The Evolution of the Ultralight Rifle PART 3: Stocks
A good rifle stock is much like the suspension system on a truck. Take a Baja truck for example. You can put as much horsepower under the hood as you like, have intricate knowledge of the terrain, and carry enough fuel to get where you’re going, but if you’re trying to tear through the desert with factory F-350 leaf springs underneath, it’s going to be a long, miserable ride.
The mission drives the gear. And the mission in mountain hunting, as you know, is to hike a long way in uncompromising terrain and place a bullet in a very precise location. This often occurs at a substantial distance, in adverse weather conditions, and from a less than perfect rest.
I began my search for an ultralight stock more than a year ago, and only recently ordered one from AG Composites.
In The Evolution of the Ultralight Rifle (EUR) PART 2, we discussed the importance of barrel selection in terms of both accuracy and mass. Because of its light weight and surprising strength, carbon fiber is a force to be reckoned with in barrel construction. As we shift our attention to stocks, it’s interesting - though not surprising - that the same material is being combined with aerospace construction processes to elevate the bar of the rifle stock's capabilities.
There are quite a number of custom stock manufacturers, but relatively few that play in what I’d consider the “ultralight” realm. The ones that do often use carbon fiber as the main material. It offers strength and rigidity comparable to - and in many cases well beyond - that of fiberglass, which has been the primary conventional aftermarket stock material for decades.
Over the course of the EUR article series, I’m in the process of building a 6.5 Creedmoor mountain rifle, hoping that it’ll tip the scales at a wispy seven pounds when complete with a scope. I initially considered three companies before making a final decision: AG Composites, Manners and McMillan.
I’ve handled plenty of Manners stocks and I like them. I also own a McMillan. Both make good products, but AG Composites simply offered more advantages with the Carbon All Terrain (CAT) stock. Given the weight, price, availability, finish texture and what I’d heard from other customers about the stock’s rigidity and level of fit and finish, I pulled the trigger pretty quickly.
After receiving and handling the stock last week, I've confirmed I made the right decision. It's important to note, too, that this stock is 100% carbon fiber, including the shell and fill material.
Before I really dive into what it is I love about the stock, let me share a little about this unique company. It would’ve made the decision easier had I known it when I ordered.
Veteran-made in the USA
AG Composites is owned and operated by two brothers and a brother-in-law. Two are former Marines and the third is a former Army Ranger. They’re all serial entrepreneurs, and one is an aerospace engineer with years of experience building high-end, carbon fiber telescopes.
To make a long story short, in 2013, they decided to make the paragon M14 rifle stock out of carbon fiber; light as a feather and ridiculously strong. How did it turn out? Well, you be the judge.
Over the next three years, what began as a pastime evolved into a 17-person manufacturing firm in northern Alabama that builds stocks for Kimber, Barrett, Proof Research, BULA Defense Systems and Bergara.
“And we’re hiring!” said Matt Tandy, VP of Operations. “Everyone on our staff is entirely committed to turning out the best stock money can buy, so finding people who exhibit that kind of work ethic and attention to detail isn’t that easy, but we’re growing steadily.”
“Our product has to ‘Wow’ the customer,” he continued. “And everything we do here reflects that.”
Each step of the construction process is an exact science. A stock starts life as a roll of pre-impregnated carbon fiber (CF) sheet. Or rather several sheets, because different areas of the stock use different thicknesses of CF. The sheets are placed on a mechanized cutting table which slices out the various pieces of the stock to exact dimensions.
In the layup room, the pieces are placed on a stencil, then pressed carefully into the billet aluminum stock form. Once the left and right side of the form are pressed together, the barrel channel and action area is packed with a CF epoxy mixture. There's no fiberglass or plastic used anywhere.
The two sides of the form are bolted together, and the lid is then placed on the form, holding the aluminum bedding pillars in place. The fact that the pillars are molded directly into the stock is a big deal. If a gunsmith would need to install pillars at a later time, it’s not only an additional cost, but pillars added later wouldn’t be an integral part of the stock.
Once the entire form is bolted tight, the stock is cured under pressure, ensuring there are no voids inside the form. To cure, the forms are placed inside an oven and heated anywhere between 180°F and 250°F, depending on the time allowed. Curing at high temperature is extremely important to ensure the stock stays rigid and doesn’t change shape if exposed to heat. Stock manufacturers who cure their stocks at room temperature create a product, that if exposed to high heat, can permanently damage the stock. For example, if stocks cured at room temperature are left in a hot car in the summer, or are placed in an oven to cure a hydrographic dip, run the risk of cracking or warping. As a result, some stock companyies have warranties that are void if the stock to heat excess of 140 degrees.
Also, the components of the stock (shell, fill, pillars, aluminum inserts for swivels) are all co-cured together forming a monolithic chemical bonded product vs a mechanical bond which is gluing shells together and then gluing in the fill after that.
The stocks are then CNC-machined to customer specifications. Action inletting and barrel channel tolerances are around .0006 inch.
All that’s left to do then is paint and install a recoil pad and sling studs. But how the stocks are made would matter very little if they didn’t perform.
Of critical importance
In my opinion, the attributes that a mountain rifle stock must have are as follows, in descending rank of importance.
Weight – I hate to keep beating this dead horse, but it’s an ugly, mean horse. If you measure the distance you plan on carrying the rifle in miles instead of yards, you may want to carefully consider what you think is acceptable.
