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September 20, 2007

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14 Rules For Choosing A Custom Rifle

More and more people, it seems, are deciding to spend some major bucks to get a serious rifle that is built for them and them alone. I got my first made-to-order rifle back in 1971, and I've learned a bit about the process‚ most of it the hard way. Here are 14 rules to live by.

Don't buy cheap work
The going rate for a top-quality synthetic-stocked hunting rifle is $3,000 to $6,000. If you find some guy who will build you one that's just as good for $640.85, run for your life.

Eschew the odd
Years ago, Abercrombie & Fitch had a highly engraved used bull-barreled varmint rifle for sale. I think it was in their New York City store for 10 years, and I don't know if it ever did sell. Simply, no one wanted an engraved varmint rifle. Should the sad day come when you must part with your custom gun, and it's too strange, you will be unable to recoup any of your investment‚ at least not within a decade.

Wood or Chemical?
If I were looking for a working rifle, there's no question I would want a synthetic stock, and that's what many custom gunsmiths are using these days. Some offer laminated wood, which is a good compromise, especially for a larger-caliber rifle where you want some weight.

Pick a sane cartridge
It is a given among custom-rifle builders that the clients with the most smarts pick the dullest, oldest cartridges‚ 7x57 Mauser, .30/06, .270, .375 H&H, and so on. That's because these rounds have been around longer than dirt and have proven themselves through many generations. They won't fail you, either. There are good reasons why few people build rifles for the .30/416 Eargesplitten Loudenboomer.

Get less power
If you think you need a .300 magnum of one kind or another, get a .30/06. Convinced you need a 7mm magnum? Get a .280 or .270. For a deer rifle, think 7mm/08, .260 Remington, or 6.5x55 Swede. The less the recoil, the better you shoot, and the better you shoot, the more game you get.

Don't get nuts about accuracy 
Any big-game rifle that will shoot a minute of angle will kill anything you aim it at. A half-minute rifle won't make the beasts any deader. The gun you end up with will in all probability shoot better than you can hold. What you're looking for is consistency above everything else. You want all your shots going to the same place all the time.

Watch your weight
Extremely light rifles are every bit as accurate as standard-weight guns, but they're tougher to hold steady when you're winded or excited. For standard calibers, you don't want less than 7 pounds with scope. In heavier calibers, lack of weight can make a rifle unmanageable. I would not own a .338 that weighed less than 9 pounds or a .300 magnum that weighed less than 81/2.

It's the barrel, stupid 
The most important component of your rifle is the barrel, because it determines how well your rifle will shoot. Most gun builders use premium barrels as a matter of course, but if yours doesn't, spend the extra couple of hundred dollars and insist on one.

Listen to the man
Some gun builders will smile, take your money, and turn out exactly what you ordered, whether it's a crackpot gun or not. Others will tell you that you don't know what you're talking about. You want the latter. Any gunmaker with an ounce of pride does not want some screwball firearm out there with his name on it.

Beware of revolutionary ideas
A few years ago, it was trendy to make barrels by wrapping fiberglass thread around a thin steel liner. All sorts of advantages were claimed‚ until someone pointed out that if you put a nick in the fiberglass, the barrel would probably disintegrate. Most other radical improvements vanish just as quickly.

Get references
Ask for the names of half a dozen of a gunsmith's customers, then find out if they like their guns. You will have to listen carefully. Some people are chronic malcontents; others have unrealistic expectations. A guy who couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat is not a good reference for a gunmaker who guarantees half-minute groups. The fact is that all top makers shoot their rifles before they go down the road, and they know they are accurate, and they are likely to be short with the customer who says his gun won't deliver.

Tell the gunmaker how you're going to use the rifle
I recently had a 6.5x55 Swede built but neglected to tell the builder that I wanted to use long, heavy bullets. He assumed I'd follow the current trend for light, fast bullets and gave me a barrel with a 1-in-10 1/2-inch twist‚ fine for light slugs but all wrong for heavy ones. I had to return the gun and get a new barrel. The whole thing was my fault.

When it comes to scope and mounts, shut up and listen
Just about every custom-rifle maker has strong ideas about which scopes and mounts work best. There's a reason for this. Most of them also insist on mounting the scope themselves, having endured bitter experiences when they let the customers do it.

Get to know your gun
The best rifle in the world will not transform a poor shot into a decent one or a mediocre shot into a good one. When you get your new rifle, burn some ammo.

Some Recommended Custom Gunmakers
Here are six craftsmen who have either made rifles for me, or whose work I've shot at length. There are plenty more out there.

Mark Bansner's Ultimate Rifles, Adamstown, PA. 717-484-2370;
Mark makes his own bolt action, or will use someone else's if he likes it, and will build you a rifle with either one of his own synthetic stocks or with a wood stock. Standard models with lots of extra features.

