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The SSG 08

Tuesday, September 09, 2008 - Guns and Weapons for Law Enforcement

I still remember an article from a couple decades ago about Steyr’s SSG69, the Scharfschutzen Gewehr 69. To us sharpshooters in our 20s, the SSG was an obscure object of desire. When I started my sharpshooting career, all my experience was with a scoped CETME and a Mauser 66, both with wood stocks. Designed from the ground up as a sharpshooter’s rifle, the SSG69 featured a synthetic stock and a 10-round detachable magazine. Both features made it desirable. Many armies and police forces adopted it, and thousands were sold.

Then, the 1990s saw the widespread use of composites, aluminium-bedded actions, adjustable cheek pieces and butt stocks. The SSG was slowly left behind with a new breed of .308 rifles leading the pack. But in the process some things were being left behind: lightness, ruggedness and simplicity. Steyr tried to compete with the market with their SSG04, but it was not in the same league and never caught up.

The Steyr SSG08 was developed with input from the world-class Austrian COBRA unit. One of the first batch of 50 was sent to me for test and evaluation. They have used aerospace aluminium in the stock to save weight and improve ruggedness, and, including all the specifications COBRA asked for, resulted in the most advanced design on the market.

The SSG08 is based around the Safe Bolt System (SBS) from Steyr Mannlicher, which is one of the safest rifle bolt systems ever designed. In case of firing an overpressure cartridge or even with an obstruction in the barrel, the shooter is always protected from injuries, and the rifle will survive the shot and be capable of shooting again. I was told by a Steyr representative that they routinely test the SBS bolt system of the SSG08 by shoot-ing a full-power round with a bullet obstructing the barrel.

As a blown-rifle survivor, I appreciate such a safe design, and with the other features it has, it makes the SBS the most advanced bolt system available. It has a safety bushing fully encasing the bolt lugs and the extractor, which protects the shooter from escaping gases and protects the receiver from rupturing.

The SBS also has additional relevant features, like the grooves machined into the bolt that guarantees the reliable operation of the SSG08 under the most extreme environmental conditions; it does so by capturing any particles that could get trapped during its operation between the bolt and receiver.

The bolt has six massive front locking-lugs directly behind the cartridge case. That alone is a departure from the older SSG69 bolt design, which had rear locking lugs. All Steyr rifles have a protruding cocking indicator in the bolt. On the SSG08, the bolt handle retracts and locks into the receiver. The bolt, receiver and barrel are the heart of any rifle and this rifle has one of the strongest hearts ever to power a precision rifle.

The barrel is also unique, being Steyr cold hammer-forged. The accuracy of these barrels is outstanding and synonymous with reliability and long service. Cold hammer forging is a process in which the barrel is forged over a mandrel that has the lands and grooves imprinted into it. This forms the barrel with incredible precision and increased hardness, compared to traditional cut rifling methods. SSG barrels are known for their ease of cleaning and long life, due to this ultra fine finish of the interior of the barrel.

The barrel measures 23.6 inches long with a twist rate of 1-in-10 inches. The twist selection is perfect for me, as it allows me to shoot heavy bullets, and also the 155-grain Sierra MatchKings that I regularly use for 1000-yard target shooting. For the .308 (7.62x51mm NATO) I like barrels an inch longer and heavier. As this barrel is only 0.78 of an inch in diameter at the muzzle, “skinny” was my first thought, but I have to admit I was wrong.

Yes, it heats up quicker, but to be honest I was not able to detect any bullet impact shift as it was getting hot. And this is a barrel in which you can actually detect any shift at all, because it prints the smallest groups I have shot with factory ammo. It is equipped with a suppressor-compatible muzzle brake that has no ports on the bottom side. A feature military snipers will find useful, as it avoids an increased signature in dusty conditions.

