Intro to Custom Guns
The term “custom rifle” conjures up different meanings for different people. By trade, I’m a “custom gunmaker,” which is another term with varying interpretations. The most relevant dictionary definitions of “custom” are: “made to the specifications of the individual purchaser” and “specializing in making of made-to-order goods.”
By contrast, the definition of “customized” is “to alter to the tastes of the buyer.” Many folks lump the first definition of “custom” cited above in with the definition of “customized.” Customizing can include a new stock, a new barrel, the addition or alteration of scope mounts or sights, improved chambering or even complete refinishing or remodeling of a factory rifle. A true custom rifle, however, begins with an action and is designed and built from the action up with all the pieces and parts transformed into a new rifle that’s unlike any other.
A customized firearm will retain its factory identity while a custom gun will have its own singular character. I like to think of a custom project as starting with the concept of a complete rifle, sometimes in the form of a full-scale drawing. The concept must be a collaboration of the client’s and the gunmaker’s ideas, dimensional considerations, intended purpose and design preferences. A custom rifle is a very personal item that’s an extension of both the owner and the craftsman who built it.
Five steps are required to get from a concept to a finished piece. Those steps are design, metalwork, stock-making, engraving and finishing, and they should be undertaken in exactly the order listed. For the most part, the five steps are performed by three classes of workmen: metalsmiths, stockmakers and engravers. I say for the most part because the custom gun trade in America embodies the ideal of individualism. These artisans are highly skilled in the use of machines, tools and their own hands. The majority of them have learned some of the skills of the related trades, but only a few are competent in all three categories. Therefore custom guns are usually a collaborative venture.
The modern era of custom gunmaking began at the end of World War I, and the conclusion of World War II gave it another boost. The original focus of custom work was making new stocks for bolt-action military rifles that were used in the two wars. In addition to better stocks, converting battle rifles to civilian use required barrel work, new sights and altered bolt handles to allow scope use. Today the receiver, bolt and sometimes the trigger-guard assembly are all that are used from military rifles. These parts are completely reworked to bring them up to current quality standards.
Starting with the skills of the stockmaker, the custom trade blossomed as the demand for metalwork grew. Because of this evolution, most of today’s custom rifles are designed by the stockmaker or by a metalsmith with stockmaking skills. When designing a custom rifle, the two most important questions are, first, what is the intended use of the rifle and, second, what style of rifle does the client desire? The question of intended use deals with the rifle’s functional aspects. Matters such as the cartridge, sighting system and the overall weight hinge on how the client will use the rifle. A sheep hunter wouldn’t be satisfied with an iron-sighted .416 Rigby that weighs 12 pounds. The intended use of the rifle will focus the project in the right direction.
Styling refers to the character and appearance of the rifle. It is important for the client to write down the features he wants. Often the client uses an order form supplied by the gunmaker on which the options and specifications are written. It’s important for the client to tell the craftsman exactly what he wants during the design stage because it’s much easier to change features on paper than in wood or steel. After the client relates his desires, it’s a good idea to ask for the gunmaker’s opinions and comments. What the client is buying is not simply a new rifle but rather the craftsman’s accumulated knowledge, experience and skill. The design phase of the project is always exciting for the client. It’s the time to ask questions and to become as familiar as possible with the project. Once the design is finalized, the materials and component parts can be purchased. The craftsman customarily attends to that on the client’s behalf. Notable exceptions, however, are the rifle action and the stock blank. Clients often will already have an action or a stock blank. If they don’t have a stock blank, they might like to have a say in picking a blank that’s attractive and structurally sound.
Today’s custom rifle typically begins with an existing action from which the rifle is individually designed and then built from the ground up. The factory, military or antique action will be overhauled and tuned for correct or improved function, and then it will be cosmetically and aesthetically contoured, shaped and refined externally to suit the tastes of the gunmaker and the client. The barrel – often custom cut or button rifled – will be fit to the action and chambered to predetermined specifications for the cartridge of choice. The barrel will then be cut to length and contoured with regard to structural integrity, internal ballistics, balance and overall weight of the rifle. The barreled action is the heart of the rifle.
