This article will focus on the gunsmiths the top precision rifle competitors in the country are using. I recently surveyed the top ranked shooters in both the Precision Rifle Series (PRS) and the National Rifle League (NRL) to learn what gear they’re running in long range rifle matches. (Learn about the PRS & NRL and who I surveyed.) This data represents over 150 of the best precision rifle shooters in the country. (View other What The Pros Use articles)
It’s especially important with this topic to start with a balanced perspective: If a gunsmith is on this list, they are clearly capable of building a bolt action rifle that is competitive at the highest levels. That’s both objective and obvious, right? What if a gunsmith isn’t on this list? That does NOT mean they’re second-class, but also just because someone is a “gunsmith” doesn’t mean they can build a world-class, precision rifle. Not all gunsmiths are created equal! Like all professions, some folks outperform others, because of attention to detail, level of experience, tools/equipment they use, processes they’ve established, and frankly whether they have the internal drive to always improve and hone their craft. So just because a gunsmith lives in your area, doesn’t mean he is the best – that is a bias we should be aware of. Also, just because someone ended up on this list doesn’t automatically make them better than others – that is another bias we should be aware of.
I provide a few tips when it comes to choosing a gunsmith towards the bottom of this article, but I know most of you are chomping at the bit to see the data. So let’s get right to it!
Top Precision Rifle Gunsmiths
There were actually around 75 different gunsmiths represented among this group, which is more diversity than any other aspect that I asked these guys about on the survey. But almost 50% of those were only used by 1 shooter. Because of how long the list was, I limited the chart below to the gunsmiths used by 3 or more of the top shooters surveyed. However, I provide the full list of gunsmiths the shooters provided on the surveys later in this post.
The various colors on the chart represent the league and rank of the shooters. For example, black indicates shooters who finished in the top 10 in the PRS, dark blue is those who finished 11-25 in the PRS, and the lighter the blue, the further out they finished in PRS Open Division season standings. The green colors represents the top shooters in the NRL, where the darkest green is the top 10, medium green is 11-25, and light green are 26th to 50th. The legend on the chart itemizes the league and ranks each color represents, but basically the darker the color, the higher up the shooters placed.
Q: Who built your rifle?
A: “Two gunsmiths worked on the chamber, and I touched it up with my Dremel … always a good mix.” – Carl Ross, 14th overall in the NRL
Thanks for that gem, Carl! While that seemed to work well for him, please don’t try that at home! 😉
In the rest of this article, I’ll share some about the gunsmiths at the top of the list and highlight a few unique things about each. But, you may notice a resounding theme with a few of them. I remember reading an article in SNIPER Magazine 2014, which captured this common thread in a great way:
WHEN THE MAN RUNNING THE COMPANY SHOOTS COMPETITIVELY, GOOD THINGS HAPPEN.
_____ heads up [Company’s Name], 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 Wade Stuteville of Stuteville Precision, George Gardner of GAP, Travis Stevens of TS Customs, and more among this list of gunsmiths. And the truth is, we ARE an extremely demanding group of shooters. We expect a lot from our rifles. I’d bet if you can satisfy this group of shooters, you could satisfy anyone!
Stuteville Precision was the most popular gunsmith, with 19 of these top shooters trusting them with their rifle. This included 3 of the top 10 shooters in the PRS, and 1 of the top 10 shooters in the NRL.
The guy running the company, Wade Stuteville, is a veteran in the PRS and in building rifles. Wade has competed with precision rifles for 15+ years, and even claimed the top spot overall as the PRS Champion a few years ago. Wade was also a founding partner, designer, and later the General Manager at Surgeon Rifles for a few years before it was moved to Arizona. Surgeon was machining a ton of the premiere actions at the time, and building hundreds of really high-end, custom rifles too. Wade is now the owner and rifle builder at Stuteville Precision, and one of the most respected gunsmiths in the country for precision rifles, with big-name customers like Accuracy International trusting him to chamber some of their barrels.
