These days there’s a trend toward nonfunctional rifle stocks with odd and grotesque shapes, some gunmakers seek to be excused from their lack of good taste by labelling their bizarre stocks “tactical.” But features that are better adapted to other types of rifles are being added to sporter stocks. After World War II stocks underwent extreme remodelling and some really flamboyant designs appeared which were neither practical or utilitarian. The California school excelled in stocks which had high Monte-Carlo combs, oversize cheekpieces, sharply curved pistol grips, curlicues, fluted fore-ends with complex curves, whiteline spacers and basket weave checkering. A good many of them could only be described as tasteless and garish. They were so far out that they made Roy Weatherby’s stock design look positively pedestrian. Rifles featuring the “Classic” design were in decline. Arms in this class are perfectly made, cleanly designed and carry no adornment beyond what is necessary for perfect function.
The renaissance started when Bill Ruger introduced his M77 in 1968. The rifle’s trim, unadorned stock was praised for its excellent lines, fine balance and lively handling qualities. Hunters appreciated the elegance of the trim, cleanly proportioned M77 stock so much that other makers were influenced to improve the aesthetics of their own stocks. Thus, the American classic was reborn.
The stock of the hunting rifle should be designed for practical use. It should be shaped, proportioned and properly balanced so that it can be thrown to the shoulder and aligned on the target quickly. It must hold steady, have a high, straight, comb to absorb recoil and place the shooter’s eye in line with the scope, so it can be shot well in any hunting position from offhand to prone. If in addition the classic stock is slim and trim with clean graceful lines and if it stimulates the owners aesthetic taste, so much the better. However, with the stock to be used in hunting, function is more important than someone’s notion of beauty or what is worse, their love of the outlandish.
Over the last five or six decades some features that are better adapted to other types of rifles have been incorporated in hunting-rifle stocks. Target and benchrest rifles are designed for entirely different purposes than those for which the hunting rifle is intended. While some features that are very useful on target rifles are an advantage on a heavy varminter, they can be a real pain in the neck on a light sporter. This includes the sharply hooked pistol grip.
Another strange feature found on target rifles is the thumbhole stock. While it may not be out of place on a varminter, letting go of the grip to work the bolt, prevents getting away a fast follow-up shot with a big-game rifle.
I am convinced that back in the 1960s the design of American automobile bodies which featured flaring wings and fancy and tasteless ornamention had considerable effect upon stock design. The completely non-functional strips of chrome plastered all these “Yank Tanks” had their counterparts in plastic diamond inlays, in whiteline spacers and skipline checkering of gunstocks. Nor could I ever determine just what the functions of roll-over combs, “tear drop” pistol grip caps and sharply angled beavertail fore-ends could be on a sporter.
Many stocks on European rifles copied this trend but their traditional Germanic stocks were just as bad with their schnabel- tipped toothpick fore-ends, low, combs and square-edged Bavarian- style cheekpieces which completely defeated the purpose of a cheekpiece which is to support the face and make it easier to hold the rifle steady.
Ever since firearms came into being there have been those who liked stocks elaborately carved, inlaid with mother of pearl, and highly engraved. Such guns were hardly ever shot and kept largely for bragging purposes; they would soon lose their value, intrinsic and monetary if they got beaten up from field use. I’ll not go into a discussion about carving and inlaying stocks with portraits of charging elephants, pouncing lions, bounding deer and nude nymphs. Better for the serious hunter to shun all the frills and stick with the clean, utilitarian lines of the classic stock.
The modern classic stock is a cunning combination of beauty and utility resulting from of years of experimentation and development by some very talented gunsmith/stockmakers. Morgan Holmes, noted U.S gunmaker, once defined the lines of a handsome rifle stock thus: “they should either be straight, or they should be segments of a circle.” That sums it up in very few words.
I don’t think the Monte-Carlo (which was taken over from trapshooting) improves the looks of a rifle stock and consider its utility doubtful. My own preference is for an absolutely straight stock with high, thick comb, zero drop at heel and a fairly thick cheekpiece merging into the comb on the forward edge. The comb I dote on is well-rounded in cross-section, and the point of the comb is a segment of a circle that follows the curve of the pistol grip. This type of comb fully supports the face and is both handsome and utilitarian. The less difference between drop at comb and drop at heel, the less the recoil effect. However, some stocks, most notably, that of the Ruger M77, is perfectly functional without a cheekpiece but has a high, rounded comb. This saves weight and bulk in a mountain rifle.
The type of pistol grip I like is almost round in cross- section and has a parabolic curve that is gentler than the curve of the pistol grip on a shotgun. The forward edge of the pistol grip cap is about 88mm from the centre of the trigger. A grip with a diameter of about 114mm feels more comfortable in my small hand, but on heavy calibres like the .375, 416 and .458 I like about 121mm.
Large, thick grips seem clumsy to me. I think the “Wundhammer swell,” a lump on the right side of the pistol grip that is supposed to fit in the hollow of the right palm, is purely a waste of time. I’ll happily give it a miss.
The fore-end should be so shaped that it aids in controlling the piece and is comfortable to grasp - that means round or slightly pear-shaped with a rounded not flat bottom. A rifle of heavy recoil should have a fuller fore-end so it is easier to hang onto and take up some of the recoil with the left hand. A wide fore-end that is flat on the bottom is most useful on a benchrest rifle as such a fore-end rests on a flat surface and prevents the piece from canting. It is not held in the hand.
A buttplate for a rifle in the .270-.30-06 class should be about 130mm long and 42mm wide and just about flat. The Limbsaver recoil pad on my .338 has more area - 134mm x 45mm. A properly designed recoil pad of generous dimensions does a pretty good job of taming the kick of a rifle of heavy recoil.
The average American factory rifle stock has a length of pull of 343mm which suits me just fine. European rifle stocks usually run a bit longer - and 356mm and 368mm stocks are not uncommon. European stocks also tend to have more drop at heel. I think the reason for this is that they are mostly used for offhand shooting.
A short man (160cm to 170cm) might be better suited with a stock having a 337mm length of pull, and a tall man with a stock 349mm to possibly 362mm. A youngster is best suited with a stock of 317mm to 324mm depnding upon his height and the length of his arms.
The function of checkering on a rifle stock is primarily to keep the hand from slipping and secondarily for decoration. Machine-cut checkering on wood stocks and molded-in diamonds on synthetic stocks are practical on a hunting rifle, but a well- executed pattern on a fine custom rifle is not only useful but a thing of beauty. Every diamond is even, exactly like every other diamond and sharply pointed up. The checkering on a working rifle is generally good enough to serve its purpose.
Just lately the pendulum has swung backward and there are some radical, even grotesque stocks on the market. One that really bugs me is a skeletonized thumbhole which is spring-loaded to allow the barreled action to come back 38mm under recoil.
Happily, Ruger, Remington and Winchester still make classic- style stocks but the exemplary handles lavished on the upmarket Dakota, Kimber and Cooper sporters are guaranteed to stimulate any rifleman’s pride. They are far superior in appearance, shooting and handling qualities, which makes them as functional as anything you could wish for.
That old saying, “Handsome is as handsome does,” is never truer than when applied to the working rifle stock.
This article was first published in Sporting Shooter, November 2011