Budget Precision .223: Project Kick-Off and TC Compass Setup

It’s a common misconception that you HAVE to spend big bucks to put together a precision shooting setup. Yes, a Porsche will have better fit and finish compared to a Subaru WRX STi, but the Subaru can still match the performance of some Porsches at a fraction of the cost. The Subaru may not be much to look at, but it can get the job done. For a long time I’ve wanted to get a bolt action .223 rifle- I’ve shot a ton of .223 in the AR-15 platform, but have wondered what I could to with precision .223 in a bolt gun. I’ve also been planning to do an end-to-end low-budget shooting/reloading series, and that time is NOW! This is the perfect opportunity to achieve both goals.

I decided to give myself a $600.00 budget to cover the essentials: a rifle, an optic, and reloading essentials. Would it be possible to assemble such a setup and to consistently shoot ~1/2″ groups? Let’s find out!

Notes and corrections:
**The LEE Challenger reloading kit (#90050, mentioned in this video) can be found on sale for $150 or less. The LEE Deluxe Challenger kit (#90080, to be featured in this article) can be found on sale for less than $200.
**LEE’s 4-die rifle set is called the “Ultimate” rather than the “Deluxe”

The Rifle

A while back, I posted a story covering the new TC Compass rifle in .308 Winchester. I really like that rifle, and it’s been an amazing performer, especially at the low MSRP (I’ve heard of street prices on sale in the mid to upper $200’s or less – crazy deals, see below). Here’s the video I put together for the TC Compass in .308 Winchester:

So when it came time to select a rifle for this budget precision .223 project, the TC Compass was an obvious choice.

The .223 TC Compass is packed with great features including:

  • Free floated barrel
  • Adjustable trigger
  • Threaded muzzle
  • 5R rifling
  • 22″ barrel, 1:9 twist rate
  • Spec’d to work with both .223 Remington and 5.56 NATO

…and the TC Compass has a 1 MOA guarantee. You’ll see later in this post, this specific rifle has no trouble going “sub-MOA”! Hard to believe how far budget bolt action rifles have come in the last 10 years. You can now spend about $300.00 and get a rifle that performs in the same class as rifles costing three times that just 10 years ago. Amazing.

The Optic

Budget optics can be hit or miss- literally. You can spend $50.00 and get a scope that works OK for budget work, and you can spend $300.00 and end up with an optic that won’t hold zero. For this project, I fired up amazon.com, and took at look at sub-$100.00 scopes that were well rated. It’s hard to compromise on glass, but that’s what’s necessary to make a low-budget project like this one “add up”. In the end, I decided to to with the Center Point 4-16x40mm scope with illuminated reticle. At $69.99 with included rings and free shipping, I felt like I was taking a big gamble. But after reading the reviews I thought it would be an acceptable risk.

The packaging was not confidence inspiring, but at this price-point I knew I couldn’t be too picky. After taking the scope out of the package, I took at look through the tube at a range of 100 yards, holding the scope free-hand. I was surprised- I’ve seen a lot of budget glass, and the picture through this scope looked really good for the price.

Initial Setup and Range Results

The goals for my initial range trip with this rifle were simple: get the rifle on paper and zeroed, and then fire form some brass. I shot some Federal 55 grain FMJ ammunition while I bore sighted the rifle, and was pleased with the ~1-MOA initial groups (only a couple groups shot). Then, I loaded some Starline brass .223 brass (NEW!) with Hornady 53 grain .224 match bullets.

I loaded this fire-forming ammunition on a progressive press so I that I could get to shooting as quickly as possible. For this first loading session, I decided to use my current favorite .223 powder: Hodgdon H-335 ball powder. I loaded this ammunition at less-than-max level, which I thought would yield good accuracy.

Here’s my load data: (USE AT YOUR OWN RISK)

Use load data at your own risk. Ultimate Reloader is not responsible for errors in load data on this website. Always cross-reference load data with manufacturer’s published data.

