"Has anyone had a chance to shoot other sub-$500 "starter" rifles"
A few of you may have seen my comments on this board regarding the T/C Venture (mine is chambered in .270 Win). For those who have not, I've been very impressed with mine. It apparently hates Federal Premium with 150 grain Partitions--which most wouldn't use on Alabama whitetails to begin with--but it shoots everything 130 grain I've tried very well.
My handloads using 130 gr. Nosler BTs and either H4831SC or IMR 4350 routinely get less than 0.5" at 100 yards off the bench...my best is 0.135". Shooting from field positions naturally opens up the groups to about 1", but that's me, not the rifle.
The trigger is the best on any rifle I currently own, and I appreciate the short bolt lift--60 degrees or something near that--easily clears the scope and makes for quick handling. The stock looks and feels very cheap, but for me they apparently got the size and shape right, because I can shoot 50 rounds at one sitting without feeling beat up at all.
I bought it simply because I wanted a rifle that I didn't have to baby, and didn't mind getting dinged up in the woods. It has a few marks after one season, but that's okay....it's serving its purpose. I've been quite pleased.