Usually, when a rifle is acting up, you can get a rhyme or reason out of the pattern, or "group," it is throwing on the paper.
If it is grouping and starts "stringing," or stacking shots in an elliptical line, one upon another, you can figure there's a pressure point somewhere in the meeting place of the stock and barrel.
Heat will cause the barrel to expand, it will touch a high spot in the forearm, and the harmonic vibrations of the barrel will be affected, thus throwing the shots in a stringing pattern.
Some rifles prefer completely free-floated barrels, with only the receiver touching where the locking lugs snug it into the interior of the stock. The barrel does not touch the forearm of the stock at all.
Others react better to a slight upward pressure. Many rifles come from the Remington factory with a completely free-floated barrel, except for an extrusion near the front of the forearm that exerts a slight upward pressure on the barrel.
Remington engineers have told me they have conducted thousands of tests, and found the slight pressure point causes the barrel vibrations to resonate more uniformly, thus giving better accuracy right out of the box.
But when they won't group uniformly, even BIG groups, I get really frustrated, really fast.
I was willing to make concessions for the rifle. It was a Savage .17 HMR (Hornady Magnum Rimfire) with their popular Accu-Trigger.
The mistake I made was allowing my mind to be led by my eyes.
Instead of buying the rifle in a well-fitted injection-molded factory stock, I let myself be tempted into paying a lot more for the after-market MAKO wood-laminate stock with a thumbhole and "breather" holes looking like gills, which lightened it.
It was a fancy stock, and unusual enough to draw attention on any firing line.
Unfortunately, pretty does not always shoot well.
But I was very impressed with the BSA Contender 4-16x40 scope we mounted on it.
Pat Blake at Accurate Firearms in Baton Rouge convinced me I didn't need to spend hundreds of dollars on a fancy scope for this rifle — the BSA would do just fine.
I have to say, I am impressed with the scope. At slightly over $100, it is the clearest, most easily adjustable scope in that price range I have ever seen. In a comparison the other day, another similarly priced scope could either focus on the target or the crosshairs, but you couldn't get both to focus at the same time.
It's really frustrating to have to guess where the bullet is going when you can't crisply focus the crosshairs.
There has been no such problem with the BSA. Since Pat and I mounted it on the rifle, I have had nothing but excellent success, and it focuses sharply even at 25 yards. It even has an adjustable objective to compensate for parallax.
The rifle was another thing altogether.
Try as I might, I could not get it to group. It would shoot fairly tightly with one group, open up with another and string with another.
I was getting really frustrated with an investment that I felt had too much money poured into it. I kept switching ammo, bullet weights, designs, you name it. If it sold locally as .17 HMR, I bought it and tried it. I thought it might be just taking overly long to break in.
If a barrel is shot enough, it eventually polishes the imperfections out and begins "settling in" to its inherent accuracy, whatever that might be, and then you can start the tricks to enhance its ability to shoot well.
But this one, the third rifle in six months I had tried to break in, would not settle down and give me consistent groups, even big ones.
Frustrated, ready to trade it off for whatever I could get for it, I thought about the bedding, and pulled the barrel and receiver from the laminated stock.
While the inletting was not noticeably bad, it certainly didn't seem to be the glove-like fit one would expect from such a fancy after-market stock.
Putting the rifle back together, I tightened the two locking lugs with an Allen wrench, pulling the receiver tightly into the laminated stock, an excellent test of just how well the rifle fit the stock.
The groups, which had been bad to begin with, went immediately to hell. Even at 25 yards, I was lucky to get 2-inch groups. I had "warped" the receiver. With a poor stock fit, the two lugs pull the receiver down unevenly into the stock, forcing tension on the receiver, even twisting it slightly. Naturally, the groups are going to be awful.
Tim Brunett, a retired lieutenant from the Louisiana State Police, offered to bed the rifle for me. Brunett is a fanatical rimfire accuracy nut, and he was intrigued with the possibility we could correct a serious problem with a small project.
He called a couple of weeks later.
"Your rifle's ready," he said. "I found it to be a sloppy fit, and I bedded all around the receiver and locking lug. Take it and see what it does now."
Carrying the rifle over to the Baker Range, an indoor shooting facility with a 25-yard range, I set the rifle up on my Shooters Edge H-shaped rifle bag.
Snugging the heavy forearm into the bag and resting a second bag under the toe of the stock, I pulled the buttplate solidly into my shoulder and squeezed off three shots with the Accutrigger .
It took only those three shots to tell me we had solved the problem. The last time I tested the rifle on this short range, it had grouped around 2 inches — terrible enough I was considering trading it off.
This group — and subsequent groups with several different types of .17 HMR ammo — were either touching in ragged holes or nearly so.
When I got home, I pulled the stock from the rifle to see what sort of job Brunett had done. His spare use of epoxy and light touch in removing wood was just right. But the bedding material was a strange, familiar gray color, rather than the wood colors I normally see in the professional bedding kits.
"J-B Weld," Brunett said. "Available in any hardware store, reasonably priced, and works just as well."
The pictures show the effects. Brunett removed the barreled action from the stock, and shaved wood from around the seating area of the receiver.
He then replaced that wood with fresh epoxy, still soft and pliable.
He smeared a release agent on the metal that would be touching the epoxy. Any greasy material will work, such as Vaseline; otherwise, you would have a permanently bonded receiver-to-stock.
Snapping the barreled action back into the receiver area and lightly tightening the locking lugs forms the epoxy in a perfect fit around the receiver.
In this case, Brunett also "hogged out" around the hole that accepts the recoil lug. The lug, an extrusion on the bottom of the receiver, transmits the force of the recoil directly into the stock. By building a perfect fit with the epoxy, movement in the stock by the receiver is reduced, and accuracy enhanced.
Once the epoxy sets, tightening the locking lugs pulls the receiver and barrel into a perfect fit with the stock, thus eliminating or reducing movement in the stock from recoil.
Bedding a stock won't solve every accuracy problem with a rifle, but perfect fit between stock, receiver and barrel is one of the most important attributes of a finely accurized rifle.Gordon Hutchinson's newest book, written with Todd Masson, is The Great New Orleans Gun Grab. It is a searing expose' of the illegal confiscation of guns in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It is available online at www.neworleansgungrab.com.
Hutchinson's first book, The Quest and the Quarry, is available at www.thequestandthequarry.com
Both books were chosen as Outdoor Books of the Year by the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association, and can be ordered from the publisher at (800) 538-4355.