Ordering a Custom Rifle — Metal Work

Ordering a Custom Match Rifle: Metal Work (Action, Barrel, Trigger)
by Germán A. Salazar
Ordering a new match rifle from a gunsmith (or several gunsmiths) is and should be an exciting, happy event. Unfortunately, through inadequate communication, we often fail to clearly convey our desires and expectations to the gunsmith and some of that joy is swept away into disappointment when the blessed day finally arrives and we’re holding the completed rifle. At that point, the options are few: accept it as it is, or endure another agonizingly long wait while it is corrected, usually at our expense. This series makes no recommendation of one product or gunsmith over another nor do we discuss how to select a gunsmith.  We are simply trying to cover all of the items that you need to consider and specify to the gunsmith in order to avoid an unpleasant surprise at the end of the process. There are dozens of decisions to be made in creating a custom rifle, someone will make them — will it be you, or will it be the gunsmith? The more of those decisions you make and communicate effectively, the more likely you are to have a satisfactory experience.

As we discuss the major and minor aspects of the job and as you’ll see there are a great many choices to be made. Although it is important to discuss all of your choices with your gunsmith, it is essential that you memorialize that conversation with written instructions that you send him (and keep a copy for your reference). Many of us today rely on email a bit too much and they have a way of getting lost in the clutter of a computer. I prefer to send a real letter to the gunsmith along with whatever components I’m supplying. That will be there, at his fingertips when he finally gets to your project and the conversation is a dim memory.

While a great deal of this is applicable to any custom rifle, our focus is principally directed to the Highpower Prone and F-Class shooter building a bolt-action rifle. Let’s begin with the metal work and then move on to stocks.

The Action

The action is the heart of the rifle and merits a great deal of your attention. You may already own or have selected the action, but that is the beginning, not the end of this area of concern. If your gunsmith stocks certain actions, consider those offerings as it can save a great deal of time, but don’t compromise your essential requirements for expediency.

Action Type
Without bogging down in the merits of one action maker over another, you need to decide if you want to begin with a factory action such as a Remington, Savage or Winchester or instead opt for one of the custom actions such as the Borden, BAT, Stolle, Stiller, Pierce, Surgeon, Inch, Barnard, or RPA. There are, of course more action makers than those, but they are the most commonly encountered ones. I would advise avoiding actions not normally seen in competition because it will be difficult to get certain accessories for them such as sight mounts or tapered scope bases, not to mention good triggers and it will be a difficult rifle to resell should the need arise. Among the actions listed above you have choices of two-lug, three-lug and four-lug actions, there are stainless and chrome-moly actions, some come with a trigger, some don’t. F-Class shooters additionally might consider whether they want the bolt handle and loading port on different sides. Picking your action is the first and most fundamental decision you’ll make in getting a rifle built, don’t rush through the choice. Get informed as to what’s available and do your best to check out a sample of the one you choose before you spend the money.

Action Selection Checklist
1. Single-shot or repeater
2. Two-lug, three-lug, four-lug
3. Maker
4. Stainless or chrome-moly
5. Long or short action
6. Standard or magnum bolt face
7. Bolt and port location
8. Cone bolt or flat face
9. Extractor options
10. Special serial number

Action Work Checklist
Does the action need to be remachined in any way? Does the gunsmith recommend “blueprinting”? That’s a terrible term, it means absolutely nothing. Be very specific as to what you want done and what you don’t want done; some of the possibilities include:

1. Recut barrel thread true to the centerline of the receiver
2. True the front of the receiver
3. Special recoil lug
4. Drill and pin for recoil lug
5. Recut locking lugs and seats
6. Lap locking lugs (simpler alternative to recutting)
7. True the bolt face
8. Reduce firing pin diameter and bush firing pin hole
9. Bush bolt body for closer fit to receiver
10. Replace the bolt handle with an aftermarket unit
11. Relocate bolt handle to improve extraction camming

OR Replace the bolt with an aftermarket unit (alternate to 7 through 11)
12. Cut cocking piece to properly time hand-off to your trigger
13. Sleeve the action for increased rigidity and bedding surface
14. True the exterior of the receiver (useful for glue-in tubegun installation of a Remington)
15. Drill and tap scope base holes to larger size and correct alignment
16. Drill and tap side mount sight base holes
17. Custom sight base if required
18. Cut slot for stripper clip loading
19. Refinish exterior: blue (matte or polished), parkerize, hard chrome, polymer, Cerakote, other finish.

All of these tasks, and more can be performed on any action, although many of the custom actions being made today will require far fewer of them than a production action or even some of the older custom actions. Your conversation with the gunsmith might drift into how he performs the tasks; we’re all curious about such things and the internet makes us all feel like experts. However, bear in mind that he is the gunsmith, not you, and the choice of procedures and tooling needed to accomplish the task is his alone. You won’t be in that shop running the equipment and you won’t be paying for his tooling, or for his insurance. If you don’t like what you hear when discussing the topic, pick another gunsmith, but let him do his job — you are paying for results, not to be his long-distance, untrained supervisor.

