Any hunter who practices a lot at the shooting bench should purchase the best gun rest he can afford, and a hunter who shoots only occasionally from a bench, but who likewise wants good results, should also have a topnotch shooting rest. But the hunter at deer camp who uses a rolled-up sleeping bag for a rest to sight-in his rifle on the day before hunting season with the same box of ammo he's had for years . . . well, I'm not sure a $400 gun rest would improve his accuracy.
Back To The Basics
Before I get into the current crop of gun rests for the bench, I'd like to share some marksmanship tips for making the most of your time at the range.
• Find a comfortable shooting position. If that means moving the seat up or down or back and forth, take a few minutes to do so. Your entire body should be stable. No weaving and wobbling on a tiny seat or shooting from a standing position as you lean on the bench.
• Support both elbows on the bench, and keep them in the same position for every shot.
• Put your ammo in a convenient location so you can load the chamber without moving your torso from the comfortable shooting position. Placing the ammo just below the gun's action on the right side of the bench (for a right-handed shooter) is usually best.
• Get into a routine—breathing, trigger control, point-of-aim—and don't rush any shot.
• Try not to change your position significantly until your three or five shots are fired. Do not get up between shots, stay in position for the entire shot string.
• Time your shots. Your eyes focus best for only 3-5 seconds. At the end of every breath, humans have a natural respiratory pause. Try to release the shot as you complete a breath, within the 3-5 seconds as you concentrate your aim. If you don't shoot in this time frame, look away and refocus on a distant object. Then go back to your aiming point and break the trigger.
• Ensure the front swivel stud of your gun sling doesn't contact the sandbag during recoil.
• Allow your barrel to cool for at least 2 minutes between shots if you're shooting in hot weather.
• Harris bipods work very well as a front bench rest if the rifle's stock is rigid and strong. Some hollowed-out composite rifle stocks don't shoot well from Harris bipods and benches. Try placing a soft gun case under the legs of the Harris for the best accuracy.
• Minimize human error by ensuring the rifle is fully rested. You shouldn't support the rifle with your muscles during the aiming process. Instead, let the gun rest do the supporting. The reason is your muscles will tremble and move. Of course, you must control recoil unless the gun rest is designed to do it for you.
Unfortunately, I find that most shooters try to get by with the minimum expenditure when buying a new gun rest. Take it from me: By spending a few extra dollars you'll see a pay-off in better shooting and longer service life. Bench shooting rests come in a variety of shapes, designs, price-points and complexities, and the bottom line is any rest is better than no rest when sighting-in or testing ammo.
An Array Of Choices
A few years ago, the Caldwell Lead Sled hit the market and it immediately became popular. Very simply, the Lead Sled enables accurate shooting and eliminates felt-recoil. I've used the Lead Sled with small-caliber rifles and big magnums, and I guarantee a grin will come to your face when you touch-off a magnum with no abuse to your shoulder. "Lead sled" describes the system: You simply place bags of lead shot or other weight onto an integral tray, and the rifle's butt fits into a holder so it doesn't make direct contact with your shoulder. The forend is supported on an adjustable pedestal complete with a sandbag. The Lead Sled is so simple it has to work—and it does.
Another good range rest from Caldwell is its Tack Driver Shooting Bag. This oversized saddle-type rest is simply placed on the bench and your rifle settles into the huge, long "ears" on top. With the use of a rear sand bag to support the gun butt, this is a solid shooting support. The Tack Driver is fairly heavy compared to pedestal rests, but it works well. An Uncle Bud's Bulls Bag has a similar design, as does the Ballistic Shooting Bag available through Cabela's.
Personally, I like using a pedestal gun rest at a bench unless I'm shooting a hard-kicking firearm, which is when the Lead Sled gets the call. Pedestals come in a wide range of prices and models, and they basically all do the same job of supporting the forend of the rifle. Of course, you get what you pay for, and spending more money will get you more precision and mass.
Most pedestal-style rests require sandbags for actual contact with the rifle's forend, and most rear rests used in conjunction with pedestal front rests are simple "rabbit-ear" sandbags. I suggest purchasing high-quality bags and then filling them with poly beads to the level that works best for you. These beads are available at hobby shops and are typically used for Beanie Babies, etc.
Until you shoot from top-end, heavy pedestal rests you cannot appreciate how much they contribute to accuracy. When I started using Sinclair's amazing BR pedestal system my bullet groups immediately became smaller. At first, I wondered why the rest weighed so much, but after I shot from it I found the answer: The rest doesn't move, so my rifle doesn't move. My previous lightweight aluminum pedestal slid and bounced as I fired, and accuracy suffered as a result.
Another solid shooting pedestal is the Caldwell Rock BR Competition Front Rest. I've also used the company's 1,000-yard model (Rock BR-1000) with excellent accuracy. Again, this is a heavy cast-iron pedestal rest that offers fine-tuning and great value.
A common pedestal that can be found at many gun ranges is the Hoppes Experts Shooting Rest. This cast-aluminum rest is priced right and does a decent job. As mentioned earlier, however, I believe aluminum and plastic rests move too much during the shot for top precision. When portability and price are a consideration, the Hoppes, Cabela's Granite Bench Rest, Caldwell Rock JR, Hughes EZ-Rest, Shooters Ridge Tri-Stance Rest and other pedestal designs will work fine.
When it's impossible to travel with heavier bench-type rests, I'll carry lightweight plastic ones. The Hornady Delta Front shooting rest is an innovative, one-piece molded plastic triangular rest that offers nine different heights to support a rifle's forend. I also have a set of Millett Benchmaster front and rear molded plastic rests, which are unique because the rear rest nests inside the larger front rest for easy storage.
I've purposely saved the best rest for last—the North Star Shooting Products VRS bench model VR505. The VRS (Versatile Rest System) is solid and precise, and adjustments are micrometer-like, easy to operate and wonderfully exact. The VRS works as well in the field as it does from the bench. In fact, it offers so much more than just bench performance that I've used it for varmint hunting, big game hunting and rock-plinking. If you want the finest field and bench rifle rest available, the VR505 is worth the money ($430).
Gun rests are necessary evils at the range—you have to use them if you want the best accuracy. I don't like toting them any more than you do, but if I want the tightest bullet groups possible, there's no other way.