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Breaking Tradition

Today’s rifle chassis systems will help you shoot better and make your rifle more versatile in the field. By Kevin Madison, WHJ Shooting Editor

If you were to ask my father to describe his favorite rifle stock, I can nearly guarantee you words like carbon fiber, adjustable cheek piece, Arca rail, flush cup, detachable magazines, or magnesium aren’t going to be used anywhere in his description. I can assure you though that some hardwood of his preference will be described, and he’d talk about the grain and inletting on the grip and how it felt in his hands. This is a clear illustration of how times have, and still are, radically changing when it comes to the design and manufacturing of rifle stocks. 

Fifty years ago I would venture to say nearly all bolt-action rifles had stocks made of some sort of wood. And what you saw was what you got. There weren’t many, if any, options to order a customized length of pull or cheek riser height unless that was something you did on your gun bench. There were no options for adding your preferred butt pad or picatinny rail for attaching your favorite bipod or changing the number of sling studs or flush cups. What was on the shelf was pretty much what you got. That is no longer the case at all. 

Many rifle manufacturers today offer their rifles in a number of different configurations for you to choose from and the number of custom stock manufacturers making unbelievably high-quality aftermarket stocks that allow you to customize every last detail to your liking grows every year. If you purchase a stock based on a fairly traditional design however, once you’ve received it, most often you can’t make any major changes to it outside of perhaps an adjustable height cheek comb. The alternative to this is to move away from a traditional stock design, whether it’s made from wood or cutting-edge carbon fiber, to that of a riffle chassis. Today’s rifle chassis manufacturers offer a very highly customizable and modular stock that allows the end user to mix and match pieces at nearly any time to fit differing and changing needs.

Both chassis and rifle stocks act as the physical interface between the shooter and the rifle. They both hold the action, house the trigger, and provide attachment points for accessories like bipods, and slings. Having that interface fit the person pressing the trigger as best as possible is paramount to maximizing one’s accuracy. 

Most of the off-the-rack rifles you’ll find at sporting goods stores don’t offer much, if any, adjustability of the stock in order to optimize the fit. Many custom stock manufacturers offer some features that allow for the stock to be fit to the individual user, particularly adjustable butt stock and cheek pads. But these features also inevitably add weight to those stocks. For hunters, who often live by saying, “ounces equal pounds, and pounds equal pain,” the added weight can be a major deterrent. And once you’ve purchased that traditionally designed stock, what are you to do when the demands placed on your rifle change greatly from one hunt to the next? 

If you ever strap your rifle to your pack for traveling through the woods, you’ll find the folding stock a very useful feature.
If you ever strap your rifle to your pack for traveling through the woods, you’ll find the folding stock a very useful feature.

What happens if you’ve designed your stock and rifle system to be lightweight for a Dall’s sheep hunt in Alaska where you don’t need a bipod as it would weigh too much (and you’ll likely be shooting off of a pack instead), but you then want to take it on an antelope hunt in Wyoming where you’ll be hunting in knee high sage and securing it to a tripod in order to shoot over the top of the brush would be advantageous? The short answer is you’re pretty much out of luck. Simply put, it would take some major work to the stock to make those changes. 

So, what’s the alternative? 

A Chassis!

For years, bolt action rifle shooters have only been able to stand by and watch as AR-15 shooters changed parts and pieces of their rifles more often than some old crusty hunters change their socks. Grips, butt stocks, bipod attachments, scope mounts, you name it, guys shooting ARs have the ability to change all these parts out to suit their own size and interests as all the parts were built to be interchangeable. Meanwhile bolt action guys are pretty much stuck with whatever they originally purchased. That’s not the case anymore as more and more chassis manufacturers have entered the market, offering a level of modularity for bolt action rifles most only dreamed of a decade ago. 

A perfect example is XLR Industries (xlrindustries.com), one such manufacturer who continues to push the limits of what a chassis can offer a shooter. They offer chassis not only made from the standard 6061 T-6 billet aluminum, but also a highly advance magnesium stock as well as other carbon fiber components. Built to fit a wide variety of actions from the venerable Remington model 700 and all its current clones to giant 50 BMG caliber weapons, with overall chassis weights ranging from the ridiculously light 28 oz. of the magnesium chassis, carbon fiber buttstock and grip option to upwards of 6.5 lbs. in the competition Envy platform. With the ability to choose specific components like buttstocks, cheek pieces, grips, recoil pads, thumb rests, night vision mounts, sling adapters, dovetail adapters, picatinny rails, and barricade stops, about the only limit to customizing and fitting these chassis to your size and interests is your imagination. 

