Table of Contents
What is the best sniper rifle? Well that is a question that has been literally asked since a skilled marksman picked up an accurate rifle and worked on making it even more accurate. If we define a sniper rifle as a scoped rifle designed for shooting at longer than normal combat distances, and intended for military or law enforcement applications, it gets a bit easier to define. Of course the fact that a rifle suitable for sniping is also suitable for hunting and certain kinds of precision shooting sports can blur things a bit. Even today, many sniper rifle platforms are nothing more than sporting rifles that have been made especially accurate and are fitted with off high grade off the shelf optics.
From a gun collector’s standpoint, vintage military sniper rifles are rare and valuable collectibles, and of course are a joy to shoot. Many modern sniper rifles can be replicated if one is willing to spend the money to buy the same equipment, with the end result being the shooter now owns an exceptionally fine rifle.
Students of history will also find sniper rifles of interest, as they tended to be used by elite troops, and often played important roles in history, or shaping battles.
Law enforcement also has a marked interest in sniper rifles, inasmuch as each department makes their own unique purchasing decisions, and can craft rifles to their specific missions, and locations. It is likely that a rural sheriff will want a different rifle than an elite urban SWAT team.
So what is the best sniper rifle?
Well, the best sniper rifle is one that meets the criteria: powerful, accurate and ideally easy to acquire cartridge, but leaves enough room to customize it to your needs!
The most elite snipers in the world carefully hand load their ammo and engage in extensive work to create rounds nearly perfectly identical to each other. However, for the most part, commercial match grade ammo is more than sufficient. In either case, ready access to bullets and cartridge cases makes a sniper rifle in a weird or obscure caliber more difficult to keep shooting. With that in mind, we are only going to focus on popular, common calibers that have literally proven themselves in war and urban street fighting.
Best sniper rifles on the market
Springfield Armory M1A
Savage Axis II XP
Savage 110 BA Law Enforcement
.338 Lapua Magnum
Remington 700 XCR
308/ 300 Win mag
What is the best sniper rifle calibers?
There is no one best caliber for sniper rifle. Rather, elite snipers train on a variety of different platforms, and use different guns and different calibers for different jobs. Famed Navy Seal Sniper Chris Kyle writes of using everything from a .223 rifle to high powered .338’s and more. This alone should tell you that a sniper rifle is mission specific, and what you might use in a dense, urban setting is not what you are going to be using to make shots a mile away.
The great sniper rifle is always going to be a compromise. You can’t use a .50 BMG everywhere you go, but you can’t take extra long shots with a .223 either. The .308 excels to a certain point, and then .300 Win Mag and .338 Lapua exceed that. Bolt action rifles are common, accurate, and easily made very accurate. But semi-auto rifles often resemble a standard infantry rifle, and deliver more firepower to the sniper. So the best long range sniper rifle becomes one that best supports the mission.
Only you can decide what that need and mission is. You might wind up with a couple different “best civilian sniper rifles”. In the end, the best sniper rifle in the world is exceptionally accurate, tuned to the operator, and capable of engaging a target at a needed range with precision and power.
We will look at a lot of the sniper rifles today, and see what makes them that way. It is always a combination of readily available ammo and manufacturer support, ease of use, accuracy and power. Take a look at a few of the good sniper rifle calibers and see for yourself.
The Best .308 Sniper Rifle
It is hard to argue against the case for the .308 being one of the all time great sniper rounds. Ideal for urban and common battlefield distances, the .308 Winchester has long been popular in sniper rifles since it was first introduced. Today, a number of different military and law enforcement sniper rifles are chambered in .308.
Selecting the best .308 sniper rifle is something like asking what the best flavor of ice cream is. It is so subjective as to be almost theoretical. Now there are battle proven .308 sniper rifles like the FN FNAR which is based off the successful Browning BAR hunting rifle. Most sniper rifles are simply heavily accurized versions of hunting or target rifles. You can see this with the M-24 sniper platform which is nothing more than a standard Remington Model 700 built for exceptional accuracy.