Ed Brown Precision, Perry, MO. 573-565-3261; edbrown.com
Ed Brown makes his own bolt action, and builds synthetic-stock rifles only. There are eight models to choose from.

Jarrett Rifles, Jackson, SC. 803-471-3616;  jarrettrifles.com
Kenny has his own bolt action, and will use others. He makes 'em with synthetic or wood stocks.

Lazzeroni Arms Co. Tucson, AZ. 888-492-7247; lazzeroni.com
Lazz builds rifles for his two lines of proprietary cartridges in short and long magnum lengths. Synthetic stocks only.

New Ultra Light Arms, Granville, WV. 304-292-0600; newultralight.com
Melvin Forbes makes the lock and the stock (synthetic only) and uses mostly Douglas barrels. He makes a .22 rimfire and just about any centerfire caliber you could want.

Sisk Rifles, Dayton, TX. 936-258-4984; siskguns.com
Charlie Sisk uses a variety of actions and has a series of standard models. They are synthetic-stock only.


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I would have to agree with your comments about the 30.06. I don't have a very expensive, custom gun, but my Remington 30.06 has never failed, and being from NC, and hunting mostly wooded staging areas - I love it. Straight down I say. And I know that it is more than capable of taking most any game animal I will ever see, or wish to take. I am currently extending the range on mine.

I would love to one day have a custom rifle in the 30.06 caliber.
That would be sweet. But until then - the Rem it is.

Matt Mallery

1st rule: Makes lots of money cause you'll need it to buy a custom rifle.

2nd rule: realize that the vast majority of game killed every year is not killed by a custom rifle.

3rd rule: Ask yourself if you really need to drop $10000 on a custom rifle when a $400 rifle works just as well.

the other Chris

As a thrifty fellow, I am leaning toward Ed Brown or NULA. These guys build their own actions rather than rework a factory one and still manage to produce the least expensive guns on this list. Ideally a short little NULA 7mm-08 for my close to home work and an EB Savanna in 300 win mag for when I get ambitious and decide to travel to Africa. I currently own a custom .270 that I am exceedingly happy with. I broke out in a cold sweat and almost vomited when I paid for it, but no real regrets have followed. The only downside is that since that .270, I can no longer think of owning a factory rifle without feeling nauseated. Except maybe a Kimber, they are pretty nice.

Trae B.

Dave do you know of any one that makes custon revolvers? I have always wanted a 44. colt revolver with a antler handle.It would also be neat to have my name ingraved on it somewhere.

Trae B.

I have another question can custon rifle builders make a new gun look old.I have a nice 30/30 that would make a great looking antique


Bear in mind that often contracting for a custom rifle is much like building a custom house. It probably will not turn out just exactly as you had thought or hoped. You might have to make alterations later due to this reason or just because you changed your mind over the year or so it takes to get the piece. They are addicting in that once you acquire one you tend to dream up even more rifles that are on the "must have" list. Will custom rifles do more in the field than a factory Remington? Probably not but they are usually a joy to design, own, and operate. Plus they make for great conversation around the campfire when you tire of discussing elk and cussing horses both of which are necessary along with examining the rifle. Anyone notice that the factory rifles currently being manufactured look a lot like we wanted them to and/or tried to build back in the seventies?


I found this blog to be of particular interest. Many years ago an old gentleman showed me the first custom rifle I ever saw and I promised myself that I would have one some day. Time passed and in the meantime I also saw the glaring need for an all-weather rifle as well, so why not combine the two desires? Being of modest means, I am going about it a bit differently but it will still be a custom rifle and will mean a lot to me. I am having a Ruger 77 in .270 rebarreled to a .338-06 (I also like unusual, older calibers) by a local gunsmith who does very good work. I have also wanted one from his shop for years as well. Anyway, he will replace the blued barrel with stainless, have the current blued action nickle plated to match the barrel and provide weather protection. It will stay in the current Ruger synthetic stock until I can find/afford a synthetic thumbhole stock. Will it cost me thousands of dollars? No. Will it be custom in the sense that you can't walk into the local gun shop and find one just like it? Absolutely, and it will be stamped with the gunsmith's shop name, which holds sentimental value as well. I plan to load it with probably 200 gr. Hornaday interlocks, spend some load development time, and use it for foul weather whitetails and black bears ahead of the hounds. Agreed with Dave, it will probably shoot better than I can as long as I do MY part. Custom rifles, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Enjoy your guns, all!


Will custom rifles do more in the field than a factory Remington? Probably not but they are usually a joy to design, own, and operate. Plus they make for great conversation around the campfire...

