January 03, 2011
By Greg Rodriguez
Whether you are in the market for a best-quality wood-stocked rifle or a flat-shooting synthetic-stocked flyweight, the craftsmen at Hill Country Rifles can improve your factory rifle or build a custom one that allows you to shoot with confidence.
By Greg Rodriguez
Peruse the pages of any gun or hunting magazine and you will see ads for lots of custom riflemakers. And although I'm sure many of them are pretty darned good, sending a gun off to a perfect stranger--for repairs, accuracy work, or a full-blown custom job--is a frightening proposition. It certainly was for me when I commissioned my first custom rifle in the mid-1990s.
Hill Country Rifles Big 5 Classic
I was in the market for a good, lightweight rifle that I could call on to fulfill a variety of hunting chores. I thumbed through the gun magazines, called the advertisers, and, I thought, asked all the right questions. After a lot of contemplation, I decided to give Hill Country Rifles a try.
I spoke with Matt Bettersworth, Hill Country's general manager, at length about my project. Several better-known shops were high on my list, but I was swayed ultimately by Hill Country's accuracy guarantee and the company's understanding of the importance of reliability in a hunting rifle. With modern technology, it is not that difficult to build an accurate rifle. But to build a rifle that can deliver tiny groups and cycle as fast as I can work the bolt, even when it's caked with dirt and mud, is much more difficult. I was convinced that the folks at Hill Country understood what I required in a real-world hunting rifle, so I sent them a Remington action.
The lightweight 7mm Remington Magnum Hill Country shipped back several months later exceeded my expectations. It shot everything into less than a half-inch and fed reliably, no matter how fast I worked the bolt. And it weighed less than eight pounds scoped and loaded! The rifle accompanied me on my first African safari, and I shot many head of big game with it before I retired it a few years ago when I entered my .30-caliber phase.
My collection of Hill Country rifles has expanded to include .260, 7mm Remington Magnum, .30-06, .300 WSM, .35 Whelen, .375 H&H, .416 Remington Magnum, and two .308 rifles. They wear barrels of varying makes, lengths, and contours, with a variety of stocks, but each of them meets Hill Country's legendary accuracy guarantee.
The guns from Hill Country Rifles come with an accuracy guarantee of a half-inch at 100 yards. The rifles are fired in an underground 100-yard range before they are shipped to the customer.
Hill Country Rifles does everything from general rifle work to full-blown custom rifles but is perhaps best known for its sub-inch accuracy guarantee. Every custom rifle Hill Country builds, from wood-stocked dangerous game rifles to flyweight mountain rifles, is guaranteed to put three rounds of factory ammunition into a half-inch or less at 100 yards. Semicustom Harvester rifles are guaranteed to deliver one-inch or better groups, and the .308 sniper rifles are guaranteed to shoot under a quarter-inch at 100 yards with factory match ammunition.
Those are pretty bold guarantees, but Hill Country has proven to me time after time that it can deliver. What baffles me is how the company does it. To satisfy my curiosity, I called Bettersworth and asked him.
"It's gotta be the bedding," he said.
Bedding rifles is not rocket science. (I have managed to bed a few guns without getting my hand permanently stuck to the stock.) I could not believe that Bettersworth would give so much credit for Hill Country's success to something so basic
"HCR's bedding department is truly unique," Matt said. "Hector Herrera and his sister, Irene, have each bedded over 10,000 bolt-action rifles over the last 20 years. As a team, they will pillar bed over 800 rifles this year alone. Those two know just about everything there is to know about bedding an action into a stock. And because we accurize so many different factory rifles as opposed to specializing in, say, Remington, our bedding expertise is unmatched in the custom firearms industry.
The key to Hill Country's exceptional accuracy is the bedding. Technicians take the time to do it right, and they even bed the floorplate.
"You can true and square the action, install the best barrel in a great stock, and cut the chamber with the best reamer, but if there is a flaw in the bedding, the rifle will not shoot tight groups. A rifle may appear to be properly bedded, but if there is contact between the barrel and stock, contact between the bolt handle or trigger and the stock, or the magazine box is jammed between the floorplate and the receiver, no rifle will shoot up to its potential."
