What's in a Riflestock?
September 23, 2010
In a World of nearly infinite possibilities, it's good to know you have options when it comes to choosing the composition of your stock.
1: Custom Model 70 with Fajen English Walnut Stock
2: Cooper Model 22 with English Walnut Stock
3: Cooper Model 22 with English Walnut Stock
4: Cooper Model 52 with American Walnut (Claro) Stock
In the beginning, firearms--called handcannons at the time--consisted of a simple hollow tube made of iron, but it eventually dawned on some bright fellow that attaching a handle to the contraption would make it easier to shoot. And since wood was both handy and easy to whittle into the desired shape, it became the logical choice for those first gunstocks.
Stocks made of various synthetic materials have stolen some of the popularity of wood among American hunters, but worldwide, wood is still the king of riflestocks. After several decades of hunting in other countries, I can count on one hand the number of Europeans I have seen carrying rifles with stocks made of anything but wood, and this applies today same as it did many years ago.
A number of different woods have been and still are used to make riflestocks, including maple, birch, beech, cherry, madrone, myrtle, persimmon, sassafras, mesquite, and walnut. For those who enjoy its light coloration, maple is a good choice due to its extreme hardness and great strength, but since it is quite heavy, it is most often used on varmint rifles. Birch, which is commonly seen on economy-priced rifles, is a bit stronger than walnut, but it weighs about the same as maple. Lack of contrasting figure makes it rather drab in appearance.
Walnut is the most popular, and three types are commonly used in making gunstocks. American black walnut, which is also called Claro walnut, is most often worn by factory rifles. English walnut--also known as French, Italian, Himalayan, Circassian, and a few other names--is used a lot in custom riflestocks and in stocks made for higher grades of rifles built by specialty companies. The third type of walnut is called Bastogne; it is a hybrid mix of English and black walnut that is created by grafting. The big soft spot in my heart is for the English variety, but running my hand over a nicely figured piece of Claro can also quicken my pulse rate.
Regardless of the type, walnut has a lot going for it, and at the top of the list is its lightness when compared to most other hardwoods. For instance, the factory stock worn by my Winchester Model 70 Featherweight in .270 weighs only 31 ounces.
Walnut is also quite strong for its weight. In its favor is a tight grain structure that allows it to be easily shaped, carved, and checkered. To many of us, most important of all is that no other wood comes close to being as beautiful as a piece of fine walnut. While not as abundant as it once was, walnut is still readily available.
Walnut has many desirable qualities, but I am afraid many American firearms writers have blown its shortcomings a bit out of proportion and turned away a good number of hunters. And I must confess to being as guilty of that as anyone. While it is true that a wood stock is not as strong as a good synthetic stock, only rarely is it not strong enough.
In almost 50 years of hunting with wood-stocked rifles, I have broken exactly one, and that incident was my own fault. While loading gear onto a boat during an Alaskan bear hunt, I carelessly placed my rifle--protected by nothing more than a soft case--somewhere it shouldn't have been, and one of the guides dropped a heavy box of canned goods on it. The stock came apart at its grip, the weakest part of any stock.
1: Custom Mauser '98
2: Sedgley '03 Springfield
3: Remington Model 700
4: Cooper Model 22
While I am on the subject, a bit of reinforcing can go a long way toward making a stock stronger. Installing a through bolt just behind the recoil lug is often seen on rifles chambered for hard-kicking cartridges. The Weatherby Mark V stock has an interior metal rod running the full length of its grip, and a couple of shorter rods are bedded inside the midsection of the stock, one behind the recoil lug mortise and the other behind the magazine cutout.
We also hear tales about wood stocks swelling up and warping when subjected to climatic changes, thereby causing a rifle to go off zero. But of the many rifles I have owned through the years, only one had that problem. I could zero that rifle during summer, and come cold weather, it would shoot low. The following summer it would be back to its original zero. Regardless of the temperature, the rifle would stay zeroed for several months, and for this reason I never had a problem with it during a hunt.
