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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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Tell her to deal with it...quietly. If she leaves, you got the gun to dry those bitter tears.


Just remember guys, that $10,000 "Functional peice of Art" to you is just another asset her lawyer is going to make you sell so she gets the money in the end! You all know what we guys get in the 'end' then!


Sorry for the comment above folks but if you've been through it you know how it is!
What I started to say is that I am just a little to cheap (Scottish as my family says) to go out and drop a lot of money on a rifle which doesn't fill a specific need. For the hunting I do here in New Hampshire, traipsing about the clear cuts and old farmsteads my rather ugly M70 Winchester .30-06 of recent itteration is fine. Synthetic stocked from the factory,
it has a decent quality 3 x 9 Bushnell scope perfectly mounted. Most importantly that rifle will shoot as well as I can, I am confident the I can make a clean killing shot across any of the clear cuts which I hunt.

Right now I tote a functional Mossberg pump action 12 Ga for all my bird hunting but given my 'druthers' and a bit of 'extra' money I'd find a really nice side by side in 16 guage for the grouse tangles. For me that makes more sense than spending the money on a rifle; I spend more days out hunting small game and birds than I do deer so I'd really like having a nicer shotgun.

Dave does make a few very good points though. If you are of mind to have a custom rifle built listen to the builder, don't go too far off the path in design or chambering (unless you want a rifle which is guaranteed not to sell when her lawyer tries to make you do so!), stay within your ability in terms of chambering don't go over the top with magnum-mania and be prepared to practice with your new treasure!

Dr. Ralph

Well Dave, now I know why you don't like to talk about your guns... charges of elitism indeed.


I had the opportunity to buy a No.1 Ruger in .300 Win mag w/ bull bbl(barreled action). Sent it to Rhinehart/Fajen for stocking, closest I've ever been to "custom". Unfortunately, kids couldn't eat "custom rifle" and it had to go.
POINT NO. 1: Even if it is a "Custom" 30NaughtSix from Slimey's, on the sales rack, it's a "used" Slimey's 30NaughtSix!!

I wandered into a gun store in Dallas one day to kill some time.
Very interesting rifle on the used rack caught my eye. It turned out to be a custom out of New York, chambered for no less than .333 G&H Magnum. (Hey DEP, it was a leftie). I opined the ammo would be interesting to see. The clerk began rumbling through his ammo stock and states, seriously, "I think I have some"
POINT NO 2: If it isn't an easily recognized caliber, it might as well be a high dollar tent stake!

Blue Ox

If you have the means to purchase said custom rifle, more power to ya. If you're a peon like most of us, but can still shoot the balls off a gnat with whatever you got at wal-mart, then hey, it's just as good in my book.


My dad built my first custom rifle for me when I graduated from HS. Commercial Mauser action, Douglas premium bbl, American walnut stock blank, glass beded, hand carved screaming Eagle pistol grip, hand checkered all by him. I told him it was too pretty to hunt with. He said BS, he had made it to use. Since then I've customized my own from production rifles mainly Remington 700's. Most of my guns shoot well under moa. I have to say that getting one to shoot is part of the pure joy of owning and shooting a rifle.

Trae B.

the 30/30 I want to fix up to look old is because my first rifle was a 30/30 one of the oldest I wouldent doubt that it was one of the first ever made but I want to recreate my old gun.for sentimental value...wood stock by the way.I like synthetic just fine but I prefer wood on any kind of gun.

Dave Petzal

To Trae B: I think what you mean is a staghorn handle. I look in Shotgun News or The Gun List for someone who makes them. To make a new gun look old, google Doug Turnbull.

To Matt: Kimber rifles are uniformly excellent. They are indeed custom guns at a bargain price.

To Chad Love: My Swede is a New Ultra Light Arms, their short action with a 22-inch Lilja #2 contour barrel in 1 in 8 twist. The original was a 10 1/2 twist, and while it handled light bullets fine, it didn't do well with the heavy ones. I shoot 130-grain Swift Sciroccos and 156-grain Norma Oryx bullets.

