Project rifles

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“Only accurate rifles are interesting.”
          – Townsend Whelen (1877-1961),
                rifleman, hunter, soldier,
                outdoorsman and writer

Project rifles

Were it not for a long series of project rifles, I would probably be living a comfortable retired life in Monaco, relaxing on the terrace of a palatial house overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, and wondering whether to drive the Ferrari or the Lamborghini to Paris for the weekend. Instead, I spend much of my time in a garage workshop, glancing every now and then at the boxes of discarded rifle barrels, bolts, trigger assemblies, stocks, scope mounts, recoil pads, various parts of disassembled actions, magazines, scope mounts, springs, screws, pins, and other odds and ends.

There lies the bulk of my discretionary income from the past forty years. The rest of it has been spent on bird dogs, bird guns, hunting trips, gear, clothes, licenses, pickup trucks, and to a lesser degree, beer. So, although my children are educated and my mortgage is paid off, I was never in the market for that retirement home in the south of France.

Blame it on this expensive but worthless collection of firearm components and parts, the detritus of my project rifles – hunting rifles that did not quite meet my standards for accuracy and therefore required some upgrade and modification. That is to say, every rifle I have ever owned.

Before I explain my project rifle addiction, we should establish a definition of “accurate rifle.” Craig Boddington, a gun writer whom I consider among the best in evaluating true hunting rifles, offers a practical definition of “accurate.” According to Boddington, accurate is a variable term, determined by the hunting situation: the size of the animal, the range at which it is shot, the quickness with which the shot must be taken, and other factors.

For example, if you are hunting whitetail deer in northern Wisconsin woodlands a .30-30 lever-action rifle which will place a bullet within three inches of point of aim at 100 yards is “accurate.” For hunting coyotes in the open grasslands of Wyoming, a .243 bolt-action rifle would have to place its bullet within three inches of point of aim at 400 yards to be considered “accurate.”

Wise and sound advice and I should take heed of it. But I have evolved my own definition of accurate: “a five-shot group at 100 yards which is slightly smaller than the group the rifle will currently shoot.”

For example, if a new, out-of the-box, bolt-action .30-06 rifle will shoot a 1.5-inch group at 100 yards, the definition of “accurate” would be a 1.25-inch group. If the new rifle will shoot a 1.25-inch group, the definition of “accurate” would be a 1.0-inch group. And so on.

Now, it may seem that pursuing this definition of accuracy is a hopeless chase, but it does eventually reach a point of conclusion. When the rifle shoots groups smaller than 1.0 inch, I am satisfied. Well, at least for the .30 caliber, 7mm, and 6.5mm rifles. The .24 calibers should shoot groups of .75-inch and the .22 calibers should shoot groups of .50-inch, but surely that is clear and reasonable. We’re talking hunting rifles and varmint rifles here, not target rifles or bench rifles. I’m not some kind of accuracy-obsessed nutcase, for heaven’s sake.

Every rifle, therefore, becomes a project rifle of sorts, although some of the projects are much more challenging than others. There was a 7x57mm Spanish Mauser, for example, that was in full military stock when I got it… Well, that is too long a story, so let me illustrate my point with a simple project: the accurizing of a Ruger 10-22 semi-automatic .22 caliber rimfire rifle.

For reasons I cannot remember, I sold a perfectly good Marlin Model 881 bolt-action. 22 rifle that I had used for several years of squirrel hunting. When October came, I needed a squirrel gun and bought, on sale, a Ruger 10-22 with composite stock. Including an extra magazine, I believe the price was $167. All the .22 rifle I needed. But from the bench, it shot a 2.25-inch group at 25 yards. Lousy, even for an inexpensive squirrel rifle. I removed the barrel band, and this made the barrel more “free floating” and tightened the groups to about 2-inch. Still not nearly good enough.

