February 13, 2023
By Joseph von Benedikt
One of the great things about a budget bolt-action rifle is there’s a ton of room for making DIY upgrades and improvements. If you’re willing to spend a little quality time in the garage, one-on-one with your shootin’ iron, you can make it look cooler, fit and feel better, and most importantly, shoot better.
Without further preamble, here are several of the best low-cost ways you can bring a little bling and precision to your bolt-action rifle.
Triggers on low-cost bolt-action rifles are usually horrendous (with a few exceptions). The best way you can improve the ergonomics and precision capability of your rifle is to make the trigger pull light, crisp, and creep-free.
Some can be adjusted. Many have to simply be replaced.
A good trigger pull has certain characteristics. First, it doesn’t require more than about 4 pounds of pressure to fire. And 2.5 to 3 pounds is better. Many rifles, particularly modern ones, have an adjustment screw that enables you to increase or decrease trigger pull weight.
Surprisingly, few shooters take advantage of the trigger adjustment screw. Don’t be hesitant; YouTube the particular model for adjustment process directions and get after it. If you can buy, beg, or borrow a trigger pull scale, set your trigger to 3 pounds or so. If not, adjust it to feel.
The next characteristic of a good trigger is that it’s creep-free. This means that as you increase pressure, the trigger holds firm, without any discernable movement, until suddenly, it releases — “breaking” like an icicle, as the saying goes.
If a production-grade trigger on a budget rifle has creep, unfortunately, there’s usually not much you can do about it. If it’s got what savants call “gritty creep,” it’s a travesty of a trigger that would make a saint swear.
In such cases, it’s usually worth shopping for an aftermarket replacement trigger.
A refined characteristic of a very good trigger is minimum overtravel. Overtravel is the movement of the trigger after it “breaks,” meaning releases. The less overtravel, the better. However, overtravel adjustments are the realm of expensive, match-grade aftermarket triggers. Few triggers on budget production-grade rifles have overtravel adjustments, and candidly, it’s really not worth worrying about.
So, what if you’ve got a heavy, creepy, gritty trigger with no adjustment capability?
Personally, I’m an addict of excellent triggers. Few things are as debilitating to a shooter as a really poor trigger. So even though a good-quality aftermarket trigger by Timney, TriggerTech, or the like may cost a third as much as the complete rifle did, I’ll spend the money.
For the improved ability to shoot your rifle well, it’s worth it every time. The best part is that most replacement triggers are drop-in versions that are super easy to DIY install.
Most budget rifles have extremely cheap stocks made of injection-molded plastic.
Historically, rifle stocks were made of wood. Nice rifles featured walnut, in varying grades from decent to exhibition. Cheap rifles wore stocks of birch or some other readily available, inexpensive wood.
All were susceptible to moisture. If you went from Indiana, for example, where it’s humid, to Arizona where it’s arid, your wood stock would contract and shrink. If you lived in Arizona (or any other arid state) and went north to hunt Alaska, your stock would swell and warp. In all cases, a point-of-impact shift was inevitable, and sometimes accuracy went to pot.
Enter composite stocks. Good composite stocks, hand-laid of fiberglass or Kevlar or — coolest of all — carbon fiber, are extremely strong and rigid and are impervious to extremes in moisture and temperature. However, a good carbon-fiber stock costs nearly as much as two complete budget rifles.
Cheap stocks made of injection-molded plastic are also impervious to moisture. Unfortunately, they are susceptible to extreme temperatures. In high heat, they become super flexible, which can cause a point-of-impact shift. In extreme cold, they become brittle and can even shatter if bumped hard against a tree trunk or ATV.
So, what to do, if you have a cheap stock and want a better one?
There’s a middle ground. Stocks made of laminated wood are awesomely strong, impervious to moisture and temperature extremes, and don’t cost all that much.
Shop Boyds Gunstocks. The company makes aftermarket stocks for just about every bolt-action rifle model under the sun, in a variety of different configurations and colors. They’re rigid, strong, ergonomic, good-looking, and will help you get the most out of your rifle. Cost averages between $125 and $200.
Bedding your rifle’s action into the stock creates a perfect fit. This is critical to accuracy, because any slop or distortion or tension in the action-to-stock fit is detrimental to accuracy.
An Acraglas bedding kit is available from Brownells for about $25 and will do two rifles. It includes the bedding compound, a release agent to put on the metal parts so you don’t permanently glue the action into the stock, a mixing cup, dye, a mixing stick, and instructions.
Achieving a pretty “glass bedding” job is difficult and takes time to master. Achieving a serviceable job that will increase your rifle’s accuracy isn’t. Do yourself and your rifle a favor and glass bed your hunting rifle.
There is one significant caveat to bedding a rifle: Injection-molded plastics don’t adhere well to glass bedding compounds. Wood stocks, laminate wood stocks, and hand-laid composite stocks of fiberglass or carbon fiber mate much more effectively with action bedding. Moral of the story? Replace your cheap $30 plastic factory stock with a laminate wood stock, then bed the action. Result: a rigid, strong stock that’s impervious to moisture and temperature extremes and is perfectly fit to your rifle’s action.
Free-Floating the Barrel
These days, most rifles come with the barrel free-floating in the forend. However, some don’t, and many older rifles had the wood stocks fit tight to the barrel.
Also common these days is a pressure point, or contact point, between the forend tip and the barrel. With very slender barrels in wood stocks, this can sometimes benefit accuracy. However, it’s usually employed to conceal ugly amounts of flexibility in cheap plastic stocks. In such, it is no benefit to accuracy, and the pressure point can be removed.
A tight-fitting forend is a common culprit in accuracy problems. Pressure against the barrel as the rifle fires causes inconsistent changes in the way it oscillates, causing a point of impact shift.
