This post covers the gunsmiths the best precision rifle shooters were using in 2014. The data is based on a survey of the top 50 shooters in the Precision Rifle Series (PRS). The PRS tracks how top competitors place in major rifle matches across the country. These are the major leagues of sniper-style competitions, with targets typically in the 300-1000 yard range. This is the 3rd year we’ve collected this data. For more info on the Precision Rifle Series and who these guys are scroll to the bottom of this article.
In 2012 and 2013, the lion’s share of shooters in the top 50 were represented by 2 companies (GA Precision & Surgeon Rifles). But, this year the crowd was much more dispersed. There were a ton of gunsmiths represented this year that built 1, 2, or 3 rifles used by competitors who finished in the top 50. Here are the 2014 results:
GA Precision had another strong representation this year among these elite sharpshooters. It takes the next 3 companies combined to equal more rifles than what GAP built. This is the 2nd year GAP was represented as the #1 gunsmith. No surprise, right? When you guarantee your rifles will produce 0.375 MOA groups or less with factory match ammo … you’re confident in the product. I haven’t heard of another gunsmith that stands behind their products with a published guarantee like that. If you have, enlighten me in the comments.
Here is an excerpt from the 1st article in SNIPER Magazine 2014:
WHEN THE MAN RUNNING THE COMPANY SHOOTS COMPETITIVELY, GOOD THINGS HAPPEN.
_______ heads up _______, and he loves to shoot. I’ve run into him a few times at various matches around the country and always walk away impressed that a guy with a gun company is out there field-testing his products in perpetuity. I don’t know what his ammo budget is, but I’m envious. … Competitive shooters often take time off work and spend an entire weekend thrashing themselves and their equipment while trying to shoot small targets from various positions as quickly as possible. They will shoot substantially more rounds in training and competition than the vast majority of law enforcement officers and military service members will in uniform. Often, competitive shooters also pay for everything themselves. These are very devoted and demanding people. _____ built his reputation and his company by selling these people rifles. If there was the smallest problem, he heard about it. … It is the ultimate way to test and develop products.”
While that article was actually talking about John Paul of JP Enterprises, you could have just as easily filled in the blanks with George Gardner, President/Senior Rifle Builder at GA Precision. Not only did George personally finish in the top 25 for the 3rd year in a row, the GAP Team also had 5 shooters represented in the top 10!!!
There were a couple more shooters who built their own rifle this year, indicated on the chart by “Self.” How hard could it be, right?! 😉
Short Action Customs sprang onto the scene with a vengeance. Although this was their first debut into the PRS world, they had 4 rifles represented among the top 50 shooters, which says a lot. SAC is headed up by Mark Gordon, and they’ve been cranking out precision rifles full-time since 2010. They obviously are already performing, because they leapfrogged some legendary names.
One of the more surprising changes in this year’s data was the diminished popularity of Surgeon Rifles. I can’t speculate as to why that might be, because the company seems to be thriving at their new facilities in Phoenix. One related note is that Surgeon did reopen sales of their bare actions again earlier this year, which allowed other gunsmiths to start building on their actions. For the past few years, if you wanted a Surgeon action … you had to buy a complete rifle from Surgeon Rifles. There were still a significant number of shooters using Surgeon actions, which I’ll cover in the next post. Whatever the reason, there was a 66% decrease in shooters running Surgeon built rifles compared to previous years.
Accuracy International had 3 rifles represented in 2014. There seems to always be one or two AI rifles represented within the top 50 shooters. AI builds world-class rifles that are used by snipers from over 60 different countries. They’re a company that is 100% focused on building sniper rifles.
Desert Tech was another company that made a grand entrance this year. There were 3 shooters sporting Desert Tech’s innovative bull-pup chassis, and at least two indicated on the survey that the gunsmithing was a combination of Desert Tech and Benchmark Barrels. I believe the barrels were threaded and chambered by Benchmark Barrels, and the action and chassis were from Desert Tech (previously Desert Tactical Arms), who also did the assembly. Here is just one photo of this advanced chassis, and I plan to include a more pics in the post focused on the most stocks/chassis in the PRS.