The hobby of “accurizing” the Ruger 10-22 had become quite a fad in those days, so it was easy to go on-line and find hundreds of garage-mechanic gun tinkerers who would offer tips on how to solve my rifle’s problems. (Looking back, I believe I could have told each one of them, “I will take your advice if you will send me $5.” They were so eager to share their expertise with a novice, I think most of them would have sent me the five bucks, which would have paid at least part of the eventual cost of the project.)

On-line research and advice quickly established that the factory barrel on the Ruger 10-22 was poor quality and must be replaced as a matter of course with a heavy barrel. (This is not true, by the way; some Ruger 10-22 rifles have rough-bored barrels, but most are quite good.) Confident this would make my new rifle a tack-driver, I bought a Green Mountain heavy barrel for $107. Removing the factory barrel and installing an after-market barrel is quite simple, but a slight problem arose when I realized the heavy contour Green Mountain barrel would not fit into the factory stock.

Fortunately, the Hogue company produces an excellent “overmolded” stock with a heavy barrel channel for the Ruger 10-22. For only $68, it was a bargain. Alas, with the heavy barrel and special stock, the rifle still shot groups no better than 1.0-inch at 25 yards, and my accuracy expectations had risen to much, much greater heights by this time.

There quickly followed:
Volquartsen trigger group assembly: $172
Power Custom bolt, recoil spring assembly, and bolt handle: $91
Polyurethane-buffered bolt stop: $12
Extended magazine release: $9
Stainless steel stock bolt: $11

Installing a couple of these components required special tools, which cost about $30. And of course it was ridiculous to expect the rifle to shoot accurately without a better scope, so I bought a Leupold 3-9X40 scope for $189. Putting the whole package together required some workbench machining and tinkering, but for the most part everything went together like parts in a Swiss watch.

And – oh my god – the rifle shot beautifully: half-inch, ten-shot groups at 100 yards. If I used sub-sonic target ammo, which costs about three times as much as high-velocity .22 Long Rifle ammo.

Anyone familiar with a Ruger 10-22 will look over this project list and realize that the only factory part remaining on the rifle is the receiver housing. The flip side: if I could acquire a receiver housing, I could use the discarded factory parts to build a complete and new Ruger 10-22. But, hell, it probably wouldn’t be very accurate.

So now I was the proud owner of a customized, super-accurate Ruger 10-22. For only $856. Okay, $873, if you count the sling. Yes, this project has created a wonder: a semi-auto .22 rifle that shoots sub-inch groups at 100 yards. Not that I have any use for a .22 rifle that will shoot sub-inch groups at 100 yards, since virtually every squirrel I shoot is about twenty yards away.

If this were an isolated incident – a random, one-time, lesson-learned project – it could be dismissed with a shrug and a sigh and the rationalization that it was less than a thousand bucks thrown away. But there were others. The aforementioned 7x57mm Mauser. A 6mm Remington on a 98 Mauser action and a Shilen barrel, with a stunningly beautiful birdseye maple stock. A Remington 700 Mountain Rifle in .30-06 that needed a few tweaks. A Savage Model 10 bolt-action in .223 caliber that needed a lot of tweaks. A Remington 700 Varmint in .223 caliber that simply had to have the stock replaced and a good scope and some bore lapping… well, you get the idea.

The good news is that I am cured. On the wagon. The monkey is off my back. My most recent rifle acquisitions, a Savage Model B-II in .22 rimfire and a Savage 93 BRJ in .22 magnum, have remained factory. Totally factory. No after-market updates. No customizing. Plain Jane.

Although I think the Model B .22 would shoot slightly smaller groups if I would widen the barrel channel and free float the barrel…

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If you enjoy reading about hunting, dogs, guns and the camaraderie of the hunting camp, you might enjoy my book: Hunting Birds – The Lives and Legends of the Pine County Rod, Gun, Dog and Social Club.

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About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer; indifferent wing shot. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Novelist and short story writer. Freeholder: 50-acre farm with 130-year-old log house. Husband, father, grandfather. Retired teacher, coach, mentor. Vicious editor. Blogger.
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