This review was first published in the SSAA Australian Shooter May 2018 edition.

Weatherby’s Vanguard HSP rifle is available in 223, 22-250, 243, 308, 270, 30-06 and 300 Win.  With the smaller cartridges, the magazine holds five rounds.  In the larger calibres, the magazine capacity is three rounds.  The Vanguard comes with Weatherby’s accuracy guarantee; that is, the rifle will deliver 3-shot, 100 yard accuracy of 0.99 MOA, or better, with Weatherby or other premium factory ammo.  I found that to be so and the review rifle delivered some even better accuracy with handloads.  I was impressed, but first things first.

The Rifle

Tasco Sales Australia supplied the 223 Rem chambered Varmint model, fitted with a Bushnell Engage 6-18×50 scope.  The stock was a stand-out feature with its black and tan mottling and the white spidering overlay.  The stock felt reassuringly comfortable, and solid.  The rifle had all the hallmarks of a great pest control and varminting rig, and I was keen to try it out.  The scoped rifle, with an empty magazine, weighed 3.96 kilograms (8.7 pounds).  The bare rifle weighs about 3.5 kilos.  The overall length was 112 mm (44 inches).

The Barrel

The Vanguard HSP has a cold hammer-forged medium weight #2 contour varmint barrel.  It is 24 inches (610 mm) in length.  The rate of twist is 1 in 12 inches.  There is a matte, bead-blasted blued finish.  The muzzle features a nicely recessed crown for protecting the exit rifling and subsequent accuracy.  Stainless steel barrels are also available in some calibres.  Personally, I like matte blue, or earthy-coloured coatings rather than stainless steel, purely because of the visible shine factor when hunting wild dogs.  And, from personal experience, stainless steel is not necessarily a rust-free option either, especially in the satin finishes.

Receiver and Bolt

The one-piece, machined bolt shaft is fluted.  The bolt head features the fully enclosed sleeve and several generously sized gas vents typical of Weatherby bolts, providing greater strength and containment safety for the shooter.  Bolt lift is 90 degrees.  The recoil lug is integral with the receiver.  The hinged floorplate is of alloy for lighter weight, and its colour matches the blued steel nicely.  The release for the floor plate is in the front of the trigger guard.

Trigger and Safety

Out of the box, the rifle’s adjustable match quality, two-stage trigger had a crisp 3.5 pound weight of pull, with only the barest hint of creep.  I varied the trigger adjustment screw over a series of half-turn increments.  The trigger pull varied from 3.0 to 3.5 pounds.  I left it at 3.5 pounds, which I thought was appropriate for a rifle carried in the field.  If all of your shooting was off a bench, or over a rest in a vehicle, you could safely reduce the trigger pull to a lighter value.

The safety is of the ever-useful three position variety.  Safe locks trigger and bolt, mid-way frees the bolt so that rounds can be safely cycled with the locked trigger and Fire is, of course, ready to shoot.

The Stock

The HSP moniker stands for the HS Precision stock partnered with the Weatherby barrelled action.  The Weatherby barrel and action is inherently accurate, and matching that with the HS Precision stock brings out the very best in the rifle.  Manufactured from composite materials with an embedded, full-length aluminium bedding block, the stock provides the utmost in rigidity and stability.  There is a grub screw on either side of the stock that bear on the recoil lug.  These screws can be used to align the barrel perfectly in the stock channel.  I placed a couple of business cards under the barrel as I reassembled the rifle.  Before I tightened the action screws up, I used the grub screws to get the barrel dead straight in its channel.

As always, it pays to use a torque wrench when tightening the action, and other, screws on your rifle.  It is also important to pay attention to the instruction manual as well.  With a rigid composite stock, featuring an embedded aluminium bedding system, like the HS Precision stock on the Vanguard, the action screws need to be tightened much more than is the case for timber and plastic stocks.  I used my FAT torque wrench to achieve the recommended 55 in-lb of screw torque.

The stock weighs in at 2.35 pounds, a smidge over 1 kilogram.  With a varmint rifle, a little extra weight is an advantage, so I was not at all concerned about that.  The stock’s colour pattern with white spidering was eye-catching but also provided an effective camo as well, always useful when seeking wary wild dogs.  A thick, comfy HS Precision recoil pad graces the stock; not required for the mild-mannered 223, but certainly useful on the larger, harder-kicking calibres in the stable.

The Scope

The rifle was supplied with just the scope to make the most of an accurate varmint rifle’s abilities.  The big Bushnell Engage 6-18×50 scope also came with flip-up lens covers, very useful in dusty and rainy circumstances.  The Bushnell Deploy reticle is designed to appeal to both hunters and target shooters.  The crosshairs are fine, at 0.18 MOA, and graduated with 1 MOA increments on both elevation and windage axes.  When used with a ballistics calculation program, the MOA markings will enable accurate shot placement out to extreme range.

