After a recent backpack hunt it was clear that the only rifle missing from the safe is a true do it all backpack rifle, a rifle that could be used for bush stalking in thick gullies then lugged to the tops and the alpine for long range work, mountain rifle build planning had begun. It was a process filled with highs and lows and I spent many hours trawling on forums and holding rifles that others had done, the research was surprisingly time consuming. I’ll do my best to explain the decisions I made and the comparisons I looked at, so hopefully this 2 part guide helps someone as they approach a similar journey.
Part 1: Cartridge choice
As the dictating factor of performance as well as action length the first thing that needs to be decided on is cartridge. Now I won’t go into detail on this one (despite what I just said about explaining decisions) as it’s one that deserves hearty debate and is the majority of the fun when mountain rifle build planning! Plus there’s the rule you can not shoot what your mates have or what you have already (maybe calling it a rule is a bit black and white but it is certainly a common trait). As an owner of big 30 cals, 300wm and 300norma as well as a 338Lap, I had decided that a big long action just wasn’t the right choice to keep with the rifles true intention. Next I looked to the USA where backpack/mountain hunting is very popular and 6.5mm was starting to dominate, however, for Sambar in Australia the minimum calibre is .277 so I went to one of my all time favourites after 30 cal, the wonderfully versatile 7mm offerings.
From here it was ‘easy’, I didn’t want a long action, because if I did it would be a 280ai and a mate is building a mountain rifle in 280ai and I already want a 7mm Rem mag barrel for my Schultz and Larsen so that ruled them out. I didn’t want it to be a true short action chambering as the WSM/SAUM offerings always seem to have feeding niggles and with shorter barrel life due to the extra performance I didn’t feel I needed to go that route. The alternative low end short action cases, 7-08 and derivatives didn’t quite have the reach I was chasing so that was a quick decision to rule them out as well. This conveniently left the mid length choices and one of my favourites, the 284 Winchester case.
To get a little more performance out of a shorter hunting barrel I tossed the idea around for weeks re. the Shehane variant. When I decided I was going to chase 3000fps from a 26” barrel with 168gr VLD’s I settled on the Shehane. Time will tell if I achieve this but I also figured that the Shehane might…might have enough boiler room to get the 195gr EOL’s out at a usable pace or failing that the 180gr VLD’s were a logical and exceptional middle ground. With the .284 Shehane decided upon (this actually took months to decide but as stated, it’s the fun part!) I could then establish that I wanted a medium length action, standard bolt face and as light and smooth as possible.
Part 2: The heart of the rifle, the action.
Unfortunately its one thing to tell yourself you ‘need’ something but I really wanted to do due diligence and strongly consider options I already had and use them as a benchmark. When mountain rifle build planning, the first advice is to make sure it isn’t going to overlap with an existing rifle too much as well as just check there isn’t a perfectly good option already in your safe that could do the job with a quick rebarrel.
There was a wonderful Schultz and Larsen that being a switch barrel could easily be changed to fill the role by installing a 7mm barrel getting it rechambered and calling it a day. I probably will still do exactly that for a secondary rifle that can full fill the role but do it without rechambering and just choose my second choice of cartridge the 7mm Remington Magnum, however the rifle has the heavier IOR recon plus its regularly in a BOLLY ZCR, so it is configured a bit on the heavy side across the board, (and by heavy I mean with a light varmint 7mm Remington Magnum barrel it would be a whopping 11lbs/5kg! 😉 ).
The IOR recon while one of the best tactical scopes out there, there is no way around it being a largish and heavy scope with a sensitive parallax… exceptionally sharp and clear, wonderful optically and perfect for its role but not quite an ultralight or fast bush scope by any means. As I was planning a mountain rifle build that was dedicated, I wanted it to be as light as possible and always ready to go, so this ruled out the Schultz and Larsen in the end. So the search continued.
Next in the safe was a perfect little sambar rifle. Not kidding, I probably shouldn’t have even enticed the fact I needed a new rifle as I write this and think about the time involved with mountain rifle build planning but in reality this rifle was being built up for a mate (and has since gone to my mate as a bush stalking, mid range rifle so as a side note it didn’t quite fit what I was after anyway). It is a tikka .308 Sporter that has been cerakoted, threaded for a mini bastard brake, bedded to a bolly featherweight and has a absolutely wonderful Midas Tac 4-16×44 scope (amazing optic for $900!). It’s an exceptionally lightweight rifle system, it shoots a comfortable 0.6MOA and is a very capable backpack rifle but doesn’t quite have the long distance legs I was after. It is a fantastic example of what I would call a budget mid range ultralight and is a big part of what we do here at PDI.
