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Gunsmithing

You Can Build An Economical Custom Varmint Rifle–Quickly!

September 23rd, 2010 0

Using readily available components, Reid built one fine-shooting bolt gun in just nine days–all without breaking the family budget. And you can too!


There are some words that just don’t seem natural together. You know what I mean; words like “honest” and “politician.”

I imagine for a lot of folks the idea that you could have an “economical custom rifle quickly” makes just as much sense as “honest politician.” Admittedly, the concept does seem to be a stretch, but believe it or not, you really can have an economical custom varmint rifle in a short amount of time. I know because I just finished building one. I’d bet you can do it too.

First, let’s take a look at the economics. If you’re an average guy like me, money is especially tight right now. With the rising costs of just about everything, money for nonessential spending is limited. There’s absolutely no way I can justify, to myself or my better half, spending $3,000 or more for a custom varmint rifle. Sure, I want one, would love to have one, and honestly believe it’s worth the money. My problem is I just don’t have that kind of cash laying around.

Still, I wanted a nice .223-caliber varmint rifle, and like your grandmother used to tell you, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” I found the secret is to look at this project in small, affordable steps. I know I can’t come up with several thousand dollars at one time, but I can rustle up a few hundred bucks here or there over a period of months.

Okay, I know what some of you’re thinkin’: Why not just save the money until you have what you need to order a custom rifle? The problem with this is that if I find myself with $3,000 or $4,000 extra lying around, it will go into the household fund. That’s just a fact of life for me, and I bet I’m not out of the norm.

On the other hand, $100 or so can be invested in components with no major problem. And that, my friends, is the secret of getting this ball rollin’. I can wrangle the dollars to buy an action, then a barrel, later a stock, and finally a scope.

To top it off, with a little study, I found the ideal action for frugal folks like us to assemble into a complete rifle.

The Action
Savage Arms has a reputation for producing high-quality, economical firearms. The company’s guns are great values for the dollar with a reputation of outstanding performance. This is especially true of the centerfire rifles.

Not too long ago, Savage introduced its Precision Target Action. It is a single-shot action designed specifically for benchrest competition and varmint hunting. It’s available in a number of different configurations. You can get it with a right-hand bolt and right-hand loading/ejection port or even a right-hand bolt and left-hand port. It will be available with a left-hand bolt and right-hand port soon. No matter what set-up you want, you can probably get it with this action.

In addition to being super rigid because it has no magazine cutout, the action comes with the Savage AccuTrigger. This is an exceptional trigger that rivals custom aftermarket triggers costing hundreds of dollars. The trigger is fully adjustable and can be set by the user for a trigger pull as little as 6 ounces. The trigger guard and action screws are also included.


The heart of Reid’s economical custom varmint rifle is the Savage Target Action and a Shilen Select Match barrel.

The action, which is available in stainless steel, has a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of right at $528. However, if you’re like me with a limited budget, you can shop around and occasionally find some great deals. During my search, I found one supplier that was selling the actions for only $400. With prices like that, a great deal on an action became even better.

The Barrel
Once I had my action, the next component I picked up was the barrel. There are many fine barrel makers, but this time I chose Shilen, as I’ve used that company’s barrels in a number of rifles with excellent results. At the time I obtained my barrel, the 26-inch, stainless-steel, select match-grade barrel already threaded and chambered was priced at about $380. One of the great things about dealing with Shilen and several other companies like it is that the folks are more than willing to help you pick the best barrel for your needs. I wanted to stick with .223 Remington because I’m already set up for reloading that caliber, and besides that, I like it.

In selecting a twist rate, the folks at Shilen suggested I go with a 1:8 twist to handle heavier bullets. I hadn’t really thought about that, but it made sense, and I really appreciated the suggestion.

The Stock
The next item on my shopping list was a stock. And it was actually the toughest part to locate. There are several custom-stock makers offering some really neat stocks for the Target Action, but I couldn’t afford ‘em.

Instead, I found that Boyd’s was offering a JRS laminated, semifinished stock for the Savage for about $100 that can be easily modified to fit the Target Action. I was able to get an especially good deal on a left-hand stock that I could alter to the right-hand action.

