September 23, 2010
By Tom Turpin
No one may "need" a custom-made, one-of-a-kind rifle that costs thousands more than a production gun. But if you have to ask why anyone would "want" one, perhaps you just don't understand the situation.
By Tom Turpin
I am often asked, Why a custom rifle? The arguments against having one made are normally something such as, "Factory rifles are just as accurate," "Factory rifles work just fine," "I can get just about any caliber I need in a factory rifle" and so on. They are, for the most part, correct arguments. Factory rifles today, I am often asked, Why a custom rifle? The arguments against having one made are normally something such as, "Factory rifles are just as accurate," "Factory rifles work just fine," "I can get just about any caliber I need in a factory rifle" and so on. They are, for the most part, correct arguments. Factory rifles today, in the main, are very accurate. As a rule, they do work just fine--or at least good enough. And most factory-made rifles are available in most calibers on the market. Why, then, a custom job?
Two views of a magnificent rifle from the California shop of Steve Heilmann. Steve is primarily known as a premiere metalsmith, but he can do it all when it comes to crafting a fine custom rifle. This .280 Remington is a fine example of his artistry. He started this project with a small-ring G33/40 Mauser action. He did all the normal blueprinting and grinding on the action. He even fashioned a custom bolt handle for the action. Heilmann added a custom-contoured Krieger barrel and chambered it for the .280 Remington cartridge. He also designed and fashioned the custom scope-mount bases for S&K one-piece rings. He then fitted Fisher-Blackburn radiused bottom metal. Heilmann stocked the rifle with a stick of quarter-sawn California English walnut featuring very good figure and exquisite color. He added a hand-rubbed oil finish and checkered the stock 24 lpi with a nice point pattern. The total weight of the finished rifle, including scope, is 7 1/2 pounds.
Well, before I attempt to answer that reasonable question, it is first necessary to define just what a custom rifle is and, by inference, is not. Most dictionaries will define "custom made" as being made to individual specifications or some variation of that statement. Following that definition, a custom rifle is one made to an individual's order in fit, finish and function. Any caliber for which a reamer is available or, in some cases, for which any cartridge (custom reamers can also be made) can be ordered. The only restrictions placed on the buyer are basically determined by time and money.
Custom rifles run the gamut from a barreled action--sometimes a custom barrel, sometimes not; action sometimes "blueprinted," sometimes not; bedded into a commercially available synthetic or laminate stock and sent out the door--to a full-blown custom job. The full-blown job includes reworking the action, fitting a custom barrel, utilizing hours of highly skilled labor making absolutely certain that the resulting action feeds cartridges from the magazine with all the effort of cutting butter with a hot knife, then whittling a lovely stock from a stick of customer-selected walnut. The customer decides what checkering pattern he wants on the stock and how many lines per inch. On the metalwork, the customer decides if he wants a matte finish or high-gloss, hot-bath blue or slow rust blueing, open sights or scope only. The list goes on and on.
There are several makers that do all the metalwork as discussed above but then fit the metal into a synthetic or laminate stock. There's nothing wrong with that, assuming all the rest of the work is done. Many hunters prefer synthetic or laminate stocks, and there are makers out there that will provide just what they want. One who jumps to mind is D'Arcy Echols. He went so far as to design a synthetic stock for his Legend rifles and persuade Kelly McMillan to build them for him. Echols leaves no stone unturned in creating these rifles, and they are in every way custom rifles. He is also perfectly capable of building a wonderful walnut-stocked rifle should the customer prefer it.
This is a lovely and very deceiving rifle. The action looks like either a Mauser or a Winchester Model 70. It is neither. Believe it or not, it is a Remington 700 action that was worked over by superb metalsmith Pete Grisel. He added a Dakota-style bolt stop, a three-position safety and custom bottom metal. The rifle also features S&K mounts. This is Gary Goudy's personal rifle. He stocked it with a very nice piece of California English walnut and checkered it in one of his wonderful "fleur-de-lis with ribbons" patterns. The rifle is chambered for the .17 Remington cartridge, and Gary says it is a great rifle for his coyote hunting. Photo by Gary Bolster
The David Miller Company, consisting of David Miller and Curt Crum, crafts a line of custom rifles utilizing a wood laminate stock. Called the Marksman rifle, it is very popular with its clientele. The Marksman doesn't have all the bells and whistles that are incorporated in the Miller Classic custom rifle, but it costs about half as much as the Classic.
Other makers take a straight factory-barreled action and custom-stock it. Most do little, if anything, to the metalwork. In this case, the resulting rifle is not really a custom rifle; rather, it is a custom-stocked factory rifle. There's nothing wrong with that either, assuming that the price is consistent with the labor involved.
