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Accuracy vs beauty ... what makes a custom rifle?

* I could see by the furtive glances tossed in the direction of my rifle, freshly freed of its aluminum case and now leaning in the corner near my bunk, that my new roommate was more than a little interested in guns. I was traveling alone, having arrived in Jackson Hole, Wyoming that afternoon where I was met by my outfitter, Bud Callahan, and driven to our elk camp in the Gray's River area. My "roomie" for the coming week was a Nebraskan chap named Bill who had driven in that afternoon and was already settled in. After the introduction I moved my gear into the two-bunk cabin and began to do the same.

As always, it was my rifle I unpacked first. With no new dents in the case and the fact that the gun hadn't shifted position within, I was confident all was well so I simply stood the thing in the corner, all the while talking to my huntin' partner.

After a few minutes Bill got up from his bunk where he'd been sitting and sauntered over to where my 7 mm was propped. "May I?" he asked, hands poised just a few inches from the object of his curiosity.

"Feel free," I said, continuing to unpack and not really paying much attention.

"Nice and smooth," he opined, as he snicked the bolt back and forth a few times. "But I would have thought a guy in your racket would have had a fancier rifle--a real custom job."

Hell, it was a real custom job! Everything about that rifle was precisely the way I wanted it. The barrel, for example, was of a special contour, chambered for a wildcat cartridge of my own design, and throated to a specific bullet. The bolt face had been trued, the lugs lapped and the action slicked up to where the bolt felt like it was on bearings. The stock was in the classic configuration but consisted of about 20 different pieces of walnut laminated together. Inside, the barreled action reposed in fiberglass which extended from the rear tang to a point some six inches forward of the receiver ring.

But despite its highly refined nature, the gun wasn't all that glamorous; in facT, it was pretty ordinary looking. The barreled action wore a bead blast finish and the stock a dull skin of nothing more exotic than linseed oil. On second thought, "ordinary looking" may have been a kind description in Bill's eyes, to whom his own rifle must have looked spiffy indeed.

That incident in Wyoming comes to mind often; in fact, almost every time I see an article about custom guns or one show-casing the work of an individual craftsman. Over the last quarter-century we've witnessed a renaissance in the art of gunmaking nurtured by a climate of discernment and appreciation on the part of the consumer. There's no question in my mind but that the finest rifles in the world are built right here in the U.S., and it's been that way for some time now. But I also believe the term "custom rifle" connotes the wrong thing for too many of us.

Actually, "custom" can mean anything from a military Mauser dropped into a fully inletted and finished sporter stock on the one hand, to a David Miller/Curt Crum masterpiece on the other; it just depends on who you're talking to. For the most part, though, to the majority of readers a custom rifle means a fancy stock more than anything else. And, I suppose, that's understandable because the stock is by far the most visual component; the thing which sets the "personality" as it were, and determines the overall appeal of the wood/metal ensemble. But as important as the stock can be, it's still only a handle, and contributes little to the actual mechanical functioning of the entity that is a rifle. So, although cosmetic considerations alone are legitimate reasons for wanting a custom rifle, there are other more compelling, more performance-oriented ones.

Depending on one's level and degree of involvement with rifles, handloading, and hunting, sooner or later we become knowledgeable enough (or opinionated--take your pick), to have our own ideas about how things should be. We find ourselves mentally redesigning guns we once thought to be perfect. Suddenly this factor rifle's barrel is too heavy, too long, or of the wrong contour. The chamber throat is too short to allow seating bullets out where we want them, or it's too long for our choice of cartridge and thus wastes space and is too heavy. And so it goes.

If I had to define what I consider to be the threshold level of a custom rifle it would consist of a barrel of one's chosen length, weight, contour, chambering and throating; screwed onto the action of one's choice, and cradled in a handle of one's choice. Unless you're an accomplished gunsmith with a fully equipped shop, the barrel work, fitting, blueing, etc., are things we merely specify and have done outside. As for putting the whole thing into a stock and coming up with a complete rifle, that's something we can either do for ourselves using a semi-inletted, fully shaped job, or we can commission a gunsmith/stockmaker to do it, using a preturned handle like we ourselves would, or starting from scratch with an amorphous chunk of wood. Comparative costs will vary and the quality of workmanship may be galaxies apart but both would be "custom" in the truest sense.

