Briley Manufacturing took a Performance Shooter reader’s gun and turned it into a topnotch hunting arm.
As you read this, Performance Shooter reader David Burns will be winging toward Kazakhstan for the hunt of a lifetime—equipped with a brand-new .264 Winchester Magnum bolt-action project rifle put together for the magazine and Burns by Briley Manufacturing of Houston, Texas. The five-month development of the $4,000 project rifle, which began as a .270 Weatherby Magnum, highlights the technical challenges inherent in building a lightweight, potent, and utterly reliable hunting rifle.
The project began because Burns, a Safari Club member who has hunted widely in the western United States, had lost confidence in his five-year-old factory .270 Weatherby Magnum. Thus, when he decided to travel to the former Soviet state of Kazakhstan to hunt Asian ibex, he wanted a lighter, more accurate rifle, and he asked Performance Shooter to help him put it together.
“My thinking was pretty simple,” Burns said. “I’m going to spend $1,500 roundtrip for travel and accommodations, $4,200 for the ibex and $1,995 saiga antelope permits, and another $1,000 for passport, a veterinary certificate, and other incidentals. I didn’t want to put $8,500 at risk—and the hunt of a lifetime—on a gun I didn’t have complete confidence in.
“One of my original goals was to eliminate mechanical error, to produce a rifle that was about as accurate as technically possible so that any miss would leave no one else to blame but the shooter. I have wanted to hunt the ibex for most of my adult hunting career, but until recently it has been just a faraway dream. I just want to do everything humanly possible to give myself the best possible chance at a trophy ibex. I will probably be close to exhaustion, up to my knees in snow, shaking from frostbite and excitement. In these conditions, I figure the more accurate the gun, the better off I will be.”
Burns said he purchased the black-stocked .270 Weatherby Weathermark five years ago from Jerry’s Sport Center in Connecticut. At the time, he owned a 7mm Browning Stainless Stalker and decided to switch to the .270 Weatherby, even though the guns were similar ballistically and physically. Both had 26-inch barrels and composite stocks, important considerations for Burns because he often hunts in Alaska. But the Browning had missed a couple of bulls and bucks Burns said it shouldn’t have, and on the strength of a friend’s recommendation, he switched to the .270 Weatherby.
Burns said, “My dad always shot Weatherbys, and after a brief stint with a .30-30, I got my first true hunting rifle in a 7mm Weatherby. As a cabinetmaker, I always appreciated the beautiful stocks the Weatherbys used to have. The most beautiful stock I ever saw was on that first 7mm, which was later stolen. The owner of the local outdoor store in Pendleton, Oregon, where I grew up, hid that gun from the other customers until my dad could come in and see it. He bought if for me on the spot. So, it is important to me that the gun look nice, that every component fits the scheme, color, and so on. I want to be proud of the gun and feel like I can show it off to hunting friends.”
The .270 Weatherby that Burns wound up with helped him take caribou, deer, antelope, aoudad, mouflon, Hawaiian goats, hogs, and sheep. Despite the confidence these experiences gave him, he recently missed a buck one morning, after he had sighted the gun in the night before. Also, a Harris bipod that he has used religiously finally reamed out the sling mount and gave way. Over the years, he’s also become disenchanted with other facets of the .270 Weatherby’s performance. He notes that the ammunition is expensive, even though he buys the ammo at wholesale prices. A common retail price for the ammo is between $23 and $30 a box.
Also, the gun as it comes from the factory is heavy. Scoped and outfitted with a sling, it tipped the scales at 10 pounds. The ammo added additional ounces. “I have been told that this is just a trademark of the Weatherby line,” Burns said. “The factory told me the gun had to be heavy to shoot accurately. When you pack across the tundra for many miles in the rain, a few ounces of weight makes a difference.” Most important, Burns believes he never got out of the gun the accuracy Weatherby claims for its products, possibly because of the .270 Weatherby’s stiff recoil. “I don’t pretend to be an expert marksman, but I have never gotten the gun to put four shots in a 2-inch circle. I’m sure part of that must be the shooter’s fault and not the gun’s fault, but I really feel I should have gotten better groups at 100 yards,” Burns said.
“It has only been in the last couple of years that I really began to understand the need for more accuracy—and that it was even possible,” Burns said. “I always felt that you could buy a Weatherby and your troubles were over. You just pointed the gun in the general direction of the running animal, closed your eyes, squeezed off a round, and reached for the skinning knife. I am now beginning to learn that production rifles and ammunition are not always as dependable and reliable as I thought.”
