Custom Rifle Series Part 3: Semi-Custom RiflesBy Frazer Winskill
- 17th Sep, 2019 Sep 17, 2019, 12:00 AM
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In the last article we established that the average factory rifle produces around a 32mm group out of the box and when modified, this figure will shrink to the tune of 28mm or 1 Minute of Angle at 100 yards. Both are eminently usable for putting meat on the table within a couple of hundred metres, but some of us shoot in open country where the shots are a little further and we require the accuracy potential that will increase our hit percentages at these ranges.
Enter the semi-custom rifle, a firearm that has had one of its major four components (barrel, trigger, stock or action) changed with an aftermarket option or blueprinted. Action ‘blueprinting’ or truing involves a gunsmith machining the barrel threads, action and bolt surfaces to ensure the bullet is entering the bore as straight as possible. To do this the bolt must be centred to the centreline of the action, which is square against the shoulder of the barrel threads.
Common work includes machining the bolt lugs, bolt nose, bolt face and in some cases sleeving the bolt body to reduce tolerance inside the action. Some shooters even opt to purchase an oversized aftermarket bolt such as those available from Pacific Tool and Gauge and have it fitted to the action.
Actions have the bolt raceways reamed, lug seats machined and action threads (for the barrel) cut again. The action face will also be machined to ensure the barrel is screwed in and mates square to the action. Some gunsmiths will open up the tenon thread area to allow for a thicker barrel shank which means more strength, commonly done on larger diameter magnums.
The semi-custom rifle is a natural progression from a modified factory rifle as the user can slowly modify the rifle as funds become available and they will often end up with a custom rifle at a cheaper cost. They will however be making a compromise within the limitations of the chosen action, because just like vehicles, certain manufacturers have more aftermarket parts available than others.
I have built three semi-custom rifles. The first is a Howa 1500 based .264 Win Mag that has an aftermarket Senator carbon fibre stock, Timney trigger and 26” Shilen match barrel. Built by the late Robbie Tiffen it is a pleasure to carry and shoot. The 264 pushes a 143 grain ELD-X at 3250fps or a 120 grain GMX at 3450fps with minimal recoil, virtually no hold over and no requirement for a follow-up shot, period.
I also built another on a Remington 700 detachable magazine action. I had this action ‘blueprinted’ to see how well an action with the work done to it compared to my full custom rifles. I had this rifle chambered in .270 Winchester with a 27” Lilja 1:8 twist barrel, McMillan carbon fibre stock and fitted with a Terminator products T2 muzzle brake. It is very light in the hand and built for alpine hunting.
I intended to shoot the new 170 grain Berger EOL bullet but sourcing them was an issue so I developed two excellent flat shooting loads for hunting in the Central Otago open country. The first drives the Hornady 145 grain ELD-X bullet in excess of 3100fps which I have shot to 1100m on steel and the second is the 110 grain Barnes TTSX at 3550fps. I found these loads to be more than capable of taking deer to 300m ‘holding on fur’ as the North Americans put it.
“The semi-custom rifle is a natural progression from a modified factory rifle as the user can slowly modify the rifle as funds become available and they will often end up with a custom rifle at a cheaper cost.”
The last rifle I assembled was a purpose-built long-range rabbit shooter or varmint rifle. I used a Tikka .223 with a fast 1:8 twist barrel and fluted bolt. I required this twist rate to shoot the Hornady 75 grain a-max match bullets. I epoxy bedded the rifle into a GRS Berserk stock for the ability to adjust the length of pull and comb height and had this stock milled out to accept Atlasworxs bottom metal.
This allowed me to use Accuracy International Chassis System magazines (AICS) with a longer overall length than a standard Tikka magazine, and have up to 10 rounds ready to go for those long strings of fire. Chambered in 22-204 Ruger (a 204 Ruger necked up to .224) 28 grains of powder would push a 75 grain A-max at 3100fps in a 22” factory barrel. I shot a lot of rabbits in excess of 300m with this combination and more than one goat and fallow succumbed to the Hornady 75 grain a-max bullet out of that rifle.
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WHERE DO I SOURCE PARTS?
These rifle projects all started with a discussion with my Gunsmith or a specific idea. I outlined what I wanted to achieve, the animal species I was hunting and a rough budget was established. I used Gunworks for the 264 Win Mag as Robbie Tiffen was a big fan of the cartridge and he fitted Shilen Match barrels. I had seen how well Shilen barrels shot on a friend’s rifle and knew they had a good reputation.
