Demystifying rifle stocks


In the first of a two-part special, Mark van den Boogaart demystifies the rifle stock

I was approached by the editor to put something together about rifle stocks for the uninitiated and thought sure, why not? Then I got to thinking about where to start, where to finish, what to talk about and what to avoid, all in the hope of writing something which informs rather than confuses. Because it’s like this. Historically the development of the firearm didn’t happen all at once in a well-managed factory with a team of quality assurance people on hand to document the process.

Rather it was messy, often secretive and wholly subject to the environment and norms of society in which it developed. For instance inches, millimetres, gauge and bore are all interchangeable units of measurements used to determine to the diameter of a barrel. Unlike the basic ‘H’ layout of a car’s transmission, the agreed height of a kitchen table or the fact that ‘Red’ means stop and ‘Green’ for go, no such agreement was reached with regard to firearms. It was an arms race, a technological race, a manufacturing race and the end goal wasn’t sharing, it was winning.

To write something close to coherent for the reader about stocks we must first set out some fundamentals to make this a worthwhile exercise, so let’s start with some of those fundamentals. Firstly we’re discussing stocks associated with modern, sporting long-arms and with that in mind stocks take one of two structural forms.

The first is a stock of single structure which incorporates a buttstock including grip, a section that houses the longarm mechanism and a fore-end. If we think of a modern bolt-action rifle, its stock incorporates each of these parts as an integrated approach. Conversely a stock may have wholly separate components which attach to the long-arm mechanism as in the case of a typical lever-action rifle. Again, we might describe this a component approach.

What these two iterations have in common is there’s a part of the stock (the buttstock) that fits into your shoulder and which you grip with your favoured hand and there’s another section you cradle, grip or otherwise support with your other hand (the fore-end). So let’s look at design.


Now the reason I use the term buttstock to describe the triangular piece you fit to your shoulder is because it’s often referred to simply as the stock. But as the word stock can also apply to the whole thing, I want to clearly define the back (or butt end) of the long-arm. On the buttstock there are arguably three points of contact with the shooter – the butt where the rifle nestles in your shoulder, the comb upon which your cheek sits or welds to the comb, and the grip where your favoured hand grasps the buttstock and operates the trigger.

The butt

A rifle’s performance is determined by ‘the nut behind the butt’ – that’s you or me. Now that butt can take many different forms though all have a heel, top, toe and bottom. This feature has changed dramatically over the centuries to the point that today, for the main part, the butt is slightly curved with the toe just behind the heel on the vertical axis. The butt itself can have a smooth or profiled finished end to the buttstock, it may be capped with a plate or might be padded and all variations are in use these days.

The comb

This refers to the top edge of the buttstock where you place or ‘weld’ your cheek, the difference in placing or welding depending on what you’ve learned or been taught when sighting or aiming the long-arm. Some people advise you to drop or rest your cheek on the comb while others prefer a firmer contact, known as a weld. The comb is about your shooting position and its design means the shooter’s head is either raised in a more upright position or dropped down low. To achieve this some long-arms have a raised comb, Weatherby rifles being one manufacturer associated with a high-comb rifle stock or a flatter, straight comb. Depending on the declining angle of the buttstock, a long-arm may require a considerable comb to bring the shooter’s eye into a suitable aiming position, as in traditional lever-action rifles and certain shotguns.

The grip

A dedicated point of contact (the grip) for your favoured hand on some stocks may be very discrete though can also be wide, narrow, vertical, tilted, smooth, chequered or profiled. It may include a thumbhole to create a ‘whole-of-hand grip’ or may be a fully-formed ‘pistol grip’, the only limitation on grip being the manufacturer’s design department.

The shooter

Overlaying the buttstock, butt, comb and grip is the shooter with the two common variations being handiness and length of pull. Handiness is easy to understand as it refers to the favoured hand (left or right) you use to grip the buttstock, the shoulder you connect to the butt and cheek you weld to the comb. Both left and right-handed options can be accommodated through modification as buttstocks can be made to slightly curve into the shooter while grips can be shaped to reflect the points of contact of either a left or right-hander. The comb can be enhanced with a cheek-piece, either fixed or mechanically adjustable.

Furthermore, a cheek-piece can be used as a way of positioning your head and in doing so serves two purposes to make the long-arm more tailored to an individual shooter. Length of pull refers to the distance, usually measured in inches, between the very end of the stock and trigger and is illustrated as a horizontal line between these two points. Transposing this measurement to the shooter your height, build and various other factors determine the distance between your shoulder and trigger finger. Consequently it’s best to have a stock which reflects your length of pull as too long and it’s difficult to shoulder, too short and you may end up with a scope-cut injury above your eye.

Don’t forget the finish

When it comes to finish the sky’s the limit. From the purely decorative to the protective and of course combining the two, there are any number of finishes and protective coatings which can be applied to your stock. Fine hand-rubbed oil stains, Coyote-coloured Cerakote, hot pink two-pack – go for it!

It’s all about use . . . and history

All these considerations reflect two important realities, the first being the intended use of your long-arm. Is it a target rifle or a hunter, is it meant to be shot from a set position or on the move, is the shooting position supported or unsupported? And what type of cartridge will the gun be firing as the buttstock has a direct influence on felt recoil.

A case in point are the design interpretations of an original Henry repeating rifle compared to a Sako 85 hunting rifle. The former incorporates a significant curve in the metal-capped butt plate with the heel leading the toe on the vertical axis. It also features a raised though still sloping comb to compensate for the significant downward angle of the buttstock and a straight grip. The Sako’s padded butt is only slightly off vertical with the toe leading the heel while it also makes use of a partly-raised straight comb and pronounced palm swell and pistol grip.

The second consideration is to acknowledge design is like fashion – it exists within a point in time. What we’re talking about aren’t new ideas or technology, as a whole bunch of things once thought of as ‘cutting-edge’ are now centuries old, one example being the metal butt plate. Designed to suit the reality of a single-shot muzzleloader, the metal plate protected the stock when reloading and also made for a useful secondary weapon. But with the advent of cartridge ammunition came the option to fire multiple rounds without reloading while the ability to fix a bayonet meant the metal butt plate became wholly unnecessary, though it hung around for years past its use-by date.

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