The Rifle Stock

By Chuck Hawks

It is interesting that in the United States rifle stock design has received more attention than shotgun stock design. Many more custom rifle stocks are built every year for US shooters than custom shotgun stocks, even though shotgun stocks are far more critical to hitting the target.

Rifle stock design is a controversial subject, and the source of much disagreement among gun buffs. There are several schools of thought as to material, decoration, finish, and most of all the shape of rifle stocks.

Most of the controversy swirls around the stocks of bolt action rifles. Lever action and single shot rifles tend towards what I call the Classical (Ruger No. 1A) and Western (Browning 1885 High Wall, Winchester Model 94 Traditional) styles, which are functional and seem appropriate to their purpose.

Bolt action stocks tend toward one of three styles, which I call the European (Steyr-Mannlicher Classic, CZ 550 Lux), Modern Classic (Winchester Model 70 Featherweight, Remington Model 700 BDL, and Ruger Model 77R Mark II), and California (Weatherby Mark V Deluxe). Naturally, there are variations on and combinations of these basic styles, but the rifle models in parenthesis are reasonable examples of the three main styles.

All of these styles can be attractive if properly executed, and all can be functional. And, of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Aesthetic merit is always a difficult question to resolve.

Roy Weatherby spawned the California school of stock design (the Weatherby Company is headquartered in California), which is epitomized by his Mark V Deluxe rifle. Key features of a Weatherby stock include the signature Monte Carlo comb that slants down toward the front (to align the eye with a telescopic sight and keep the comb away from the cheek bone during recoil), a cheek-piece and a small amount of cast off (a bend of the buttstock away from the face [as seen from above] to make the rifle faster and more comfortable to mount and also to help align the eye with the scope), a forearm tapered in three dimensions with a flat bottom (to provide a good grip and a shape amenable for use over a rest), and a pistol grip with a slight flare at the bottom (to aid in good control and to prevent the hand from slipping during recoil). Mark V rifles also have a generous butt pad area and come with a top quality Pachmayr recoil pad. All of these are functional features, particularly for the powerful magnum rifles in which Weatherby specializes. Many of them have been incorporated, at least to some extent, in most other modern stock designs.

Rifles with California style stocks are seldom supplied with iron sights, so the stock is designed expressly for the higher line of sight of an optical sight. These stocks usually come with a durable high gloss finish that shows off the grain of the select walnut to beautiful advantage. (Models with dull synthetic stocks are also available.) Forearm and pistol grip caps of darker contrasting woods, sometimes set off by lighter line spacers, are common decorative touches. Weatherby Deluxe rifles have a maplewood diamond inlay in the rosewood pistol grip cap. Checkering patterns are inclined to be both fairly extensive in coverage and fancy in execution. Some conservative shooters object to these features, and some even claim that the showy stocks scare off game, but I have never seen any evidence of this. Certainly Weatherby rifles and their owners have enjoyed great success in game fields all over the world, taking an inordinate number of record trophies. And I, for one, find the Weatherby Mark V Deluxe to be a flamboyant but handsome rifle.

But all of these features can be over emphasized to the point of grotesqueness. The Winslow rifles, now mercifully defunct, were a good example. They featured bizarre stocks with exaggerated Monte Carlo combs, roll over cheek pieces and tightly hooked, flaring pistol grips. They looked like a Weatherby reflected in a fun house mirror, a clear triumph of style over function. They were decorated with a profusion of inlays, multiple line spacers, and stock carving. Fortunately, such excessive, non-functional styles tend to run their course and disappear.

European style stocks seem to favor gentle convex curves (rather than straight lines) from comb to heel and between the pistol grip and toe of the buttstock. Cheek-pieces, if present, are frequently of the "pancake" type. They occasionally favor the full length Mannlicher style forearm, which I personally like, intended to protect the barrel in mountainous terrain. Whatever the forearm style, it tends to be slender and tapered. Modern Euro-style stocks usually incorporate a Weatherby-derived pistol grip. Buttplates are usually hard rubber, black plastic, or occasionally buffalo horn, and recoil pads are used for hard kicking calibers. They often (but not always) eschew contrasting forearm tips and pistol grip caps, and favor simple checkering patterns. The finish may be glossy or satin. European style rifles may or may not come with iron sights, and the dimensions of their stocks must reflect this.

Jack O'Connor once wrote that aesthetically pleasing stock design used straight lines and curves that are segments of circles. I am inclined to agree with him, at least to a considerable extent. I also believe that form should follow function. For instance, I do not find the bellied curves used in the European style buttstock attractive, and I can find no functional reason for such shapes.

