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Wood or Synthetic

By Clair Rees

Wood or Synthetic?

Years ago, when I first began shooting, nearly all rifles came stocked in genuine walnut. The only exceptions were budget-priced models wearing cheap wood disguised by a walnut stain.

Walnut stocks were a centuries-old tradition until 1965. That’s when custom gunmaker Chet Brown invented fiberglass stocks and introduced them to a skeptical public. Fiberglass stocks offered several advantages over traditional wood handles, but years passed before riflemen - a notoriously conservative bunch - grudgingly began to accept them.

Synthetic stocks of laid-up fiberglass, Kevlar or molded polymer have a lot to recommend them. They’re sturdy and exceptionally stable. They won’t warp like walnut stocks do when exposed to changing weather, aiding consistent accuracy. Synthetic handles are considerably less expensive than AAA-grade walnut, and you don’t worry about dings and scratches when you’re lugging your rifle through the woods. Oh, yes - experience has convinced me that synthetic stocks, particularly fiberglass, help mitigate the effects of recoil. I own a handful of fiberglass-handled magnums that are surprisingly pleasant to shoot.

Synthetic stocks have definitely come of age. Formerly shunned by tradition-minded sportsmen, polymer-stocked rifles have soared in popularity. Go to any gun store, and you’ll see rack upon rack filled with black-handled deer and varmint rifles. Benchrest shooters were among the first to appreciate the advantages synthetic stocks offered. Nothing promotes gnat-hair accuracy better than a well-designed, properly bedded stock made of some kind of polymer-fiber mix.

Like most hunters today, I’ve embraced synthetic stocks. I couldn’t count the black- and gray-handled rifles I’ve owned and used over the years, but several have earned permanent homes in my safes. For rough, knockabout duty, synthetic stocks simply can’t be beat.

Wood or Synthetic?
The author dropped this pronghorn at 452 yards with a 6.5x55mm Serengeti Walkabout carbine sporting a finely figured AAA walnut stock.

On my first brown bear hunt in Alaska, I carried a blued .375 H&H Mark X with a walnut stock. November weather along Dead Creek, 8 miles upstream from Gravina Bay, must be experienced to be believed. Knee-deep snow grew steadily deeper as snow and sleet pelted us every day. Temperatures ranged from well below zero to inexplicably sudden thaws accompanying Chinook winds.

In spite of nightly cleaning and the amount of oil I slathered on exposed metal surfaces, barrel and action were solid red with rust by the end of the hunt. The stock looked okay, but when I checked the zero back home the rifle shot 5 inches high and 3 inches left at 100 yards.

I’d learned my lesson. The next time I hunted Alaska, I carried a stainless-steel .375 Winchester Model 70 customized by Lex Webernick of Rifles Inc. The stock was laid-up fiberglass with a camo finish. Thanks to the miracle of stainless steel and synthetic stocks, this rifle is virtually impervious to weather. I regard each ding and dent its stock displays as honorable battle scars.

The two things I most appreciate about fiberglass and polymer handles are their lack of heft and the tack-driving accuracy with which they’re associated. I’m addicted to lightweight rifles, and accuracy is a fine thing to have.

In spite of their many attributes, synthetic stocks fall short of perfection - way short, traditionalists say. While offering several advantages, synthetic stocks will never have the charm of honest walnut. Coldly utilitarian, these stocks simply don’t have the sensuous look or feel of natural wood. Compared to finely figured or even straight-grained walnut, synthetic stocks are downright homely. Pulling no punches, I call them ugly!

Laminated stocks are one answer. Formed by layers of wood glued together under pressure, these hybrid stocks offer some of the same advantages synthetics provide. They’re remarkably stable, resisting inclement weather and resultant warping almost as well as polymer. Wood-laminate-stocked rifles can be every bit as accurate as those wearing black synthetic handles.

While few would mistake the excellent laminated stocks produced by Boyd’s Gunstock Industries and other manufacturers for genuine walnut, laminated wood boasts its own distinctive beauty. I own a number of laminated-stocked rifles that could be called nothing less than handsome. Like walnut, these stocks are warm to the touch and feel good in your hands.

Aside from falling short of the beauty inherent in oil-rubbed, burled walnut, laminated stocks have another drawback. While extremely strong and stable, they’re typically heavier than either walnut or polymer stocks. Recognizing this, for a nominal fee Boyd’s will remove some wood from inside the laminated stock you order. This pares unwelcome extra weight, but the result still won’t quite compete with fiberglass handles for lack of heft.

I like laminated stocks. Weight isn’t a serious factor when I’m shooting up prairie dog towns or luring coyotes to my call. That’s why so many of my varmint rifles wear laminated stocks. They look good and shoot great. Extra heft is a plus when you’re gunning Coke-bottle sized critters 400 yards downrange.

I appreciate the many virtues of the synthetic- and laminate-stocked rifles I own, but my tastes seem to be changing. Lately I find myself leaning toward traditional checkered walnut.

Soon after Kimber introduced its short-action Model 84M, I took one with me to slay giant Saskatchewan deer. The 5 1/2-pound .308 printed 1/2-inch groups at 100 yards with the handloads I fed it. This delightfully lightweight rifle was a joy to carry, and dropped a 10-point buck with a single shot. As icing on the cake, it wore a handsome genuine-walnut stock.

Last year, Serengeti Rifles made me one of the very few high-grade custom rifles I’ve come to own. When it came time to choose a stock, I didn’t specify a lightweight synthetic or durable laminate. One of the advantages of buying a Serengeti rifle is viewing a variety of stock blanks online before making your selection. When the rifle arrived, it sported a wood-to-the-muzzle AAA walnut stock with lots of fiddleback, gorgeous fine-line hand checkering and a meticulous fit.

Subscribe Today!Right now, I’m eyeing another rifle. I returned the Kimber 84M I’d borrowed for my Saskatchewan hunt, but Kimber now offers the same light, accurate rifle with a choice of AA Claro walnut or handsome French walnut stocks. The price is only $150 higher than the standard version I hunted with.

“We’re selling these rifles faster than we can make them,” Kimber’s Dwight Van Brunt told me. “Customers like getting upgraded stocks without breaking the bank.”

While walnut stocks can’t match the stability of laminated or synthetic handles, someone has tackled this problem. Accurate Innovations offers a series of drop-in “Golden Accuracy” walnut stocks for several popular bolt rifles. These aftermarket stocks are available in varying grades of walnut treated with a polyurethane base coat to resist dents and scratches. The stocks feature a full-length aluminum chassis designed to evenly distribute recoil. An anodized pillar-bedding system aids accuracy.

Wood or synthetic stocks? I use them all, but as I grow older (not necessarily more mature), I’m increasingly attracted to honest walnut and fine-line checkering. Other stocks may be more practical, but for me, hunting is all about having fun. I take more pride in carrying a fine walnut-stocked rifle. That means I’m having more fun.

Reprinted from the September 2006 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine

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