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Breathing New Life into an Old Rifle

Breathing New Life into an Old Rifle

oldrifle-1Driven by quantum leaps in the capabilities of rangefinders, riflescopes and super-accurate factory ammo, "average" hunting rifles have morphed into a much different beast than you'd see in deer camp even 20 years ago. Even so-called budget models offer outstanding accuracy and a few cutting-edge features, and upper-crust stuff from the custom and semi-custom rifle word sport features that increase accuracy to mind-boggling precision coupled with ergonomic features that assist skillful riflemen in milking the most out of their chosen tool.

But what if you don't have $3,000-plus to drop on a premium hunting rifle loaded with bells and whistles and sporting match-grade components?

Not to worry. With a few dollars, a few evenings at the workbench, and some elbow grease you can exponentially increase the accuracy and the shootability of your existing bolt-action deer rifle. I did just that recently with an old Ruger M77 chambered in 7mm Remington Magnum.

While there's nothing fundamentally wrong with this old tang-safety Ruger M77, a few upgrades and some TLC turned it into a vastly more capable hunting rifle.

The project rifle

Of the early tang safety design, it was a decent-enough rifle, but had a heavy trigger, no recoil pad to speak of, recoiled horribly hard courtesy of poor stock design, and just didn't shoot the way I thought it should. Many times two shots out of a three-shot group would land close together, but the third would stray and open the group to 1.75 or 2.00 inches. The rifle wanted to shoot well, but was handicapped by that old wood stock and tough trigger. The action needed glass bedding, the fore-end needed free-floating, and heavens-to-Betsy, it needed a new trigger. Plus, there were a few other tricks I could turn to bring the best out of it.

To turn an old rifle into a modern tack-driver, you've got to enhance the rifle's accuracy, and you've got to enhance the features that help you shoot it well. Here's how I approached the project:

Before bedding the barreled action into the Boyd's stock, a Timney trigger was installed, replacing the old heavy pull of the factory trigger with a light, crisp pull. The Timney trigger housing is bigger than that of the factory trigger, necessitating a bit of fitting into the stock.

Timney trigger

To start with, even the most accurate rifle in the world is hard to shoot consistently if it has a horrible heavy, gritty trigger pull with lots of creep. Or if it's just horrible heavy. Or just gritty. Or just has creep. Yep, I can't say it enough: the trigger must be good, as in fairly light with a clean, crisp "break." I got on the phone and ordered a Timney replacement trigger ($118.51) for the Ruger. Timney is a long-lived trigger manufacturer with an impeccable reputation for quality, and I knew its aftermarket trigger would be a vast improvement on the original.

(It's worth noting here that aftermarket triggers — heck, any trigger including the original — for tang-safety Ruger M77s are tricky to fit and work on. Suffice it to say that you'd best be right handy with tools or recruit the assistance of somebody that is. Match-grade triggers for Remington 700s, Weatherbys, Winchesters, and the like are far easier to install.)

Nothing beats the value of a custom laminate stock from Boyds. This was ordered in Coyote color, with an extended length of pull, Pachmayr recoil pad, point-pattern checkering, and an adjustable comb. The latter is vital to consistent shooting — eliminating one variable from that old "human error" factor.


Boyd's custom laminate stock

For a rifle to be just as accurate as it can be, it's got to be solidly planted into a stock that is not only rigid, but free from adverse reactions to moisture and temperature changes. It's no good to have a rifle that shoots one-inch groups every time you take it out if those groups wander around your point of aim every time there's a big weather change.

Solid wood stocks are beautiful, but a simple change in humidity can change a rifle's point of impact, sometimes dramatically. Plastic, injection-molded stocks of the sort so common on factory production rifles today are impervious to moisture, but extremes in heat and cold mess with them — in effect, they become malleable in heat and brittle in cold. When accuracy and consistency is of paramount concern, shooters have two choices: a hand-laid stock reinforced with fiberglass, Kevlar, carbon-fiber, or whatnot, or a laminated wood stock.

Hand-laid stocks are work intensive, so they're expensive, making laminated woods stocks, which are a bit heavy but incredibly durable and completely impervious to heat, cold, and moisture changes, the best choice for a DIY performance job, especially when on a limited budget.

Of the many stock manufacturers offering aftermarket laminated wood stocks, Boyds is my go-to company. Standard finished models retail at $99 bucks, which is a really, really good value. For shooters wanting refinements, Boyds will custom-build a stock with the shooter's specified length of pull, checkering or stippling pattern, butt pad, and — of real interest to precision shooters — with an adjustable comb. And of course, myriad color schemes are available.

All these options do add price, but not as much as you'd think. For the Ruger, I ordered a Classic profile stock ($99) in Coyote color ($16.50), with a longer-than-normal 14-inch length of pull ($24.95), plus a one-inch-deep Pachmayr recoil pad ($30) and laser-cut point-pattern checkering ($55). Finally, I added an adjustable comb ($60). Total cost of this nail-tough, well-finished stock that fits me to perfection was $285.45 plus shipping.

Glass bedding a rifle creates a perfect imprint of the action's bottom in the stock, preventing accuracy-reducing slop between action and stock, as well as eliminating stresses when the action screws are tightened.

