The concept of the Pap Winkle Project started with creating a place for industry-leading rifle component manufacturers and custom rifle makers to come together and showcase their work. Being a rifle builder and gunsmith, I receive emails, PMs, texts and phone calls daily from fellow riflemen with questions about their next custom rifle build. Some may be starting to build their very first rifle, others may be topping off the last remaining spot in their gun safe (if there is such a thing as the last spot).
One thing remains the same, every rifleman wants a truly unique rifle made from the best components and assembled by a true craftsman. Sourcing all the parts and data can be an arduous task coupled with wading through all the bullshit on the internet is enough to make one insane. Typer snipers and keyboard experts wait patiently around every corner to provide their null and void opinions of regurgitated expertise on a subject they know little to nothing about in reality.
My hope is to create unique rifles and share their stories with the readers and riflemen of Western Hunter Magazine to foster the culture of custom rifles and help you get started in the right direction with your next custom rifle build. As for the name “PapWinkleProject,”it has long been handle on social media after my favorite Bourbon, Pap Van Winkle.
The first rifle in the project is truly a unique rifle that is a collaboration between PROOF Research, Defiance Machine, Inner Mountain Rifle Stocks, Weber Custom Rifles, Timney Triggers, Talley Manufacturing, and Hawkins Precision. Many of these companies you have heard of, some you have not. Each rifle built in the project will combine a variety of talent and experience in order to cultivate the most creative and purpose-designed rifles in the field. Our first rifle is a prime example of our mission and will be a hard one to top.
The heart of every rifle is the receiver or action that it is built upon. The action must be true and hold the proper tolerances in its machining in order to have a solid foundation for the barrel to be attached properly. A quality receiver will have a square receiver face, straight raceways, consistent threads, square lug abutments, and straight scope base holes or an integral scope rail. Included with the receiver will be a bolt that has a consistent outside diameter, square lugs, square bolt face and the proper primary extraction angles in the bolt handle. All of these features will ensure the rifle functions reliably and accurately.
Starting in 2009, Defiance Machine began machining precision bolt action receivers with all of these features and the tightest tolerances in the business. Located in Columbia Falls, Montana, Defiance Machine is one of the most reputable action manufacturers in the world, and a guaranteed performer for the first Pap Winkle Project rifle build.
For this build, I selected a Defiance Deviant GA Hunter Medium Length Action. The action includes an integral recoil lug, integral 20-MOA scope rail, spiral fluted bolt body, recessed bolt nose, and a Mini M16 extractor and plunger ejector. The entire receiver was machined specifically for a 6.5 PRC from the bolt face to the magazine box, which was cut for a Wyatt’s Extended Magazine box.
The integral recoil lug will ensure the receiver will have a square recoil lug-to-receiver tenon relationship to place the chamber of the barrel square and center to the bolt face.
The integral scope rail places the center of the scope rings directly in the middle of the receiver to help minimize the amount left and right movement required to ensure the scope reticle is centered with the bore.
Every part on this receiver is designed and/or machined in-house at Defiance by their machinists and design team to ensure the utmost accuracy and reliability in the rifle’s overall performance. Among the dozens of custom options for each receiver, Defiance also allows the customer to select a custom serial number to make their receiver a true one-of-a-kind work of art, which is one of my favorite features.
Defiance continues to tirelessly work on improving not only their product but their delivery time by investing in the latest technology in equipment and CAD programming to get your custom action delivered in 30-60 days!
The barrel is arguably the most important factor for achieving supreme accuracy in a rifle build. First, it must be made of the proper steel to ensure the highest-quality product for an accurate and long-lasting rifle life.
Starting with match-grade 416R stainless steel blanks, PROOF Research engineered a cut rifling CNC process to ensure the straightest bore and rifling possible. Coupled with an extensive bore lapping process, their barrel manufacturing process raised the bar in the industry. PROOF engineers utilize aerospace technology in the application of their carbon fiber and resin process to wrap their barrels to standards unmatched in the carbon barrel market.
Having had several tours of the facility and observing all the processes in person, I can tell you it’s one of the most impressive operations I have witnessed. One of the most noteworthy observations I made is how clean the entire building is. I would literally eat food off the floor. A clean operational process shows the passion and pride PROOF Research puts into each and every barrel they spin off their machines.
For this project build, I decided a 22″ Sendero contour carbon fiber wrapped barrel would be the perfect blend of speed and balance for the 6.5 PRC. With this rifle intended for mountain hunting and
long-distance shots being a reality, I planned to shoot higher B.C. hunting projectiles in the 140- 143 gr. range. I decided a 1 in 7.5″ twist barrel to be optimum for my application. It’s a safe bet to err on the side of a faster twist barrel for longer projectiles and if you run shorter length barrels, it helps to get a little more spin on the projectile in the short time it travels down the bore. As many of my readers know, I always lean towards the shortest barrel option for the intended cartridge and application.