Since my investment in the stock was minimal, if I later find a more suitable stock, I can always upgrade. But frankly, if I don’t ever find another stock, I can do just fine with this one.

The Scope
As for sights, I wanted a good scope, yet I was still on a limited budget and sure couldn’t afford to spend more on the scope than I did on the rifle. Fortunately, Leupold offers a line of scopes that are ideal for a guy on a budget. The VX-1 scope has a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of only about $280, and if you’re a good shopper, you can find this scope on sale for even less. This 4-12X 40mm scope will work great on my varmint rifle, and if necessary, I can always move it to other rifles for different types of hunting later.

I also opted for Leupold rings and bases. A good scope should be attached to the rifle with good bases and rings. Poorly made rings and bases will definitely compromise the performance of even the best rifle and scope.

The Build–Day #1
While you can spend more time putting this rifle together, it can be done in a little more than a week. I started on a Friday evening, and I was sighting-in my rifle at the range the following Sunday. Here’s how I did it.

I started by fitting the barrel to the action. The only specialized equipment I needed was a wrench for the barrel nut, a barrel vise to hold the barrel, and a set of headspace gauges. I’m a firm believer in using good-quality headspace gauges if you want consistent, accurate headspace.


The square notch on the face of the receiver is for the recoil-lug locating pin.The Savage Target Action uses an independent, precision-machined recoil lug with a special locating pin to ensure proper positioning. The .223 boltface is shown without the extractor and ejector.

After stripping the bolt and removing the extractor and ejector, the barrel was positioned in my barrel vise. The chamber was thoroughly cleaned, and the barrel nut and recoil lug were installed on the barrel shank. I also coated the barrel threads with Sentry Solutions Hi Slip Grease to prevent galling or damage to the threads. Finally, my “Go” .223 headspace gauge was installed in the chamber.

With the stripped bolt in place, the receiver was then threaded on to the barrel. I carefully turned the receiver on until the boltface contacted the headspace gauge. The recoil lug was slid back against the face of the receiver and properly positioned. Then I turned the barrel nut back with a Wheeler Engineering Barrel Nut Wrench until it was a nice, snug contact with the recoil lug. In seating the barrel nut, you don’t need a lot of pressure. Just make sure it’s snug enough so that it won’t come loose. That’s all that’s needed.

I then opened and closed the bolt to make sure it would indeed lock up on the “Go” gauge. This headspace gauge was then removed, and the “No-Go” gauge was installed in the chamber. I carefully moved the bolt forward and with very little pressure attempted to lock it in place. It wouldn’t lock up; that’s exactly how it’s supposed to work. The bolt should close on the “Go” gauge, and it should not close on the “No-Go” gauge.

Just like that, the barreling was completed. The Savage Target Action is perfect for the guy who wants to do the work himself.

The last thing I did on that Friday night was to make and install a filler for the stock. The stock was made with a blind-box-magazine cutout. Since this is a single-shot action, that opening is unnecessary.

The first order of business was filling the magazine well. I just used a piece of pine, cut to the dimensions of the magazine well and epoxied in place. This plug would later be covered with bedding material. That completed all my work on Friday night.

Day #2
The next day, Saturday, I prepared my stock for bedding. My stock was for a longer-length action, so I would be relocating a few screw holes as well as the slot for the recoil lug.

The first task was to make a slot in the stock for the recoil lug. All I had to do was position the barreled action next to the stock and note the position of the recoil lug. This was indicated in the stock with a black felt-tip marker. I then used a small flat-bottom wood drill to take out the necessary wood. This cutout didn’t have to be precise or smooth since it would soon be partly filled with bedding compound. In fact, any roughness would actually provide the bedding material with a better gripping surface.

Before I could open up the barrel channel, I drilled three holes for the action screws since these screws would also serve as indexing pins when inletting the barrel. Once these were drilled, I made up inletting guide pins using extra action screws. I simply cut off the screw heads and slightly chamfered the ends of the screws. These were then turned into the action and left in place as I opened up the barrel channel.


A wood block was cut to fill the magazine cutout in the stock because the cutout was not necessary for the single-shot Savage Target Action.
Coffield modified some extra action screws for use as bedding and inletting guide pins.

