Your riflestock material drives firearm performance more than any other characteristic, and here is why.

 

Introduction

Are you confused about what material makes for the best riflestock, or why it even matters?  In this blog, I introduce the 4 most common materials you will encounter and their characteristics and I give my analysis of the current state of materials as well as where the industry is headed.  My hope is that this article will shed some light on why stocks are made the way they are and help you, the buyer, make a more informed decision.


Stocks are commonly made from these four materials; wood/laminate (which I will refer to generally as “wood”), plastic, aluminum, and fiberglass/carbon fiber epoxy (which I will refer to generally as “fiberglass”).  Below is an overview of each material and its application in stock making.


Material Overview as it pertains to Riflestocks

Plastic Stocks

You typically find plastic stocks mass-produced on high-volume, low-cost, hunting rifles.  It is by far the fastest and cheapest way to make riflestocks, which is why it is the go-to for most large rifle manufacturers trying to hit a price point.  However, it also makes for the worst stock.  Because plastics are greatly affected by environmental factors, plastic stocks can warp and even crack under harsh conditions.  The warping of a plastic riflestock can put pressure in unwanted places on the rifle causing the rifle to shoot poorly due to an interruption of harmonics or inducing added stress.  Mass-produced stocks are typically weak and will bend when put under load.  If you happen to be putting tension on your sling to steady your shooting position, you could easily bend your plastic stock into the barrel, causing the natural harmonics of the barrel to be interrupted during the shot.  This is also not an adequate material to have as the base on which your action rests.  Rifle companies began installing aluminum pillars (sometimes referred to as pillar bedding) that would sit slightly proud of the base of the inlet to keep the stock elevated above the plastic.  As the plastic warps, that warping could cause shot inconsistencies resulting in poor shot performance.  Also, tightening the action screws could cause the plastic to crack under heightened screw pressures.


Wood or Laminate Stocks

The first riflestocks were made from wood, and stocks would continue to be made from wood for centuries before new material and machining technologies emerged in the 20th century.  With the advent of CNC machines and composite materials, wood stocks began to lose ground.  Today, there are a few companies producing laminate stocks at scale, but many wood stock makers that remain sell high-end, low-volume museum-quality pieces. Wood was a great choice for many years, as there were many types of wood to suit your specific strength and cosmetic needs, but over the last 50 years, technology has enabled composites and metals to come onto the scene.  Wood stocks have lost their edge in the strength category, and exhibit some negative characteristics similar to plastics.  For instance, wood does move and swell under harsh environmental conditions, causing similar issues that a plastic stock can cause with barrel and action interference.  Wood also isn’t as strong as a well-made composite or metal. However wood is pretty easy to work with and you can make it look cosmetically stunning.


Aluminum Stocks

The aluminum chassis really began to emerge in the early 2000s.  Over the last 20 years, they have become a strong, if not the dominant player on the competitive scene.  And as PRS and other similar shooting competitions continue to pop up around the globe, chassis stocks continue to post huge sales numbers.  However, they don’t do so well in the hunting market.  First, aluminum is heavy and chassis makers are vulnerable when trying to compete against lighter stocks in a world where weight is king. Aluminum also gets hot and cold as the weather gets extreme.  When trying to hunt big game at 8000 feet in the snow in late November, the last thing you want is to grip a cold, heavy rifle while you are trying to steady your offhand shot.


Fiberglass Stocks

In the late 1960s, Gale McMillan was working for Motorola, where he was assigned to work on a project that incorporated a hand-laid-up fiberglass process.  Being a shooter his entire life, he got the idea that this process could be implemented in making riflestocks.  By the mid-seventies, he had won a contract with the Marine Corps where they deemed the benefits of the fiberglass material outweighed that of the wood stocks they had used for decades.  It was that recognition by the Marine Corps that launched the fiberglass stock into the mainstream.  It also had other major advantages like being machinable and customizable by gunsmiths without losing structural integrity, being lightweight and simultaneously strong and the big one for the Marine Corps, having no warping or bending under extreme environmental conditions.  But as good as the material was, it didn’t entirely sweep away the market as it was relatively difficult to manufacture and therefore expensive to buy. 