Sounds like the same reasoning when a man marries a trophy wife 20 years younger than him and buys her fake boobs and a nose job. The only difference is the custom rifle won't *$@& the pool boy and take half your stuff.

Whatever makes you happy.....



- For money of course.

An old downtrodden looking gun that shoots lights out and never fails. Great camp talk too.
Although it kind of defeats the purpose to make something ''look


Reworking a factory rifle to suit your particular desires or tastes has always been a excellent and cost efficient method to create an affordable custom. Certainly custom is a word that means different things to different people but more or less you end up with the same want fulfillment. Since the M-77 is a good starting base I am certain that 007 will really enjoy his .338/'06. Fantastic choices in every way in my view.
Insofar as selecting the various components of the custom rifle I advise that you utilize equal discresion in choosing your wife. Try to get the parts you want as a package and don't be overly concerned about her age. If care is used in this matter you will be happy with both and them with you. If you are worried about the pool boy then maybe a better choice would be to just borrow a rifle and live with a girlfriend.


Anyone have any comments on Kimber rifles. From what I have seen, they are close to a custom rifle from the get go.


I have never owned one of the Kimber rifles but have several of their 1911s. Since the beginning of their current rifle production the only fault I have consistently noticed is that the forearm of the wooden stocked versions often appear to have the wood touching the barrel somewhere along the way. One local gunshops has a couple examples on the shelf today. An easily fixed problem if it is one. This is not evident in the synthetic versions which have a blind magazine that I understand the need for but do not like. Overall they seem to be way ahead of most other factory rifles. This comment is partially based on statements that owners have consistently mentioned.

Walt Smith

Custom rifles look really nice in a mueseum showcase or in the darkness of a gun safe but honestly If I was to spend 10,000.00 or more on one I don't feel I would take it out in the field and scratching it up in the brush where I hunt.Since I don't have a extra 10,000.00 or more to spend on such a luxury like some selfinduldging folks do I'll stick with my two 30-06's that are easily as accurate as any custom gun and save my 10,000.00 for liscences,ammo and freezer bags.But hey, the rest of you have fun splurging,but before you drop that big wad ask yourself,How many Model 700's in various calibers could I buy for this??.

Chad Love

Wow, excellent post and prescient for me, as I'm currently saving up the bucks for a custom 6.5x55.
Dave, I know you're a lefty (I actually fondled a former rifle of yours over at Champlin's one day a year or so ago) and I know you like the 6.5x55 so could you tell me briefly about the 6.5 you had built? Action? Barrel length? Twist(once you got it fixed)?

I'm kind of leaning toward a lefty 700 action with a 24-inch 8-twist barrel. It being a Swede, I'll probably be using 140s and 160s most of the time. This will be 6.5 number five for me. Can't get enough of that crazy swede. I already have a CZ 550 and a right purty M70 classic featherweight, as well as a sporterized M96 and a stock M38, but I've always wanted a custom rifle. Figured if I was going to shell out the bucks for one, it might as well be a lefty and might as well be a 6.5x55...


Forgot this earlier, wife says my mind is going, going.......gone. Does anyone have any thoughts on or expericence with a .338-06 Ackley Improved? Right now I'm leaning toward leaving it original but am still flirting with the thought of improving it. Any input to offer? Thanks in advance.


007: Here's my 2 cents: If you're going with a wildcat anyway, you might as well go with the AI version. I have no experience with the .338-06, but I had a .280 Ackley Improved (AI) built on a M700 action and bought one built on a R77 action (old model Ruger w/ tang safety) and I love em both. Gunsmith friend who does great work very reasonably. Your .338-06 is definitely a handloading proposition, but you can easily fireform it to the AI version. The only area I differ with DEP is sticking with "standard" calibers. I have a NIB R77 in 7x57 that I'd like to have rebarreled to 7x57 AI some day. Premium barrel, syn stock, the works. I also had a 6.5-284 built on M700 action. None of these are full blown "custom" by DEP's definition, more like "remodeled", but a helluva lot less $$$. No regrets. If it makes you happy, go for it. At least you'll have something different from everyone else. And do it before you forget why you did it in the first place.

charlize theron

Mr. Petzal, you wrote a wonderful article this month on customized Marlin 1895 .45-70s. Now I want one.

I have no experience with Kimber rifles, but if they are anything like their semi-auto pistols then they are amazing.

Mike Diehl

It's like this, Dave. When I buy a custom gun, it has to shoot about 1 MOA, just like the non-custom OTC rifles I already own, and it has to look good.

That means no synthetic stocks, and fancy engraving. Why? Because I don't see the need to buy a custom gun if it shoots the same as my over-the-counter rifles, and yet also looks ugly. My OTC rifles look pretty good and they shoot very accurately, even in my 1MOA hands.

