Why would anyone buy a “custom” rifle?
Because they want one.
Almost no one needs a custom, but there are plenty of reasons to want one. The trick is knowing what and why you want.
There are two basic types of custom rifles. The first is the synthetic “long-ranger.” It can be in sporting, varmint or target configuration, but its purpose is to shoot fine or far or both. Pretty isn’t necessarily part of the package. Synthetic-stocked customs can be 4.75-pound ultra mountain rifles for sheep hunters or 30-pound 50-cals. for extreme-range target shooters or anything in between. They start for as little as $2,000, although $2,500 to $8,000 are more common prices. For this money, you can expect chambering and barrel length/contour of your choice, trigger of your choice, perhaps action of your choice and custom stock length. You can pick finish and colors for both stock and barrel/action. Ceramic coatings are all the rage these days for good reason: They’re tough, weatherproof and durable.
Before buying one of these customs, make sure you can’t find a production rifle that fits the profile. So many styles and options are offered these days that factory rifles come practically “pre-customized.” But, if you just like something weird, different or special, you need custom. If you want to stand out from the crowd, you need custom. If you want an odd wildcat cartridge or weird barrel length, you need custom.
The second category of custom rifles is traditional. Think swirling walnut, blued steel, maybe engraved game scenes and even some gold inlays. Such a rifle is more a canvas for the artist than a high-tech, ultra-precision sniper tool. But fancy rifles of this type can be tack drivers, too. Most, however, are chambered in big game hunting calibers.
The pragmatic among us will snort, “What’s that pretty rifle do that my rough-and-tumble, knock-about factory rifle won’t do? Heck, Grandpa’s Model 70 has been dragged halfway round the world through every weather condition known to man and it still drops every deer and elk we shoot at with it.”
Bravo for Grandpa’s Model 70. If something like that makes you happy, more power to you. Custom rifles aren’t about replacing family heirlooms or proving they’re better than that $30 used Remington M722 you bought from an old farmer in 1971. They’re about appreciation of fine lines, fine materials and fine craftsmanship. It’s like owning a Shelby Mustang or Mercedes instead of a Ford Focus or Honda Civic.
At this year’s Dallas Safari Club convention I spotted, then handled, then swooned over the kind of custom rifle that defines how a fine hunting rifle should look, feel and respond. It was chambered 9.3x64mm Brenneke, a German cartridge about like the .375 H&H Mag. It was built by Lee Helgeland of Montana as his personal elk rifle. Comparing it to many production bolt actions is like comparing Miss America to the Wicked Witch of the West. It’s so trim, perfectly balanced, lively and responsive that it feels like the difference between waving a 4-weight flyrod and a 2×4. Heck, it might even feel like the difference between Miss America and the Witch. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never handled Miss America or a Witch. I have, however, handled a lot of rifles, and the contrast between most of them and this Helgeland’s custom is striking.
Lee Helgeland’s custom elk rifle is a shining example of precision gunmaking.
Now, a legitimate question is this: Will Helgeland’s fancy custom gun kill an elk any deader than your $400 factory rifle? Of course not (unless your rifle fails to fire or is wildly inaccurate). Rifles like this aren’t about function only (although perfect functioning is another of their hallmarks). They’re about perfection, quality and the ultimate realization of craftsmanship. These are the highest-quality firearms humans can build.
The kinds of artisans with the interest, initiative and staying power to produce this level of quality share their skills in the American Custom Gunmakers Guild, Inc., a professional organization dedicated to the disappearing art of creating firearms that epitomize quality. The Guild’s mission is to “educate the public and advance the custom gunmaking trade as an acceptable art form.”
Despite this noble goal, I doubt any Guild member is going to be invited to present a one-man show in this nation’s finest art galleries. You probably won’t see Helgeland’s rifles in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. All the more reason for hunters, even us average Joes who scrimp and save to buy a decent factory rifle, should applaud and support custom gunmakers. Even if you can’t afford one of their works of functioning art, you can appreciate their products and support their goals.
Some of the world’s finest art pieces are custom firearms.