Building a Custom Predator Rifle

A custom rifle often is the path to pretty. But if you want more than looks, build a rifle that fits and shoots accurately.

Building a Custom Predator Rifle

A rifle should anticipate your wish. Balance is hard to describe; you feel it when it’s right. Weight is best kept low and between your hands. (Photo: Wayne Van Zwoll

Big game rifles get all the love in shops catering to the carriage class. From costly doubles crafted for royalty under British shingles predating the caplock, to elegant Depression-era bolt rifles snugged into centuries-old walnut by American artisans, built-to-order firearms have been defined, in part, by powerful cartridges.

It’s as if the effort and cost invested in fine custom work are wasted on rifles used routinely by the proletariat banging away at the likes of coyotes, which live in the earth, snatch poodles from suburbs and sometimes get run over by trucks. Predators are everywhere. They hide in low bushes and eat carrion. Hunting them entails no difficult licensing, exclusive visas, epic pack trips, or four-figure taxidermy bills.

Why squander exhibition wood, G33/40 actions and the hand of masters on such common beasts?

By most standards, the profile of the “classic” American hunting rifle emerged during the 1920s and the economic stagnation of the ‘30s. Demand for custom bolt-actions grew slowly in the prosperity that followed, mainly because factory-built rifles on the heels of WW II were exceedingly well made and easy on the wallet. In 1945 you could buy a new Winchester Model 70 or 71, a Remington 720 or Savage 99R for less than $80! Popular deer rifles — Winchester’s 94, Marlin’s 336 — sold for around $40. Surplus 03 Springfields and 98 Mausers could be had for what you’ll pay now to fuel a bass boat.

My first stock blank — semi-inletted American walnut — set me back $7.50. European walnut was readily available then, and craftsmen of great talent earned little for breathing life into infantry rifles. But as supplies of French and English wood dwindled, stockers skilled at drawing beauty from the bowels of armories were set to more rewarding tasks in both steel and walnut and were paid better.   

Custom big game rifles got precious post-war attention from scribes in the shooting press.

Warren Page, an English professor, could turn a phrase as deftly as he drilled itty bitty groups in Benchrest competition or felled big game with his 7mm Mashburn Super Magnum. As Shooting Editor at Field & Stream from 1947-72, he wrote while Jack O’Connor held forth as Outdoor Life’s Arms and Ammunition Editor (1941-72). O’Connor’s fondness for the .270, and for lightweight Model 70s by Al Biesen, were as much his signature as his engaging prose. John Jobson penned Sports Afield columns for more than 20 years in that era, as Camping then Hunting Editor. Like his colleagues, he wrote of rifles with feeling, sharing a passion for custom work. A great fan of the 7x57, Jobson died in 1979, a year after O’Connor passed away on a cruise ship.

Since then, rifles have changed a great deal. Synthetic compounds have replaced walnut as stock material. Detachable boxes, receiver rails and threaded muzzles have altered bolt-action profiles. Riflescopes have grown in girth and mass to the point of obesity. Angular bulges and overstated features send rifles well off traditional cosmetic rails. Extremes have become the norm. There’s the “long-range rifle” with prone stock and truck-axle barrel (include here the “varmint” rifle of equal bulk, sturdy bipod in place). Opposite: The “ultra-lightweight” with skeletal stock and alloy parts, pencil-thin barrel bored for a squat cartridge with a bullet as long as the brass. Neither the ponderous nor the whippy can please hunters who probe remote places on foot but expect the sight to settle quickly from field positions.

Custom Projects

Standard weight sporters remain, but most lack “classic” looks and feel. To treat eye and hand to these, you must buy used or embark on a custom project. A rifle with the character of a Griffin & Howe will drain your 401K. But you don’t need that to kill coyotes.

