I believe there are three categories of custom rifles. First, are the old-style custom rifles, which were completely hand-built to a buyer's specifications. Superb walnut stocks, hand-checkering, fancy engraving and inlays to the extent that make these rifles works of art. Many such rifles are locked away as investments and sadly, will never be taken into the field or even fired.
The second type of custom rifle is more correctly called a custom-built factory rifle. Remington, Thompson/ Center, Weatherby, Winchester and other manufacturers have custom shops that produce specialized rifles that can be ordered with a variety of options and specifications. I'd also include smaller companies in this category, notably Brown Precision, Cooper, Dakota Arms, HS Precision, Kimber, Lazzeroni Arms and New Ultra Light Arms. Most of these companies manufacture their own actions, and some make their own barrels and stocks. All of them offer choices of metal and stock materials, as well as barrel length, fluting, checkering patterns and embellishments.
The third category is what I call the modern custom rifle. Essentially, a skilled gunsmith purchases high-quality components and then does his magic with his lathe, milling machine, drills, files and gauges. Usually the absolute best components are used in one of these guns. This means the barrel will be obtained from one of five or six companies—Mike Rock, Gary Schneider, Danny Lilja, Krieger, Hart and Broughten come to mind. The stock will be from McMillan, HS Precision or Borden. High-quality bottom metal will be supplied by Badger Ordnance or Williams Firearms.
The action might be a custom-built unit from Surgeon, Borden, Stiller or Nesika. Or the gunsmith might take a Remington Model 700 or Winchester M-70 and conduct a machining process variously called blue-printing, accurizing, or truing and squaring. Regardless of the nomenclature, the gunsmith makes key components square and true to an imaginary centerline that runs through the middle of the receiver and bolt. Truing-up a factory action results in better accuracy and consistency.
What's the difference between an out-of-the-box factory rifle priced at $600-$800 and a custom-built factory rifle that sells for $3,000 or more? The bottom line is accuracy. I usually expect five-shot 100-yard groups of 11/2-21/2 inches from an accurate factory rifle. In contrast, I can place five shots in a less than 1/2-inch group with my Cooper, Dakota and HS rifles.
Believe it or not, my GA Precision rifles shoot even better—if I can hold them properly. Bullet groups from 1/2-inch to less than 1/4-inch are obtainable. In all honesty, I don't get that accuracy every time I shoot. Many of my custom rifles have that accuracy potential, but my skills frequently let me down unless I've been shooting a lot. I'm happy anytime I break the 1/2-inch mark, and I'm even happier when I shoot a "bug-hole."
The Best Builders
In addition to the many superb gunsmiths who build hunting rifles across North America, I've also found a small group of tactical rifle builders who are also making models that work very well for hunting. As a matter of fact, some of these guys have designed models specifically for hunting. These rifles combine the ruggedness and precision of tactical rifles with the field-handling qualities and lighter weight hunters expect. Superb accuracy is a given!
A couple years ago I had the good fortune to design a hunting rifle with George Gardner of GA Precision in Kansas City, Missouri. George is one of the country's best tactical rifle builders, and his rifles have established an enviable reputation in the tactical community. George and his staff not only do superb work, but GA Precision has the inventory to offer amazing turn-around times compared to its competition.
George and I had discussed building a lightweight hunting rifle that incorporated as many tactical rifle building tricks and components as possible. We were fortunate that Kelly McMillan had just introduced a super lightweight hunting stock called the Hunter's Edge for the Remington Model 700 action. At approximately the same time, Marty Bordson, owner of Badger Ordnance, introduced some super lightweight parts for the Model 700 that we incorporated into our plans.
Danny Lilja had a lightweight .30 caliber barrel with a twist rate that would suit the .300 WSM cartridge. Because we were going with a .300 WSM, the magazine had to be altered for the short, fat cartridges, and Wyatt supplied one of its excellent boxes. In remarkably short time, George had all of the required parts, and I flew to Kansas City to watch the birth of the new rifle—and more or less get in George's way.
