Not All Stocks Grow on Trees

They come from test tubes, too. How do woods and synthetics compare?

Field & Stream Online Editors

Rifles were originally stocked with wood because the chemists of the late 1400s had not gotten around to inventing Kevlar, fiberglass, and thermosetting plastics. So wood has had to do for 500 years or so, and it has worked out pretty well.

But wood is not perfect. Wood gunstocks soak up humidity, and when this happens they swell and shrink, and when they swell and shrink, the rifle changes point of impact and you miss. Wood can also be heavier than we'd like, and it is not the strongest stuff on earth.

Synthetic stocks supposedly avoid all these shortcomings. They are alleged to be lighter, stronger, and stabler than wood, and some are. But the truth, as always, is more complex than this. Let's look at the three most important factors in a stock-strength, stability, and weight-and see how wood and plastic stack up.

Back in the 1960s, I was shown a very expensive custom rifle chambered for a horrific wildcat cartridge called the .475 A&M; Magnum. On the very first pull of the trigger, the stock had split as though cleaved by an axe. The wood was not weak-it was a fine piece of walnut-but wood grain is directional, and if it is struck hard enough, and at the right angle, it will shear.

Laminated-wood stocks are much stronger. They consist of slabs or sheets of wood glued together under great pressure. Their grain is not directional, and they are terrifically strong, although they tend to be heavier than homogeneous wood stocks.

Good synthetic stocks cannot shear because their structure is completely unlike that of wood, and because they are made of materials that are far stronger. But a cheap synthetic stock, which is usually just a piece of molded plastic, can break pretty easily.

Some wood stocks are dead stable, whereas others won't hold still no matter what you do to them. This is less of a problem than it used to be, since most wood-stocked rifles now have their barrels free-floated so that the barrel doesn't touch the fore-end.

Synthetic stocks will not absorb water, but that doesn't mean that all of them are stable. Some shift because the epoxy resin used in their manufacture takes a long time to harden completely, and until it does, the stock will wander. Some synthetic stocks will shift spectacularly when exposed to heat. In the 1980s, I had a fiberglass-stocked .222 that I stuck in the trunk of a car on a hot summer's day. When I shot it, the point of impact was a foot off at 100 yards.

If you're looking for a light rifle, a synthetic stock is not necessarily the answer. Some synthetics weigh as much as wood-or more. Kevlar stocks are the lightest but are expensive. Fiberglass costs less but is not quite as strong or as light. Molded-plastic stocks are the heaviest and do not provide strength commensurate with their weight.

Different woods vary greatly in weight, and the fancier the wood, regardless of type, the more it weighs. Walnut and birch are the most popular woods for factory rifles because they combine light weight with good strength.

Very often, an existing wood stock can be considerably lightened by reshaping it and drilling out the butt. Factories used to leave enough extra wood on their stocks to kindle a campfire, and although they're not as bad as before, many mass-produced wood stocks can use some trimming. You usually end up not only with a lighter gun but with a better-looking one as well.

Keep in mind that light weight is not necessarily a good thing. I have owned very light .300s and .338s and sold them all because they kicked like the hammers of hell and I couldn't shoot them. As our late executive editor Peter Barrett used to say, "If you can't carry the damn gun, what are you doing in the woods anyway?"