The complete AG Composites CAT stock comes in around 26 ounces. When initially looking for a stock, the comparable carbon fiber Manners and McMillan models are within an ounce of the CAT, one way or the other, so there was no appreciable difference. Lighter stocks of similar demensions just don’t exist that I’m aware of.
Durability – I know a guy who took a nasty fall in the mountains and snapped his wooden stock off at the grip. Many of today’s lightweight stocks are many times stronger than their wooden counterparts. I don’t want to ruin a backpack hunt because of stock failure, nor do I want to replace a broken stock once I get home. I want a stock that’s tougher than I am.
It’s also no secret that some of today’s big magnums can lay a serious beating on a stock, especially in the wrist area. All of the RUM chamberings (Remington Ultra Magnum), some Normas, the .338 Lapua and a wide variety of older Alaskan/African loads can pack some serious punch. Because some stock manufacturers have seen fracturing in their stocks as a result of excessive recoil, one or more ultralight stock offerings have a cartridge limitation that, if exceeded, will void warranty. So if you’re looking to build a fire-breathing dragon, do your homework on the front end. AG Composites does not have a caliber restriction.
“We’ve done merciless torture testing of all our stocks,” said Tandy. “We’ve shot at them and found that they’re still functional despite the bullet holes. We’ve rapid-fired 300 rounds of 300 Win Mag, resulting in no functional change. We’ve blown them up, tried to pull them apart with pickup trucks and used them as pull-up bars. It’s a really, really rugged design.”
Each and every AG Composites stock comes with a lifetime warranty; no questions asked unless it’s a botched gunsmith job. That’s most likely a dispute between you and your gunsmith. And hopefully, at that point, your gunsmith wasn’t you.
Rigidity – Like with barrels, rigidity in a stock adds accuracy, though probably to a lesser degree. Once an action is bedded via one method or another, the stock can’t afford to flex like a polymer stock would, allowing the bedding material to break free. I think it’s safe to say that most, if not all aftermarket stocks will negate this issue, but there are other areas of concern.
For the sake of repeatable accuracy, the forend of the stock and the barrel of the rifle must not come in contact. The bedded action should be the only point of contact between the stock and barrel. If the forend of a stock lacks rigidity, it could contact the barrel while being gripped, packed or fired. This is likely to change the bullet’s point of impact.
“Our stocks are unique from some of the other carbon fiber models out there in that the process we use yields one monolithic bonded piece, or shell, instead of two pieces that are later joined together,” said Tandy. “There are no seams when the pieces are cured together.”
Rigidity is even further improved by using the densest stock filling material at the highest stress points, primarily the grip, or “wrist” of the stock. In less critical areas like the front of the forend or in the center of the buttstock, lighter fill provides weight savings.
Ergonomics – The “feel” of a rifle stock is largely subjective, but a big, fat stock is simply more difficult to pack, and a smooth finish provides poor grip, especially when it becomes wet. To choose from the conventional, sporter-style stocks, tactical profiles and thumbhole designs, you need to at least lay hands on them, and better yet, try shooting them from different positions. Also, keep in mind the height of the riflescope you plan to use. If you’re hoping to mount a 56mm objective, consider that you’ll need a stock that features a higher comb.
Molded finishes on custom stocks can be beautiful, and add a lot of character to a custom rifle. Unfortunately, they don’t offer much purchase. I much prefer a painted finish for a true hunting rifle because no matter where you grab the stock, there’s grip to be had.
“We use a super-durable, heavily-textured marine finish in four different solid colors and several camo patterns,” said Tandy. “It’s often used on yacht floors and holds up against the elements. The only downside is that applying it is an art form. We only have three people in the shop that finish stocks.”
Price and lead time – A good custom stock won’t come cheap. No matter what route you go, you’ll be looking at a few hundred bucks. Compare the stocks you like, and don’t let $50 or $75 dollars be the difference between a stock you love and one you’d love to replace.
And while you’re thinking of money, think of time, too. Many aftermarket stocks are backordered for months… many months. If you’re not in a rush, or will be waiting on an action or machine work anyway, that’s fine. But if you’re tricking out a factory rifle before season starts, or have your build well underway, maybe you want to consider something with a shorter lead time.
From the time I ordered my AG Composites stock to the time I had it in hand, three weeks hadn’t passed. I’ve waited more than five months on custom stocks in the past. I understand that good things take time, but my wife and mother have both told me that patience is a virtue I’m not blessed with.
AG Composites is a young company, but they came out of the 2015 SHOT Show swinging. It was there that they formed alliances with numerous rifle companies, and a relationship with Stocky’s wasn’t far behind. In addition to AG's continued relationship with Stocky’s, the company continues to be an OEM supplier to top companies and gunsmiths alike. Custom gun builders are also seeking them out because they want the “Ferrari level” stock with great lead times.
To spur that growth, the coming year will include new products and options. Inlets for different actions, adjustable cheek pieces, and heavier fill options are among the choices that customers will soon have.
“We really started from scratch, pulling this business up by the bootstraps,” said Tandy. “We’ve seen a ton of growth in several short years. I attribute that to two things. First and foremost, a product of uncompromising quality. Secondly, I think we’re really at home in this industry.”
With their own military backgrounds, the owners at AG Composites are quick to support Wishes for Warriors, joining Bergara and Vortex Optics by donating stocks for raffles that will ultimately benefit US Veterans. So swing by the AG Composites Facebook page and Instagram and give them a like.
Speaking of Vortex Optics, check back in with us in a few weeks for EUR PART 4: Optics. And if you haven't read EUR PART 1 yet, you can learn about the whole article series.
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