Firearms Stocks: Walnut, Laminated Hardwood, Composite, Synthetic or What?
ebony forend tip and grip cap on Remington Model 798 barreled action. Photo by Chuck Hawks.
Many modern firearms are offered with plastic stocks, synthetic stocks, or stocks generously called “composite.” These are often advertised as a benefit over walnut stocks or laminated hardwood stocks. Things are rarely what they seem.
Synthetic is an imprecise term, meaning only fabricated, non-natural, or artificial in common use. Although it stems from “synthesis,” as in a chemical synthesis, compound, blend, mixture, or cocktail, that does not tell the consumer anything of value. Portrayed as desirable, too often synthetic stocks are just the opposite. Usually adopted only because they are cheap, the generic synthetic stock lacks rigidity, strength, water resistance, chemical resistance, adds noise and comes with aesthetically vulgar visible mold lines that are hard on the eyes.
Aging studies have been conducted of Nylon 66. (Yes, the same plastic from which the Remington Nylon 66 .22 rifle got its name.) Situations such as smog environments caused the loss of about 63% of its tensile strength after six months. Nylon yarn exposed to humidity lost between 40% and 85% of its strength after six months, depending on temperature. These studies, by Sandia National Laboratories (1982), were of great concern, as Sandia has design responsibilities for weapons systems parachutes, parachutes designed with low (2.0 – 2.2) service factors. Temperature, ozone, smog, temperature, humidity may all rapidly decay nylon. Various thermoplastics exhibit creep, moisture uptake, out gassing and other problems associated with humidity and heat.
Some of this is seen as beneficial, except not in gunstocks. Shotshell wads, for example, that decay rapidly when exposed to UV light are considered biodegradable. Not too many people are interested in a gunstock that biodegrades when you are using it, though. There are no absolutes in stocks, but there are generalities.
When the goal is price, the plastic stock you get on an entry-level (read cheap) gun is going to be made with cost of production in mind. While it may be adequate for some, it is generally the lowest form of rifle stock, regardless of brand. This is just the way it is. We wanted cheap and we got exactly what we said we wanted. Matte, unpolished finishes and cheap Tupperware stocks are intrinsic to low priced firearms. Did we really think it could be otherwise?
Walnut has been a preferred stock material for ages. Properly selected, cured, and inletted walnut stocks are remarkably durable, rigid and long lasting. For aesthetics and feel, they have no equal. Walnut is also in great demand for furniture, bowls and because of its cost is often used as veneer. Shortage of walnut in times past has forced the use of lesser woods. Even now, the cost of a high-grade shotgun blank, which is much smaller and thus cheaper than a full length rifle stock blank, seasoned by three years of drying may cost $850 or more. When we want the entire gun for less than the cost of a stock blank, it is not hard to see why high-grade stock sets are not standard fare today.
One of the best current alternatives is laminated hardwood stocks. Formed under high pressure and heat, they are far stronger than generic plastic stocks, do not degrade with exposure to UV and humidity, do not absorb moisture, do not out gas, are more rigid and promote accuracy as a direct result of that rigidity. They have only one negative in the minds of many: as glue is used between the strips of wood, they may be heavy compared to thermoplastic stocks and are denser than natural walnut.
There are synthetics and then there are composites. Hand-laminated fiberglass cloth (or graphite cloth) stocks, as offered by McMillan and Bell & Carlson, for example. The latest, graphite cloth McMillan “Hunters Edge” stocks run about $578. Strength and quality has a price.
For many Weatherby rifles have been sold with superior Bell & Carlson fiberglass, graphite, Aramid composite stocks incorporating CNC machined aluminum bedding blocks for superior accuracy. However, such Weatherby rifles are not inexpensive. There have been improvements that seek to combine the affordability of injection molded synthetic stocks with aluminum bedding blocks for improved accuracy. The Savage AccuStock is the most noteworthy factory offering in this regard. The barreled action to stock integrity is increased by the aluminum bedding block, action screw attachment and squeezing of the action from the sizes. The metal-to-metal fit helps to eliminate stress and creep to the plastic stock shell itself. There are other aluminum bedding block or chassis type systems available on the aftermarket. Examples would be Accurate Innovations stocks in walnut and hardwood laminates, or H-S Precision and Bell & Carlson in composites.
Contrary to some popularly held beliefs, molded thermoplastic stocks are by far the worst in terms of strength, accuracy, durability, weather-resistance and longevity. A look at long range competitive shooting will show that generic, blow-molded, thermoplastic stocks are not used. You will see laminated stocks well represented, though, one very clear demonstration of the desirability of today's laminated stock in terms of accuracy.
Hunting, naturally, is not the same as paper punching and striving to shave thousandths of an inch is not important or applicable. The target isn't an inch, much less a tenth of an inch. Hunts are not successes or failures based on minutes of angle; minutes of whitetail is a different matter. Chuck Hawks asked the question a while back, to the effect of, “What is more natural in the woods, wood or plastic?” Wood is an excellent gunstock material, based on strength, density and its overwhelming advantage when it comes to appearance. Our mistaken notions of wood not being durable should be brought into question by such vessels as the U.S.S. Constitution, which performed an underway demonstration in late October, 2009, firing shots from her port and starboard batteries to honor the 16 states that comprised America when she was launched in 1797. White pine, longleaf pine, white oak and southern live oak were used in her construction. Hunting hardly requires the long-term exposure to the elements endured by a 44-gun, three-masted frigate. Although not the cheapest stock material, quality walnut remains the most satisfying.
Whatever you decide upon in your personal “price-performance ratio,” it is always good to consider that something you have to buy twice is no bargain. Laminated gunstocks are among the most accurate for the dollar, while walnut stocks or true composite stocks like the McMillan graphite often make the most long-term sense. Personally, I always enjoy the look of well-figured wood, but can hardly get excited about plastic made by old world craftsmen. For milk jugs and garbage can lids, plastic is fine. For a firearm worth keeping, unintentionally biodegradable plastics are not my first choice. Wood and laminated wood stocks might be a lot better than you think and synthetic stocks might be a lot worse.
Copyright 2010 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.