The Custom Rifle
Have It Your Way. Here’s How.
While many shooters only use factory-built rifles, some eventually feel the urge to have one custom made to their personal specifications. This is admirable, but the rifle may take years to show up, and may not be exactly as desired.
Dictionary definitions of custom-made all include phrases such as “designed and built specifically for one person” or “made to individual order.” How can something we order turn out wrong? Well, as Barry Fitzgerald said in The Quiet Man, “Ooh, I could tell you tales….”
One gunsmith thought a barrel with a slower rifling twist would be just the thing for a custom 7×57. After all, the original twist was for 175-grain bullets, and nobody shoots those anymore, do they? So he installed a match-grade barrel with a 1:11.5-inch twist, which scattered any bullets longer than the 140-grain Nosler Partition into patterns, not groups.
Another put a new, hand-lapped .257 Roberts barrel on a Ruger No. 1. The barrel itself was fine, but he reinstalled the quarter-rib scope base so crookedly the rifle couldn’t be sighted-in with any scope in my collection. Apparently he never range-tested the rifle before shipping it to me. Oh, and he was a self-proclaimed expert on gunsmithing the No. 1.
Another gunsmith promised to build a nice, light .260 Remington. Along with a short Remington 700 action, I sent along a scope. When the rifle arrived it weighed well over 9 pounds, because he’d used a bulky stock with an aluminum-bedding block, plus a set of steel scope mounts sturdy enough to hold a truck axle.
This sort of stuff doesn’t happen only to me. The other day I was e-mailing back and forth with a friend, who told this tale: “I sent an action and barrel to a gunsmith, because he had the finish reamer for the chamber I wanted and the cost for him do all the work was less than $50, including the shipping and insurance. He ‘knew better’ than me and didn’t like my barrel, a stainless Hart, so he bought a barrel he liked and installed it. He never spoke to me about changing the barrel, and charged me full retail on a barrel I could have bought wholesale. We grumbled about this for a while, and he ended up removing his barrel and returning my action and barrel to me. Needless to say, I haven’t recommended him.”
However, screw-ups aren’t always the gunmaker’s fault. Melvin Forbes of New Ultra Arms is well known for delivering what the customer wants—though a few years ago my wife Eileen ordered a Model 20 in .257 Roberts. When it arrived four months late the barrel length and contour were wrong, and the stock had the NULA “soft-stripe” paint job instead of the camo Eileen had ordered. The mix-up was due to the woman who was then Melvin’s office manager, who not only shuffled orders like a deck of cards but sometimes diverted down payments to her own bank account. Luckily, Eileen still liked the rifle a lot, so left it the way it came.
There can be other twists of fate. A couple of years ago I decided to have a traditional .270 Winchester built on an FN Mauser commercial action, with a light-contour barrel and a fancy walnut stock. One gunsmith would do the metal work, and another the stock, and the delivery date would supposedly be “before next deer season.” But the metal guy became really ill shortly after receiving my action. This happens, especially since most traditional gunsmiths aren’t exactly young these days, and he runs a 1-man shop.
So he sent the action to the guy who made the barrel, another excellent gunsmith I’ve used before. However, his several-man shop was backed up, and he hasn’t been able to put my action and barrel together yet. “Next deer season” ended six months ago and the stock guy hasn’t even seen the barreled action.
Of course, gunsmiths often run on a calendar all their own. It may be tempting to call and ask how the project is coming, but more than one gunsmith I know says anybody who calls more than once before the agreed-on delivery date gets their rifle moved to the back of the line.
Most problems can be bypassed by spelling out every detail of the rifle in a written agreement before the work starts. Some custom gunsmiths have an actual contract, but many don’t. I prefer some sort of agreement, because then there shouldn’t be any surprises like different rifling twists or substituting another make of barrel.