There have been a great many very successful .308 sniper rifles fielded by many different nations. Most have the common theme of being based off a sporting rifle. In some cases, they are modifications of existing military platforms, like the various sniper versions of the M-14. In the world of bolt action .308 sniper rifles, the various flavors of the Remington 700 more than earn the title of “Best .308 sniper rifle.” They have been built into many different forms and used by military and law enforcement alike. Now lets take a look at semi autos.
The Best .308 Semi Auto Sniper Rifle
Bolt action rifles are more inherently accurate than a semi auto rifle. That isn’t to say you can’t build a sniper accurate semi auto rifle, as a great many are fielded by law enforcement agencies and militaries around the world.
In the United States, the M14 has been something of a default when people think of a semi auto sniper rifle, but is it the best .308 semi auto sniper rifle? The short answer is despite decades of romance, propaganda and a bit of old fashioned stubbornness, is that it really isn’t all that great. Now that isn’t to say it isn’t capable of sniper work, because it is. But it is a temperamental, delicate bit of kit that requires constant babying or expensive chassis stocks, because it is insanely sensitive to even the slightest changes in stock or handguard fit. This Springfield Armory M1A is fine for a civilian shooter who can pamper their gear, but not so much for somebody who shoots at things for a living.
Instead, we are going to go with US Army’s M110 SASS (Semi Automatic Sniper System). This rifle is what many people loosely term an AR-10, which has simply come to mean any M16/AR-15 style rifle built for the larger .308/7.62 NATO cartridge. Rifles built to this design are capable of exceptional accuracy, and have the all important factor of being immediately familiar to anyone who has trained on an M16 or M4 style rifle. The Army designed the M110 to be used with a suppressor and even issued folding backup iron sights for it, making it an ideal rifle for sniping, designated marksman use, or even regular infantry combat if needful. Readers at home with enough cash can easily duplicate this rifle with off the shelf components, and enjoy the best .308 semi automatic sniper rifle themselves.
The Best .300 Win Mag Sniper Rifle
To find the best .300 Win Mag sniper rifle, we once again return to the Remington Model 700. The .300 Winchester Magnum has been famous for decades as a flat shooting, hard hitting long range cartridge. Elite special force snipers recognize the inherent superiority of the .300 Win Mag over the .308 due to the longer range and greater energy.
Because it is a long magnum round, the .300 Win Mag works best out of bolt action rifles. The Army currently issues rifles built around a Remington 700 action, and fitted with high end chassis, barrels and optics, along with removable magazines. The ease of constructing a sniper rifle with off the shelf parts makes the various flavors of .300 Win Mag rifles used by US armed forces a logical proposition.
These high powered sniper rifles have proven to be superior to the .308 when used out past 1000 yards, and are often equipped with suppressors for an added advantage in combat. For the civilian shooter, a .300 Win Mag sniper rifle is easy enough to assemble if you have the funds. Such a rifle would be ideal for match shooting, long range hunting or collecting. When used by law enforcement, a .300 Win Mag sniper rifle is perfect for engaging targets behind barriers, or wearing heavy body armor. The ready availability of commercial match grade ammo is an added plus, ensuring that ample high quality ammo can be had by operators of these guns.
The Best .223 Sniper Rifle
Now one would not expect to hear the words “.223” and “sniper rifle”. It is well known that the .223 is marginal at times on the battlefield, and of somewhat limited range compared to other sniper cartridges. However, if we work with the idea that a sniper rifle is simply an accurized rifle used to make precision shots at any sort of range by a trained shooter, then we can accept the idea of a .223 sniper rifle.
Some of the best .223 sniper rifles are simply heavily upgraded AR-15 or M16 style rifles. Starting with a match quality free floating barrel, stocks designed to better promote accuracy and good optics, it is fairly easy to develop a sniper grade rifle using a familiar platform.
One such .223 sniper rifle is the Mk 12 pattern marksmanship rifle. Far more accurate than a standard rifle, these rifles are built with some of the finest match quality parts on the market today, which allows the operator to push the limits of the .223 cartridge, and take advantage of it’s greatest strengths. One of the best things about the Mk 12 style rifle is how readily one can duplicate and modify the concept to their own needs.
