Stock Options

Synthetic or wood- which stock works best?

Allow me to make a couple of guesses about your gun-buying habits. First, you love pretty wood, and when synthetic stocks first appeared you swore you'd never own one. Second, if you've bought three or more long guns in the past five years, at least one of them has a synthetic stock.

If my guesses are correct, you're one of thousands of gun owners who made the same emotional declarations against synthetics when they first appeared, only to recant as they became a major force on the shooting scene. So what happened along the way to cause such a mass mind change?

First Shots
Gun owners are generally a hardheaded bunch (I know, because I'm married to one) and are not the least inclined to abandon their sacred opinions about guns, which makes the synthetic stock revolution all the more remarkable. So to get some understanding of this, let's go back to the beginning and along the way I'll tell you why I think synthetic stocks came to a critical crossroads in their evolution, with some stock makers taking the low road.

I expect that synthetic stocks of one sort or another have been around a lot longer than we think. The first I ever saw was on an old Stevens shotgun owned by a boyhood chum. The butt and forend were made of plastic with a swirly brown color that was supposed to look like wood. Neither he nor I could ever hit anything with the thing and we both suspected it was because it was so ugly.

Enhancing Accuracy
The first synthetic stocks to have any degree of success were the "Nylon" series of Remington rimfires introduced back in the 1950s. These were tough, reliable rifles with a racy flair, and since they were generally considered more of a novelty than a real "grown-up" gun, the plastic-like nylon construction was forgivable.

Also back then, someone had the bright idea of mixing tiny filaments of glass into epoxy resin and putting it in the inletting of a wooden stock. When the fiberglass matrix hardened around the rifle's action it created an ultra-rigid encasement for the mechanism and in one easy stroke virtually eliminated the accuracy problems caused by imperfect wood-to-metal fitting. Since then "glass bedding" has become a byword in rifle accuracy improvement, with hundreds of thousands of rifles benefiting from it.

With the infallibility of hindsight we perceive the logical progression of glass-bedded wood stocks to stocks made entirely of fiberglass. But in the real world, at that time, the progression was tedious and the barriers of convention and prejudice all but insurmountable, even to the point that merely glass-bedding a wood stock was occasionally condemned as a violation of the natural laws of rifle building. The fact that glass-bedding improved accuracy as well as strengthening the stock seemed beside the point.

Even so, a small group of experimenters saw a future for gun stocks made entirely of fiberglass or similarly strong, lightweight materials. Principal among these were Chet Brown, Gale McMillian and Lee Six. All were accuracy buffs who saw a distinct advantage to using stocks made entirely of fiberglass and set about building some experimental models. The advantages of their all-fiberglass stocks (which were molded shells of woven fiberglass impregnated with resin and filled with lightweight foam) were twofold: first, the rigid, non-warping, weather resistance of such stocks, and second, their relative light weight compared to wood.

Stocks that were lighter and stronger and eliminated the bedding problem of wood stocks had an obvious application in the ultra-precise world of benchrest shooting, and it was there that the synthetic stock concept took root. The Sporter and Light Varmint classes of benchrest rifles can weigh no more than 101/2 pounds (scope included), which previously had caused something of a dilemma for shooters and rifle makers. Obviously, they wanted the feallowable pounds put to use where they would do the most good, that being, of course, in the barrel. By using a fiberglass stock weighing about 11/2 pounds instead of a wood stock weighing twice as much, the barrel could be made a bit thicker and stiffer-and thereby more accurate-and still stay within the weight rules. This was a no-brainer. [pagebreak] Wood vs. Glass
The first fiberglass stock I ever saw was made by Chet Brown, who loaned it to me to use in a major benchrest tournament in the early 1970s. It caused something of a sensation, but not because of my spectacularly mediocre shooting. Chet had painted the stock a brilliant yellow to call attention to its non-wood origin, and attract attention it did, along with a surprising amount of negative comments from wood lovers. The general opinion was that if fiberglass was meant to be used for stocks it would grow on trees. Most benchrest shooters quickly grasped the advantages of fiberglass stocks, however, and within a decade wood had become a rarity on the firing line. The next big advance in accuracy, by the way, was abandoning the screws that normally hold the stock and action together and literally gluing the metal into the stock with super-strong epoxy cement, making the rifle almost a rigid one-piece unit. (Don't try this with your hunting rifle.) Even so, change is always in the wind and I'm reminded of the old saying, "What goes around comes around," because-get this-wood stocks are making a strong comeback. More about this later.

Winning Over Hunters
Although synthetic stocks made steady inroads with the accuracy crowd, sport-shooters and hunters were much harder nuts to crack. Understandable. Being a longtime admirer of fine wood myself, I was of two minds. Fine wood is the essence of a fine gun and never should they part, but what I had learned about fiberglass stocks in competitive shooting convinced me and quite a few other shooters and hunters that they would be even more advantageous on a hunting rifle.

By the end of the 1970s there emerged a phenomenon in the shooting world: the "drop-in" stock. These were sporter-style stocks of fiberglass or some other synthetic that came finished and ready to use. All the rifle owner had to do was remove the wood stock from his rifle and "drop" the barreled action into the aftermarket synthetic stock. Presto! He then had a rifle that was as much as two pounds lighter than the original, and probably more accurate and much more immune to the elements than before.

One short-lived mistake made by some early builders of synthetic stocks was trying to make them look like real wood. Fake wood grain was molded in or brushed on and even fake knots applied. Such schemes generally backfired, however, and it was soon discovered that the ugly surface of a synthetic stock was a billboard-in-waiting for artistic designs. Namely camouflage!