A mountain rifle needs to be well balanced in terms of proper weight to length ratio. Building a lightweight hunting rifle with a pencil-thin steel barrel is not even on my radar, as thin barrels can be very difficult to get to shoot well (my acceptable accuracy is under 3/8 MOA) and are affected drastically by temperature change.
Over the years of shooting and testing PROOF carbon fiber wrapped barrels, I have become a believer in the performance of their product. I have tested their barrels in temperatures from -20 to 110 degrees without experiencing POI (point of impact) shift from original zero. Granted, my ammunition was loaded with temperature-stable powder and was maintained at a stable temperature prior to shooting (i.e., I didn’t leave it out in the sun to bake or lay it in a snowbank to freeze).
I do a lot of cold bore shooting and have documented every round fired in this application. Without a doubt, PROOF carbon fiber barrels have the smallest amount of shift in my application of all the barrels I have tested. Many of the steel barrels I shot in the past had a noticeable POI shift, especially when external weather variables changed. With PROOF carbon fiber barrels, I never have to worry about POI shift regardless of the conditions during my hunt.
Weber Custom Rifles
After getting our action and barrel selected, it was time to get them attached to one another. For me, it was a weird process to actually drop off components to another gunsmith for threading and chambering work. I have built all my personal rifles or had them chambered by my rifle building partner in the past. We had a very specific method of doing our chambers and it was a science for certain.
Several friends from the bench-rest shooting community recommended their gunsmith and fellow competitor, Rod Weber (of Weber Custom Rifles). I met Rod and it was an easy transition after watching him dial in and chamber a barrel for the first time. His process was an exact science and there were no short cuts or exceptions.
Rod found the “top” of every barrel to ensure the barrel didn’t shoulder to the action with any left or right direction in the barrel. This ensures the bullet doesn’t spin further out to the side, causing unwanted left or right drift in bullet flight more than the natural spin drift of the projectile. When you start splitting hairs, this kind of attention to detail matters.
It was glaringly apparent that Rod is a very talented machinist and thought on a different wavelength compared to many of the other rifle builders. I even noticed Rod had a custom-made oil filtration and delivery system attached to his lathe. He made all his fixtures to exact tolerances and made the filtration system to filter his lubrication down to three microns.
Most filtration systems used by many custom rifle makers only filter to one micron. The oil going into the chamber when it is being cut is arguably cleaner than when it comes out of the bottle. The guy is a mad scientist that ensures every chamber is perfect, absolutely perfect.
Before any metal is cut, every barrel for chambering and muzzle threading/crowning starts by being dialed into .00006″. That’s way beyond what I was capable of dialing in a barrel and is better than the .0001″ offered by many current builders.
After my barrel was chambered, the muzzle was threaded to 5/8-24″ for my Thunderbeast suppressor and fitted with a thread protector cap. The thread protector was machined in-house by Rod specifically to my barrel before being finished with knurling for added texture. Rod finished his work with his specialty crown on the muzzle and branded the barrel with his logo. The rifle was now ready to be sent to the stock manufacturer for fitting, and then returned to Rod for Cerakote and a custom paint job.
Inner Mountain Rifle Stocks
I first heard about this Arizona-based stock manufacturer on social media, found myself intrigued by the concept and had to check out the stock. The lightweight design, internal aluminum chassis and external features like an Arca Swiss plate or an Outdoorsmans Adapter plate attachment were unique and needed to be shared with Western Hunter readers. I contacted the company and shared with them my vision for this article.
Owner and founder Eric Wahlberg and his partner Gino Wullkotte were all in for the opportunity to build a collaboration rifle with us and explained their rifle stock building background and process. Again, it was obvious after my conversation that these guys were the right contact for a unique company with an incredible product.
The next day I shipped my barreled action to Payson, Arizona. Eric informed me he would have to make a new mold designed for my barrel as they currently did not have an option for the full Sendero profile made by PROOF Research. Eric wasted no time and had a new mold made for the project. I was impressed by the willingness to adapt and spend the extra effort when they could have taken the easy way and said, “we don’t offer that.”
Inner Mountain has been in the business of making rifle stocks for fifteen years and Eric comes from the Associate Ranks of American Custom Gunmakers Guild which is a prestigious group of rifle stock masters. Eric has designed a proprietary interlocking carbon fiber truss with a solid core structural design that is CNC machined to the proper size.
His stock is built from the inside out, layering foam and carbon fiber sheets that are bonded together before the outer stock shell is molded from the carbon fiber. This is opposed to the traditional method of molding two halves of the stock together and filling it with foam, which can lead to voids in the foam fill. This can leave the middle of the stock vulnerable to failure with excessive torsional flex.