To ensure a good fit of the barrel and stock, I used inletting black on the barrel and cut and scraped away any wood that showed contact. This took quite a bit of time, but eventually, the barrel was fully inletted into the forearm. Once I had the barrel inletted, I then took out just a bit more wood to free float the barrel in the forearm.

The next step was to remove a bit of wood under the action for the bedding compound. The wood and the bedding cannot both occupy the same space, so you have to make room for the bedding. A few quick passes with a small round cutter on my Dremel tool was all it took.

The barreled action was prepped for bedding by plugging all the screw holes and slots with modeling clay. A bit of plastic electrical tape was used to cover the front and the bottom of the recoil lug to allow a few thousandths clearance that would later make installation and removal from the stock easier. Finally, the notches in the barrel nut were filled with modeling clay, and a strip of electrical tape was wrapped around the barrel nut. Every surface that could possibly come in contact with the bedding material was coated with release agent.

With the barreled action and stock prepped, the bedding material, Brownells Steel Bed, was mixed and applied to the stock. The barreled action was then carefully installed in the stock and secured with two of the three action screws. The screws were tightened just enough to be snug and ensure that the barreled action was properly positioned in the stock. Any excess Steel Bed that was squeezed out was cleaned up while it was still soft and easy to remove. The rifle was then set aside to allow the bedding to harden.

Day #3
On Sunday, I removed the barreled action from the stock and cleaned up the bedding. Any bedding that was more than 2 inches ahead of the receiver in the barrel channel was removed.

I used a rasp to remove the cheekpiece, as this was a left-hand stock, and I’m a right-hander. I also cut back on the length of the pistol grip a bit, thinned the bottom of the forearm, cut a notch for the bolt handle, and altered the angle of the grip cap.

Finally, I thinned the forearm a bit and also made a flat along the bottom of the forearm. This flat is about an inch wide at the front of the trigger guard and narrows as it extends forward, terminating at about 14 inches. The edges of the flat are rounded so the flat is not uncomfortable or even very noticeable when holding the stock. When used off a sandbag or rest, the flat will help keep the rifle from tilting.

When you put your rifle together, you can and should make any alterations to make it more
attractive and functional for you. After all, it is your rifle.


The angle and length of the pistol grip were modified. When working on a stock, don’t hesitate to change or modify it to suit your needs and taste.
Since this was originally a left-hand stock, Coffield had to cut a notch for the right-hand bolt. Once assembled, the stainless barrel, barrel nut, receiver, and recoil lug were bead blasted for a uniform finish.

The stock was then sanded and sealed. Later in the day, the first coat of finish was applied. I opted for the Pro Custom Oil satin aerosol finish sold by Brownells. It’s a good oil-modified polyurethane finish I’ve used before, and it’s quick.

Finishing Touches–Days #6-#9
Beginning on Monday, I applied two coats each day–one in the morning and one in the evening. By Thursday, I had seven coats of finish and was ready to let it set for 48 hours to fully cure and harden.

Before reassembling the rifle, I modified the metal finish. The entire rifle is stainless steel. However, the receiver, the recoil lug, and the barrel each had a different finish. The receiver was lightly bead blasted, while the barrel had a high-gloss polish, and the recoil lug had a more subdued polish. To make it uniform, I bead blasted all the stainless parts for a soft matte finish.

On Saturday, I reassembled the rifle and mounted the Leupold scope. Once that was done, I was basically ready for the range.

Sunday morning found me at the range ready to do a bit of shooting. The first order of business was simply to break in the new barrel. This involved firing five times and cleaning after each shot. I then fired five, five-shot groups and cleaned after each group. Once that was done, the break-in process was complete. During this process, I was not concerned about accuracy–though I could tell even using a variety of .223 odds and ends that this rifle was a shooter. My smallest five-shot group at 100 yards was less than 0.660 inch, center to center. With tailored handloads, I expect it to shoot half-inch or better.

So there you have it. From beginning to end, it took me about nine days, and the total retail cost of all my components was less than $1,500. Like me, you too can put together an economical, accurate, custom varmint rifle in a relatively short time. It’s possible, it’s practical, and it’s a lot of fun!


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