Don’t buy cheap work
The going rate for a top-quality synthetic-stocked hunting rifle is $3,000 to $6,000. If you find some guy who will build you one that’s just as good for $640.85, run for your life.
Eschew the odd
Years ago, Abercrombie & Fitch had a highly engraved used bull-barreled varmint rifle for sale. I think it was in their New York City store for 10 years, and I don’t know if it ever did sell. Simply, no one wanted an engraved varmint rifle. Should the sad day come when you must part with your custom gun, and it’s too strange, you will be unable to recoup any of your investment’ at least not within a decade.
Wood or Chemical?
If I were looking for a working rifle, there’s no question I would want a synthetic stock, and that’s what many custom gunsmiths are using these days. Some offer laminated wood, which is a good compromise, especially for a larger-caliber rifle where you want some weight.
Pick a sane cartridge
It is a given among custom-rifle builders that the clients with the most smarts pick the dullest, oldest cartridges’ 7×57 Mauser, .30/06, .270, .375 H&H, and so on. That’s because these rounds have been around longer than dirt and have proven themselves through many generations. They won’t fail you, either. There are good reasons why few people build rifles for the .30/416 Eargesplitten Loudenboomer.
Get less power
If you think you need a .300 magnum of one kind or another, get a .30/06. Convinced you need a 7mm magnum? Get a .280 or .270. For a deer rifle, think 7mm/08, .260 Remington, or 6.5×55 Swede. The less the recoil, the better you shoot, and the better you shoot, the more game you get.
Don’t get nuts about accuracy
Any big-game rifle that will shoot a minute of angle will kill anything you aim it at. A half-minute rifle won’t make the beasts any deader. The gun you end up with will in all probability shoot better than you can hold. What you’re looking for is consistency above everything else. You want all your shots going to the same place all the time.
Watch your weight
Extremely light rifles are every bit as accurate as standard-weight guns, but they’re tougher to hold steady when you’re winded or excited. For standard calibers, you don’t want less than 7 pounds with scope. In heavier calibers, lack of weight can make a rifle unmanageable. I would not own a .338 that weighed less than 9 pounds or a .300 magnum that weighed less than 81/2.
It’s the barrel, stupid
The most important component of your rifle is the barrel, because it determines how well your rifle will shoot. Most gun builders use premium barrels as a matter of course, but if yours doesn’t, spend the extra couple of hundred dollars and insist on one.
Listen to the man
Some gun builders will smile, take your money, and turn out exactly what you ordered, whether it’s a crackpot gun or not. Others will tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about. You want the latter. Any gunmaker with an ounce of pride does not want some screwball firearm out there with his name on it.
Beware of revolutionary ideas
A few years ago, it was trendy to make barrels by wrapping fiberglass thread around a thin steel liner. All sorts of advantages were claimed’ until someone pointed out that if you put a nick in the fiberglass, the barrel would probably disintegrate. Most other radical improvements vanish just as quickly.
Ask for the names of half a dozen of a gunsmith’s customers, then find out if they like their guns. You will have to listen carefully. Some people are chronic malcontents; others have unrealistic expectations. A guy who couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat is not a good reference for a gunmaker who guarantees half-minute groups. The fact is that all top makers shoot their rifles before they go down the road, and they know they are accurate, and they are likely to be short with the customer who says his gun won’t deliver.
Tell the gunmaker how you’re going to use the rifle
I recently had a 6.5×55 Swede built but neglected to tell the builder that I wanted to use long, heavy bullets. He assumed I’d follow the current trend for light, fast bullets and gave me a barrel with a 1-in-10 1/2-inch twist’ fine for light slugs but all wrong for heavy ones. I had to return the gun and get a new barrel. The whole thing was my fault.
When it comes to scope and mounts, shut up and listen
Just about every custom-rifle maker has strong ideas about which scopes and mounts work best. There’s a reason for this. Most of them also insist on mounting the scope themselves, having endured bitter experiences when they let the customers do it.
Get to know your gun
The best rifle in the world will not transform a poor shot into a decent one or a mediocre shot into a good one. When you get your new rifle, burn some ammo.
Some Recommended Custom Gunmakers
Here are six craftsmen who have either made rifles for me, or whose work I’ve shot at length. There are plenty more out there.
Mark Bansner’s Ultimate Rifles, Adamstown, PA. 717-484-2370;
Mark makes his own bolt action, or will use someone else’s if he likes it, and will build you a rifle with either one of his own synthetic stocks or with a wood stock. Standard models with lots of extra features.
Ed Brown Precision, Perry, MO. 573-565-3261; edbrown.com
Ed Brown makes his own bolt action, and builds synthetic-stock rifles only. There are eight models to choose from.
Jarrett Rifles, Jackson, SC. 803-471-3616; jarrettrifles.com
Kenny has his own bolt action, and will use others. He makes ’em with synthetic or wood stocks.
Lazzeroni Arms Co. Tucson, AZ. 888-492-7247; lazzeroni.com
Lazz builds rifles for his two lines of proprietary cartridges in short and long magnum lengths. Synthetic stocks only.
New Ultra Light Arms, Granville, WV. 304-292-0600; newultralight.com
Melvin Forbes makes the lock and the stock (synthetic only) and uses mostly Douglas barrels. He makes a .22 rimfire and just about any centerfire caliber you could want.
Sisk Rifles, Dayton, TX. 936-258-4984; siskguns.com
Charlie Sisk uses a variety of actions and has a series of standard models. They are synthetic-stock only.