Gun reviews: Steve Bowers Custom .224 rifle.
When choosing a rifle for fox work, most riflemen or women are happy with the offerings from myriad commercial manufacturers, but there will come a time when some will hanker after something a little bit special.
This is where a handcrafted rifle comes in, one designed to suit your own needs and body profile. It may take a while and be rather more expensive than your average commercial rifle, but the price will be forgotten as soon as you experience its performance – and the man to make your dream rifle a reality is Steve Bowers, a talented engineer from Cheltenham with expertise in ultra-precision machining and a lifetime’s involvement in fieldsports.
Steve can cater for all clients’ needs, whether this means a custom-build on a customer’s existing rifle or a totally radical full-blown custom item, using the very best available on the market. Our mutual friend Nick wanted a true custom rifle for foxes and, after a lengthy consultation with Steve, chose the latter option, meaning he had the unenviable task of cherry-picking its components.
Lights, camera, action
Rather than choosing a more common action, such as Remington, Sako, Tikka or Ruger, Nick wanted to achieve the best possible tolerances in build, and therefore accuracy advantage, all of which meant going for a custom action. Choice here usually resides with many Benchrest target actions, which also lend themselves well to hunting. Action-makers such as Stolle, Nesika, Hall, Viper and RPA are equally good, but the decision went the way of the BAT action from the US. This is a stainless steel action with extremely close tolerance, combining supreme accuracy with good looks. You’re looking at the thick end of £1,000, but there’s no better platform upon which to build a custom rifle.
Over a barrel
Faced once again with a choice of some of the best barrel makers available, including Border, Shilen, Hart, Krieger, Walther and Douglas, Steve advised using a Pac-Nor from Oregon, in the US. I, too, have achieved excellent results with this premium barrel-maker. A Super Match-grade stainless steel varmint-profile barrel was ordered that would achieve a blend of excellent accuracy and rigid barrel profile. Steve fitted one of his super-efficient slimline sound moderators, however, and a barrel length of 22in was ordered to achieve ample velocity and suitability for use with a moderator. He profiled, chambered and threaded the entire barrel, ensuring the tightest tolerances possible.
Ordering a custom rifle is a good time to get adventurous, so why not have a calibre that complements a bullet of the moment, or one of the many Wildcat designs, a modified parent case to eke out every drop of accuracy and velocity potential? The latter was Nick’s choice – and what a choice: the new fast-steeping .224, which offers lightning-fast flat-shooting velocities, great for the longer-range fox, all in a bullet diameter that is less wind-sensitive than a .172 and not as pedestrian as the .224 calibres. As a result, the calibre of choice was the extremely efficient .20 PPC round, a necked-down version of the popular 6mm PPC, which began life as a target round and migrated to the game field because of its accuracy and knock-down performance.
Do not be scared of some of these Wildcat rounds: Steve can offer advice and reloading data to suit. As it happens, the Pac-Nor barrel was ordered as a three-rifling groove 1-in-11 twist format, so as to stabilise the lightweight 32-grain and heavier 39- or 40-grain .204 projectiles.
Steve has cleverly utilised an integral sound suppression system that changes little of the rifle’s outward appearance, yet offers excellent noise reduction. This design has been born from a lifetime’s experience making tooling and plant for the aerospace industry. The barrel is shortened to 22in and the weight saved here is complemented by the sound moderator, so the rifle stays perfectly balanced. The shroud is made of high-grade aircraft-quality stainless steel, 1in in diameter regardless of barrel contour. The rear section is secured by a dual high-pressure O-ring gas seal and, depending on barrel girth at this point, the corresponding amount of steel from the barrel is removed to achieve a gas-tight fit and overall custom contour.
Forward of the dual O-ring seal, the front 1½in of barrel is profusely ported to release a primary jet of gases that are uniquely redirected, via a bleed gas valve, down and backwards into the cavernous rear section of the moderator.As the bullet enters the primary and substantial baffles, it effectively closes off the moderator to the atmosphere, so achieving maximum gas coolant of the powder gases. A further six stainless steel baffles do an excellent job reducing noise. By the time the bullet exits the rifle, all that can be heard is a supersonic crack.
A flavoursome stock
Many a custom rifle lives or dies by the standard of its stock. To many, the straight English-style grip and soft rounded fore-end of a classic walnut-stocked stalking rifle is optimum. To achieve the most ergonomic and aesthetic appeal, however, Steve collaborated with premium stock maker Gary Cane. At first appearance, the stock does look large and ungainly, but every last inch and contour has a purpose. Your personal dimensions for length of pull and hand size are taken, so each stock will fit like a glove. For best weather resistance and un-shifting zero, a laminated stock of midnight-black was ordered and crafted into a surprisingly light, ventilated fore-end and height-adjustable rear stock configuration. Its true potential was to be revealed in the field test.
Bedding and finish
The sum of all the parts is only as good as the marriage between those components. A close symbiotic union between each unit achieves the best possible platform from which to launch a perfectly placed bullet, which is why Steve bedded all metalwork to the stock using Devcon, a weatherproof synthetic compound, to ensure no shifting from zero in any weather conditions. The external metal surfaces were also coated with a Mil-spec epoxy resin compound that is non-reflecting, acid proof and waterproof.
Being of an unusual calibre, one has to form the brass before loading can commence. This is easily done, though Steve can advise as necessary. Because of the barrel’s rifling twist rate of 1-in-11in, a choice of 32-grain, 39-grain or 40-grain bullets can be utilised. I use 40-grain V-Maxes in my .20 BR rifle, but Nick prefers the Sierra 39-grain Blitz Kings. When loaded with 28 grains of Vit N133 with Federal Gold primer, that little 39-grain bullet exits the rifle at slightly below 4,000fps velocity and 1,385ft/lb energy.
This translates into an incredibly flat trajectory, perfect for fox work. When zeroed at 260 yards, the shooter is only low by 0.8in at 100 yards, and a minuscule 1.2in at 300 yards, which means aiming dead on to 300 yards. This is perfect for lamping, when a quick shot may be necessary without much time available for working out trajectory drops. The accuracy of the gun is testament to Steve Bowers’ incredible attention to detail and the rifle he created is capable of tiny one-enlarged holes at 100 yards and very tight groups out to 300 yards.
This Steve Bowers custom may not be everyone’s cup of tea design-wise, but Steve can achieve the same performance and accuracy from a more traditional style if required. Price is on application because of the limitless choice of materials, though this model cost £5,500 to £6,000. But, ordered in any calibre or configuration, a Bowers custom rifle not only becomes a treasured item, but also an excellent and efficient shooting tool, one that will maintain accuracy for far longer than any conventional factory rifle.
Gun reviews: Steve Bowers Custom .224 rifle