November 05, 2013
In a perfect world, all hunting rifles would feed, fire and eject 100 percent of the time in all possible hunting conditions. In a perfect world, a rifle's components would be scaled to the individual cartridge, ensuring reliability and balance. In a perfect world, scopes would be mounted using a secure and stress-free system designed to precisely fit that individual scope. In a perfect world, all rifles would be capable of accuracy that ensured they could outshoot their owners. Such ideas, though admirable, are not attainable in the economics of mass production where "good enough" is the necessary standard.
You can't make a "perfect" rifle for $500 or even $1,500. It turns out our perfect world isn't a big factory with state-of-the-art CNC machinery and engineers clad in lab coats; it's a small shop in a nondescript industrial park in Northern Utah. It's the shop of D'Arcy Echols & Co.
D'Arcy Echols has been building high-grade hunting rifles since the 1980s, but what put him on my radar was a decision he made just over a decade ago. At the request of some of his clients who loved his French Walnut stocked masterpieces but weren't looking to drag them over rock slides in sheep country, he began building what are essentially "best quality" synthetic stocked rifles; the Echols Legend was born.
At its core, the Legend is a "G series" Winchester Model 70, rebuilt down to the minutest details. There is not a surface, pin, spring or lever on the rifle that is not either re-machined or replaced. Every operation that is performed on the Legend during the 165 man-hour building process is the result of decades of big game hunting and riflemaking experience. Every pass of the mill, every turn of the lathe, every rub of emery cloth yields a purpose. There are too many machining and polishing operations to list here, suffice it to say the sum of these labors is a "perfect" rifle, ready to hunt in an imperfect and unpredictable world.
Unlike tubular actions that can easily be "blueprinted" on the lathe, making the Model 70 dimensionally correct takes numerous machining operations. Using a battery of jigs, including a one-of-a-kind masterpiece designed and built by the late Tom Burgess, Echols and his associate Brian Bingham machine and surface grind the exterior and interior of the action to ensure that everything is true, concentric, and square.
While they're at it, the action is opened-up to allow the shooter greater access while loading and unloading. The receiver threads are re-machined so the newly cut threads are in perfect alignment with the bolt bore axis. Everything is brought to where it would have been, had it been built in a factory with skilled artisans, no accountants and no Monday mornings.
Reliability is king in the big game hunting world, even more important than accuracy — the rifle simply must go bang when it's called to do so. When U.S. Repeating Arms built the G-series, they designed a single-stamped magazine box that is adapted for use by every round from the .270 Winchester to the .416 Remington Magnum. This system is inexpensive to produce and it usually feeds just fine.
However, "usually" won't do for one of Echols' Professional Hunter clients — like Athol Frylinck — when facing the charge of a wounded elephant or lion; it must feed every time.
Echols builds a magazine from heat-treated stainless steel and a follower designed to fit each cartridge, from a solid billet of steel. Not only does it feed reliably, but the geometry of the magazine allows it to hold an extra round — another positive when that lion comes calling. The magazine's floor-plate and trigger bow assembly is another Burgess design, standard on all Echols Rifles. Produced in-house by Echols, it has a graceful Oberndorf-style triggerguard with a floor-plate release lever that will even prevent the lever from opening under the recoil of a .458 Lott without the lever release spring actually in place; there's nothing more embarrassing than a pile of loaded cartridges at your feet when Nyati is charging out of the jess. Because Echols is always willing to adapt with the times rather than stick to the dark ages, the floor-plate assembly is available in lightweight 7075 aluminum as well as the standard 4130 chro-moly steel.
A hunting rifle need not shoot clover leaves to be useful, but the fact is custom rifle clients expect and demand that level of accuracy. Accuracy is a product of consistency and concentricity, and that means a premium quality barrel mated with precision tolerances to a dimensionally-correct receiver, bedded perfectly into a rigid and inert stock. Echols primarily uses Krieger barrels of his own profiles as they've proven to be worth the time spent installing them. Each is contoured to match the cartridge, ensuring weight and balance are ideal for the caliber chosen. Hours are spent at the lathe threading, chambering, crowning and fitting the barrels. A Swiss dial indicator that measures in the millionths of an inch — yes, you read that correctly — is used to center the barrel in the lathe for chambering. The result of these precision machining operations is a rifle that is capable of impressive accuracy. While in Echols' shop, I examined a binder full of test targets from completed rifles that would make many a benchrest shooter envious.
Without question, the thing that stands out about the Legend is it wears a synthetic stock. The stock is made by McMillian using a mold cast from one of Echols' French Walnut designs. The stock is available in both right- or left-handed configuration, and has an adjustable straight comb to suit lengths of pull from 13-15 inches. I'm not so great at articulating what I like in a gunstock, but this stock feels "right" to me when I bring it to my shoulder. It can also be ordered with McMillian's EDGE technology, which saves roughly a half-pound of weight. These stocks arrive from McMillian unfinished and are one of the few items available to customers a la carte from Echols & Co.
