What Happened to the Custom Hunting Rifle, Part 2
Six reasons why fewer hunters aspire to own wood-stocked, one-of-a-kind, bespoke rifles
In Part 1, I described how for eight decades, give or take a few years, the wood-stocked, bespoke bolt-action was the hunting rifle to which everyone aspired. They went from underpriced to worth more than a car, or several cars, and the work lavished on them just got better and better. But then the world changed. In this post, we’ll look at what happened, and what it did to this noble American art form.
Over the years, I’ve owned a couple of dozen CHRs, and sold all but two, which I keep for sentimental reasons, and have been able to see how their value held up. The answer is, barely. Selling high-end left-hand rifles is not the easiest thing in the world. There are not a lot of southpaw shooters out there, and never have been. If I was able to get my money back, I considered myself lucky.
Hunting in general is less popular. Big game hunting on a serious scale is even less popular than that because its costs have risen astronomically and its opportunities have declined. Therefore, why spend thousands of dollars on a rifle that you may hardly get to use?
Fiberglass, graphite, and Kevlar happened. Walnut may be glorious to look at, but it doesn’t make a stable platform for a barreled action. Artificial fibers do. A highly figured rifle blank of Juglans regia costs $3,000 right out of the tree, before anyone sets a chisel to it. Make it into a stock and it becomes a work of art that can never be replicated. Do you really want to put this in a case that the airline goons can run over with a tug? Kevlar would not break in the first place, and if it did, you can get out the Bondo and epoxy and paint and fix it good as new.
Accuracy happened. What David Miller did for prices, Kenny Jarrett did for small groups. Way back in the 1980s, Kenny decreed that everything which came out of his shop would shoot ½-MoA.
All the top-flight workers in wood were forced to offer synthetic-stocked rifles. Do they shoot? Yes they do. But the rifles built in the heyday of the CHR do not. Back then, 1 ¼ to 1 ½ inches was considered very good; an inch was nearly mythical, and sub MoA was not even a possibility.
Factory rifles got much, much better. Not all of them, but some of them. You can buy a Bergara for $1,100 that will shoot better than you can, and I don’t care how well you shoot. Savage builds competition and tactical rifles that will group along with just about anything, and I believe that Savage actions are used as the basis for more custom competition rifles than any other.
Fashion has changed. Tactical is in. Sporting is yesterday. I’m informed that the rich and trendy want tactical-looking rifles for hunting. A vertical handgrip may look like hell, but it’s ergonomically superior to one that forms a segment of a circle, and it identifies you as a True Hard Case who might have been a SEAL sniper if you had not been busy getting an MBA from Harvard.
Long range is in. Traditional CHRs are designed for powder-burn range to 300 yards. Not any more. An Ovis ammon polii that is not dropped in Tajikistan while you are still in Kyrgyzstan is hardly worth boasting about at the next SCI convention. In the 1940s and 50s, when outdoor writers wrote about taking sheep at 1,600 yards, people had a good laugh. Now when you read the same thing, no one is laughing.
So, is a CHR worth it? In terms of dollars and cents, no. But consider: A Chevrolet Z06 goes as fast as a Ferrari V-12 Berlinetta, and for $80,000 rather than $320,000. The L.L. Bean watch on my wrist, which costs around $200, tells time better than a Patek Philippe, which costs around $50,000. And yet there’s no shortage of buyers for Ferraris or Pateks.
What you buy when you get a CHR is the knowledge that someone with a very rare set of skills made what you have in your hands, doing the very best work he could. And there will never be another quite like it. For some people, that’s more than enough justification to spend the money.