Custom Built Mannlicher-Schoenauer Rifle by Rocky Hays

By the Guns and Shooting Online Staff

Custom Built Mannlicher-Schoenauer Rifle by Rocky Hays
Custom Built Mannlicher-Schoenauer Rifle with Leupold VX-3 scope. All photos by Rocky Hays.

The Mannlicher-Schoenauer rifle that is the subject of this article was custom built by Rocky Hays, our Gunsmith Editor, for a long-time Guns and Shooting Online subscriber. The project took over two years to complete and the rifle is now with its owner in Europe.

There are good, reliable, mass-produced guns available that are suitable for anything one could reasonably ask of them. The staff of Guns and Shooting Online, for example, have reviewed a vast array. Why do so many of us desire to own a custom made gun? The answer boils down to two things: Uniqueness and Art.

We have the opportunity to talk to a lot of firearms-oriented people. One of the things we often hear is this little story: "I have a 'custom' 1911 pistol (or Ruger 10/22, AR, etc.). It has a __ brand barrel, a __ brand trigger, a __ brand stock, __ brand springs, etc, etc. The truth is these are not custom-made guns! They are personalized guns. There are catalogs available with thousands of parts for mass-produced guns. Most of these parts are owner-installable with little, or no, gunsmithing required. In this situation, 100 people could order the same parts and build the exact same personalized gun. This is not a bad thing; these after-market parts are intended to improve a gun’s performance and/or appearance. However, a custom made gun they do not make.

What exactly makes a custom gun, like this 6.5x54mm Mannlicher-Schoenauer that Rocky just finished? It goes back to those two words, Uniqueness and Art. There is not one single part in this rifle that can be ordered from a catalog or over the counter, including the screws. That alone makes this gun unique. In addition, Rocky will never build another one like it. This design belongs to the owner of the gun and the design is the product of the owner’s artistic taste and functional desires. The owner chose the style and pattern of engraving, the shape of the stock, the metal finishes, etc. It is truly a unique piece of firearms art that was built to fit the owner.

Rocky was contacted over two years ago by a customer in Europe about building a 6.5x54mm Mannlicher-Schoenauer hunting rifle. At first, he turned the job down, citing problems that he didn’t want to deal with. However, the prospective owner was persistent and solved several of the initial problems himself, including finding a starter gun with a suitable action. The owner also selected a walnut stock blank and had it sent to Rocky from Europe.

After months of discussion and before any work had begun, Rocky and the owner put together a written plan for the new rifle. Included in the plan, for example, were these requirements for the stock: European style cheek piece (the owner had another rifle with a cheek piece that he especially liked and asked to have the same style on the new gun), metal skeleton butt plate curled over the toe and heel of the stock, metal skeleton grip cap linked to the trigger guard, 2-screw inletted sling swivel bases, straight-cut ebony forend tip, enameled and inletted oval shield with initials, 26 lpi wrap-around field-point checkering, owner specified length of pull, hand-rubbed oil finish.

The customer wanted a Mannlicher-Schoenauer-based sporting rifle for European and African hunting. (The 6.5x54mm M-S is a classic European Alpine and African plains game cartridge.) The action for this beautiful, custom-built sporter came from a Mannlicher-Schoenauer 1930 System military rifle. These rifles were produced from 1903 to the 1930’s for the Greek Army. In the United States, they are scarce.

The receiver had military stripper clip ears, which were removed and the receiver welded and configured to civilian specifications. All of the doner rifle's parts, except for the basic receiver, bolt and Schoenauer rotary magazine, were discarded. The wing safety on the bolt was changed to a thumb button on the bolt to accommodate scope mounting. EAW quick detachable scope rings and bases were installed on a hand made rear cantilever. The military bolt handle was removed and replaced by a hand-forged, butter knife bolt handle. The bottom of the new bolt handle was hand-checkered at 26 lpi (same lpi as the stock). The side of the receiver was relieved to accept the lowered bolt handle. The bolt was lapped to the receiver and the receiver faced to accept the 22" Douglas XX 6.5mm barrel, chambered and throated specifically for 6.5x54 cartridges using the Woodleigh Weldcore 160 grain bullet. A European walnut stock blank, chosen by the customer, was shaped to the customer's specifications. The barreled action was hand-inletted to the stock and the receiver was pillar-bedded. The barrel was free-floated, with the barrel to forend gap held to a tight clearance of 0.010".

A hand-made, single-set inertia trigger and sear mechanism were installed. To accommodate the new trigger and sear, the sear-to-bolt engagement was reconfigured. A hand-forged, beaded trigger guard with a tang extending all the way to the grip cap was fitted. The grip cap is a hand-forged, skeleton type and the central walnut is checkered. The butt plate is also a hand-forged, skeleton type that curls over the butt stock's heel and toe. Again, the revealed central wood is checkered. Hand made, two-screw sling swivel bases were fabricated with stops so the sling swivel cannot hit the wood. There are NO over-the-counter parts on this gun; even the screws were hand-made and, of course, timed (aligned).

