The A’s have it: Alaska and Africa. You are not on top of the food chain, the animals are big, the rifles are bigger, and some sadist says you need a “medium” caliber rifle with a bore that looks like a cannon.
I made it clear to Glen that I was not going if the rifle had too much recoil, was too heavy, was too long, or was too uncomfortable to carry or shoot. I did not care when Glen said that light weight meant heavy recoil, or vice versa. I was going on MY terms (especially when I heard that African hunters get good food, clean sheets, and a private bathroom). Glen’s day job is aerospace engineer, so impossible and conflicting design criteria would be a challenge.
Sorbothane rubber is enough to protect fingers from a hammer, or protect runners from concrete under their shoes. Mercury Recoil Suppressors are a mainstay for wing shooters. Muzzle brakes can tame a .50 caliber Browning designed to kill a truck. Any one or more could work on a bolt action rifle. All three used on the same rifle works GREAT, even if it does seem compulsive and obsessive. Consensus is a .375 H&H shoots like a .270, a .300 Magnum shoots like a .243, and a 7mm-08 shoots like .223. Best of all, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to fit them onto your rifle. If you or yours is up for a project that looks like a cross between woodwork and auto body work, read on…
Gadgets need to be used properly, and with an understanding of what is happening. Recoil is best understood as momentum: that’s mass multiplied by velocity for engineers and scientists. Conservation of momentum says the momentum of the bullet going one way and the momentum of the rifle going the other way are equal and opposite. For example, a one ounce (437.5 grain) bullet traveling 2400 feet per second will push a 160 ounce (10 pound) rifle at a velocity of 15 feet per second. If that sounds like getting hit by a 10 pound brick moving 10 miles per hour, you are one with the problem. Remember that the momentum is going somewhere, and that target and shooter have to soak it up somehow. The first part of the solution is to get the rifle and the shooter moving together. If rifle and shooter together weigh 100 pounds, they move together at one mile per hour. “Hit by a brick” just became “bumped by the person next to you”. To do this, start by shooting from a standing offhand position and avoid prone or sitting shots. Shooting off of sticks (that’s three sticks, each 6 feet long, tied at one end, and arranged like a tripod) in the African style is also advised. Offhand shots of 50 yards and 200 yard shots from sticks take practice (200 to 500 rounds), but the good news is big animals have big vitals (about 6 inches) for a target.
For offhand shots with a big rifle:
- Face the target, turn 90 degrees, space your feet slightly wider than your hip points, line up your big toes with the target, and line up your hip points with the target.
- If you stand at attention, you will sway all around. If you push your hips forward and your shoulders slightly back, the bones lock with your center of gravity between your feet.
- Stretch both arms straight out to each side, then while keeping elbows at shoulder height bend elbow and wrist until your trigger finger is touching your shoulder. Between shoulder socket and collarbone is a muscle that should rest against the rifle butt. A rifle butt on bone is a big no-no, and a good excuse for a padded shooting jacket or padded safari shirt.
- Your trigger finger must avoid the bolt handle. Your index finger must avoid the trigger guard. The butt must not slide off muscle and onto bone. Grip the small of the stock firmly, and keep your elbow at a height that makes these other things happen. This means your elbow is at the height of your armpit, the height of your temple, or somewhere in between depending upon what is right for your body.
- Close your fingers firmly around the forearm of the stock, and rest your cheek against the stock. Keep your face away from the scope (choose a scope with long eye relief). The muzzle will jump when you fire. Partly that is good, since momentum is lifting the rifle instead of pushing the shooter. The object is to avoid bouncing the scope off your forehead. This is of special concern for uphill shots. Glen got the baboon on the top of the koppie (hill), but Glen also got the “African Kiss” from his scope.
- Center of gravity between your feet means an upright torso. To do the same with the weight of a rifle, bend at the waist to move your upper body away from the target, and grip the forearm near the magazine. Your elbow will be close to your waist with weight supported by bone rather than weight supported by cramped bicep muscle.
- DO NOT PUSH the rifle into your shoulder. The idea is to let that 10 pound brick expend momentum by compressing the rifle’s pad and by compressing your own muscular padding. If pad and muscle are compressed before firing, the momentum is transferred to bone (ouch!). The pad must securely contact your shoulder to create that one mile per hour experience. A gap between rifle and shoulder will be closed as a ten mile per hour experience.