To Lance G: Brackee: Sadly, I have very little experience with either. They both build very handsome, well made guns. If you're interested in a Weatherby, the production rifles are damn near as good as the custom shop. If you want a real shooter in a Weatherby caliber, just get an Accu-Mark and your problems are solved.

To Old Yukon: Nope, sorry, beg to differ. A first-rate syntheic stocked custom rifle will max out at around $6,000, and there are plenty of good ones you can get that are a little more than half of that. A first-rate wood stocked rifle, from someone who really knows what he's doing, will not be much less than $10,000, and if you go to a master like Jerry Fisher, it will be $15,000. I grant your esthetic points, for for a hunting tool, give me chemicals every time.

Steve C

Two comments:

1) This is the first sane blog I've seen in some time. Good advice.

2) A $3,000-$6,000 custom rifle is considerably less ridiculous than your average $30,000 bass boat, both now and when you sell it.

Chev Jim

I remember how one gun magazine was pushing those new rifles that had carbon fiber or fiberglass wrapped around a thin steel barrel. They described how a layer of epoxy kept the "wrapping" in place. I often wondered what a really hot barrel would do to that epoxy. Such rifles also would have been extremely muzzle-light.

If I were going to get a custom rifle, I'd want a traditional wooden stock. Synthetics are what I would use for an all-weather rifle I'd use under hard hunting conditions. It just doesn't make sense to drag a $3,000 stock through briars and over rocks. You say custom rifles are made to hunt with? Sure, but not under conditions like that. There's no point in having a beautiful rifle built if you're going to destroy its looks in one or two hunts.


Steve C - what else do you do with a rifle besides shoot it? Your comparison would be a little more accurate if you said a $10,000 rod and reel.


Sorry, $30,000 rod and reel.

Dr. Ralph

Hell a "slightly" used 150 Merc and Stratos is still over ten grand if you're lucky. If you're fishin' you have to be on the water and burning lots and lots of gas... Shimano/All Star combo $300. I think Steve C. has an excellent comparison. Kind of makes me rethink my whole perspective about a $5000 custom Jarrett.


Chev Jim said "There's no point in having a beautiful rifle built if you're going to destroy its looks in one or two hunts."
I'd have to argue that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. History is in the mars on the stock. Having a dang near indestructible stock that won't warp, crack, dent, scratch, etc, means that you'll never be able to point at the battle scars and say " See this one? That happened when as we were crossing Pike's Peak, following a batchlor herd of carribou. Ol' Ted slipped and we had to use this rifle as an anchor between two rocks and rappel down to him . . ." All the while your grandson sits motionless, eyes wide, and mouth slightly agape, living every moment of your tale.

Now, of course you'd have any performance altering damage repaired, but all the nicks and dings are part of the history of a rifle. Imagine the look you'd get if you recounted how the rifle saved you from certain death at the horns of a Cape Buf. See, here's where the horn hit the stock, right here. . . .

I'll take that over " Here's my rifle- as dull and lifeless as the day I bought it." --All day long--


P.S. Remember, it's about the hunt, not the rifle

Clay Cooper

A Father of twin boys had a big problem. One was a pessimist and the other an optimist. The Father asked the Psychiatrist for what to do with the two. The Psychiatrist said put brand new toys in the pessimist boy’s room and horse crap in the other. So the Father did and that afternoon coming home from work, the pessimist Son was sitting in his room with the brand new toys unwrapped and yelled at his father that if he broke one he would take them all away. Then he walked in the other room to find his optimistic son digging feverously thru the crap pile yelling, there is a pony in here some place!

This brings my case and point to firearms. Are you going to spend so much that you cannot shoot them? Afraid to get a scratched stock?

Customize a 03-A3 and have fun!

Clay Cooper

Besides it's the indian not the arrow!

Fancy smancy! I have more fun with my 03-A3!

Mike Strehlow

Good blog, Dave. A lot of this is good advice on buying any gun, not just a custom.

