In the mid-1960s, when Bill Ruger was designing the bolt action that would become the Model 77, he was very concerned that his new baby wear a proper stock. At the time, the California look was all the rage–all angles and sharp projections, skip-line checkering and gaudy inlays–and Ruger wanted to avoid such monstrosities at all costs.
Ruger called on Lenard Brownell, a noted stockmaker of the time, and commissioned him to design a stock. The result was a pattern very close to what we now call "American classic." The comb was straight (no Monte Carlo), the curves graceful, the lines conservative, and the checkering a conventional and well-executed point pattern.
When the Model 77 was unveiled, it garnered rave reviews from the writers of the time, not least Jack O’Connor who, in The Rifle Book, had defined the ideal stock from the point of view of both aesthetics and utility.
"The lines of a riflestock," he wrote (quoting New Jersey stockmaker Morgan Holmes), "should be either straight or segments of a circle–no French curves, no sharp angles–with lock, stock and barrel forming an integrated whole. No single feature should distract the eye."
We think of a rifle stock as exactly that: an integrated whole. But in fact it is made up of a number of individual features, and all can be varied to be more (or less) attractive and more (or less) usable.
A rifle stock is both a platform for the barreled action and a handle that connects the shooter to the firing mechanism. If shape and fit did not matter, then we could take a 2×4, clamp the metal parts to it, and go merrily on our way. And in the very earliest days of hand-held cannons, gun makers did exactly that. Pictures of "hand-gonnes" from the middle ages show just how awkward these contraptions were.
We would like to think we’ve come a long way, but a glance at some of the stocks now being put on rifles makes you wonder if we have learned anything at all. I am speaking of hunting rifles, of course–rifles to be carried over hill and dale, shot at distant animals from a variety of positions, and sometimes used instinctively to shoot at fast-moving animals, sudden and in close.
Benchrest and target stocks are a whole other world, and rightly so. But many of the monstrosities one sees on so-called hunting rifles today are derived directly from the world of benchrest, for a variety of reasons. Manufacturers like to espouse the idea of giving consumers a wide choice, but in rifle stocks the choice today seems to be among different patterns of camo slathered on one lousy stock design.
So let’s look at each of the individual features that make up a rifle stock.
Buttstock. The butt serves a number of purposes. While its dimensions are important, shape is equally critical. It should be long enough to keep your eye back from the scope but not so long it gets tangled in your clothes; the comb must be the right height to align the eye with the sights.
If a rifle has both iron sights and a scope, it should align the eye effortlessly with the primary sight. With a dangerous-game rifle, it should align the eye with the iron sights because those will be used when the situation is most perilous, but that’s the exception.
A little cast-off (bend to the right) is helpful for right-handed shooters, but it is rarely seen and not critical. Again, it is most useful with a big-bore that will occasionally be shot instinctively.
The butt provides three points of contact–shoulder, cheek and trigger hand–that are essential to steady, accurate shooting. If the stock has excessive drop and forces the shooter to hold his head too high, that eliminates one of those points of contact. Hence the preference for straighter stocks.
The Monte Carlo and roll-over comb of years past serve no purpose, but a proper cheekpiece is both useful and attractive. Proper shape of the cheekpiece is largely a matter of shooting style and the physical attributes of the shooter, and you can only tell if a cheekpiece fits by shouldering the rifle. By and large, though, it should provide a flat, angled surface with enough area fore and aft to accommodate various head positions.
The area of the butt itself is important for absorbing recoil. A short, narrow butt will accentuate the recoil, while a more generous area capped with a thick, soft pad will reduce the effect of recoil considerably. The overall size of a buttstock should be quite different for a .243 Winchester compared to a .375 H&H, but manufacturers generally have one set of dimensions–again, for economic reasons.
Pistol Grip. A pistol grip that is too tightly curved moves the middle finger up against the trigger guard, which is painful with a big rifle. Yet a grip that is too gradual is like shooting a straight grip and does not provide the stability required in rifle shooting.
In this case, comfort is everything, and how the grip feels in your hand is what counts. If your hand feels cramped for any reason, the grip is wrong.
Many stocks today have pistol grips that are simply too bulky. O’Connor argued that the correct circumference of the grip for the average man was 4¾ inches, and that seems about right to me. Thicker grips are stronger and reduce the risk of breakage (and warranty claims), which seems to be the reason for their existence.
I have never appreciated the benefits of the Wundhammer (palm) swell, which also thickens the grip. In cross-section, the grip should be round or slightly oval.
The general stock-making rule is that the angle of the grip cap should create a line that intersects the heel of the stock. This changes with the degree of drop and is a good rule to keep in mind when evaluating the merits of a stock.
