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Space-age stocks; the durability, lightness and practicality of the new fiberglass and plastic rifle handles may make them the popular choice for the future.

I could see that half the glances tossed my way over the breakfast table that morning were not directed to me at all. They were over my shoulder, toward the rifle I had entered the mess cabin with a few minutes before and placed on the gun rack next to the front door.

Having arrived late the previous night, it was my first chance to meet the other four chaps in camp who, like me, were there for the opening day of the whitetail season on Quebec's Anticosti Island.

It didn't take long before curiosity got the best of the only one who could speak English. "I've never seen a black rifle, Jon. What kind is it?"

"I was about to ask the same thing," my outfitter, Dino Corbo, chimed in before I could answer.

None of the five had ever seen a fiberglass-stocked rifle before, and certainly not one attired in basic black.

That incident occurred just three years ago, but I'd venture to say every one of those fellows have seen similar rifles since. 'Glass stocks have proliferated so quickly during that time that they're relatively commonplace today. And it seems the more remote the area, the more likely you are to see one.

Most gun buffs are aware, of course, that it was the benchrest shooters who pioneered the use of fiberglass as a stocking medium. It was really the result of a ntural evolution of the glass bedding concept. I mean, if a thin layer of strong, inert fiberglass proves beneficial to a rifle's accuracy and point of impact stability, a thicker layer (i.e., mroe fiberglass material and less wood) will be better still. I can just picture it. While hogging away as much glass bedding as possible, some craftsman is suddenly smitten by the inescapable logic of it all--simply "extend" the bedding material to where there's enough of it to form the entire stock, and forget the wood!

The rationale was that the more glass bedding material that could be poured into the inletting, the stiffer and more resistant to warpage the stock would be. Fact is, though, that the warpage that occurs as the wood's moisture content changes simply takes the bedding material with it. That's why glass bedding won't cure a rifle afflicted with "wandering zero." It often helps, but it's no cure. And while good stock finishes hinder the absorption and expulsion of moisture to a great degree, they will not stop it completely.

And so the fiberglass stock came to pass, first on benchrest guns, then later on the big-game sporter. As is always the case in any form of competition, competitors are not the least bit tradition-bound and will try anything they feel might give them the winning edge. Once the glass stock proved itself on the competitive circuit, the selling job was over.

Hunters, however, are a more conservative lot, and the acceptance of a "plastic" stock by the hunting fraternity was a lot slower in coming. But come it did. First, it was the benchrest pioneers like Lee Six, Chet Brown and Gale McMillan who simply branched out and began offering sporter stocks "in the rough" that required a good bit of skill and time to finish up into a good-looking hunting stock.

Soon there were all kinds of makes, models and styles available. The stocks became more refined and required less inletting and finishing. Then the "drop-ins" came--handles with precise enough inletting to allow the barreled actions to fit with little or no additional work. And then pillar bedding--aluminum V-blocks molded into the stock which accepted a given barreled action with no fitting whatsoever, the outside fully finished and painted.

It was just a matter of time before a major manufacturer took the plunge. Ironically, it was Weatherby who first offered a fiberglass-stocked production rifle. (Actually, it was Roy's son Ed who was responsible for the Fibermark.) I said "ironically," because for nearly four decades, Roy Weatherby's hallmark had been fancy, highgloss stocks and chrome-like blueing. Suddenly, here he was introducing a Mark V barreled action in bead-blast matte blue, cradled in a crinkle-finish black fiberglass stock. It was quite a departure.

That was in 1983. The following year, Sako introduced its Fiberclass, and this year Weatherby announced his Fiberguard, which is the popularly priced Vanguard with a glass handle.

That pretty much brings us up to date, production rifle-wise. Let's now take a closer look at these trend-setting guns and some of the better known custom makers.

It's only right we start with Weatherby's Fibermark, since it was first. Actually, the stock for the Fibermark is made by Gale McMillan, an old hand at benchrest shooting as well as fiberglass stock building. The Fibermark's handle is a product of the "laid-up" process, whereby each half of the stock mold is layered with an epoxy-soaked fiberglass cloth. The halves are then joined and the mold pressurized with air to force the cloth shell to conform tightly to the inner walls during the drying process. It's a lot like the "fire-forming" process a cartridge case goes through.

When the shell is removed from the mold, the hollow forearm and action areas are filled with more epoxy and fiberglass cloth, while the butt section is filled with styrofoam beads. The stock is then machine-inletted to accept the barreled action just as a wood handle might be.

The fitting of the barreled action--what little there is to do--along with the finishing and painting is done by Weatherby. And nicely done, too, in a matte black crinkle which provides a comfortable, grip.