Sorry about the shooting lesson, but the objective is to fit the rifle to the shooter using this position. The “one size fits all” philosophy will not work with anything bigger than .22 caliber. First reality is “length of pull” (trigger to butt measurement) is as different as sleeve length. Average “length of pull” is 13 ½ inches, but an inch more or less is common when you are shorter or taller. Next reality is “drop at the comb” (bore line to front of cheek rest) must correlate to your eyeball to chin measurement, and “drop at the heel” (bore line to top of butt pad) must correlate to your eyeball to collarbone. Have you noticed that those “Standard American Stock” fans have short necks with meaty shoulders, and tend to resemble a fireplug on testosterone? Don’t get me wrong: choose the stock that fits you whether “Standard” or otherwise, but realize that the proverbial “long cool woman in a black dress” probably fits a Bavarian or Monte Carlo cheek rest. Same thing with high versus low scope mounts: match them to a high versus low chin to avoid that “African Kiss”.
The next step is to go shopping. Lift lots of rifles at lots of stores to see what fits. Stock length is relatively easy to fix. Changing cheek rests means fiberglass work on a synthetic stock, or total replacement for a wood stock. Remember that short action cartridges like 7mm-08, .300 WSM, and .375 Ruger will do the job of older cartridges in a rifle that weighs less. If you have a short neck, check out the Ruger and Browning guns. If you have a long neck, check out Winchester and CZ. Weatherby Vanguard and Savage are known for the best accuracy at bargain prices. Remington rifles are considered the easiest to glass bed for improving accuracy. A .300 magnum is considered light but adequate for Brown Bear, and an excellent choice for all other North American game and all the plains (i.e. non-dangerous) game of Africa. The .375 H&H and the .375 Ruger will reliably kill any critter on the planet, while complying with all current minimum caliber restrictions. The rifles in .416 calibers have noticeably more recoil than a .375, but do have a place on a safari with both Cape Buffalo and general plains game. The .458 and .470 are good choices for a Professional Hunter (PH) when stopping a charge at close range, but lack the flat shooting that a client needs for a follow-up or for shooting cat bait at 200 yards. Glen dropped his elephant, lion, and leopard with one round each, but needed backup from both barrels of his PH’s .470 before his Cape Buffalo dropped. Note that Glen’s four rounds started with a heart shot then a shoulder shot from his .416. The lesson for “Taming Rifle Recoil” is to use no bigger than a .375, to let the PH provide backup if needed, and to let the PH soak up that excess recoil in a “what if” scenario.
If nothing fits, get a barreled action from Howa or Montana Rifle Company, and a “drop in” stock (wood or fiberglass) from a host of vendors. Stock blanks are cheaper than “drop in” stocks, but need lots of work, including sanding, checkering, and inletting for wood, or sanding, filling, and drilling for fiberglass. Strange as it sounds, it is less work to fit a fiberglass stock to a shooter than to do the same for wood. Fiberglass and synthetic can be filed, sanded, or ground away (a Dremel variable speed Moto-Tool with a steel bit works great), and material added using epoxy and balsa wood covered by fiberglass cloth, resin, and Bondo auto body putty. Working with a fiberglass stock blank is a lot like auto body work. Your sins can then be covered with aerosol spray paint in the camo color of your choice. After working with two different brands of fiberglass stock blanks, it seems MPI stocks need less exterior filling and sanding, but Brown Precision stocks needs less work on stock screw holes, barrel channel, bolt handle notch, and inletting.Even a “drop in” stock should be glass bedded with Brownell’s Acraglas Gel, since recoil can crack a stock anywhere action and stock are loose. Fiberglass tends to be slightly lighter than wood, and Kevlar tends to be half a pound lighter. Kevlar with a Kick-Eez Sorbothane pad soaks up recoil just as well as fiberglass with a Kick-Eez Sorbothane pad.
The pictures (click to enlarge) show three different rifles, all in caliber .375 H&H Magnum, all with 20 inch barrels, and all with an overall length of about 43 inches. One is a Remington model 798 with a laminated wood stock from the Remington factory (10.5 pounds with scope and rings), the second is a Montana Rifle Company barreled action with an MPI fiberglass stock blank (10.2 pounds with scope and rings), and the third is a Winchester Model 70 with a Brown Precision fiberglass stock blank (9.1 pounds with scope and rings). The Winchester Model 70 is one pound lighter than the other two, thanks to a custom fitted barrel of minimum contour and diameter (0.650 inch at the muzzle for a .375 bore).
