trigger at the time to know whether that might make it better or worse.
If you’re in the market for a top-tier rifle, the AI AXSR is a clear contender. While the AI AXSR rifle sells for $8,975, I doubt anyone would be disappointed with the investment in one of these rifles. I hope this objective, hands-on, in-depth review helps you make an informed decision.
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