Budgets are bigger and tastes are changing; Ollie Harvey explores the growing trend for customised rifles.
Why do so many purchases end up being a compromise in some way or another? This happens in most industries, including the rifle market, as products are divided into three main elements; off-the-shelf, customised and bespoke.
Off-the-shelf is basically what it says on the package or tin. It is the consequence of standardised mass production, a general item with a function and everyone who buys one gets the same (more or less). Quality is good or even excellent but there is no individuality to it so far as the customer is concerned.
At the other end of the scale, however, bespoke reflects a product made for the customer from start to finish. Design, materials, specification and manufacture are all focussed on the individual needs of that one person. Naturally, this attention to detail makes it far more expensive and so beyond the reach and means of many.
Custom, however, is the compromise between the two extremes. It utilises certain standards in design and build but facilitates the addition of optional elements which, in combination, can render the end product more unique at a cost which is lower than pure bespoke but higher than off-the-shelf.
However, a custom built rifle offers much more than just fancy bells and whistles, and a larger aesthetic appeal, perhaps most importantly for the shooter it provides the option to greatly improve the accuracy of their rifle. You can expect a modern off-the-shelf rifle to shoot fairly tight groups; but rifle engineers can tailor your firearm to achieve ½ MOA or less.
An important factor to accuracy is fit. With an over the counter rifle you are forced to “fit the gun”, rather than having a gun that fits you. The majority of ‘assembly line’ rifles will have a fairly straight comb, standard length of pull, and will all be around the same weight (within ½ lb).
Customisation gives you more options to create a gun that fits you. Barrel contour and length, stock options for everything from length of pull to hand positioning, and a wide variety of trigger choices, all add up to a rifle that fits you and your needs.
The only way to accomplish this is to be practicing with a piece of equipment that has the ability to perform beyond our abilities. This way, shooters are able to improve and grow without being limited by their rifle. For example, a chef will never know their full ability as a cook if they continue to work in an understocked kitchen. You must give yourself the tools to succeed.
There is no substitute for good old fashioned know-how and expertise which can be used to guide the customer in their personalised choices to great effect – and there is a bountiful supply of that in the British gun trade.
Steve Kershaw Firearms
Steve Kershaw Firearms build custom rifles to consistent standards, providing extreme accuracy whether they are for hunting or competition. Established in 1994, they cater for individual shooters and carry out riflesmithing for the trade, along with fitting moderators for gun shops around the UK and Ireland.
With over thirty years experience within the hunting fraternity, Steve is a registered gun dealer and hunter. He suggests that custom rifle work can be split into two parts. “One is to guarantee that your rifle achieves the highest standards, and the other is ensuring the rifle suits your budget – giving everyone the opportunity to have that special rifle.”
“All machining work is carried out in-house, removing the lengthy delays that can occur when out-sourcing services. After manufacturing is carried out to exacting specifications, the products are tried and tested to provide piece of mind.
“In addition, all used rifles are serviced and tested to make sure that the rifle and barrel will deliver a representative group at 100 yards. Customers will also have the opportunity to test a prospective rifle at the in-house range, to ensure that it is the right fit.”
As well as providing custom rifles, Steve’s team also have over 25 years experience in reloading equipment. He explains: “This began in pursuit of producing groups that would be consistent and perform out at ranges of up to 500 yards.
“Standard factory ammunition is mostly adequate for the hunter who shoots periodically and is happy shooting average groups of around 1” to 2”. In my opinion if you have purchased a rifle and scope to go hunting with, why not develop the third phase in custom ammo?”
Brock & Norris
Brock and Norris also offer a huge range of products and services to the modern rifle shooter. As a specialist in all aspects of rifle building, Mike Norris supplies a range of factory rifles, along with reloading supplies, accessories, and a full rifle-smithing service.
He also produces in-house custom built rifles and offers a range of specialist workshop services – which include re-barreling and bedding to simple fixes and improvements to factory rifles.
“Yes, we do build target rifles and tactical rifles, but accurate hunting rifles is our niche and how we’ve built our reputation. The reason being I’ve got a lot of experience in deer management, I’ve done a lot of rifle instruction, hunted in Africa and all over Europe, and I really do understand what hunters want and need from a gun,” explains Mike.
Where Brock & Norris excels is in providing customers with a complete package. “It’s not just the build of the rifles that is important,” says Mike. “It’s understanding the ammunition, the calibre, the ballistics, the set up, the scopes.
We build the rifle, tune it, recommend the best optics to go on it, then build the best bullets and ammo to be used with it, provide all the ballistic info and can even teach the customer to shoot it.”
In addition to its custom rifles, Brock & Norris have also developed and manufactured several rifles; the Ratel, Contractor, Nduna, Predator, Ranger and Ibex – which are then custom fitted and modified for the buyer. Mike Norris designs these rifles as precision tools that will perform to the highest standards by an ever growing – and ever more discerning – clientele.
Meeting the client’s brief in terms of mechanics is one thing but aesthetics are also important. “We rely on excellent fit and finish,” says Mike. “We don’t do fancy paint jobs but our guns are neat and have a certain style. The metal work is crisp and beautifully finished.
“I’ve been accused of being a ball busting perfectionist, which I took as a compliment and I take this job very personally and put something of myself into each gun I build.”
Mike believes there will always be a market for custom rifles. “People are now more appreciative of quality and we’ve seen more people that are willing to wait and spend the money on a good piece than spend it frivolously. Chris Price, who I worked for once, said that ‘dear things are cheap, and cheap things are dear’ and I am indebted to him for that.”
Established in 2009, UK Gunworks aims to fill a gap in the market – tailoring rifles with a specialised focus on keepers.