The fiberglass stock blanks were glass bedded with the barrel floated, which means a piece of paper can slide along the bottom of the barrel from the muzzle to the receiver ring. Glass bedding with Acraglas Gel was done with bolt and trigger removed, barrel covered in two layers of plastic tape (so Acraglas Gel could fill the barrel channel and leavethe barrel “floated” when tape is removed), and all metal and tape covered with two coats of the mold release supplied in the Acraglas Gel kit. Acraglas Gel uses equal parts of resin and hardener mixed for two minutes with the supplied wood tongue depressor, dyed black or brown (or green with separately purchased dye from Brownells), then mixed another two minutes. You now have material that looks, spreads, and feels like chocolate icing for a layer cake. The objective is to fill spaces between stock and action, with a small excess that squeezes out the sides when you tighten the stock screws. After 3 hours the excess can be removed with a sharp knife. After another 3 hours the excess can be filed. After another 3 hours the excess can be wet sanded by hand with wet and dry sandpaper and a little water (120 then 200 then 400 grit works best). After one week the rifle can be fired.
The “lessons learned” from glass bedding are many. Start by covering every inch of the stock exterior with masking tape. Glen may be an adult, but the rifle and his ruined clothes look like a 3 year old in a chocolate factory when he was done. Keep a pint of vinegar and paper towels handy for cleanup. Be absolutely certain the mold release is on all metal, even inside the chamber. Tighten the stock screws to get the action and floorplate in the right position, but then hold everything together with about two dozen rubber bands and LOOSEN the stock screws so you can be sure to get it apart after the Acraglas hardens. If there is a gap all around the metal, the Acraglas can harden with the barrel pointing to 12:00 o’clock and the stock pointing to 11:00 o’clock. Keep everything pointing right either by leaving wood or fiberglass high points, or by shimming with brass (use a cut open and flattened empty cartridge case) that gets permanently embedded (no mold release) in the Acraglas. Use a small wood chisel or wood carving tool to make grooves in the wood or fiberglass to be sure the Acraglass sticks, rather than peeling off later.
Mix the Acraglas in the morning, baby-sit the stock all day by loosening sock screws once an hour after the first 3 hours. Grease or wax the threads on the stock screws. Remove initial excess with a plastic knife to avoid scratching gun metal. Always leave a little excess for filing, and a little excess for sanding, to avoid removing too much. Next day, pry the barrel and forearm apart so internal excess can be carved or filed, but do NOT hammer on the stock screws to avoid thread damage. If you must hammer things apart, sit down and rest the rifle across your thighs, insert a piece of wood through the floorplate to touch the receiver, and then hammer on the wood. Use a hollow ground gunsmith screwdriver with the correct blade width and thickness to avoid damage to stock screws. Read the Acraglass Gel instructions BEFORE you start to avoid problems. Yes, factory rifles sound better and better…
Before painting the fiberglass, the shooter wore a plastic glove to squeeze a blob of Bondo auto body putty onto the small of the stock to fit it to the palm of the shooter’s hand. Stock blanks tend to be ambidextrous, so adding material under the shooter’s palm tends to make the stock “point” instinctively. Be sure to work FAST with Bondo auto body putty: mix, then shape and sand before it sets like concrete.
Cheek rests can be added or raised on a fiberglass stock by cutting 1/16 inch by 4 to 6 inch by 24 inch balsa wood into a set of kidney shaped pieces. With a 5 minute two part epoxy and un-waxed dental floss, you get “do it yourself” plywood with a custom shape. Two people can spread epoxy, place balsa wood with grain parallel to the rifle bore, wrap with dental floss to pull the balsa tight to the stock, and repeat with multiple layers leaving the dental floss in the laminated balsa-epoxy layers.
Start carving, sanding, and trimming off dental floss as the epoxy cures, then cover with fiberglass cloth soaked in fiberglass resin. A prototype pad made of duct tape and corrugated cardboard is a great way to figure out the shape of the pad that you want. Weatherby shapes their pads so they are higher in back and lower in front: a very good idea when the recoiling rifle moves back and up without smacking the shooter’s cheek. This type of work can also be done on a wood stock blank made of birch, to create a shoot-able pattern that is later copied by machinery onto a walnut or laminated wood stock blank.