If Hill Country's emphasis on bedding seems a bit over the top, consider that the purpose of bedding is to achieve a perfect stock-to-metal fit that ensures there is no harmonic influence on a free-floating barrel. Perfect bedding means the receiver has to be bedded in perfect alignment with the floorplate, the magazine box must have room to float between the receiver and the floorplate, and nothing should come into contact with the stock that is not intended to touch it. In short, perfect bedding eliminates a lot of variables and greatly ups the odds of a rifle delivering tack-driving accuracy.
Hill Country's bedding starts out like any other. First, HCR threads aluminum pillars into the action at the front and rear action screws. Next, a liberal coating of bedding compound that has been dyed to match the stock is applied and the action is pressed down into the stock. The action/stock screws are then tightened down and the entire action is cleaned up before being put aside long enough for the bedding to cure.
Once the bedding cures, HCR's gunsmiths perform a couple of steps that most gunsmiths omit. First, they bed the floorplate. This is a simple step that ensures there is no torque on the action, but surprisingly few gunsmiths do it.
Next, the person who bedded the rifle test-fires it. While many gunsmiths make accuracy claims, HCR's 100-yard underground range allows the technicians to prove their claims and catch any problems before the gun g
oes back to a customer. Consequently, they do not pay out on their money-back guarantee very often.
HCR's Basic Accurizing Package
Unlike many custom gunsmiths, Hill Country still does general gunsmithing work. The company's accuracy package is its most popular service. Hill Country's accuracy package starts with pillar bedding. Once the bedding is complete, gunsmiths clean and adjust the trigger and recrown the barrel. A good trigger makes any rifle easier to shoot, and a clean, concentric crown ensures even pressure on the base of the bullet. Next, they lap the scope rings. Few scope rings are concentric from the factory, a problem that can cause crushed scope tubes or scope slippage, neither of which is conducive to accuracy. Finally, they lap the action's locking lugs to get the most engagement of each lug. While the bedding is the key to any rifle meeting Hill Country's accuracy guarantee, these additional steps all improve accuracy.
My most recent experience with Hill Country's accuracy work involved a Remington .30-06. It shot okay with factory loads it liked. But it didn't like many, and okay isn't good enough for me. I could not believe the improvement when it came back from Hill Country.
The author's Remington .30-06 did not shoot well, so he sent it to Hill Country Rifles for their accuracy package. These "before" and "after" targets show the improvement.
Prior to accurizing, the best load grouped a little over one inch at 100 yards. Now I consistently shoot less than a half-inch with the same load. Loads that shot horribly before now shoot between 1.0 and 1.5 inches. I would have been happy with far less, but getting such accuracy from a factory barrel made the $375 accuracy package a steal.
Harvester Rifles By HCR
Last year I told Bettersworth that I wanted to build a custom .260 for my children. We talked about the specifications, and he gave me a price quote. I think he could tell I was trying hard to justify paying the tab for another custom rifle. That's when he told me about Hill Country's new Harvester line.
Each Harvester starts out as a factory Remington, Winchester, or Montana Rifle Co. rifle. The action is then pillar bedded in the customer's choice of McMillan synthetic stocks; the scope rings and locking lugs are lapped; the barrel is recrowned; and the trigger is cleaned and adjusted. The result is an affordable and attractive rifle that is guaranteed to shoot almost as well as one of Hill Country's full-blown custom rigs.
So, with hunting season around the corner and my daughter Chloe ready to try her hand on a real deer instead of a target, I ordered a Harvester.
The rifle I received had a stainless Remington action with a lightweight barrel in a black McMillan stock. The test target that accompanied the rifle had confidence-inspiring groups, including a few sub-half-inch groups with Remington's 120-grain AccuTip load.
Hill Country Rifles Harvester
My first trip to the range inspired even greater confidence. The rifle functioned perfectly. I shot consistent sub-half-inch groups with the same Remington 120-grain Accu-Tip load. With a reduced load I ordered from Superior Ammunition, the groups opened up to just under an inch--plenty accurate for sub-100-yard shots at deer--so we loaded up and headed to the Texas Hill Country. When Chloe got her chance to take a fine axis buck, she was ready and drooped the buck with one shot.
