The Custom-Built Rifle

By Chuck Hawks

Rack of custom rifles. Remington/A.I. 798 at far right.
A rack of stunning custom-built rifles on Mauser 98 type actions. From left: 7x57 Mauser 98, 7x57 Husqvarna HVA by Larry Brace, .270 Mauser 98 by Larry Brace, .358 Mauser 98, Remington/A.I. Model 798 at far right. The three rifles at left wear high grade American black walnut stocks, the blond stock (2nd from right) is Oregon myrtle wood and the A.I. 798 is stocked in English walnut. Photo by Chuck Hawks.

Custom-built rifles are far more popular than bespoke shotguns in North America, which is peculiar when you think about it. Perfect stock fit is crucial to top performance with a shotgun, while most shooters can shoot about as accurately in the field with a rifle built to factory dimensions as they can with a rifle stocked to their measurements.

This is due to the inherent difference in the way shotguns and rifles are employed. A rifle has sights that are carefully aligned with a (normally) static target; it is the alignment of the sights and target that determine where the bullet hits, not the shape of the rifle's stock. A shotgun, on the other hand, is swung ahead of a flying target and fired while in motion. The stock of a shotgun is the rear sight in that it aligns the gun and the shooter's eye with the target. The shooters attention is entirely on the target, he never sees the gun except as an elongated blur at the bottom of his field of view.

Never the less, it is the custom rifle about which most well healed American shooters dream. Perhaps this is due to our heritage as "a nation of riflemen." There is a sense of satisfaction in owning something unique, made specifically for the owner. Particularly when that something is superior both functionally and aesthetically. For many hunters and sportsman, the Holy Grail of firearms is a custom hunting rifle.

There are very real advantages to a custom-built rifle. One of the most important is the ability to specify an unusual, obsolete, or wildcat caliber that is simply not offered by the big factories. The fellow who is pining for a falling block rifle in 6.5x54 M-S, for example, is probably going to have to go the custom route.

Ordering a custom rifle allows the shooter to specify the stock dimensions that give him or her maximum comfort when shooting; this minimizes the effect of recoil. Length of pull, drop at comb and heel, pitch, cast off, Monte Carlo and cheek piece (if desired), type and style of grip (full pistol grip, semi-pistol grip, straight hand, thumb hole, etc.) can all be specified. The shape (round, squared-off, pear) of the forearm cross-section as well as its length, taper and tip style can all be selected by the prospective owner. As can the type of buttplate or recoil pad. Look at the differences between the stocks of a Winchester Model 70 Classic Featherweight, a Remington Model 700 Mountain Rifle, and a Weatherby Mark V Deluxe to get an idea of the possibilities.

And the custom rifle stock can be made aesthetically pleasing to the shooter. The type and grade of stock wood can be chosen or a laminate specified. Checkering lines per inch, pattern, and coverage is done to order (at least on wooden stocks). Decorations such as stock carving, contrasting forearm tips, inlays, pistol grip caps, and line spacers of contrasting color can be included as desired, as well as the type of finish.

Most of these choices disappear, of course, if the customer chooses a synthetic stock. Still, a high quality synthetic stock selected for a custom-built rifle will likely be functionally superior to the cheap injection molded stocks supplied on most factory-built rifles.

Barrel manufacturer, length, contour and twist can be specified to fine-tune the rifle for the desired handling qualities, caliber and bullet weight. So can the method of bedding the barreled action in the stock. The user (within reasonable limits) can determine the approximate weight, length, and balance of the finished rifle.

The customer can specify any type of action he desires. Some type of falling block or bolt action is chosen for most custom-built rifles. The Ruger No.1, Sharps 1874 and 1877, Winchester/Browning 1885 Low Wall and High Wall, Farquharson, and Dakota Model 10 are probably the single shot actions most commonly used in North American custom rifles.

Customers planning custom bolt guns often choose Mauser 98, Remington Model 700, Ruger Model 77, Sako 75, Weatherby Mark V, Winchester Classic Model 70, and 1903 Springfield actions, but there are many other possibilities. Just the actions mentioned in this paragraph offer many combinations of lock-up (twin or multiple lugs), bolt throw (90 degrees down to 54 degrees), extractor type, ejector type (fixed or plunger), bolt removal and disassembly for cleaning, and action length (magnum, long, intermediate, short, super short). Magazines may be blind, incorporate a hinged floor plate, or detachable. If the action chosen does not incorporate a satisfactory trigger, a fine after market trigger assembly can be substituted.

The barreled action can be finished to the customer's specification. Common choices include (but certainly are not limited to) a polished deep luster blue, rust blue, nitre blue, bead blasted matte blue, Teflon coated, Parkerized (in various colors), polished or matte stainless steel, and a variety proprietary finishes. Adornments include engraving, precious metal inlays, bright parts, and engine turned parts.

The type of iron sights, or the lack of them, is also a user option. Ditto the type of scope (or other optical sight), mount and rings fitted to the rifle. The custom builder is not limited to what happens to be on hand at the local sporting goods store.

Another important factor is that pride of ownership usually leads to confidence in the field. Confidence is a factor in the success of practically any endeavor.

Full-blown custom-built rifles are ideally ordered from individual builders or small custom shops. Many of these builders belong to and can be located through the American Custom Gunmaker's Guild.

Large semi-custom shops usually offer a wide range of alternatives--two or three actions, three or four barrel brands, a selection of stock styles, a half dozen engraving and checkering patterns--but not the nearly infinite choice of the individual custom rifle maker.

