Building a British bolt
Steve Rawsthorne of Holland & Holland looks at the process of building a bespoke, handmade British bolt action rifle.
There is something about the classic British bolt action rifle that speaks of tradition, reliability and quality, like a Bentley in British Racing Green. The fusion of age-old skills, craftsmanship learnt under the apprentice system where a youngster still serves six years in the top London gunmakers before being given the title of ‘craftsman', which a machine-made factory rifle will never be able to emulate.
Once you have made your decision to invest in a handmade bolt rifle, a substantial investment, there is a plethora of choice and a number of decisions to be made. Your choice of calibre will depend largely on what you are going to hunt, for these are hunting rifles, not destined for the range. Choice of wood, barrel length, engraving and sights, all need careful consideration and deliberation. This isn't the realm of the plastic stock and stainless steel.
Ideally, the first stage in having your custom rifle built will be a visit to a shooting ground, to have a fitting, as you would if you were having a bespoke suit made. Everything about it should be as you want. Not many makers will go to these lengths today or have the skill set or a try rifle to be able to do this.
Traditionally, hunting rifles were made to be shot with open sights, but today most are fitted with telescopic sights, usually on a quick release system of some sort, so that the scope can be easily removed. The long Mauser bolt, particularly on the larger calibres, means that the comb of the stock has to remain quite low, so there is always some degree of compromise needed. Using a Monte Carlo comb will help to alleviate the problem to some extent, supporting your cheek better and helping to maintain the correct sight picture. Length of pull, as for a shotgun, can be tailored to your frame. The maximum amount of cast on a bolt rifle is a " and will be the same at the toe as it is at heel, unlike a shotgun, where there is normally more at toe than heel.
Most of the traditional bolt actioned rifles we are looking at will use the classic Mauser 98 action, developed through the 1890s by Peter Paul Mauser for military use. Until a few years ago, many of the actions used were original ones made a 100 years ago and either refurbished to a very high standard, or even unused ones from that period. Today, rifle makers tend use high quality precision modern actions utilising modern steels and cutting-edge production techniques.
The reason for the Mauser 98's continued use is that it works, in any conditions. I have often had clients ask why we use such an old style action on our Holland & Holland rifles, commenting on the amount of play in it. But that play means that it will not jam when you are hunting in the dusty conditions of the Kalahari or hind stalking in the snow and ice of a Highland winter. The true controlled feed system means that the cartridge case is gripped and held in place as it is picked up from the magazine by the bolt until it is locked in the chamber. After firing it is again held firmly in place until ejected, ready for the next round.
If you are shooting rabbits or Muntjac and your rifle ‘stovepipes' (where the empty case does not eject cleanly and the new round jams up behind it) it's not the end of the world, but if you are hunting a buffalo or other dangerous game it could well be! More modern actions like the ubiquitous Remington and clones usually employ a plunger ejector of some sort which is less reliable.
If the action of your rifle is its heart, the barrel is its spine. Some barrels will start life as a solid steel rod, some two inches in diameter made entirely in-house, other makers will buy in a barrels from Shillen, Kreiger, etc.
The profile of the barrel is determined by the calibre of your choice, the .240 H&H Magnum will have a very slim elegant barrel but if you are going for a .416, .465 or the very popular .375 H&H Magnum, possibly the most used all-round big game cartridge in Africa, the barrel will be substantially heavier. The additional weight serves to help control the recoil of the larger bores and it follows that the dimensions of the stock will have to be larger so that all is in proportion.
Today, even on a hand-built rifle, there will be some modern machinery used, boring the barrel and rifling it, chambering for your cartridge of choice then reducing the outer diameter to the point where the finisher can get to work on it. Externally, it is filed by hand (struck off) and finished to an elegant, aesthetically pleasing profile, ready for blacking.
Most traditional rifles will have hand-cut open sights made and fitted to the barrel so that if your scope fails, or you simply want to use open sights, you can. As an example of the time and craftsmanship that goes into producing a hand-built British rifle, the fitting of a spearpoint rear sight base takes a Holland & Holland craftsman 39 hours, without the dovetail and blade. The rear leaf is fitted to the dovetail, set into the base and then hand filed to approximately the right dimension. As a part of the manufacturing process, your maker of choice should send the rifle to a range to be regulated with the load of your specification and further cut to achieve this.
Ideally, you should also shoot the rifle at this stage as everyone sees a slightly different picture when shooting over open sights. If you change the bullet weight you may well need to have a new rear leaf sight made for the rifle.
The barrelled action will move back and forth between the stocker and other craftsmen at various points in its build. As a part of your acquisition, you will choose from a number of walnut blanks which can cost more than most factory rifles, before any work is done to it. It will take around 30 man-hours to shape the stock to the dimensions arrived at during your fitting. To perfectly fit the action to the stock, so that there is no movement under recoil, no matter how heavy, is a skill possessed by only the finest stockers in the business. Another 20+ hours will be spent oiling the stock to enhance the grain of the wood and produce a deep lustrous finish.
The metal work should be rust blacked in the traditional way to produce a finish deep enough to drown in. This takes much longer to complete than mere chemical blacking or, as it is sometimes called, ‘blueing' but is all a part of having that traditional handmade rifle built.
When you have a bespoke rifle hand built to your own exact specifications, you are not just buying a tool for shooting but a work of art as well as a unique functional rifle, which will be a joy to own and hunt with. We are talking about a conversation piece as you sit in a hunting camp or a lodge in the Highlands. Nearly 400 hours of craftsmanship and almost 200 years of tradition, which is why the cost is so high.