I own a lovely custom-stocked predator rifle, a Model 70 barreled to 6mm Remington. It wears a dark piece of figured French. With a Leupold 6x, it scales just shy of 8 pounds. Exquisite balance gives it a nose for the target. Alas, I can’t afford many of those. My latest project is more pedestrian. It began as a Remington 700 short action. Stout, reliable, affordable and of modest weight, a 700 receiver is justifiably popular as the core of custom rifles. It’s become so common since its 1962 debut that flocks of other rifles have adopted its “footprint,” a redundancy that makes life easy for makers of after-market stocks.

Boyds, for example. This South Dakota firm offers myriad styles and colors in laminated stocks for nearly every bolt-action you might name — and for popular rifles with two-piece stocks. Machined to close tolerances for a snug drop-in fit, Boyds wood is a natural step toward a custom-built predator rifle — and one of the least expensive. The company’s website offers options in length, fittings and finishes as you “spec out” your pick. My short-action 700 will get a Boyds stock. Unlike rifle projects decades back, this one won’t need glass bedding. Glassing the recoil lug is still practical insurance against stock splits from hard-kicking loads, and it can enhance accuracy. In Boyds stocks, I’ve found it unnecessary.

My 700 is already barreled for predators. Having used barrels from many sources, I chose Shaw for the choices it affords. Formerly, E.R. Shaw, the firm runs three factories in Pennsylvania. Its Custom Barrel Division has an online menu. Specify stainless or chrome-moly steel, barrel length and profile, fluting if you want it, finish and of course chambering and rifling twist. I’ve been impressed by the Shaw barrels in my rack: a 6.5/284 and a .264 on Mauser actions, a .370 Sako on Shaw’s own Model 7 action. For this 700, a 24-inch stainless fluted barrel in 6mm Creedmoor seemed best. I specified Remington’s magnum contour for a comfortable fit to any stock. Shaw installed a crisply detailed barrel that matched the action’s finish. A patch glides through the mirror-bright bore with no change in resistance.

Instead of a trim hunting stock for this rifle, I could have chosen an MC3 McMillan with a steep grip and more substantial forend for prone shooting. “It’s injection-molded,” Kelly McMillan told me. “But unlike hollow IM stocks that lose rigidity in heat and whose forends twist and bend under sling and bipod pressure, the MC3 has a solid core.” It’s of a glass-filled polymer Kelly calls Xenolite, a material little heavier than walnut. Figure 3 pounds for the Tradition version, with standard toe-line. The Legend has a toe-hook, a beefier forend and side-mounted sling cups instead of QD studs. Both stocks feature alloy pillars, textured grip panels and Decelerator pads. Channels are for Remington Varmint/Sendero barrels. Choose tan or green, short- or long-action inletting.

The McMillan family has served shooters for decades, with many products. The McMillan barrel on my Remington 37 won a state prone title. The “Edge Tech” carbon-fiber/fiberglass stock on a Surgeon rifle is from McMillan’s Custom Shop. In 2007, Kelly re-focused the business. With son Ryan, he founded McMillan Manufacturing. Six years later, that company sold. While Ryan developed a hunting-rifle stock (Grayboe after his sons, Grayson and Boe), Kelly fashioned the MC3. It’s made in McMillan’s 15,000 square-foot Phoenix factory. I’ve installed both long and short versions of the MC3 Tradition. It’s a true drop-in. It lists for as little as $269.

Don't Delay, Get Help

If your custom-rifle itch needs scratching, and a drop-in stock, even with a new barrel, is too light a touch, get professional help. A psychiatrist is wasted coin. Seek instead someone in a shop apron, bent over steel or walnut on an oil-blackened bench with lots of scars. You’ll have decided a few things before you interrupt. These notes help me:

Stainless steel or chrome moly? There’s no practical difference, save in rust resistance, for barrels or receivers. Most of a rifle’s weight is in steel. I’ve had synthetic stocks as light as 11 ounces; those rifles still scaled 5 pounds. Long actions weigh little more than short ones, but some actions weigh more than others. Short bolt stroke is oversold. 