Stuteville Precision is a new name, but familiar face. Wade Stuteville was involved with Surgeon Rifles since its inception, including product development, testing and evaluation, and as a gunsmithing process advisor. Wade was the General Manager of Surgeon Rifles for the past few years, but when Surgeon was relocated to Arizona earlier this year Wade decided to stay behind in Oklahoma and open Stuteville Precision. Here is a brief description of Wade written by a guy who knows him well: “Anyone who knows Wade or has run into him at any match, knows that he is a walking encyclopedia of anything guns. He not only knows all of the technicalities and mechanics of things that make rifles tick. He also knows real world information that comes from having put tens of thousands of rounds down range, in practice and competitions all around the United States. Affectionately called E.F. Hutton by his friends, he is always able to give the answer to most any question, and can explain it like ‘a 5 year old could understand.’”
The same comments mentioned earlier about good things happening when owner is a competitor holds true for Wade as well. He’s been competing for 15+ years! For those of you that are new, there aren’t many that go back that far in this sport. For the first 5 of those years, it must have been mostly a two man match between Wade and Terry Cross! While Wade’s company hasn’t even had its 1st birthday yet, he managed to crank out at least 3 rifles used by top 50 shooters … in fact all 3 Stuteville Precision rifles were used by shooters who finished in the top 20!
Behind the 6 gunsmiths already mentioned, here is the list of other world-class gunsmiths represented by the top 50 shooters in the PRS in 2014:
- Gradous Rifles
- Crescent Customs (aka Tim “Moon” Roberts)
- Parry Custom Gun
- Score High Gunsmithing
- TJ’s Gunsmithing
- Southern Indiana Precision
- Beanland Custom Rifles
- DMFJ (No idea who this is. If you know, please leave a comment.)
- R Bros Rifles
- Roberts Precision Rifles
- Butch’s Reloading
- Center Shot Rifles
- Scout Supply Company
- Hawk Hill Custom
- Louisiana Precision Rifles
Top Custom Rifle Gunsmiths Over Past 3 Years
I thought it would be fun to look at the total rifles represented by each gunsmith over the full 3 years that we’ve been collecting this data. The chart below contains every gunsmith with a total of 2 or more shooters represented in the top 50 during the 2012, 2013, and 2014 PRS seasons:
GA Precision and Surgeon Rifles have clearly separated themselves from the rest of the pack. These two juggernauts have dominated the precision rifle world for the past few years. But there seem to be a lot of small companies springing up, with hopes to keep those guys on their toes.
- GA Precision – These guys top this list as well. I think I’m beginning to see a pattern here! It’s hard impossible to argue with the results those guys are putting up year after year. GAP bolt action rifles are guaranteed to shoot at least 0.5 MOA groups with factory match ammo, and their Crusader rifle is guaranteed to shoot 3/8 MOA (i.e. 0.375 MOA)! That is a bold guarantee!
- Surgeon Rifles – Although they didn’t have as many rifles represented in 2014, they’re still considered by many to be one of the premiere rifle companies in the world. They are more narrowly focused than some custom rifle gunsmiths, because they only offer a limited number of cartridges. However, this does include most popular precision rifle cartridges: 223 Rem, 6XC, 260 Rem, 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5×47 Lapua, 6.5×284, 284 Win, 308 Win, 300 Win Mag, 300 Norma, 338 Lapua, 338 Norma. This is probably most of the cartridges, but not an comprehensive list … so check with those guys if your cartridge isn’t listed. All of their rifles are guaranteed to shoot 0.5 MOA right out of the box.
- Parry Custom Guns – This small shop had at least a couple rifles represented each of the past 3 years. Parry Custom Guns is a one man shop in a tiny town in Oklahoma, and they specialize in rifles designed for PRS style matches. Each rifle is handcrafted to the same exacting standards with strict attention to detail for maximum accuracy.
