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Custom Rifle Series Part 1: Why Build a Custom Rig?

By Frazer Winskill

Welcome to the NZ Guns & Hunting Custom Rifle Series. The aim of this series of articles will be to compare the differences in varying levels of rifle customisation, demonstrate what each level gives you in terms of accuracy, and showcase what components are available here in New Zealand, if you are thinking about a project.


In this article I will define what each level of customisation is and outline why you may want to build or modify a rifle in the first place. As the series progresses, I will discuss the pros and cons of each type of build and we will summarise at the end to capture what we have learned.


I also hope to start a concurrent series of articles detailing a build I am currently doing for long range shooting, in which I will outline the process I use for component and calibre selection.


“I break rifles down into four major components: action, barrel, trigger, and stock. All four components have a symbiotic relationship with each other.”



There are many reasons for building a custom rifle or modifying your current factory model. A rifle is a very personal item, some shooters covet their rifles and others treat them merely as a tool to put meat on the table. I think the foremost reasons for building a bespoke rifle, or modifying one,
are as follows.


A full custom 7mm SAUM (Short Action Ultra Magnum) built by Desert Guns.



You want to be sure that your current rifle is fit for purpose. Your purpose will differ from the next individual’s, but ensuring your rifle does what you want when you want is the key
to satisfaction.



When you’re building a custom rifle you control every aspect of the project from choosing the gunsmith to selecting the colour scheme, so you will get exactly what you want.


A semi-custom built around the Howa action.



Sometimes rifles chambered in a calibre you think is the best all-rounder for your type of hunting (or the cartridges themselves) are no longer available, but a custom rifle can be chambered in any calibre you like, and you can still obtain reamers, dies and other reloading components for old and obsolete calibres. A good friend of mine used to call these “Necro” rounds because they were long dead!


Family history

At the turn of the previous century it was not uncommon for the gentry of England to have a “London Best” rifle handmade by Purdey or Rigby that was handed down from father to son. Just because the 2019 trends are stainless and synthetic it doesn’t mean you have to build one made of these materials.


Soroka, Rigby and Kiwi riflesmiths such as Hugh Bradley, Dean Maisey, Alan Carr or Kevin Gaskill, among others, will spend up to 24 months buliding a rifle and/or carving a stock to your specifications for that perfect walnut and blued steel finish. Be it a single-shot or a Mauser style “Express Rifle”, you can have an heirloom built for your family to treasure long after you are gone.

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Shooting at extended ranges requires top accuracy, and although most of today’s standard factory rifles are straight shooters, custom rifle builds usually improve this further.



I break rifles down into four major components: action, barrel, trigger, and stock. All four components have a symbiotic relationship with each other. The stock is very important because it is where you interact with your rifle and it also provides the bedding for the action and barrel. Stock shape and fit, along with the action itself, determine the ergonomics and “feel” of the rifle.


A good trigger is important for accuracy and adjustable aftermarket models are available that can be made incredibly light. Triggers can be single or two-stage, and even single or double set triggers are still available (with the blades pulled back or pushed forward for a lighter trigger pull).


A GRS adjustable rifle stock fitted to a Howa rifle.


Actions and barrels are the heart of a rifle and they’re the first items you choose once you’ve decided on the cartridge case and calibre for your project. I will cover calibre selection in a separate article but action type and size are one of the most important decisions when building or modifying a rifle.


Barrels are sold on their reputation for accuracy, cleaning ease (bore consistency) and materials. They can be hammer forged, button rifled, cut rifled, and hand or machine lapped to a smooth finish. Barrel contour, length and materials (stainless or chrome-moly steel) are all important considerations when building a project rifle.


Accuracy in a rifle is a pretty simple concept when you boil it down. Essentially you want all major components; breech, bolt face etc, to be aligned with the bore and as “true” or straight as possible. Any yaw, pitch or cant in one or more components will cause your projectile to enter the barrel slightly off-centre which will effect its accuracy in relation to the point of aim.


So, the straighter all components are, and the less variables (such as yourself, suspect handloads, and environmental factors like wind) there are in the equation, the more likely your bullet is to hit what you’re aiming at.


A semi-custom built on a trued factory Remington 700 action.


Custom rifle actions are not bulk made on an assembly line like most factory actions and as a result they are kept to tighter tolerances and cost considerably more. Even factory actions of a similar type are designed slightly differently and some are more accurate than others.


In that regard, it is not uncommon for shooters to have a factory action trued or “blueprinted” by a gunsmith to square and straighten any imperfections.


Below are my definitions for the series, these are the type of rifles that will be compared for accuracy and their components explained in detail. I will keep to modern rifles to avoid unfairly skewing the findings towards a custom build; i.e., I won’t be comparing grandad’s Parker Hale .303 Deluxe against the latest and greatest from George Gardiner at GA Precision in the USA.


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The major factor we will be comparing is accuracy – all the rifles will be tested with both factory ammunition and handloads at 100 metres from a bench, with the same scope, and I will take the average of four groups.


Factory: This is an off-the-shelf rifle with all major components untouched by the user.


Factory Modified: An off-the-shelf rifle with minor modifications to existing OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) components. None of the major factory components have been modified, with perhaps the exception of having a trigger job done, or a suppressor or muzzle
brake added.


Semi-Custom: I define this category as a change to one of the four major components listed above. An aftermarket barrel may have been added, a stock that wasn’t offered by the OEM has been bedded to the action, or an aftermarket trigger may have replaced the original. The original action may have been removed and “blueprinted” or trued by a gunsmith.


A Defiance Machine Deviant Hunter action. One of the best available and extremely popular in the US PRS competition.


Factory Custom: I define factory custom as a rifle that is mass produced (generally in smaller numbers) using high-end components and hand assembled. Examples available in New Zealand right now would be the Rigby Highland Stalker sold by SWAZI Apparel, Proof Research Summit sold by the NZ Ammunition Company, Fierce Rifles offered by Gun City, and the Christensen Arms Ridgeline offered by Deadeye Dicks in Levin.


Custom: A custom rifle is made of quality components imported by various agents and assembled by a competent gunsmith. The rifle is manufactured for a specific purpose by the owner, and this will drive the aesthetics and choices along the way.


A Custom 308 built on a Defiance Machine action, McMillan Stock and Bartlein barrel.


The New Zealand Ammunition Company, Alpine Precision, Dean Maisey Gunsmithing, Terminator Products and Deadeye Dicks, among others, all import custom rifle actions, stocks, triggers and aftermarket barrels. They also offer rifle building and load development services.


“Accuracy in a rifle is a pretty simple concept when you boil it down. Essentially you want all major components; breech, bolt face etc, to be aligned with the bore and as “true” or straight as possible.”


You can expect to pay for these top-quality components, and wait times can be lengthy as most items are not held
in stock. But there is truth in that “ get what you pay for,” and these rifles should perform in the top percentile.


In the next article I will look at the Factory and a Factory Modified categories to compare the two side by side and discuss the pros, cons and accuracy expectations you should have as a prospective owner.




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