The next problem is finding the right gunsmith—or gunsmiths. In building traditional rifles, such as my ongoing .270, the work’s often done by more than one shop, even if you only contract with one gunsmith. This is one reason traditional custom rifles can take so long to build. Yes, it takes more time to inlet, finish and checker a walnut stock than epoxy-bed and paint a synthetic stock, but here’s the sequence involved in making some traditional custom rifles:
1. A metal shop fits the barrel and does any action work necessary. 2. The unblued (“in the white”) barreled action and walnut blank are shipped to another shop, where a stock is custom-turned on a duplicating machine. 3. The turned blank and barreled action are sent to the actual stockmaker, who inlets and finishes the stock. 4. Because the barreled action gets sanded along with the stock, it’s returned to the metal shop for final polishing and bluing. (Somewhere in here it may be engraved as well, though usually by a specialist, not the metal shop. And even the bluing can be done in another shop.) 5. The stockmaker may not do checkering, instead sending the stock to a checkering specialist. 6. Many months or even years later, the barreled action and finished stock are put together and, hopefully, test-fired to make sure everything works right.
On rare occasions you can find a used custom rifle very close to what you want, for a
much lower price. This Mauser 8x57mm was made in Germany before World War II, and John
bought it at a gun show for less than 10 percent of what it would cost to reproduce today.
Some gunsmiths add a surcharge for the handling involved in sending a rifle to various shops. This is fair, because time is money, but it also means you can save some money by hiring individual gunsmiths for barreling, action work, stock fitting, etc. I’ve done this with some of my own rifles. (Another way to save money is to buy used. Like new pickup trucks, the value of custom rifles drops considerably once you take delivery. If you find a used rifle that’s exactly what you want, the price can be half what the original owner paid.)
You also need to hire the right gunsmith. The big problem with my .260 was the definition of “light.” It turned out he primarily made so-called tactical rifles. To him, a .260 weighing over 9 pounds scoped was light, while to me a light hunting rifle weighs no more than 8 pounds scoped.
This wasn’t really his fault. Once in a while a gunsmith approaches a gun writer and offers to make a rifle for a discounted price, hoping for some publicity. The guy approached me and I accepted his offer, without really understanding his background. I solved the problem by installing a lightweight Bansner High-Tech stock on the .260 myself, and switching to much lighter scope mounts, whereupon the rifle weighed a little less than 8 pounds. But if I were looking for a gunsmith to make a lightweight custom rifle I’d go to Melvin Forbes, Mark Bansner, or somebody else who frequently makes lightweights.
Similarly, if I wanted a rifle for African big game, I’d find a gunsmith who has some experience in Africa, like D’Arcy Echols. Many gunsmiths have relatively little experience in big game hunting, but somehow know all about building any sort of big game rifle. I once tested a .458 Winchester Magnum made by a traditional-rifle gunsmith on a commercial Mauser action. The stock was so bulky the bolt handle’s knob barely stuck out beyond the wood, not the ideal combination when a Cape buffalo charges. But by golly the wood was pretty, and the checkering fancy. It turned out the guy’s total hunting experience was Texas deer hunting.
This brings up your wishes vs. the gunsmith’s. You may want a certain feature, for example perhaps a detachable magazine. The gunsmith may recommend against it, not because he dislikes detachable magazines but because he hasn’t found a detachable magazine that will consistently work with the cartridge you want. It would be smart to listen to him.
On the other hand, if he simply rejects all your ideas with no real reason, or doesn’t ask for many details, he might not be an actual custom gunsmith. Many gunsmiths who claim to make custom rifles actually make one type of rifle, their way.
It can help to obtain some references from any potential gunsmith, but today a lot of information on various custom gunsmiths can be found on Internet chat rooms, such as 24hourcampfire.com. You’ll have to sift through a bunch of opinions to get anywhere near the truth, since the Internet makes experts out of everybody able to type (though not necessarily spell). But cyberspace can provide some useful information.
Aside from cost, one reason synthetic-stocked custom rifles are so popular is the entire job can be done in one shop. Two modern-type gunsmiths I’ve used who do provide exactly what the customer wants are Mark Bansner and Charlie Sisk. In fact Mark even makes his own High-Tech synthetic stocks, and Charlie has put them on all the rifles he’s made for me.
