The Custom Rifle Checklist

By Dominic Frandrup


Custom makers are artisans and are very particular about their craft. Each has their own opinion of how a rifle should fit and feel. Listen to their advice and find an artisan with whom your ideas resonate. You will end up with a superior product if you both agree on the project.

I feel that rifle balance and fit are the most important elements to consider when planning a custom rifle. Some may argue that fit is not as critical to a rifle as to a shotgun, and to an extent they are correct, but that doesn’t mean that fit can be dismissed. Unlike a shotgun, a rifle will probably have a telescopic sight that adds significant weight and changes the balance point of the gun. If you have ever wondered why lever action rifles feel so balanced and easy to point, while bolt actions feel ungainly by comparison, a heavy riflescope can be to blame. This means that when you are planning your custom rifle remember to consider the sights. They can easily turn a well-balanced rifle into a horse.

The main considerations when planning a balanced custom rifle are Stock versus Action versus Barrel versus Sights (open or scope and mount). All four of these elements must form a cohesive unit to bring the most out of the rifle and owner. Many people like to plan a rifle around a caliber or specific purpose, but I planned mine around fit with purpose being secondary. Nothing builds confidence like a properly fit rifle. The better it fits, the more you will want to shoot it.

The Stock

The stock is the most important component in determining fit. It is also the most customizable part of the equation. Hands, shoulder and a cheek need to contact the stock in a natural manner to get the best fit and, not coincidently, the best accuracy. A custom-built rifle should feel like an extension of your body. The dimensions that will determine a good rifle fit are forend shape, width and depth; grip style and diameter; length of pull; drop at heel; and drop at comb. Do not forget the height of the Monte Carlo, if you want one. The easiest way to start the stock hunt is to try rifles from the major manufactures; once you find a few that you like, get the stock dimensions and go from there.

The first stock choice is easy: synthetic, laminate, or walnut. Synthetic stocks come in predetermined dimensions. The only dimension that can be easily changed is length of pull, but to some the weather resistance is worth it. Some stock manufactures will offer differing surface treatments such as rubberized paints or textured surfaces on the wrist and forend. Some painted or molded stocks have these surface treatments over the entire stock.

McMillan offers the widest variety of synthetic fiberglass stock options to allow you to get a good fit. If you specify one of McMillan’s marble patterns and have some time, you can wet sand these stocks to slightly alter their dimensions.

Laminated and walnut stocks from Accurate Innovations have aluminum bedding blocks integrated into them for a strong bedding foundation. As a bonus, laminated hardwood and walnut stocks can be checkered. In addition, their dimensions can easily be altered to provide a perfect fit.

Your hands contact the rifle at the wrist and on the forend. Will the wrist be more vertical for tactical or bench rest use or will it have a more traditional swept back angle for use while standing, sitting, or kneeling in the field? If it is vertical, will it have a thumbhole? Decide if the grip should have a palm swell.

The forend is equally important, because it will be either in your hand or on a rest, such as sandbags. If you rifle will be in your hands, remember to consider the weather, because thick winter or padded shooting gloves will make a world of difference.

Length of pull, the distance from the front surface of the trigger to the middle of the buttstock, should be measured when wearing shooting clothes, because a layer of Thinsulate can make a big difference. A stock that is too short is easier to shoulder than one that is too long. On the other hand, many shooters feel that a longer stock, subjectively at least, handles recoil better.

Depending on your body type and if the rifle will be delivering more than moderate recoil, consider specifying a stock with a bit of cast off (a slight bend in the buttstock to better align the shooter's eye with the sight, and/or cant (a slight twist in the buttstock to better fit the "pocket" in the shooter's shoulder). These details can improve your shooting comfort.

Checkering plays a part in the equation as well, from both the appearance and functional standpoints. Up to a point (about 16 lines per inch), coarser checkering provides a more positive (if less comfortable) grip, especially when wearing gloves, but it will not look as pretty as a finer pattern. There are extremes on both ends, but checkering at around 22-24 lines per inch is both functional and attractive. The choices for decorative checkering patterns are legion and mostly depend upon the maker and cost. Diamond point and fleur-de-lis patterns are probably the most common on both factory built and custom rifles.

Straight comb, Monte Carlo, a cheekpiece, or some combination? A straight comb with a shadow line cheekpiece, perhaps? There are differing opinions about cheek position, or if your cheek will contact the stock at all if you mount a large objective scope with high rings on your rifle. In general, however, if you have wide shoulders and/or a long neck, you could benefit from a Monte Carlo, because it increases the space between your shoulder and your cheek. How high a Monte Carlo is up to you. Weatherby specifies Monte Carlo heights from 3/8”- 5/8”, depending on model.

After the stock is completed, it must be finished. The most common finishes for walnut stocks are hand rubbed oil and some sort of synthetic varnish. Either can result in a beautiful stock with either a satin or high gloss surface. The synthetic finish is more water resistant and has a harder surface to resist small scratches; it requires little maintenance. On the other hand, an oil finish is easier to restore when it is scratched or dinged.