There's even an easier route if there happens to be a barreled action that precisely fits our requirements. And it's better still if that manufacturer sells those barreled actions separately. After all, why exclude someone from the exalted status of "custom rifle owner" simply because a dead-stock barreled action happens to fit someone's idea of perfection? In that case only a made-to-order stock is needed to qualify. Remington and Ruger are two makers that do offer barreled actions to the trade in the same chamberings and configurations as in their completed rifles. Weatherby does too, as well as offering a limited choice of barrel lengths and weights.

Chances are though, that once factory rifles fail to fulfill your perceived needs, you'll think of all kinds of reasons why a custom barrel is necessary for true happiness. And well it should, for only by taking advantage of all the various barrel options available do we begin to avail ourselves to the real potential of the custom rilfe.

Starting just with the outside dimension, now we can specify barrel contours ranging from an -18-1/2-inch soda straw to a 28-inch, 1-1/4-inch-diameter full bull. Among the larger barrel makers like E.R. Shaw, Douglas, Shilen, and McGowan, a wide choice of fixed-contour barrels are offered and each can be furnished in any reasonable legal length. If, for some reason, like wanting to match the inletting of an existing stock, one of these standard weights and contours won't do, you can go to someone like H-S Precision of Prescott, Arizona, makers of Atkinson match-grade barrels. H-S not only offers a choice of chrome-moly or stainless (as do some other makers), but you can design your own barrel shape and they'll turn it to your specs. You can even specify your own rate-of-twist if you're interested in experimenting with unusually light or heavy bullets.

It goes without saying that a custom barrel offers a virtually limitless choice of chamberings. Whereas factory rifles must understandably be limited regarding caliber options, it's just as easy for a custom barrel maker to chamber for one cartridge as the next, be it a standard, a magnum, or an obsolete one, assuming the action is compatible or can be modified to suit.

Not only do the barrel makers have chambering reamers for virtually any smokeless powder cartridge, each offers a selection of 20 or 30 wildcats as well. And if they don't list the wildcat you want, you can simply go to a reamer manufacturer like Max Clymer and design your own cartridge (as long as your wildcat is based on an existing case and is compatible with the actions's length and bolt face). Designing your own cartridge may sound like a formidable task requiring an engineering degree, but it's ridiculously simple. For my .375 JRS, for example, I told Max to cut a chamber reamer based on the 8 mm Remington Mag case necked up to .375 My 7 mm JRS was a bit more complicated yet I could have given those specs over the phone in 30 seconds and still have gotten the cartridge I wanted. For it I instructed Max to take the .280/7 mm Express case, put a 35-degree shoulder on it and move it forward to where it would result in a neck .300 inch long. Body taper was to be only .015 inch from head to shoulder. Given those dimensions alone the cartridge was completely "designed," with Max then making the exact calculations and doing all the work.

What's the cost of a custom reamer? About 75 bucks--not a lot of money considering what you get. With the reamer secured, it's then turned over to your gunsmith doing the barrel work.

It's the same story for reloading dies; if it's a one-of-a-kind cartridge you'll have to have a custom die set made up, preferably from once-fired cases, but it can also be done working to dimensions or a chamber cast. Here we're looking at about a hundred bucks for custom dies. Again, considering what you're getting, the costs have to be considered minimal.

With the extensive list of chamberings offered by each barrel maker--in both standard and established widlcats (ones for which dies are already listed by RCBS, Pacific, Redding, Lyman, etc.), there are precious few practical reasons for designing a "new" cartridge; I mention it here to show the degree of options available once we get into the custom barrel category.

As long as we're having a new tube installed, several other alternatives present themselves. For one, we can choose between a standard chrome-moly barrel or one made of stainless. The latter are usually more expensive and require special blueing techniques but they do last longer, all things being equal. It has become fashionable to leave barrels "in-the-white" on competition and varmint rifles where game-spooking reflections are of no consequence. Since these guns are shot far more than the typical hunting rifle, a stainless barrel should be given serious consideration. On a game gun, however, a chromemoly tube will last at least a couple thousand rounds, even in the 7 mm or .300 Magnum calibers, which represents a lifetime of hunting, so there's no practical advantage to stainless unless one lives or hunts frequently in high humidity or tropical areas.

