Off-the-shelf customisable rifles - a closer look at five popular options
PUBLISHED: 17:29 29 March 2017 | UPDATED: 17:29 29 March 2017
Kate Gatacre explores the 'revolution' of the off-the-shelf cusomisable rifle, and takes a closer look at five possible options - Sauer, Mauser, Blaser, Merkel & Howa
In recent years, a handful of rifle making brands have joined a revolution. Gone are the days when you ordered a standard rifle, in a standard calibre, with a standard stock. Today, you can adjust almost everything to meet your specific needs, whether you’re after a straight-pull bolt or a match-grade trigger, a thumbhole stock or an elaborately engraved receiver – the choice is yours. Not only that, but most of the brands that have gone down the custom route allow you to switch and change calibres without switching the stock and action of the rifle.
In essence, factory-built rifles are customisable, with every permutation of calibre, stock type and barrel type being an option.
Why has there been this shift in rifle making? One explanation is that there has been a change in mentality when it comes to our approach to stalking and hunting: there is a more professional attitude to the task. This involves not only handloading, but also demanding ever-more accurate performances from rifles, and with it a far more discerning customer base. And, while this has long been the case on the Continent, more attention is being paid to the fit of the rifle.
While there are plenty who still buy custom-built rifles from specialists, these can be expensive, and the waiting lists are often long. Not only that, but there is not the versatility of the modular system. For many hunters, once they have a stock that fits them, they will use that for all their hunting, switching out calibres and barrels according to the task at hand. The modular or takedown system now adopted by makers such as Blaser, Mauser, Sauer and Merkel makes this possible, and with integral mounts the stalker can take their rifle apart and clean it with ease, without having to spend hours on the range zeroing it afterwards. It also means the option of owning multiple barrel/scope set-ups that return to zero. The integral mounts have another advantage: they ensure that the scope is mounted lower, thus offering better eye-to-scope alignment.
With the exception of the Howa, all the rifles mentioned here can be disassembled and reassembled (with a different calibre or barrel) in minutes, and though some will require a different bolt head, these are just as easy to switch as the barrel. One important factor to remember is that this adaptability can cause confusion when it comes to your firearms ticket: a barrel is not a firearm, so in theory you could have one calibre but two barrel types, but in reality, most police forces will want to have them listed as separate firearms.
This ability to change your set-up means that whether you are hunting chamois in the mountains, driven boar on the Continent, or red deer in Scotland, you can adapt your kit to suit the situation, without having to deal with an unfamiliar stock, length of pull, or trigger weight. Of course there are those who wish to use a carbon fibre one day and a Grade 10 wooden stock the next, which poses no problem with the modular systems. Most of the rifles mentioned here have the option to change the trigger weight too, but the Sauer 404 is the most versatile in this respect. Sauer’s ‘infinitely adaptable’ trigger allows for a change in length of pull, which is a brilliant concept, as well as the ability to move the trigger blade from side to side, offering the shooter the ability to ensure a much better fit.
This change to a more customised package for those buying factory-built rifles doesn’t mean that there will be an end to the true custom-built rifle, but with the five rifles detailed here gaining in popularity, it may well mean that there are fewer factory-built rifles that are tinkered with. After all, hunters on the Continent rarely buy a factory-made rifle only to turn it into Trigger’s broom.
There are seven models for the Sauer 404, ranging from high-quality wooden stocks to a carbon-fibre thumbhole stock with adjustable cheekpiece, as well as the Artemis, designed especially for women or those of smaller stature. The wooden stocks offer plenty of options in terms of grade and finish. The tool that Sauer has integrated into the front sling swivel, allowing for a quick takedown in the field, is a clever concept. The Sauer 404 has also included infinitely adjustable trigger blades into the models: length-of-pull and side-to-side help ensure a good fit, and four trigger weights can all be easily modified with the key provided. Changing calibres is straightforward, with an easily removable bolt head if you need to change between the groups. Like the Blaser, Sauer has now adopted saddle mounts that are incredibly easy to remove and ensure a lower-mounted scope for better eye-to-scope alignment.
Prices from £2,709
There are 15 models of the M03, which include top-notch wood grade stocks, a GRS model with adjustable cheekpiece, and even the Target which is a long-range package that comes with a swiveling bipod and an adjustable spike on the butt. Options include adjustable cheekpieces (including the wooden stocks), a variety of stock lengths, fluted barrels with muzzle breaks, short barrels or match-grade barrels, and adjustable set triggers. Unlike many others of its kind, the M03 is not only available in a true left-hand action, but also on special request in a right-hand action with left-hand stock. There is also the possibility to opt for an adjustable set trigger that, when set, has a pull weight of just 3.5-10oz; a rotating sling swivel; a thread for a muzzle brake; and a magazine lock to prevent accidental release. Ten wood grades are available, and the modular system allows for easy switches between barrels and calibres. The website allows you to pick your model and then flick between the barrels on offer.
Prices from £2,635
With 22 models on offer, you won’t be short of choices. The website for building your Blaser R8 is the most user-friendly of all: pick your model and the barrel contour you’d like (standard, semi, safari or match weight). Next, pick your calibre from the 26 available, the barrel profile and barrel length, open sights, and threading or muzzle break. Next is the stock choice with wood from Grade 2 to Grade 11, synthetic, thumbhole, leather, fore-end options, cheekpieces and length of pull. Then you choose engravings (if the model includes them). Bolt handle, trigger and bolt head are all customisable, and finally scope mounts, gun cases, slings, and bipod can be added. A straight-pull action, the R8 is available not only in a right-hand version, but also in left-hand, as well as right-hand stock with left-hand bolt assembly and left-hand stock with right-hand bolt assembly. By far the easiest website to use for selecting exactly what attributes you’d like from your rifle, the ‘configurator’ takes you through the process from picking your style of stock to choosing accessories. Unlike most, you won’t have to look through endless PDFs to find out whether your chosen model can be combined with your calibre or barrel choice, and the price is constantly updated as you go through the configurator.
Prices from £2,678
With an array of 35 different stocks, Merkel has ensured the Helix offers lots of options. There are three standard stock shapes and four synthetic options, as well as wood graded from 2 to 10. The barrels are all manufactured in the Merkel factory in Germany, and again, lots of options are available with four lengths, two weights, fluted or standard, and with or without iron sights, as well as optional threading. The trigger can be adjusted to between 1.5lb and 4lb. Boasting repeatable sub-MOA after barrel changes, the Merkel is incredibly quick and easy to take down with only one action, whether you are using long or short cartridges, meaning only the bolt head needs to be switched. The Helix has an integral Picatinny rail to the receiver which, combined with the Merkel MAK mounts, give true return to zero. Other options include custom engraving, three- or five-shot magazines, and adjustable cheekpieces.
Prices from £2,695
Howa ‘Dream it Build it’
With hundreds of options available, Howa’s package can be supplemented with moderator, scope, and hard case, making it a very reasonable price. The ‘Dream It Build It’ concept works slightly differently to the other types of customisable rifles mentioned. Your first decision is the barrel/action, with the stock being the next article you choose. There are fluted sporter, fluted varmint, mini-action sporter, varmint and many other types of barrels to pick from. Stocks are made for Howa by a variety of companies including Bell and Carlson, Blackhawk, and Hogue, as well as proprietorial laminated, walnut or GRS stocks, amongst others. For all of the stocks and barrels there is a huge choice in terms of finish and colour. The rifles come with tried-and-trusted Weaver mounts.
Prices from £1,025.99 (includes bipod, moderator, scope with rings, hard case)