For a rifle to shoot with the precision that we all desire, each and every shot needs to be exactly like the last. For that to happen, all the variables that could take away from that repeatability need to be eliminated, such as the stock rubbing on the barrel, whether from being in a barrel channel that’s too tight or from the stock flexing as pressure from a bipod is put on it. Another variable that needs to be eliminated is any movement between the rifle receiver and the stock itself. Decades ago when stocks were primarily made of wood, they would often expand and contract with changes in temperature and humidity, and each change would inevitably result in a change in point of impact and overall precision. Certainly, for hunters living in relatively humid conditions near sea level but traveling to much drier and higher elevations to hunt big game in the fall, this could lead to serious issues. To combat this, many started adding oversized action screw holes and filling them with bedding compound or using sleeves made of metal, generally called pillars, to ensure action screw torque would remain constant and also provide reliable spacing between the action and bottom metal, a requirement for reliable ammunition feeding as more people moved to detachable magazine systems. 

Over the past couple of decades, more and more custom stock makers moved away from wood towards literally space age (and wind turbine) technologies like carbon fiber and offered CNC machine inletting for many different manufacturers’ actions. This led to decreased tolerances in these newer processes and materials, but most rifles still benefited from a custom bedding job. By using some sort of epoxy resin that dries to nearly as hard as steel, gunsmiths (and do-it-yourselfers) can create a mirror image fit for the action. This helps eliminate, or at least greatly reduce any excess pressure points or slop that may exist in the fit of the stock and action.  

With a chassis made from the 6061 aluminum that many are built from today, worries about changes in the stock due to weather conditions are non-existent. Yes, the aluminum will likely be colder to carry than a traditional wood stock in colder climates, but it also won’t be suffering any expansion or contraction between the time you left your home to the time you rolled into hunting camp in extremely different environmental conditions. 

Many chassis also feature V-blocks or custom inlets to ensure an optimal marriage of rifle and chassis. XLR, for example, uses a multi-point radial cut inlet that ensures this perfect union beyond even standard V-blocks and eliminates external stresses potentially found in other stocks and chassis. Besides allowing the shooter confidence the rifle will maintain point of impact integrity while enduring changes in weather, this also helps eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, point of impact change should the barreled action need to be removed from the chassis for any reason, like cleaning or packaging securely for travel. 

Another feature that will be appealing to a smaller segment of the hunters and shooters out there that often gets overlooked is the ability to meet the needs of left-handed shooters. Finding a left-handed rifle can be challenging enough to begin with. Finding custom stocks and accessories has traditionally been even more challenging, and when they are found, lead times can be even more exasperating than the significant roadblocks that already come with most components. But with some chassis like those from XLR which are made to be ambidextrous, that’s no longer a concern.

The last feature that I’ve grown extremely fond of that is available on many manufacturer’s chassis is the folding stock. The adapter that allows this to happen is situated between the action block and the buttstock, allowing the action to fold into a significantly more compact manner. Often when I’m hiking for miles into my hunting spot before dark or packing in for an extended backcountry hunt, I’ll have my rifle strapped to my pack so my hands can remain unencumbered. With a 24” to 28” barrel on the end of a regular stock, or chassis, you might as well have a flagpole sticking out of your pack with the way your barrel ends up catching on nearly every branch and or tree you walk past. By running a folding stock, this allows your rifle to sit much lower and making unobstructed travel much easier to come by. For guys running shorter barrels in the 18” range, the whole system can sometimes be stuffed completely inside a large pack for significant protection. Weighing only 4.9 oz. in my XLR Element, this folding adapter was an easy choice to add to my configuration. And as with all of these chassis features, it’s something that could be added at any time and doesn’t have to be built into the stock like it would be if you had it built into a carbon fiber rifle stock.

While the traditionalists who still prefer things done ‘the old fashion way’, like those who still don their wool shirt and pants in the fall instead of newer high tech materials, or those who like to pull out paper maps instead of pulling up satellite images on their phone, they may still never consider making the change away from their traditional wood stock. Which is fine for them. But for a growing number of hunters there’s much to like about today’s rifle chassis systems. They’re not some sort of space age device or some military commando wanna-be toys. They’re an extremely modular and adaptable platform that will certainly help you shoot better and make your rifle more versatile in the field.  WHJ

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