- Crescent Customs – Crescent is headed up by Tim “Moon” Roberts, who was a Senior Custom Rifle Builder at GA Precision for several years before starting his own shop. Moon has had at least a couple rifles represented within the top 50 shooters in the PRS each of the past 3 years. Moon has an outstanding reputation in the long-range rifle community.
- Beanland Custom Rifles – This is a one-man shop operated by Jon Beanland. Jon was originally trained by a Benchrest Hall of Famer (who still owns the 100 yard aggregate Heavy Varmint World Record), and he has brought that same fanatical attention to detail to the tactical rifle world. Jon is the only person who will touch a rifle start to finish, and he says he builds each one as if it were his own. Jon is a lifelong learner, and is always trying to learn a better way to do everything! So here’s his pledge: “I promise that I will strive to build every rifle with even greater precision than the last. My customers have to be completely satisfied. That is my guarantee!”
- Louisiana Precision Rifles – This precision rifle shop is ran by William Roscoe. LA Precision had rapid growth primarily from word-of-mouth recommendations in the precision rifle community. So much so that in 2013, they looked up and had a backlog of 100+ rifles and a wait time that extended beyond 1 year. William said he didn’t feel right continuing to take deposits from customers knowing he had such a long turn-around time, so he took down their website. In conversations with William in July 2015, he said at this point he plans to only build rifles for friends and repeat customers. That’s sad news from such a respected gunsmith, but a responsible move that I can respect. UPDATE Nov 2015: I just got word from William that his website is back up and he is now taking orders again!
- Accuracy International – AI is world-renown for their super-accurate rifles. The company founders includes a gold-medal Olympic target rifleman, so accuracy was never an afterthought. While AI doesn’t offer 100% custom rifles (limited cartridge and package choices), they’re far from a standard factory rifle as well. Accuracy International rifles are used by snipers in over 60 countries, including many of the most prestigious military and law enforcement agencies in the world. AI is a company that has never made anything but sniper rifles, they do that with intense focus, and turn out outstanding rifles.
- Center Shot Rifles – Jim See is the gunsmith behind Center Shot Rifles, and he is a serious PRS competitor. He finished 4th in the recent PRS Championship Match, which is an invitation only match for the top 50 ranked shooters nationwide. So he is competitive even among the best of the best. Here is a word from Jim on his rifles: “As a long range hunter and National level precision/tactical rifle competitor, I demand my rifles hit where I’m aiming, and you should too. That’s why I take the same care in building my customers rifles, as I do when working on my own rifles. I strive to build rifles that will provide performance, accuracy, and good looks, at an affordable price.”
- Gradous Rifles – This is another one-man shop, led by Robert Gradous, who has built his business on referrals from highly satisfied customers. I can appreciate his straight-forward approach: “My guns are not cheap, and I do not build them quickly. I do offer an unmatched combination of accuracy, reliability, and value. If you’re using high-quality factory ammunition, like Black Hills, you should expect groups that are extremely consistent, and near the practical performance limits that the caliber will allow. I build approximately 50 guns per year, and when I say I build them, I do mean that I build each and every one. Because of this, I do not guarantee build times. I do guarantee your satisfaction with my work.”
- Score High Gunsmithing – Score Hi has been building precision firearms for 30 years! Here is their view: “The proof is in rifles that shoot. Why is it that some people can consistently build rifles that outperform those of the competition? It’s no accident. It comes from hard work, experience and a desire to achieve unparalleled perfection. The goal is simple, build rifles that are capable of extreme accuracy. This can only be achieved with the highest quality materials, the best equipment, and the best people.” They go on to say, “Rifles must be built to successfully play the game they are intended for. We have built match winning tactical rifles, and match winning record breaking F-class rifles, and they are two different tools. Everything we know goes into every rifle we build. We are constantly experimenting and incorporating what we learn into every rifle we build.”
- ZG Customs – Tony McCollum, firstname.lastname@example.org. Sorry, this is all the info I could find on ZG Customs. If you know more, please leave a comment.