Butt plate of custom built Mannlicher-Schoenauer Rifle by Rocky Hays
Skeleton butt plate showing color-case finish, checkering, engraving and copper inlaid borders.

At the owner's request, all of the original M-S markings on receiver were inlaid in copper. The skeleton grip cap and butt plate are also outlined by subdued copper inlays. The receiver, trigger guard and magazine floor plate are engraved in a modified English rose and scroll pattern. The magazine floor plate is inlaid in gold, silver and copper.

Floor plate area of custom built Mannlicher-Schoenauer Rifle by Rocky Hays
Bottom view showing magazine floorplate, trigger guard and skeleton grip cap. Note absence of screws.

The finishes are Royal hot salt bluing on the barrel, scope bases and rings with color case hardening for the sling bases, magazine bottom, trigger guard, skeleton grip cap and butt plate. The bolt and trigger are heat-treated, medium phosphorous nickel-plated. The original plan called for the receiver to be color case hardened, but Rocky discovered that, because of the metallurgy of the receiver, this could not be done and still have a safe action. Therefore, the receiver was cold rust blued with the customer's consent.

A Leupold VX-3 2.5-8x36mm scope was chosen to complement both the rifle and the cartridge for which it is chambered. Leupold is, by far, the scope brand most commonly chosen for bespoke rifles and the VX-3 2.5-8x36 is, perhaps, Leupold's most useful and versatile hunting scope. Practically everyone on the Guns and Shooting Online staff owns one or more of these scopes and can attest to its quality, durability and versatility.

During the building of the rifle, two changes had to be made to the original specification: the aforementioned cold rust bluing of the receiver and deleting the (planned) iron sights. The original intention to fit the latter was the reason for using quick detachable scope bases. Changes were made to the shape of the receiver; the thinned bolt handle and low rear scope mount cantilever were intended to lower the iron sights as close to the bore as possible. However, after a trial peep sight was latched to the rear scope base, the required front sight was 1-1/2 inches above the centerline of the barrel. A ramped sight of this height would have been aesthetically unpleasant, so the iron sights were deleted. This turned out to be a Catch 22 situation in that the quick detach bases themselves added nearly ˝ inch to the elevation of the scope and the front ramp. Sometimes, the gun itself will dictate how it has to be built.


  • Type: Bolt action hunting rifle
  • Weight: 7 lbs. 2 oz. (bare); 8 lbs. 4 oz. (w/ scope)
  • Caliber: 6.5x54mm M-S
  • Barrel Length: 22"
  • Twist: 1 in 8"
  • Overall Length: 43.5"
  • Length of Pull: 14.5" (owner-specified)
  • Trigger: Single set - 2.5 pounds (un-set), 1 pound  set (owner-specified)            
  • Safety: Modified Mannlicher-Schoenauer wing safety (bolt mounted)
  • Magazine capacity: 5 rounds
  • Magazine type: Schoenauer rotary, controlled feed
  • Stock: European Walnut w/hand rubbed oil finish
  • Checkering: Warp around forend and grip, 26 lpi
  • Scope: Leupold VX-3 2.5-8x36mm
  • Scope mounts: Quick Detachable
  • Metal finishes: High polish hot salt blue (barrel), cold rust blue (receiver) and color case hardening (misc. parts); hand engraved w/inlays

Load Development (by Rocky Hays)

The customer requested hand loads using Woodleigh 160 grain Weldcore and Barnes 130 grain TSX bullets. When I do load development, I blueprint each case, uniform the primer pocket and flash hole, re-size and trim to length. I take portable loading equipment to the range, so I can load one round and shoot it. That way, the barrel is always cold when fired. In addition, if I have an unacceptable load, I don't have others like it. I shoot from a bench rest using a Lead Sled and try to hold the gun the same way for each shot. I record weather data and chronograph every shot. The idea is to remove all possible human and weather-induced variables.

I found one line of load data for IMR 4350 powder in an old reloading manual to use as a starting point. 36.8 grains was supposed to yield 2100 feet per second (fps) for the 140 grain bullet and 34.0 grains was supposed to yield 1900 fps for the 160 grain bullet.

The first load tried in the new rifle used 36 grains of Hodgdon 4350 powder and a 130 grain Barnes TSX bullet. Winchester primers and new Norma brass were used for all loads. The chronographed velocity was 2636 fps 10' from the muzzle. The fired primer showed signs of slight cratering, so experimenting with this load was discontinued.

The second load I tried was 34 grains of Hodgdon 4350 with a 156 grain Norma bullet. This chronographed at 2555 fps and showed the same slight primer cratering. Again, testing was stopped. I concluded that the old load data was essentially useless with modern bullets and powders in this rifle.

I reduced the minimum load to 32 grains of H4350 and fired 30 test rounds. I switched to Accurate 4350, which lowered the muzzle velocity by about 200 fps. The average 100 yard group size was 2-1/2" with either 4350 powder, which I regarded as unsatisfactory for this rifle.

I then tried IMR 3031 powder. This yielded an appropriate muzzle velocity of 2124 fps with the 156 grain Norma bullet and a 1-5/16" group size. Better accuracy, but still not what I was looking for.