Sights and scope mounts are chosen with an eye to style, accuracy potential, stock design and type of hunting or shooting that will be done. Often scope mounts will be custom-crafted for the project. The trigger guard, magazine box and floorplate are picked with function, magazine capacity and appearance in mind. Accessories such as the grip cap, buttplate, sling studs and forend tip are selected to conform with the rifle’s styling. Each type of custom gun – whether it be a bolt-action, single-shot or lever-action rifle or any one of several types of shotgun – has different requirements and considerations for custom metalsmithing. All types must function properly and shoot accurately.
Picking a stock blank is one of the highlights of a custom-gun project. English walnut is usually the choice of the stockmaker. Often a blank will be chosen for its flamboyant beauty, but there are also pragmatic considerations like layout, density and age or cure time. The stock design takes those considerations into account along with the notion that the stock is what unites the cold, functional part of the rifle to the living parts of the human body that hold the rifle. The parameters of the rifle’s hardware determine the basic shape of a gunstock, but the human body has even more influence on it.
The “layout” process is used to determine what part of the blank will provide the best stock. Using templates and measuring devices, the stockmaker decides where the barreled action will fit to provide the strongest and most stable stock. Removing wood to make room for the rifle’s metal parts is known as inletting, and it’s the most important part of stockmaking. The barreled action is stripped to its component parts and inletted into the stock blank in the appropriate position. One by one, each part is reinstalled on the metalwork and inletted until the complete barreled action is fitted into the blank. The placement of the grip cap and buttplate is established by measurements taken from the inletted barreled action. Using the exterior edges of the buttplate, grip cap and barreled action as reference points, the excess wood can be sawn off to create the stock’s basic profile.
The final contours of the stock are then shaped with rasps, files, draw knife, spokeshave, and chisel and mallet. The forestock and wrist are rounded off, and the butt is shaped to follow the form of the buttplate. The comb and toe line are contoured, and details such as a cheekpiece, bolt-handle groove and comb fluting are added. It’s at this stage that stock furniture like sling-swivel bases, magnum cross-bolts and gold monogram plates is installed.
When a custom stock is made with a carving or duplicating machine, the first step is to prepare the pattern with the barreled action glass bedded into a low-grade stock blank. The exterior of the pattern is shaped to suit the philosophy of the stockmaker and the physique of the client. Inletting is largely a mechanical operation, but shaping the stock is an artistic endeavor. Some stockmakers leave the exterior of the pattern oversize. Others put their full efforts into the pattern, and then have the machine carve an exact duplicate from the stock blank that the customer has selected. After the blank has been machined, the stock furniture is installed, and the necessary shaping and detailing is accomplished. After final shaping, the stock is thoroughly hand-sanded, and the wood pores are filled with finish until they are level with the surface. This is usually done with multiple applications of oil that are wet sanded between coats. It may take two weeks or more to complete the process.
The stock is now ready for checkering. Properly executed checkering is both artistic and functional. In addition to enhancing the appearance of the stock, it provides a better grip for the shooter’s hands. Checkering patterns are recognized by their outline shapes. The most common are V-patterns that end in points and the three petal “fleur-de-lis.” Checkering pattern variations seem nearly endless.
Because the stockmaker is the last person performing work relating to the function of the rifle and is usually the person who assembles the finished product, it is his lot to do final function and performance testing. This includes loading cartridges into the magazine and seeing that they feed properly into the chamber, making sure no moving parts are wood-bound from the finishing process, and assuring that the barreled action is properly bedded when the guard screws are drawn tight. Then comes actual test firing at the range to ensure that the rifle functions with live ammunition and that it meets or exceeds accuracy requirements. When the stockmaker is satisfied that the rifle performs as it should, the metalwork is turned over to the engraver for embellishment.
