.22 BENCHREST: UN-BILL-IEVEABLE SUCCESS
Created on 14th May 2009
CARL BOSWELL takes a look at the rifles of renowned gunsmith Bill Calfee and their placing in the US World Championships
OVER THE years you hear stories about certain types of rifle that just excel and are unbeatable. For me, this is also about the ‘nut behind the butt', as you have to know what you are doing. A good shooter will only get an excellent rifle to fulfill its potential every so often, whereas an excellent shooter will make an excellent rifle shoot its best all or most of the time. In Europe we tend to go for off-the-shelf rifles that are then customised in a variety of ways for rimfire or air rifle benchrest. We all own Anschützes or Feinwerkbaus or Walthers, some of which have benchrest stocks and have been built by a gunsmith to our specific needs. Inherently they are still off-the-shelf rifles, with a few that have been re-barrelled or had major modifications.
Bill Calfee is a renowned gunsmith in the US, and has even acted as a consultant for Eley in the past. The rifles he makes have won a variety of state and national championships in the US. To crown his work, Calfee rifles were used in the recent World Championships and boy, did they shoot! This was, of course, helped by excellent shooters, but the envious faces of the onlookers was a sight to behold. At one point there was such a crowd that I couldn't even get in for a photograph.
DJ Hepler had his own ‘Spec 13' rifle with him for the championship. He took both the Light Varmint and Unlimited matches at 25m, and the Unlimited at 50m. He narrowly missed winning the 50m Light Varmint, which was taken by Peter Armstrong of Australia by one X count - but this was using DJ's rifle. However, DJ did get the overall aggregate award for both classes, which is no mean feat!
The table on page 66 of this article shows the position of the US-made rifles used in two classes at the championship. David Kenimer and Joy Harrison used a Calfee-made rifle, re-barrelled by Mike Mullins (Bill Calfee's apprentice) with a barrel lapped and set by Calfee. This information is to point out how these rifles performed just a few weeks ago. The rifles were borrowed by a lucky few at the championship, such as Joy from Australia, and they were generally taking four positions out of the top 10 in each match/class. Is it luck or the rifle? A good question. Having shot benchrest for quite some time I would say that luck rarely comes into it. Overall I would have to say the rifles performed exceptionally. Having seen Joy's face when she scored what she did, I think that she would agree!
Calfee has attempted a lot of experiments over the years, which is maybe why he knows so much about rifles. New advances and design ideas are appearing on the web and in magazines all the time. Most gunsmiths will spend their time simply knocking out rifles that match the specific needs of their clients. Calfee, however, spends his time working out how things work and how they can be improved. The man is prolific: he has written articles about rimfire ammunition, barrel harmonics, using tuners, bore cleaning and has got involved in action and barrel design - you name the theme and he will certainly have some experience of it. This is possibly why his rifles take so long to make - they are exact in every sense and he will not release them until they meet his ideals of perfection. You know you are getting something special!
One product we will recognise in the UK from Calfee's experiments over the years is the barrel tuner. Tuners are used the world over in one form or another. This is something Calfee has done extensive work on; currently, in fact, he is looking at extending the weight of tuners with a series of extra washer-type weights. Your tuner can be modified to accept these, as I reported a few months ago in Target Sports' ‘From The Bench' column. Some have adopte ideas about this from his writings in the US. Incidentally, a number of articles written by Calfee are available in an American magazine called Precision Shooting.
Calfee also works on other rifles, re-barrelling and altering actions. Obviously he offers the same sort of services that other gunsmiths would. Barrels are possibly a key factor for him; the way he laps the barrel exploits all of the accuracy potential it has. Obviously you have to have the right type of barrel, but it may be that what comes after the purchase makes it that much more special. Talking to the US shooters over in Milan I discovered that this was a key point for them. The barrels perform extremely well. The whole rifle assemblage functions as a holistic unit to achieve the best you can ever shoot.
As most, if not all, of the Calfee rifles are for the US market only, it is unlikely that we will see one in the UK any time in the near future, unless sold secondhand (keep looking in those classifieds on Benchrest Central!). I have only seen a few US-made custom rimfire benchrest rifles in this country and none of them were built by Bill Calfee. As he is a one-man band in some ways and makes only a few complete rifles each year, this does make sense, though it is a shame. I have been told there are a number of people who apprenticed under Calfee, but again they make only a few rifles each year, as they are able to earn more in other industries. I guess people in all countries suffer from craftsmanship and perfection being lost to larger companies knocking out products for larger markets. We can only hope that one day we will have a chance to sample these rifles.
Did I have a go while in Milan? Unfortunately not, as the heat of competition was in the air and there was no time for the pleasantries of life. However, I saw the rifles shoot and if the offer to have a go comes up in the future I will be there like a shot, (pardon the pun).
One thought I will leave you with is that I have invited DJ Hepler, David Kenimer and Craig Young over to the UK some time next year. I have asked Hepler, in particular, to coach the UK team. There will be a fee for this event, but how often do you get the opportunity to be coached by a world champion? It is also a chance to see some of their fine rifles. Now that might get your attention. Good shooting until next time.
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