Touring Cooper Firearms.
The definition of custom rifle is a lot more flexible than it used to be. To my eye, the key was always a finely made stock with hand cut checkering and an oil finish. When composite materials came along the line became a little blurry, but dinosaur that I am, fine wood is still the key.
Nearly equal in importance is accuracy. I'm sure that some would reverse that order and that's okay too. Still, beauty is as beauty does -- and since you can't tell how accurate a rifle is until you shoot it -- looks count for a bunch.
Of Mud And Craftsmanship
I've just returned from a trip that, conservatively, was an adventure. Two days elbow deep in Montana mud may not sound like much fun, and in fact the prairie dogs showed much more sense and stayed in their nice dry holes. But the third day more than made up for a few minor inconveniences, for it was spent watching a group of craftsmen and women pour their hearts into making some truly fine rifles.
The company was founded by Dan Cooper. He worked for a time for Kimber of Oregon, and knew there was still a good market for upscale rim-fire and smaller centerfire rifles.
The first product was a dainty little single-shot bolt action chambered for the .22 CCM (Cooper Centerfire Magnum). The cartridge was designed to improve on the accuracy of and duplicate the ballistics of the .22 Magnum in a reloadable case. It looks a lot like a straight walled .22 Hornet.
Cooper got started in the business when, as a college student, he cut the grass of Kimber founder Jack Wane in the late '70s, and worked there off and on until he founded Cooper Firearms of Montana in 1990. The business started in a garage and grew through a succession of them until the eventual move into a modem building that is now bursting at the seams.
I don't think anyone would accuse Dan Cooper of modesty when he says, "We build the most accurate production rifles in the country... maybe the world." Well, I don't know about that since I haven't tried them all, but mine sure is a tack driver, and definitely meets Cooper's other goal, "to build rifles that shoot as good as they look."
The product line has grown to include three single-shot and one repeating action in rimfire and centerfire calibers up to .308 Winchester. Cooper's product line has a very distinct bias toward wildcat and varmint cartridges. In this day and age where magazines seem to be so important, the fact that these are single-shots is impressive for their elegant simplicity.
The Single-Shot Advantage
It's common knowledge that stiffness is a desirable commodity in rifle actions, so if they don't have a gaping hole in the bottom for the magazine well, they are obviously going to be less prone to vibration. Another unusual feature is the bolt's three locking lugs.
Aside from the obvious shorter bolt lift for cocking, this three-lugged system adds some strength, but I think the most important point is the alignment of the cartridge within the chamber. This is a huge factor in accuracy and it's ever so much easier to center something when you have three points instead of only two.
The secret to any good rifle is a good barrel, and Cooper uses lead lapped match grade barrels from Wilson Arms. The small Connecticut-based barrel maker holds tolerances to no more than .0002 inch (that's two ten-thousandths of an inch!). These are the best barrels Wilson can make, and come to Cooper turned to the proper diameters, threaded and crowned. All they need is fitting to the action and chambering.
Since the action is simply a round tube, Wilson also provides some initial action work. There is always material left over when a barrel is made, and it turns out that there is enough to make an action too. Wilson drills and reams a hole that will form the beginning of the bolt channel.
From there the embryonic action goes to another machine shop where the complicated broaching operations needed to create the bolt ways are done. The bolt is precision ground at yet another shop.
The only piece of CNC equipment in the Cooper shop is an older machine center with a tool changer, but it does an incredibly varied amount of work. The barrel threads are used to hold the receiver blank on the fixture -- this arrangement allowing the machine complete access to the work -- and after a fairly lengthy machine cycle the receiver is nearly complete.
The ejection port is cut and the tang shaped in minutes, and then the machine picks up an assortment of drills and cutters to finish the job. Holes are drilled and slots cut and pretty soon a receiver that needs little more than deburring and finishing comes out of the machine.
First Class Furniture
But the thing you notice most about Cooper's rifles is the stock. You can tell from a mile away this is not the normal spray finished sapwood. More about that in a minute. Cooper buys properly seasoned blanks of Claro and French walnut in grades from AA to Exhibition. They are roughed out on a two-spindle duplicating machine, but from then on it's hand work.
Stocks are produced in two basic designs: Varminter and Classic. We could just as well call the trim Classic style traditional or, better still, simply elegant. The Varmint design has a 2-inch wide forend that is nicely rounded to fit either hand or sandbag.
I spent a lot of time in the Cooper stock shop and watched awestruck as a talented stockmaker with nothing but a pencil outlined a classic's cheekpiece and then made it happen with a couple of wood rasps. Then there's lots of sanding, and detail work to complete the rough inletting and get the surface ready for finishing. That done, all the stocks go to the checkering department where two talented women do all the hand checkering.
They use only simple templates to lay out the patterns and then execute them with a combination of power and hand checkering tools. The higher grades of classic stocks have a more complex pattern and on them the forend is also checkered. Again, it's an impressive sight to watch such casual creation of beautiful artistic work.
A Job For Perfectionists
All stocks wear a hand-applied oil finish that is the responsibility of one very talented woman. Honest -- I couldn't have made this up -- they call her the finishing wench... a term she resents not at all. Speaking as one who has failed miserably at this job, it was a real learning experience to watch her work.
It is a tedious process of applying finish and letting it dry, sanding and doing it all over again. Tiny dents you can hardly see are raised with a damp cloth and a hot iron followed by sanding. It's really remarkably effective, and the little dent I felt was gone. When all is done each stock will have received several coats of finish followed by sanding with ever-finer abrasive until that unmistakable custom look is there.
From finishing, the stock goes to final assembly. Here the action inletting is completed and glass bedded. Cooper beds the action's recoil lug and the first inch of the barrel. That's all, the rest of the barrel is free floated. I asked about bedding the tang area of the action and was told that wasn't necessary.
The remainder of the inletted surfaces are sealed to reduce warpage due to absorbed moisture. The trigger is installed and adjusted and the whole job is inspected. From there it goes to the test tunnel.
Proof Of The Pudding
All Cooper rifles come with a laminated test target, and when mine arrived I was amazed to see the group measured less than .1 inch. I commented about this and was told that Cooper didn't measure by the common center-to-center method. Their standard for centerfire rifles is bore diameter plus .125 inch. This ensures every Cooper will meet the company's accuracy guarantee of half-inch, 100-yard groups.
The huge popularity of composite stocks has really altered our perception of what it takes to make an accurate rifle and some folks think you must have one for best accuracy. We forget that composites are relatively new developments and we had good rifles long before the first composite stock was made. A truly accurate wood stocked rifle does, however, require the strict attention to detail given the Cooper rifles.
High Order Value
Maybe the best news of all in this story is that you don't have to pay a lot to get a Cooper rifle -- you can -- but it isn't required. If you look at the retail prices of various varmint style rifles from major makers the Cooper is a tremendous bargain.
The basic "Varminter" retails for $995. That's what I have. The gun you see on the centerfold is one step up. It is a Montana Varminter, with a better grade of wood and a stock designed to help cooling. A left-handed action is available at a small premium, and you can add fancy features such as skeleton or Neidner buttplates, exhibition wood and other custom touches that can raise the price considerably. But regardless of the model you look at, this is a marvelous example of getting what you paid for.
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|Author:||Petty, Charles E.|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2003|
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