For many years one of the hallmarks of a custom rifle was a mirror-like blue job. No more. Though a good percentage of folks still like that "black-chrome" look, most of the finer quality custom guns being turned out today carry a dull blue job. Call it a "satin," "bead-blast" or "hunting" finish, it is simply a barreled action blued at a lesser degree of polish. The classic rust blueing method also achieves the same result and is the most durable of all the blueing processes. There are also nickel-electroless, black chroming. Parkerizing and a few other methods with which I have no personal experience. The choices are there, though, representing yet another dimension of the custom rifle.

Lest we forget, some barrels still wear iron sights--or should anyway. Dangerous game rifles on which irons may be the only sights are one example, or where one wants a backup to his scope should it get crunched. Either are legitimate reasons for open sights. Here the choice is extensive, ranging from the wimpy little fold-down jobs furnished on some factory rifles, to custom-fashioned quarter ribs with dual and tri-range fold downs. Take your pick.

If you think the barrel options are mind-boggling, they are easily outnumbered by the customizing that can be done to the action. Unlike the business-like barrel, most modifications to an action are purely of an elective nature. One can, for example, have the aluminum triggerguard/floorplate assembly of his Ruger 77 or 700 BDL replaced with one of steel at a cost approximating that of the original rifle itself. Or how about modifying those same actions, or a '98 Mauser, to a Model 70-type three-position safety? Don't like the extractor on your Model 700 Remington? You can have it replaced with a Sako or a Mauser one. Recontouring the receiver and the rear tang; installing a new bolt handle; swiss-cheesing the magazine box to reduce weight, are just a few other things that can be done. Some of these modifications do improve the strength, safety or reliability of the original action; others are purely cosmetic.

Last but not least we come to the stock, that one overemphasized component of the custom rifle. On the one hand we can commission this work to a professional, just as we would normally do with barrel fitting and other custom metalsmithing. Most of the better stock men prefer to work from blanks and only with the very finest, tightest-grained ones at that. Spending $500 or more just for the chunk of wood is nothing these days. On the other hand, depending on the grade of wood and the ability of the craftsman doing the work, an equally superb rifle can be built using the pre-turned and inletted stocks available from firms like Reinhart Fajen, Roberts, Royal Arms, etc. In fact, the typical gun hobbyist is possessed of sufficient woodworking skills to do a credible job of finishing up one of these pre-turned (meaning fully shaped or nearly so) and inletted jobs, by himself. And that applies to an even greater extent to the fiberglass stock, since the fine nuances of shaping, contouring and finishing don't enter the picture. At the risk of making it sound to easy, the ability to follow glass beading instructions and to file and sand away excess fiberglass drippings are about all that's required to finish a synthetic stock.

Such stocks are available from an ever-increasing number of suppliers--Chet Brown, Lee SIx, H-S Precision, Shilen, and McMillan. In fact, some like H-S Precision's Fiberthane "drop-ins," are fully finished and fitted with V-blocks.

Among those of a pragmatic nature, synthetic stocks are becoming increasingly popular only because they work, i.e., they're light, strong, and above all, stable, thus maintaining a rifle's zero far better than a wood handle. Make no mistake though; the fiberglass stock has all the warmth, feel, and personality of a scalpel.

Though there is an increasing variety of synthetic types and styles to choose from these days, it can't compare with the options offered in the traditional medium--wood. In walnut alone there are several varieties: French, (English, European, California-English, Circassian, etc.), Bastogne, Claro, which are all available in a host of grades and color patterns. Generally conceded as being the best stock wood, walnut is not the only suitable material. Myrtle, sycamore, cherry, maple and mesquite each have unique properties that make them suitable substitutes for walnut.

If there's a mind-boggling array of wood types, figures and grades to choose from, so too are there many shapes. Here the variations are endless--classic, European classic, Mannlicher-style, California-school, and much, much more. In Reinhart Fajen's catalog alone there are 21 different styles of sporter stocks, plus competition configurations for benchrest, silhouette, and so on.

As we've seen, the stock is an important component but by no means the most important one if we are to judge the rifle by its ability to excel at certain tasks.
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Author:Sundra, Jon
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Jun 1, 1984
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