Civilian sport shooters will find a good .223 sniper rifle to be an excellent gun at the range, or hunting varmints, or for home defense. Law enforcement will value the best .223 sniper rifles when dealing with close quarters commonly found in cities and urban areas. Here the reduced power of the .223 shines, and allows for safer engagements in close quarters.
The Best .50 BMG Sniper Rifle
No look at the best calibers for sniper rifle would be complete without examining the .50 BMG. Perhaps the most famous of all high powered sniper rifles, the .50 BMG is the stuff of myth and legend, along with an awesome power unlike any other sniper rifle.
The most commonly used .50 BMG sniper rifle might just be the famed “Barrett Light 50” also known as the M82A1. Designed to be an anti-materiel rifle, it was first used by the US military in 1990 for Desert Storm. Typically used to disable vehicles, take out explosive devices, or defeat heavy cover, it is also an impressive long range sniper rifle when used against combatants who are beyond the range of more common sniper rifles.
Because .50 BMG sniper rifles are expensive and of limited utility outside of the military, they are not as common as other sniper rifles. However, there is strong interest among sport shooters in these accurate, powerful rifles for use in very long range shooting shooting sports. Unfortunately several states restrict or ban .50 BMG rifles, including California. Connecticut bans the Barrett M82A1 by name, but does not restrict some other .50 BMG sniper rifles. There are a number of .50 BMG rifles on the market, and even dedicated upper receivers for AR-15 style rifles, but the best .50 BMG sniper rifle title should remain with Barrett.
The Best .338 Lapua Sniper Rifle
.308 and .223 sniper rifles use rounds derived from sporting cartridges. The .50 BMG uses a heavy machine gun cartridge. In all cases, existing ammo was chose to build rifles around. The .338 Lapua Magnum is unique among popular sniper rifles in that the round itself was developed for military snipers first, and then guns developed for it. One of the longest sniper kills on record, around 1.5 miles distance was done with the .338 Lapua.
With the increasing use of military sniper rifles in .338, civilian sporting rifles soon entered production, demonstrating the interconnected nature of military and sporting arms manufacturing and development.
The best .338 Lapua sniper rifle is the one used by Navy SEALs. The McMillian Tac-338 is an incredibly accurate, and straightforward rifle platform with the reach out and touch somebody that snipers need to do their job.
While designed for engaging armored enemies at a thousand yards or more, the .338 Lapua has become popular with dangerous game hunters, and long range match target shooters. Remington and Savage both market “law enforcement” .338 Lapua sniper rifles. While it is likely that some large SWAT teams or police departments have a .338 Lapua rifle, it is far more likely the “law enforcement” branding on these guns is a useful marketing tool when selling precision bolt action rifles. If you want a .338 Lapua sniper rifle, they are certainly affordable and highly functional rifles, and much cheaper than the McMilian Tac-338.
The Best Long Range Sniper Rifle
Answering the question as to the best long range sniper rifle is rather difficult. By the raw numbers, that would be any .50 BMG sniper rifle. The longest kill shot on record is held by a by a Canadian sniper with a McMillan Tac-50 rifle at a bit over 2 miles. By that metric alone, who could argue that the McMillan Tac-50 is the best long range sniper rifle? I know I’d be hard pressed to argue that.
But there are other considerations beyond raw range. Shots over a mile (or even two!) are rare and notable for the extreme range at which they take place. These are shots taken by the best of the best with rifles that are the finest of their kind ever crafted. Sure, you can buy the rifle, but you can’t buy the skill to make these incredible long range shots.
Still, the .50 BMG makes for an incredible sniper rifle. But so does the .338 Lapua, .300 Win Mag, .308 Winchester and yes, even the .223 under the right circumstances. We can discount the .223 and .308 here. The .223 is a 500 yard or so round, and better still with shorter distances. The .308 is effectively an 800 yard or so round. That leaves us with .300 Win Mag, .338 Lapua and .50 BMG.
