Deadly Accuracy From the Mean Green Gun

by Barrett Tillman

To the Austrian army it's the Scharfschutzen Gewehr 69; the Sharpshooter's Weapon Model 1969. To the rest of the world it's simply SSG or the Green Gun. But whatever you call it, Steyr-Mannlicher's popular sniper-competition piece may well be the most accurate .30 caliber production rifle in the world.

Chambered for .308 Winchester (7.62mm NATO), the SSG offers a variety of options and accessories ranging from single or set triggers, five- or ten-round magazines to exotic Kahles scopes. None of these items are cheap, but most serious shooters by now will have arrived at the decision that you generally get what you pay for. Bargains do exist, of course, but in the Iong run "you pays your money and you takes your chances."

The SSG's accuracy has become almost legendary. This is due to a variety of factors, but the superb hammer forged barrel and synthetic cyclolac stock are both partial explanations. The 25-1/2 inch barrel is fully free-floated, and of course the plastic stock is immune to warping. Its faded green color seems well chosen for blending into a variety of topographical colors, and the flat black finish of all metal parts (except the double triggers) adds to the SSG's concealability.

Some shooters don't like a set trigger, and Steyr Daimler Puch of America offers a trade-in option to replace the factory trigger group with a single-trigger setup. Personally, I don't mind the set-trigger option. Though I seldom use it, the hair's breath release is a nice choice when extreme precision is required.

And the SSG is certainly capable of extreme precision. The factory claims routine minute-of-angle groups at 300 yards, but this is conservative when compared to some results achieved by proficient riflemen using carefully developed handloads. Early in my experimentation with the SSG I fired three-round groups from prone at 300 and 500 yards. Normally I'd never publish the results, but since there were witnesses, I'll state that the 300-yard spread was 1-1/4 inches and the 500-yard group was 1-1/2. Now I've never approached either result in the 900-plus rounds since, but the SSG is one of the few off-the-shelf rifles which can truthfully be described as a tack-driver.

For practical purposes, a three-inch group at 500 yards is possible - and that's a lot more accuracy than anybody needs in the real world. All my experimentation was conducted with Hornady 150-grain FMJ BT, and no doubt a 168- or 190-grain bullet would hold up better at ranges for which the SSG was intended.

A curious thing about the SSG's accuracy - it seems to improve with distance. At ranges under 200 yards the Green Gun does well, but nothing significantly better than many other .308 bolt actions. However, from 300 back - say, to 600 or 700 - the MOA figures usually tighten up. I've never had occasion to group on paper at over 600 so I can't draw any definite conclusions. However, in the advanced rifle course at Gunsite, the angular Austrian was throwing dust on an orange one-gallon can at about 700 yards once the elevation was corrected.

A Superior Piece of Optics

Which raises another point. To realize the SSG's potential requires a scope with external elevation adjustments. The Kahles 10-power is a superior piece of optics, but is calibrated in meters which causes obvious complications in the U.S. It's also extremely expensive. My rifle is fitted with a Weaver T-6, which has performed most satisfactorily to date. The only glitch (aside from operator error) occurred during the API course while potting at the 1,000-yard gong. After ranging in, one perfect squeeze registered a beautiful six o'clock hit below the suspended orange dinger. A one-minute elevation adjustment should have yielded an impact with the next round, but my elevation dial setscrew had worked loose. That's been the only mechanical failure with the scope.

However, the factory rings are 26mm, which is a smidgen oversize for American one-inch scope tubes. A satisfactory shim may be improvised with emery cloth, which provides a more solid and consistent binding between scope and rings thar) adhesive tape.

Incidentally, the factory fixed sights are often neglected among SSG owners, but they deserve mention. Certainly they're no substitute for a quality scope, but they afford a crisp, fast sight picture should the glass be removed for any reason. At least one competition shooter I know intends to install them on a shotgun.

That's the good news. But for all its virtues the SSG, as the Arabs would say, has a serious flaw in that "it is not perfect."