While minor expanding, contracting, and warping of a stock can cause a rifle to shoot to a different point of impact, it usually takes place over a period of weeks or even months rather than suddenly. The important point is, I own many wood-stocked rifles--some new, others built as far back as the early 1900s--and all maintain their zeroes as well as rifles wearing stocks made of other materials.
Friends who work for a couple of the major firearms manufacturers tell me that walnut stocks have begun to make a comeback in popularity during the past few years, while sales of synthetic stocks have dropped off a bit. I am glad to hear that because it means there are a lot of other people like me who enjoy hunting with rifles wearing Mother Nature's finest wood.
I have no idea who first formed a riflestock blank by gluing layers of wood together, but during World War II the Germans did it due to the scarcity of solid blanks thick enough to produce a one-piece stock.
The first laminated stock I owned came in semifinished form from E.C. Bishop & Son of Warsaw, Missouri. After a bit of sanding, finishing, and fitting it to a 1903 Springfield barreled action in .22-250, I had what was considered a red-hot varmint rifle during the 1960s.
One of the first factory rifles to wear a laminated stock was the Remington Model 600 in 6.5 and .350 Remington Magnums. Whereas the typical stock of today is made up of many thin layers of wood, the stock of the Model 600 consisted of two layers of maple sandwiched between three layers of walnut on each side.
When all is said and done, Layne prefers to hunt with a rifle wearing a nice walnut stock, like this .416 Rigby built during the 1980s by the original Kimber of Oregon.
Anytime weight is not an issue, I will choose laminated wood over synthetic simply because I prefer the way it looks and feels. It is also about as stable as a synthetic when subjected to wet-weather hunting conditions. One reason for this is the glue used to bond the layers of wood together under high pressure actually fills the pores of the wood with an inert material, thereby preventing the wood from absorbing moisture. Just as important, the grain flow of each layer of wood is oriented in a different direction than the one below it, and this prevents warping. It is also why a laminated stock is quite a bit stronger than a one-piece wood stock, and this is especially important at the grip since that's where a wood stock is most likely to break.
When hollow wood cells are filled by a solid material, weight will increase. This seldom matters on a varmint rifle, and it is not an issue on big-game rifles used for sitting rather than walking, but laminated wood is not the way to go if your goal is to trim ounces from Old Betsy. I have not done a lot of weight comparisons of the same style stocks made of both materials, but my educated guess is a laminated stock will weigh anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2 pound more than a one-piece wood stock of the same size and shape. A laminated stock worn by a Model 700 in .375 Ultra Mag in my battery weighs 44 ounces versus 39 ounces for a one-piece stock of the same style on another Model 700.
Most laminated wood stocks made today are heavier than they have to be simply because manufacturers seem unable to catch on to the fact that their great strength would allow a reduction in weight simply by slimming them down to smaller dimensions. Put another way, top-quality laminated stocks are strong enough to be a lot lighter than they are. What the world needs is not another color of laminated wood stock--brown is all we need--but dimensional copies of lightweight stocks such as those worn by the Remington Model 700 Mountain Rifle and the Winchester Model 70 Featherweight.
Riflestocks made of synthetic materials have been around for quite a long time, and some of the first to appear on sporting arms left a bit to be desired. The plastic buttstock of a Savage Model 24 owned by a boyhood chum of mine during the 1950s shattered into several pieces one frosty morning when he dropped it on a rock. A big leap forward in both quality and durability came with the arrival of Remington's Nylon 66 rifle in 1959. Except for its barrel and a few small parts in its action, such as the extractor and firing pin, the entire rifle was made of nylon Zytel-101 resin, which proved to be all but indestructible.
Then during the 1970s, a couple of stockmakers who just happened to be benchrest shooters borrowed an idea from the pleasure-boat-manufacturing industry and started making stocks composed of layers of fiberglass fabric bonded together by epoxy resin. The fiberglass stock caught on quickly among benchrest competitors for a couple of reasons: It was more stable than wood during changes in climatic conditions, and because it was lighter, it allowed a heavier barrel to be used without exceeding class weight restrictions.
