By Michael Deming

The custom rifle; it’s been the focus of many daydreams over the decades. The vision is of a rifle that has all the bells and whistles and knowing that a craftsman has put some fine touches on this piece of equipment making sure that it never misses. It puts bullets in the same hole at 200 yards and shooting out bullseyes makes you the envy of all your fellow shooters. Your trophy room will grow to epic proportion with this fine new piece of equipment. The dreams and the desires are there, but can you justify spending nearly $10,000 on a custom rifle with first-class optics that have been matched to a custom ammunition? Better yet, do you even need to do that with the quality rifles, optics, and premium ammunition available on the shelves today?

Factory rifle, optics, mounts, and premium ammunition have gotten so much better over the past 30 years that a custom rifle is more of a prestige item than a must-have for accuracy. I know many people who have custom rifles in their gun safes and to be perfectly honest, I have a few of them in mine. They have been with me for many decades now and as someone who in a previous life was a mortgage banker, greenbacks were much more plentiful then as now that I am a publisher and writer, and I could justify the added expense. Those rifles shoot really well in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing, but I’ve tested a lot of factory setups over the past 15 years that will shoot right up there with those expensive models.

What you get when you spend $10,000 for a custom rifle setup is obviously a rifle that has been blueprinted and designed with perfect headspace and a trued action. This means that they have built the tolerances to be extremely precise. They have mounted a high-quality optic on the rifle with top quality rings and bases. They have tested load after load in that rifle and put together a combination that shoots usually .5” groups or better at 100 yards and an inch or better at 200 yards. When you take delivery on this rifle, you can rest assured that in the hand of a professional, this rifle setup will perform. However, will it perform for you? What is your skill set? Do you know what to do with this setup if you were to drop the rifle and knock it out of zero? What happens if you travel to 14,000 feet of elevation at base camp to hunt Marco Polo sheep, and don’t know what happens to your point of impact with this increased elevation? There are a lot of variables that will affect your bullet’s impact, and I am a firm believer that you should learn to set all of this stuff up yourself and spend a lot more money on ammunition and practicing to make you a true tactician behind your rifle.

That being said, what sort of rifle should you get to accomplish the end results you are looking for. I’ve tested numerous rifles in the $500-$600 range and when shooting premium ammunition, I haven’t found one of them that couldn’t shoot 1” groups at 100 yards. That’s going to equate to 5” groups at 500 yards, and unless you shoot all the time, I don’t recommend taking shots at game out past that distance. There are a lot of variables that come into play beyond that range, which will really hinder your accuracy. Over the past few years, the four rifles featured in this article have performed at custom-rifle levels with premium ammunition. More importantly, I’ve had the pleasure of testing many different models of these specific rifles as well as multiple different calibers with the same results. They range in price from roughly $1,200 up to $3,500, so they aren’t what I would consider an entry level rifle, but they are a great alternative to a $10,000 custom, which is why I have personally invested in each and every one of these rifles. These are all personal use rifles and make frequent trips to the range and the field with me.

A good rule of thumb is to spend as much money on optics as you do on the rifle you purchase. You can’t hit a target that you can’t see. I am also a huge fan of Talley Lightweight Aluminum one-piece rings. They are lightweight, precision built, and combine the ring and the base into one unit. This leaves less moving parts to malfunction when you are in the field and where things usually break. We topped every one of these rifles with a Zeiss scope in either a V4 series or a V6 series based on the cost of the rifle as well as my application for use.

When I shoot these rifles, I use premium ammunition. I personally shoot DoubleTap ammunition for nearly every one of my rifles. I do this because they are all hand loaded right in Cedar City, Utah, where I live. They are sold in Sportsman’s Warehouse, but not in all locations. They use premium bullets like Barnes and Nosler, but for some current testing on these rifles, I picked up other premium factory ammunition on the shelves at Sportsman’s Warehouse. I find that these upper-end rifles have a tendency of shooting a broader spectrum of loads in that Sub-MOA category than the lower priced models.