“Wade is a very accomplished tactical rifle shooter … 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 US. 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.’” – Dustin Morris, 2014 PRS Champion
I noticed all the shooters who said they used Stuteville Precision as their gunsmith were also running Impact Precision actions, a product Wade helped design and is a partner on. One of the compelling things about that action is they’re all virtually identical to each other, so much so that you can buy chambered, pre-fit barrels right off the shelf and install them yourself. The headspace, indexing, and other dimensions on the Impact actions are held to such strict tolerances that barrels and bolts can be interchanged between any of their actions. No need to ever send your action in to a gunsmith, but the barrels still headspace on the shoulder of the barrel just like it would if you did send in your action (i.e. not like some guys do with barrel nuts). Impact Precision’s website sells “Impact by Stuteville” chambered barrels that are ready to ship, which are barrels chambered and threaded by Wade. This simplified, no-wait-time approach has been a huge hit among these shooters who burn through a couple of barrels every year.
You can take a tour of Wade’s shop on his website, and see the HAAS TL2 CNC lathe that he uses to chamber his barrels. Over the past few years, many of the big gunsmith shops have moved over to chambering barrels on a CNC machine rather than a traditional manual lathe. I actually talked to Travis Stevens from TS Customs about that trend this past week, and will share more about that later in this article.
11 of these top shooters said GA Precision (GAP) was their gunsmith. GAP has been one of the top 5 gunsmiths in the Precision Rifle Series since it started in 2012, and they’re the only gunsmith that is true for.
GA Precision likely doesn’t need any introduction. They’re legendary in the precision rifle world, and known for consistently turning out some of the most accurate rifles in the world. They build full custom rifles and have a few pre-configured models to choose from. GAP guarantees a few of those models will shoot 3/8 MOA or better using match-grade factory ammo. There aren’t many gunsmiths out there with the confidence to put that in print! It is a really clear way to show they know the rifle they build for you will provide gnat’s @$$ precision (yes, that’s what G.A. Precision stands for).
One of the top shooters representing GA Precision is their President & Senior Rifle Builder, George Gardner, who has personally finished in the top 100 shooters in the PRS year-after-year. 2019 marks GAP’s 20th year in business, which means they have more experience when it comes to tactical, precision rifles than just about any gunsmith on the planet.
One interesting thing I noticed was that all of GA Precision’s shooters were in the PRS, which is likely simply due to the regional variation that is common in terms of the gunsmiths a particular group of shooters use. Gunsmithing is a referral-based business, so popularity may appear in clusters. We naturally gravitate towards the same gunsmiths our friends use and rarely “shop around,” so trends tend to be more localized. This isn’t something that just applies to GAP, but is common when it comes to gunsmiths, so it’s something to be aware of.
Another interesting data point was that GA Precision built rifles on a variety of actions. As an industry leader in the custom rifle world, that wasn’t too surprising, but is just another sign of the breadth of their experience. Here are the actions competitors said they were using where GAP was their gunsmith:
- 4 on GAP Tempest action
- 4 on Defiance Deviant action
- 1 on American Rifle Company action
- 1 on Big Horn action
- 1 on Impact Precision action
TS Customs Precision Rifles
7 of these shooters trusted TS Customs as their gunsmith, including 3 who finished in the top 25. In fact, Travis Stevens, the owner of TS Customs finished 20th overall in the PRS in 2017. Travis started TS Customs 6 years ago, but has already created a bunch of raving customers and clearly knows what it takes to build a rifle capable of top-shelf precision. At 28 years old, Travis is one of the younger gunsmiths on this list, but as the entire industry seems to be moving over to computer-controlled equipment that needs a programmer as much as an operator – being from a younger, tech-savvy generation could be an advantage. Travis went to gunsmithing school, but also went to school for CNC programming.
I’d never talked to anyone from TS Custom, but had noticed they’d been on this list of top gunsmiths in prior years. After seeing they were one of the most popular again this year, I wanted to learn more about them so I could share with you guys. I got in touch with Travis this past week, and asked a lot of questions.
It turns out TS Customs is a “full CNC shop,” so we talked for a while about the recent trend of gunsmiths moving from chambering barrels on manual lathes to doing it with CNC machines. Jered Joplin from American Precision Arms was among the early adopters of computer-controlled chambering, and a few years ago Jered told me about all the time, effort, and money it took to get his machine along with all the customizations and fixtures. Travis at TS Customs said he bought his CNC machine 3.5 years ago and there were still very few gunsmiths using CNC machines even at that time. I visited Gunwerks shop in 2016 and they showed me a CNC lathe they’d invested in, but they were still in the process of learning how to produce as a good of a barrel on it as they were able to on their traditional lathe. Fast forward to 2019, and Travis suspected that almost all the gunsmiths doing much volume were chambering barrels on CNC machines.