Several of the big rifle factories, including such well known names as Browning, Remington, Weatherby, and Winchester, incorporate custom shops that offer special options and features on their rifles. Some of these produce very fine rifles. But they are limited to the manufacturer's barreled action, stock styles, and so on. In some cases all that is really available is higher grade wood, special checkering patterns and finishes, and engraving. But other manufacturer's custom shops can provide a wide variety of options and services.

One advantage possessed by the big factory's custom shop is easy access to whatever action types their company offers. The Browning custom shop, for example, offers custom BAR self-loaders, and the Remington custom shop can build a custom 7400 semi-auto or 7600 pump gun.

Individual custom rifle makers can, and have, built on these actions, but relatively infrequently. Most prefer to work on single shot and bolt action rifles.

Now let's, hypothetically, see how a custom rifle is conceived. In my case, for example, I would like to own a rifle in .338x57 O'Connor caliber. This is a wildcat cartridge not (yet) available from any gun company. A rifle in .338x57 O'Connor that weighs around 8 pounds, including scope, and measured about 42.5" to 43" (depending on actual length of pull) in overall length should strike a reasonable compromise between recoil, handling and portability.

The .338x57 O'Connor was designed primarily for use in magazine rifles. I believe that the Winchester Model 70 Classic is one of the best bolt actions ever designed for a hunting rifle, and it is commonly available, so that is the action I would choose.

The Model 70 Classic incorporates a wide opening that makes reloading fast and easy, a coned breech for reliable feeding, a full length extractor for controlled feed and to give maximum purchase for yanking out stuck cases, an adjustable (and reliable) trigger mechanism. It incorporates an integral recoil lug and flat bottom, a bolt handle designed for use with a telescopic sight. The Model 70 Classic handles escaping gas well, is strong, accurate enough for all hunting purposes, and looks good. It is made from forged and machined steel. It was also Jack O'Connor's favorite action, which seems appropriate for a wildcat cartridge he originally suggested.

I prefer a steel, one-piece trigger guard and floor plate iron with a hinged magazine floor plate. The bolt body should be engine-turned. The bolt handle should be polished and left in the white, as bluing will wear rapidly here, and the bolt knob should be smooth. I would like a moderate amount of American-type scroll engraving on the receiver rings, scope rings, trigger guard, pistol grip cap, and magazine floor plate. Something akin to the Winchester 70-6 style would be good.

The .338x57 is based on the 7x57 Mauser case, which has a standard .473" rim diameter and .046 rim thickness, so no bolt face modifications will be necessary. I like plenty of latitude for bullet seating, so a standard (.30-06) length action should be specified.

This is a medium velocity (MV 2400-2450 fps), medium bore cartridge, so a 22" medium ("sporter") contour barrel would be an appropriate. That should provide good balance and reasonable weight. A twist rate of 1 turn in 10" will stabilize all .338 caliber bullets. Because I would be using a scope sight exclusively, no iron sights are necessary.

I would want the barreled action and other metal parts (except the bolt body, handle, and extractor) finished in a highly polished, deep luster blue. This is sometimes called a "Weatherby Blue" in the trade. I'd like the trigger to be smooth and gold plated; it should be adjusted to break between 2.5 and 3 pounds with no creep and minimal over travel.

My favorite stock material is European thin-shell walnut. For this rifle I'd prefer straight grain through the wrist of the stock and feathery figure in the butt stock. The wrist should be slender and oval in cross section, with a fairly open pistol grip curve and a steel pistol grip cap. I would like a Scheutzen type cheek piece that flows into the fluted comb and a moderate Monte Carlo, designed for use with a low mounted scope, to move the comb away from my face during recoil. The stock should incorporate some cast-off for easy mounting and fast sight alignment. I also like a relatively slender, tapered forearm that is slightly pear shaped in cross section with a simple rounded tip. Most factory forearms today are too large, too thick, and too bulky.

I would like an ebony forend tip and a black Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pad. I prefer 22 line-per-inch checkering in a fleur-de-lis pattern that wraps completely around the forearm. The Winchester Style B checkering could serve as inspiration. No inlays, or line spacers. The stock should be finished with many coats of hand rubbed oil. Inletted quick detachable sling swivel bases should be fitted.

This is intended to be a woods rifle, so the scope selected should offer a big field of view. A Weaver Grand Slam 1.5-5x32 variable would be my choice, attached by a Leupold base and rings.

The foregoing is just a brief example of the kind of thought that should go into a custom hunting rifle. Before such a rifle can be ordered the customer must select a builder willing and capable of producing the rifle. Then the buyer and the builder(s) need to work out all of the details, including the action tuning required, specific checkering and engraving patterns, price and delivery time.

In the Eugene (Oregon) area, where I live, we are lucky to have at least two such artisans. I am fortunate to count both among my friends. Either could build the entire rifle, but I would involve both in the project. I would commission Larry Brace to provide the barreled action and do the stock making, checkering and finishing; Rocky Hays (Newton Grant Company) would handle the action work, engraving and metal finishing.

Anyone who does not enjoy the kind of detail planning that goes into a true custom-built rifle would be well advised to order a semi-custom rifle from one of the larger shops such as Dakota Arms, Johannsen Express Rifles, Jarrett, Brown Precision, American Hunting Rifles, and Virgin Valley Guns. Or from the in house custom shop at one of the major manufacturers such as Winchester.

In this article I have just scratched the surface of the planning required to create a true custom-built hunting rifle. For the prospective owner, planning and ordering a custom rifle can be a challenging and expensive undertaking, but ultimately rewarding.

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Copyright 2004, 2010 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.