It’s a truism that a rifle does not make the marksman, same as a camera doesn’t make the photographer or skillet the chef. But a photographer of a certain skill level will do better with a top-of-the-line digital camera with great lenses than with an Instamatic, and a chef equipped with a first-class kitchen and good ingredients will do better than one forced to cook dead mice over a stove made from a discarded can. We could assume that handing a high-end rifle to an average shooter would improve his results as well … or would it? Being an average shooter, I put that theory to the test with a Surgeon Scalpel in 6.5 Creedmoor.
All Surgeon rifles are customized to some extent before they leave the factory. The Scalpel 591 action is, on the surface, a very basic design with a two-lug bolt and conventional forward-back rocker safety. The main feature of this rifle isn’t in the features but in the extremely precise execution of the basic design. The recoil lug and the 20MOA rail are integrated into the receiver, making for a stronger system that can’t work loose. This action is available in .223 Remington, .243 Winchester, 6XC, .260 Remington, 6.5 Creedmoor and .308 Winchester—I went with the 6.5 as the reasonable balance between recoil and sufficient payload at range. 6.5 Creedmoor can be considered a conceptual descendant of the 6.5 Swedish, still a moderately powered cartridge but with a 120-yard or greater advantage in muzzle velocity for the same bullet weight. Around the year 1900, several 6.5mm cartridges were popular in European armies but fell out of favor by the 1930s due to the insufficient volume available for AP cores or long-range tracer elements desired for machine guns. Neither is a concern for most present-day US shooters, so the soft recoiling yet flat shooting 6.5mm made a comeback in compact (Grendel), short (Creedmoor) and long (6.5-284) actions. Barrels from 16 inches—mainly for dedicated suppressed use—to 26 inches are available, heavy (Palma) or bull (MTU), with optional fluting and a choice of muzzle devices. Mine came with an unfluted 24-inch tube, threaded and capped. Even though I could see the flats of the barrel cap, I had to look at the line between the barrel and the cap with a loupe to see it. The hairline was so thin as to be invisible in normal light, and that exemplifies the quality of mechanics throughout this rifle. I specified no muzzle device because I had been expecting a matching sound suppressor. That wasn’t available in time, so all the testing was done with a bare muzzle.
The look of the complete rifle comes mainly from the stock or chassis selected to support the action. Scalpel is available with two different stock or four chassis options: mine came with a J. Allen JAE-700, a highly customizable aluminum chassis that looks more like a conventional stock. It feels more like a conventional stock as well, rounded and warmer in cold weather than bare aluminum, thanks to the composite color inserts instead of paint over metal. While hefty, this chassis has the balance of a conventional stock, allowing easy balancing in off-hand and supported field firing positions. Everything about this chassis is about options: in addition to several QD sockets, it has a recessed flush mount rail running on the sides and the bottom the full length of the forend. Out of the box, it had a sling swivel stud mid-forend and a 2-inch Picatinny rail at the front—the two can be reversed or replaced at will. Every detail, from the length of pull to the cheek rise to the hand grip dimensions, can be adjusted and modified to fit the shooter or to switch between several users. The raised cheek rest is removable for breech-side cleaning of the barrel. Even the bolt handle is swappable to fit shooter preference. The base 3-pound trigger is excellent, minutely adjustable and entirely transparent in use. Trigger upgrades are an option for the true connoisseurs. The only flaw I found with the construction is in the unbroken upper edge of the flush mount rail: in theory, it can abrade an ungloved hand. In my own practice, I had zero problems with it, so this remains a theoretical concern.
Scalpel action uses industry standard Accuracy International (AI) magazines in 5- and 10-round lengths. The supplied 5-rounder fits flush and is easy to load. Single-feed magazines, while slightly harder to load than double-feed designs, require a smaller opening in the bottom of the receiver, improving overall rigidity. The chassis forms a deep magwell that keeps the magazine more closely aligned with the action. While several good loads are available in 6.5 Creedmoor, I did my testing with Nexus 142gr HPBT Match provided by Strategic Armory Corps (SAC), the parent company to Surgeon Rifles. This ammo is advertised as matched to the rifle, and SAC states that 1/4MOA accuracy is possible. In theory, I can get this kind of result firing from a rest, but my interest was more in the field use of the rifle for typical real-world employments.