Since it is rather unlikely anyone in charge of buying sniper rifles for a military will be swayed by this article, the question now is what rifle is best for civilian shooters? Here, cost, legal issues and ammo availability come into play. So let us reluctantly drop the .50 BMG, since it is not legal in all jurisdictions in the United States, and is heavily regulated in other nations.
.338 Lapua is a very nice round, but also expensive, very specialized and may not be as readily available as other rounds.
That leaves us with the .300 Win Mag. A commercially well established cartridge, it is fairly easy to come by, and can do everything the .308 can, and more, and offers serious reach out and touch power, plus there are a huge array of rifles priced for nearly any budget chambered for this round. Law enforcement benefit from this as well, with the .300 Win Mag being a budget friendly alternative to a more powerful round, while still offering a rifle capable of being used in difficult standoff situations where firepower is important.
The Best Semi Auto Sniper Rifle
The first widely used semi auto sniper rifle was the SVT-40 issued by the Soviet Union during WWII. Little more than a standard SVT-40 infantry rifle fitted with a fixed four power scope, this rifle hinted at the future of modern combat and sniping. Today, there are an overwhelming number of semi auto sniper rifles in most popular sniper calibers. So how do you pick the best one? What makes the best semi auto sniper rifle?
We come back to the common issue of balancing a number of different features. Again, since our readership is more civilian than anything else, we are concerned with putting the best semi auto sniper rifle into your gun cabinet, so with some sadness, we’ll disregard the amazingly epic Barrett .50. The broad appeal for that rifle is just too limited, and when combined with anti .50 caliber legislation puts it at a disadvantage.
We’ll also put the .223 aside, because while it is very common, and very easy to build a .223 sniper platform, it is underpowered for most use. Instead, we’ll focus on a .308 semi auto sniper.
We’ve already looked at the best .308 semi auto sniper rifle, so will repeat that endorsement here. However, for a civilian or law enforcement build, you can skip the high end military configurations of the AR-10 style rifles, and build one that fits your budget and tastes in how a rifle should look. Consider a minimum 18” barrel, with 22” being a better choice. Quad rail handguards are on the way out, and M-Lok handguards are firmly established as superior choices. And if you want to splurge, well, Navy SEALs use Nightforce optics.
For most users, a semi-auto .308 will be the best civilian sniper rifle for cost, function, and access to ammo. Or you can always spend the bigger bucks and find something built in a .300 Win Mag. But most folks will find a .308 suits their needs just fine.
The Best Bolt Action Sniper Rifle
By now we’ve spent a lot of time on bolt action sniper rifles, often with Remington 700 actions. We’ve also danced around the .50 BMG some, so it is time to do something different and talk about a bolt action .50.
As previously mentioned, the current standing record for the longest sniper kill was done with a McMillan Tac-50 rifle. This pretty much ensures it is the best bolt action sniper rifle on the market. It is also hideously expensive, as befits such a fine piece of gear. If you’ve got the money for one, that is wonderful. They are fine rifles and sure to be collectible as well. If not, well there are a couple other bolt action .50 BMG sniper rifles you should consider.
Armalite sells an affordable single shot .50 BMG rifle which includes sniper features like a free floating barrel, removable stock for transport, and a comfortable stock with built in riser. For about $3500, the AR-50 is an affordable way to get a precision .50 BMG rifle.
If you want a bolt action .50 BMG sniper with a removable magazine, Bushmaster makes a marvelous rifle. The BA50 rifle is built to be a sniper accurate rifle, at a reasonable price for such a gun. Featuring a Magpul PRS adjustable stock, advanced muzzle brake, and built to be easy to attach a suppressor, the BA50 is one of the finest budget friendly .50 BMG bolt action rifles on the market today.
The Best Budget Sniper Rifle
As a general rule, sniper rifles are not a budget proposition. Match grade components are not cheap, nor are high quality optics. So how do you go about making a budget sniper rifle build?
An interesting thing happened in the gun world a few years back. Bolt action rifles suddenly got cheaper, and a number of rifles with advanced features hit the market for remarkably low prices. This was a result of using modern computerized manufacturing equipment, affordable synthetic stocks, and putting out rifles that didn’t look pretty, but worked well. The end result was rifles fitted with things like adjustable match triggers, and surprisingly accurate barrels for very modest prices.
