VOLUMES 123 & 124-----------SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2012
SHOOTIN', HUNTIN', AND RELOADIN'
WITH THE OL' MISSOURI HILLBILLY
October 20, 2012
Hello again everyone!
As mentioned a couple of months ago, we have so many irons in the fire this year that I am combining months in order to keep our series of newsletters going, while trying to cut down on the keyboard time a bit. Our Australia trip in June/July, my continuing term chairing the board of directors at the Elks Lodge, and keeping up with our Hunter Education class schedule, have all taken their toll on the time available to devote to this endeavor!
In spite of all this activity, we still find time to follow Jennifer's Cross Country races and participate in occasional long weekend campouts with our Wheelin' Elks RV Club.
At the top of the agenda for this newsletter is an exciting addition to my efforts to visit and write about some of the firearms manufacturers located in northwest Montana. Serengeti Trading Company, Montana Rifle Company, and Kilimanjaro Rifles have all been discussed in these pages, and I have long wanted to add Cooper Firearms of Montana to my list.
In fact, here is a repeat of a few paragraphs from my February 2012 newsletter:
Last October I did a piece on Kilimanjaro Rifles. We traveled to Kalispell, Montana to interview their master gunsmith and take a few photos for the write-up. You may recall that the rifle Ann was holding in the picture probably had a price tag of around $15,000! (Yes, that's the correct number of zeros.) While most of the October article concentrated on the stockwork that goes onto Kilimanjaro Rifles, I'll mention here that the 'standard' action used is the Sako purchased from the Finnish rifle maker. This action utilizes a three lug bolt with a 60° lift and features a solid ejector. The action is touted as a 'controlled round feed' but some argue that there is a momentary gap when the cartridge is not fully controlled as the action is cycled. We'll leave that discussion to the experts.
With the Kilimanjaro starting at $12,995, it's a bit out of my league for inclusion in my modest collection, but I've been reading and doing a bit of research into a custom and semi-custom rifle company that provides a rifle with similar features of the Sako action and a one half inch accuracy guarantee at 100 yards for their centerfires. Pictures of their guns on their website and in magazine ads, show some very pretty walnut stocks as well.
The company is Cooper Firearms in Stevensville, Montana. While one can apparently spend as much as one wants to on a Cooper, their basic models are said to run in the $2,000 to $3,000 range. This makes it interesting enough to want to get a closer look. I think a road trip and hopefully a visit with the folks at Cooper will be in the offing when the weather warms a bit! Stevensville is just a few miles south of Missoula, so we could be there in about 4 or 5 hours. Stay Tuned!
A late September trip to Missoula to watch Jennifer and the rest of the East Valley High School teams participate in the Mountain West Classic cross country races would put us a mere 20 or 30 miles from Stevensville, MT, home of Cooper Firearms. An email to a media relations person, apparently working out of Cooper's parent company offices back in Connecticut produced no response, so a telephone call was placed to the Company office in Stevensville.
The Cooper website proclaims, "When you phone Cooper Firearms a real person will answer your call."
Sure enough, Laura Kelly, Cooper's sales representative, responded with a cheery greeting. After explaining my desire to visit the facility and discussing some alternative dates, we agreed on a visit October 1st. Ann and I arrived at the Cooper location on U.S. Highway 93 north of town, just before 10:00 AM, and were greeted by Laura as we entered the front office.
Ann with Cooper Sales Representative Laura Kelly.
After exchanging greetings, we were presented with the Company's beautifully illustrated catalog, along with a technical specifications booklet and a price list of their various models and configurations.
Laura began our tour with a walk to the far end of the building where the basic stock work begins. Here the stock blanks are 'rough cut' on a band saw and then machined into the basic configuration and inletting required for the particular rifle that will emerge from the other end of the building.
Depending upon rifle model, the basic stock is either AA or AAA grade Claro Walnut. Upgrades to fancier wood, including European, French, or Turkish walnut are available. Select rifle models and configurations are also available with synthetic stock options. As an 'older' purist rifle guy, my interests lie primarily on blued steel and walnut, although matte finished stainless steel metal in combination with walnut stocks ain't bad either!
Ann looking at a very valuable 'wall of wood.'
After band sawing the stock blanks are placed in a CNC machine for shaping and inletting. Since I'm somewhat technologically challenged, I struggle to understand how 'Computer Numerical Control' actually works. As best I understand it, a computer converts a design produced by Computer Aided Design software into numbers representing coordinates as on a three dimensional graph. Then the machine's program guides a cutter through those coordinates to cut whatever shape is desired.
Am I confused yet? OK! What happens is, a Cooper employee writes the software for a particular stock, programs the CNC machine, and a shaped and inletted stock emerges that is ready for the handwork that insures the near perfect 'fit and finish' that we look for in a quality firearm.
There is also a stock duplicator across the room from the CNC machine. This machine shapes a stock to match a pattern that is installed in the jig with the mandrel being manipulated on the pattern by hand and the cutting tool following the same exact path on the stock blank.