This is Gary Goudy's 360 bull elk rifle. That is, he built it for a rancher in exchange for an elk hunt on his ranch. The result was a bull that measured 360 B&C. It is a Montana action, barreled and chambered for the .300 WSM cartridge. Gary's edict from his rancher client was to build the rifle as lightweight as was possible. To help with this goal, Goudy stocked it with an exceptionally lightweight stick of California English walnut. He also fitted a skeleton grip cap and checkered the stock with his "fleur-de-lis and ribbons" patterns. He stocked it with a blind magazine and fitted a Krag triggerguard bow. The finished rifle, without scope, weighs but 6 1/2 pounds. Photo by Gary Bolster
Most custom makers are somewhere between those extremes in what they do. There is a place in the trade for all of them. I sort of draw the line at taking a factory-barreled action and a commercially available synthetic stock and putting them together and calling the results a custom rifle. To me, it is not. But the rest are fair game.
Now that we've defined a custom rifle, I'll answer th
e question posed by the title of this piece: Why? Well, there is really only one justifiable reason, and that is because you want one. No other reason is necessary, or proper. Personally, I treasure my custom rifles and take great pride in owning and using them. I've owned many factory rifles in my life, all of which served a purpose and did so quite well. I still own a few. However, I've never had the same attachment to them as I have to my custom jobs.
Here are two views of a lovely little rifle chambered for the .250/3000 Savage cartridge from the shop of Shane Thompson. He started work on the project with a small-ring Mexican Mauser action, surface grinding it until all surfaces were concentric with the bore. He hand-polished the action throughout, recontoured and reshaped the bottom metal and recontoured the 24-inch barrel to a nice sporter weight. Thompson then fashioned the stock from a piece of exhibition-grade English walnut. The finished rifle weighs seven pounds, six ounces without scope and eight pounds, 15 ounces with the scope mounted. Photos by Eugene Wright
Some say it is snob appeal. Perhaps in some cases that is so, but it is not in the vast majority that I'm aware of. Most aficionados who I know own custom rifles for the same reason I do: because they enjoy and appreciate them. These rifles are, in essence, a part of the family.
Two views of an absolutely gorgeous .338 Winchester Magnum rifle from the Montana shop of Lee Helgeland. His client requested a light plains rifle. Lee started with a 1909 Argentine DWM action. He fitted a two-position safety using the original Mauser shroud to maintain the Mauser character. He fabricated custom scope-mount bases for Talley rings, which he recontoured with hand-file work. He hollowed both the bolt handle knob and shank to save a bit of weight. He fitted a Blackburn trigger and Sunny Hill bottom metal. He chose the Sunny Hill over Blackburn bottom metal because it is three ounces lighter in weight. He recontoured the trigger shoe and also the guard bow. The client is a big guy, so the rifle has a 14 1/2-inch length of pull and a 26-inch Lilja barrel. Lee chose a rather light barrel to keep weight down. He fitted New England Custom Gun-supplied front and rear sights. The stock was fashioned from California English walnut, and Lee fitted an ebony fore-end tip. He fashioned a leather-covered recoil pad and installed a Dakota skeleton grip cap. The stock has a hand-rubbed oil finish and is checkered 24 lpi with a point pattern and mullard border. The finished rifle, without scope, is seven pounds, 12 ounces. Photos by Steven Dodd Hughes
I recall Jack O'Connor once writing that he felt so strongly about one of his .270s, he intended to have it buried with him. He didn't, however. He was cremated, and the rifle is, I believe, in the Jack O'Connor Museum in Lewiston, Idaho.
This is a .416 Nitro Express rifle from the Idaho shop of Shane Thompson. The cartridge is a wildcat, formed by shortening a .404 Jeffrey case by 3/10 inch to permit proper feeding through a standard-length action. Ballistically, it is identical to the .416 Remington. Thompson started with an '09 Argentine Mauser action, completely surface-ground, detailed, blueprinted and hand polished throughout. He then recontoured a new Douglas XX barrel and fitted it to the action. The barrel is 23 inches long. Thompson then handmade the scope rings and bases, along with the quarter-rib, trigger and front sight. He recontoured the bottom metal for a more pleasing appearance. All metal is rust blued with Nitre Blue accents. Thompson fashioned the stock from a superb stick of exhibition-grade Bastogne walnut. He finished it with a hand-rubbed oil finish and checkered it at 24 lpi. To add even more class, he fitted the fore-end tip with widow's-peak styling. The finished rifle weighs nine pounds, three ounces--just about perfect for the chambering. Photo by Eugene Wright
Whether he changed his mind or the family made the decision after his passing, I can't say. But I've never seen or heard of that kind of attachment to a factory rifle.
Using a custom rifle in the field. This buffalo was taken in Tanzania with the author's custom .458 Lott (left) based on a pre-'64 Model 70 action and Krieger barrel. The custom stock was fashioned from a stick of lovely California English walnut. Several makers contributed to the work on this rifle. Photo by Tom Turpin
Sources: Gary Goudy, (509) 382-2726; Stephen R. Heilmann, (530) 272-8758, www.metalandwood.com; Lee Helgeland, (406) 837-2041; Shane Thompson, (208) 547-0383