Laminated stocks are strong enough to be a lot lighter than their manufacturers tend to make them. Due to its trimness, the stock at left on an Alpha Arms Grand Slam weighs 6 ounces less than the stock on the Remington Model 700 next to it. The Remington Model 600 Magnum introduced the laminated stock to American hunters in 1966, and today laminated stocks come in many colors, such as the one from Boyds' on a Ruger 10/22.
Before long, shops that pioneered the synthetic stock for target rifles began producing lighter versions for big-game rifles, but it took awhile before they managed to win the hearts of hunters. Not long after they became available, I installed one on a Remington Model 700 barreled action in 7mm Magnum, and most other hunters who saw it turned up their noses in disapproval. I'll have to admit the stock was more homely than a fence post, and on a winter day, it felt as cold as a witch's heart, but it accomplished what I was after: trimming weight from my then-favorite elk rifle.
When it came to being first to offer a big-game rifle with a fiberglass stock, Weatherby beat everyone to the punch by introducing the Fibermark version of the Mark V rifle in l983. Soon thereafter, other companies saw the handwriting on the wall and hopped aboard the synthetic-stock bandwagon. Now, the number of rifles with synthetic stocks sold each year outnumbers those wearing wood.
Synthetic stocks are made of many materials, including fiberglass, carbon fiber, Kevlar, Fiberthane, Carbolite, and probably a few others I have never heard of. One of the more common methods used to make them is injection molding. The one big advantage to this type of stock is that it is less expensive than stocks manufactured in other ways.
Some of the early stocks had a tendency to warp when subjected to extremely high temperature--as when stored inside the cab of a pickup truck during the heat of summer--but the better ones made today do not seem to have this problem. Aesthetically, all synthetic stocks leave a bit to be desired when compared to stocks made of wood, and of the synthetics, the injection-molded stock is usually the least appealing of all.
A few stocks are made of a mixture of polyurethane foam and glass fibers, and even though they are commonly reinforced in certain areas by the insertion of aluminum tubing, they are not considered to be as strong as those made by enclosing a foam core with layers of fiberglass fabric. Stronger yet is a stock made totally of layers of glass cloth saturated and bonded together with epoxy. Laying up the latter type of stock is quite labor-intensive, and for this reason it is often the most expensive.
Whether or not any of this really matters depends on how a rifle is to be used. The fellow who hunts only a few days each year and does not subject his rifle to a lot of abuse can get along quite nicely with a rifle wearing an inexpensive injection-molded stock. On the other hand, if maximum strength and stability are important, a fiberglass stock is worth its higher cost.
1: Riflestock Inc. Custom Remington Model 700
2: Browning A-Bolt Ti
3: Custom Remington Model 700 with McMillan Hunter Class Stock
4: Weatherby Mark V with McMillan Stock
Synthetic stocks come in many colors, and while black is the most popular with camo in second place, my favor
ite for a big-game rifle is the wood-grain finish from McMillan. On varmint rifles, I become a bit less conservative and have been known to bump off a prairie dog or two with a rifle painted fire-engine red.
It is commonly assumed that just because a particular stock is made of a synthetic material, it is lighter than a wood stock, but this it not always true. Some can weigh as much as 3 pounds. But a synthetic stock can be incredibly light. The lightest one I own is worn by a custom rifle in 6.5 STW built by Rifles Inc. on a Remington Model 700 action. The stock weighs only 15.75 ounces, and that includes a recoil pad, steel sling-swivel posts, and aluminum bedding pillars. Total weight of the rifle will vary depending on which scope it happens to be wearing, but it is usually no more than 6.25 pounds.