Travis mentioned a few key advantages he saw to chambering and threading a barrel on a CNC machine:
- Much faster – This isn’t just good for the gunsmith, it’s good for the customer. Nobody is happy with a 6+ month wait time, and CNC machines have drastically increased the capacity of a good gunsmith.
- Lack of chamber runout – Chamber runout quantifies how concentric the chamber is to the bore of the rifle. In his legendary book, Rifle Accuracy Facts, researcher Harold Vaughn said, “If you make a cast of the chamber and throat of a commercially made rifle, you will most likely find that they are not concentric with the bore axis – in other words, they are off center.” Vaughn also explained, “If the chamber or throat is not concentric with the bore or if it is oversize, the bullet will have to rattle around (balloting) before it can line up with the bore center line and pass through the throat. This can cause the bullet to be deformed in an asymmetric manner. … This will cause a center of gravity offset from the bore center line, which can cause dispersion.” In case you got lost in the technical jargon, here’s what it means in plain English: If the chamber isn’t centered, the gun probably won’t group well. Travis believes he can dial in a barrel on a CNC Machine more precisely, so there is virtually no chamber runout.
- Thread fit can be more precise – Once again, in Rifle Accuracy Facts (a great book!) Harold Vaughn explains, “It would hardly seem possible that the threaded barrel join could move, causing the barrel to point in a slightly different direction after a shot is fired. But, that is exactly what happens, and barrel joint motion can cause large flyers (i.e. one inch or more) in a group.” So the more precise the thread fit, the better performance you can expect.
Travis was careful to add that just because you have a CNC machine doesn’t mean it will chamber barrels well. In fact, he said, “You can still make junk on a CNC machine, you can just make junk faster!” Travis said there are lots of things you need to pay attention to in order to get a great chamber from a CNC machine, like:
- How you fixture it
- How you hold the chamber reamer
- How you dial in the barrel so it’s concentric with the spindle bore
TS Customs has invested in advanced equipment and tools. They chamber barrels on a large Doosan Production CNC machine. Travis said that machine weighs 8,000 pounds, which is 5 times more than most manual lathes, and it’s also heavier than the Haas CNC machines many gunsmiths are using. Travis also suspected that they’ve invested in more gauging tools than most shops to ensure all of this is set up precisely and they’re able to get the most from their equipment.
Another unique thing TS Customs does is anytime they’re chambering a barrel for a custom action with an integral lug, they will gauge the headspace and the pitch diameter of the threads (which controls thread fit) and keep that in their records. They can then use those precise measurements in the future so they can chamber barrels without needing the action back ever again. Yes!!!
I asked Travis what their typical turnaround time was, and he said this is what they usually run:
- 2-3 weeks on a barrel (This is if they have the barrel on-hand, but they do keep a lot of Benchmark barrels in stock.)
- 2-3 months on a full rifle build, once they have all the parts in (He did say both Manners and McMillan are averaging a 6-8 months lead time right now for stocks.)
I admit I was surprised to hear that they’re able to turn a barrel around in 2-3 weeks. I told Travis that once the word gets out about that, he might become even more popular!
One of my favorite quotes is “You are always either building your reputation, or living off it.” It seems like Travis is putting a tremendous amount of effort into building a strong reputation for TS Customs, so it’s great to see him rewarded with success so early in his career. If you’re interested in learning more, check out this Q&A article I found with TS Customs. I’d also suggest reading through this unfiltered list of customer testimonials on Sniper’s Hide.
Alamo Precision Rifles
6 of these shooters used Alamo Precision Rifles (APR) as their gunsmith. That included 2 shooters who finished in the top 10 in the PRS, and 2 that finished in the top 10 in the NRL, which was just as many in the top 10 as any other gunsmith.
Alamo Precision is another company that seems to have exploded in popularity over the past couple years, although often times there was a lot of hard work that happens behind the scenes before a company experiences the kind of success that APR seems to be enjoying. I’ve heard it said, “It takes 20 years to make an overnight success!”