I doubt many rifles have been built with greater precision in such a short amount of time. George had trued-up a short Remington action before I got there and had adjusted the factory trigger to a perfect 21/2 pounds. During one incredible day at the shop, he and his staff completed the following tasks:
• Threaded, chambered and crowned the Lilja rifle barrel to 25 inches of overall length.
• Opened the bolt face to accept the larger cartridge and installed an oversized M-16 style extractor into the face of the Model 700 bolt.
• Installed a Nesika-style bolt release into the left side of the Remington action.
• Installed an oversized Badger Ordnance bolt handle/knob.
• Switched the recoil lug to a titanium lug from Badger Ordnance after threading the Lilja barrel into the new action.
• Installed the Wyatt box and did some magic to make feeding as smooth and reliable as the factory offering.
• Installed Badger's new aluminum mounts, both a one-piece Picatinny rail (scope mount base) and tactical rings.
• Test-fired the newly chambered barrel by hand-holding the barreled action in heavy mitts.
When all this work was completed, George sent the barreled action to Kelly McMillan for a bedding job. Kelly's master craftsman, John Hanlon, did his trademark bedding from the rear of the tang to the end of the barrel channel with a product called Marine Tex. The job was spectacular. Kelly returned the now virtually finished rifle to George for some final tweaking and then it was shipped to me.
Fitted with a 1-pound tactical scope, the custom rifle weighs 8 pounds. Accuracy at 100 yards with 180-grain Nosler Accubonds is just under a 1/2-inch. Long-range accuracy, which is what we designed the rifle for, is outstanding—three-shot groups measuring 4-5 inches at 700 yards. (Note: GA Precision now calls this hunting rifle the Non-Typical; for $3,100 you have a choice of five calibers.)
While I'm discussing GA Precision rifles, I have to mention my favorite model, the Rock. Although it's a bit heavy, my Rock has proven itself in hunting fields from the Arctic to the Mexican border. I shoot .308 Win. Black Hills Match ammo almost exclusively in my Rock, and every animal I point it at dies in its tracks.
The Rock is George's best-selling rifle to date, but he's about to introduce another rifle—the Crusader—that will work for both tactical and hunting use. George has designed his own action, to be called the M-7000—let's just say it's a highly improved version of the popular Remington Model 700. I've handled the Crusader and have one on order. Only time will tell whether it'll replace my Rock.
Other Great Guns
Preston Pritchett of Prague, Oklahoma, is building the ultimate Remington Model 700-style action—called the Surgeon—and selling them to top rifle builders (such as George Gardner) as fast as he can machine them. Pritchett is able to build the hottest action in the tactical and benchrest communities by owning a state-of-the-art machine shop with computer-controlled milling machines that shape steel to mind-boggling tolerances.
The Surgeon action is absolutely straight and true. In addition, a massive recoil lug and Picatinny rail are integral to the action design. The action utilizes a one-piece bolt that's true to the center line of the receiver—to a few fractions of a whisker. Pritchett incorporates a side-mounted bolt stop that's much stronger and more reliable and convenient than the factory design, and he also has an anti-jam rail to ensure perfect alignment of the cartridge into the chamber. His bolt features an oversized handle to ensure positive operation and excellent ergonomics.
Soon, Pritchett will be modifying his Surgeon action for the basis of a lightweight hunting rifle called the Surgeon Razor. I have no doubt these custom rifles will be some of the most accurate, rugged and nicest handling firearms available to hunters.
You might be asking yourself, "Do I really need the extreme accuracy of a custom rifle for big game hunting?" Only you can answer that question for your own hunting style. Personally, I want the best shooting rifle I can get my hands on. I'm a more confident hunter when I know my rifle, scope and ammo aren't going to let me down in any situation. And when I'm faced with a tricky shot, I know there's only one variable—me.