The Fibermark is offered in .240, .257, .270, 7mm and .300 Weatherby Magnum calibers, as well as .30-06, and in a choice of 24 or 26-inch barrels, right-hand only. Suggested retail price is $889.95 for the 24-inch model, $909.95 for the 26-inch. You can also get the Fibermark in .340 Weatherby for that same $909.95 but only with the 26-inch spout.

As 'glass-stocked muskets go, the Fibermark is not a particularly lgith rifle. My 7mm Wm Mag, with its relatively slender, 24-inch barrel, weighs 7-1/4 pounds. The stock alone accounts for 1 pound, 13 ounces. Compare that to the nominal weight of 8 pounds for a comparable wood-stocked Mark V, and we can see that Weatherby was more concerned with the shooting rather than carrying advantages of fiberglass. Considering the production status of the Weatherby and the fact that the .300 and .340 share the same stock as the smaller Weatherby Magnum calibers, I think the decision not to go too light with the Fibermark was a wise one.

The decision two years ago to go 'glass must have been a good one for Weatherby, because this year the popularly priced Vanguard VGL series got its own fiberglass stock. Finished in a forest-green crinkle finish, the Fiberguard's handle is of simpler design than the Fibermark and, of course, is not offered in the Weatherby Magnum calibers. Here we find no weight-saving factor at all between the wood-stocked VGL and the Fiberguard, which uses the identical barreled action. On the short action, the .223, .243 and .308 versions weight 6 pounds, 8 ounces; the long action calibres--.270, 7mm Mag and .3006-6 pounds, 10 ounces.

With its retail tag of $499, the Fiberguard is the lowest-pricd fiberglass-stocked musket to be offered by a major manufacturer. Considering that the identical wood-stocked VGL lists at $389, an extra 110 bucks for the Fiberguard is a relatively small sum.

Introduced in '84, Sako's Fiberclass is also based on a McMillan-made handle, which is fitted and finisheda at the Sako factory in Finland. Being of a slender, classic configuration, there's less bulk to it than in the Fibermark, yet the two stocks weigh within 1 ounce of one another. The Sako weighs a nominal 7-1/4 pounds in .338 Winchester Magnum and .375 H&H. Compared to a standard, wood-stocked Sako in the same caliber, there's virtually no difference in weight.

The Fiberclass is based on Sako's standard-grade barred action, so it sports a blue job that's not of the bead blast type, but then it's not the highly reflective, black chrome-type of the Deluxe, either. The flat black stock is finished in a non-slip texture that looks like fine sand has been mixed in with the paint. It feels great and, based on my tests, wears quite weell.

In the standard calibers, the Fiberclass carries a suggested retail of $1,110. The magnums are 30 bucks more. Sako's own scope mounts, which affix directly to the dovetailed receiver, come with the rifle.

Just to set the record straight at this juncture, the oldest production centerfire rifle to be offered in a synthetic stock is Steyr's SSG in .308 Winchester. However, weighing in at 10 pounds with a scope aboard, it's hard to stick the SSG in the sporting rifle category. Indeed, Steyr doesn't try, preferring instead to skew sales toward the military and law enforcement markets.

Now we come to the custom and semi-production categories. These are comprised of small companies offering synthetic stocks to the gunsmithing trade and the home hobbyist market. These handles can be had in various stages of completion--from the unfinished, shaped-only blanks to fully inletted and finished drop-ins which require only that the specific barreled action be plopped in place. Most of these firms offer complete gunsmithing services. They will furnish the complete rifle based on the customer-supplied or specified barrel and action. These completed rifles are also offered in various stages of customization--from a dead stock factory barreled action to one extensively modified with custom bolt stops, handles, extractors, wing safeties, rust-resistant steels and/or metal finishes, to name but a few options.

I mentioned before that Gale McMilan made the Weatherby and Sako fiberglass stocks. Gale's is one of those companies that makes virtually the entire rifle--barrel, action, trigger and stock--as well as offering a comprehensive line of 'glass handles in classic, Monte Carlo and silhouette styles in a choice of fully inletted or ready-to-bed state. You can also order the exterior of the stock fully finished in one of several color and camo styles or you can do it yourself.

Perhaps the best known of the 'glass guys is Chet Brown, of Brown Precision. Chet and his one-time partner, Lee Six (who now heads up his own company), were among the foremost pioneers in the development of the synthetic stock in benchrest competition back in the late '60s. Like McMillan, Brown's stocks are "laid-up" with epoxy-laden fiberglass or graphite-reinforced Kevlar cloth, but in a mold that is split on the horizontal rather than the vertical plane. The seam line runs along the approximate middle of the foreend, dips down in the pistol grip and then back to the mid-point of the butt. All other things equal, a Kevlar stock will be about 4 ounces lighter than one of fiberglass.