The Bushnell Engage scope carries Bushnell’s Ironclad warranty.  The scope is sealed and nitrogen filled for weather and fog-proofing.  The optics are sharp, abetted by Bushnell’s anti-reflective coatings on all the lens elements.  The sight picture is bright with accurate colour rendition.  The turrets are capped, something I consider essential on a hunting rifle.  Turret adjustments are distinct, ¼ MOA clicks.

Off the Bench

My first range session was frustrating but in a good way.  With a brand new rifle, I was following the barrel break-in regime of shoot one round and clean thoroughly.  I had a batch of trial handloads; my favourite test projectile, the 55 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip loaded over a series of propellant charge weights.  With such a regime you spend a lot more time cleaning than you do in actually shooting.  The frustration came from seeing some excellent groups begin to develop in slow motion.

A few more range sessions and I was in the less frustrating shoot 10 and clean regime.  Based on my initial results I had chosen the optimum powder charge and was now honing in on the best bullet seating depth.  The rifle seemed fairly indifferent to all this and just kept turning in sub-MOA groups.  Along the way it delivered the best 3-shot group I have ever shot with any rifle; a 0.1MOA effort with three projectiles through one small hole at 100 yards.  The load development charts indicated that there was potential for consistent sub-0.5MOA groups.

I also ran a variety of factory ammo through the rifle with equally impressive results.  The Federal Premium loadings of the 55 grain Nosler Ballistic tip and the 52 grain Speer hollow points consistently shot sub-MOA, as did the Fiocchi 50 grain Polymer Tips.  The American Eagle 50 grain jacketed hollow point ammo also produced some tight groups, as it generally does, albeit with the odd slight flier that blows group averages.  All the factory ammo performed well, with nothing consistently above 1.5 MOA and most around 1 MOA, or better.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

For smaller pests, like rabbits, hares and cats, the Federal Premium loading of the 40 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip would be a great choice.  It was accurate, fast and explosive.  For larger pests like pigs and dogs, the heavier soft points are an obvious choice.  As I have found with previous 1:12 twist 223 Rem rifles, the Federal factory loading of the 64 grain soft point shot quite well, when theory would indicate it should be unstable.  My favourite projectile, the 60 grain Nosler Partition was marginal in terms of stability at the 1:12 twist; it shot okay with AR2208 but not with BM2.

 

Ammunition

Average MOA

Handloaded 55 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip (BM2)

0.5

Handloaded 55 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip (AR2208)

0.6

Fiocchi 50 grain Polymer Tip

0.6

Federal Premium 55 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip

0.7

American Eagle 50 grain Jacketed Hollow Points

0.8

American Eagle 50 grain Tipped Varmint

0.9

Federal Premium 52 grain Speer Hollow Points

0.9

Fiocchi 55 grain Soft Points

0.9

Federal Premium 40 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip

1.1

Handloaded 60 grain Nosler Partition (AR22208)

1.2

Federal 64 grain Soft Point

1.3

Federal 55 grain Soft Point

1.4

 

In the Field

After the many range sessions, I had settled on the 55 grain Nosler BT handloads for my field trials.  With my handloads routinely producing 3-shot groups in the 0.2 to 0.5 MOA zone I was confident of nailing any dog that put its head up within 200 metres.  I toted the rifle up and down some steep ridge and gully country close to home, chasing a pack of wild dogs that had been killing calves on surrounding farms.  Being the summer wet season, just about every excursion saw me getting rained on.  The HSP composite stock was, of course, completely impervious to the vagrancies of the tropical weather.  The flip-up scope covers on the Bushnell scope were a godsend in keeping my lenses free of vision obscuring droplets; I must put these on my other scopes as well.

As they so often do, the wild dogs cavorted freely in front of my various trail cameras but were not to be seen when I had the Weatherby Vanguard HSP stoked up and ready to use.  One drizzly afternoon, after sitting quietly on a ridgeline for an hour or so, no dogs had appeared, and it was almost time to head home.  A movement on a patch of short grass, on the opposite ridge face, caught my eye.  A couple of bedraggled bunnies had come out in the early dusk light, about 150 metres away.  Here was a scenario that the rifle was made for.  Two quick shots obliterated a bunny each.

Summary

The Weatherby Vanguard HSP Varmint rifle was a pleasure to review.  In more than 35 years of handloading hunting calibres, it was the most consistently accurate rifle I have ever used.  And, that includes some expensive custom builds.  From my experience with the Vanguard HSP during the review, I would expect that handloaders could expect to do better, perhaps much better, than 0.5 MOA routinely.  It is no slouch with factory ammo either, for those folks who do not handload.  I would expect that most premium factory ammo would deliver sub-MOA performance, as per the Weatherby guarantee.  The combination of Weatherby’s barrelled action with the HS Precision stock certainly has paid off.  Not only is it a comfortable, robust rifle but one that delivers outstanding accuracy.  That comes at a slight premium to standard rifles with polymer stocks but, even at an RRP of $1599 it still represents excellent value for money.