Although engraving can be purposeful when marking the caliber, sighting ranges and maker’s name, it is primarily a decorative embellishment to please the owner. Fine guns have been engraved for as long as there have been fine guns. To assume that engraving has no useful function is to ignore the artistic element of custom gunmaking. Most gunmakers like to see at least a “detail job” of engraving on their rifles. This consists of engraved screw heads, borders around the metal parts and a bit of scrollwork to break-up the larger open areas. More elaborate work such as floral or English rose and scroll, where the negative spaces are part of the art, are typical on high-grade custom rifles. Contemporary custom guns often feature gold inlays, game scenes and floral “Arabesque” engraving.
After the engraver has completed his portion of the project, the metalwork requires a protective finish to prevent rust and corrosion. The three most common finishes for custom guns are rust bluing, French graying and color case-hardening. Caustic or hot-dip bluing is also used in some circumstances.
The most important intangible that I try to add to each custom gun project is harmony. Beginning with the harmonious function of the moving parts, I try to ensure that everything works so well that the shooter does not take any particular notice of the functioning of the gun. It should feel harmonious to the body and look harmonious to the eye. When a custom gun is picked up, its weight and balance should feel appropriate for its size and intended purpose. A gun that’s too heavy or too light is quickly noticeable, but when the weight is correct, it goes unnoticed. Proper balance is not as readily apparent as weight, but it’s easily detected by those familiar with fine guns. Anyone who’s ever handled a high-grade English shotgun understands how important weight and balance are to a custom gun.
All must be in proportion to be in harmony. Adding or removing twenty-five thousandths of an inch in the thickness of a barrel will change the weight and significantly alter the balance of a rifle. Likewise, twenty-five thousandths of an inch of extra wood in the pistol grip – the thickness of the cardboard on the back of a writing tablet – can change the look and feel of a stock. Working to close tolerances is part of creating harmony in any complex craft. Rifle chambering needs to be within one half of one thousandth of an inch. Barrel contouring should be within a few thousandths. Stock-shaping tolerances are not as precise but are equally important. It is the mind and the hands that guide the tools of the artisan to keep within these narrow parameters so as to please the senses of the sportsman. Many people appreciate custom guns without understanding the exactness that goes into making them. “I’ve had the rifle a year now and I still keep finding new details that I like.” Words to that effect have been voiced by more than one happy customer.
Being on the “customer” end of a custom gunmaking project can be an exciting experience. How many things are currently available on a custom basis? One can have suits or shirts or shoes made to fit, but what other functional items can be had to suit your own physique, sense of adventure and notions of aesthetic pleasure? Like custom furniture, a handmade rifle will grow more comfortable and more useful with age and will last through several refinishings in subsequent lifetimes. Like a fine piece of art, a custom rifle will endure, but unlike the static pleasure of sculpture, a fine rifle can be thrown to the shoulder, the bolt stroked and the trigger pulled. You can take it to the range, the Northeast woods, the Bob Marshall Wilderness or the plains of Africa. And it’s yours in a way that few other things will ever be – as personal as a pocketknife that’s yours and no one else’s.
Once client said, “I had the gun for six months before I ever shot it, but it felt like a brother when I did, I had handled it so much.” That feeling of “personal” begins the first time you conjure up the kind of custom rifle you want. It gets exciting during the design stages when it’s shared and developed with the artisan. The waiting time for its creation becomes “a sweet sort of agony, when what you acquire takes a year or two or three to arrive,” as writer John Barsness put it. When it does arrive, you know you have something that no one else in the whole world has. Possessive? Materialistic? You bet!
When you shoot the rifle, about the time that its shine and newness begin wearing off, it should start to become an ally, a personal friend. The rifle becomes something to be appreciated alone or shared with friends when you’re shooting it and when you’re not. If you’ve hunted with your custom rifle, it will evoke memories each time that you heft its weight. Many of my memories of special hunts are linked to the rifle I was carrying. “You can always look at your rifle when the deer aren’t moving.” Everyone who has hunted with a custom rifle has spent plenty of time looking at it when the hunting was for naught.
I try to go to the range on Tuesdays to sight in a new project because there are fewer people there then. If anyone at all is on hand, whether I know them or not, they always want to know, “What kind of rifle is that?”
“It’s a custom rifle,” I say. “I’m building it for a customer on the East Coast. He’s really excited about getting it.”