That’s where Performance Shooter came in.
Beginning To Build
An Ibex-Class Rifle
Burns contacted us about his concerns, and asked for our help in upgrading his .270 Weatherby to a firearm more suited to his Asian ibex hunt. In particular, he wanted the gun to shoot better, carry less weight, and be very reliable—performance factors we all appreciate in a big-game hunting rifle.
We turned to Chuck Webb, general manager at Briley Manufacturing, and asked him what steps Burns should take to make the Weatherby rifle as good as it could be. He suggested the gunsmithing equivalent of a full makeover: new cartridge and barrel, new stock, and new optics and mounts.
“Choosing the right cartridge is always the first and most important step,” Webb said. “The .270 Weatherby Magnum, as far as velocity and energy are concerned, is a good pick for ibex- and deer-sized game, but the ammunition is hard to find and it’s very expensive. Also, from the gunsmithing perspective, it’s hard to make the Weatherby rifles shoot accurately because the barrels require a lot of freebore to keep pressures down. For us to tighten up the barrel dimensions enough to make a Weatherby shoot, we have to accept higher pressures. It’s not a good trade-off, in my opinion. We can take a standard magnum like the .264, which is very flat shooting and just right for the ibex, and make it shoot very accurately. It is possible to get the same accuracy out of a Weatherby, but it’s very tricky, and you’re always going to run close to redline. The .264 is a more workable choice.
“The other natural choice would be to move up to the 7mm Remington Magnum, and I gave that a great deal of consideration. It shoots a lot of bullet weights, it’s widely available from many bullet manufacturers, and it would certainly do the job. But it also has a more pronounced recoil than the .264. Burns mentioned to me that recoil was a factor, so in deciding between the two, I stepped down from the elk-class 7mm to the .264. We could have gone either way.”
Another factor that mitigated for the .264, Webb said, was his intention to lighten the gun as much as possible. Though he intended to salvage the Weatherby’s receiver and bolt, he planned to rebarrel the gun, mill the receiver, and replace the stock with a slightly lighter model. Also, he decided to mill custom aluminum bases for the scope mount. Also, he would replace the 4.5- by 14-power Leupold with a lighter 3- by 9-power Zeiss riflescope. These weight savings would bring the completed gun weight down about a pound. The hotter 7mm magnum round might necessitate a muzzle brake to ease recoil in the lighter gun. Using the .264, this weight would be less of a problem.
To begin the process, Briley technicians disassembled the .270 Weatherby, removing the factory stock and unscrewing the blued Weatherby barrel. Briley sent the stripped receiver to Shilen Rifles, Inc., of Ennis, Texas, to get a new stainless-steel tube screwed onto the receiver. In the meantime, Webb contacted stockmaker H-S Precision of Rapid City, South Dakota, and ordered a new stock for the gun.
“We always use Shilen match blanks when rebarreling rifles,” Webb said. “In my opinion, Ed Shilen and company produce the finest match barrel with the most attention to detail and a secure warranty. This is no ordinary barrel. It is a Select Match 416R stainless air-gauge barrel. Also, Doug Shilen was kind enough to supply this barrel in a quick turnaround of 4 weeks.”
Webb said he preferred the H-S Precision stock because that company makes lightweight, rigid, durable replacement hunting-rifle products. He particularly likes the aluminum base built into the stock, which gives a solid, unchanging surface on which to mate the barreled action to the stock. “The V-block approach to bedding that the H-S stock provides is second to none,” Webb said, “and is one step better than traditional pillar bedding. The barrel is free floated and bedded in the front lug only to maintain a consistent set if the stock is ever removed. The action sits down on the aluminum block, and the action screws run through cylinders machined into block. Overtorqueing the screws, as a result, is impossible. One craftsman in our shop, Bobby Pitchford, does all our bedding work.”
Assembling The Rifle
Once the barreled action and stock were in hand, Briley began working with the parts. The first step was to glass the front-lug area of the H-S stock, an operation Pitchford performed. Because the composite stock and aluminum block don’t react to changing heat and humidity like a wood stock would, the glass job doesn’t perform the same function as it does on a traditional stock, where the glass separates the metalwork from the wood. Instead, Pitchford uses Brownells Acra-Glas to bed the front lug area of the barrel to index it to the stock. With the barrel’s serial number pressed into the bedding plastic, Burns has an exact reference about where the barrel sits in the stock channel.