Comparisons and Analysis

The analysis below was taken as a “general rule”.  For instance, I marked wood stocks as inexpensive, however, there are many high-end, high-dollar custom wood stock makers.  I also labeled “aluminum chassis” as expensive.  Not all chassis are $1500, but generally, a chassis is the most expensive of the 4 types of stocks.  I will discuss how particular manufacturers and manufacturing techniques can bend these general rules. I also grade each material on its current state, not its potential as technology and manufacturing progress.  I will discuss the future of stock making at the end.



Definitions for Comparison

Cost - How affordable it is.

Strength - How strong it is under optimal current manufacturing conditions.

Weight - How light it can be and still retain strength.

Recoil absorption - How efficiently it dissipates energy from the rifle to the shooter.

Environmental resistance - How well it minimizes warping and bending under extreme environmental conditions.

Thermal conductivity - How well it remains a neutral temperature under extreme external temperatures.

Customizability - The ability to customize features during the design/manufacturing process as well as perform aftermarket modifications and upgrades without causing structural damage.

Cosmetics - Ease and frequency of applying unique finishes.

Manufacturability - Ease of manufacturing efficiency which directly affects availability and price


Grading Scale

1 - Poor

2 - Average

3 - Good


Analysis and Conclusions

The analysis above is taken as a general overview and is not completely comprehensive of each company. It's commonly accepted that both aluminum chassis and fiberglass stocks are the highest quality stocks you can buy.  Aluminum chassis get their advantage from their industrial and utilitarian design.  Chassis are designed to be useful and have the distinct benefit of being strong and homogeneous which allows the manufacturer to limitlessly add features and accessories anywhere on the stock.  


Fiberglass stocks, on the other hand, can be limited in features due to the lack of homogeneity in certain areas of the stock.  Wood and plastic stocks have this homogenous nature, but the inherent characteristics of these materials have pushed most performance-driven buyers away from wood and plastics.  


It's important not to underestimate the importance of a feature-rich stock.  When you look at the analysis of the aluminum chassis characteristics, it fairs poorly in many categories, however, the overwhelming power of features has driven these stocks to relative stardom.  Solely comparing the characteristics of aluminum and fiberglass, you would assume that fiberglass would be the clear winner, but that is not the case. Due to manufacturing complexities, composite stock makers haven’t been able to keep up with the feature-rich chassis.


Riflestock molding technology has not progressed much since the Gale McMillan era over 50 years ago.  What you pay for in a fiberglass stock is not primarily in the material, but the labor in the manufacturing process.  Molding is a complex beast, especially molding epoxies and there are not a lot of places to turn to for help.  But like in most other manufacturing industries, better equipment and automation are key to increasing quantity and quality.  Companies have utilized more sophisticated thermoset molding technologies, but those companies tend to be in much larger markets like automotive and oil and gas.  Grayboe has been watching and learning these techniques over the last decade and has now begun to transition to a more automated and sophisticated manufacturing process.  


Where fiberglass stocks have failed to completely take the market in the past due to manufacturing complexities, the opportunity for fiberglass stock makers to gain ground is increasing as more dollars are being spent in these niche areas.  Fiberglass is by far the best material for stock making, someone just needed to come along with a vision to adopt more sophisticated and automated molding practices.  This has always been at the heart of Grayboe’s vision.  With efficiency comes scale and with scale follows availability and affordability.  Fiberglass riflestocks have been expensive and hard to get for 50 years, but we believe that is about to change.


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Details about Grayboe’s material

The material Grayboe uses is an epoxy-based resin, fiberglass-infused thermoset.  The term epoxy refers to a class of resin well known to be the strongest, lightest, and most durable resin on the market.  Fiberglass and other additives are added to the epoxy resin-based formula to add multi-dimensional strength and further reduce weight.  Thermoset materials take on a chemical change, whereas thermoplastics just incur a phase change.  This means that a thermoplastic can be heated up and cooled down, changing from a liquid to a solid indefinitely, whereas thermosets have formed new chemical bonds and the resultant chemistry cannot be altered.  



About The Author,

  Ryan McMillan is a former Navy Seal, and physicist and has been a firearms industry entrepreneur for 16 year. 



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