The trigger is nice, crisp, and adjustable in both travel and pull. The SSG08 safety is one of the things that sets it apart. Normally, rifles have two-position safeties, but the new SBS bolt allows the shooter to select three modes. SAFE: In this position the weapon can be loaded and unloaded and the trigger is locked to prevent accidental discharges. FIRE: When ready to engage the target, just roll the safety wheel noiselessly forward and the rifle will be ready to shoot. LOCK: If the “green light” is never issued or the sharpshooter decides not to engage, then a button on the safety wheel prevents the unintended rolling of the safety into any other position from lock. The trigger and bolt are now locked.

There is one more trick in this SBS system: One can depress the bolt handle into a position closer to the stock, where it is less protruding, and this additionally locks the firing pin. This alone is a feature that sets the SSG08 worlds apart. No protruding bolt handle to tangle during the low crawl, and a safe rifle with a “locked and cocked” capability, but able to shoot with the shift of a noiseless safety wheel. Awesome. The bolt also can be locked open between the folding stock, for transport.

The stock is a work of art, made of aerospace aluminum, which is lighter and sturdier that any composite unit. Steyr has gone with a full-aluminum McRee stock and a Wyatt barrelled action. Both sides of the forend are slotted for more rails, so you can mount any inline NVD on a saddle-type front mount, or any light or laser designator directly on the sides. All the rails are minimalist and detachable, a feature that contributes to the low overall weight.

The ergonomics of the stock are excellent, having an adjustable cheek piece and butt plate. Further, it has three (front, center and butt stock) side attachment points for Flush Mount or QD slings. To keep it simple, all screws are M4, operated with a single wrench. The 10-round magazine is made of synthetic, more durable than the older designs and requires no maintenance. The magazine also has a two-position latch that allows single loading of specialized rounds through the ejection port while the magazine is in the rifle and at ready.

A Versa-Pod bipod and a monopod are also standard equipment. Nothing to comment about Dr. Keng’s Versapod, it is simply one of the best bipods available, but the monopod deserves a note. The test rifle came equipped with an under-the-barrel Z-AIM monopod that Steyr was testing, which I found very practical. It is a newly patented design and has two features that make it a cut above. You can rough adjust it by simply pressing a button and it will lock precisely on the desired elevation; then a micrometer foot will allow for fine adjustment. When retracted it does not protrude at all, nor does the push button. The rifle is finished in a process called MANNOX, a 100-percent rustproof, matte finish.

The rifle came equipped with a 34mm tube Schmidt & Bender PM II scope. I have to admit it is a fine optics.

The scope can be mounted via a special one-piece cradle scope mount onto a Mil-Std-1913 rail screwed and stuck to the receiver with an adhesive. Three sturdy 12-face nuts hold the cradle to the rail.

Shooting Impressions

At the range, my intention was to shoot some groups at 100 meters and then shoot at the longest range I was allowed, but the Europa Schiesszentrum Wr. Neustadt range near Vienna only had 100-, 200- and 300-meter ranges. After a group to check cold-bore zero and trigger pull, I saw that I had printed a 3-shot group of 0.8 MOA. Then I shot another 3-shot group to adjust the cheek piece and the butt stock length, and it printed at exactly 1 MOA. When I shot my first group for record I could hardly believe my eyes, a 0.24 of an inch group was there, and that’s sub-1/4 MOA with Federal Premium Match ammo.

Even though I am a sharpshooter instructor and can shoot most rifles to their potential, I am not into benchrest, and groups that small make me smile. With that smile on my face I shot another one. Result, a 0.33 of an inch group. “I can’t be so lucky”, I thought, while I loaded the magazine with three more rounds.

When I shot a 0.28 of an inch group I realized two things. First, that the SSG08 is the most precise out-of-the box rifle I have ever shot, and second, that I could barely scratch its potential on a 300-meter range. You have to bring custom benchrest rifles into the arena to print around 1/4-MOA groups one after the other. Half-MOA, maybe, but not this small.

Final Notes

This rifle is a mature design that incorporates the specific features professional sharpshooters have asked for, while maintaining the fundamental requirements of accuracy, simplicity and lightness. Fundamentals that some designs have let go in favor of “features” that may, or may not, actually be useful when deployed. SWAT sharpshooters, military snipers and even sharpshooting aficionados, should all take a serious look at this rifle.

Original article (PDF)