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Poor Man's Custom

By Jon R. Sundra

Want a rifle made to order without busting the budget? Here’s how.Very early in my career as a rifle weenie, I realized the only way to get the exact gun I wanted was to have it built to order. I don’t mean a “custom” job in the purest sense whereby one takes delivery of a finished rifle built by someone else. No, I’m talking about what could be described as a “poor man’s custom rifle,” yet one that can be more tailored to a person’s individual desires than all but the most expensive made-to-order jobs.

Arriving at the point where you want such a rifle is a natural progression, because sooner or later, after you’ve owned a few production guns, you can’t help but form opinions. Rarely will a production gun have all the exact specs, features and cosmetics you want. You know what I mean: You may like a particular make and model, but the barrel’s too heavy ... or too light ... or too short; it’s not fluted or available in the caliber you want, or you’re just not crazy about the stock.

If all this sounds familiar and you don’t have an unlimited budget, you’ve got to do what I and most other rifle geeks do: order a custom barreled action and stock it yourself.

Until fairly recently, the “stock-it-yourself” part was problematical unless you had at least some experience working with wood, or better yet, reshaping and refinishing gun stocks. Fortunately for those without such experience, or who are simply disinclined, that’s no longer the case. Indeed, all it takes these days is a screwdriver!

But now I’m getting ahead of myself. Allow me to digress and tell you about my latest project rifle.

It all started back in December 2004 when I had the opportunity to field test a pre-production example of a Winchester Model 70 in the newly announced .325 Winchester Short Magnum. I shot five white-tailed does on an Arkansas cull hunt using the 180-grain Ballistic Silvertip load, and every one of them dropped in their tracks, literally. I like to think I would have had the same results with a 7mm or a .30, but that positive experience was a good excuse for me to acquire a new rifle in a new caliber, and I wasn’t going to let it pass!

Poor Man's Custom
Straight from the box, this Boyds’ JRS Classic stock was inletted so well, the author was able to bolt the gun together with no fitting at all.

The most economical means to a new rifle is when you can furnish the action, so the only costs are the barrel and its installation, and the stock. However, not many of us have actions lying around; they’re usually in the form of a complete rifle, so you have to decide if you want to scavenge an action from a gun you feel you can spare. I’ve done that a few times myself, but I’d rather acquire another rifle, so I usually opt for the whole nine yards - new action and stock to go with the new barrel.

For this project, I chose the Montana Rifle Co. based in Kalispell, Mont., as my source for both barrel and action. Initially, this company made button-rifled barrels and supplied them in various stages of completion to the gunsmithing trade, as well as offering chambering, fitting and other gunsmith-related services at the retail level via mail order.

By the late ’90s, however, MRC’s honcho, Brian Sipe, decided he wanted his own action. What he came up with is the Montana Model 1999, a Winchester Model 70-type action with several minor but noteworthy improvements.

I first saw this action in an all-stainless version at the 2001 SHOT Show and was thoroughly impressed. The first iteration was understandably of standard .30-06 length, but at that time, the new Winchester short magnums were all the rage. So when Brian told me he was already working on an action designed around them, I decided I’d wait. I was particularly pleased to learn that it would have the same 3.125-inch magazine length as the Model 70, which allowed bullets to be seated much farther out than other short actions, thus taking advantage of the full powder capacity of the WSM case.

Poor Man's Custom
If you supply the action and finish the stock, you can build a “semi-custom” gun for about half the cost of this one.

To those very familiar with the current Model 70 Classic, about the only things you’d notice as being different on this action are the gas ports on both sides of the receiver ring, and the bolt stop/release. It is reminiscent of the Mauser’s, but less obtrusive. Other changes include a flange on the left side of the bolt shroud that covers the left lug raceway to prevent gas blow-by in the event of a pierced primer or case head separation. Inside the receiver ring, the flat breech face of the barrel abuts an inner collar like on the M98 Mauser, which precludes the necessity of cutting a slot in the barrel face for the extractor.

But the biggest yet most subtle improvement over the Model 70 is the left locking lug; it’s pie-shaped. In other words, it slides in a dovetail, which greatly reduces bolt wobble and the tendency of the bolt to bind.

Because I opted for the stainless action, I also went with a stainless barrel. Alhough it’s a little more expensive than a chrome moly pipe, I more than made up for the added cost by saving a $120 blue job. The barrel specs I listed were fairly simple: I wanted it to be 24 inches and in the most slender contour compatible with flutes, and the chamber throated so I could seat bullets out to the full length of the magazine.

My choice of stock was fairly straightforward as well. I settled on a Boyds’ JRS Classic in a brown wood laminate. Because I always glass-bed my rifles, I ordered an unfinished stock with Boyds’ VIP inletting. I don’t know how they do it, but this stock costs just 65 bucks, yet is fully inletted, final shaped and sanded to a 100-grit finish. The inletting is so precise, there’s virtually no fitting necessary; the barreled action will usually fit just like it were in the factory stock. All you need do is the final sanding with 180- and 320-grit paper, and apply the finish of your choice.

My barreled action dropped to the full depth with no fitting whatsoever, and so did the one-piece bottom metal unit. However, the distance between the two was about 1/8 inch too much, as indicated by there being too much distance between the tip of the trigger and the bottom of the guard bow. So I took out my moto tool and a wood chisel and deepened the inletting to allow the bottom metal unit to sink a bit deeper into the belly of the stock. It really wasn’t necessary; I just wanted to do it.

If you supply the action and finish the stock, you can build a “semi-custom” gun for about half the cost of this one.With an unfinished stock, you don’t have to worry about the epoxy that oozes out and runs down the sides of the stock. When it’s cured, you just file or sand it away. I could have finished the stock myself, but Boyds’ is now offering a service whereby for $85 they will apply the same finish they use on their own fully finished stocks, and it’s tougher and better executed than I could do it. When my stock was final-sanded and ready to go, I returned it to Boyds’. Two weeks later it came back, beautifully done in a rich semi-matte finish.

The route I took with this project was the most expensive, in that I opted for a new action and fluted barrel in stainless, and had Boyds’ apply the stock finish. As such, the whole project ran about $1,000. If you supply the action, however, go with a plain barrel and finish the stock yourself, you’re looking at less than half that cost. And with a little comparison shopping, you can find less-expensive barrels and fitting services, and less-expensive aftermarket synthetic stocks, allowing you to trim another hundred bucks off that. For a brand-new rifle spec’t out exactly the way you want it, with the exact stock you want, that’s a great deal.

Boyds’ Gunstocks and the Montana Rifle Co. have online catalogs where you can see their entire product lines and order over the Internet. For more information, visit http://www.montanarifleman.com and http://www.boydsgunstocks.com

Reprinted from the September 2006 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine

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