In recent years I’ve used Kilimanjaro Rifles for wood-stocked rifles. The stocks all feature their Stealth lamination process, with a strip of wood cut out of the center of the blank and then reversed, and most people don’t realize the wood is laminated unless it’s pointed out. While Kilimanjaro offers rifles designed around basic models, they’ll also build stocks to fit the exact shape of the customer, like the stock on my wife Eileen’s .308 Winchester.
Once you decide on a gunsmith, don’t send more than the deposit they request. Some clients don’t trust themselves with their own money, afraid they’ll spend it on something else before their custom rifle gets finished, so they send the gunsmith a couple hundred bucks now and then. But like taxidermists, most gunsmiths finish jobs quicker when they get paid at the finish line. One long-time custom ’smith (who actually does everything from metal-work to walnut stocks) doesn’t take deposits, admitting he’s more motivated by dollars dancing at the end of the project. Of course, he’s in high demand, so normally doesn’t deliver rifles by next deer season.
When your perfect rifle shows up there are several common reactions. One is happiness, especially if everything ends up the way you wanted. A second is a desire for yet another custom rifle. This isn’t a bad thing—unless you can’t afford it, so end up selling the first rifle to pay for the second. Believe it or not, this is a common syndrome, especially among fans of synthetic-stocked custom rifles.
Shooters who order wooden-stocked rifles seem to hold onto them, partly because the fancy wood, the checkering, and the dimensions of the stock are just as individual as the customer. Plus the rifle usually costs a lot more than a synthetic-stocked rifle, and the wait is longer. The cartridge is also usually a classic, often a round the client’s used for decades before finally springing for his dream rifle. Such customers are usually old enough to truly know what they want, so normally remain satisfied once the rifle’s in their hands.
This custom 7×57 was made on a Remington 700 action and a Bansner High-Tech stock,
and shot beautifully with 140-grain Nosler Partition. But the gunsmith put a
slow-twist barrel on it, without informing John, who discovered it wouldn’t
shoot any bullets longer than 140-grain Nosler Partitions.
Shooters who order synthetic-stocked rifles, on the other hand, tend to follow fads. By the time their new rifle shows up, another trendy cartridge has popped up on the Internet chat rooms, like spring fashions in Paris. Some are very experienced shooters, but some aren’t, since on average they’re younger than clients who order traditional custom rifles. Instead of ordering a rifle chambered for a cartridge they know will work, they’re hoping a new cartridge or rifle will change their lives. If it doesn’t, then they’re on to another project. Often they have several custom rifles in the works at once, and some rifles even get aborted before the finishing line. The Classified section of 24hourcampfire.com almost always has a few ads for an action, stock and barrel somebody’s purchased for their dream rifle, but now they’re selling the parts to finance some other trendy rifle.
This doesn’t mean either approach is right or wrong. The main point of a custom rifle isn’t just a finer firearm, whether in looks or function, but the fun of dreaming up a rifle as an extension of ourselves, and not just a tool we buy at a local store, like a post-hole digger. It’s immaterial whether the rifle is a classic made of walnut and blued steel we’ll treasure for decades, or another milepost along a highway of rifles. It’s us.
By John Barsness
Ballard Rifle and Cartridge Company
9562 Sand Lake Hwy.
Onsted, MI 49265
High Tech Specialties, Inc.
P.O. Box 839, Adamstown, PA 19501
D’Arcy Echols & Co.
98 W. 300 S., Millville, UT 84326
Brian Gouse Engraving & Gun Sales
234 Montana St., Hinsdale, MT 59241
707 Richards St., Ste. 201, Honolulu, HI 96813
New Ultra Light Arms
P.O. Box 340, Granville, WV 26534
400 County Rd. 2340, Dayton, TX 77535
Lock, Stock & Barrel
P.O. Box 460304, Huson, MT 59846
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