With these rifles in mind I then started looking at custom actions, specifically titanium ones. I couldn’t find anything that truly tugged my heart strings. I have custom rifles and none of the US made actions have ever really come up to the smoothness and silence of the European actions in my experience, except maybe a BAT – but they are stainless and a bit heavy plus finding a repeating 3 lug BAT action was cost prohibitive and very difficult! The Lonepeak and Pierce actions were strong contenders but again, for the extra price tag I couldn’t see the value. Lonepeak and Borden do nice titanium medium length actions which I strongly considered but the wait times and price tag as well as the real weight saving.. didn’t have me convinced.
The smoothness of the custom actions was also a constant bugbear of mine, I would go and cycle the Schultz and Larsen after cycling a titanium custom and be filled with disappointment in the titanium actions. Then another catch with the Titanium option was the modulus of elasticity of titanium. When doing anything like mountain rifle build planning it’s sometimes important to remember, you can not beat the laws of physics! Unfortunately Titanium’s behaviour as an action always sees stiff bolt lift coming in early in terms of pressure and from all reports I could find, people loved the weight saving but hated taking a follow up shot. With the exploding feral dog numbers as well as my personal preference to meat hunt, two of my quarry on the ground is always better than one so I wanted the option of a smooth fast follow up another hit to the Titanium option.
Finally I got to directly compare at the same time a custom Borden Ridgeline titanium and a Tikka T3, let me be clear the Borden Ridgeline was the best I had felt so far for a titanium action and was very nearly the direction I went. Alas, the Tikka was possibly to my calloused farmer hands just as smooth if not smoother to operate than the custom action, with the reduced lockup angle of the Tikka action, the issues with bolt lift, price tag and wait times, I just couldn’t personally justify the Titanium custom action and they were ruled out.
Finally there was the reality I already had 2 actions barrel less and waiting to be built upon in my safe, one is a blued Remington 700 Long action, an older one from the early 80’s so it was smooth and well made and the other a Tikka stainless action from a 260 featherweight. so I started comparing weights of the Tikka medium action vs the Remington long action (including bottom metal trigger etc on both)and it was fairly damming with the rem700 Long action (BDL) coming in at 1.1kg and the Tikka only 930grams, plus if you are mountain rifle build planning with a Tikka be aware to use the same shank barrel (1.2″) as is commonly available, the Tikka action will need to be refaced and even more weight would be getting removed from it.
I wanted a true medium length action anyway and while a hinged floor plate is a great option, it wouldn’t give me the versatility of the Tikka magazine system especially as I’m a closed on empty chamber kinda guy with a full mag sitting waiting patiently underneath the closed bolt. I had also recently spent a week in the Victorian alpine park chasing Sambar with a mates rifle, a Tikka varmint 7mm Remington magnum that had a Bolly UPH on it and a scope that was once mine, a march 3-24×44. It was an awesome rifle to carry all day and it was very tempting just to go out and buy a tikka varmint in 7mm Rem Mag however I wanted something a little bit more efficient and lighter still.
So the second step in mountain rifle build planning was over and frankly it wasn’t fun, it was a frustrating process and frankly I believe that in the future someone may come up with a fatbolt titanium 3 lug action that would be a smoother better choice but for now, I had selected the action I would build from and it ‘Tikked’ all of my requirements. Now I just had to ensure thatmy particular Tikka action was as good as it could be for this build. So off I went testing what modifications others had done to get weight out of their tikka actions, mainly fluting the bolt. Well…they certainly were lighter but had lost the smooth fast quality I so admired in my own tikka action so I moved on and decided to stick to our ‘standard’ change which is to replace the bolt handle with a titanium one and add a Lumley carbon fibre bolt knob.
Next was the rail, which was easy, Tier one 20MOA at under $100! I am yet to find a better picatinny rail to put on a T3, the quality is simply superb on these. Onto the bolt stop, as it started life as a 260 I ordered a Porter machine works bolt stop that would maximise the use of the .284 case.
Then the trigger, I had already lightened and cleaned up the trigger as well as it could go but as a 2 stage fan I then went in search of the timney 2 stage. I managed to have a good play with one on a friends rifle and at almost $300 I couldn’t quite justify it. It was nice and consistent but not really a significant upgrade in my opinion. I then had the ‘misfortune’ of shooting my Schultz and Larsen as well as the Ritter and Stark SLX with their wonderful 2 stage triggers particularly the Bix n’ Andy in the ritter and stark… bugger I had to get a better trigger.
The search didn’t last long unfortunately as Bix n’ Andy do a ball trigger for the Tikka, I could feel that Remington 700 long action going straight to used guns… that’s right, selling an entire action just to fund a trigger. OUCH! For most, when planning a mountain rifle build I would suggest that the trigger really is dependent on what you are used to and what distances you intend to shoot out to. For the majority I would argue the factory tikka trigger is actually more than capable and sufficient. The Bix n’ Andy trigger really is an almost luxury item that will rarely see much benefit over factory, however I have dabbled in a bit of ELR and do find I perform better with a refined ball trigger than the more traditional 2 stage. Finally as previously mentioned the only thing left to do was get the action refaced but that will happen during barrelling.
