Tim Pilbeam leads us through the development of his friend Matt’s new custom rifle, and they put it to the test against Tim’s trusted .243 RPA Thumbhole Hunter
Let me introduce you to Matt. He is mad for rifles and regularly calls me to see what ‘toys’ I have in my possession, always keen to help me review equipment for the magazine. Despite his former years chasing cash in the city, he still managed to fulfil his passion for shooting, culminating in a collection of some of the best UK custom rifles one can buy. In his words: “The man who dies with the most toys wins.”
He is an experienced and highly qualified deer stalker. But then I introduced him to the art of fox control and long-range varminting, and there lies the problem: all his rifles were more suited to the management of deer, not foxes or longer-range varminting.
Matt admits he’s a sucker for a custom rifle. He knows many factory rifles shoot well above our ability and for a fraction of the price you can get a seriously good rifle off the shelf. However, that misses the point: for him, a rifle isn’t just a tool. Any new rifle has to be special. Not only accurate beyond his capability – it has to have tangible craftsmanship and be an object that inspires confidence. Its creation is part of the enjoyment. For some people it’s fast cars, for Matt it’s accurate rifles.
A friend was looking to build himself a 7-08 and said he would be interested in the parts from one of Matt’s rifles if it was broken up. The opportunity could not be missed, as Matt’s 7-08 was made up of high-quality components, like a McMillan stock that was pillar and Devcon bedded, Stiller TAC-30 action and a Walther Match barrel with a Jewell trigger unit. If Matt could sell the stock and trigger, what calibre would best suit this superb action and longer-range shooting?
As it’s a short-actioned 7-08, my obvious choice was the versatile .243. With a 55-grain bullet you can exceed 4,000fps, making it as fast and flat as the .20 calibres. With a 70 to 80-grain bullet you can still push it to 3,600fps, making an extremely flat shooting round. A 200-yard zero means you can hold dead on a fox out to 250 yards and only have to hold over 4-6in out to 300. It will also deliver over 1,700ft/lb of energy, making it easily deer legal.
I am the proud owner of a RPA Thumbhole Hunter in .243, which I use for everything from fox shooting to 1,000-yard targets. For foxing in the marshes, the .243 has superb wind-bucking capabilities. What does 0.5in more drop matter compared to a couple of inches of erratic wind drift? For reloading, it’s a joy, and if you have to buy factory ammunition it is always in plentiful supply. So without much arm-twisting, he decided on a .243. He did have a look at an Ackley in an effort to be more exotic and faster than the rest of us, but was worried about barrel wear and was not sure the extra capacity was needed. He decided to go long with a 26in barrel – this was not going to be an everyday lightweight stalker.
Deciding on calibre is only the start. The array of components means you can create the exact rifle for your needs. Two years earlier, Matt had been fortunate enough to see and shoot one of Steve Bowers of Specialist Rifle Services’ rifles. The workmanship was fantastic and he was taken with the Laminate thumbhole custom stock. The 7-08, meanwhile, had originally been made by Steve Kershaw of Steve Kershaw Firearms and was easily sub-½ MOA, so he decided he would get all the ‘metal work and proofing’ done by Steve Kershaw, and then have it stocked by Steve Bowers. Two rifle makers working on one rifle? Was he mad?
Off the rifle went, and Steve Kershaw completed the metal work using a Lothar Walther 26in medium varmint barrel. Steve turned the job around with consummate ease and in double quick time. “That’s the norm,” said Matt. “That’s Steve for you.”
While Steve was fitting the barrel, Matt visited Steve Bowers and was introduced to resident ‘undertaker’ Rob, who measured him up for the stock. Height, arm length, build and size of hand were all taken into account. Unsurprisingly, he also asked for many extras to be fitted.
His dream machine was soon ready for collection: a beautifully handmade laminate stock in walnut with ebony ends, adjustable cheekpiece, butt pad and butt hook, pillar bedded, full action and recoil lug bedding integrating the Stiller TAC-30 action. The Lother Walther 26in stainless match-grade barrel (2120 contour) had a 1 in 10in twist, threaded to M17, bead blasted and then coated. The original Jewell trigger unit with top safety catch and Stiller floor plate was also fitted.
For optics, he acquired my Zeiss Diavari TFL 6-24×56, secured by Apel mount and rings. Bearing in mind The rifle would also be used for multi-shot target shooting, he bought an indestructible Jet-Z sound moderator. What a combination: the whole unit, including a Harris bipod, weighed in at 15.5lb.
On returning home, Matt went to his study, telling his wife and children he wasn’t to be disturbed. Apparently, his wife asked whether it was a new rifle, to which he replied: “Oh, this thing? I’ve had it ages – it’s just been away having some work done on the action.”
He decided on Hornady V-max 75-grain bullets and VarGet powder, using ‘QuickLoad’ software from JMS Arms. While faster and lighter 55- to 58-grain bullets can be used, the 75-grain is more stable beyond 400 yards. This is my preferred combination all the way out to distances of 700 yards.
Matt spent the afternoon running it in with the ‘clean one, shoot one’ routine. Some say it’s a waste of ammo and time, and others swear by it. But if you’ve spent months and lots of hard earned cash having the rifle of your dreams made, you aren’t about to start cutting corners now. The shots aren’t wasted as every round helps familiarise you with the new rifle.
After a good clean, Matt asked me if he could show me the rifle and start on load development at my zeroing range. The next day, the rifle was met with plenty of ooohs and ahhhs by those in attendance. Until I said: “I don’t care what it looks like – does it shoot?”
With targets at the 100-yard point and my cleaning kit on the bench behind, we fired the first five-round groups, cleaning the barrel after each group. The groups were under 0.5in with 42 grains of VarGet (3,550fps) giving a 16mm group and 41.5 grains giving an 11mm group (3,475fps). I was astounded, and Matt couldn’t stop grinning. He was chuffed that he had stumbled, with a little research, on a seemingly perfect load – which just happened to be exactly my load. Be warned: these loads are bordering on the extreme. They are maximum loads and should not be used without careful testing.
We went on to shooting groups using different factory ammo, ranging from 70-grain Federal ballistic-tipped bullets right up to 100-grain RWS soft point bullets. None of these grouped larger than 0.75in.
I saw my reign as the ‘varminting specialist’ on my humble bit of turf in East Sussex coming to end. A new kid on the block had the ability and kit to match my tried-and-tested RPA. We decided to have a duel: Dream Machine versus RPA at 500 yards in light winds. After a couple of sighting shots, we dialled 6in of wind, together with 33in of elevation. Matt achieved a fraction under a 2in group, and my RPA just under 3in at 500 yards. This is fine shooting, albeit, in my opinion, lucky, but demonstrates what accurised rifles can do.
We live in a world of fast food, immediate information and mobile communications. We have perhaps forgotten the pleasure of having something made especially for us and the process this involves. People have said to me that they couldn’t do it as it takes too long or is too expensive. Matt’s answer is that the involvement and wait is part of the process and, like all good stalkers, patience is the biggest virtue. As for the cost, you will have to call Steve Kershaw and Steve Bowers, as every custom project is different.