Chris Blackburn, founder of UK Gunworks, originally began keepering in Scotland on a mixed sporting estate before re-training in engineering and joing the team at Subaru. He explains: “From an engineering point of view I drew a vast amount of knowledge from working in the World Rally Championships with the Subaru works factory team ‘Pro-Drive’.
“This may sound odd but working to exacting tolerances and tight schedules is not too dissimilar to what we now try to achieve at UK Gunworks.
“When I left school, I lived and worked up in Dalwhinnie and keepered on a mixed sporting estate, then moved onto full time deer and fox control. So to me, the combination of that and world-class engineering gives me a good idea of what clients really need and want.”
With an excellent foundation to build and repair rifles, Chris says: “Our work is always high quality, punctual and affordable. We only use quality components on our builds whether it’s a semi custom based on a Howa, Tikka, Sako or Remington or a full blown custom.”
Full custom builds are based on BAT, Borden or UK Gunworks very own action, however Chris is quick to add that no custom rifle is complete without proper training. That’s why UK Gunworks work closely with clients to accurately discuss the requirements of the rifle as a tool in the field, rather than a prestige piece.
Chris adds: “We mainly use barrels from Border or Krieger but we can source most premium grade barrels if the client wishes to use another manufacturer.
“We highly recommend stocks from McMillan, Manners and Robertsons. Jewell and Timney are our choice for triggers on our semi-custom Remingtons and full custom actioned guns. If we are building on Tikka or Sako action we can regulate the triggers down to a nice safe let off of around 1 – 1 ½lb.”
One only has to see Chris’ testimonials to see how his services have transformed rifles from “a poorly performing item to the ultimate foxing tool” – as well as improving the knowledge and shooting abilities of his customers. But how long does this transformation take?
“We score highly with a very quick turnaround,” Chris reports, “from seven days for a re-barrel and proof, to just 14 days for a full build including proof.”
Precision Rifle Services
Precision Rifle Services (PRS), located deep in the heart of the Scottish Highlands, are led by Callum Ferguson, and are dedicated to producing the most accurate rifles in the world.
“I was fortunate to get a good start with Border Barrels and learned barrel making before starting to build rifles. Since then, I have had Jim Borden of Borden Rifles, PA, USA as a good friend and mentor. Jim is an exceptional engineer and was a great help to me in the early days. The best thing about my job is that I learn more every day,” says Callum.
Each rifle is built exactly to the customer’s specifications and designed to consistently provide extreme accuracy whether it is used for hunting or competitive shooting.
PRS offer an accuracy guarantee with every complete custom rifle and the level of accuracy depends on several factors including; finished weight, action type, chambering and number of shots fired in a given period.
They test their custom rifles for accuracy and function. This is established by using an Oehler 35P Chronograph that makes sure that an appropriate velocity is achieved with an accurate load.
All guarantees are dependent on using the appropriate hand-loaded ammunition, but PRS say they are proven, on both the shooting range and in the field, to be among the “most accurate” on the market. A report on the load is provided with every rifle, as well as a rigid case, rod guide and scope mounts for all hunting rifles.
PRS are celebrating their 30th anniversary this year, and base their longevity on utilising modern methods of production. A unique combination of practical knowledge of shooting – gleaned from years of stalking – along with up to date manufacturing techniques has ensured that the company grows from strength to strength.
“As with many things in life, a rifle is only as good as the components, tools and expertise used in their creation,” says Callum, “Our components are purchased from specialist manufacturers who, like ourselves, take great pride and care in their work.”
He concludes: “Customer care is very high on our list of priorities and we encourage all our customers to get involved with their rifle projects and to keep in touch afterwards.”
Fit for purpose?
Despite the adage that the ‘customer is always right’, shooter and legal expert Stuart Farr, suggests that the expertise of custom rifle makers should not be ignored.
“I like ‘custom’ and for those who, like me, prefer to buy once and buy well (rather than buy cheap and pay twice) I would love to see more custom stuff being made available in our gun shops,” he comments.
“Going more toward ‘custom-made’ inevitably requires greater input in terms of experience and product knowledge. As such, the manufacturer or retailer is drawn more into a discussion with the customer regarding the ‘purpose’ for which the custom product is required.
“The idea of ‘fit for purpose’ becomes all the more prominent and with greater scope for misunderstanding, mis-interpretation and debate. Ultimately, if a custom product is justifiably rejected by the customer because it doesn’t meet the purpose for which it was bought, the retailer may be stuck with it and re-sale could be more difficult (unless it can be easily altered back to an off the shelf product).”
Buy before you try?
Custom items also come with longer lead times for manufacture and delivery leading to customers becoming impatient – expectations should be managed. It also means buying a product that the customer can’t
“The final outcome has to be imagined in some way by the customer. This can be overcome by internet based programmes which allow you to ‘build your own’ online and see a pictorial depiction of the final version before completing the purchase,” Stuart advises.
“The reality is the image is synthetic and the true aesthetic of the product doesn’t emerge until it is literally out of the box. This gives rise to the increased risk of mis-description or even innocent or negligent misrepresentation if the image doesn’t match up to the real thing.
“If there is an increasing appetite for custom stuff (which I believe there is) it would help if additional protections were built in to protect traders in recognition of the additional effort made by them to supply that demand.”
Get in touch
Brock and Norris
Tel: 08455 212995 www.brockandnorris.co.uk
Precision Rifle Services
Tel: 01807 580422 www.precisionrifles.com
Steve Kershaw Firearms
Tel: 01430 430553 www.stevekershawfirearms.co.uk
Howden, East Yorkshire
Tel: 01604 585055 www.ukgunworks.co.uk
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