Working from the idea that a sniper rifle often is just a sporting rifle rebuilt to be more accurate, consider starting with something like a Ruger American rifle in .308, or a Savage Axis II XP. Either of these rifles could be readily pressed into a sniper role with a bipod and a good scope.
The best sniper rifle for the money
When you are looking for the good sniper rifle for the money, just what are you looking for? Raw price point? A gun actually used by the military? A combination of mid range value and match quality accuracy? Something else altogether?
Well, probably the best all around value for a sniper rifle will be something built either on an AR-10 or AR-15 platform, or a Remington 700. In each case, the gun can be heavily customized and fitted with sniper quality stocks, barrels, triggers, muzzle devices, and optics. They can work as an out of the box sniper or marksmanship rifle, or be built up as much as your wallet and design choices allow.
With that in mind, we’d suggest you simply pick up a Remington 700 and call it the best sniper rifle for the money. It is the default gun for a bolt action sniper rifle, and there is a huge industry out there that supports building them into sniper rifles, and they don’t suffer from falling victim to “assault weapon” legislation like an AR pattern semi auto rifle.
The Best Cheap Sniper Rifle
Cheap and sniper rifle rarely go together. In fact, it is really an alien concept. That said, the joys of a capitalist economic system means that somebody is going to try and fill most any market, including that of a cheap sniper rifle, and wind up pulling something useful out of their hat.
Here, we think the AR-15 is going to be the best cheap sniper rifle. Basic AR-15’s are selling at all time low prices right now, which means with a bit of upgrading, you can get a really nice and accurate rifle. Consider something with an adjustable stock, match trigger, an 18-22” barrel, and a lightweight M-Lok handguard. In a pinch you could just buy a stock AR-15, drop a polished trigger in there, add a decent 3-9 scope to it, and have a functional, and cheap sniper rifle for about $700 or so. Sure, you could get a scoped Savage Axis for less, but there is a lot to be said for having an accurized AR-15 laying around.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s)
How a Sniper Rifle Works
Sniper rifles operate on a simple idea. Deliver a bullet very accurately at a distance. They tend to be the finest examples of their type of gun. While we can think of a hunting rifle as a form of sniper rifle, a modern day sniper rifle is so much more. Careful scientific thought goes into ensuring every part of a sniper rifle is tuned with each other to deliver maximum performance.
However, you can build the most precise rifle in the world, and it is worthless without training. In short order, it is safe to say a sniper rifle works like any other rifle- only better.
How Far Can a Sniper Rifle Shoot?
Sniper rifles are accurate up to about 2 miles, although shots much over a mile are extreme outliers and notable for how uncommon they are. Depending on the caliber, a sniper rifle can shoot several hundred yards, or out to the mile plus mark. The .308 Winchester commonly is used to about 800 yards, while the .300 Win Mag and .338 Lapua are used on ranges of 1000 yards and more.
What Sniper Rifle Does the Military Use?
The US Military uses a number of different sniper rifles. These include the McMillan Tac-50, various Remington 700 variants such as the M24, the Barrett M82A1 .50 BMG, and the M110 semi auto sniper rifle. There is no one standardized sniper rifle, and each one is built for a specific type of mission and need.
How Much Does a Sniper Rifle Cost?
Sniper rifles are not cheap. Military sniper rifles can cost as much as $10,000 or more. Civilian sniper rifles can be assembled for as little as about $400, if you simply want an inexpensive, but accurate marksmanship rifle, or you can buy the exact same sniper rifles or very close copies that the US military uses from many different manufacturers and suppliers- and pay about the same price. But you know the old saying, you get what you pay for. This is especially true with sniper rifles!
How To Shoot a Sniper Rifle
There is no one correct way to shoot a sniper rifle. In fact, you shoot a sniper rifle just like any other rifle. They can be shot offhand, or from a prone or sitting position or from a bench position. You can rest them on any sort of improvised support, or from sandbags. While it is true many snipers are elite soldiers who carefully conceal themselves and their rifles from observation, underneath all that concealment is any shooting position that the sniper finds best.
