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……….But even the Marksman is expensive. Hunters with limited gun budgets are always on the prowl for something that works better but won’t cause a divorce. This crowd is big enough to have kept Jim Combe and his brother Ray busy creating synthetic-stocked hunting rifles at Elite Rifle Works in Meridian, Idaho.

  However, Combe admits to a weakness for pretty wood. “Some makers get a kick out of unlocking great walnut. It’s like seeing talent in an untrained youngster and coaching him to stardom. The problem with fine walnut is cost. The best blanks are very expensive now, and the time required to bead, shape, checker and finish a stock adds hundreds of dollars to the price. Ray and I chose not to compete with the walnut folks. Heck, some stockers who are wizards with wood barely scrape by. They ask reasonable wages for their time and skill, but a lot of hunters don’t want to spend that much.”

  Can you fashion a custom stock from a molded blank? Combe says yes. “We’ll give you any length of pull, and we can add material to any part of the stock. The only thing we can’t do is shave the blank. We use foam-filled shells of fiberglass and graphite. A solid blank would enable us to do more shaping, but it would be lots heavier. These stocks are light and strong. The only way to make a lighter blank would be to employ Kevlar. But Kevlar is hard to work. It frays, I spend an additional five hours shaping a Kevlar blank.”

 Most rifles turned out by Jim and Ray feature Remington 700 actions, but the brothers accept any modern bolt mechanism. “The 700 is easy to bed and requires little extra work, Combe says. It is also light. Probably 60 percent of the rifles we build are chambered for the 7mm Remington. The .300 Winchester accounts for about 25 percent of our orders. Remember, these are hunting rifles.”

 Combe adds that he’s built a lot of .280s and .270s, also .284s and 7mm-08s. Short-action 7mms are popular with hunters who count ounces. As in other custom shops, the .30-06 reamers gather dust. Hunters apparently think the ’06 too plain for a hand-built rifle.

  “We used to specialize in building super-light magnums.” Combe recalls. “We turned barrels down to .500 at the muzzle and shaved action steel everywhere we could. We kept on 7mm Magnum rifle to 5 pounds 6 ounces, even with a 24-inch barrel! I remember a .284 that finished at 4 pounds 14 ounces with a 22-inch tube. Bounced around like Styrofoam in your hands. We don’t make’em like that any more. Our standard 7mm Magnum weighs about 6 pounds 4 ounces. Add a 13-ounce Leupold or Swarovski 3-9x scope in a Leupold mount, and total weight climbs to 7 pounds 7 ounces.”

  Accuracy is important at Elite Rifle Works, and Combe is quick to point out that many rifles are fitted with custom barrels. “We ask the customer; it’s his option. Remington barrels work fine. I have one on my elk rifle. But a new barrel can improve accuracy. We prefer Wiseman/McMillan barrels.”

  Combe says that most of the barrels and actions he uses are stainless steel because it stands up to weather better than chrome-moly. The Combes have used nickel and chrome-plated metal but do not recommend it because plating doesn’t last in the bore where it is most needed.

 “Unless a customer tells us otherwise, we chamber with short-throated reamers, says Combe. “That enables hand loaders to seat to the limits of their magazine boxes and keep bullet-bearing surfaces from .010 to .015 off the lands. We think this improves accuracy.”

 When a custom barrel is installed, Jim and Ray true the front of the action and lap the locking lugs. Combe likes the 700 trigger, adjusting it to a crisp 3.5 pounds. Most customers are satisfied with the safety and extractor.

 Nor does the Elite Rifle Works supply expensive bottom metal. The elegant steel guard-bows and floorplates that adorn many custom rifles have no place on Jim’s synthetic-stocked “working” rifles. They just add weight.

  A customer can, of course, request that the alloy BDL bottom be replaced – or eliminated in favor of a blind magazine. That would be my option. The convenience of dumping a box-load of cartridges from the rifle’s belly doesn’t warrant the removal of stock shell, in my view. It also comes at the risk of the box dumping when you don’t want it to. One whitetail buck made good his escape when a floorplate jettisoned its cargo at my feet.

  Jim and Ray routinely glass-bed their stocks because it is the best way to get skin-tight fit. With synthetic stocks, it’s hardly a matter of principle. “We bed the barrel full-length with Devcon or Microbed. We also relieve some stock material from around guard screw holes, then replace it with 5/8-inch pillars of glass. That way, repeated tightening of the guard screws won’t mash the stock.”

  Rifles in the Combe shop must endure glass beading before they go out the door. “Shiny finishes just don’t belong in the field.” Jim says. “In fact, I recommend that customers have their metal blued. It adds about $140 to the bill, but it’s money well spent if you don’t want elk to see you.”

  About 30 percent of Combe’s hunting rifles wear brakes – like my .338. It has an unobtrusive, easily-removable brake that comes off when I’m afield. A cap protects the barrel threads. This way I needn’t worry about my hearing. The kick of one or two shots under hunting conditions is nothing compared to the noise. At a bench, shooting boxes of rounds with my clavicle forward, the brake is salvation. Happily, this rifle throws bullets to the same place with the brake off as with it on.

  A factory-barreled Combe rifle costs about $2,000 if you insist on a custom barrel. About half of Combe’s customers want a package they can pick up and take hunting. For them, Combe tests the scoped rifle with eight factory loads, then zeroes with the best performer.

  The Elite Rifle Works has yet to ruin all gunmakers who chisel walnut. Partly that’s because a lot of affluent shooters insist on the feel of wood. The natural color and figure of walnut breathes life into a rifle. It is indeed difficult for a factory to produce the appearance of well-executed handwork in wood – just as there is no way to give vinyl the look of real leather in an automobile……………….

  Elk hunter, guide and competitive sharpshooter Wayne van Zwoll has published three books and hundreds of articles on rifles and big game hunting.