Part 3: The Barrel
Thankfully this was another easy selection. If you want to take a rifle further out and have longer shot strings a featherweight/pencil barrel was out. I have gone down this path and indeed the aforementioned Tikka 308 is along these lines but they really don’t make the ideal LR rifle barrel. While capable out to 500m going beyond that and taking multiple shots with first round confidence the modern carbon wrapped barrels really are in a league of their own. Eventually I would like to do a comparison of a few but I thankfully had local experience with some Hardy barrels and they all had copper fouling issues as is commonly associated with button rifled barrels.
I also enticed the idea of the newer carbon six barrels but they are mid factory move so the lead times were a bit much and being new there isn’t a lot of information out there. There was another brand that I hadn;t had much luck with and from a few anecdotal reports from other owners they never shot overly well or well enough for their intended purpose. So this aspect of mountain rifle build planning was simple as my options were limited and I was left with the carbon wrapped barrel all others are judged against really, a Proof Research. Now with a local distributor hopefully supply improves, only time will tell in that regard but fingers crossed!
As I never really intend to shoot anything lighter than 168gr bullets and wanted the option of possibly trying out the newer 195’s or 197’s I would need at least a 8 twist. I would add here that in the main I wanted to shoot the 168’s so a 9 twist or even 8.24 which is the standard twist that proofs do in the standard Tikka shank (if you didn’t want to have the action refaced) would have been perfectly suitable. However, as I am happy to reface the action and I was leaning towards a longer Barrel than 24″ (the only option if sticking to the 1.13″ shank tikka barrels) I decided I would take the opportunity to give myself the choice if I wanted to mess around with the heavies.
Mountain rifle build planning is however dependent on availability of components so the next decisions (barrel length and profile) weren’t really a decision as I found a 284 proof carbon barrel that was in stock, a sendero profile 8 twist that would have a finished length of 26″, the best part is this was actually what I had settled on wanting!! The reasons I was so happy with the barrel I found is that I wanted to move away from previous experiences with thin barrels and I wanted to get the most benefit of the carbon wrap so decided on the Sendero contour over the sendero lite.
I also considered the Bull contour as the Stock I intend to use easily accommodates a Bull barrel, however barrels are like tyres, they wear out and need replacing at regular intervals so I figured the Sendero was in stock and a great length so that was it! It also would give me a chance to test the 26″ length with the Shehane and should give me a feel for whether a handier 24″ would get close to the velocities I was chasing as I figured the 26″ was the max length I was willing to go for when bush stalking was on the table. If I think I can get enough performance from a 24″ Shehane and I am in a position to wait the extended lead times then I will look at a 24″ Bull in that length in future iterations I think, but for now playing it safe with the 26″!
Part 4: The Ultralight Precision Hunter carbon stock
Well, when we went out to design the UPH it was this exact style of rifle we had in mind. So it was a simple straightforward decision and we have already covered a lot of features and reasoning in other posts:
The UPH really is a culmination of experiences with other stocks and a cherry picking of features from all the rifles we have loved in the past. We have been hunting with the UPH for a while now and can confidently say we achieved our goal, we do get the odd ‘there’s lighter out there now’ but generally the weights advertised are without flush cups, bedding or pillars, no forend rail and generally have a little pachmayr recoil pad rather than the larger but more effective Limbsaver Pads. Our Gen3 stock is a true drop in fit for the Tikka and the Carbon bedding system acts in the same method as a chassis but without the weight.
We use them and abuse them and back our Gen3 UPH so it really was the simplest part of mountain rifle build planning . Also, to be fair if we hadn’t chosen our own stock something certainly would be weird about that!
Part 5: The most difficult question we faced during mountain rifle build planning process
The scope. The scope was something that got argued about, spreadsheets got involved and many people weighed in. We even have 2 different spreadsheets comparing the same things but from different perspectives. We also spent evenings looking through various scopes as it got darker and darker trying to evaluate what would be the best scope for the job. Big IOR Tactical scopes got put on little fallow stalking rifles and little Athlon scopes got put on Long range precision rigs. It was incredibly involved. A scope can ruin your hunt. Its that simple, you can spend 3 days hiking only to be let down by not getting on target fast enough, or running out of light or simply not having sufficient glass quality to even pick the quarry through the trees.
It can not be stressed enough that for a dedicated backpack mountain rifle, the scope is a critical component. The bad news is the scope we ended up with is a tier one optic with a price tag to match, but the more we went through the mountain rifle build planning process the more we realised that the unique feature set of the scope far outweighed the initial questions raised when looking at comparison charts and more than accounted for its initial price tag shock. The good news is its a lifetime purchase, an optic that’s sole existence is based on being the best it can be and we truly believe it achieves its goals and is in fact, the ultimate mountain hunting riflescope, but it deserves its own post… 😉