Rifle Stock Materials Have Evolved Over The Last 8 Centuries.
“Stock” comes from Germanic words meaning stick or tree trunk. The term first appeared in the 1500s, not long after rifled barrels were developed in central Europe, but firearm handles had already been around for several hundred years. The earliest were spears called fire-lances, fitted with a tube full of gunpowder rather than a sharp point, and used primarily as flame-throwers, though sometimes a little shrapnel was mixed with the powder. The earliest bronze “hand-cannons” were also often mounted on poles, though some were simply carried in the shooter’s hands.
The developments of the matchlock in the early 1400s made actual stocks possible, since all the shooter had to do was aim and pull the early form of trigger called a serpentine. Hardwoods worked best, since they were better able to withstand the battering of recoil.
Walnut became the wood of choice in Europe, and then again in America after Europeans moved here, though other woods were frequently used, especially the sugar maple of New England. Inexpensive rifles often have stocks made of beech or birch, and in America custom stocks are still often made of maple, or fruitwoods such as cherry and apple. Other hardwoods have characteristics useful for specialized rifles. Mahogany and some varieties of maple are quite light in weight, so are occasionally used to stock “mountain” rifles, and mesquite and various African hardwoods are extremely dense and hard so work well on rifles chambered for hard-recoiling cartridges. I’ve even seen a complete ebony stock blank weighing 80 pounds, but don’t know what it would be good for. (Evidently its owner, a custom stockmaker, didn’t either, since he’d had it for a long time.)
Walnut, however, remains the king of stock woods, especially the species called Juglans regia (royal walnut). Commonly known as European or English walnut, it was originally found primarily in Asia. Alexander the Great brought walnuts to Europe from Persia (modern Iran), the basis for the less frequently used name Persian walnut.
Today Juglans regia is grown both for nuts and wood on every continent except Antarctica. Blanks are advertised as being English, French, Turkish or New Zealand, depending on where they’re grown, but they’re all the same species. Most Juglans regia grown in the United States comes from California, stockmakers usually referring to it as California English, an interesting oxymoron.
Around 20 other species of walnut tree grow in various parts of the world, some also producing good stock wood, most notably a couple native to North America, the eastern black walnut Juglans nigra, and the western black walnut more commonly known as Claro (Juglans hindsii). Juglans regia, however, is generally considered the very best all-around wood for stockmaking, since it’s easier to work precisely, especially compared to Claro.
All three varieties can have spectacular figure, though Claro is often considered the prettiest, the primary reason it’s used despite poorer workability. I’ve made stocks out of all three species, but would prefer not to use Claro again because it can be kind of mushy, not taking inletting or, especially, checkering as well as regia or nigra. Really dense eastern black walnut can be worked as precisely as regia, but is typically heavier. Most of the walnut found on inexpensive factory rifles is black walnut grown where there’s lots of rainfall, resulting in softer, plainer wood. Aside from sheer demand, highly figured, dense walnut of any species is more expensive because it takes longer to grow.
Even the best walnut, however, is still wood, and wood can warp or even crack when atmospheric moisture increases or decreases. Proper curing of blanks reduces this tendency, especially cracking, but doesn’t completely eliminate warping, the reason for laminated stocks.
By John Barsness
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