Stock Duplicating Machine
Now the handwork begins. The stocks are put through the various sanding, finishing, and final inletting process. Here the wood begins to meet up with the metal that it will be married to as the rifle begins to take shape.
As in any woodworking endeavor, dings occur. Here's an ordinary household iron and damp cloth being utilized to 'raise' a small dent.
Here the finishing touches are applied to the stocks. Note the attached Pachmayr recoil pad and the fact this one is for a Southpaw.
Checkering Room; The patterns are laid out by hand and the initial cuts are made with hand tools. Once the pattern is established, the power cutter is guided by the previous grooves.
Wall of Stocks
Closer look at some finished stocks and the various configurations and styles available.
As the stocks begin their journey from band saw to finished product, the metal work has already begun. I won't go into all the variations and models here, but suffice it to say that the Company's product lines have grown to encompass everything from .17 caliber rimfires to most of the popular belted magnums. The best way to peruse the entire product line and caliber choices, is to take a look at the Company website at www.cooperfirearms.com . According to the specifications manual we received, this range of options requires no less that seven (soon to be eight) action sizes and configurations.
Actions awaiting final inletting.
Bottom Metal to be mated to the wood.
My interests lie mainly in the centerfire repeaters, which happen to be the latest of the iterations Cooper offers. These are the M52, chambering the .30-06 family of cartridges, the M54, which is the short action version for the .308 family, and the M56, housing the belted magnums.
As we moved into the metal working sections of the building, Laura turned us over to Customer Service Representative, Mike Hudgins. Mike guided us through the rest of the operation as the employees showed us the various steps involved in turning unshaped metal into a precision rifle action.
Mike Hudgins Customer Service Representative
All Cooper metal component parts are CNC machined from solid bar stock. The actions are designed and manufactured 'in house' with precision ground bolts. Close tolerances ensure that when the barrels are attached to the receivers, per the Company's technical manual, "The barreled action is essentially 'blue printed', that is, the barrel shoulder, bolt face, lug lock-up, receiver locking ring and receiver face are all trued and squared to the centerline of the action."
These push feed actions all utilize a three lug bolt, with a 'Sako' style extractor situated between two of the lugs. Ejection is via a spring loaded plunger that flips out the cartridge case as it clears the ejection port. Of course the three lug bolt provides for a shorter bolt lift to disengage the locking lugs as compared to the more common two lug bolt.
Some purists criticize the plunger ejector system, and tout a solid ejector that allows the force of the bolt withdrawal to dictate how energetically the cartridge flies out of the action. Some also claim that a fixed ejector is more dependable. Personally, I have both types in my gun safe, and have never had either fail to do its job.
One of the machinists did show me an earlier version of a bolt body that had a milled groove which allowed for a solid ejector similar to the Ruger M77 MkII. When or why this design change was made, I didn't learn.
After the actions are completed, a barrel must then be fitted and chambered. I will note here that Cooper Rifles is now owned by Wilson Arms and the standard barrels for Cooper rifles are manufactured to Cooper specifications by Wilson's custom shop in Branford, Connecticut. The barrels are chambered, threaded, and fitted in Cooper's Stevensville facility.
Finished Barrels - These are part of a special order from a another major gun manufacturer. Note the threads on both ends; one to mate with the receiver and the other to accept a flash suppressor or some such device.
Chamber Reamer, Bolt, and File, illustrate that today's machine work is wonderful, but a certain amount of hand work is necessary to make 'em 'near perfect.'
Cooper's centerfire repeaters are fed via removable, single stack magazines. The magazine is not top loadable through the action opening. Cartridges must be pressed into the front of the magazine and slipped back under the feeding lips. This concept is proven to be a smooth, trouble free method of feeding cartridges from magazine to chamber.
When asked whether Cooper makes or buys their trigger assemblies, Mike's answer was a resounding, "We make our own. They are adjustable for pull weight, sear engagement, and overtravel, similar to the older Remington triggers."
As you can see this trigger assembly is not encased in stamped sheet metal.
Trigger pull is factory set at 2.5 pounds, but is user adjustable from 1.5 to 5 pounds.
Depending upon the model chosen the standard metal finish is either matte or high gloss blue; excepting of course, those with stainless steel barrels.
Bluing tanks in active mode.
Finished Barreled Actions ready for stocks.
Mike holding a completed rifle with stainless barrel. This one looks to be what Cooper calls a 'Jackson Rifle' configuration.
The receiver, recoil lug, and chamber portion of the barrel are glass bedded on each rifle, with the rest of the barrel free floated. After completion, the gun is test fired on site for accuracy. A test target accompanies each rifle shipped.
As a bit of a side note, we were in a Scheels Sporting Goods store in Billings, Montana several months ago and noted they had a number of Cooper Rifles in stock. Each rifle was displayed with its test target. Some very impressive three shot groups! In fairness, it should be noted that currently the test firing is done on a 50 yard range instead of 100, which obviously provides somewhat of an advantage. Nevertheless, the Cooper Rifle's 'one half inch three shot group at 100 yards' guarantee still applies.