One day, when I am a bit older, maybe a decade from now, Ima buy one nice shotgun. It's gonna have a nice wood stock, deep rich lustrous traditional bluing that you can get lost in just looking at it, and a modest amount of tasteful engraving with a hint of gold inlay.

If I still have time enough and am not an ancient crippled old man by the time I can buy one, after the shotgun I will buy one nice rifle. Same standards will apply.

If they didn't have these things, they would not be worth paying all that extra money for them. As someone around here once said, "Life's too short to hunt with an ugly gun."


Mike wrote:
It's like this, Dave. When I buy a custom gun, it has to shoot about 1 MOA, just like the non-custom OTC rifles I already own, and it has to look good.

Hey Mike,

Why not buy a new T/C Icon. Gunhunter mag just reviewed it:

The guy shot 1/2 average groups @ 100 yards with the new 30 T/C rounds. The smallest group was .265 inches. There isn't a custom rifle on the planet that will shoot better than that.

The wood and finish on this gun is beautiful.

It's a hell of a lot less than a custom rifle that you won't want to take out of the house and your kids will sell as soon as you croak.

And it costs less than $900.00 (barely).


Oh, and Mike,

With the difference you saved over the custom job, you can take yourself on a hell of a trip to actually use the thing.


Old Yukon

Dear Dave,

A question, if I may, please:

Why is it that a custom rifle bearing an exquisite piece of walnut hundreds of years old, crafted with patience and artistry into a hand checkered delight pleasing to the eye as well as the hand, bedded into the stock carefully, is rarely much more expensive, if at all, than the same rifle bearing a piece of synthetic ugliness whose only benefit is that, other than possibly warping less than wood if the wood is not properly treated, should it become abraded, nicked, dented, weatherspotted, and worn looks no uglier than the day it was made?


I find it baffling there’s so many on this blog holding the belief the person who acquires a semi-custom or fully customized rifle will place said rifle on an alter and put a lit candle on each side of said rifle.


Lance G Brackee


What is your opinion of the manufacturer's custom shop offerings? Many manufacturers (Remington, Weatherby, etc) have standard custom gun options that can be then further "upgraded". While your rules still apply, do you have advice or warnings surrounding these "enhanced" factory offerings?


Lance G Brackee


Before we get sidetracked again from the original article I want to add a couple other things. First of all you can do the same thing as some hunters who have the fancy wooden stock for showing off when at home. You then replace it with a synthetic (get a good one and not el cheapo) when you actually want to sight it in and hunt. I never bother with this since some of my rifles are for hunting in the mountains using horses. Some are for hunting when hiking around the desert or foothills. You probably know which type stock is for which environment. Ever see a wooden stock when you are 75 miles from town and 25 from the nearest pavement after your horse falls on it? They always fall to the side with the rifle, must be the extra 9 pounds or so of rifle and scope plus the scabbard that throws them off balance.
Now in reality one of my $5,000.00 customs is in most ways no better than the neat $700.00 Remington Mountain Rifle in .280 that I looked at this afternoon. Super nice finish on the wooden stocked Remington in addition to a nice fluted barrel of excellent dimensions. The point is I also drive a $40,000 Dodge Cummins pulling a $18,000 Featherlight loaded with four horses valued at between $3,000 and $5,000 each, plus two wall tents, two stoves, two riding saddles (yes one is a custom which costed $2500.00 15 years ago), two pack saddles, and on and on ad nausem. I don't mean to be pointing out the value of my worldly possessions to create envy and certainly hope I do not sound boastful for this was stuff all accumulated over time. I merely want to demonstrate that the cost of most rifles, custom or not, is only one part of hunting equation and actually not a large part in some respects. Going even further you can even include your clothing, boots, GPS if you like them, satelite phone if you want one, there is no end to the gear, look at the Cabela's catalog.
Insofar as saving for your dream hunt I found the answer over 25 years ago when I gave up a life in the east and moved to wonderful wild Wyoming so I could dream hunt every trip. You have to determine your priorities in life, hope you made the right decision, and pray that some a-hole does not screw them up. I know everyone can't do this for various reasons, fortunately I was so blessed in that it all worked out. I thank the Lord every day for America and especially for the Rockies. I hope each of you can hunt in the west some time in your life if you so desire. Rest assured that both custom and factory rifles will perform quite nicely in the high lonesome where they become a tool.


Mark-1 said:


Functional tools of art? I've never heard that phrase. How many times did you have to use it before you wife bought into that argument?

"Gee honey, I need to spend $10,000 dollars for that custom rifle because it's a functional tool of art."

Sweet. That phrase just rolls off the tongue.

Thanks for helping me see the light Mike-1. Thanks.

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