Christensen Arms Ridgeline .300 RUM

This rifle sells for roughly $1,995, but I added the burnt bronze Cerakote to it to complete the look I wanted and that brought the price to just over $2,100. It is topped with a Zeiss V6 in 5-30x50 and Talley rings, which adds another $2,100. The total cost of this rifle is right at $4,200. This .300 RUM (Remington Ultra Mag) is an ideal caliber for deer and elk and any dangerous game here in North America as well as most things in Africa and abroad. This is an extremely high-quality rifle and one of my favorites to grab when I know I need a lot of knock down power and might have to shoot past 700-800 yards. This rifle has a ton of custom features without the custom price. It has a match chamber and is hand lapped. It has button rifling and a free-floated barrel. It has a carbon fiber wrapped 416R stainless steel barrel and comes with a stainless steel removable radial brake. It has a precision machined receiver with enlarged ejection port and standard Remington 700 optics base setup. This makes getting bases extremely simple because this setup is so popular. It comes with a fully adjustable Trigger Tech trigger which in my opinion is one of the very best triggers out there. I have mine adjusted down to 2.75 pounds which is still extremely safe, but breaks crisp each and every time. It has a hinged floorplate and an internal magazine. There are two available stock finishes, but I chose the green with black and tan webbing to match up with the Cerakote color. Black with gray webbing is also available. The internals of the stock have invar pillars and spot bedding. It also has a good recoil pad, but the muzzle brake on this rifle takes away over 50 percent of the felt recoil and my 15 year old daughter can shoot it with extreme accuracy. This long action rifle weighs in right at 6.8 pounds, but with our rings and scope, we top the scale at 8.4 pounds making it a pleasure to tote around the field all day.

I shoot this rifle with premium DoubleTap ammunition shooting 175 grain Barnes LRX bullets. They are flying out of the muzzle right at 3,405 feet per second and it consistently delivers 1-inch groups at 200 yards (.5 MOA). This is a rifle I frequently practice with out to 1,200 yards and I’ve put numerous 5-inch groups with 2-3 shots at this distance. At 1,200 yards, I need 28 minutes of elevation adjustment to get me on target and it is down to 801 foot pounds of energy, which is below the 1,000 foot pounds I like to see when shooting an animal. I hit that mark right at 1,050 yards, but inside that 600 yard range where I like to be, this setup is right at 2,034 foot pounds of energy and is still smoking along at 2,287 feet per second. That combination makes it hit like a freight train and is why this is one of my favorite rifles. I don’t think a custom could do me any better.

Weatherby Backcountry Ti 6.5 X 300 Weatherby

When I walked into the Weatherby booth at the 2020 SHOT show, this rifle jumped off the shelf at me. Anything with the word Titanium on it means strength and lightweight. It usually means that it will have a higher price tag as well. This is the highest priced rifle and setup we have in our lineup. The rifle itself is right at $3,349 and with Talley rings and the Zeiss V6 5-30x50 on top, we are fully set up at right around $5,500, but still half the price of a custom. It’s definitely worth the money because Weatherby did it right with this rifle. This thing is a sheep hunter’s dream. The short action calibers of this rifles are sub five pounds (4.9 lbs) and the long actions are 5.9 pounds. My overall weight on this rifle totally set up was right at 7.85 pounds. I was a huge fan of the .26 Nosler caliber when it came out due to the speed it was pushing as well as the down range energy it delivered, and the long action 6.5x300 Weatherby is almost identical, pushing a Barnes 127 LRX bullet with factory Weatherby ammunition out at 3,427 feet per second. I would shoot this rifle and caliber at absolutely anything North America has to offer.

This rifle is very sleek. The titanium receiver really helps to dump a good portion of the weight and the 9-lug bolt in this long action gives you a solid foundation to launch those fast and powerful magnum loads. It has a premium Trigger Tech trigger that’s adjustable and this one is set right at 2.75 pounds. The bolt is spiral fluted and the 26-inch barrel is fluted as well. It comes with what Weatherby calls an Accubrake, which is a muzzle brake. They say it reduces the felt recoil by up to 53 percent, but I didn’t find the need and utilized the thread protector to save more on my hearing. The 3DHEX recoil pad may have been the major reason to be able to feel less recoil without the brake. It is specific to Weatherby and it definitely absorbs recoil unlike any other I’ve utilized. The bolt has a 54-degree throw which is significantly less than any other rifles in the industry. This makes for very quick follow-up shots and gives you a lot of clearance from your scope. The stock is carbon fiber and pillar bedded. Weatherby provides a Sub-MOA guarantee on this rifle and when I put it to the test, it didn’t disappoint.

Since this is a Weatherby caliber, I assumed they tested their rifles with their own ammo. This saves a lot of money out of the gate when working up a load or trying multiple different factory option. Their barrel break-in process takes roughly a box of ammo, but I was shooting sub .5-inch groups at 100 yards during this process. When I moved on to my 200 yard range for sight-in process, I held .75 MOA at this distance. I plugged all the data into a ballistics app. and started validating data out to 500, 600, 800, and 1,000 yards. My best group at 1,000 yards was 5 inches and my worst was 8 inches. This rifle will make it onto a sheep hunt for me in 2021 and will definitely be near and dear to my heart over time.

Bergara Premier Mountain 2.0 6.5 PRC

Bergara is known for their barrels and many custom rifle-makers choose these barrels for their custom rifles. Over the past 4 years, I’ve had the pleasure of testing numerous other models of rifles that Bergara offers. Each and every one of them has proven to be extremely accurate and dependable. They are all a bit heavier than what I was looking for as a lightweight, shorter-barrel, and packable gun. The Mountain 2.0 in the Premier line checked all the boxes and it was available in the new 6.5 PRC caliber, which I really wanted to put to the test.

