Our writer traded for—and then traded away—a varmint rifle he made into a topnotch performer. We all make mistakes.


It didn’t take much of a goat trader to see what was going on. The guy was much too desperate to get rid of the rifle, and I could see the action was sitting in the stock all wrong. Still, the bore looked good, and I thought I knew what the gun’s real problem was. I took the gamble, trading my .300 Winchester for a pile of booty, including the old model Ruger M77 Varminter in .220 Swift. I was pretty sure he wanted to dump it because it wouldn’t shoot well for him. I was also pretty sure I knew why. Here’s the sad tale of how I rehabilitated the Ruger, and then made a horrible mistake and traded it away.

The Diagnosis
As soon as I got the Ruger to the work bench, I took the gun apart. As I suspected, the former owner had several brass shims under the recoil lug and action. I took them out and put the gun back together. The barrel had to be forced into the channel of the stock. I thought I had noticed a slight warping of the forend when I was looking the gun over, and that bow became apparent when I tried to reseat the barrel and action. This would be fairly easy to fix, if I didn’t find any other problems.

Before proceeding any further I cleaned the barrel, starting with Shooter’s Choice Firearms Bore Cleaner on a patch, followed by a clean patch. Then I passed a bronze brush saturated with Shooter’s Choice Firearms Bore Cleaner through the bore several times. I then sent several clean patches and a couple of patches soaked with Birch-wood Casey Gun Scrubber down the tube. I followed that treatment with the Outers Foul Out Electronic bore cleaner, then more patches and solvent, then Shooter’s Choice copper remover on a patch, followed five minutes later with a dry patch. I repeated these final steps until the bore was completely clean of any fouling. I then worked the bore in long, even strokes using a patch covered with J-B paste-cleaning compound. This paste cleans fouling and polishes minor bore irregularities. But because it is mildly abrasive, it must be used with care. I wrapped up with more solvent-soaked patches followed by dry patches.

The barrel turned out to be more fouled than I first thought, but it did look good after I had finished cleaning it. I cleaned and adjusted the trigger to 2 pounds and then turned my attention to the stock. The warped forend was the most obvious problem. It had twisted enough that it was exerting considerable pressure on the left side of the barrel. After enough wood was removed so that a business card would pass between the barrel and the stock, this left a considerable gap on the right side. The action and recoil lug area of the stock were then relieved, leaving only a small support section behind the recoil lug and on the rear tang.

Before applying the bedding compound, I mortised a channel along the bottom of the barrel channel using a hand grinder. Later, I would fill this with bedding compound to add rigidly. I bedded this entire area and the first 2 inches of the barrel using Brownells Acraglas Gel. I then covered the front, sides, and bottom of the recoil lug with masking tape before applying the release agent. The tape creates a slight gap around the recoil lug, ensuring that the only contact is on the rear load-bearing surface or the recoil lug. When the Acraglas Gel had cured, I removed the barrel action from the stock. (If you put the gun in the freezer for a couple of hours before you separate them, the metal will contract and make the job easier.)

I then covered the barrel with two layers of 2-inch vinyl electrician’s tape and bedded the full length in Acraglas Gel. The tape serves as a spacer that, when removed, creates a gap that leaves the barrel free floating. This step allowed me to mix the stain supplied with the Acraglas Gel to match the stock color, which enabled me to even up the spacing in the barrel channel. Also, the full-length bedding compound in the barrel channel and the mortised area I cut sealed the wood and provided some structural integrity to help prevent the stock from warping again. I could have added a small steel rod in that mortised channel, but the bedding compound alone was enough.

When reassembling the rifle I first tightened all the screws and then alternately tightened and loosened the bedding screws to see if there was any movement of the action. There was not. I then added a drop of blue Loc-tite to each screw and tightened the front screw first, followed by the others. I was nearly ready to shoot my new Ruger.

The Load
I knew that most .220 Swifts like my handload of a Speer 52-grain hollowpoint and 39.5 grains of IMR 4064. I put this in Hornady cases and started it with CCI 200 primers. After fooling with the bullet-seating depth a bit, I finally hit on what worked in that rifle, putting the bullet about 0.010 inch off the lands. Velocity at 10 feet from the muzzle was 3,800 fps. From a solid bench rest, the gun would shoot half-inch 100-yard five-shot groups consistently. On good days, it shot quarter-inch holes. So why did I sell that rifle? At the time, I spent a lot of the winter months hunting coyotes with hound dogs. This required a lot of climbing in and out of vehicles and a lot of walking, often on snowshoes. I decided that the gun’s 26-inch barrel was cumbersome getting in and out of the truck, and too long in the brush. Also, the barrel’s varmint contour made the gun heavy, well over 10 pounds, and that was a burden while walking, particularly when snowshoes were needed. Finally, I didn’t like the way that long, heavy barrel tracked when I shot at a running coyote. I decided I needed a sporter-weight rifle, and to finance the new gun, I sold that Ruger. It was one of the worst mistakes I ever made.

Dr. Performance Recommends
Irrespective of my poor judgment in selling the gun, my experience with the Ruger M77 .220 Swift highlights several areas that can help you make a good deal on a used gun, or give you some hints about how to rehabilitate a poor shooting product.

First, check where the wood and metal surfaces meet. In most guns, this is a common problem area, but such flaws are often easily fixed. You may be able to negotiate a lower price on a poor-shooting gun because its owner doesn’t know the basics of bedding. That’s not your fault, is it?

Next, check the bore. Most rifles begin to shoot poorly because they’re dirty. A thorough cleaning process like I described above is a pain, but it also fixes a gun’s performance overnight. There’s no better feeling than picking up an inexpensive used gun and investing a little elbow grease in it—and finding out that the rifle is a shooter.

Last, if you make a silk purse out of sow’s ear, be smart and keep the rifle. To this day I regret selling that .220 Swift—because I have learned the hard way that true accuracy, like true love, is an uncommon thing.


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