The Barrel

Whether the gunsmith supplies the barrel or you do, we again face a long list of decisions.  Both the blank and the work to be done to it require our attention. There are at least half a dozen good makers today, which do you prefer? Should it be a cut-rifled or button-rifled barrel? Krieger, Bartlein, Hart, Broughton, Shilen, Brux, PacNor, Lilja and more, offer barrel blanks to the custom market.

Get to know the barrel-makers offerings through their websites and more important, get recommendations from your gunsmith and from your fellow competitors as to what is working for them in the type of application for which you are building. For instance, just because the local rimfire champ likes one brand or type of barrel, doesn’t mean the same is ideal for your 1000 yard rifle and vice-versa.

I’ll assume that you’ve already selected the cartridge that you intend to fire, if not, go back to square 1 and get that figured out. But knowing the cartridge is not the whole problem; the range of bullet weights that you intend to shoot will determine what twist rate (and throating) you will need. If you are in doubt as how heavy you might want to go with your bullet choices, err on the side of the faster twist; it won’t hurt your shooting with the lighter bullets and will preserve the option of the heavier ones. For instance, with a 6XC, a 1:7.5″ twist will handle the Berger 115, whereas a 1:8″ twist won’t, so if there is any chance you might want to shoot a 115, go with the faster twist. Don’t forget to consider the bore and groove dimensions, most makers offer some deviation from standard if specified. Make sure you understand what you expect to gain by doing so, those standard dimensions are pretty darn good for almost all applications.

Barrel contour and length also require a decision. Although 30″ barrels seem to have become the norm over these past 15 years or so, in many cases a slightly shorter barrel will serve as well, or better. Weight and balance are important considerations for a prone shooter and a long barrel doesn’t make either of those better. If your shooting style involves removing the rifle from your shoulder for each shot, this might not be terribly important, but if you keep the rifle in your shoulder, then less weight and better balance become very important.  If you can’t answer that question yet, lighter is probably better than heavier.

Barrel contour is similarly a weight and balance decision. The F-Class competitor is largely guided by the weight limitations imposed by the rules and would do well to weigh all components other than the barrel prior to ordering the barrel so that the heaviest possible barrel can be specified. Of course that isn’t always possible, but manufacturer supplied data will put you in the ballpark for weight. Prone shooters have generally gravitated to the medium Palma contour for the past 15 years, but others should be considered. As an example, with a 6BR, the light Palma does a very good job of maintaining accuracy and its light weight makes it a pleasure to hold. However, with the .30-06, I prefer an MTU profile which is significantly heavier and aids in damping recoil a bit. Keep the application, your weight requirements and your tolerance for recoil in mind when selecting a contour.

Many professional gunsmiths keep an inventory of barrels on hand. Ask what he has, it might be just what you’re looking for and can save a great deal of time on your project. Currently, some of the barrel makers are quoting up to a year in delivery time, so a barrel on hand is a real plus. Some dealers such as Bruno’s and Sinclair stock barrels from the big makers — it’s worth checking with them also. If time is tight, ask the dealers about straight contour blanks and ask your gunsmith if he’s willing to contour a straight blank. That will add expense to the project, but it might be a solution.

Barrel Checklist
1. Customer supplied or gunsmith supplied
2. Cut-rifled or button-rifled
3. Maker
4. Caliber and twist rate
5. Bore and groove dimensions
6. Stainless or chrome-moly
7. Finish length
8. Contour
9. Fluted or plain
10. Drill and tap for Unertl bases
11. Crown: flat, 11 degree, recessed
12. Cut muzzle end for sight – 0.750″ x 1.75″; or special
13. Cartridge designation engraved or stamped on barrel, tight neck or other special information
14. Finish: high polish, bead blast, special

Chambering the barrels is the gunsmith’s essential task in metal work.  Even if he performs every possible modification to your action, that will only happen once, but he may install a dozen or more barrels on that action over the years. Chambering is also where we see many disappointed customers because they fail to understand the choices involved and to communicate their expectations effectively. It is not enough to tell the gunsmith what cartridge you would like to shoot (i.e. .30-06). In the popular target shooting chamberings, an active gunsmith will have more than one reamer for a given cartridge and, of course, a custom reamer can always be ordered to your specifications.

The throat or freebore dimension is the most critical chamber dimension — if it’s too long, you’ll never get the bullet near the rifling when seated in the case, if it’s too short, the bullet will intrude too deeply into the case and limit powder capacity. Cartridges with short necks like the .308 are especially critical in this area. So how do you decide? Start with the range of bullet weights you are most likely to shoot. A bit of realism helps here, if you think you can shoot a .308 with 125 gr. to 240 gr. bullets in the same barrel, you’re in for a rude awakening! Suppose your range is 175 gr. to 190 gr., now you have something to work with. Ask your gunsmith for his advice and experience. If he believes that his reamer will suit your needs as to freebore, you’re one step ahead, but not all the way home. If not, then contact one of the reamer makers, such as Pacific Tool & Gauge, and get their recommendation for your application. If it’s not an odd combination, chances are very good they’ve seen it before and know what’s required.