- Short Action Customs –SAC is headed up by Mark Gordon, and they’ve been cranking out precision rifles full-time since 2010. They are an ambitious young company that is obviously already performing at a high level, because they’ve leapfrogged some legendary names on this list. Here is their view: “We are never satisfied with the industry standard. Our business has been founded with the principal that everything can be improved upon. Techniques, tooling, fixtures, and execution can all be refined to the point of perfection. With every service and detail we perform, we apply this philosophy.” As a question-everything kind of guy myself, I can appreciate that approach!
- Desert Tech – These guys have recently rebranded, but were previously known as Desert Tactical Arms (DTA). They’re probably best known in the precision rifle world for their unique bull-pup design (see pic earlier in this article). This design can make the rifle almost 1 foot shorter than conventional bolt action rifles with the same barrel length. At least a few of the PRS shooters that said they were running a gun built by Desert Tech indicated that the gunsmithing was a combination of Desert Tech and Benchmark Barrels. I believe the barrels were threaded and chambered by Benchmark Barrels, and the action and chassis were from Desert Tech, who also did the assembly. Desert Tech offers a few standard cartridge choices, but they aren’t a complete custom shop like some of these other gunsmiths.
- Stuteville Precision – Earlier this year, Wade Stuteville resigned his post as General Manager at Surgeon Rifles and opened Stuteville Precision. He was involved with Surgeon since its inception, including product development, testing, and evaluation, and as a gunsmithing process advisor before serving as the GM for the past few years. Here is a description of Wade from a guy who knows him well: “Anyone who knows Wade or has run into him at any match, knows that he is a walking encyclopedia of anything guns. He not only knows all of the technicalities and mechanics of things that make rifles tick, but he also knows real world information that comes from having put tens of thousands of rounds down range, in practice and competitions all around the United States. Affectionately called E.F. Hutton by his friends, because he is always able to give the answer to most any question, and can explain it in a way a 5 year old could understand.” Wade has been competing for 15+ years, and is a perennial top performer in the PRS … and won 1st place overall in the 2012 PRS season! Even though the company is still less than a year old, Wade built 3 of the rifles used by the top 20 PRS shooters this season.
- TJ’s Gunsmithing – This shop is operated by hunters and competitive shooters, with over 20 years experience. They offer the full gambit of gunsmithing services, from refinishing dad’s old shotgun, to tuning a cowboy action revolver, or building an AR-15 for 3-gun competitions.
- R Bros Rifles – Travis Redell is a very professional gunsmith completely focused on building world-class precision rifles. He opened R Bros in 2008 (the other brother isn’t involved as of now). They offer several packages, but will also gladly build a completely custom rifle to your exact specifications. One unique aspect to R Bros is that they communicate with the customer during the build process to keep them updated. Barrel break-in, accuracy testing, and load data is included with every rifle at no additional charge. Every rifle is guaranteed to 1/2 MOA accuracy or better. Travis said they “have not had any that wouldn’t meet those standards easily.” This even includes his larger caliber magnums and their lightweight hunter rifles, which is pretty amazing.
- DMFJ – Sorry, I’m not sure who this is. If you know, please leave a comment.
- Spartan Precision Rifles –This is another shop focused on precision rifles. They primarily offer precision bolt action rifles for competition shooters and experienced hunters.
- Roberts Precision Rifles – Aaron Roberts is the gunsmith behind Roberts Precision Rifles. His professional shooting background started in the US Special Ops as a Ranger and on the Long Range Surveillance Detachment. He later served as the Captain of the elite Blackwater Training Center Shooting Team. In case you don’t know, that’s serious. While at Blackwater, Aaron was responsible for designing and implementing some of the most current and comprehensive shooting and tactics programs ever created. Aaron says their desire at RPR is “to do work correctly and build to spec. If the spec calls for 1.0625; that means it’s not 1.0599 or 1.0632; it’s 1.0625.” Wow.