A feature which Chet promotes heavily is the fact that the barrel channel, magazine mortise and bolt handle notch on his stocks are all molded-in, thereby precluding the need to cut through the cloth fibers which form the outer shell of the stock. There are 17 different stock styles listed in Brown Precision's 12-page catalog, including silhouette, benchrest, XP-100 and Contender styles. Chet does not manufacture his own actions; his completed rifles--the High Country and Pro Hunter--are based on Remington 700 actions modified to varying degrees. My sample High Country in 7mm Mag was done in Kevlar. With its full-lengt 24-inch barrel, it weighed 6-1/2 pounds complete with a 6X Zeiss scope in Weaver mounts. That's a good 2 pounds lighter than some of the wispier 7mm Mags out there and 2-1/2 pounds lighter than most.

Brown's Pro Hunter is not a gun for the timid. It's a .375 H&H or .458 Winchester Magnum on a Remington 700 action that has been modified with a Mauser-type claw extractor and finished in your choice of electroless nickel, Teflon or matte blue. It weighs 6-1/2 pounds sans scope and mounts, and yes, it does pack a punch.

Brown's stocks start at $115 and go to $400, depending on the degree of finish and material. His finished rifles start at $909, with his Pro Hunter going for $1,554.

H-S Precision is another of the larger suppliers of synthetic stocks, which are unique, in that they are injection-molded of fiberglass-reinforced polyurethane and have an aluminum tube through the grip area for added rigidity. Called Fiberhane, these handles are offered in 19 rifle styles and two pistol styles--the XP-100 and the Witchita.

One of the advantages of injection-molded process is that minute detail can be incorporated into the mold and reproduced with great fidelity. H-S sporter stocks have checkering molded right in. Another advantage to this particular system is that it lends itself to pillar bedding. By molding a precision-machined aluminum V-block into the stock, the barreled action drops right in. You can order an H-S V-Block stock for the Remington 700 short or long actions, and the Sako All (medium length) in various sporter, varmint and thhmbhole configurations. These completely finished stocks, which are ready to accept your barreled action, range from $125 to $150.

Last but not least in this brief review of the better known custom shops is Ultra Light ARms of Granville, West Virginia. Owner Melvin Forbes and his crew caused quite a commotion at the recent SHOT Show, where they unveiled what is probably the lightest bolt-action sporter in the world.

The Ultra Light Model 20 is not scaled down in any way--it wears a full-size, classic-style stock and a Douglas No. 1 contour barrel 22 inches long--yet the whole package weighs just under 4-1/2 pounds! Part of the gun's feathery heft is due to the minimal amount of epoxy resin Mel uses in laying up his graphite-reinforced Kevlar stocks. I've seen him take one of his stocks and lay a 4x4 under the fore-end tip, with the heel fo the butt resting on the floor, and stand on the mortise area of the stock with his 200-pound frame with no effect. So his handles are certainly strong enough, though they weigh only 16 ounces, complete with a 4-ounce recoil pad and sling swivels installed.

The rest of the weight savings is in the action; it looks like a slenderized Remington 700, but it's of Mel's own design and manufacture. By reducing the diameter of the bolt and receiver to absolute minimum dimensions and going to a more slender bolt handle, several ounces are saved over the short Remington 700 action. Despite the rifle's light weight, however, Melvin wisely chose to lengthen the bolt throw and magazine to where the action will accommodate cartridges loaded to 3 inches overall; this makes it ideal for rounds like the .257 Roberts, 7x57 and .284 Winchester, which can only perform to their potential when the heavier bullets can be seated to where they don't poke down into space that should be reserved for powder.

Complete with a 6X Leupold Compact scope in Melvin's own aluminum rings, my sample gun in .308 Winchester weighed 5 pounds, 4 ounces. With such a light gun, recoil levels are up in the .300 magnum class, so this is not a rifle for inexperienced shooters. If you do your part, though, this rifle will shoot with the best of 'em. I've played with two Ultra Lights now, and both were minute of angle performers with select handloads and not much worse with the few brands of factory ammo tried.

Considering an action and stock of his own manufacture, a Douglas Premium barrel, and a Timney trigger fitted with a three-position safety of his own make, the $1,395 Melvin asks for the Ultra Light is not out of line.

Those who believe that a rifle should be made only of blued steel and walnut stopped reading this opus about the second paragraph--if they even started. Those of you still with us were at least curious. And if you're still on curious, don't feel out of place. I still love handsomely figured wood, beautifully executed inletting and checkering. And I love the warmth, the feel, the uniqueness that every piece of good wood possesses. But let's face it, as a bedding medium for a precision rifle--one that is lightweight, strong and allows the gun to shoot to the same point of impact under varying climatic conditions--wood can sometimes leave something to be desired.
COPYRIGHT 1985 InterMedia Outdoors, Inc.
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Sundra, Jon
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Oct 1, 1985
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