A Fitting Start to Hunting Season

This is a chapter I wrote for Charlie Sisk’s Selecting and Ordering a Custom Rifle book a few years ago, on rifle and shotgun fit for adults. Richard Mann also has a chapter in that book about fit for kids, suggesting that buying a custom rifle for your kids will bring a lot better return than buying one for you. Check out his online blog:   http://empty-cases.com 

But first the adults:  

The Fit’s the Thing

In my quarter century of hunting, I’ve come full circle on one issue.  Yes, I still think sitting in wait for animals to come is the best way to hunt, and that the .270 is perfectly adequate for big game, and have a moose and several elk to prove it; and sporting goods stores still don’t carry enough of the performance hunting clothes small manufacturers are actually making for women.  None of that has changed. 


fitting a custom rifle

What has changed is my suspicion about there being no mass market rifles made for women.   That suspicion has been turned 180 degrees to include men.  There are very few mass market rifles that fit men or women, right off the shelf, despite what the marketing and sales men tell you.  (I’ve been at too many trade shows and had men’s rifles foisted off on me with the, “Oh women can use men’s guns just fine,” line not to react with indecent language.)    That ubiquitous stock?  The one with the straight, almost dart-like presentation from forend to recoil pad that is put on almost 99% of actions?  It not only doesn’t fit women, it doesn’t fit men either.  That was a revelation, though it shouldn’t have been.  That great old screwball comedy My Man Godfrey (with Carole Lombard and William Powell) was dedicated to The Forgotten Man, but it seems the mass market rifle manufacturers are dedicated to The Average Man. If he ever existed, he doesn’t anymore.  The vast pool of aging baby boomers, who make up the majority of hunters these days, don’t fit their idea of ‘average’ anymore.   

We’ve blossomed.  No longer 5’9” and 180 (or 5’4” and 150), we’ve grown heavier, wider, fatter-cheeked, taller, shorter, and less masculine—at least the fastest-growing segment of us–than the prototype gun designers and marketers are still plotting for.   Think cell phones: they can’t reproduce the great signal ground lines used to provide, so they’re giving us streaming sports scores and text messaging, and telling us we can’t live without them.   (When my tech service guy asks to use my land line because he can’t get a good signal with his cell, I know I’m not ready for cell service.)   Mass market rifles are kind of like that.   Except what they still do give us is pretty important: accuracy and durability.  They do go bang when we pull the trigger very dependably, and they do group smaller than a deer’s vitals.   But they don’t fit.  Like dependably clear cell signals, fit isn’t the priority at the sales meetings.  If we’re more than a hair off ‘average,’ or aren’t no-neck offensive linemen, good fit only comes with a custom stock.   Or at least something outside the box.  

So why did it take me so long to figure out I needed custom fit in my rifles?  I’d been whittling on shotguns for as long as I’d been wingshooting.   Why was fit different with rifles?   Go back to the first paragraph.  It’s the way I hunt.   With wingshooting, everything was instant.  With big game, it was furtive, silent, and stealthy.  I had all the time in the world, usually, to take the shot, and with all that time, I’d convinced myself I could get by with the relatively cheaper mass market alternative.  

fitting a rifle

You’ll notice in photo 3, that the toe of the butt is about the only thing making contact when I mount the gun. That means all the recoil is channeled to that spot.


In the photo of John, same gun, more of the butt’s surface makes contact with his body, so the recoil is dispersed more.
Of course as men age, they lose some of that good shoulder muscle. Then they may need to take another look at the pitch on their favorite guns.

But as Charlie Sisk points out, you don’t pick up your binoculars and start bobbing and weaving behind them to find the view.  You expect it to be there.   Yet, we put up with bobbing and weaving behind our rifle scopes.   Charlie has spent a lot of time watching gun customers.   Last year he set up a test.   Every gun show he went to he brought along a rifle he’d built for a woman.   Every gun show, he’d offer any woman who came along a chance to try it.  And at every gun show, each woman commented on how great the scope was.   But he changed the scope for every gun show, and the only constant was that it was mounted on a rifle built for a woman.  And what they were reacting to was the fact that, for once, they didn’t have to bob and weave to find the view.   

Now, guys shouldn’t laugh at this because Charlie did the same thing with the guys and had the same result.   Plus, it’s the guys who haunt the gun shops, who look at a rifle on the rack, and exclaim, “Why that rifle’s just perfect for me,” then throw it up and half the recoil pad is above their shoulder.   But they still believe the rifle fits perfectly.  If it had a scope on it, or rings, or iron sights, they’d also be bobbing and weaving.   (Okay, it’s more subtle than that, but the view isn’t where it should be, and neither is their eye.)  