The Camo Connection
An early practitioner of this art form was Melvin Forbes, founder of Ultra Light Arms, who didn't hesitate to paint the stocks of his rifles with patterns ranging from the subtle to the garish, with any shade in between. Forbes's hunting rifles, which could be as light as 51/2 pounds with scope, were relatively expensive and production was low, but they made an impact on shooters far in excess of their numbers by demonstrating in rather spectacular fashion the benefits of synthetic stocks. Soon after their 1985 introduction an Ultra Light (or something similar) was on nearly everyone's wish list. The anti-synthetic tide was beginning to flow in the opposite direction, and owning a synthetic-stocked rifle was increasingly cool.

Cashing In on the Craze
Despite the growing intrusion of Ultra Light and makers of aftermarket stocks on their turf, major gunmakers continued to sit on their hands and wait for someone else to make the first move. Wait and see is a time-honored tradition in the gun-making business, and when Weatherby was the first big name to catalog a rifle with a synthetic stock, the Fibermark, it stunned the industry. After all, a big part of the Weatherby image was its fancy wood, and even Roy Weatherby himself once told me that he had been against the idea and only reluctantly gave in to his son Ed's determination to sail boldly into uncharted waters of synthetic stocks.

Of course, by the time Roy got around to letting me in on this tidbit of family history he was in a state of fatherly pride over the Fibermark's success, and his son's foresight.

Other gunmakers were quick to take a cue from Weatherby's lead, and it occurred to some of the brighter lights of the industry that they could augment the weatherproof qualities of fiberglass stocks by combining them with rustproof stainless-steel actions and barrels, thus offering hunters virtually carefree rifles that never warped or rusted and could be used as a canoe paddle if need be.

It also occurred to the profit- motivated instincts of some that the blooming popularity of synthetics could be a financial bonanza. Here's how: A walnut rifle stock is perhaps the most expensive single component of a finished rifle and makes a weighty contribution to the finished cost. Likewise, building stocks of fiberglass, Kevlar or carbon fibers is a rather costly operation, depending, of course, on the materials and methods the gunmaker uses. However, they can also be produced from cheap plastic-like materials and popped out of molding dies like egg cartons. Thus the most expensive component of a rifle can become the least expensive.

Cheap Imitations
A generation ago, these shoddy "synthetic" stocks would have been shunned with the same disdain my chum and I had lavished on his plastic shotgun stock. But with a gun-buying public now accustomed to synthetic stocks of all color and creed and believing in their infallibility, cheaply molded imposters have been allowed to sneak into the temple.

This taking of the low road by some gunmakers and drop-in marketers is certainly forgivable if the reduction in manufacturing cost is passed along to the consumer. In fact, we often see the budget-priced guns advertised by the big retailers. But presenting and pricing them as the equals of high-quality synthetics is another matter. They are weatherproof and light, to be sure, and plenty tough as well, but the fitting is often poor and the accuracy-enhancing features of a well-built fiberglass (or Kevlar, carbon, etc.) simply aren't there. And accuracy, lest we forget, is what synthetics were all about to begin with. "Synthetics," the word, has evolved into a catch-all term that includes the best-and the worst-of the single biggest revolution in the past century of gun-making, meaning that we now need to me-honored tradition in the gun-making business, and when Weatherby was the first big name to catalog a rifle with a synthetic stock, the Fibermark, it stunned the industry. After all, a big part of the Weatherby image was its fancy wood, and even Roy Weatherby himself once told me that he had been against the idea and only reluctantly gave in to his son Ed's determination to sail boldly into uncharted waters of synthetic stocks.

Of course, by the time Roy got around to letting me in on this tidbit of family history he was in a state of fatherly pride over the Fibermark's success, and his son's foresight.

Other gunmakers were quick to take a cue from Weatherby's lead, and it occurred to some of the brighter lights of the industry that they could augment the weatherproof qualities of fiberglass stocks by combining them with rustproof stainless-steel actions and barrels, thus offering hunters virtually carefree rifles that never warped or rusted and could be used as a canoe paddle if need be.

It also occurred to the profit- motivated instincts of some that the blooming popularity of synthetics could be a financial bonanza. Here's how: A walnut rifle stock is perhaps the most expensive single component of a finished rifle and makes a weighty contribution to the finished cost. Likewise, building stocks of fiberglass, Kevlar or carbon fibers is a rather costly operation, depending, of course, on the materials and methods the gunmaker uses. However, they can also be produced from cheap plastic-like materials and popped out of molding dies like egg cartons. Thus the most expensive component of a rifle can become the least expensive.

Cheap Imitations
A generation ago, these shoddy "synthetic" stocks would have been shunned with the same disdain my chum and I had lavished on his plastic shotgun stock. But with a gun-buying public now accustomed to synthetic stocks of all color and creed and believing in their infallibility, cheaply molded imposters have been allowed to sneak into the temple.

This taking of the low road by some gunmakers and drop-in marketers is certainly forgivable if the reduction in manufacturing cost is passed along to the consumer. In fact, we often see the budget-priced guns advertised by the big retailers. But presenting and pricing them as the equals of high-quality synthetics is another matter. They are weatherproof and light, to be sure, and plenty tough as well, but the fitting is often poor and the accuracy-enhancing features of a well-built fiberglass (or Kevlar, carbon, etc.) simply aren't there. And accuracy, lest we forget, is what synthetics were all about to begin with. "Synthetics," the word, has evolved into a catch-all term that includes the best-and the worst-of the single biggest revolution in the past century of gun-making, meaning that we now need to