Good accuracy at range presupposes a good optic. Pulling a trigger on an indistinct, not fully identified target would be neither safe nor effective, so using a high magnification scope was in order. A Burris 5-25x50mm FFP scope fit the bill without excess bulk. The rifle so scoped weighed in at 15.6 pounds, but the balance remained excellent. The illuminated MOA reticle provided ranging and holdovers at any magnification, while the zoomed-out view gave a quick crosshair thick and simple enough to remain usable for close-in defense. An auxiliary red dot is available for emergency CQB, but I didn’t mount it on the theory that a sidearm would be a quicker option at such close range. The weight, combined with the thick and effective recoil pad, makes felt recoil a non-event. A well-sculpted hand rest on the bottom front of the stock added to the feeling of comfort. Recoil control was absent as a conscious part of the shooting experience.
Used to zeroing high-velocity rifles at 200 yards, I ended up having to re-calculate hold-overs from the 100-yard data on the ammunition box. Since the 24-inch barrel in use matched the test barrel length, I could count on the velocity to be very close to the rated 2770fps. Once zeroed, the rifle overlapped lead splatter from each impact on top of each other at 200. The real test was a cold shot at 500 yards on a hard-to-see target; in this case a torso-sized steel target hung on a branch. Over time, it rusted brown matching the leafless trees around it and was impossible to see with unaided eye or low-magnification optics. With the Burris scope at 20 power, it was just visible enough for a certain aim. From a bipod, Surgeon is absurdly easy to keep steady, so the only real question was drop estimation. Re-calculating drop had to be done not only from the 100-yard zero to 200, but also from the 1.5-inch sight over bore assumed by Nexus testers to 2 inches. Fortunately, at long range, height of sight over bore becomes a negligible concern. The longer zero distance reduced the 500-yard drop to 42 inches or 8.4MOA. With the Burris SCR reticle, it was an easy correction. Unlike holding off “by the height of the target,” using the reticle calculation doesn’t require the knowledge of the target size. I originally assumed the target was 36 inches or taller, in which case aiming its own height above would have given me a hit. Once the target was ranged with the same reticle and found to be only 6MOA or 30 inches in height, a more reliable, calculated aim was taken and gave consistent hits.
While I am not a fan of muzzle brakes for mild calibers like 6.5 Creedmoor, either a brake or a sound suppressor would have eased the job of spotting. At 25x, the sight picture got disturbed just enough to make spotting my own shots difficult. Roughly 2/3 second time of flight wasn’t enough for it to settle so that I could watch the impact unless I zoomed out some. This is where a proper spotter would have been useful. Here’s where my quip about the rifle being a constant rather than a variable comes in. Typically, shooting a high powered rifle includes a degree of dispersion, so the marksman is steering an area of probable hits somewhere near the point of predicted impact. Sometimes, the shooter’s flinch plays into this as well. With the Scalpel, flinch is a non-issue because the entire shooting experience is so comfortable. The same is nearly true of the dispersion. With a less accurate rifle, let’s say a 1MOA for example, the error of plus/minus 2.5 inches from the expected point of impact is added to the errors of ranging, windage, reading of humidity and other factors. Although 6.5 Creedmoor is viewed as a flat shooting cartridge with good wind drift resistance, the actual numbers show it is merely an incremental improvement over the .308 Winchester. It enjoys at most a 100-yard advantage in drop and drift at 1000 yards, and only about a 50-yard advantage at 500. The main win is in the comfort of shooting, with noticeably lessened felt recoil. With the Scalpel, the offset produced by the barrel and ammunition combination is so minute as to be neglected in practice, at least at the very close range of 500 yards. So a marginal aim by a mediocre shooter still has a much higher chance of connecting than it would with a more typical rifle with less precise ammunition.
The Scalpel is quite expensive at around $6000 as configured, not counting the scope and rings which add $1200 or so. Is the extra money over a more pedestrian option going to produce much better results for the same skill level? Definitely! The key is to bring an adequate skill level to the range, as even the best equipment won’t make up for ignorance of the ballistic basics and sound shooting techniques. In addition to excellent performance, Scalpel also serves up a sheer enjoyment of the experience with the perfected controls and functionality so well considered they become transparent to the user.
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