Gunworks still re-barrel rifles with Shilen, Lilja and other barrels if you head to their website. A new barrel chambered and fitted costs around the $1000 mark and there are other notable importers of barrels such as NZ Ammo who import Proof Research carbon fibre and stainless-steel match barrels. Alpine Precision import Bartlein, Kreiger and Brux barrels which are all very well regarded globally and Deadeye Dick’s in Levin import Lilja barrels. A good gunsmith will be able to get you what you require and can to the work to ensure your rifle is what you have asked for.
More recently I have opted to research the parts myself as I enjoy this part of the project as much as the finished product. Alpine Precision (www.alpineprecision.co.nz) and Terminator Products (www.terminatorproducts.co.nz) will both source any parts you want (including importing them) and send them away to a reputable gunsmith to assemble and ensure the rifle works as intended. They both also source reloading components and dies for most calibres.
NZ suppliers of reloading components include Belmont Ammunition (Lapua), Steve’s Wholesale (Hornady, Nosler, ADI) and the NZ Ammunition Company (Norma, Berger, Proof Research) as well as the previously mentioned Gunsmith’s with retail shops.
PROS & CONS
Semi-Custom Pros: You can determine the calibre and twist of your barrel compared to the limited amount of options within factory offerings. You can have your new barrel chambered in literally any calibre / cartridge, including ones you come up with and have a reamer made for!
Stock options are varied depending on the action you are using, meaning you can tailor the rifle to its specific purpose, adding or removing weight from the overall setup or enhancing ergonomics. This also adds a degree of individuality.
Aftermarket triggers are an upgrade that in my opinion have one of the largest accuracy and ergonomic influences on your rifle. The trigger is where you interact with the rifle ‘system’ and for me, is on par with the optics and stock in terms of the ‘accuracy enhancement’ hierarchy.
The beauty of the semi-custom is that it offers nearly all of the bonuses of a full custom rifle and can be a long-term project, upgrading parts as you go and as you get funding to do so.
Semi-Custom Cons: The biggest detractor to a semi-custom is that you are stuck with the aftermarket options available for the action you are basing your build off. The Remington 700 platform is by far the most popular action for aftermarket accessories with the Tikka a close second in New Zealand.
The semi-custom costs more than a factory rifle and if the original barrel is being used for another chambering it may not shoot as well as it once did and may still copper foul. Also, the downside when modifying any factory rifle, no matter how extensively is that the warranty is void.
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The obvious downside is that it costs more than a factory rifle! This is most definitely the case if you are having the action trued, as this can cost anywhere up to $1500 making the action nearly worth that of a full custom action.
The accuracy table below shows statistics for the loads that I used most in these rifles. You will note that the .270 shot the Hornady Precision Hunter factory load very well. This ammunition has been very reliable and consistent in the calibres I have tested it in.
|Howa, .264 Winchester Magnum|
|120gr GMX / AR2217||16mm||3393fps|
|130gr SGK / AR2225||13mm||3258fps|
|143gr ELD-X / RL33||14mm||3250|
|Trued Remington 700, .270 Winchester|
|110 TTSX / AR2213SC||18mm||3530fps|
|145 ELD-X / AR2213SC||12mm||3135fps|
|145 ELD-X Fact. Precision Hunter||14mm||3005fps|
|Tikka, .22-204 Ruger|
|50gr Hornady Z-Max / W748||16mm||3646 fps|
|55gr Hornady SP / BM2||20mm||3641 fps|
|75gr Hornady A-Max / AR2208||14mm||3103fps|
The 270 Winchester load averaged a Standard Deviation of only 20 fps in this rifle which speaks volumes for the quality of this ammunition. The Remington’s trued action made it a real user-friendly rifle to load for in that it was never fussy. I managed to shoot this rifle to 1100m at the Gentle Annie Steel Challenge and it held MOA all the way out to that range!
What the data does tell us is that a rifle with a trued action or match barrel and careful reloading will shoot around the half MOA mark and will do so as a result to superior ergonomics and tolerances in its major components. The Tikka 22-204 has managed to shoot a Fallow spiker at 380m, a rabbit at 348m (my longest hit to date) and maintain half MOA accuracy at 550m. Beyond this range the wind becomes too much of an influence on the lightweight projectiles for me to shoot accurately within my ethical limits.
Based on the data above we can conclude that a semi-custom rifle is capable of shooting well inside a factory modified rifle, but the cost can / will be significantly more. A significant contributor to accuracy is ergonomics and as stated above this will impact both your shooting and ease at which you manipulate your rifle.
In the next issue we will look at a Factory Custom rifle produced by a major manufacturer and compare how an off the shelf custom rifle performs in the field and at the range.
Warm barrels and stay safe out there!
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