September 23, 2010
The right barrel and action will make your custom rifle everything you ever wanted.
Perhaps the first decision to make when contemplating a new custom rifle is what action to use. After all, the action is the key component around which all else will be crafted. Next comes the barrel, which is no less important in the quality of the final product as it is the barrel that is the primary determining factor in the raw accuracy potential of the finished rifle.
Because the barrel is a less complicated decision than the action, we'll start our discussion there. No matter what anyone says, the key factor in the accuracy potential of a rifle is the quality of the barrel. It is true that the accuracy potential of a really good barrel can be impaired by other factors, but it is even truer that a bad barrel cannot be fixed with any remedy other than replacement.
The drilling of the bore and profiling of the barrel blank are generally the same for all makers, but there are three different methods for rif-ling a bore.
The oldest method, and one still in use today, is cut rifling. It is also, in many ways, the simplest. The barrel blank is chucked into the rif-ling machine, which uses a cutter that essentially scrapes out a minute amount of metal with each pass through the bore.
The machine is indexed to cut a precise number of grooves (four-groove, six-groove, eight-groove and so forth) at the prescribed twist rate (say, 1:10 or one turn in 10 inches, for a .30-06). Many passes of the cutter through the bore are required to cut the grooves to final depth.
Once the grooves are cut to full depth, the maker hones the bore of the new barrel until it is smooth as glass. John Krieger is perhaps the best-known barrel maker using the cut-rifling method. Danny Pedersen is another.
Many believe that cut rifling produces the most accurate barrels. This machine was once at the Schultz & Larsen plant and is now at Classic Barrel and Gun Works in Arizona.
The second method of rifling the bore is with the use of a carbide "button" in which the lands and grooves have been cut into the button in reverse. The process is called, surprise, button rifling.
The barrel blank is placed in the press where the carbide button, under great pressure, is either pulled or pushed through the bore. I think the most common method is to pull the button through, basically "ironing" the rifling into the steel. Probably more custom barrel makers use button rifling than any other method. Some well-known makers using this method are Shilen, Pac-Nor, Lothar Walther, Lilja, Douglas and many others.
The third method for rifling the bore is called hammer forging. This method is mostly used by large factories turning out lots and lots of barrels. Simply described, the process uses a mandrel with the rifling in reverse cut into the steel. In some cases, even the chamber is also in the mandrel. The operator inserts the mandrel into a barrel blank, and the machine hammers the steel of the barrel blank into the cuts in the mandrel.
The downside is that the machinery required to hammer-forge barrels is quite expensive, and that's why it's a process favored by mass manufacturers as opposed to custom makers.
The perception of the general shooting public, judging from internet chatter and other discussions I've heard, is that cut rifling turns out the best barrels, followed by button rifling, with hammer-forged barrels bringing up the rear.
I don't believe this is accurate. I believe the skill of the operator--and the quality or condition of the tooling used--plays a much greater role in the quality of the finished product than does the method.
Lots of riflemen, including the author, prefer the pre-64 Model 70 action for building custom guns. Some military actions, such as this original 1909 Argentine action made by DWM in Berlin, can make great foundations for a custom rifle.
As the late Elmer Keith used to say, the proof of the whiskey is in the drinking, and the proof of the rifle is in the shooting. Certainly, the proof of the quality of the barrel is in the shooting.
Barrel makers generally deliver their barrels profiled but not chambered. Obviously, they cannot shoot the barrel to test its accuracy potential. That important function must wait until the barrel is chambered and fitted to an action. Only then can it be test fired.
Optimally, it would be nice if the maker could run an accuracy test before delivering his barrels. That way, if a bad barrel turned up--and believe me, every barrel maker turns out a stinker every once in a while--he could catch it before delivery. Alas, that usually isn't possible, so it is left to the consumer to do the testing. All makers I know will replace a bad barrel, no questions asked.
Finally, one must choose a proper action around which to have the rifle built. If I wanted to be a wise guy, I'd simply suggest that you merely select a Mauser 98 action or one of its derivatives. But maybe you prefer pre-64 Model 70 actions for your custom job. Well, so do I. The pre-64 Model 70 action is a derivative of the Mauser 98--although not as good as the original in some ways.
What about the Springfield '03? Well, the Springfield has enough similarities to the Mauser design that the U.S. government paid a royalty to Mauser up until the time we entered World War I.
Thanks largely to World Wars I and II, many thousands of surplus military Model 98 actions became available to the shooting public at very inexpensive prices. The best of those were manufactured in Germany, but they were also made in many other countries. Belgium made many, as did Czechoslovakia. One of my favorites is the G33/40 small-ring action, which was made in Czechoslovakia.