I moved on to IMR 4895 powder. 28.8 grains yielded a 1", five shot group. IMR 4895 clearly agreed with this rifle. It should be noted that the maximum load with IMR 4895, according to the reloading manual, is 34 grains. I exceeded that muzzle velocity by 100 fps with 30 grains of powder.

The following trip to the range was to develop a hunting load using IMR 4895 powder. I used Woodleigh Weldcore 160 grain bullets and Winchester WLR primers. The results were as follows:

    powder (gr)     velocity (fps)      avg. 100 yd. group       std. deviation

    28.6                 2043                   1-1/16"                          217

    28.8                 2110                   1"                                   107

    29                    2181                    3/4"                               69

    29.2                2219                    3/4"                               104

    29.4                2251                   1"                                    207

    29.6                2278                   1-1/8"                             125

    29.8                2302                   1"                                    114

    30                   2323                   1-1/4"                             181

The next range day was devoted to the Barnes 130 grain TSX bullet, with IMR 4895 and Winchester WLR primers:

    powder (gr)    velocity (fps)        avg. 100 yd. group       std. deviation

    29.8                2094 fps              1-3/4"                             69

    30                   2145                    1-3/4"                              71

    30.2                2186                    1-1/2"                             57

    30.4                2194                    15/16"                            62

    30.6                2115                    15/16"                            53

    30.8                2232                     5/8"                               14

    31                   2260                     3/4"                                64

    31.2                2289                    1-1/2"                             87

    31.4                2330                    2-3/4"                             106

It became obvious that pushing the 130 grain bullet much over 2260 fps in this barrel degraded the accuracy, perhaps due to the 1:8" twist. By the end of the third day at the range, I had fired nearly 250 rounds and had developed sufficient loading data for each of the requested bullets. The targets indicated I could switch between the 130 grain and 160 grain bullets without re-adjusting the scope.

Next, I loaded more of the selected loads with 130 and 160 grain bullets and shot both bullet weights at the same target to form a composite group. The 130 grain bullets produced a group that was centered 7/8" high and right from the bull's eye. The 160 grain group was centered 9/16" low and left from the bull's eye, which means that there was only about 1-1/2" between the centers of impact of the two bullet weights. Compared to the size of a big game animal, this is negligible.


If you are interested in ordering a custom made gun, or would just like to see some of the world’s best custom firearms and meet the builders, take a trip to Reno, Nevada in January. Every year, the Firearm Engravers Guild of America and the American Custom Gun Makers Guild hold a combined three day show. I strongly recommend that every gun enthusiast go to this show at least once. You will see some amazing firearms up close and in person.

If you attend the Reno show, or in some other way choose a custom gun builder, the first thing to know is that most members of FEGA and ACGG do not consider themselves just "gun makers." They are artists and guns are their medium. Second, you will need to be patient. Most of them will not be able to give you a firm completion date. I know of builders who have sent customers’ guns back, unfinished, because the customers became too impatient.

Understand that there are several types of gun makers. One is the gunsmith specialist, who makes the mechanics of the gun--the metal parts. Some of them specialize in only one type of action, such as Mauser 98, Winchester 70, etc. Then those action parts are sent to an engraver for design and engraving, to a stock maker/checkerer and then to a metal finisher. The finished parts go back to the original gunsmith, who assembles the gun. The customer can choose an engraver, stock maker and finisher whose style he likes. You end up with a gun that has several names associated with the finished firearm. Things will usually move faster than if the gun is built and finished entirely by one person.

At the other end of the spectrum are gun makers like Rocky. He is an engraver, machinist, woodworker and metal finisher. When a gun comes into his shop, it almost never leaves until it is finished. You will find that if you choose a gun maker like Rocky, things will move slowly. Rocky has no employees and works entirely alone.

If you are going to have a custom rifle made, the details for every part of the gun should be determined in consultation with the builder. This includes, but is not limited to, the barrel (length, brand, contour, twist and crown), action (type, brand and details), trigger, stock (material, grade, checkering style and coverage, butt plate/recoil pad, dimensions, etc.), all finishes and accessories.

Commissioning a custom gun is literally participating in the design and construction of your own, functional, work of art. It takes a lot of time, effort and decision making to produce a true custom-built gun, but the finished firearm is all yours. It is unique and, as you can tell from the photos accompanying this article, worth the wait.

In closing, we would like to reiterate that the rifle that is the subject of this article was not built to sit in a display case. It was built for hunting and will soon be on safari in Africa. It is not only beautiful, it is completely functional and superior, for the owner's purpose, to any mass produced rifle. It fits him perfectly and mounts quickly, to speed that first, all important shot. It has a superior trigger tuned to the owner's specification and a very smooth, controlled feed action with a rotary magazine for maximum reliability. It is very accurate using the exact cartridge and bullets specified by the owner. It is, in fact, a superior hunting implement. Of course, he could take an ugly, functionally inferior rifle on safari, but why would he want to if he doesn't have to?

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