Sniper rifles have their scopes carefully dialed in and calibrated for the ammo the sniper is using. The sniper can then work up a chart that tells them exactly how to adjust their scope for any range or weather condition.
Actually taking a shot with a sniper rifle is no different than with any rifle. You must be certain you are on target, gently squeeze your trigger, control your breathing and hold your rifle correctly, same as with any other gun. The only real difference is you want to more perfectly develop your shooting skills before using a sniper rifle.
How to Camouflage a Sniper Rifle
There are a number of ways to camouflage a rifle. Sniper rifles are often camouflaged to help them blend into the local environment better. There are a number of paints and finishes used on sniper rifles, and it is also common to wrap your rifle in canvas and camouflage cloth to help hide it.
For the civilian shooter, camouflaging a sniper rifle can be as simple as spray painting the gun in local colors to match vegetation. This is as much an art as anything else, and there is no right or wrong way to do it, as long as the end result is a rifle that blends into the environment, and isn’t damaged by the painting.
Which Sniper Rifle has the Longest Range?
There is no longer shooting sniper rifle than the .50 BMG. As we discussed earlier, the current sniping distance record was set with a .50 BMG. This round may have first been used as a sniper round when famed Vietnam War sniper Carlos Hathcock used a standard M2 .50 BMG machine gun fitted with an 8x scope as a long range sniper rifle.
The extreme range of the .50 BMG is due to the fact it is a very powerful cartridge. Designed to engage vehicles, aircraft and similar heavy targets, the round makes an excellent sniper round when distance is the most important factor.
After the .50 BMG the next longest range sniper rifle would be anything in .338 Lapua, which has been used at effective ranges of up to 1.5 miles or so. In fact, for anti personnel sniping, the .338 Lapua has been increasingly more popular than the heavier .50 BMG.
Sniper rifles have dominated battlefields, saved the lives of hostages, and ended tense standoffs for over a century and a half. Accurate scoped rifles have been used to shape battlefields, and pave the way for advancing troops since before the US Civil War. During WWII, Soviet snipers became famous for their fierce defense of Stalingrad, and lethal presence throughout the remainder of the war.
The modern War on Terror has created new jobs for snipers, or refined old ones. It is more important than ever before to surgically take out terror leaders, and sometimes the best way to do that is with a sniper and a high powered rifle. Snipers also take out explosive devices, and provide an added layer of combat capability during a firefight.
Law enforcement snipers are used in difficult standoffs and hostage situations. In a close urban setting, being able to engage in precision shooting is a matter of public safety. Rural law enforcement agencies may have to contend with dangerous or wounded animals that need put down with something more precise and powerful than a service pistol.
Civilian shooters make great use of sniper rifles as well. As collectibles, historic sniper rifles are valuable investments. Modern rifles replicating military issue sniper rifles are exceptional platforms for target shooting, hunting, home defense, or as a ranch rifle. Plus they are fun to just own and shoot!
Because throughout history and the present day sniper rifles tend to be built around off the shelf civilian sporting arms, it is possible to build a sniper type rifle in the comfort of your own home using popular actions and precision components. These rifles again excel in any task that requires precision shooting, and can be real head turners on the range.
As military conflicts change, and technology evolve, so do sniper rifles. The earliest sniper rifles, while powerhouses for their day, are laughably quaint today. And even the sniper rifles of WWII might be readily outclassed by a modest deer rifle sold in a big box retailer. It is likely that 50 years from now, the sniper rifles of today’s military forces will also be seen as quaint and obsolete.
In the end, a sniper rifle is what you make of it. They are more accurate than most rifles, hard hitting, tuned for precision, and meant to become an intimate extension of the shooter. They take and save lives, and always will be the most elite form of the rifle fielded by armed services.
Steve Coffman is a consulting historian presently researching the dark history of the Washington State Secret Service, and their concerted assault on civil rights in Washington State 1917-1919.