The Action

Most custom rifles are built on a bolt action, but many custom builders also offer single shot, pump, or lever actions. If you prefer a bolt action, there are fewer options for a controlled feed action than for a push feed action. These are; CZ 550, Dakota 76, Kimber, Mannlicher-Schoenauer, Mauser 98 (military or civilian), Montana 1999, Remington Model 798, 1903 Springfield (military), Winchester Model 70 Classic and Ruger Model 77. If you desire a stainless action, only Montana, Ruger and Winchester make them. Dakota’s 76 is the only one machined from aluminum for exceptionally smooth operation and light weight. Controlled round feed is the best way to go for dangerous game rifles, or any rifle that may be worked at odd angles.

The Mauser 1898 (Model 98) action is probably the queen of bolt actions for custom-built rifles. While they used to be relatively common, the supply of good Mauser 98 actions, particularly commercial actions, is limited these days. In addition to Germany, excellent Mauser 98 actions have been built under license in Belgium, France, Spain, Sweden, Serbia, the Czech Republic and other places. Remington has done American rifle builders and their customers a big favor by importing a Serbian made, traditional Mauser 98 barreled action as the basis for their Model 798 rifle.

The Winchester Model 70 is the other action commonly used as the basis for top of the line, custom built rifles. The Model 70 is a lightly modified, and in some ways improved, commercial Mauser 98 style action. Like the Mauser 98, it is very highly regarded by aficionados of deluxe rifles.

The 1903 Springfield action used to be very popular for custom built rifles in the US, primarily because it was available as military surplus. It is another modified Mauser action, but in this case, the modifications were made in an attempt to avoid paying Mauser royalties and degraded some of the intrinsic benefits of the Mauser 98 action. (The attempt failed and the US government had to pay Mauser a royalty on every 1903 rifle produced until America entered WW I.) Never the less, the '03 Springfield is a viable, high quality action if you can find one in good condition.

The other great European controlled feed action is the Mannlicher-Schoenauer, produced exclusively by Steyr in Austria and discontinued since 1971. Once called the "World's Finest Rifle," it is not based on Mauser ideas and uses a rotary magazine for superbly smooth and reliable cartridge feeding. Unfortunately, used Mannlicher-Schoenauer rifles are so expensive these days that few purchase them as the basis for a custom rifle. A good Mannlicher-Schoenauer may cost almost as much as a complete custom rifle built on some other action. In addition, Steyr used so much hand labor in the manufacture of Mannlicher-Schoenauer rifles and they are made so precisely and with such refinement that they practically are custom built, or at least the nearest thing to a custom built rifle in quality that has ever been mass-produced.

If a push feed action is what you are after, I don’t have enough space to list all of your options. The Remington Model 700 has been a long-standing favorite because it is easy on the credit card, replacement parts abound, aftermarket triggers are easy to find and many stock makers inlet for it. The six or nine lug Weatherby Mark V actions are very strong, very smooth and of very high quality. The less expensive Weatherby Vanguard is an excellent two-lug action. Several benchrest action manufacturers have modified their actions for hunting rifle use. The upside of push feed actions is that (usually) a single cartridge can be loaded directly into the chamber. Some push feed actions have a short (less than 90 degree) bolt lift, achieved by using more than two locking lugs, which can make follow up shots fractionally faster. The Weatherby Mark V, Sako 75, Browning A-Bolt and Browning X-Bolt actions are examples of this type.

The Barrel

Barrel length means different things to different builders. Custom barrel makers measure from the bolt face to the muzzle, but production rifles tend to be measured from the front of the action to the muzzle. To make sure you get exactly what you want, specify the end points of your measurements and make sure the builder is on the same page.

The weight of a fluted barrel roughly equals the weight of a non-fluted barrel one contour smaller. For example, a #5 fluted barrel will weigh very close to a non-fluted #4 contour, assuming they are both made of the same material (chromoly or stainless). Custom barrel manufacturers generally will not flute a sporter barrel contour less than #5. A larger contour barrel will be stiffer than a smaller one, even if it is fluted. There is some argument whether flutes will add or relieve stress on the barrel, but I feel that it really depends upon the manufacturer and their ability.

The longer the barrel, the higher the muzzle velocity your bullet will achieve and, consequently, the flatter the trajectory. The downside is that this will create a heavier barrel that is proportionally not as stiff and weighs more. The Lilja website has many excellent articles and software concerning barrel length, weight, stiffness, etc.

Beyond barrel length and weight, you must decide the type of crown you want at the muzzle and the rifling twist rate. Sometimes you can even choose the method used to rifle your barrel. These factors are hotly debated by those with too much time on their hands.

