By Dave Henderson
Back in the days when all rifles were hand-built, each had distinctive characteristics and looks that reflected the particular skills and preferences of the maker. Today’s custom rifles are similar because they’re based on the same commercial actions and traditional stock designs. But the craftsman behind a custom gun is still identifiable if you look close enough.
I toted a Sisk Rifles Lone Star Hunter in .300 Win Mag on a deer hunt at John Graham’s Apt Lake Camp in the Buffalo Narrows region of Saskatchewan last winter. Although interaction with the gun on the range and in the treestand was brief, I came away impressed with the rifle and with a good idea of who Charlie Sisk was, even though I’d never met him.
Built on a Winchester Model 70 action with a Jewell trigger, Teflon-coated Shilen match grade barrel and an H-S Precision stock, the gun produced half-inch groups with minimal input on my part. The rifle would also have produced the largest whitetail of my life, had I not let the brute walk when he appeared in the opening within minutes of the four-day hunt deep in the western Saskatchewan bush. Given the earliness of his arrival, and fooled by the rack’s dimension in relation to his huge body, I passed a 50-yard opportunity and came home empty-handed.
Ken Gibbs and Denny Vasquez took these Saskatchewan bucks with Sisk rifles. All Sisk guns are blueprinted and guaranteed to shoot within a half-inch at 100 yards.
There was no shortage of big deer in the area, but I never saw that buck again. I didn’t realize its true size until I compared it to 140-class bucks taken later by hunting colleagues Ken Gibbs and Denny Vasquez of Blue Wonder Gun Care Products.
But this is about the rifle, not my poor judgement. The Model 70 is my favorite action. Off the shelf, it’s invariably smooth and solid. But there are degrees of smooth and solid, and the Lone Star Hunter’s sweet trigger, smooth functionality and outstanding performance spoke volumes about the innovative, meticulous Texas rifle builder - all of which was confirmed when I eventually met him.
Charlie Sisk is Sisk Rifles; the company staff consisting of “me, myself and I,” as Charlie likes to say. The 40-year-old bachelor handles every aspect of gun building, from blueprinting, facing, truing, fitting and polishing, to finishing, coating, developing custom handloads and sweeping the floor at the shop in the northeast Houston suburb of Dayton. The state-of-the-art complex includes a 100-yard indoor range and pressure-testing equipment.
Charlie was “14 or 15” when he built his first rifle on a Mauser action in a high school shop class in Kentucky. The shop teacher, Pappy Atkins, has since found his niche at Accurate Arms and remains a close friend. After high school, Charlie worked in coal mines and farmed (while playing with gunsmithing on the side), and was driving an 18-wheeler as a means of employment when he came to Houston in 1988.
Sisk Rifles are primarily built on Remington 700 and Winchester Model 70 (both push- and controlled-feed) actions, but there are also some models based on the Weatherby Mark V, Ruger 77 and Charles Daly. Until recently, Sisk offered a Stopping Rifle built on a Marlin lever action, and two rimfire models on Ruger bolt- and 10-22 autoloader actions. But he had to discontinue them because he simply couldn’t keep up with the work.
Charlie blueprints each action as the foundation of the custom gun. He strips the receiver, trues the receiver threads and faces the front of the receiver. Then he squares the locking lug recesses, trues the front and rear surfaces of the lugs and the bolt nose, and hand-laps the lugs to near 100 percent contact. He’ll then bed the action and either use a Holland lug or adapt the manufacturer’s lug.
You can have virtually any barrel you want on a Sisk Rifle, but if left to Charlie, it’ll be a Shilen, Kreiger, Lilja or Hart match grade barrel with a custom muzzle brake, and it’ll be mounted in an H-S Precision or McMillan synthetic stock. The gun will also have a Jewell or Timney trigger, Talley rings, Burris optics, and will probably be coated with Teflon or a variant. He leans toward reasonable, effective calibers rather than the huge or deformed cases that define the latest innovations.
Whether he builds in a pressure point or free-floats the barrel depends entirely on the particular rifle’s preferences, which he determines in extended sessions at the range and handloading bench.
The only “off-the-shelf” gun you’re likely to find in the Sisk shop is the North American Hunter, a 700 action in .300 Win Mag with a No. 4 contour 24-inch Lilja match barrel and a specially built Sisk firing pin and bolt shroud. Charlie makes them in lots of five and tries to keep at least one on the shelf since it is the most versatile design in his line. He loads 180-grain Nosler Ballistic Tips for game under 500 pounds and 200-grain Nosler Partitions for everything bigger.
“When I tell people that a custom gun takes four to six months, I’ll get some that say, ‘If I wanted a gun in four to six months, I’d have called you then; I want a gun now.’ Those folks are the reason there is a North American Hunter on the shelf.”
But there are plenty of basic designs that can be customized to the individual shooter’s desires. The Whitetail Hunter, Varmint Hunter and Bench Rest models are built on 700 Remington receivers. These guns are guaranteed to deliver half-inch accuracy, though a quarter-inch is the norm. The Lone Star and the big-bore Sisk Grand Wapiti and Bradley Yukon bolt guns are built on Winchester Model 70 actions, while the Long Range Hunter and Scout Rifles use a Model 700 or Model 70 action. The Sisk Safari Hunter is built on a Sako 75, Weatherby or Ruger 77 receiver. The Sisk Scout Rifle is based on a 700, 70, 77 or Charles Daly action.
Reprinted from the December 2004 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine