June 29, 2020
Mudzingwa, the old tracker, shot me a death look. I’d grown tired of staring at the PH’s back in our single-file line. I stepped to the side and snuck a peek ahead, and he’d caught me. Mudzingwa didn’t miss much. Finally, we were among them, hulking black shapes in the thick brush. I couldn’t see a whole buffalo, but rather pieces of buffalo. Some black hair here, a hoof there, the glossy boss of horn reflecting the afternoon sun. They set up the sticks, and it was time. After years of dreaming the dreams, saving the money, and practicing on the range, the moment of truth had arrived. I was 35 yards from one of the deadliest game animals on the planet and the species that had drawn me to hunting in the first place.
The .375 came up smoothly, and my eye found the scope without conscious thought. I didn’t want to shoot through brush, but here I was and that was that. I followed the front leg a third of the way up the body and put a 300-grain TSX through the old dagga boy’s heart. I cycled the bolt in recoil, but a second shot wasn’t in the cards. No matter. We found him 75 yards ahead; he’d died in wait for us, watching his back trail from behind a thick clump of Savé Valley brush. As I looked down at the rifle in my hands, I couldn’t help but think that it was one worthy of this moment. It wasn’t the most cutting-edge rifle on the market. No, it was something far more practical and important to me. You see, I had stocked the rifle myself from a semi-inletted blank of walnut, shaping it for countless hours until it fit me better than any suit I own.
It is easy to presume that wood-stocked rifles are something from another age, when bullets bounced off elk and variable scopes didn’t sit atop every hunting rifle. That type of thinking assumes that the hunters of the past weren’t well-equipped because they didn’t have the technology we have today. Maybe, but many of those hunters could make a tricky 300-yard shot in the wind using a four-power scope without consulting a ballistic app. Wood-stocked rifles are beautiful in ways that no plastic-stocked hunting rig will ever be and can be just as functional. Sure, I own plenty of synthetic-stocked rifles, but that doesn’t make my guns that wear walnut obsolete.
Wood stocks come in all flavors, but the finest of them are made from Juglans regia, a species of walnut generally classified by its country of origin. English, French, Circassian, and Turkish walnut are all examples of this thin-shelled wood, which is chosen for its strength, stability, and beauty. Many traditional American stocks were made of black walnut, and Bastogne walnut is a hybrid of American Claro walnut and English walnut. No matter the species, walnut trees take decades, if not centuries, to mature to the right size. Blanks are cut and then set aside for several more years to dry to ensure that they are as stable as possible; I have a beautiful blank in my shop that was cut more than 23 years ago. Wood stocks prepared this way can be very stable. Still, they are organic, they were alive—and every blank is unique in its own challenges and beauty. In a sterile world of throwaway merchandise, a rifle built of steel and walnut maintains some soul.
I own wood-stocked rifles, both factory and custom, in a variety of calibers, and hunt with each of them nearly every year. There’s a 7x57 in the safe and another on the way; a .300 H&H Mauser and the .375 I used on that Zimbabwe buffalo. My most beautiful rifle is a 98 Mauser built by Utah’s D’Arcy Echols. It is stocked in an incredibly nice stick of French walnut and as perfect as human hands can make something. It’s not just a showpiece, though; it’s a rifle capable of groups that would make most modern rifles weep.
Beating the Elements
The Internet will tell you the lightest puff of humidity or change in temperature will turn a wood stock into a pretzel, throwing shots wild from the changes in bedding. Sure, a junk stock might do that, but such things are totally preventable. Any stockmaker worth his rate will seal the inletting to ensure that it is impervious to moisture, often with the same epoxies used to bind and bed the synthetics. This doesn’t just apply to custom stocks. The most humble factory stock can be effectively waterproofed within minutes. If you’re really worried about the wood shifting, extreme measures can be taken. Echols inletted an invisible aluminum I-beam into the forend of my .270, ensuring that no force of nature will cause the stock to shift from its perfect dimensions.
But what about scratches? Yes, wood stocks will scratch if you bang them on rocks—and maybe they wouldn’t be my choice for an Alaskan sheep hunt—but they hold up surprisingly well and can be easily repaired. Like the scars on my body, every ding or scratch on one of my rifles tells a story. When I look at some of my guns that predate me by decades, I wish those scratches could talk.
Factory or Fitted?
Custom wood stocks can be made from a raw blank of walnut using basic hand tools, but most gunmakers use a duplicating machine to turn stocks from a pattern. The Full Monty is a pattern that is custom-fit to the barreled action and the shooter so that the final stock will be close to perfect when it comes off the machine. Lest you think that making a stock this way is easy, that final 10 percent of fitting and finishing can take dozens of hours to complete. Even with the use of a duplicator, Echols estimated it took him 250 hours to complete the metalwork and woodwork on my .270 for its original owner back in the 1990s.
Thankfully, wood stocks aren’t just a custom proposition—most factory rifles are still available in a wood option or two. Remington produces its walnut-stocked BDL and CDL; Browning, Ruger, and Bergara have their own examples; and CZ offers a host of wood-stocked rifles. If your budget is a bit higher, Kimber’s Classic Select is a great example of the American classic-style of sporting rifle, while Mauser sells a variety of guns made in the express rifle tradition. There are many options on the market at a wide variety of prices.
The older I get, the faster I am to reject “the next great thing” in the hunting world.
I’m all for progress, but we are teetering on an age when the human element is being taken out of the equation. Sniping away at an elk with a rifle that looks like it came out of an armory at Fort Bragg just doesn’t get my blood pumping. One of the easiest ways to get back into the spirit of a true hunt is to do so with a traditional rifle. For most of us, that means going afield with a wood stock.
Factory Rifles with Good Wood
- Winchester Model 70 Super Grade Maple: Maple has been a traditional material for American rifles since the flintlock days, and for 2020, the top-of-the-line “Rifleman’s Rifle” is available with a AAA maple stock. $1,669; winchesterguns.com
- CZ 557 American: CZ’s classic American sporting rifle, stocked in Turkish walnut, is available in seven useful cartridges ranging from 6.5x55 to .30-06, making it suitable for most species on earth. $871; cz-usa.com
- Bergara B-14 Timber: Bergara produces some fantastic sporting rifles, and their traditionally styled and walnut-stocked Timber is no exception. $945; bergara.online/us
- Remington 700 CDL: Remington 700s have been one of the mainstays of the hunting rifle market for decades, and with the CDL, the company is keeping the wood-stock tradition alive. $1,029; remington.com
- Mossberg Patriot Revere: Mossberg proves that a rifle need not be overly expensive, with the walnut-stocked Patriot Revere available in six different big-game chamberings. $848; mossberg.com