Factory vs. Custom Rifles
by Lucas Beitner
When getting involved in long range shooting, rifle selection can be difficult. There are so many different manufactures, cartridges, and configurations available. Many would like a custom built rifle, but wonder if it’s worth the extra time and cost. The answer depends mostly on your priorities, and needs. There are advantages for each. Here’s a quick overview.
Factory rifles can be anything from the awesome Sako TRG to the cheap Savage Stevens. Factory rifles can be purchased in many different cartridges and calibers. The accuracy ranges from excellent to unacceptable (for long range). If you have the ability to do a little research, you can avoid any that have a high probability of poor accuracy. You can also find some where good accuracy is the rule rather than the exception. Factory rifles come ready to fire. You can get them from a local shop in minuets or have one shipped in days. You’ll have little down time especially if you have optics ready to go. There are custom rifles that will take over a year to get once you order!
A reasonably priced factory rifle can have good accuracy even for long range. I’ve owned a factory rifle that shot with accuracy above the level of many customs. This is the exception and not the rule, but it’s a joy to find and shoot such a rifle. Some factory rifles come with accuracy guarantees, but most do not. If you purchase a rifle that shoots poorly there are modifications (at relatively little cost) that you can make to increase accuracy. It is possible to get one that cannot be made to shoot with acceptable accuracy. The worst case scenario, would have you ordering a new barrel and action work from your gun smith. This extreme would be very rare, and one should not be worried. I’ve heard of plenty who get the factory to fix rifles that shot poorly even when no guarantee of accuracy was made.
There are many options available for factory rifles. They will often have different magazine configurations (or lack thereof). Different barrel contours and lengths… heavy barrels for varmint and tactical models, helping dissipate heat and maintain accuracy for extended strings of shooting. Light barrels are most popular for hunting models, keeping weight to a minimum. They can be made from different materials including chromoly, stainless, even titanium. Some will have synthetic stocks, some wood. Even factory rifles designed for accuracy will often have aluminum pillars or bedding blocks. Some will have stocks that are adjustable, but most will not. The choices you will have to make for selecting a factory rifle are generally very straight forward.
Factory rifles are generally less expensive than customs. Good shooting rifles will sell for as little as $400. The used market can be great way to save even more. Make sure you know what a rifle goes for new. Just because it’s at a pawn shop doesn’t mean it’s a good deal. If you order a rifle off the internet keep in mind you’ll have to pay a local FFL for transfer. This usually runs about $40 in my area. A budget minded shooter will often purchase a factory rifle and slowly make modifications over time. Doing this can be enjoyable especially if you see better accuracy as a result of your own work. When a barrel is shot out on a factory rifle, a custom can be built from it.
Custom rifles can be had in every configuration imaginable. Any cartridge can be used from a standard 308 to a custom wild cat. You can build a single shot or repeater. Left hand, Right hand, left port, right port. It can be built from a factory action you are familiar with, or a custom action of extremely close tolerances. It can take a great deal of time and research to decide what suits you.
The accuracy of custom rifles is generally much better than factory. Accuracy guarantees are not uncommon. Not all custom rifles are created equally. If you’re going to spend the money, make sure you know what you’re getting. Find out what experiences others are having with customs from the same smith or company. Amazingly there are custom rifle makers who consider MOA accuracy to be excellent.
Custom rifles will require some decision making not necessary with factory rifles. Perhaps you will be selecting each component individually and paying a smith you know is good to assemble a rifle you’ve designed. If you allow your smith to decide what’s best, make sure you know what you’re getting. If you have any concerns let them know before your rifle is built. If you have questions….ask, this is part of what you’re paying for. With the advise of your smith, it’s probably best that you make most of the decisions. You’ll have to decide what cartridge, action, barrel, stock, trigger, etc. It’s best to keep in mind the purposes of this rifle.
When you decide what cartridge and caliber best suit your purposes it would also be good to decide what bullets you would be using. Find out what twist rate is required to stabilize the bullets you plan to use and order your barrel accordingly. If your rifle will be a repeater make sure the reamer is throated so you can seat the bullets into the lands without exceeding the mag length. By the same token if you have room in the mag, a reamer that allows you to seat the bullets near maximum mag length will give maximum capacity for powder. This can net a little more muzzle velocity which is generally a good thing!
Length of barrel is another consideration. For large magnums shooting heavy bullets long barrels will allow best velocities with slow burning powders. Some cartridges suffer little loss of velocity when used with short barrels, particularly those using relatively fast burning powders. Of course, if you will be dragging this rifle through the hills a long barrel may be out of the question. How about your trigger? Even a good rifle’s accuracy can be spoiled by a poor trigger. The trigger on a custom rifle should be tuned for a crisp brake and minimal over-travel. The weight of the trigger is up to the shooter. If the cross-hairs routinely move when you pull the trigger it may be to heavy (or poor shooting technique).Only you can decide whats best for you… that’s why you’re building a custom in first place.
Make sure the components come together in a rifle that will be comfortable for you. You’ll likely be spending more money than most “off the shelf” rifles require and you want to get your money’s worth. If at all possible handle the stock you want to use before you purchase. If the stock does not fit you correctly (and cannot be adjusted), shooting your rifle could be frustrating. Don’t leave anything out. With careful research and consideration you can build a custom rifle that will meet your needs and expectations. Such a rifle is always a pleasure to shoot.