APR entered the market offering precision rifles for under $2,000, which were based on Remington actions bedded in Grayboe stocks (a value version of McMillan stocks). Nathan from TheFirearmsBlog.com said described APR as “wizards with standard Remington actions. The Maverick and Ranger Options get one into true precision for less than $2K.” He also said, “All five of the rifles I shot from Alamo were true 1/2 MOA firearms – shooting from bipods with factory ammo. The various hand-loaders present were going sub 1/2 MOA.” Today the prices are a bit higher, at $2,500 for those same models, but they’ve also switched over to their own “APR Custom” action. Even at $2,500, that is still competitive and a huge value in the market.
Alamo Precision also builds full custom rifles, where the customer decides on every part and spec: action, stock/chassis, cartridge, barrel contour/length/twist, trigger, etc. The sky is the limit! But here is a quote that sums up Alamo’s unique focus:
“Simply put, if the rifle can’t shoot, trying to reach out and ping targets goes from an enjoyable, yet challenging affair to a mind-boggling frustrating boondoggle and waste of ammunition. As such, it’s critical to have a good tool for the job. And that’s what Alamo Precision rifles are – good tools. In that respect, Alamo is unique. Rather than focusing on the absolute ultimate in precision rifle capability (which they do quite well), Alamo primarily focuses on creating the most value for the money.” – Nathan at TheFirearmsBlog.com
Finally, I wanted to point out one last thing about Alamo Precision, and that’s their warranty and customer-centric focus. They believe “The customer is always right.” They believe it so strongly that they say this on their website: “If you aren’t completely satisfied with any purchase you make from Alamo Precision Rifles, contact us and we’ll fix it. We promise there will be no hassles or problems. That’s what you can expect from our APR 100% Satisfaction Guarantee.” Once again, saying something like that in writing just shows the confidence you have in your product.
Another popular choice among this group was Accuracy International (AI), with 6 of the shooters saying that is who built their rifle. That included 2 shooters who finished in the top 25 in the PRS. AI is another company who seems to be towards the top of this list almost every year. In fact, last time I published this data, they were in the #1 spot (see that year’s data). The year before that, they were the 2nd most popular rifle builder – so they’re clearly a trusted name among this group of shooters, as well as some of the most elite military snipers in the world. That’s why they are a household name among precision riflemen. Their rifles are military tough and extremely precise.
AI works differently than many gunsmiths. On an AI-built rifle, you can’t choose all the components and specs to the same level of detail that you can with a full-custom gunsmith (e.g. you can’t tell them you want a particular cartridge, brand of barrel, twist rate, and you want it Cerakoted in a specific color, etc.). Instead they offer rifles in a limited number of packages/cartridges, all built on one of AI’s amazing chassis. But, if AI is willing to stamp their brand on it you know it represents one of the best rifles money can buy. AI’s goal is to identify the absolute best components for each part of the rifle, and then assemble a team of world-class experts that specialize on key aspects of each rifle.
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. AI’s core competency could be their intense focus on advanced manufacturing processes and continuous improvement. That’s why AI sniper rifles are deployed by some of the most prestigious and influential military and law enforcement agencies in the world, including 60+ countries. In fact, a couple of the longest confirmed kills in military history were fired from AI rifles, like the 2,707 yard shot from Craig Harrison behind a 338 Lapua Mag. AI is a company that has never made anything but precision rifles, they do that with intense focus, and turn out outstanding rifles.
For the longest time, AI primarily focused on their military customers, which meant their rifles were only available in NATO cartridges like 308 Win, 300 Win Mag, 338 Lapua Mag, and 50 BMG. None of those are popular cartridges for these precision rifle matches (see cartridge data), so while there actually were 8 shooters running AI actions (which indicates they started with a complete rifle build from AI), at least 2 of those had rebarreled in a different cartridge from another gunsmith. However, I did notice that AI has started offering AXSA rifles chambered in 6mm Creedmoor, 6.5 Creedmoor, or 6.5×47 Lapua! Those are all very popular choices among these competition shooters, so I wouldn’t be surprised if AI’s popularity grows even more in the future.
There were a ton of other gunsmiths that were popular among this group of shooters. While I can’t possibly go into any depth on them all, I did want to give you guys the full list, because there are a lot of great options on there.
