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DIY Bolt Action Gunsmithing

As a kid, I spent a lot of Saturdays standing around a grimy tool and die shop in a South Florida industrial
park. My dad’s friend was a Serbian machinist who had escaped the communist oppression in Yugoslavia and applied his considerable skill to making precision parts for the aviation and marine industries on his manual equipment. Watching Sean, whose thick accent was barely decipherable, turn hunks of metal into functional treasures was a huge influence — I’ve spent the three decades since with a strong desire to make things with my own hands, particularly out of metal. With a keen interest in firearms since the age of 3, I’ve steadily applied my desire to improve and apply shop skills into building my own guns. This is the latest of those builds, a 6.5x47L built with long-range precision in mind.

diy bolt action gunsmithing
Once the barrel is dialed into the lathe’s customized four-jaw chuck, a facing cut is made to square-up the breech end.

I’ve been a huge fan of the short 6.5mm’s since before it was cool, before Dave Emary gave the world the 6.5 Creedmoor, and when everyone still thought the .308 was a “long-range” round because the military used it. This rig was definitely going to be a 6.5, but the question of “which one?” caused some heartburn. I’m in the process of building hunting rifles in 6.5-06 and 6.5 Creedmoor, and with more .260s than I can justify in the safe those were off the table. In the end, nostalgia won out: My first published article was a review of a rifle chambered in 6.5x47L, and I didn’t own a rifle in that cartridge, so I decided to build myself one to scratch that itch. It’s not like it’s a terrible choice for such a rifle, either.

diy bolt action
No barrel is perfectly straight. Using a pair of 0.0001-inch test indicators and a close-fitting range rod, the author was able to ensure that the rifle’s bore ran perfectly true over the length of the chamber.

Custom actions are fantastic choices for a rifle build since the best of them come pretty close to perfect right out of the box. That said, there’s nothing wrong with a Remington 700 once the factory tolerances have been addressed, especially if you already have an action on hand. A short-action 700 sitting in the safe was perfect to use for this project. Greg Tannel at Gre-Tan rifles trues actions so well and at such reasonable prices that sending him the work was a no-brainer.

gunsmithing diy bolt action

Greg single-point re-machined the action threads, trued the receiver face, bolt face, bolt lugs, and lug seats, and double-sleeved the bolt body with stainless steel to keep the bolt from jumping during ignition. He altered the action to accept his own double-pinned 0.250-inch recoil lug, bushed the firing pin hole, and installed his own lightweight firing pin and spring, turned to fit. All of this work ensures that the relevant surfaces of the action are square and true and, like the foundation on a building, provides a suitable and stable platform for the barrel.

diy bolt action
Using a depth micrometer to measure the distance to the bolt face and locking lugs, the proper dimensions of the barrel tenon are determined.

This rifle wasn’t designed to be a lightweight, but given the components involved, it could end up being excessively heavy. I wanted to cut weight where I could without compromising performance, so I chose a 26-inch bull profile carbon-fiber–wrapped barrel from Proof Research with a 1:8- inch twist. What’s great about Proof’s barrels is that they offer the handling and shooting characteristics of an all-steel heavy barrel without all of the weight. All other things being equal, using a Proof barrel cut 4 pounds compared to an all-steel barrel with the same profile.

gunsmithing bolt action
With the barrel spinning at 450 rpm, the tenon is cut in a series of passes using a carbide turning tool.

McMillan’s A5 stock is a great design for the type of shooting that this rifle would be used for, but I was impatient and didn’t want to wait for a custom stock made to my component specs. Grayboe is a McMillan-affiliated company (run by Ryan McMillan) that offers solid fiberglass stocks in finished configurations at very competitive prices. Greyboe’s Renegade is an A-5 clone that comes as a drop-in stock complete with aluminum pillars, a 1-inch recoil pad, sling swivels, and paint. This stock wasn’t designed to accommodate the exact components planned for the build, but since it was constructed using solid fiberglass, I could machine it to fit my needs. Best of all, the stocks are only $349.

gunsmithing bolt action barrel
A full-profile threading tool is used to cut the 16TPI barrel threads. As the threads are deepened 0.001-inch at a time, the action is test-fit onto the barrel.

With the majority of the components in place, it was time to start making chips fly. Much is made of CNC machining these days, and that technology is amazing, but CNC really shines when you want to make several of something. For one-off projects, manual machines can be just as precise (or even more so) when used properly. My personal lathe is a Chi-Com Grizzly that I’ve adapted to better suit my needs — there are far better tools on the market, but since I derive zero revenue from building guns, a larger investment wasn’t warranted.

diy bolt action reciever

When it first arrived, it vibrated so badly that it just about hopped its way out the door when run at high rpm. Over time and with plenty of tinkering, I’ve gotten it pretty well dialed-in. As in just about anything, the manner in which the equipment is used is far more important than the price tag. I learned how to fit and chamber barrels from Robert Gradous who is sort of a quirky genius when it comes to building rifles. Using his methods, I’ve learned to turn out some real shooters. This article isn’t an absolute step-by-step how-to article, but will give you a flavor of what goes into building a custom rifle.

gunsmithing diy bolt action
The bolt nose on a Remington 700 protrudes past the locking lugs and requires that a recess be cut into the barrel face. A piloted tool from Manson Reamers does quick work of cutting the proper-dimensioned clearance.

