Building your Own Big Game Rifle
By Richard Mann Photos by Sabastian Mann
This story starts with a bicycle; the one I used to deliver newspapers and ride to the local bait shop. That bait shop is where I spent all my paper route money — buying ammunition, hellgrammites, Fudgesicles, and hunting magazines. I shot the ammo, fished with the hellgrammites, ate the Fudgesicles (a 14-year-old boy has to have his Fudgesicles), and lusted after the custom rifles in the gun rags. I wanted to build my own custom rifle and carry it out West on a do-it-yourself big game hunt. I didn't know how to do it, and couldn't afford it either.
Times have changed. Today you can build your own AR-15 right on the kitchen table in an afternoon. What you may not realize is that you can build your own Western big game rifle too — and it's even easier. All you need to pull this off is a credit card, an Internet connection, and a couple of screwdrivers.
When building a custom rifle, it's a good idea to work backwards from what you plan to do with it. In this case, Western big game hunting could mean anything from elk, deer, and antelope to moose, sheep, goat, and bear, among others. I could face a wide range of terrain, such as flat plains, low desert, rugged mountains, or heavy woods — and often might need to shoot from improvised positions. It might be cold and snowy, rainy, or hot and dusty. The demands on my gun and on me could be significant with these kinds of hunts.
Since I was building my own bespoke custom gun to fulfill a childhood dream, I damn sure wanted it to be versatile and able to handle any type of Western big game hunt. That meant I needed to build an accurate, reliable rifle that would stand up to the elements. I'd need to chamber it in a powerful caliber that can reach out to distance while packing a punch, the flatter shooting the better. I'd need a lightweight and portable package, for long stalks, thin air, and tough terrain. I'd need loads I could trust and good solid optics — and I'd have to know my dope cold.
To me, all these things scream bolt-action rifle, the classic Western big game rifle. And I would build it myself. Fortunately, Brownells sells barreled-actions from Howa. When it comes to building a bolt-action rifle, installing the barrel on the action and chambering it is beyond the abilities of your average kitchen table gunsmith. The beauty of the Howa barreled actions is that they're ready to shoot and available in a wide array of chamberings. I chose the blued version in .300 Winchester Magnum with a 24" barrel. That's enough gun for anything from Alaska to Africa, at any distance a grown man has any business shooting.
The overlooked Howa action is essentially a copy of the old but excellent Sako L61R, and thank goodness, it's a push-feed design. You may have been brainwashed by gun writers and gun store groupies into thinking a rifleman's rifle must be of the controlled round feed variety. The myth of their better reliability has been perpetuated on rifle shooters for far too long. The M16-style extractor and plunger ejector on the Howa is as reliable as tax day. Combine that with a three-position safety that locks the bolt closed, and you have an action that custom gunsmith Charlie Sisk once called, "one of the best actions on the market."
Since this was my rifle and since I was building it the way I wanted, I ordered the Howa detachable magazine floorplate. This piece of polymer wonderfulness replaces the hinged floorplate, held in place by two action screws, allowing you to transform the rifle into one that feeds from a detachable box magazine. Howa makes, and Brownells sells, five- and 10-round magazines that work with this floorplate. To contain all this goodness, I needed a stock and chose a Hogue Overmolded with an integrated full-length aluminum bedding block to hold the action solidly in place. The tally at this point was a mere $657! I could afford to splurge on a good optic.
Of course a rifle needs a sight. Unlike some folks who spend less on their riflescope than on their rifle, I'm an optics snob. One of the primary points of interface with a rifle is the sight; it's what allows you to see what you're shooting at. I also believe the ideal riflescope should provide a minimum of 1x magnification for every 100 feet you intend to shoot. Based on my shooting skill, my self-imposed ethical limit for shooting at big game animals is 500 yards — 1,500 feet, dictating a minimum magnification of 15x.
Vortex's Razor HD LH 3-15x42mm riflescope seemed like the perfect fit. It only adds one pound to the rifle, has high-density (HD) low-dispersion glass, is fully multicoated, and is as waterproof as a prophylactic. Previous experiences with the Razor riflescopes have proven their adjustments track with precision and their unique HSR-4 reticle is ideal for ballistic correction in the field. This reticle has none of that silly graph-like clutter found in too many hunting scopes. Yeah, it's 900 bucks, but only a fool skimps on optics.