To simplify matters, consider that a field crown is usually more appropriate for a hunting rifle and a target crown for a match rifle. Likewise, the standard twist is usually appropriate for a wide range of bullet weights and loads in any given caliber. Think long and hard, and have a very clear reason why you are doing it, if you decide to depart from the standard rifling twist for your selected caliber.

As to how the barrel is rifled, all of the methods commonly in use today (cut one groove at a time, cut by broaching, button rifled and hammer forged) can produce an excellent barrel. The real difference is in the care with which a barrel is rifled, not the method used.

The finish of your barreled action is the last thing you will have to decide: matte, satin, or highly polished. Blued, Parkerized, natural stainless steel or something else, like camo? If you decide on a traditional blued finish, should it be hot blued or rust blued? It is all a matter of taste and expense.

Sights

Rifles with traditional iron sights, whether peep or open, are the easiest to balance, because of the sight's light weight and very low mounting position. Adding a scope and mount will change the balance and weight of your complete rifle and make it more top-heavy.

Some hunters prefer to have both, a scope as their primary sight with iron sights as a back up. This usually requires some sort of quick detachable scope mount, which creates a potential weakness in the mounting system and may not return to zero if the scope is removed and reattached. "See-through" scope mounts allow the use of iron sights without removing the scope, but place the scope so high that it is impossible to get a good cheek weld on the stock and also make the rifle very top heavy. They also make it nearly impossible to get the rifle into a saddle scabbard and it may not fit in many gun cases. See-through scope mounts should be avoided like the plague.

You can compensate slightly for a bit of muzzle heaviness with a well-positioned scope, which will put more of the rifle's total weight between your hands. Most conservative scopes and mounting combinations will weigh about a pound, with large objective and illuminated models easily exceeding that figure.

Putting together a custom rifle is not for the impulsive shooter who is easily swayed by the latest new cartridge, action, rifling twist rate, etc. This may explain why the most common calibers in custom built rifles are standbys such as .270 Winchester, 7x57, 7mm Remington Magnum, .30-06 and .375 H&H. After you have put $2000 down on a project that can easily take a year or more to complete, you are committed. After you have assembled a list of features for your custom rifle, balancing the merits of form, function, purpose and aesthetics, you can finally think about financing your new rifle.

Below you will find alist of options to help you keep your project on course.

Stock

  • Material (synthetic, laminated hardwood, walnut, exotic woods)
  • Bedding (pillar / glass / block)
  • Cast off
  • Cant
  • Manufacturer (production time, cost)
  • Length of pull
  • Wrist options: pistol grip or straight hand, palm swell, shape (vertical / swept), thumb hole, diameter, grip cap
  • Forend options: basic shape (squared, flat bottom, beavertail, round, pear shaped), diameter, forend tip (if any)
  • Checkering: Who is cutting the checkering? Style, cost, lines per inch, border or borderless, panels or wraparound coverage
  • Production time and cost for checkering
  • Comb: straight or Monte Carlo, height, cheekpiece, drop at comb, drop at heel
  • Butt plate: rubber, steel, skeleton, recoil pad (which pad?)
  • Extras: Sling swivels, detachable sling studs, recessed studs
  • Inletting: who fits the barreled action to the stock?
  • Estimated weight
  • Estimated time for completion
  • Total stock cost

Action

  • Manufacturer: used, new (production time?), cost
  • Who does the smithing on the action? Time, cost
  • Material: steel, stainless steel, aluminum alloy, titanium
  • Length: short, intermediate, long, magnum
  • Features: Controlled feeding? Integral recoil lug? Drilled and tapped for scope mounting? Lapped bolt lugs, squared receiver, polished internally (feed ramp, bolt rails, etc.)
  • Estimated weight
  • Estimated time for completion
  • Total cost of action

Barrel

  • Material: steel, stainless steel
  • Ordered Length, finished length, contour
  • Fluted? (how many, depth, length)
  • Chambering
  • Rate of twist
  • Crown finish (target/field)
  • Who cuts barrel threads?
  • Who cuts and crowns the barrel to finished length?
  • Who assembles barrel and action? Time to assemble?
  • Estimated weight
  • Estimated time for completion
  • Total barrel cost

Sights

  • Type: Iron or plain barrel? How mounted? Fully adjustable for windage and elevation? Peep, open, express, folding rear leaves?
  • Scope manufacturer, model, tube diameter, cost, weight
  • Scope bases and rings:  Manufacturer, ring diameter, height, cost, weight
  • Estimated weight of sights and mounts
  • Estimated weight of rifle with sights
  • Total cost  of sights

Finish

  • Action finish
  • Cost of action finish
  • Barrel finish
  • Cost of barrel finish
  • Stock finish
  • Cost of stock finish
  • Scope finish
  • Who does the final finish?
  • Estimated time for completion
  • Total finishing cost



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Copyright 2008 by Dominic Frandrup. All rights reserved.



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