Cooper Rifles considers themselves a 'semi-custom' rifle maker. Each model has a set of specifications, with variations available. For example, the standard length of pull on the centerfire repeaters is 13¾ inches. Changing this is only one of a number of options available. Other options include skeleton grip cap, skeleton buttplate, Neidner buttplate, spiral fluted bolt, checkered bolt knob, inletted sling swivels, custom engraving, gold inlayed animal scenes, and others.
As I understand it, each Cooper rifle has a home before the manufacturing process begins, either to an authorized dealer for stock or to a specific individual ordering through a dealer. Lead time is currently running 6 to 8 months for basic models and 8 to 12 months for specialty items.
Cooper Rifles are sold through a network of authorized dealers. To find a dealer near you go to the Cooper website. If there are no authorized dealers near your location, contact the Stevensville office for further direction.
You may have noticed from the photos that the Cooper facility is, to put it bluntly, somewhat crowded and cluttered. Being there in person solidifies that impression. With the expansion of the product lines over the past few years, they have simply outgrown their location. This is soon to be remedied!
Cooper Rifles will move to the other side of town. (In Stevensville, that ain't all that far) Their new home will be in buildings formerly housing a manufacturer of log homes. The contractors are now preparing the new location for the move. Ann and I had an opportunity to take a quick look and some photos at the new site. We are also informed that there will be a 100 yard underground test firing range at the new location. Be interesting to compare those test targets to the ones shot on the current 50 yard range.
This is the Office Building at Cooper's new location.
These are the manufacturing and assembly buildings sitting directly behind the log structure that will serve as company offices.
Of major interest to me personally, and our son Rick as well, many models and variations are available in mirror image, left hand versions.
So, what is my dream rifle? I'm sure about the Left Hand action, and, it would be in .280 Remington caliber which pretty much leads one to the M52, but from there the decisions become more difficult.
Would it be the basic Classic with AA Claro walnut, steel grip cap, 4 panel checkering, oil finish, matte metal finish, with no other options available? Current pricing from $1875 to $2195 depending on stock configuration. (Whoops, doesn't appear to be available in Left Hand)
How about the Custom Classic with AAA Claro walnut, steel grip and stock metal, ebony foreend tip, fleur wrap-around checkering, oil finish, blued steel match barrel, high polish bone charcoal metal finish, with all other options available? Today's price; $3195 plus $250 for the Left Hand version.
Or, consider the Western Classic with AAA oil finish Claro walnut, steel grip and stock metal, case color action metal, tapered octagon match grade barrel, high polish metal finish, ebony tip, fleur wrap-around checkering, again with all other options available? Current price $3895 plus $250 for the Left Hand version.
Seriously, I don't know if one of these fine rifles will be in my future or not, but I am fairly certain that this range of $$$ is more feasible for me than ever hoping to get into anything like the $13,000+ arena.
I sure would like to match up a Cooper rifle in a shoot-off with a rifle of similar configuration and caliber from one of the true custom builders. I'd speculate that we would find the fit and finish to be comparable, but I'm not sure which would win an accuracy contest. Be interesting to see how a $3,500 cooper stands up to a custom rifle costing 3 or 4 times more! Let me see what I can do.
Other happenings over the past couple of months, included my birthday number 70! We had a little family celebration at our house on September 20th, the actual birthday, and Rick's family treated us to dinner at Texas Roadhouse in Coeur d'Alene, ID on the 23rd.
Ice Cream Pie is better than birthday cake any day.
Me, Jennifer, and Ann at Texas Roadhouse
Noon yesterday found us at Plante's Ferry Park in Spokane Valley for the Regional Cross Country meet for Jennifer's East Valley High School teams. Of the six schools represented, only two would advance to the State meet as a team. Alas, East Valley varsity girls finished third in the team competition. The good news is that our two top runners finished in the top ten, and will compete at State as individuals. Way to go Brittany and Alyssa!
Our early whitetail deer season opened here on October 13th. We have been seeing plenty of does, fawns, and little spike bucks, but no sign of the larger bucks yet. Those usually show up here at the Ranch when the rut gets started in early November. Jennifer, Rick, Ann, and I all have tags, so we'll bring you up to date next time.
The only other news I can think of involves a tractor. Ann and I have carried on a running debate for more than a year over whether a new tractor is appropriate for snow removal here on the Ranch. The 1986 Ford we have now runs fine and the rear mount snow blower works OK too. But I contend that a tractor with a heated cab and front mounted snow blower would be much more appropriate for a man my age.
This debate has usually taken place amongst our friends from the Wheelin' Elks RV Club, and all have freely shared their opinions, including two couples who have presented me with toy tractors, saying they figure that's all I'm gonna' get!
More on this next time!
This month's hillbilly wisdom comes from a quote from the cartoon character, Winnie the Pooh:
"Promise me you'll always remember, You're braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think."
Well, It's time to shut down here, So . . . .
'Til next time, Keep 'em shootin' straight, shoot 'em often, and above all, BE SAFE!!!!!