“By adding bits of stainless steel to the bedding material, it becomes very tough,” Pitchford said. “It won’t shift or chip. Also, I added dye to the glass to make it match the stock. You can’t tell that the bed job isn’t part of the factory stock.”
Next, Briley milled the receiver. Webb said, “Milling the receiver to reduce weight is superfluous. Though some material is removed, about 4 ounces, we mill in order to shape the gun to my eye. This does not reduce strength in the action because the aluminum block in the H-S stock gives us the necessary stiffness. Also, all the fluting we do in the receiver is done behind the locking lugs, which ensure total integrity.”
To reduce weight further, Briley drilled out the steel bolt handle and skeletonized the magazine box.
Unlike the other metalwork, the trigger posed a problem. Since high-quality replacement triggers for the Mark 5 aren’t available, refitting Burns’ gun with a Canjar, Shilen, or Timney aftermarket trigger wasn’t an option. Instead, Briley would rework the original by grinding, respringing, and adjusting the settings of the original trigger. “This trigger is an early Weatherby,” Webb said, “and it has a steel housing. Bobby Pitchford has a good base to work from in getting this trigger tuned properly.”
Next, the gun’s scope mounts and rings were replaced. The original steel bases and rings, along with the Leupold Vari-X III scope, were replaced with Millett two-piece rings. Briley machined new mounts in place on the rifle to ensure they lined up with the bore, and their height was set to accommodate the 36mm objective of the Zeiss Diavari C variable.
The Rebuilt Gun: How It Looks, Feels, and Shoots
With all the pieces in the place, Pitchford performed the final assembly on the Burns rifle, which included adjusting the trigger on the gun.
“I polished all the sear surfaces on the trigger and then adjusted the trigger to get the weight to break between 23/4 pounds and 3 pounds. I can adjust a trigger like this below 3 pounds, but if you adjust the sear and make the surfaces move across each other more smoothly, 3 pounds is low enough for most people.”
Also, Briley matte-finished the brilliant stainless Shilen tube, an appropriate move on a hunting rifle. Cosmetically, the assembled rifle is a blend of different shades of gray. The stainless tube has a flat, even sheen that picks up the color of flecks in the stock. The blued surfaces of the receiver and scope contrast nicely with the flat gray color of the stock. The grooved surfaces of the milled receiver pick up the lines of the barrel, which gives the gun a clean, integrated appearance.
The drop in the H-S stock makes it sit well in the standing and kneeling positions. In standing, the shooter can hold the gun in position, anchoring the elbow to the ribcage, while keeping the head erect, looking through the center of the scope. In kneeling, the soft rubber recoil pad sticks comfortably in the shoulder and allows the shooter to construct a stable field-shooting position.
Of course, the proof in the pudding is how the gun shoots, not just how it feels like it should shoot. As Pitchford was setting up for the first accuracy run, he said he was confident the gun would shoot either the Remington 140-grain factory ammo or a similarly configured Winchester bullet. “You never know until you fire a gun,” Pitchford said, “but this thing really ought to shoot.”
We accuracy tested the rifle on a gusty day in Houston. Wind rolled over the top of the 100-yard berm and whistled down the range in 30- to 40-mph gusts. “Not the best conditions to test a gun,” Pitchford said. “But I doubt that it will really matter.”
He was right. After shooting one Remington fouling round down the oiled bore, he printed three shots at 100 yards that could be covered with a quarter. The actual group size was 5/8 inch measured center to center. The other groups he shot with the Remington ammo stayed below an inch, even three-round strings loaded from the magazine and shot quickly. “We set this up to shoot factory ammo, and it definitely did that,” Pitchford said. “It liked the Remington ammo, but didn’t like the Winchester. As it sits, this is a 3/4-minute rifle with over-the-counter ammunition. A lot of people would be very happy with that level of performance. If Burns can find somebody to build handloads for him, and run a Nosler Partition or Sierra bullet through this gun, it could become a half-minute or better rifle.”
We think it is safe to say that when David Burns lines up an ibex in the exotic land of Kazakhstan, he will have a gun that shifts the performance burden squarely onto his shoulders. His rebuilt-from-the-ground-up Briley conversion will put three shots into a group that can be covered with a quarter. If he misses, he can attribute it to any number of factors—except the gun.