The best reason for going custom is that a custom shop can turn out a better rifle than anything you can get from an assembly line. The action will be blueprinted, the barrel will be a good one, the trigger will be the right pull weight, the thing will feed properly, etc., and the gunsmith won't let the gun out the door if things are otherwise. That is something that can't be said for every gun factory. I've bought some really accurate factory rifles, but I presently own a Winchester that can't put all its shots on a frisbee at 200 yards. If I were rich and/or idle enough to do much hunting, my 'go-to' gun would be a left-handed Remington 700 in stainless and plastic, probably .270 or 7mm/08, with a good barrel and trigger, from Remington's custom shop or one of the shops you list. And I'd take it everywhere and use it on everything. That is why you want a custom gun.


I have a Ruger with a synthetic stock. Love the thing, shoots like a champ. It has some dents and dings in stock, rubbed it down with Armorall, wah-lah!! Good as new!
I have an L. C. Smith double gun. In the amazing wood of the forend, there is a ding that would hide half a pencil about a half inch long. Hunting!? No, my grampa dropped a coffee cup on it in camp one morning!! In November of 1966!! How's that for memories!?
P.S. He and I fed the camp (5 of us) squirrel and dumplings for dinner that night!!


Buddy, that's exactly what I'm talking about.

Chev Jim

This comment is addressed to the husbands out there who shoot or hunt. You work hard and you deserve something "nice" every once in a while. If you leave the family budget completely in the hands of your spouse, there will "never be enough money" for a custom rifle, but there will always be money for multiple pairs of shoes, clothes, cosmetics, beauty salons and buying useless crap from the QVC channel. Are you beginning to get my drift? If you are like most guys, you don't really look at the bank statements and credit card bills, but if you did you would see money getting frittered away like there was no tomorrow. So, my friends, if you want a nice "anything," you are going to have to get involved with the budgeting and bill-paying process, or you are always going to be in the dark about family finances, and you will always hear that there is "no money" for what you want. This is a word to the wise. Women are, for the most part, spenders and not savers. They also assign almost no priority to what you want, but what they want almost always gets bought--or charged on a credit card. It's kind of like the "I don't want guns in the house" kind of argument you get from a lot of women. You have to tell them, "I will defer to you about home decor, but you will have to defer to me about home defense." Really, guys, I'm serious. So many of you are so "whipped" that you are lucky if you get one of those "Wally World" low-end firearms every five to ten years. I'm telling you that you are going to eventually grow very resentful of a wife's unbridled spending while you never get anything you want. A lot of you have "been there and got the T-shirt," and you know I'm right. Some of you are truly blessed with wives who understand a man's need to have some reward for his labors from time to time, and some will actually "surprise" their husbands with the gift of a longed-for firearm. I really hope you are treating such wives right! As for the rest of you poor suckers, you had better get into the game or you are simply going to watch those shoeboxes and dresses multiply in your wife's closet and you will continue to receive only the crumbs, if that. Hint: if you never get to see bank statements or credit card statements, you are already in a lot of trouble. You are not only not going to get that custom rifle, or ATV, or bass boat, or hunting trip, but you are likely to end up in bankruptcy court or foreclosure. I avoided both, but only because I woke up in the nick of time. This post has been brought to you as a public service.


So, you get the toys, she gets the house and cars. Fair trade. How ya makin' out up there at your buddy's hunting camp?


Custom built, to me, means its built for the individual.meaning period. If I want a stock that fits me, I don't care if it fits you or not. I don't have rifles built to sell, I have rifles built for ME to shoot. If it happens that my grand sons grow arms as long as mine,and understand the meaning of accurate,and want to keep them after I die,then that's alright with me, if they want to sell them for a fraction of what I paid, thats alright too. But I won't know about it either way because I'll be dead. Counting up as a result of reading this blog and the comments theron, I own,or have owned nine custom rifles,and still have seven of them. There is not one that I would sell for what I paid for it. And yes, Coop, two of them are wildcats that you will never see on the shelf at Waiiy World, or anywhere eise.I personally designed both, supervised the grinding of the necessary reamers,turned the barrels and watched my friend and employer chamber both.


P.S. Dave, you do a fine job.Keep up the good work.

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