Drop-in stocks are available from a number of sources, and while nothing more than a screwdriver is required to install one on a barreled action, the job does not always end there if top accuracy is the goal. I have seen accuracy improve when factory wood is replaced with aftermarket synthetic, but I have also seen it get worse. This is due to the fact that bedding area dimensions of mass-produced stocks are generous enough to work with all rifles, making them a close fit with some rifles but far too generous with others. So, regardless of what the manufacturer's sales pitch has to say, it is quite possible that the receiver of a rifle will have to be glass-bedded into the stock before it will reach its true accuracy potential. This, by the way, applies to any stock, regardless of the material from which it is made. Bedding kits available from MidwayUSA and Brownells are inexpensive and easy to use. For more on the benefits of bedding, be sure to read our Shooting Editor's column on page 22.--Eds.
Perhaps the biggest appeal of a synthetic stock is that damaging it in the field is not guaranteed to break your heart. This is why some hunters have two properly bedded stocks for their favorite rifle; most of the time they stick with wood, but when the going promises to get wet and dirty, they switch to synthetic.
Wood, Version 2.0
A new type of stock available from S&K Industries allows us to have our cake and eat it too. It has the look and feel of fine walnut--because that's what it mainly is--but its method of construction makes it stronger and more stable than walnut in its natural state.
A synthetic stock doesn't have to look like a synthetic stock. The McMillan fiberglass stock on this Weatherby Mark V in .416 Magnum has a wood-grain finish.
The idea was actually born of necessity as walnut blanks in the higher grades have become increasingly more difficult to find and quite expensive to boot. Plain-Jane blanks of sufficient thickness remain reasonably abundant, but at the opposite end, nicely figured blanks are becoming scarcer each year. They are also priced far beyond the reach of many hunters and shooters.
Supplying wood for riflestocks is small potatoes to lumber mills when compared to the amount they sell to the furniture industry, and since many of the products produced by those companies do not require wood of great thickness, a very large percentage of the world's walnut is sawed into sheets too thin to be used in making riflestocks. What was needed was a way of making that supply of walnut thicker while still retaining its natural beauty.
The solution was to use a powerful adhesive to bond two blanks of walnut to a thin walnut spacer in order to come up with a very handsome blank thick enough to be used in making a stock. Then somebody got the bright idea of placing thin sheets of carbon fiber on both sides of the spacer before bonding the three layers of wood together. And since the walnut filler and the carbon fiber measure only about a quarter of an inch in total thickness, the fact that the stock is of laminated construction is hardly noticeable.
After the blank is inletted, shaped, and its exterior is finish-sanded, it is base-coated with a clear polyurethane. After that coat has dried, the process is repeated five more times. The stock then receives a top coating of clear DuPont Imron, which is the tough skin worn by many automobiles and by some of the more expensive synthetic stocks.
At first glance the Ultra Wood stock from S&K appears to be one piece rather than laminated, but a close top view reveals a quarter-inch-wide spacer consisting of a narrow sheet of
walnut and two layers of carbon fiber laminated between the two thicker layers of walnut.
Moisture is kept at bay by applying the finish to all surfaces of the stock, including beneath the recoil pad and in the inletting. What they end up with is a stock possessing the warmth and beauty of fine walnut but one that's stronger and more stable than nonlaminated walnut. It is also a bit lighter than the typical stock made of multiple wood laminates; the stock you see in the photos is on my long-action Remington Model 700 in 6.5 Swedish and weighs 40.5 ounces on my postal scale, about the same as the factory BDL-style wood stock.
The information I get from S&K is the two thin layers of carbon make the Ultra Walnut stock comparable in strength and warp resistance to a multiple-laminated wood stock. And since two pieces of thin walnut in the higher grades cost less than one piece of thick walnut of equal quality, the price of an Ultra Walnut stock is less expensive than a one-piece stock of the same grade. Completely finished, drop-in stocks can be purchased direct from S&K, and it is offered as an option by the Remington Custom Shop on various centerfire big-game rifles, including the new 40-X Hunter.
There you have them, my thoughts on each of the many available options in riflestock materials.