Some guys spin a barrel into a collet chuck on a lathe until it doesn’t visibly wobble and chamber rifles that shoot pretty well. That may be fast and it may work for them, but it’s not for me. If I’m bothering to build my own rifles, I’ll do so to the absolute best of my ability. This starts with ensuring that the chamber end of the barrel is running as true as possible with the cutting, threading, and reaming tools that we’ll use to fit it.

diy bolt action

Building on the techniques taught by Gradous, I use a gimbal system described in William Hambly-Clark’s excellent book, Centerfire Rifle Accuracy. It doesn’t matter what brand of custom barrel is chosen or how much you pay for it; the bore won’t be perfectly straight. A bore may wander by 0.050-inch over its length, so dialing in both ends of a barrel is a fool’s errand. Using the gimbals to ensure that the chamber area of the bore is axially aligned with the center of the lathe’s chuck, we can ensure that the bullet enters the rifling as perfectly as is possible.

gunsmithing DIY bolt action

How do we accomplish this? By fitting a range rod into the bore using a removable pilot bushing, ensuring a snug fit. The rod allows us to use two test indicators to ensure that the bore is running true over the length of the chamber rather than at a single point. This is a tedious process that can take well over an hour to get right. My goal is to have both indicators running at less than 0.0001 inch (that’s one ten-thousandths of an inch) over the 3 or so inches that we’ll ream. Once dialed in, we begin by cutting the barrel tenon to the proper dimensions, determined by measuring the action with a micrometer. These cuts are pretty basic lathe operations, but we want to take light cuts so as not to stress the setup that we spent so much time perfecting.

gunsmithing diy bolt action
A piloting chambering reamer secured to a Manson Precision Floating Reamer Holdter is used to cut the 6.5x47L chamber, 0.050 inch at a time. The lathe is running at its slowest rpm and lots of cutting oil is used — this is no time to be in a rush.

With the tenon cut, it’s time for the most nerve-wracking part of the build: cutting the threads. Threading is a fast and potentially tricky procedure, especially when you don’t do it on a daily basis. Make a mistake at this stage, and your $900 barrel may very well end up in the trash. Remington actions are threaded at 16 threads- per-inch; I prefer to use full-profile threading inserts, especially once an action has been single-point recut.

diy bolt action reamer
To ensure that the chamber is cut to the proper depth, a headspace gauge is used to track the progress of the cuts.

After triple-checking the setup and with plenty of lube on the steel, the phone is turned off, the door is locked, and the process begins. Pass by pass, the threads grow deeper and deeper until it’s time to test-fit the action. Once the action starts onto the threads, .001-inch passes are made until a perfect rattle-free fit is achieved. Every Grizzly lathe I’ve encountered leaves a wavy finish on the threads that’s visible under close scrutiny but this effect is purely cosmetic; the barrel to receiver fit on this rifle is about perfect.

barrel diy bolt action

The bolt nose on a Remington 700 protrudes beyond the locking lugs, and a recess must be cut into the barrel to accommodate it along with suitable clearance. This can be done relatively simply with a boring bar, but Manson Precision makes a handy piloted tool that reams this recess rather quickly. Once this relief is cut and test-fit to ensure that the bolt isn’t contacting the barrel, we can turn our attention to reaming the chamber. In theory, if we did our dialing-in correctly, we could run our chamber reamer into the bore using a fixed mount and encounter no issues.

head space diy bolt action
If the bolt closes on the “go” headspace gauge and doesn’t close on the “no go” gauge, the chamber is in spec.

Since nothing about my lathe is 100-percent perfect, I use a piloted reamer and a floating reamer holder (also from Manson Precision) to keep the reamer on track with the bore. I use lots of lube, my lathe’s slowest rpm, keep my passes short and slow, and clean the reamer thoroughly after each pass. Using a 0.001-inch dial indicator rigged to a homemade stop on my lathe’s tailstock, it can hit the headspace measurement precisely, keeping in mind that this measurement will “crush” by 0.001 to 0.003 inch when we torque the barrel onto the action. A set of “go” and “no go” gauges confirm that our headspace is within spec.

barrel mounting
A barrel wrench is used to torque the action onto the barrel — this often leads to 0.002 inch or so of “thread crush” on the headspace measurement.