Each Legend is pillar-bedded using three aluminum pillars, fitted with internal crossbolts, and carefully glass bedded in at least two sessions to ensure perfect rigidity and fit. The barrel is free-floated 20 mils from the forend as they've found that technique to be the most consistent and accurate. Though the stock is built from fiberglass, Echols and Bingham have applied the same level of fit, finish and general craftsmanship that make them a well-known stockmaker to the Legend; it just takes less time to execute as it saves the painstaking processes of inletting, finishing and checkering. Much thought and evolution has gone into this design to ensure its performance is befitting the price and reputation. To wit, regular-looking sling swivel studs are threaded into massive aluminum cylinders imbedded into the stock's interior to ensure they never pull out in harsh mountain conditions. Even in fiberglass, there's more there than meets the eye.
Each Legend is pillar-bedded using three aluminum pillars, fitted with internal crossbolts, and carefully glass bedded in at least two sessions to ensure perfect rigidity and fit.
Echols Rifles' Brian Bingham chambering a .375 barrel as a visiting client looks on.
To ensure that a bolt never shears off in the heat of battle, bolt handles are both pinned and soldered onto the bolt body. It is these details that set the Legend apart from other custom hunting rifles.
Echols carefully mills aluminum pillars to prepare a precise bedding surface inside one of his Legend stocks.
The ends justify the means when you have a 100-percent reliable rifle that produces groups like this on the range.
An Echols Rifles machined magazine (L) next to a Winchester factory stamped magazine. Not only is the Echols mag stronger, it is engineered to fit a single cartridge to ensure reliable feeding. As an added benefit, it holds an additional round as-compared to the factory box.
Walnut and synthetic stocks hang in various stages of completion in Echols' shop.
Echols inspects one of his Legend rifles in his Utah shop.
Even the most reliable and well-built rifles on Earth are held hostage by the quality and durability of their optics. Echols can't influence the quality control of optics makers, but he can ensure scopes are mounted in a way that minimizes the risk of failure. This two-piece mounting system is hand-made in-house to suit each scope's individual dimensions. The rings and integral bases are precision-bored to match the scope tube so the optic is held securely without any stress or binding.
The mount is designed so that any suitable scope can be mounted as low to the bore's axis as possible, and the entire package is secured to the rifle with five 8x40 Torx screws. These mounts are precision-fit by machine and then by hand to match the contours of the action and do not overhang the ejection port. This system ensures that, even under the ample recoil of cartridges like the .458 Lott, the scope will not slip, shift or lose zero due to any movement in the mount.
All this is great insurance, but the reality is scopes do go bad from time to time, and sometimes this happens a long way from home. To address this all-too-common issue, Echols asks his customers to send him two identical scopes when they order a rifle. Both scopes are zeroed and the second scope is returned in the case along with a set of custom mounting tools and instructions. When you're on a $40,000 stone ram hunt in British Columbia and your scope smashes on a boulder, you mount your back-up scope and fire a round to "settle" the scope into the mounts. At that point, Echols is confident your rifle will be perfectly zeroed at 100 yards. If that's not a testament to precision construction and addressing real-world problems, nothing is.
Getting What You Pay For
So, I know what you're thinking; What does it cost? The current price for the Legend Standard Sporter is $15,500.00 excluding optics. Fifteen grand for a rifle with a synthetic stock? How does he justify that price? Pretty simple equation, actually: Parts plus labor. Start with well over $3,000 in raw materials, add in 165-plus hours of highly skilled labor, 100 or so rounds of factory ammunition and handloads fired for function testing and load development, the cost of bluing, add in a bit of profit margin — this is, after all, a business — and you end up with lots of zeros. I believe Echols is one of a handful of the best gunmakers in the country, one of a few that took a trade and turned it into an art. If you apply his hourly rate to other professions, you'll see he's not getting rich building Legends — you get one of the best in the business for the shop rate that any average plumber or auto mechanic would charge.
Is it worth it? In short, yes. It's worth the money in the sense you're getting what you pay for. Is it the right choice for every consumer? Of course not, just as not everyone should buy a Patek Phillippe watch or a Bugatti automobile. If you're hunting whitetails on the family farm, a Legend may not be a wise use of your resources, but if you're booking expensive hunts where there's no room for equipment error, a rifle engineered to function in all environments may be a good insurance policy.
Becoming the Best
There are a half dozen or so gunmakers in North America and probably several more in Europe who are truly at the top of their game; Echols & Co. is on this list. What sets Echols and Bingham apart from many of them is they are serious big game hunters and guides themselves. The lessons learned over decades of experienced hunting and guiding are translated into the various design elements that make up the Legend; it is built in a shop, but it was conceived in the field.
The world of custom gunmaking is a small club full of strong opinions. Within that club, Echols' closest competition will compliment his skills and even the most traditional among them will begrudgingly admit the Legend is a great rifle. When you speak to Echols' customers, you hear even more ringing endorsements — I spoke to a dozen for this story. Tales of customer service above and beyond the call of duty are commonplace. It is even quite common for Echols to spend a few days at the range with a customer who is taking delivery of one of his rifles so they can learn to shoot it to its full potential. He is as generous with his time and advice as he is a talented gumaker.
As a writer, I often get questions from friends who want "the best hunting rifle there is, cost no object," these days I tell them to buy a Legend. I'm too much of a gun nut to hunt the world with one rifle, but if I had a practical bone in my body, I'd sell all of my customs and buy a Legend for just that purpose.