Thursday, August 5, 2010

Marine spar varnish as a rifle stock finish

I refinished a rifle stock with spar urethane. Why? The idea was to produce a waterproof stock, for use on a go-anywhere utility rifle. While there are good synthetic stocks in abundance, these days, that are impervious to moisture, I already had the wooden stock and a little bit of time on my hands. Also, I kinda like wood.

You can apply spar varnish over a factory varnish finish, just roughen up the original finish a little bit with fine sandpaper--220 grit or so. Be careful to seal the stock completely, with plentiful spar varnish inside as well as outside, and take off the buttplate and seal the wood under there, as well.

Spray Spar Urethane, S/G SPRAY SPAR URETHANEUsing multiple thin coats, build up a thick protective film that encapsulates the wood and keeps moisture from reaching it. Does it work? Sailors have used this stuff for years to seal wood against the elements and it seems to work for them.

How does it look? You be the judge. I used satin finish varnish for less shine afield, and I think it looks nice. Odd, but nice. The thickness of the finish reminds me a little of bowling pins, but otherwise it looks all right. We'll see how it looks after being knocked about outdoors for a while.

When I was already more than half done with this project, it occurred to me  that maybe I was going about this wrong. Many years ago, the best-finished stocks had finishes of deeply soaked-in linseed oil. The oil penetrated for some distance into the wood and created a moisture barrier. Here is a description from a 1920 book:

Finally the gunstock comes from the machines completely shaped and with every cut and every hole exactly like those of every one of its mates and stacked with twenty five to fifty others in a rack on an electric truck it goes for a bath of several hours in hot linseed oil. After it has absorbed about quarter of a pound of oil it goes to the staining room... 

It was only after this process gave way to more modern (quicker and cheaper) finishing methods that people started complaining about their stocks misbehaving in wet weather. At least, I do not recall seeing, in old time shooting literature, concern expressed about the problem. It could be the old timers had a problem and didn't know it. Or it could be there was mention I overlooked, but it's my impression that the fit of the stock to the metal shifting around in wet weather is a modern concern.

Very likely the problem here is the modern finishing method that leaves the wood inside the stock raw and unfinished and puts a pretty coating on the outside. This is the way the factories have finished most wooden stocked rifles for the last fifty years or more.

It seems to me that the oil soak method likely works about as well as encapsulating the wood in a plastic based spar varnish, and looks more traditional, to boot. But, as I say, I didn't think of that in time, this time.

Future Rifle

The scout rifle was a good attempt, thirty or so years ago, to come up with the ideal all-around rifle. How well it succeeded is open to debate. In any case, enough time has passed to ask what we have learned and where we go from here--how to make an even better general purpose rifle.

In the Americas, at least, the all around rifle was for a long time the .30-30 lever action, and for many people it still fills that role just fine. It is compact, fast handling and convenient. Its accuracy, range and power are not all that might be wished, but good enough for a whole lot of uses. Self defense, pest control, deer hunting, or just a bit of fun at the target range, the .30-30 has it covered.

Then, at least for people who felt they needed something better than the .30-30, the general purpose rifle became the scout, or other full powered carbine with a bolt action. The bolt action's power to weight ratio and durability afield, its potential for fine accuracy and its proven reliability are plus points. A miniaturized bolt action in .308 or similar caliber serves about the same purpose as a .30-30 cowboy carbine, but has more reach and punch.

This is the twenty-first century, though, and many prefer self-loading rifles. It should be possible to come up with something suitably light and compact, with enough power for all around use, if we use a short and fat cartridge, perhaps one in the Winchester Super Short Magnum (WSSM) family, or perhaps something else that is similar. The next big thing, of course, will be caseless ammo, but development seems to be lagging there.

The bullpup rifle configuration offers the advantage of allowing a comparatively long barrel in a short rifle, so that is the setup we should be looking at. The big problem here is the long trigger linkage required and the associated lousy trigger pull. If no mechanical solution appears, perhaps it is time to revisit the electronic ignition idea invented by Voere. If a battery operated rifle is a bit too modern for most shooters to consider, perhaps the scheme could be made to work on the piezoelectric principle, without batteries.

Optical sights of various types are now well proven in all field uses including combat, and it seems reasonable to outfit the new style rifle to take any sight you like. There is now no need to specify which type of sight the rifle uses since this can be left as an option for the rifleman to work out. For general purpose use, the heads up display of a red dot or holographic type sight shows great promise, but we need not lock ourselves into the concept of using this kind of aiming reference. The Picatinny mil std. 1913 rail seems as good a way as any to accommodate whatever sight the rifleman prefers. You can even mount iron sights on the rail.

There should be some convenient way to mount a flashlight on the rifle. Many shooters resist this idea, for various reasons. In defensive uses such as camp security in the wilderness, though, it has much to recommend it. If you are hunting where lights are illegal, you simply remove the light. If you are in a fighting situation where showing a light would be a poor idea, you leave it turned off.

Well, those are my thoughts. The key ideas are what they have been all along, something compact and convenient, lightweight, versatile and reliable. Essentially, what I'm pointing to is a flat-top bullpup with a sight rail, a decent trigger and a place to mount a light. Seems simple enough, but I can't find one in the shops.