Fore-End. Fore-ends are my particular bugbear with modern production rifle stocks. Five years ago, after Dakota Arms changed hands, I ordered a bolt-action rifle in .250-3000, which should, I said, be a "slim, trim deer rifle." When I went out to pick it up, I found a rifle that was an assemblage of stock-making atrocities. My main complaint was the fore-end, which was very wide and bulky, with flats beside the barrel you could land an airplane on.
The stock maker offered the excuse that, since the .250-3000 could also be used for varmints, he assumed I wanted a varmint stock.
Most fore-ends today are too bulky, and all too many have a flat bottom "the better for shooting off a benchrest." I don’t believe they are easier to shoot from a benchrest, but even were it true, a hunting rifle will be shot from a rest only rarely; the rest of the time it will be held in the hand, and a wide, bulky fore-end is awkward and uncomfortable.
O’Connor’s view was that fore-ends should be ample enough to hold firmly but slim enough to be comfortable and either round or slightly pear-shaped in cross section. I will take either one, but I prefer the latter. Its shape allows the fingers and thumb to wrap around the curve rather than simply pressing into the checkering to try to get a firm hold. This is particularly important with a hard-kicking rifle.
Most rifles today, even very expensive custom rifles (unless you vociferously insist otherwise) have a fore-end that is a vertical oval in cross-section, providing a generous flat surface on each side that allows the checkerer to display his virtuosity. For my money, they can keep their virtuosity and give me a round fore-end with a simple, wraparound point pattern that feels good when you shoulder the rifle and shoot it.
Seen from above, the fore-end should follow the contour of the barrel its entire length with only a very narrow flat on each side.
Free-floating the barrel for accuracy works wonders with some rifles but not others. Manufacturers seized upon the principle with shouts of glee, however, for the simple reason that it was cheap and easy to do, bringing them that much closer to a "one size fits all" for both shooters and barreled actions.
I prefer my barrels properly inletted–ideally with some built-in pressure near the tip. Such fitting generally results in a rifle that is accurate and, more important, very consistent in its accuracy. But getting such a fit requires an expert, and expensive, custom stocking job.
Today, all factory stocks, both wood and composite, are mass produced. Sadly, the same is largely true of most custom stocks.
The image of a stock maker patiently whittling a stock from a block of wood, with ancient hand tools, is wildly out of date. Many modern stockers don’t know how to make a stock that way. Instead, they take the customer’s blank and send it out to be "turned"–rough-shaped to basic dimensions on a pantograph or stock-duplicating machine. It comes back looking like a stock, ready for the stock maker to shave, rasp, file and sand to final dimensions.
This method is fast, easy and inexpensive, but it limits the customer’s choice to whatever patterns the stock turner has in his shop. Some are great, but most are not. The point is, they are standard patterns, not custom stocks.
I got around this on two recent projects by taking a hand-made stock off a favorite rifle and having a pattern made from it. We then used that pattern to shape the stocks for three custom rifles: a .505 Gibbs, a .375 H&H and a 7×57. By leaving enough material, we were able not only to adapt the final dimensions to suit each rifle but also to eliminate some small features about the original that I did not like, such as a too-tight pistol grip.
This is not the whole answer because you still need a skilled stock maker to fashion it into final, acceptable form. Making patterns from stocks, and then stocks from those patterns, is like making second- and third-generation photographs: You lose a little each time, until eventually the product barely resembles the original.
Factory stocks today are produced the same way, but without the final stock maker’s attention. They mass-produce stocks as close as possible to final shape in order to eliminate hand work.
In theory, it should be possible for the factories to have a good pattern made and then turn out thousands of duplicates, but in practice it just doesn’t seem to work.
Similarly, all composite stocks are made in molds, and the molds are made from patterns. The vast majority of composite stocks I have handled, however, have been atrocious–thin where they should be thick, bulky where they should be slim. Alas, because of their nature (hollow or foam, with a shell) there is little you can do to alter any feature of a composite stock that you don’t like. What you have is what you’ve got.
The gun companies might offer better stocks if buyers demanded them, but most buyers have never held a really well-fitting rifle, so they have no idea what they are missing.
One can talk about shapes and dimensions, but in the end, what counts is how the rifle feels in the hands, when you put it to your shoulder, and snuggle in to take a shot. One of the best factory rifles in this regard is the very early Weatherby Mark V, which in appearance is the antithesis of everything with have discussed here.
Designed by Leonard Mews, the Weatherby epitomized the California look. But never mind the look. It felt wonderful.
The grip was slim and the fore-end, while triangular in cross-section, actually fit the hand just like a pear-shaped one would. There was no extra wood anywhere, and while the forward-sloping comb looked weird (and did not lessen felt recoil despite the claims) it positioned the e
ye very well.
Lenard Brownell and Ruger, and Leonard Mews and Weatherby, took different approaches but arrived at the same end: Two stocks that looked totally different, but both felt really good when you were shooting.