Time to Split: How to Prevent a Rifle Stock From Breaking

Back in the 1960s (Remember the ’60s?), I happened upon a rifle chambered for the .475 A&M Magnum, a truly hellish cartridge made by necking up a .460 Weatherby to .475 so that it would shoot a 600-grain bullet at 2,500 fps. In the process, it generated more than 90 foot-pounds of recoil, more than twice that of a .375 H&H. This cannon had been stocked by Griffin & Howe, I believe, and the first time its owner pulled the trigger, the stock split completely in half, as though cleaved by an axe.

Wood stocks do this. Wood grain is directional, and if you hit it the right way, it will fall in twain.

I’ve pointed out that building a heavy rifle, as opposed to making one for use by sane people, is roughly analogous to building a stock car as opposed to a street car. The former is exposed to stresses and strains that the letter will never come close to experiencing.

I’ve seen some truly wretched heavy rifles built by fine craftsmen who were simply inexperienced with the genre and had little idea of how they were used.

The first rule is, make it heavy. Screw in a nice, fat barrel. Nothing calms a rifle down like a nice, fat barrel. Aim for an overall weight of 12 pounds with a full magazine and a sling. This is enough to take much of the recoil out of a gun and still be light enough to carry for long periods of time. Also, it's easier to aim when you're aiming at something that would like to kill you and your heart is going pitter-pat.

Second, don't use real wood for the stock. If you must do so, look for a plain, heavy piece of walnut, something with tight grain and little or no figure. Laminated wood is a much better choice for a working rifle, since it's much stronger than the genuine article and heavier as well, which is desirable. Synthetics do very well, except that some of them are light. I once had a very good Mauser-action .375 H&H with a synthetic stock that was too light, so I had it filled with lead shot. That worked until the lead shot broke loose and I sounded like a flamenco dancer, so it all got scooped out and replaced by a couple of mercury recoil reducers, such as trap shooters use. I could hear the mercury sloshing and gurgling until I became so deaf that there was no noise, and they worked terrific.

You can, of course, use a muzzle brake, except that muzzle brakes add to the length of the barrel, which you don't want, and deafen the trackers, which you really don't want. Also, they add to the stress on the scope, which is stressed enough as it is. No muzzle brakes. Man up.

Then there’s the question of stock reinforcement. You can have a second recoil lug brazed to the barrel (usually halfway down) and if this is bedded in epoxy, it will help a lot. Your primary recoil lug should be bedded in glass at the very least, and the best way to do it is to epoxy a steel block behind the lug. If you’re shooting something that can split a steel bolt, maybe you should be shooting something else.

Bolt-actions have a huge gap where the magazine lies, and the thin wood alongside the magazine tends to bulge outward under the stress of recoil, so you need something there. Most gunmakers use transverse bolts, decorated sometimes, and these work fine so long as they’re glassed in place. If they’re not, the wood can shrink or expand, and the bolts will serve no purpose at all.

The tang of an action can split a stock nicely if the action sets back in the wood. Weatherby, when they designed the Mark V action, was aware of this because the Mark V’s tang is sharp along its bottom and can raise hell with whatever is behind it. Weatherby designed the stock so that the tang rides on top of the wood and is not inletted into it. That way, the action can set back all it likes and nothing is going to happen.

Some rifles are built with a noticeable gap between the rear and of the tang and the stock. This is not sloppy work; quite the contrary. It’s to keep the stock from splitting.

British gunmakers discovered the horrors of split stocks long ago. I’ve seen bolt-actions and double rifles made at the beginning of the 20th century that had steel straps extending from the tang, down the top of the pistol grip, into the nose of the comb. This was both beautifully done, and very difficult to execute, and I’ve never seen one of these reinforced grips break. One rifle, in a friend’s collection, has a steel sleeve riveted around the pistol grip. It looks like hell and was probably a repair job, but I have no doubt it works.

A much simpler expedient is to drill a hole up into the pistol grip, insert a steel dowel, and epoxy it in place. Put on a grip cap and no one will know it’s there. That grip is not going to break. Weatherby used to do this with their wood stocks, and I believe they still do.

In my hunting career, I’ve seen four stocks broken. All were wood. One was snapped through the pistol grip when ramp apes ran over the aluminum case with the tug that pulls jets hither and yon. The other two snapped when the front swivel studs pulled out; both rifles pivoted backward over their owners’ shoulders and hit, hard, on their muzzles. What gave were the pistol grips. The fourth was a .460 Weatherby whose stock had split. God knows how, as they’re built properly and heavily reinforced. It was held together by Land Rover door bolts and marine epoxy.

I love wood. God knows I’ve paid enough for fancy walnut and the work that goes into it. But it breaks. That’s why just about all my working stocks began life as chemicals.