OK, we have purchased or sanded or glass bedded our way to the rifle we want, fitted to the shooter. David Gentry will thread the rifle muzzle for his “Quiet Muzzle Brake” for a modest fee and optionally shorten the barrel. Check with laws in your area: unless your state or local laws require a dealer, know that David Gentry has a Federal Firearms License (FFL) allowing you to send your rifle to him via UPS or FEDEX (not the post office), and get it back the same way. The brake is installed and shipped for a budget of about $200. If you want your open sights on a shortened barrel, Gentry will re-attach them for an extra fee. A machinist can do this work rather than sending it to Gentry, but Gentry has the tooling and set-up ready to go. Shortening a barrel will lose about 30 feet per second of bullet velocity for every inch removed from the barrel, but know that a 20 inch barrel kills critters dead, carries all day, fits through brush, and is less strain on arm muscles for aiming.
The butt pad is the next objective, with a “length of pull” that is right for the shooter. A note is in order about butt pads from the competition. There are pads with cool names like “living rubber” or “deceleration” on the market, and the fireplug-testosterone crew will swear by them. Glen is 6 foot five inches and 300 pounds, has no use for cool pads that perform poorly, and has no reason to prove he is virile by “toughing it out”. The hydraulic shock absorber pads are the equal of the Kick-Eez Sorbothane pads, but other pads are an inferior substitute.
A simple method to fit the pad to the shooter is by mounting the scope on the rifle and removing the factory supplied pad. Be sure to select a riflescope and rings that are compatible with your rifle’s recoil: brand “X” rings and scope lasted ten rounds on Glen’s .416 Rigby. Pads are attached with two screws (typically number 1 Philips) under rubber plugs that pry loose from the pad with long nose pliers. Make a prototype pad with disks of corrugated cardboard and tape, until the length feels right. Changing the scope position front and back, and changing the scope height, may also be needed. Ideally the shooter can raise the rifle to shoulder and eye without bending their neck forward (that African Kiss again). Corrugated cardboard is not suited for live firing, but a couple of days of occasional dry firing (chamber empty please) will sort out the correct fit. The “one size fits all” butt has a rear surface oriented vertically at 90 degrees with respect to the bore. With full contact on the shooter’s shoulder, the pad and rifle should be pointing at the target. If you have a big chest the rifle may be pointed at the sky. If you have interesting curves between your shoulder and your ribs the rifle may be pointed at the ground. With corrugated cardboard and tape, the prototype pad can go further to the rear at the top, or at the bottom, to change the 90 degrees to a different angle.
The medium width Kick-Eez Sorbothane pad model 502-125-M-B (Brownells 440-502-112) costing $45 is right for most rifles, and the 1 3/8 thick model is preferred over thinner pads. Wrap the end of the stock with masking tape, have one person point the rifle to the sky with the prototype pad in full contact with a polished table or counter, and be sure the bore is not tilted left or right (use a kitchen cabinet as a reference). A poor man’s surface gauge can be made by taping a felt tip pen onto a book or a stack of videos, with a thickness that positions the tip of the pen at a height of 1 3/8 inches, matching the thickness of the Kick-Eez Sorbothane pad. By sliding the poor man’s surface gauge around the stock, the pen will mark the masking tape with the correct position to cut the stock. To saw through the stock, a mitre saw or radial arm saw with the stock held by padded clamps would be best. A hand saw and mitre box are another good choice. What works surprisingly well on fiberglass or wood is a hack saw with a 32 teeth per inch blade for fiberglass, or with a 24 teeth per inch blade for wood. Work SLOWLY with the chosen saw, and plan to remove a little extra from fiberglass (use filler later), or a little less from wood (use sandpaper later). When the saw cut is almost done, the last push on the saw is likely to break off a chip from the finished surface of the stock. A hollow ground power saw blade or a new hack saw blade combined with a gentle touch will cut rather than chip that final piece of stock material. Sand the wood flat and to the correct length after the saw cut is done. Fiberglass usually has a foam core that can be cut with a knife. For wood stocks only, remove the rubber plugs from the Kick-Eez Sorbothane pad, replace them with number 10 common nails, and then position the pad on the butt. A light hammer tap on the nails will mark the wood of the butt with the correct position for butt pad screws. Tall shooters may do no saw work at all, and may prefer to add Kick-Eez spacers to add to the “length of pull”.