To free-float your barrel, remove about 1/16th inch worth of wood or composite stock material all the way around the barrel, beginning 1 or 2 inches in front of the action.
This can be done with strips of emery cloth purchased at the local hardware store, using the barrel as a mandrel. Be very cautious about scuffing the finish on the barrel with sanding grit that’s worked loose from the emery cloth. Mask the barrel with painter’s tape to protect it and clean the barrel channel frequently.
As usual, YouTube is a good resource; just follow advice given by chaps that know what they’re doing, not Bubba showing how to use a jackhammer to achieve a 30-second free-float job. Doing good, aesthetic work takes time and attention to detail. Be very cautious about removing too much material on the upper edges of the barrel channel and around the tip of the forend. Big gaps are unsightly and indicate sloppy work.
For shooters that enjoy the process of free-floating, it’s worth purchasing a barrel bedding tool made by Gunline. It’s a specialized rasp or wood shaver that allows you to meticulously work down the inner surfaces of the barrel channel without risking scuffing or scarring to your barrel by using the emery cloth method.
When finished, the edges of the barrel channel should be nice and parallel to the barrel, with just enough space to run a thick sheet of folded paper between the stock and barrel, all the way from the forend tip to an inch or two in front of the action.
One warning before leaving this subject: Don’t go hacking on and sanding away at vintage rifles — not even cheap vintage military surplus stuff. Many of them have intrinsic collectible value, and that value is climbing dramatically every year. Even a small DIY modification can eliminate hundreds of dollars of current or future value from your classic rifle.
Quality Scope Mounts and Rings
One troublesome tendency among budget bolt-action rifle owners is to buy cheap bases and rings. After all, why would you buy pricy scope-mounting hardware when you’ve just spent $325 on the entire rifle?
Because it can be a huge benefit.
Consider this: You’re strapping an aluminum tube full of thin glass parts and moving gears and springs and zoom lens mechanisms and whatnot on top of a mechanical device that occasionally jumps rearward as if slammed with a sledgehammer. And you expect a handful of $6 aluminum parts and cheap screws to not only hold it all together but also keep the delicate crosshairs inside held in perfect alignment with the barrel? Dream on.
Now, not all cheap scope mounting hardware is lousy. Some actually serve quite well. But more to the point, not all high-quality scope mounting hardware costs a lot.
Expect to spend $80 to $200 for most good scope-mounting hardware. But here’s a pro tip: Get Lightweight Alloy ring/base sets made by Talley Manufacturing. They incorporate the base and ring into one part, thereby eliminating one of the potential problem joints. Less moving parts means less failures. Plus, they’re superbly machined, bull-strong, and cost less than $50.
Loctite the screws, torque them to the manufacturer recommended specs, and hunt happy, confident in the knowledge that your scope is held securely in place by proven hardware.
Here’s one of the simplest yet most helpful DIY add-ons you can make to your rifle. A spirit level bubble, correctly installed, will help you avoid canting — tipping — your rifle when shooting.
Canting isn’t a big deal inside 200 or even 300 yards. Past that, it can make you miss shots. I have a good friend who missed what he believes was the biggest typical mule deer buck he’s ever shot at because he tilted his rifle — and he’s killed several bucks that gross score 200 plus. My friend has never recovered. Get a scope level.
Installing a good, soft recoil pad is a favorite DIY modification to make, historically. Doing so is much easier when working with a wood or laminate wood stock than when working with a composite stock, so it’s less popular amongst modern budget-rifle owners. Most modern budget rifles have plastic stocks with recoil pads glued on rather than screwed on.
If you have a rifle that loosens the fillings in your teeth every time you shoot it, and it’s fit with a hard, thin recoil pad, consider replacing it.
Again, don’t touch vintage rifles with collectable value. Hunt with them, sure, but don’t go Bubba on them. Keep the saws, rasps, and Bondo away from your Grandpappy’s pre-’64 Winchester.
To replace the pad on a wood stock, get a high-quality, deep rubber pad from a supplier such as Brownells. My favorites are made by Pachmayr and use Decelerator rubber. Follow instructions to install.
Pro tip: When grinding to shape, freeze the pad first and regularly spray WD-40 on the sanding wheel to prevent galling.
Here’s a popular DIY modification that creates visual appeal and a personalized touch and can add some corrosion resistance. Blued steel rifles with a matte finish rust incredibly fast, and adding a tough, abrasion-resistant outdoor spray paint can provide protection.
Only do this to inexpensive rifles. Budget guns by Mossberg, Savage, Ruger, Remington, Browning, Winchester — heck, most of the big manufacturers — are unlikely to ever achieve collectable status, so you don’t risk angering the future gods of collectable firearms.
Before spray painting, aggressively degrease all surfaces you intend to paint. Plug the muzzle and chamber. Be aware that painting the bolt itself, particularly around the bolt head, can cause function issues. Tape off any areas you don’t want painted, using quality painters’ tape unlikely to bleed.
Study colors and patterns, and either collect natural grass and foliage patterns or purchase or make non-organic templates to spray around. Great results can often be achieved with long, robust meadow grasses, fern fronds, oak leaves, and the like.
When purchasing paint, don’t get the cheap stuff. Buy marine-quality paint designed to stand up to abuse and weather.
Once finished painting, allow your work to cure fully. Don’t be tempted to coon-finger the rifle and risk compromising the paint.
Meanwhile, keep that rifle in a dry place. You don’t want degreased but not painted surfaces rusting while the paint cures.
Finally, with the paint fully cured, apply gun oil to all unpainted surfaces.
DIY work on your budget rifle can be deeply satisfying and can increase its performance. Don’t be afraid to dig in and go to modifying — you may end up with a rifle that rivals high-end guns in accuracy, feel, and looks.