Be aware that barrel contour designations vary, shop to shop. Instead, specify muzzle diameter, plus length and profile. A sketch to scale can help. If you want fluting, discuss bore and wall thickness.

Rifling twist must serve the load. Standard spin works for most bullets, but long bullets may require faster rotation. Better too fast a twist than too slow.

Iron sights are no longer standard. The best are costly but to my eye, they make a rifle look finished, but I can’t name anyone who prefers them to scopes for predators.

A checkered bolt knob is a comely embellishment, but there’s no practical use for it. Checkering tears gun cases and your palm. Choose a smooth, slightly pear-shaped knob,

Point-pattern stock checkering is harder to cut than fill-in fleur-de-lis patterns, as each line affects the border. But point patterns, 22 or 24 lines per inch on grip and full-wrapped forend are a delight.

Checkered steel Neidner-style plates are elegant, but costly and remorseless in recoil. They offer less protection to expensive walnut than do functional and still-handsome Pachmayr Decelerator pads.

Fit and Accuracy

If its stock fits you well, the rifle should naturally point where you look. I favor a slender stock, a straight comb that aligns my eye with iron sights or a low-mounted scope. While my arms beg a 14 1/2-inch pull, most stocks are at least 3/4 inch shorter. I’ve adapted. An open grip, oval in cross-section and slightly wider at the base, allows my hand to shift slightly to maintain control as the rifle comes up. I like generous comb flutes

Up front, a slim, gently tapered forend, pear-shaped in cross-section, seems best, its shoulders thin and clean edged over the barrel channel. Very narrow gaps between wood and metal along the channel and behind the tang make sense. Elsewhere, snug, smooth inletting is the mark of fine work. Wood properly stands slightly proud of metal.

Inherent accuracy matters less than do balance and handling qualities. A rifle should anticipate your wish. Balance is hard to describe; you feel it when it’s right. Weight is best kept low and between your hands. Deep magazine wells make for tall, ungainly forends. I like a slight tilt toward the muzzle to help settle the rifle and counter jump in recoil.        

Looking for talent, and don’t ignore the young or little-known. Glenrock, Wyoming gunsmith Doug Mosier did a beautiful job of refinishing a used rifle’s steel to factory specs without over-polishing. Wes Taylor, also of Glenrock, crafted and carefully fitted a lovely walnut stock. Ask pointedly if what you’ve spec’ed seems reasonable. I was disappointed once when a gorgeous piece of walnut I’d selected arrived from a stocker who applied his own style. The stock shape was all wrong, despite my clear instructions.

The wait for custom work can make wind erosion on granite seem quick — good thing you already have a predator rifle set to hunt.

Bonus: The 700’s First Footprint

In 1948, Remington broke with the flat-bottom receiver design of Mauser actions of the 1890s, Winchester Models 54 (1922) and 70 (1937) and its own Models 30 and 30 Express (1921 and ’26) and 720 (1941). The long-action Model 721 and short-action 722 had receivers of cylindrical tubing – stout, uniform, but inexpensive. A shrouded bolt head had a clip-ring extractor and a plunger ejector. A washer between barrel and receiver served as a recoil lug. Stamped bottom metal and plain walnut stocks further controlled costs.

Initially listed at $79.95 and $74.95, the 721 and 722 remained in Remington’s line until December 1961. The Model 700 replacing them shared their basic design. Refinements included a swept, checkered bolt knob, more pleasing bottom metal, a higher comb for scope use.

The Model 721, announced in .270, .30-06 and .300 H&H, was clearly a big game rifle. But the 722 would appear in five wonderful predator chamberings. The .257 Roberts (with the .300 Savage) was a charter offering. The .222 came two years later, the .244 in 1956. The company added the .222 Magnum and .243 in 1958 and 59. A better “walking” varmint rifle is still hard to find. Lace on a comb pad and a 722 treats you to decades of history, in a rifle that doesn’t need custom touches to put predators in peril!


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.