The results were very good- I shot a total of 50 rounds during this fire-forming session, and was able to hold sub-MOA groups during that process. What was really interesting was how heat-insensitive the TC Compass was- I could just keep shooting, and hold great groups even with some boiling mirage to look through. Thta’s where the free-floated barrel comes in- I consider this feature to be a “rifle essential” for anything involving precision shooting. I had high hopes for this project, and after this initial range trip I’m really excited to see where this will go! I can only imagine how groups will improve when we get to precision reloading and load development!

The best group ten measured just 0.585″. To be honest, I’d be happy with these results at the *end* of this project, but that’s awesome because now we can set the bar “much higher”. Will I be able to hold 1/4″ groups with an optimal load? Who knows- we’ll see! What was curious was the chronograph data…

With a 5-shot SD of 46.2 FPS, I was surprised at how well this ammunition performed (would have expected lower). At longer ranges this would obviously affect group size much more. And that’s where load development will come in. With a ladder test and some strategic component selection, I’m hoping to get SD numbers of 5-10 FPS for 5 shots. We’ll see!

Reloading Gear

If budget precision rifle is on the table, there’s a product that’s ideal for such a scenario: the LEE Deluxe Challenger Reloading Kit. This kit embodies what LEE Precision is about: tools that will yield reliable precision ammunition at a super-affordable price-point. At less than $200.00 if you find it on sale, this kit would be hard (or impossible) to beat given the goals outlined for this project.

In part 2 of this series, I’ll unbox this kit and set everything up, that will be fun! I did spend a little extra on the die set for this project: I wanted the ability to choose between neck-only and full-length sizing, and to have a LEE Factory Crimp Die as well. So I landed on the LEE Ultimate 4-Die set for .223.

Adding it All Up

OK, so how did I do on my budget so far? I’m counting only the essentials, not any “nice to haves” in my $600.00 budget, and components (which are consumable) are considered extra. I’m also assuming any bargain hunter putting this kind of setup together would buy everything on sale (I know I do) and I’m not including shipping or tax either.

So here’s the bottom line:

TC Compass Rifle (.223)  $208.00 *With rebate (07/2017), reported via YouTube by stuna101a
CenterPoint 4-16 Scope  $69.99 *Amazon prime, free shipping
LEE Deluxe Challenger Kit  $189.95 *On sale at Midsouth Shooters Supply 08/2017
LEE Ultimate Rifle Die Set  $42.51 *On sale at Midsouth Shooters Supply 08/2017
Total:  $510.45 

Even without the mega-sale pricing on the TC Compass, this leaves room to come in under my $600.00 goal, and also leaves room for some important tools like a .223 case gage. There’s a LOT you could add here (see my article on equipment for beginning rifle reloading for a complete list) – but these essentials are enough to get started. And that’s what we’ll do next: unbox the LEE Challenger kit, and get ready for some precision loading.

I’m curious what you all would put together for a sub-$600.00 precision shooting and reloading setup. Have you assembled such a kit? Please leave a comment, and make sure you’re subscribed so that you don’t miss future installments in this series!




5 thoughts on “Budget Precision .223: Project Kick-Off and TC Compass Setup”

    1. The scope rings were included with the CenterPoint scope, and I did not include accessories like a bipod in this challenge, only the “essentials” (yes, I know that’s subjective 🙂 ). In the field, I can use a backpack instead of a bipod. (but- as you saw in the video, I chose to use a bipod).

  1. Again, another fantastic test. Not sure what I m more impressed with the overall review or the research and creation of all the test equipment! I also find your ability to put all the data out in what seems to be the perfect order every time I thought you might miss something or had a question you covered it almost immediately after I started thinking about it. I m not in the market for a muzzle brake right now but if I was I would definitely use this and your annual PRS review to make an informed decision. To me this product category is one of the harder ones to cover due to the products being fairly cheap (compared to the rest of the LR equipment out there) and easy to produce which means there are literally tons on the market.

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