With the barreled action ready to test fire, the stock was next. The Renegade’s fore-end is molded to accommodate a Sendero barrel contour, so a 3⁄4-inch ball end mill in the Bridgeport opened it up to fit the 1.200-inch Proof. I also opted for bottom metal from Seekins Precision, requiring the Badger Ordnance-sized inlet to be recut. Using Marine-Tex epoxy, I pillar bedded the barreled action into the stock as well as any voids made by my substituted components. The barrel was free-floated to leave 0.010-inch clearance except for a small pad left to support the shank just ahead of the recoil lug.

preparing a stock for mounting
The stock came pillar-bedded, but the author re-bedded the rifle for a perfect fit. An end mill was used to create some locking recesses for the bedding epoxy.

The exposed stainless steel sections of the barrel along with the recoil lug were bead blasted, and the receiver went off to Glenrock Blue in Wyoming to be caustic blued. Finishes such as Cerakote add dimension to the action that wouldn’t be compatible with the tight bedding that I worked hard to create; besides, bluing is a highly underrated finish if you take decent care of it. The stock went to Custom Gun Coatings for a Flecktarn camo paint job using Sherwin-Williams Polane epoxy, one of the most durable paints on the market.

gunsminthing cutting a stock
Since the Grayboe stock was made to fit a Sendero barrel contour, the author used a 3⁄4-inch carbide ball end mill to open the stock’s barrel channel.

Once all of the parts came back, I mounted a Vortex Razor HD Gen II 4.5-27x56mm in a set of Seekins Precision 34mm rings and a Night- force base. With a 50-round brick of Lapua factory 139-grain ammo, it was time to see whether my work had paid off. This gun is no lightweight. With the addition of Vortex’s flagship monster mounted on it, it weighs a full 13 pounds, 5 ounces. The result of that mass is a very forgiving rifle with nearly zero felt recoil — ideal for calling one’s own hits or misses on steel.

Factory loads made little 3/8’s triangles at 100 yards and 123-grain Scenars and Varget showed even more promise. Yes, the lighter bullets give up some BC at long range, but they’re fine for most of the shooting I’ll be doing for now. With Lapua cases and Redding bushing dies, I’d cobbled to- gether some loads that sounded good in theory. I settled on 38 grains of powder and experimented with three different primers, with the bullets seated 0.015 inch from the lands.

modeling clay when mounting a reciever
Modeling clay and various thicknesses of tape are used to prepare the action for glass-bedding.

It’s often surprising what a differ- ence a humble little primer can make: the loads using CCI 450s shot 0.61 inch, BR-4s 0.44 inch, and #41s put two shots into 0.13 inch until I yanked the trigger on the third round and threw it 1⁄4 inch to the left. Veloci- ties were all in the 2,950 fps range. I headed home and loaded a half-dozen rounds with the #41 primers, hoping to get consistent groups under 0.25 inch. Though from a practical stand- point, a gun that shoots 0.5 MOA consistently is a keeper.

A carbide cutter on the milling machine is a fast and precise way to remove excess Marine-Tex epoxy from the stock.

A few days later I was back at the range on a hot and humid but wind- less afternoon. On a gun this heavy, trigger control is everything — I focused on getting three clean breaks as carefully as possible. Through the 27x of magnification I could tell that the first two rounds were in one oblong hole — better not mess up now. Two pounds of sear never felt so heavy until, finally, the third shot broke. The calipers say it’s 0.253 inch — it’s a keeper.

bolt action reciever
The action was sent to Glenrock Blue in Wyoming for a satin black finish — the bolt sleeves are made from stainless steel so they didn’t take on any finish.

A gun that shoots 1⁄4 inch at 100 yards is nothing to write home about these days, but when you wear a suit and tie to work and can build such a rifle yourself, it’s a different story. Since I had some of the parts already on hand and others were donated by their makers, I probably have less than $1,200 in the rifle. That said, there’s nothing economical about building your own rifles — the cost of setting up my shop would’ve paid for a lifetime of gunsmithing bills. That’s not the point, though; not only has building my own guns allowed me to fulfill whatever firearm wish I can come up with, it’s given me a better understanding and appreciation of the factory and custom guns that I evaluate as a writer. There’s a lot of bullshit in the gun business, and this process has helped me to sniff it out a mile away.

DIY Bolt Action Build

ACTION: Short-action Remington 700 (Brownells) $459 //
MACHINE WORK: Action blueprinting by Gre-Tan Rifles $450 //
BARREL: 26-inch Proof Research 6.5 Bull profile, 1:8-inch twist $900 //
STOCK: Grayboe Renegade $349 //
BOTTOM METAL: Seekins Precision AICS $35 //
MAGAZINE: Magpul PMAG AICS $208 //
TRIGGER: Timney Calvin Elite $227 //
SCOPE RINGS: Seekins Precision 34mm $149 //
SCOPE MOUNT: Nightforce $57 //
OPTIC: Vortex Razor HD Gen II 4.5-27x56mm $3,399 //
WEIGHT: 13 lb. 5 oz. (w/scope)
OVERALL LENGTH: 451⁄2 inches

This article and more can be found in DIY Guns: RECOIL Magazine's Guide to Homebuilt Suppressors, 80% Lowers, and More.

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