In short, we have fallen for the look the marketers want to sell us, instead of the look that fits.   A simple case of pretty is as pretty does.   And I’m as guilty as anyone.  

The day I started asking myself why I was treating rifle fit different than shotgun fit was the day Tristar didn’t bring out their new lady’s shotgun.  I’d tested the prototype months before, and been really frustrated when the gun I thought was just another ugly, heavy, over-under shot the best score I’d ever shot. Plus, after 50 rounds of 12 gauge shells—with no padding, just to prove it was just another ugly 12–it hadn’t left a mark.  (And I didn’t have to take aspirins the next day.) The gun didn’t get past prototype, but at that point, I knew what I wanted.  It was sharing that vision with Charlie, while at SHOT show one year, when the vision enlarged to include rifles.   

I’d described the shotgun to him, how well it shot, how little it hurt, and he’d walked me over to the McMillan Stock booth and started handing me stocks.   Ugly stocks, that could truthfully be described only as a Monte Carlo on Steroids.  Very quickly, though, I realized I was a Monte Carlo on Steroids kind of kid.  I asked Charlie how he knew that was the shape I needed.   He shrugged and said, “I looked at you.”  But even as I was thinking, “Holy moly, this stock fits me,” in the back of my head another voice screamed out, ‘But they’re butt ugly!’  Bingo.  

As Charlie pointed out much later, you have to decide if you want a tool or a showroom piece.   There are lots of factors to fit including pitch, length of pull, balance, cast on and off, the shape of the cheek piece and grip, height of the comb, length of the barrel, overall length and weight, balance, width of the forend, and the purpose of the rifle to name a few, but  pretty has nothing to do it.   For a shooter, here are the three most important elements:  

  1. The rifle needs to be long enough to keep the scope from whacking you in the forehead and your thumb knuckle from breaking your nose.  
  2. It needs to be short enough for you to reach the trigger comfortably and securely.  
  3. You need to be able to see through the scope without bobbing and weaving.   (Embedded in that last is that the recoil pad, all of it, has to rest against your shoulder.  It’s a combination of scope ring height and having the entire recoil pad spreading out the felt recoil  rather than having a third or half of it hanging above your shoulder, totally useless.) 

The first thing I examine when I buy a new long gun is that angle. Sometimes, just turning the recoil pad upside down fixes it. Other times we’ve sawn off a wedge and reversed the angle.

The test for all three is to throw the gun to your shoulder with your eyes shut.   Keep them shut until you’re comfortable with that theoretical shot.  Now open your eyes.  Is the recoil pad hanging in thin air?  Can you see the entire field of view in the scope?   If not, the fit is wrong.   One other thing.  When Charlie does this test in his shop with customers, the rifle always has a scope mounted on it.  And he has the customer put the rifle up first with low rings, then medium rings, and finally high rings.  There are two things he finds out: one is that the rifle either fits or not.  Something you can’t do without a scope—or at least rings—mounted on the rifle.  The other is that most people see better with the scope mounted on medium rings.   

This is why you hire the professional.  It may look like any idiot could do what he or she is doing, but it takes years of study and watching people mount and use guns to know what to look for, and then turn around and fix it right.   

Charlie and I have yet to agree on a caliber, but in the meantime a local Montana company built me a rifle based on the Tristar dimensions, but adjusted for me and the rifle itself.   The main difference in the rifle was the higher comb it needed to allow for the bases, rings, and scope itself.  (You look directly down the barrel on a shotgun, and need to raise up a bit for a scope.)  And when I went for my final fit with the gunsmith, that was what caught my eye.   When I got to the shop, Gene had a rifle in his vise, and I took one look at it and thought “The guy he’s building that rifle for is a real geek.”  Turned out that geek was me.   

It needed a bit of fine rasping to slim the cheek, but the basic shape was Monte Carlo on Steroids.  Between rasps, Gene had me mount the rifle with my eyes closed: when I opened my eyes and was looking right square down the center of the scope, Gene was finally happy.   Five animals later, including one “charging” zebra, that fit has taken all the stress out of shooting.   And a lot of the felt recoil out of the .308.   

The genius who said we’re too soon old and too late smart was talking about this geek.  All the time I’ve wasted bobbing and weaving around behind those straight stocks and getting my cheek and teeth beaten to death with hanging chad recoil pads, I could have bought a rifle that actually fit me.  Go figure.

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