The Two Gunsmiths Continue Their Project/Passion
February 1, 2017
By Mike Berger with Pat Knight
Editor's Note: Retired Fire Chief Mike Berger and his friend Pat Knight have been submitting articles about the progression of refurbishing vintage rifles; their mutual project I would call a passion, and we are certainly benefitting from their willingness to share the story. It continues here with reference to the gun's stock.
The next main component of a rifle is the stock. Many rifles today are built with a synthetic stock material. There are people who think this is a cost saving measure. They have obviously not checked prices on some of the offerings from McMillan, H.S. Precision, or any of a dozen companies that produce high quality precision stocks from synthetic materials.
If Not Cost, What?
So if not cost, then what? The two simple answers are weight, and accuracy potential. Some of the synthetic stocks can remove a significant amount of weight from a rifle. When combined with a slim barrel contour, lightening cuts in an action, and lightweight rings, mounts and scopes, the resulting rifle fully loaded, with sling, will be well under 7 pounds.
The next answer is accuracy potential. A wood stock is an organic material that can absorb, or release moisture, changing dimensions. While these changes may be invisible to the eye, they are huge when it comes to accuracy.
The Term 'Accuracy'
The term "accuracy" is both simple, and complex. An accurate rifle is able to put multiple shots in very close proximity, to the same point of aim each time it is used. Accuracy is simply the elimination of all variables - ammunition that is totally consistent fired from a rifle that is the same each time. Factors like the harmonics caused by the firing of the ammunition, hand position etc., all effect accuracy.
There Is Something About A Wood Stock
And yet there is something about a wood stock - the warmth and beauty of the colors and individual pattern of the grain in the wood. A wood stock can truly be the very soul of the rifle.
The start is the selection of a wood blank that has the grain properly flowing to ensure that the finished rifle will be strong, as well as beautiful. Next is the shaping of the stock, which must take into account the caliber, the rifle's use, and the size, gender and build of the owner.
A stock that "fits" is a pleasure to shoot. It naturally comes to the shoulder, and almost seems to aim itself. A stock that is poorly fitted can be just as accurate, but never comfortable to shoot. Part of the plan for the stock will be features like pistol grip, cheek piece, recoil pad, forend tip, inlays, metal accessories and special features.
The Selected Stock Blank
The selected stock blank had beautiful color, figure (the pattern of swirls, stripes and patterns in the wood that make each piece unique) and grain flowing properly in the critical areas. The top line of the forend then had to be established, so that wood removal could begin. The rough shape was established, and the inletting process began.
Inletting is the removal of wood so that the metal becomes imbedded in the wood of the stock. If done properly, the metal seems to almost grow out of the wood. This is a precise, and tedious process involving measurements, mill work, more measurements and even more wood removal. Then comes the continued process of sinking the barreled action into the wood to the correct depth.
Cannot Rush This Process
This tedious process cannot be rushed if you want a successful outcome. Next are the uses of chisels, scrapers, and cutters. The process continues with the removal of ever smaller amounts of wood as it starts to look as if the wood and metal belong together. A viscus liquid stain is applied to the metal, and contact with the wood is shown by transfer of the color, indicating areas where high spots need to be removed. This process is repeated for the bottom metal of the action using the action screws to properly locate everything front to back and side to side.
This process used to be much more involved when the metal had to be fully bedded in wood, yet the end result rarely produced the level of accuracy that we now take for granted. Now there are epoxy-bedding compounds used that are so precise that the stampings in the bottom of the receiver are exactly reproduced in reverse in these bedding materials. This does not relieve the gunsmith of doing an extremely close job of fitting metal to wood, but rather enhances the completed product.
The action being used is a flat-bottomed action. These action types usually have the best accuracy when the barrel is also partially bedded along with the receiver. Areas must be relieved to allow proper harmonics and room for disassembly. This is not a process for the novice. A minor mistake can result in inaccuracy.
More serious consequences can include a permanent bonding of the wood or synthetic stock to the metal. Repair of this mistake can include the machining away of the stock and damage to the metal structures of the rifle.
As part of this bedding process, the barrel is free floated. This involves the removal of enough material in the barrel channel to allow the barrel to move freely during the firing cycle, allowing an identical moment of movement of the barrel. Again, this results in removal of an inconsistency that potentially affects accuracy.
Once the barrel and action are bedded, the shaping of the stock continues. Each stock is different, with intended features such as cheek piece, forend shape, length, and many other features come into play. I am reminded of one of the Karate Kid movies, where Daniel learns to make a Bonsai Tree by picturing in his mind, and removing anything that does not look like the tree in his thoughts. Such is the case here, where wood is removed where it does not look like the stock. The difference is that this must be done slowly, as no new growth can ever replace too much wood removed.
Selection Of Certain Features
As the shaping is done, certain features must be selected, such as the style of the stock, cheek piece or not, and which style. Should it have a forend tip, grip cap, inlays, or carvings? Should it be checkered, and if so, what pattern? For this caliber, a recoil pad is highly advisable, but options include butt plates, or checkering the butt of the stock. All of these features will impact the final look and in some cases, the function of the rifle.
Features included in Rifle number one included a shadow -line cheek piece of a unique design, with flowing lines and a hollowed area to allow for full contact, while allowing proper eye position with the scope. A forend tip, grip cap and an inlay behind the action were all made from a single piece of Zebrawood, and the grip cap also features a Mammoth Ivory inlay. Shaping of the pistol grip area was open to save the knuckles during recoil, and contoured to provide a firm grip without checkering.
Other Custom Features
Other custom features of this rifle include a barrel band mounted front sling swivel, which saves the web of the off-hand during hard recoil, and a barrel band front sight. These were obtained from NECG (New England Custom Gun) and customized by machining clover-shaped cutouts in the band areas.
The rifle was finished in matte black Cerakote Finish. This is an extremely tough, wear resistant finish that is an excellent protectant for a firearm. The previously described clove- shaped cutouts had the insides coated with a bronze Cerakote to provide an attractive contrast. The finish was then baked to provide its maximum strength.
The stock was finished in many coats of hand-rubbed oil finish, with repeated sanding between coats to properly fill all of the pores of the wood. It was then polished to a high gloss finish. which really set off the beautiful wood.
The sighting system of the rifle required some special attention as it would be going to Africa. Travel of that magnitude could prove hard on the optics (scope) of a rifle, so a redundant back-up system would need to be included.
This rifle was equipped with a Voere quick-detachable mounting system, which allowed rapid scope changes, with each scope maintaining a very close return to zero. It also has an integral peep sight, visible when the scope is off. Scopes used for this trip were a Leupold VX-3 in 4.5X14 with custom turret and side parallex focus knob. The backup scope was an IOR 8X56.
With this setup, the rifle would be able to perform, no matter what.