By far the most popular style today (at least in North America) is the modern classic stock. The modern classic tends toward a straight comb with little or no drop at heel, a pistol grip with a medium curve, and a rounded or pear shaped forearm. Checkering patters are usually borderless, in diamond point or fleur-de-lis styles. Pistol grip caps and forearm tip are common and they are usually black and without contrasting spacers. The buttplate is usually metal, black plastic, or solid rubber. Stock finish is usually satin (if sprayed on) or traditional oiled walnut. The overall look is restrained. Fans of other styles may call it plain. Like anything else, the understated look can be overdone, in this case to the point of blandness.

Like a well executed California style stock, the modern classic is very functional. The straight comb line with minimum drop at heel is designed to align the eye with an optical sight and to transmit recoil in a straight line to the shoulder, minimizing muzzle rise. The medium pistol grip is designed to provide good control without cramping the hand. The rounded forearm is designed to fit the natural curve of the hand that grips it. The oiled finish, if present, makes it easy to touch-up nicks and scratches by simply rubbing more oil into the affected area. An oil finished stock seldom needs to be completely refinished, and is the easiest kind to refinish when necessary.

Modern classic stocks are basically designed for use with telescopic sights, but rifles so stocked often come with iron sights, which must remain useable. So the stock is somewhat of a compromise in that its drop at comb is intended to favor optical sights but still accommodate iron sights.

While any stock may be made from a variety of materials, the usual choices are solid wood, laminated wood, and synthetics. Solid wood stocks are usually made of walnut, birch, or beech and occasionally of maple, myrtle, or mahogany. Laminated wood stocks are made of layers of hardwood or walnut and hardwood glued together under pressure. Synthetic stocks are usually made of an injection molded plastic or a molded fiberglass shell filled with plastic foam. All of these materials can be made into functional gunstocks.

The best wood for solid wood stocks is generally considered to be walnut. A satisfactory stock must have certain properties, and walnut fills the bill better than other woods. For example, stock wood should be reasonably hard but not brittle, stiff, dense without being excessively heavy, take checkering well, and have attractive figure and grain. The thin shell European walnuts are particularly durable and attractive.

Unfortunately, because of its beauty, walnut is also in high demand for furniture, and the big bucks are in furniture rather than in gunstocks. The gun companies simply cannot out bid the furniture makers for nicely figured walnut. So fancy walnut stocks are becoming a custom proposition, priced out of reach of the average shooter.

A nicely figured walnut stock is a thing of beauty. It is also very functional. Walnut is stiff and resists side loads (like a shooting sling). It handles the battering from recoil well. It feels good to the touch, particularly in wet or cold weather. It can be touched-up or refinished if marred. Walnut is a superior gunstock material, but it is becoming more and more expensive even in plain grades. It is to the advantage of the major gun companies to move shooters away from walnut and into less expensive synthetic stocks. I have learned the hard way to insist on genuine walnut stocks on all of my hunting rifles.

Other, cheaper, solid wood stocks are made from various hardwoods, primarily beech. Beech is a light colored wood with little grain or character, so it is usually stained to resemble walnut. Such a stock is satisfactory in use, but nicks and scratches reveal the white wood under the walnut finish. These cannot be touched-up, as could a genuine walnut stock, and soon the "walnut finished hardwood" stock starts to look really tacky. I have owned such stocks once or twice, but never again.

Laminated wood stocks are actually the strongest and most stable of all stocks. Functionally, they are superior to both solid walnut and the synthetics. If laminated from decent woods and well finished they can be quite attractive. They are cheaper than solid walnut stocks because they are made from smaller slices of wood, most of which cost less than good walnut. The grain in the various layers of wood is designed to run in different directions and cancels out any tendency of the stock to warp. When properly glued under pressure and sealed laminated stocks are immensely strong and warp resistant, and virtually impervious to the elements. Laminated stocks are generally regarded as the stiffest and most accurate type of stock.

One of the first production hunting rifles with a laminated stock was the Remington Model 600M bolt action carbine. I ordered one as soon as they were announced. The stock was laminated beech and walnut with a clear RKW finish, and it proved to be attractive and much more rigid and accurate than synthetic stocks. The laminated hardwood stock is probably the best and most attractive alternative to a solid walnut stock.

Synthetic stocks, so far as I know, began in the U.S. with Savage/Stevens rifles and shotguns during the Second World War, when all of the walnut was going into military rifles. These early synthetic stocks were made of wood grained plastic, and proved satisfactory. I once owned a Stevens .22/.410 combination gun with such a stock.

The first really successful commercial rifle with a synthetic stock was the Remington Nylon 66 autoloading .22 rifle. As the name implies, the stock was molded of DuPont Zytel nylon, a very tough plastic material. (DuPont owned Remington in those days.) The Nylon 66 was followed by a lever action version called the Nylon 76 and tubular and box magazine bolt action rifles named the Nylon 10 and 11. I owned all of these rifles at one time. Back in the early to mid 1960's I was experimenting with synthetic stocked rifles. Unfortunately, I found that their benefits were outweighed by their disadvantages.