- Southern Indiana Precision – Sorry, I couldn’t find much info on this gunsmith. If you know something about them, please leave a comment.
- Newman Precision – Sorry, I couldn’t find much info on this gunsmith. If you know something about them, please leave a comment.
- Phoenix Custom Rifles – PCR is another gunsmith focused entirely on custom rifles. They offer a sub-half MOA accuracy guarantee on their tactical match rifles and “special purpose rifles.”
I purposely left out the location of each gunsmith. Please don’t let geographic proximity influence your decision. Go with one of the top rifle builders in the country. I’ve seen lots of shooters go with the convenience of a local gunsmith for their 1st custom rifle, only to regret that decision later. If you live in the US, and the gunsmith is in the US … it is easy to transfer firearms between states. When you are looking at spending $4,000+ on a custom rifle, choose the best gunsmith possible (regardless of how far his shop is from your house). Just pay the $90 shipping charge and $25 transfer fee. Look at it as cheap insurance against disappointment.
One more heartfelt tip: a good gunsmith always has more business than he can handle. While nobody likes to wait several months on a rifle … you should. If you find a gunsmith with a quick turnaround time, there is a reason he isn’t in high demand. Think about it. This may be a hard pill to swallow, because of the I-want-it-now, Amazon-next-day-delivery culture we live in, but I highly recommend you don’t let build time influence your decision either.
New people to this sport might be used to going to a local sporting goods store and buying an immediately-available, off-the-shelf rifle that you can touch and hold before you hand over your hard-earned cash. It’s hard to let go of that buying habit, especially when you’re spending a few thousand dollars. But you have to let go of that. If you want a rifle like you’ve never experienced before, it’s reasonable that you may have to buy it differently than you have before.
Not all rifles are created equal. The gunsmith matters … a lot. Many shooters get intensely focused on components like the brand of the barrel, action, and cartridge (which aren’t unimportant). But sometimes we get so focus on what pipes we’re using that the plumber is almost an afterthought. Precision components don’t equate to a precision rifle. Precision components + highly detailed precision gunsmith with the best equipment = precision rifle. That’s the equation. There are no shortcuts.
The top 50 shooters in the PRS are certainly some of the most demanding precision riflemen in the world. While this isn’t a comprehensive list of the best custom rifle gunsmiths in the world, it is a darn good place to start.
Meet The Pros
You know NASCAR? Yes, I’m talking about the racing-cars-in-a-circle NASCAR. Before NASCAR, there were just a bunch of unaffiliated, regional car races. NASCAR brought structure by unifying those races, and created the idea of a season … and an overall champion. NASCAR identified the top races across the country (that were similar in nature), then combined results and ranked competitors. The Precision Rifle Series (PRS) is like NASCAR, but for rifle matches.
The PRS is a championship style point series race based on the best precision rifle matches nationwide. PRS matches are recognized as the major league of sniper-style rifle matches. At the end of each year, the scores from around 15 different national matches are evaluated and the top shooters are invited to compete head to head in the PRS Season Championship Match. We surveyed the shooters who qualified for the finale, asking all kinds of questions about the equipment they ran that season. This is a great set of data, because 50+ shooters is a significant sample size, and this particular group are also considered experts among experts. It includes guys like George Gardner (President/Senior Rifle Builder of GA Precision), Francis Kuehl, Wade Stuteville, the GAP Team, the Surgeon Rifles Team, shooters from the US Army Marksmenship Unit, and many other world-class shooters. Thanks to Rich Emmons for allowing me to share this info. To find out more about the PRS, check out What Is The Precision Rifle Series?
Other “What The Pros Use” Articles
This post was one of a series of posts that look at the equipment the top PRS shooters use. Check out these other posts:
- Calibers & Cartridges
- Tactical Scopes
- Scope Mount
- Rifle Actions
- Rifle Barrels
- Custom Rifle Stocks
- Reloading Components (Bullets, Powders & Brass)
- Muzzle Brake & Suppressor
- Shooting Bags
- Rifle Sling