Eric’s design is one hundred percent free of voids and is far more rigid than its competitors. The inlet of the stock is cut in a CNC and then molded into the stock leaving it to be completely Carbon Fiber with no exposed foam or fill. With the addition of a machined aluminum inner chassis that is unique to Inner Mountain, this stock shell has the least flex I have seen in a CF rifle stock of comparable weight.
Eric has his pillars machined locally with the chassis to exact specifications. Both the chassis and pillars are threaded together so when the chassis is fitted to the shell it is a structural piece of the stock. All aluminum parts are made from 6061-T6 aluminum and have a hard coat anodized surface. When the action screws are torqued to 55 in-lb, the chassis locks the receiver in place. The Inner Mountain chassis-and-stock design is solid and I would argue that it is more secure than standard glass-bedded or simple pillar-bedded rifle stocks.
I was twenty when I installed my first Timney trigger in a Remington 700 after spinning a Shilen barrel on my very first custom rifle. I still have that action and trigger together even though I have gone through three or four barrels and a couple of stocks over the years. That trigger has been through just about everything you could think up and has had zero failures. It still holds the exact same two and a half pounds I set on it originally. Quite an impressive claim. Seventeen years later, I still run Timney Triggers in every one of my personal rifles.
In 2019, Timney released their Hit trigger with a new mechanical design to ensure a shorter lock time engagement, a culmination of 57 years of trigger design and advancement. They also developed the SEAL or Sear Engagement Adjustment Lock that allows the user to fine-tune the pull weight and over-travel. Offered with straight and curved trigger shoes, the Hit will be well received across the Remington 700 market for all shooters and applications.
I installed the Hit trigger with a straight shoe into our project rifle and tuned it to one and half pounds for testing. My initial impression was a clear and crisp break without noticeable over-travel. A hundred or so dry fires later, I was feeling right at home with the new trigger and rifle setup.
I have used several detachable bottom metal and hinged floor plate manufacturers over the years during my custom rifle building days. There have been some high-quality parts and some low-grade garbage parts. For example, I once built a custom rifle using a Remington 700 floor plate made by a well-known tool and gauge manufacturer. Upon assembly, one of the pins used to hold the floor plate in place broke in half. “No problem, I’ll just call the manufacturer and order a new pin.”
Wrong. I was told they do not keep extra pins or springs in stock for their floor plates and I would have to source the pin elsewhere. I asked the guy numerous times if he was serious during our conversation and (as politely as possible) informed him they had the worst customer service and business model I have ever experienced.
After that neat experience, I immediately began researching and testing new floor plate manufacturers. This is when I discovered the quality parts made by Hawkins Precision. They machine a high quality Remington 700 footprint DBM floor plate for those wishing to have a detached five or ten round magazine.
They also make my new favorite hinged floor plate for the traditional hunting rifle which accommodates three to five rounds depending on cartridge. It’s a quality part, works as designed and they offer far better customer service from what I am told, as I haven’t had anything fail or break. The best kind of warranty is the one you never have to use, right? Hawkins Precision was an easy choice to be included in this build project due to its simplicity and lightweight design.
Once I had the barreled action and stock fit up from Inner Mountain, I delivered it back to Weber Custom for Cerakote on all the metal parts and a unique Cerakote camo paint job. All of the metal parts were coated in black and the stock started with a base coat of black, after priming and hand sanding to a mirror finish. Rod prefers to start a paint job when the base is a pure canvas, free of any scratches and pinholes. Once the stock was prepped and primed, he began his “creeping” camo job. The camouflage pattern was painted on the stock, crossing over onto the metalwork around the receiver and floor plate.
Rod spent the extra time to give the finish texture and depth. The extra attention to detail is noted and much appreciated. The color pattern ended up resembling a poison arrow frog with its layout and color scheme when it was all done. The components that comprise this build are all of the highest quality and the final finish on the rifle really brought it all together. Not only is the custom finish easy on the eyes, it’s hard on the wear and makes for a durable finish. With the rifle completed, it was time to mount the optic.
For those that have been following my articles on rifle reviews, you know I use Talley Manufacturing rings and bases on nearly every rifle I test or build. Over fifteen years of building and shooting rifles with Talley rings and experiencing zero failures is reason enough for me to use them on the first Pap Winkle Project rifle.
With the Defiance receiver having an integral 20-MOA rail, I selected Talley Tactical 30mm and 34mm rings in a medium height for the Swarovski X5 3.5-18 and Kahles 318i that I wanted to swap out on the rifle. These rings do not need lapping in my experience, despite many people seeming to think it is a necessity for match-grade accuracy.
If you spend hundreds of dollars on rings and have to lap them into true, obviously they were not machined properly and/or your receiver base holes are not true either. With Talley rings I never have to worry about them needing lapped, I just bolt them on, torque to proper specs and go shoot. I torqued the rings cross bolt to 35-45 in-lb, set the eye relief and leveled the optic. I then torqued the top rings to 18-20 in-lb and was ready to hit the range.