With a base price of $1595 and a sub-inch accuracy guarantee, I think Harvester rifles are a heck of a value.
Old World Skills Live On
Hill Country does a brisk business building synthetic-stocked custom rifles. The rifles may be based on different actions, wear barrels of varying lengths and contours, and sport different finishes, but each carries Hill Country's "half-inch at a hundred" accuracy guarantee.
Synthetic-stocked rifles are nice, but many gunsmiths can produce such rifles. Few of today's gunsmiths possess the Old World metal and woodworking skills to perform the detailed work--like handcheckered metal and handfinished stocks that come up effortlessly and fit like a glove--that sets a true custom rifle apart from a rebarrel job. The artists who build such rifles are a dying breed, but fortunately, those skills live on at Hill Country Rifles.
To me, the rifle that best exemplifies Hill Country's Old World craftsmanship is the wood-stocked .416 Remington Magnum I commissioned recently. I wanted a traditionally styled rifle that was accurate and reliable to go toe-to-toe with a Cape buffalo or elephant. I knew exactly what I wanted, and based on my past experience with Hill Country, I knew it was the perfect company to build it.
In addition to building hunting rifles, Hill Country Rifles also produces super-accurate sniper rifles. The author's rifle is capable of shooting 0.292-inch five-shot groups.
The stock is one of the most important parts of a big-bore rifle. It must be as strong as it is pretty if it is to withstand a lifetime diet of heavy magnums, and it should be designed so as to reduce recoil. Hill Country's resident stockmaker started with an exhibition-grade blank of English walnut that was as beautiful and finely figured as any I've seen and also properly laid out with a little straight grain in all the right places for strength.
The stock has a thin wrist and a fairly slim forend with an almost imperceptible bulge in the belly to accommodate the Blackburn drop-box magazine. It also features a shadow line cheekpiece, handrubbed oil finish, and 22 lines-per-inch point-pattern checkering with a mull border. A perfectly fitted ebony forend tip, skeleton grip cap, custom cross bolts, and an .8-inch-thick Pachmayr Decelerator pad completed the stock.
Hill Country's artistry is further evidenced in the finer details, like the checkered bolt knob and bolt release. Another unique twist is the prewar tang. I don't know of anyone else that takes the time to reshape the factory tang to the more pleasing prewar contour, but I really like this extra touch. Such fine details are often overlooked, but not on the rifle that Hill Country christened the Big 5 Classic.
Hill Country's craftsmen trued and squared the Model 70 action, then spent many hours grinding and stoning it to ensure smooth
, reliable feeding. Once the action was perfect, they installed a 22-inch Lilja barrel before pillar bedding the barreled action into the stock.
The sight system on a rifle intended for dangerous game is extremely important. While a scope is preferable for general use, the ability to quickly switch to iron sights when following wounded game in heavy cover is desirable. The system that Hill Country came up with addresses these issues admirably. The wide field of view and battue reticle of the Swarovski 1.25-4X riflescope make it perfectly suited to hunting dangerous game. It offers enough magnification for pinpoint accuracy, yet is quick on target for close-in work. It is mounted in Talley rings, which are affixed to custom bases that were hand-sculpted to precisely match the contours of the action.
For those times when iron sights are preferable, an adjustable, gold-inlaid rear sight was mounted on a precisely fitted quarter rib, and a barrel band front sight with a flip-up ivory bead for low-light shooting was installed. The quarter rib and sights are beautifully done and perfectly regulated for Federal's 400-grain Trophy Bonded Sledgehammer solids.
Confidence Built Right In
I have carried various Hill Country rifles from Canada to South Africa and 10 countries in between. I have made some of my most difficult shots and taken some of my most important trophies with them. While the many fine memories I have certainly influence my opinion of HCR's rifles, the fact is that I would never have purchased another rifle from the company if the first one did not deliver the extreme accuracy and utter reliability I demand.
Whether you are in the market for a best-quality, wood-stocked rifle with which to pursue mbogo in the long grass, a flat-shooting flyweight to tote up the sheep mountains, or perhaps a bit of help with a fickle factory offering, get in touch with the guys at Hill Country Rifles. They will be happy to improve your factory gun or build a custom one that will help you, as their slogan says, "Shoot with confidence built right in."