Set the pad aside and fit the C&H Research Mercury Recoil Suppressor (11 ounce weight, model 100345, ¾ inch diameter 5 inches long, Brownells P/N 163-000-004, about $50) by drilling a hole into the stock. A hand held electric drill with a ¾ inch wood spade drill is an easier setup than a drill press, provided one person holds the stock steady with leather gloves, and a second person drills into the stock. On a wood stock, be certain to avoid the spots where screws will hold the pad to the stock. Save the wood chips: mixed with clear epoxy they become filler with the correct color. Drill a little deeper than necessary. Use two part 5 minute epoxy to permanently glue the Mercury Recoil Suppressor in place, and to fill any empty spots. Acraglass Gel can be used instead of epoxy if a permanent installation is not desired. The Remington 798 wood stock was drilled an extra inch deeper and a wood dowel glued behind the Mercury Recoil Suppressor, so the stock can be cut down again if necessary.
The Kick-Eez Sorbothane pad is attached to a fiberglass stock using the same two part 5 minute epoxy used with the Mercury Recoil Suppressor. Drilling 1/16 inch diameter pilot holes into wood is best before screwing the Kick-Eez Sorbothane pad onto a wood stock. The exposed wood on the end of a wood stock needs two coats of varnish (polyurethane or marine epoxy base) to prevent moisture from entering the wood: do this BEFORE attaching the Kick-Eez Sorbothane pad. Once the Kick-Eez Sorbothane pad is firmly attached, a drop of “Crazy Glue” will keep the rubber plugs in place over the screw holes.
The Kick-Eez Sorbothane pad will inevitably be bigger than the stock. Once the screws are tight or the epoxy is cured to full strength, start sanding the Sorbothane to its final shape. Sorbothane must be WET SANDED with a belt or drum sander. Orbital sanders are useless, and dry sanding can melt the Sorbothane rubber. A drum sander in a hand held electric drill, followed by hand sanding with 120 then 200 then 400 grit wet and dry sandpaper is a 3 hour project. Dip the Sorbothane in a bucket of water every few minutes to cool it and rinse off rubber residue, and KEEP THE WATER OFF THE ELECTRIC DRILL. To avoid damage to finished stock surfaces, cover them in tape and pieces of aluminum cut from soda (pop) cans. That way you can power sand against the aluminum without damaging a factory rifle finish, and without gouging a stock blank. The bottom edge of the pad should be sanded to 90 degrees, since the tip of the Sorbothane can be cut off by sharp objects. Instead of sanding, a fiberglass stock could be filled to the Kick-Eez Sorbothane pad contour with balsa wood, fiberglass cloth and resin, and Bondo auto body putty. Any gap between a fiberglass stock and the Sorbothane pad can be filled with Bondo auto body putty and sanded at the same time the Sorbothane is sanded.
It is now time to touch up the finish of a wood stock, or to spray paint a fiberglass stock. Spray painting with multiple thin coats is best done with masking tape over the pad, glass bedded stock interior, and sling swivels. Spray paint while the stock is suspended by a string tied to a clothes line, tree, or ceiling. Add the wide model Vero Vellini sling and this rifle carries comfortably all day long.
Expect a pleasant surprise when you fire this rifle. The rifle starts compressing the pad before the bullet leaves the chamber. As your shoulder moves rearward, the mercury in the recoil suppressor smacks the front of the suppressor, transferring momentum away from your shoulder. Just as the pad reaches full compression, the muzzle brake directs ignition gas to the side and rear to pull the rifle away from your shoulder. As with any muzzle brake, the shooter and the person standing next to the shooter are strongly advised to use eye and hearing protection. Glen’s testing included a shot fired from the groin: after thorough inspection Val proclaimed the test to be a success (to Glen’s great satisfaction).
If you started with a factory rifle fitted with a Gentry Quiet Muzzle Brake, this is an afternoon project to shorten the stock, fit the
Mercury Recoil Suppressor, and sand the Kick-Eez Sorbothane pad. If you started with a fiberglass stock blank and a barreled action, plan on 3 or 4 weekends. Starting with a wood stock blank is more work. You can also pay a gunsmith or an auto body shop to do the work for you, provided they agree to wet sand the Sorbothane pad.