The main drawback is the bolt, both in design and manipulation. The sketchy instructions which come with the rifle are apparently translated from German, and they're a devilment to decipher when trying to disassemble the bolt. There's probably a good reason for manufacturing the bolt the way Steyr does, but I've not been able to figure it out. It seems unnecessarily complicated. And a setscrew in the bottom which retains tension on the firing pin has become a regular item on my pre-firing inspection. My first firing pin broke after 213 rounds because the screw worked loose. Steyr Daimler Puch replaced the pin free of charge, but it was still a hassle.

Bolt operation is stiff, and in fact this problem remains my main criticism of the rifle. Accustomed to the butter-smooth operation of more conventional Mannlicher bolts, the SSG's came as a considerable disappointment. Of course, the SSG is not intended to be operated in an environment requiring fast follow-up shots. But even so, for a hunting or combat rifle a slick bolt should be designed from the outset.

The other problem is lack of an integral bipod. My rifle is modified with a standard sling-swivel mount secured in the conventional location on the stock. The factory's front sling swivel is at the extreme front - no particular problem. But a Harris bipod on the SSG requires the U.S. swivel stud modification. Were Steyr-Mannlicher to produce an integral, self-leveling bipod similar to Heckler & Koch's, we'd really have a fine field weapon.

Ten-round magazines are popular if pricey. In early 1982 they ran $66 new. That's a lot of money for a plastic mag of marginal reliability. My personal ten-rounder and one borrowed on long-term loan have both failed to feed on occasion, including (naturally) when I could least afford it. The brand new mag, apparently having ingested some grit during the course of an extraordinarily windy practical rifle match, completely gave up. It was easily remedied by disassembly and cleaning, but that was of little consolation since it probably cost me the Oregon practical rifle championship. (Though in fairness I'm bound to admit I didn't help myself any in a previous match by neglecting to return my elevation dial all the way to zero after an 800-yard stage!)

The five-round magazines have functioned flawlessly, nor have I heard of any problems with them from other SSG owners. A plug comes with the rifle which allows conversion of a five-rounder to a single-loader, and while few shooters apparently bother with this setup, it is a reasonable option.

One-round Hits

So what may we deduce from all this? The main lesson seems to be the obvious one: don't expect to make a barrel racer out of a cart horse. Employed within the limit's for which it was designed, the SSG is a superior instrument in the hands of above-average riflemen. Average shooters will certainly enjoy shooting the Mannlicher, and may well surprise themselves on occasion. But the SSG performs best at long range for marksmen who have taken the time to learn their weapon and dedicated themselves to making one-round hits. If you're looking for ammo capacity and rapid fire, get a CAR-15 with a few 30-round magazines.

Fortunately, interchangeable magazines allow a dandy intermediate brush gun in the Mannlicher gun line. The lightweight, handy Model L in .308 accepts the SSG ten-round mag, and when fitted with a four-power scope becomes a viable option for the increasingly popular scout rifle configuration. The Model L's drawbacks: price and heavy recoil. There's also some indication that the full-length stock leads to heat retention which causes groups to open up to almost marginal utility at ranges approaching 300 yards. However, this latter point is probably not as serious as it sounds because in most circumstances a rifleman will seldom have reason to fire more than two or three consecutive rounds.

Having accepted the SSG's specialized nature, a realistic owner can better appreciate the price for the exceptional product it really is. Aside from its almost spooky accuracy potential there is the historical background of Germanic firearms tradition. We Americans sometimes forget that Germany and Switzerland are the ancestral homes of the rifle, and even today there exists a touch of mysticism surrounding the origins of the weapon. In the SSG we have perhaps the highest expression of the Teutonic concept of the Gewehr, both in design and execution. And whether or not the rifleman makes the subtle distinction between Jaeger and Scharfschutzer, if he masters the SSG, he is still heir to a centuries-old tradition.

first published in the Fall 1983 edition of Special Weapons