I mounted it to the rifle with a set of low TSR rings, and with nearly 4 inches of eye relief, all fears of the ocular housing being jammed into my brow by the snappy recoil of the .300 Win Mag are eliminated. In my opinion, a wide field of view is nice, but also overrated; a long eye relief is under-appreciated by many shooters. The optics triangle of trading off between magnification, eye relief, and field of view dictates you must sacrifice one feature for another. Yeah, ladies might like scars, and I have no aversion to pleasing the ladies — getting scars is the part I detest.
Brownells shipped all of this to my local firearms dealer — a barreled action must be transferred just like a firearm. In less than 30 minutes I had the rifle ready for the range, so I ordered three boxes of ammunition to test in my new self-built rifle. Yep, Brownells sells ammunition too. After zeroing, the first five shots using Black Hills Gold ammo, loaded with Barnes TSX bullets, grouped into a cute cluster of 1.31 inches, with a single flyer. Not too shabby for a rifle built on my reloading bench.
Next came the ABM load. It has the Berger Match Classic Hunter bullet, and a five-shot group with it broke the MOA mark. However, I've become enamored with the performance of the new ELD-X bullet from Hornady. It's offered in their Precision Hunter line of ammo, and I've used it to take a whitetail in Wyoming, a mule deer in Montana, a black bear in Idaho, and an elk in New Mexico. Five shots crowded into a group measuring 1.14 inches. The flyer was my fault; sometimes gun writers throw a shot now and again too.
Flyers in groups can be an indication of bad form and/or that you're not interfacing well with the rifle's trigger. The factory trigger on the Howa action is decent, but I demand trigger perfection. Since most all my rifles already have a Timney, I placed another order with Brownells. When the Timney arrives it's an easy one-screw install, and I suspect it'll improve my shooting.
Of course, for a true DIY Western hunt you need other things. You can't shoot at 500 yards if you don't know how far 500 yards is. In my paper route days, rangefinders were not an option; today they're common and affordable kit. One great thing about the Vortex Ranger 1500, other than the fact that it knows how far 500 yards is: it has a cool little pocket clip. Why have other rangefinder manufacturers not figured this out?
Binoculars, a spotting scope, and a tripod are also necessities in the West. They allow you to find game, evaluate it, and successfully stalk it. Since I was already riding the Vortex train, I decided to stay on it and selected their Viper HD 10x42 binoculars and the Viper HD 15-45x spotting scope. You guessed it, all the optics are available at Brownells too. I should note that in my bicycling days Brownells sold mostly screws and other parts that could only be brought to life by a real gunsmith. They still sell all that stuff, but they can also outfit your hunting rifle. In some ways the world just keeps getting better.
Almost 40 years ago I'd have traded my two-wheeler for an opportunity to build a rifle like this. Hey, that's saying something; a boy in the '80s without a bicycle was a socially unacceptable outcast. And that's back before being politically correct was a crime, and before there were safe spaces where a boy could get a cuddle and a hug because of the ridicule he received for not having a bicycle.
I'm still saving for that DIY Western big game hunt. Not one of those gun writer hunts that's sponsored by a rifle, ammo, or optics manufacturer, but a hunt I plan all on my own. Just like I did when I was sitting out in front of that old bait shop, reading a hunting magazine, and eating a Fudgesicle. I may have to pick up a paper route again to make it happen, but it will. Hell, I'm already half way there, I've got enough good glass to see into next week, and I've built a rifle that will shoot almost that far.
Products Used In This Article
Make / Model / Product ID#
1500 Barreled Action, .300 Win Mag/Blued/24” Bbl
Howa 1500 Stock w/Full-Length Bedding Stock
3-15x42mm Razor HD LH Riflescope
Triggerguard/Floorplate for Detachable Mag
Howa 1500 Long Action Mountain Tech Scope Rail
Viper HD 15-45x65 Spotting Scope
Precision Hunter Ammo .300 Win Mag 200GR ELD-X
Black Hills Ammunition
Black Hills Gold Ammo .300 Win Mag 180GR TSX
Hunt Ready Ammo .300 Win Mag 185GR Berger Classic Hunter