You can win the Remington 798 rifle and Zeiss 3×9 scope shown in this article by purchasing a “Wounded Warrior Raffle” ticket at www.grandsafariusa.com/raffle. The raffle winner receives the rifle with a rifle case and (180) once fired Remington cartridge cases for reloading, and selects a wounded serviceman to receive a free African plains game safari. The African plains game safari of 6 days and 7 nights, airport transfers, six animals (impala, blesbuck, mountain reedbuck, springbuck, steenbuck or duiker, and warthog), and the loan of a rifle is donated and fully paid by Grand Safari USA. Shoulder mounts for the wounded warrior are donated by Karl Human Taxidermy of East London, South Africa, and sea freight and customs clearance to the Port of New York is donated by Fauna and Flora Customs House Brokers of Jamaica, New York.
Raffle proceeds pay for the raffle winner’s rifle (worth $1400), pay for the wounded warrior’s Business class airline ticket (or Coach class for wounded warrior plus an observer), and provides funding for the Vermont National Guard’s Family Charity program that supports the families of guardsmen deployed in Afghanistan. Servicemen wounded in Afghanistan and honorably discharged are eligible for a free safari if they served with the Vermont Guard, or if they were Vermont residents serving with reserve or regular military. The raffle drawing is scheduled for October 15, 2011; you do not need to be present to win.
Let us honor those who serve in the military. We can also tame the recoil of our rifles.
|AZ Auto Body Supply||www.azautobodysupply.com||Bondo Auto Body Putty, Sandpaper, Fiberglass cloth and resin|
|Brown Precision||www.brownprecision.com||Fiberglass stocks and blanks|
|Brownells||www.brownells.com||Acraglas Gel, Camo Aerosol Paint, Screwdrivers, Kick-Eez Sorbothane pad, C&H Research Mercury Recoil Suppressor|
|Browning||www.browning.com||Bolt action rifles|
|C&H Research||www.mercuryrecoil.com||Mercury Recoil Suppressor|
|CZ USA||www.cz-usa.com||Bolt action rifles|
|Gentry (David)||www.gentrycustom.com||Quiet Muzzle Brake, gunsmith|
|Grand Safari USA||www.grandsafariusa.com||“Wounded Warrior Raffle”, African safaris, see “Women hunt free” special (when a second hunter books 1×1)|
|Gun Slings Direct||www.gunslingsdirect.com||Vero Vellini Wide Top rifle slings, sling swivels|
|Hobby Link||www.hobbylinc.com||Dremel Variable Speed Moto-Tool, X-Acto Woodcarving Set, Balsa wood, Fiberglass cloth and resin|
|Home Depot||www.homedepot.com||Spade Drills, Electric drills, Sandpaper, Masking tape, Varnish, Crazy Glue|
|Howa||www.legacysports.com||Barreled actions and Bolt action rifles|
|Kick-Eez||www.kickeezproducts.com||Sorbothane pads for rifles and shotguns|
|Montana Rifle Company||www.montanarifleco.com||Barreled actions and Bolt action rifles|
|MPI Stocks||www.mpistocks.com||Fiberglass stocks and blanks|
|Remington||www.remington.com||Bolt action rifles|
|Richards Microfit Gunstocks||www.rifle-stocks.com||Wood stocks and blanks in Walnut and Laminated Birch|
|Ruger||www.ruger.com||Bolt action rifles|
|Savage||www.savagearms.com||Bolt action rifles|
|SWFA||www.swfa.com||Riflescopes (Leupold, Kahles, Zeiss), mounts, rings|
|SWFA bargains||www.samplelist.com||Discount Riflescopes|
|Travers Tool||www.travers.com||Sanding Drums, Files, Hacksaw blades, Sandpaper, Epoxy, Drill bits|
|www.yankeeclassic.net||Outdoors show for hunting and fishing in Essex Junction Vermont, with “Wounded Warrior Raffle”|
|Warne||www.warnescopemounts.com||Riflescope Rings and Bases|
|Weatherby||www.weatherby.com||Bolt action rifles|
|Winchester||www.winchesterguns.com||Bolt action rifles|