While the actions are relatively inexpensive to acquire, converting them from a military surplus item to the basis for a fine custom rifle does not come cheaply. A substantial investment in skilled labor and parts is necessary.
Many of the milit
ary actions, particularly those produced late in World War II, were quite rough, and the steel is frequently somewhat soft. As a result, most of them require a new heat-treatment for safe usage.
One of the most favored surplus actions for custom work is the 1909 Argentine Mauser, turned out by the DWM plant in Berlin for the Argentine government. They are standard length (.30-06 length), large-ring Mausers that can be made into excellent actions.
There are a few small companies turning out modern reproduction Mauser 98 type actions. Three that I can immediately think of are Granite Mountain Arms in Phoenix, Arizona; Stuart Satterlee Arms in Deadwood, South Dakota; and Gottfried Prechtl in Birkenau, Germany.
All these actions run in the $3,000 to $4,000 range and up. GMA makes actions in several different lengths and sizes, and I believe Stewart Satterlee does as well. Prechtl makes at least standard length and big magnum actions.
Another highly desirable action for a custom rifle is the pre-64 Winchester Model 70 action. They are getting pretty difficult and pricey to find. Pristine examples of complete rifles are highly sought after by collectors, and guys like me keep the market going for lesser guns to part out for the action.
My last one I bought at a gun show for $500, and I was very happy to get it for that amount. It didn't look all that great, but I pulled the barrel and stock, along with the factory bottom-metal, and sold those components--keeping only the action and the factory trigger.
The hands-down favorite action for a custom rifle is the Mauser 98. This one is a magnum-length version made by Granite Mountain Arms.
I sent the action to Danny Pedersen for one of his superb cut-rifled barrels, and then to Gary Goudy, along with a nice stick of Circassian walnut and one of Ted Blackburn's bottom metal units, for one of Gary's exquisite custom stocks. Chambered for the .280 Remington, it is a hell of a nice rifle.
The late production Winchester (U.S. Repeating Arms) Model 70 Classic is also a heck of an action. Functionally, it is a better action than the pre-64 variety. The David Miller Company, arguably our best custom maker, uses almost nothing else for his very expensive rifles.
I have one that started as a factory Featherweight model chambered for .30-06. After a visit to Hill Country Rifles for its accurizing service, it was so accurate (1/2 m.o.a. or better) that I kept the factory barrel and will settle for only a custom stock and refinishing job with it. I did replace the factory bottom metal with a Ted Blackburn unit, though.
Sources for aftermarket parts, particularly for Mauser actions, are plentiful. Just about everything one might need is available from one of two sources, if not both. Brownells and Midway USA stock lots of the various parts you need.
Custom bottom metal is available from Ted Blackburn, Sunny Hill, Williams Firearms Co., D'Arcy Echols and Duane Wiebe's Sound Metal Products. Three-position safety units with shroud are available from Ed LaPour, New England Custom Gun, Dave Gentry and Dakota Arms.
Triggers abound, including those from Ted Blackburn, Timney, New England Custom Gun, Kepplinger, Jewell, Jard, Bold, Dayton Traister and others. Aftermarket springs, screws, firing pins, and any number of other items are readily available.
Are there other actions out there that are suitable for using for a fine custom rifle? Well, yes. The CZ actions are pure Mauser in design and work quite nicely. They require a good bit of work, but not as much as starting with a military action. That's about where I'd draw the line.
For my money, if it isn't a genuine Mauser, or one of its derivatives, all of which feature controlled round feeding, I'm not going to use it for one of my custom rifles. I have four custom rifles built on push feed actions--two are Remington 700s and the other two are Heym SR-20s--but I'll do no more push-feed customs.
My three favorite actions for custom rifle fodder are the 1909 Argentine Mauser by DWM, the G33/40 small-ring Mauser and the pre-64 Model 70. Properly 'smithed, any of these will provide a basis for a completely reliable and handsome custom rifle.
They will feed absolutely flawlessly, even with short, fat cases or flat-nosed bullets. I have a couple that feed so well that I'm thinking about taking them back. I can't feel the new round coming out of the magazine and into the chamber. I find myself checking, out of habit, to ensure a new round chambered.
One of them is my DGR in 458 Lott, and I want to have the slightest "feel" that the round is chambering without looking. In serious use, I might not have the time for a quick peek.
That's why all of my serious rifles are custom jobs. They all shoot well, are totally reliable and function perfectly. They do everything I ask of them and then some. Besides, life's too short to hunt with an ugly gun.