Neck diameter is another area of attention for the chambering reamer. In order to really pin this down, you should know what brand of brass you will be using and have at least a modest quantity of it on hand. If you don’t want to turn necks, seat a bullet into at least 10 pieces of the brass and measure the loaded neck diameter. For a .30 caliber, add at least 0.005″ to that dimension for the chamber neck diameter, for smaller calibers you can run it a little closer, but no closer than 0.004″ clearance or you might run into trouble if the brass maker’s specifications change or you’re forced into another type of brass when supplies get tight. More clearance won’t adversely affect accuracy, just brass life. As an example, there are thousands of .308s being fired every week with 0.345″ chamber and neck diameter and 0.333″ loaded cartridge neck diameter and they shoot just fine, even at 1000 yards. That’s a fairly normal combination used in Palma shooting with Winchester brass. A closer neck is fine for maximizing brass life, but it requires constant attention on your part to avoid potentially dangerous situations caused by inadequate neck clearance.

From the neck back to the base, you should avoid making the chamber any smaller than normal. There is no accuracy advantage to a “tight” chamber but it can sure cause you a lot of grief with hard extraction due to inadequate sizing by the die. The chamber and the die have to be a good match for everything to work properly and die makers work to a reasonably standard set of specifications.  I have found that chambers cut with PTG reamers are a good match for Redding dies and that’s probably no coincidence.

Chambering Checklist
1. Cartridge choice
2. Freebore/throat length
3. Chamber neck diameter
4. Additional custom specifications
5. Customer supplied reamer or gunsmith supplied

The Trigger

No, not Roy Rogers’ horse, the other trigger.  When you’re laying down in the heat, trying to fire the last shot of a great string, you’ll be thankful for a great trigger or you’ll be cursing one with even the smallest flaw. Nothing heightens your sense of touch more than the pressure of competition and those few ounces can seem like a ton at times. A great trigger is the essential connective element between you and the rifle and it’s worth spending your time, money and effort to get one. There are more good triggers available today than at any time in recent decades and they present a good range of choices.

First we need to decide if the trigger should be a single-stage or a two-stage. There aren’t too many two-stage triggers out there today, perhaps only the X-Treme Shooting trigger and the Anschütz. The X-Treme is available for the Remington mounting system which is widely used on custom actions, the Anschütz must be adapted to the action at a high cost and not many gunsmiths do that type of work. I should also mention, based on my experience with six Anschütz triggers (three on centerfire rifles) and five X-Treme triggers, that the X-Treme is far more robust and has a cleaner feel. I think it has made the Anschütz conversion obsolete. Single-stage triggers are more widely available, the Jewell, Kelbly, Shilen and others can be found easily and supply is not a problem. The considerations deciding which type of trigger to select are safety, quality, adjustability, suitability of weight of pull range, compatibility with the action and ease of maintenance. All of these factors come into play over time and a good trigger will meet all of them with ease.

For prone shooting, I prefer a two-stage trigger, principally for safety reasons as it has much more sear angagement than a single-stage trigger, but also because taking up the first stage really has the effect of narrowing my focus (both visual and mental) to the task at hand. If a trigger in the single-digit ounce range is desired, a single-stage trigger may be more suitable; but careful consideration should be given to the safety aspects of such a light trigger. In F-Class that presents little problem, but in prone shooting, where we tend to wiggle around a bit, I avoid anything under 6 ounces in a single-stage trigger and really prefer a two-stage with closer to one pound total pull weight.

Factory triggers aren’t usually a good choice for competitive shooting. The Remington is not really worth the effort to rework, although some of the older 40X triggers are an exception to that rule if there is no great cost of acquisition. The Winchester Model 70 trigger can be made quite crisp and is probably the best factory trigger design out there although the skills needed to work on them properly are no longer as common as they once were. I would avoid going below two pounds with either a Remington or Winchester trigger. For many shooters, the Savage Accu-Trigger is quite acceptable. Others will want to replace it with a Rifle Basix trigger or the SharpShooter Supply aftermarket trigger.

Although triggers are relatively easy to replace, the inletting on your stock may have to be redone for clearance if you replace a standard trigger with one of the common aftermarket units. The X-Treme and the Kelbly, for instance, need a bit more inletting than the Jewell. It’s best to know at the beginning what trigger you will use.

Trigger Checklist
1. Single-Stage or Two-Stage
2. Maker
3. Weight of pull range
4. Customer or gunsmith supplied
5. Action timed to trigger

That concludes Part 1 of this short series. In Part 2 we will cover the stock and related items.  You should have enough to think about for a while with the metal work.

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