The retail price on this rifle is right at $2,150 and I topped it with Talley rings and a Zeiss V4 6-24x50 scope and put me at a total cost of right at $3,350, which is an unbelievable price for a rifle with this many custom features and is this accurate. The rifle itself weighs in right at 6.2 pounds and fully set up, it sits right at 8 pounds on the dot. The 24-inch #3 taper and free-floated barrel is ideal for a rifle you are going to carry on long days in the field. The bolt is of a two-lug design and fluted to help reduce weight. Bergara also equips these rifles with a Trigger Tech trigger and as with all of my rifles, I have it set right at 2.75 pounds. It comes with an AG composite carbon fiber stock. My 6.5 PRC has a hinged floor plate and holds 4 rounds in the magazine and one in the pipe.

Although I did a barrel break in on this rifle, I would say that I saw absolutely no change from the first shot up until the last. I’ve had this rifle in my possession for over six months now and it has made many trips to the range for testing and a few friendly competitions. A truly great rifle will see very small variations between a cold bore shot and a follow up shot. However, in all of the rifles I’ve ever shot, I have seldom seen one that will shoot in almost the same hole at 100 yards. This isn’t just the first time we shot or on an occasion. This is every single time we head to the range with this gun. When I check my zero at 200 yards for each range visit, I always shoot the first two shots at less than half an inch, which makes this a .25 MOA rifle shooting the Hornady Precision Hunter ammunition with the 143 gr ELD-X. At 1,000 yards, 4-inch groups are the norm. The ballistic coefficient (B.C.) on this bullet is .623 G1 with a muzzle velocity of 2,820 here at 5,500 feet of elevation. This 6.5 PRC is like a Creedmoor on steroids. I can say without question that this is one of the most accurate rifles I’ve ever shot.

Browning X-Bolt Hells Canyon Speed .300 PRC

To provide full disclosure, Browning has a been a sponsor for the Pro Membership Sweepstakes for the past 5 years. That being said, this sponsorship gives me an opportunity to shoot and test nearly every rifle Browning puts out on the shelf and one thing very common with the X-Bolt line is that they are extremely accurate. I think we have given away over $50,000 worth of these rifles to our members during this timeframe and each and every winner has been extremely pleased. I knew I wanted to include one of these as a great alternative to a custom rifle and in 2020, Browning added a few new calibers to their line. One of them is the .300 PRC and I really wanted one for my arsenal and to put it to the test and this thing didn’t disappoint.

This rifle retails for right at $1,259, which makes it the least expensive custom rifle alternative in our evaluation process. I topped it with Talley rings and a Zeiss V4 riflescope in 6-24x50. Fully set up and out the door is $2,459 dollars and an excellent value. The rifle weighs 6 pounds, 13 ounces and our complete setup is 8.4 pounds.

This rifle has a 26-inch fluted and free floated barrel. It comes with both a muzzle brake and a thread protector. The receiver is steel and both it and the barrel are finished with a burnt bronze Cerakote, and rings can even be purchased to match this setup. The X pattern on the receiver for the scope mounts are one of my favorites of all rifles across the board. This setup has four screws for each base and provides just a little bit more security when you are in the back country. Even though I Loctite these screws, having a total of 8 instead of 4 makes me feel more confident. The bolt has a 60-degree lift on it and allows you to work the action very quickly for backup shots. It also gives you plenty of room for scope clearance. The adjustable feather trigger breaks very crisply. It is adjustable, but I can’t get it below 3 pounds. That extra .25 pounds above my normal setting didn’t affect my accuracy. The stock is a textured composite which has a great feel to it.

Since the .300 PRC is a new caliber, ammunition was limited to two different types of Hornady, but since I had such great luck with it on the 6.5 PRC, I looked forward to testing it. Browning may have used this ammo for testing rifles as well because I was shooting .75-inch groups at 100 yards immediately after barrel break in was completed. The ELD 225 grain match bullets have a BC of .777 and they were shooting right at 3,000 feet per second here at 5,500 feet of elevation. This setup was shooting Sub MOA groups all the way out to 1,000 yards. Since I’m so familiar with Browning, it did just what I expected, but it was nice to get this with the very first ammunition tested.

All four of these rifles and scope setups delivered custom rifle results and at a fraction of the cost. I do know a thing or two about setting up a rifle, gathering ballistics data, and getting it into a ballistics program to get the most out of these rifles. For a lot of you, you may decide to go the custom route just because you lack the knowledge. My recommendation to you is to learn everything that you need to first and then decide if you want to spend the additional $3,000-$7,000 dollars. I would rather see everyone get a good setup and spend their money on ammunition and practicing. It will truly be what gives you a good understanding about your rifle and scope and makes you a better shooter.