Demystifying rifle stocks Part 2

Stock options

In last month’s issue we began the process of demystifying rifle and shotgun stocks with a focus on the history, design and development of the buttstock including the butt, comb and grip. This month Mark van den Boogaart moves to the fore-end and looks at the materials used in today’s modern sporting rifles and shotguns.

The fore-end

So let’s jump to the fore-end. Even the word itself is open to interpretation being forend, fore end or fore-end and I’ve gone with the latter. It’s primarily designed so that (1) the shooter can hold, grip, control, aim or otherwise support the longarm as well as sometimes operating its loading mechanism or (2) not really touch it at all as the fore-end is designed to rest on a stable platform. Of course not all sporting longarms have fore-ends, for instance the Henry repeating rifle of 1860 didn’t have one which gave Winchester the opportunity in 1866 to release the Yellowboy which made use of a dedicated fore-end.

Generally a fore-end designed to be supported by hand is slightly curved and not too wide to reflect the width of a shooter’s hand, a notable exception to that rule being the vertical pistol grip fore-end. It may also act as part of the loading mechanism as in a pump-action rifle or shotgun in which case they tend to be smaller, rounder and more compact to afford the shooter a grip when operating the action. Conversely, fore-ends designed to be placed or rested on a stand are usually flatter on the bottom and wider, again on the bottom edge. As with buttstock design it’s all about application as in hunting v target, supported v offhand or set position v on the move.

Finally, its design also reflects the mechanics of the longarm. A side-by-side shotgun tends to have a wider fore-end to accommodate the width of two barrels, over-and-under shotguns have deep fore-ends housing two stacked barrels, while on lever-actions they tend to be oval as they wrap around the tubular magazine. Bolt-action rifles can have very fine fore-ends to accommodate a partly recessed floating barrel.

Design and you

As mentioned, the stock on that new rifle you’ve been eyeing up is going to reflect the design interpretations (or trends of the time) as well as its intended use and application, so in considering your purchase ask yourself are you intending to target shoot or hunt?* Will you be shooting from a set, supported and static position or shooting on the move, often off-hand or at best leaning against a tree or over a rock.

* The exception to this rule is varmitting which combines many aspects of hunting and target shooting in the same discipline.

Material maketh the stock

Now let’s look at stock construction and materials and if we again try to establish some fundamentals, in the material department it comes down to wood or something else.


Wood or timber as my brother the carpenter would insist, is probably where this all began. Now the thing is timber ain’t just timber and in many cases the variations within what exactly is a ‘wooden stock’ are as diverse as the interpretations of what exactly is wood and how the stock is made. For instance it may mean a handcrafted and hand-finished work of art fashioned from a single piece of aged timber chosen for its history, age, origin and even specifics of the parent tree from which it was milled.

It could also mean made from laminated timber, formed through the technique of bonding wood under pressure then machine cutting to an existing pattern or even made from manufactured wood, a process of creating a timber block by compressing, under enormous pressure and heat, small pieces of wood particles which are then laser cut and machine finished.

There’s no doubt of the inherent beauty (to some) of a timber stock though they do have their limitations. Scratches, dents, dings and the effects of extremes in temperature can adversely affect timber stocks, yet don’t underestimate a quality timber one just because it’s ‘pretty’. Ships aren’t built for harbours and handmade timber-stocked rifles aren’t meant for the gun-safe.


Away from timber we enter the world of manufactured materials where plastic and its composites, fibreglass, carbon fibre, combined fibre composites, metal alloys and even a combination of all the above can be found in stock manufacture.

While an artisan stock-builder can make you just about anything, the benefits of industrialised manufacturing and modern materials are considerable. From the ability to be shaped into almost limitless designs via moulding and machining, incorporating components and the easy interchangeability of these along with durability, all mean manufactured stocks take their rightful place alongside more traditional designs in the world of modern sporting arms.

Beware the dollar trap

Don’t let the fact these stocks use manufactured materials fool you on cost as you can buy a cheap ‘plastic’ stock, a very expensive one made from cutting-edge carbon fibre composites or a rifle chassis milled from a single piece of high-grade alloy. Conversely cost doesn’t always transfer into performance and it’s important to know what it is you’re buying before you cough up the cash, as was explained to me in 2017.

It was a miserable winter’s day in England and I was doing something I enjoy whenever I travel – visiting gun shops. In Mayfair, a suburb within the City of London, you’ll find all sorts of interesting things including Holland & Holland and Purdey along with smaller bespoke gunrooms and, just so you know, they’re way friendlier than the big names. So I wandered into a smaller one to look over their display and soon enough the head gunsmith appeared and we started talking before he showed me and let me shoulder a newly-built modern hunting rifle with a £500,000 price tag (about $890,000!)

In a word it was horrible, befitted with gold and precious stone inlays and it was like aiming an office chair. Seeing the look on my face he admitted it was a terrible rifle, would never be used for hunting and was built to a price for a client who bought them by the dozen. They were essentially gifts and would eventually hang on walls in hunting rooms filled with shop-bought taxidermy in faraway lands. As a rifle it had everything – all of which worked against it – totally ineffective yet truly impressive as a gift for its intended recipient.

Horses for courses

In my gun safe is a fine example of a classically finished timber hunting rifle alongside a very modern Cerakoted version, a classic lever-action, browned barrelled English side-by-side, carbon fibre-finished air rifle, a rough-and-ready laminated Scout rifle and I recently added a Sako 85 Hunter in blued timber. The point is, to the best of my ability they’re fit for purpose, I like them all, I like their looks, how they perform, they’re all left-handed and apart from the lever-action .22LR they fit me. The downside is it took me a long time to get there.

So my advice is don’t be dazzled by the specs, the sales pitch, amazing technology and materials. Pick equipment based on your intended use and personal physical attributes and if you do you’ll be well on the way to making wise decisions and using gear that delivers for you when you need it to deliver.

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