Brownells Acraglas bedding

Boyds' stocks are designed to "drop in" fit, with the understanding that if you want the best accuracy, you'll need to glass bed your action into your new stock. After checking that the Ruger M77 barreled action did indeed fit right in, I installed the Timney trigger and, taking my time, made a few cuts with my Dremel tool that allowed the aftermarket trigger group to fit into the stock as well.

With the outer surfaces of my new stock masked off with tape, and with dams built of putty to prevent the bedding compound from going places that it shouldn't be, I mixed up a batch of Brownells Acraglas Gel and daubed the critical areas in the action full, the carefully settled the action into it.

Boyd's stock is cut to free-float the barrel, allowing it to vibrate consistently.

This is not an article on bedding rifles, so I'll leave it at that with a cautionary word: There is perhaps no more difficult action to bed than Ruger's early M77 tang safety model. Unless you're adept at bedding actions into stocks, hire a reputable gunsmith to do it for you. Old Remington 700, Winchester Model 70, Weatherby Vanguards and so forth are far easier, making them a better choice for the novice DIY gunsmith.

With the Acraglas set and trimmed, I bedded the floorplate and trigger guard. Cleanup and final fitting took time — it always does — but finally I had the action perfectly fit to the Boyd's stock, the triggerguard and floorplate perfectly fit and the magazine box filed to barely-loose perfection, and the front and rear action screws torqued to 60 inch pounds. A quick check confirmed that the rigid laminated-wood fore-end was perfectly freefloated with about a business card's thickness of clearance between the stock and the barrel, ensuring that the stock wouldn't touch the barrel and cause point of impact shifts.

oldrifle-5Lapping scope rings

Scope rings for Ruger's M77 rifles clamp directly to the top of the action, and unless lapped to smooth inner perfection, will almost surely impose stresses on both the scope tube and the rifle's action. Stress in either adversely affects accuracy.

How to lap scope rings is a topic of its own (read about it here), but for starters, you'll need to purchase a lapping kit ($70 to $80 from Brownells, depending on your scope ring size). Or you can borrow one from a friendly local gunsmith. Properly done, lapping your scope rings should take you about an hour, and the result is perfectly fitting, stress-free rings for your riflescope. And believe me, that's something your long-suffering riflescope will be happy about.

Good glass

This particular tired old deer rifle started its makeover with a well-used Bushnell Banner clamped atop it. Not that there's anything wrong with Bushnell, in fact the company makes some very good optics in its top-shelf lines, but for this project I mounted a lovely Leupold VX-R 4-12x50 ($875). Featuring a 30mm tube, unsurpassed lens purity, reliable turret gears, and a pinpoint of motion-activated, battery-powered light at the center of its crosshairs, it's a prime choice for predator and big game hunting (where legal).

After accuracy-testing the rifle to determine what factory load it shot well, I sent off to Leupold and ordered one of the company's outstanding CDS (Custom Dial System) turret caps calibrated for that specific load and engraved with yardage marks. It provides arguably the most foolproof dial-up system for shooting to 500 yards or so — just range your target, dial the turret to the appropriate number, hold dead on, and sque-e-e-e-ze. (Past 500 yards atmospheric conditions can potentially change your point of impact to the point where you're better off using a Kestrel or similar weather station paired with a good ballistic calculator, and dialing a turret marked in MOA or mils to the correct solution, but this rifle isn't intended for super-long-range shooting.)

The finished project rifle is both good-looking and far more accurate than before. Plus, it's easier to actually shoot accurately courtesy of a better trigger and consistency-enhancing stock features.

Accuracy testing

Before beginning this project I shot two factory loads for accuracy, just to provide a benchmark to measure my success against. The first featured Remington's 140-grain Core-Lokt bullet, the second Hornady's 154-grain Interlock load. While the rifle didn't like the Remington load at all, it produced groups averaging about 1.75 inches with the Hornady load.

My goal with my self-customized rifle was to find a factory load that grouped no more than 1.25 inches. Most importantly, with the action properly bedded into the rigid laminated wood stock and the barrel free-floated, I wanted the rifle to put that 1.25-inch group in exactly the same spot every time I took it to the range, rain or shine, hot or cold.

With a bipod attached to the fore-end, I shot prone at a bank of 100-yard targets, resting the toe of the buttstock on a bunny-eared sandbag. Like many slender-barreled rifles, the Ruger proved a little ammo-picky, but provided good accuracy with Hornady's 139-gr. GMX bullet in the company's Full Boar line — in fact, two of my three, three-shot groups with it measured well under one inch (0.69 and 0.84), and the third was just 1.30 for an aggregate average of 0.94 inch. I've got a wealth of experience with that particular bullet, shooting game from 60 pounds to 700 pounds in Africa. Performance is universally excellent, so I was delighted that the Ruger liked it.

Easy accuracy, easy to shoot

With the new moisture- and temperature-insensitive stock, Acraglas bedding job, Timney trigger, lapped rings and Leupold scope, and Hornady ammo, the old Ruger not only shoots accurately and consistently no matter the weather, it boasts ergonomic features that make it easy for us inconsistent humans to shoot accurately. That's what bringing new life to your old deer rifle is all about.

With a cutting-edge laminate stock, new scope, and match-grade trigger, this 30-year-old hunting rifle ain't your granddaddy's deer rifle.

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