Below this list, I offer some tips for how to go about choosing a gunsmith.
|Gunsmith||# in Top 125 in PRS||# in Top 50 in NRL||Total Shooters|
|Short Action Customs||4||1||5|
|Dane Miller Rifles (DMR)||4||4|
|R Bros Rifles||2||2||4|
|Spartan Precision Rifles||1||3||4|
|Blue Mountain Precision||1||2||3|
|Curtis Custom Weapons||3||3|
|Patriot Valley Arms||2||1||3|
|Red Beard Gunworks||3||3|
|Sure Shot Precision Rifles||3||3|
|Salmon River Gunworks||1||1||2|
|Straight Jacket Armory||2||2|
|Army Marksmanship Unit (AMU)||1||1|
|Apache Gun Works||1||1|
|Buschman Gunsmithing LLC||1||1|
|C&H Precision Weapons||1||1|
|Dresden Gun Company||1||1|
|GCP Rifle Co.||1||1|
|Hawk Hill Custom||1||1|
|Hunt’s Long Range||1||1|
|Modacam Custom Rifles||1||1|
|Parry Custom Guns||1||1|
|Pender Precision Rifles||1||1|
|Pendergraft Gun Works||1||1|
|Precision Barrel Works||1||1|
|Southern Precision Rifles||1||1|
|Wildcat Precision Rifles||1||1|
Tips For Choosing a Gunsmith
Not all rifles are created equal. The gunsmith matters – a lot! Many shooters get intensely focused on components like the barrel, action, stock/chassis, optics, and especially cartridge – which are important things. But sometimes we get so focus on what pipes 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.
If you’re trying to decide on a gunsmith for your next rifle build or barrel chamber, you could go with one on the list above, and it’s very unlikely you’d be disappointed. That is a fairly safe choice. But you could also go with someone who isn’t on the list. Honestly, the absolute best shooting barrel I’ve ever owned (shot in the 0.1’s) was chambered by a lesser-known gunsmith that isn’t on this list. But, if you go with a gunsmith not on this list it may be wise to do some investigation. Here are some questions that might help:
- Have they built competition-grade, bolt-action rifles before? Talk to some of their customers, and see if they’re completely satisfied with the performance of their rifle. Ask the gunsmith what kind of precision you should expect if they built the rifle you’re proposing. If they dance around and don’t give straight answers – run!
- What happens if you can’t get the rifle to perform like you hoped? Every business will make mistakes at times, so a rifle may make it to a customer that doesn’t perform consistently or has issues. It may just happen 1 in 100 times and we all hope it doesn’t happen to us, but if you build enough rifles or chamber enough barrels the truth is it eventually will. What separates the great gunsmiths is they’re willing to take responsibility and make it right. A few gunsmiths offer a 1/2 MOA or even 3/8 MOA guarantee on their rifles (meaning the group size at 100 yards will be 0.5” or smaller when using match-grade ammo). That isn’t something everyone does, but giving a guarantee like that in writing is a bold and overt way to show they’re extremely confident in the product they’ll produce, and it’s a great way to give you confidence in your decision. Honestly, if you go with quality components for the build like what these pros are using, there is no reason a custom rifle shouldn’t hold 1/2 MOA or better with good ammo.
Ultimately, the decision for a gunsmith comes down to trust. Do you believe the guy will treat your rifle like it was his own? Do you believe they’d do the work right, even when nobody was looking or they might be able to get away with a shortcut? If you don’t trust a gunsmith, don’t use them. But when you do trust a gunsmith, you should trust them. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask questions, but you shouldn’t pressure them to do something that is out of their comfort zone. You should take their advice, and let them build the rifle the way they think is best – not according to how you think it should be done based on what you read on Facebook.
You also shouldn’t pressure a gunsmith for a quick turnaround time. I’ve learned the hard way to never rush a gunsmith. Rushing isn’t in your best interest or theirs. The best gunsmiths are busy – period. If a gunsmith isn’t busy, that might actually be a red flag to me. You’ll typically have to wait. I’ve tried to avoid the waiting game a couple of ways. First, I started chambering a couple spare barrels when I build a new rifle, so I can at least go a year or two before I have to wait in line again. Also, when using an action like those from Impact Precision, Accuracy International, or a few others, their actions are so identical that you can order pre-chambered barrels that are ready-to-ship and can be easily installed with just a few tools. No need to send in your action, or wait for a gunsmith. Those advancements and others mentioned in this post have helped many of these top gunsmiths increase their production capacity, and get high-quality barrels out to more customers with virtually no wait time. God bless America!
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