Converting A Military Rifle

By Mike Hudson

Gun cranks are usually a lot more tight-lipped about financial affairs than they are about the other kind, unless you happen to mention the fact that you're undertaking the conversion of a military bolt-action rifle into a custom sporting gun.

"You'll never get out of it what you put in," is a common refrain, sometimes augmented by "But you can get a used Savage in .243 or .308 for $350."

Both of those statements are essentially true. And meaningless. That one may not be able to sell a custom rifle for as much as one paid to build it is kind of the point, after all. The meaning of the word "custom" in such an application means that the resulting rifle is tailored to you, personally. Why would someone else place as great a value on it? Ideally, the caliber, barrel length, length of pull, weight, trigger and cosmetics have been designed for someone of your height and weight, with your aesthetic sensibilities, who hunts the animals you hunt in the weather in which you hunt them. Once you had a rifle like that, why would you even consider selling it?

And yes, Savage does make a fine rifle and they are available for as little as $350 at gun shops and shows and the various online auction sites. But again, what if you didn't want a rifle in .243 or .308 or any of the other standard calibers? What if you find them, well, boring?

The Savage is about right as far as weight is concerned, but is generally available only with the 22 or 24-inch barrel. What if you want a longer or shorter tube? Most commercial rifles now on the market have a length of pull (the distance from the center of the butt to the center of the front of the trigger) of around 14 inches. For many of us who don't play basketball professionally, this is simply too long, especially when the heavy clothing worn in many hunting situations comes into play. The only commercial rifles available with a LOP closer to 13 inches are the various youth/ladies models, which limits your caliber and barrel length options even more.

All of the older military rifles were built with a shorter LOP, as this more than anything else affects how quickly you can get the rifle to your shoulder, plant your cheek on the comb and line up the sights. Most shooters simply learn to live with a too long LOP, just as we can learn to live with almost any less than ideal condition. But really, why should we have to? It is remarkable to me that the issue is so little discussed in the gun magazines, or considered by the corporate manufacturers of modern day sporting rifles.

No, if you want a rifle that gives you, as an individual, the greatest advantage in the field, you've either got to build it yourself or pay someone to build it for you. There's no other way around it.

I "built" my first sporting rifle in the late 1960s at the age of 13. Armed with a hacksaw and soldering iron, I successfully reduced the overall length and weight of an ancient Vetterli Vitali 1870 that had been rebarrelled by the Italians to fire the 6.5 Carcano cartridge. It had arrived with the firing pin inserted backwards in the bolt, which should have told me that whoever sent it must've considered it unsafe to fire, but once I had corrected that problem it worked as well as it ever had and I ordered a box of military surplus ammunition for it.

By the end of the summer, the ammo was gone, as was my life's savings and the hope that I'd ever be able to hit anything I shot at with the old smokepole. The experience put me off the avocation of rifle building for several years.

There have been several other projects since, mostly Mausers, but the standout was an M-43 Soviet carbine in 7.62x54R that was pure poison on whitetails as far away as I could see them. Recoil was manageable, but boy was that thing loud.

In recent years, many of the W.W. I and W.W. II guns have become collectors' items and the prices have risen accordingly. Sometimes you can come across a good one at a low price, but you'll make a lot of people mad by doing anything to an otherwise stock military rifle of those eras.

Your best bet is to look for a rifle that has already been "sporterized" by someone else. These can range, of course, from the sublime to the ridiculous, so look carefully. Make sure the serial numbers match and, while you're at it, look for one in which as much of the heavy lifting as possible has already been done for you. These guns don't cost any more with turned down bolt handles, cut and crowned barrels, semi-custom stocks, sporting sights etc. than they do without such modification. Find one for under $200 that has had all of this done and you've found yourself a real bargain.

Often, a stock refinishing job or the installation of a new "drop in" stock of either walnut or synthetic material is all that is required. These stocks are made for a number of fine old guns including the British Lee Enfield, Mauser 98 and Mosin Nagant. Some minor fitting is required, but I've done it and, as my wife would be happy to tell you, I'm about the furthest thing away from a handyman that you'll find anywhere on the planet. Prices start at well under $100 and range upward as far as you'd want to go for exotic wood, diamond cut checkering and other improvements.

Do your research before you buy. The last thing you want is to invest the time and money required for such a project and then find out you wish you'd built something else. Learn the differences between the various action types, how the safeties work and study the different caliber designations with an eye toward the sort of hunting you do and what you're willing to tolerate in terms of recoil and muzzle blast. Much of this important information is available right here at Guns & Shooting Online. It's a buyers market, and you can do your own dictating rather than allowing yourself to be dictated to.

Also, you want to avoid the cost of a rebluing job and many previously sporterized military rifles have already been so treated or have a passable amount of the original blue remaining. The object is to find one in excellent shooting condition, which has had its collector value ruined by a previous owner.

It should go without saying that you're looking for as shiny a bore as possible if you plan on shooting the rifle in its original caliber, and that headspace and general safety of a given rifle should be checked by a competent gunsmith prior to purchase. If this is not possible, and it's not when making an online purchase, ask the seller if you might have a week to have it inspected. If he says no, pass it by.

If you're going to have a gunsmith do all or some of the work for you, don't call the first name you see in the phone book. Like a lot of shooters, I've pretty much given up on local gunsmiths altogether. It's not their fault, many of the best ones have left the business because of legal liability issues and other nonsense associated with living in our modern world, while others have simply retired. Those who remain are reticent to drill and tap receivers on any rifle more than a few years old, not having taken the time to learn about the quality of the steel used in the earlier guns.

There are a lot of guys willing to replace a spring in your Remington 700 or Winchester Model 70, but when it comes to something more complicated, like customizing a military rifle, you're ahead of the game by using the services of a nationally known firm such as the Williams Gun Sight Corp. of Davison, MI. The gunsmithing department at Williams can do just about anything you want to that Mauser, from rebarreling to accurizing to stock work and more. Basic "must do's" such as installing a new bolt handle and trigger, shortening the barrel and adding their fine sporting sights and/or a scope mount can be done surprisingly inexpensively, and a basic project can be easily completed for under $500, including the cost of the original rifle.

That seems like a bargain when you consider that what you'll wind up with something made for you and you alone. It's rather like reloading your own ammunition in that those who do can't imagine how those who don't manage to get by. Go about it correctly and you won't care about the price of a used Savage.

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Copyright 2007, 2016 by Mike Hudson and/or All rights reserved.