Although the Remington Nylon series rifles are long discontinued, the idea resurfaced as walnut became more and more expensive, no doubt spurred by the U.S. military's adoption of the M-16 infantry rifle with its black plastic stock. This time, with a chance to both increase the bottom line and hold down suggested retail prices, the major gun manufacturers spared no effort to successfully market their synthetic stocks, touting their ruggedness and weather resistant qualities.

No one seemed to ask just how often the average shooter actually broke a wooden stock, or what would happen to the rest of the rifle if it were subjected to loads severe enough to snap the stock. (Ever seen a rifle run over by a tank or tossed off a cliff?) Or even if synthetic stocks were actually harder to break than a wooden stock. It turns out that the common injection molded stocks used by most of the big gun companies are not significently harder to break than a walnut stock, and much easier to break than a laminated wood stock.

Other advantages of synthetic stocks include the fact that an elaborate and extensive checkering pattern can be molded in at practically no expense, they can be made any color desired, and they flex so much that they tend to moderate the effect of heavy recoil. (Or so I have been told--this is something I have not experienced first hand.) The biggest advantage of synthetic stocks remains that they cost the big gun companies much less than a wooden stock. (Allegedly between $5 and $10 per stock as I write this.) This allows the company to make a few pennies profit to pay their lawyers and keeps down the retail price to the customer.

Light weight is often cited as a benefit of synthetic stocks, and laminated stocks are often criticized as being heavy. But in fact, most synthetic, laminated, and solid wood stocks weigh about the same when built to the same pattern. There is little advantage to very light stocks in any case, as rifles need a certain amount of weight to swing smoothly, balance correctly, and limit recoil. If a stock is made too light, it simply has to be weighted with lead or some other material so that correct balance, swing, and recoil control are maintained.

Synthetic stocks do have some significant drawbacks. One of the most important is that they are flexible, particularly the forearm of one-piece injection molded stocks. They lack the natural rigidity of wood, so if a hunter shoots with a sling, for instance, the forearm can flex, alter the bedding of the barrel, and change the point of impact of the bullet. Even changing the strength or angle of one's grip, or using a rest, can change the point of impact of a rifle with an injection molded stock. Laid-up fiberglass stocks with unidirectional fibers (not the common "chopper gun" type of construction with short random direction fibers) are stiffer than injection molded stocks and generally more accurate.

Synthetics can warp in hot weather and freeze in cold weather. In extremely cold temperatures injection molded stocks become so brittle that they can literally shatter. In very hot weather black synthetic stocks can become literally too hot to handle with bare hands. But the legend of their strength and climate resistance persists.

Nor has anyone in the shooting press, so far as I know, questioned the necessity for a waterproof stock. Few hunters regularly take their rifles swimming. I, for example, have been hunting in rainy Western Oregon since 1964 without a bit of water damage to my various rifles, all of which wear walnut stocks. The factory finish on a walnut stock is usually all the weather protection required.

Everyone in the industry knows these things; they just don't want to address them. The lack of stiffness in most synthetic stocks is a serious problem because it degrades the accuracy of the rifle. To help rectify that problem, some gun makers offer synthetic stocks (at extra cost) made of exotic materials with aluminum or other internal reinforcement. The Weatherby Accumark stock, for example, is made of a combination of Aramid, graphite unidirectional fibers, and fiberglass molded around an aluminum bedding and forearm insert. Such stocks are stiff and strong, but much more expensive than simple synthetic stocks.

Other issues are the clammy feel (especially when cold and or wet) of synthetics, and the fact that they are not very attractive. Most synthetic stocks look like they were cut out of the inner bottom of a cheap fiberglass boat. When combined with the crude matte metal finish used on so many rifles with synthetic stocks (another cost cutting measure sold to consumers as an anti-reflection measure), the result can be a firearm without any aesthetically redeeming virtue or even a shred of individuality.

Factory made rifles are equipped with stocks designed to fit the average person from about 5' 8" to about 6' in height. However, there is some variation between brands and sometimes between different models of the same brand. The conformation of the individual shooter's upper body (arm length, shoulder size, chest size, etc.) and the shape of the face (long, wide, flat, big nose, high cheekbones, etc.) will determine which stock fits best. The very tall or long armed shooter may require a longer than average length of pull, shooters with thin faces generally find a thicker comb more comfortable, and so on.

Two stocks with identical length of pull, drop at comb, and drop at heel from different manufacturers may feel quite different in practice. The thing to do is to search until you find the rifle stock that fits best.

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Copyright 2002, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.