For the initial break-in of the barrel, I started by shooting Hornady Precision Hunter 6.5 PRC 143 gr. ELDX to get the optic zeroed. I have “broken in” over a dozen PROOF Research CF barrels and have found the need to do extensive cleaning and shooting to be a waste. The old “one hundred rounds of shooting and cleaning” rule is an antiquated process with PROOF barrels. This particular barrel was no exception, I zeroed the rifle and shot several three and four-shot groups to confirm the zero. Initial groups were 1/3 – 1/2″ right out of the gate.
I cleaned the bore using KP carbon and copper solvents and found minimal copper fouling. This has been the same across all the PROOF barrels I own and have tested, compared to some of the other barrels that would have significant copper fouling in the first forty to eighty rounds down the bore.
The next range day was spent confirming data and getting comfortable behind the rifle for the up-coming hunting season. I hand-loaded a few 142 gr. Nosler Accubond Long Range bullets with some Gunwerks 6.5 PRC brass for some additional testing as well. I have long been a fan of the Nosler Accubond and was eager to see how it would perform in the new rifle.
I confirmed my trajectory to 1,100 yards with an MV of 2,950 FPS pushing the 143 gr. ELDX and was able to shoot a three-shot group on steel that measured just under six inches with the rifle. For a nine-pound overall weight rifle I was very pleased with the accuracy.
I cleaned the bore and shot a couple of four-shot groups of the Nosler 142 gr. ABLR with accuracy on the first series of hand loads to hold under 1/2″ at 100 yards. I did not have enough ammo loaded to do any testing at long distance that day but the recipe I started with showed great promise. (Later testing would show the 142gr. ABLR to shoot great with a different powder and produce sub 1/2″ groups at 1,100 yards around 2,900 FPS.)
With the data confirmed and a few hundred rounds behind the rifle, I entered my hunting season with great confidence. Accuracy was consistently 1/4 – 1/2″ with four-shot groups out of the rifle. Even with an accurate rifle in hand, it must function and operate in the field to earn its keep.
The True Test
The conditions that I experienced all season long were enough to test any rifle to its limits, with ample amounts of rain and snow, coupled with freezing temperature fluctuations. This type of weather can cause problems with rifles in the field. When your rifle gets soaked in a rainstorm and then freezes, you can begin to experience some issues. During this type of weather, I have seen rifle ejectors and extractors freeze up, leaving rifles useless. Throughout all the rain, snow, mud and larch needles the Defiance Machine action kept cycling and running without issues as expected.
I make sure to cycle my bolt and test the feeding and extracting throughout the day while hunting to ensure proper function. I experienced zero issues in feeding and extracting throughout my hunts and range days with the test rifle. On days where the hunting was slow, I would take the opportunity to check my cold bore shot on an unsuspecting rock. About thirty rocks later, my rifle was holding zero and performed as expected regardless of the conditions. Many hunters fail to check their rifles throughout the season and just hope it will deliver when called upon.
One benefit of hunting suppressed is the ability to shoot while hunting. One particularly slow afternoon this fall I launched five rounds through the 6.5 PRC at a piece of steel placed up a valley. With the steel ringing from impact, I watched as three doe whitetail fed out fifty yards below the steel and acted unfazed by the event. Anyone that hunts whitetail in the rut can attest to the nervous nature a whitetail doe exhibits dusting this time of year. They were definitely more concerned about a rut-crazed buck harassing them than an impact ring from a 143 gr. projectile delivering its last 900 ft-lb of energy onto a piece of AR500. In the end, I was able to harvest a mature whitetail buck (my personal best) and a large, plump doe with the 6.5 PRC build.
I feel this first collaboration rifle was a big success. We brought together several of the leading manufacturers and a quality gun builder to showcase a truly unique rifle. The market is saturated by rifle manufacturers racing to build the cheapest rifle on one end of the spectrum, and others building rifles that are simply a “me too” build, just replicating other people’s technology and design to stay relevant.
My hope with the project is to review new rifle parts, rifle builders and rifle painters to showcase the best of the best for you, the reader. I am already underway with the next collaboration build utilizing the finest manufacturer of gun parts, an exceptional gun builder and a true master of gun coatings for a one-of-a-kind masterpiece rifle. We set the bar high in the very first build, I am interested to see where this goes and what we can build. Stay tuned for future builds!
If you’re in the market for a custom rifle and are sourcing your components list, be sure to check out these companies for your next precision rifle build. If you have your parts and are looking for a custom builder, check out our featured builder, Weber Custom Rifles.
As always, let’s keep the gun conversation alive by contacting me at email@example.com with your questions or suggestions for future product reviews. Follow me on Instagram @papwinkle and Facebook at PapVanWinkle to see my online posts and reviews on all things precision rifles and become a better rifleman.