My Adventure in the [Gun] Stock Market

An Illustrated Diary of Our Trip to Wenig Custom Gunstocks

by Gene Flick 

My wife and I just returned from a trip to Wenig Custom Gunstocks, and I felt the need to record my observations of the trip, in case any other well-meaning husbands might find inspiration in our adventure.

In addition to shooting USPSA and Steel Challenge matches, my wife Jewell and I are avid shotgunners.  The problem with this is my wife's build.  For those who don't know my wife, she is only 5' tall, and is, shall we say, amply-endowed in all the right places.

When she first decided to get serious about shotgunning, I gave her a Beretta 391 gas-operated 12 gauge I had sitting in the safe as a "loaner" gun for friends who came to the range with me.  The problem was the length of pull (LOP) was just too long.  I had read an article a year or two earlier in Sporting Clays magazine about Wenig Custom Gunstocks, so perused their online catalog, got on the phone, and ordered a Wenig Ladies Stock with instructions to make the LOP just as short as they could (which is limited by the recoil spring tube in the buttstock of the gun).

Four or five months later, the custom stock arrived (with an 11 7/8" LOP), and Jewell was thrilled to finally have a gun that fit her, compared to the various youth guns she had shot that hadn't.  That lasted a little over a year, at which point several factors converged to convince both of us that we needed a new plan.

As her skill with a shotgun increased, Jewell started having a better idea that she was missing some shots that she shouldn't have missed.  And as we both watched sporting clays instructional videos, she became more convinced that she needed to learn to mount and shoot from a low-gun position (vs. always using a pre-mounted gun, which can block your view of the clay pigeon you're trying to hit).  However, as she worked on that technique, it became obvious that her move to mount would never be smooth because she first had to move the gun out and up (to avoid her "endowment") before bringing it back to her shoulder and firing the shot.  And it was also becoming more apparent that the LOP was still just a little too long for her, but couldn't go any shorter without moving to an over-under (O/U) shotgun, which has no recoil spring tube in the stock.

At the same time, I was getting tired of buying inexpensive 12 gauge shells that her autoloader could spit on the ground, while I shot higher quality (but less expensive) reloads from my over-under and saved the hulls for future reloads.

So the decision was made to move Jewell from her beloved 391 to an O/U, and when all was said and done, I ended up "donating" my very nice Beretta 682 Gold Sporting with 28" barrels to her.  The question was what to do about the stock.  The wood on this gun was very nice, and it just hurt me to think about simply cutting it off to a suitable LOP for Jewell.  And even if I could convince myself to allow someone to cut it down, I wasn't sure that simply cutting down the stock would work because as the stock gets shorter, its cast  (the bend in a stock that centers the barrel below the eye while centering the butt in the shoulder pocket) also diminishes.  Not to mention the whole issue of Jewell's "endowment" getting in the way of her move to mount.

So, it was time for another phone call to Wenig's, but this time to set-up the "deluxe package" which involved a trip to Wenig's in Lincoln, MO for a custom-fit, custom-made stock.  With an appointment  at 7:30am on a Friday to begin the fitting process, Jewell and I made plans to leave town on Thursday morning for the 7 hour drive to Lincoln, Missouri.

For anyone contemplating a similar adventure, let me advise a stop at the Bass Pro Shops store in St. Charles, just west of St. Louis.  It made for a nice two hour break at about the halfway point, and I found a good deal on some 28 gauge AA shells.  Unfortunately, they only had 10 boxes in stock.

Back on the road, as we approached our destination we found ourselves pretty much in the middle of nowhere, but with signs assuring us that Lincoln was ahead.  As we passed the city limit sign informing us that the town's population is only 1060, I *knew* we were in the middle of nowhere.  Fortunately, it doesn't take much acclimation to find your way around a town of this size, and before long, we had located Wenig's, as well as the motel they recommended (The Bunkhouse Lodge).

The Bunkhouse is a Western-themed motel under new ownership, run by a couple from Chicago who just bought the property last year.  Their hospitality was wonderful, and the decor just great.  I noticed several autographed photos of actress Leslie Easterbrook in the spacious lobby (complete with fireplace).  I knew she was a shotgunner who attends all the celebrity shotgun events, but it turns out that she has Wenig make her stocks, and always stays at the Bunkhouse when she comes to have a stock fit.  Gus and his wife put us up in the "King Aztec" suite for just $58.  (They give a discount to Wenig customers.) My wife pointed out that the place was decorated the way you might decorate your home, rather than the way you would decorate a hotel room that you had to clean every day.  Gus recommended breakfast at "Papa Joe's" diner the next morning.  This was a sparkling clean throwback to the 50's with great food and reasonable prices.

With breakfast in our bellies, and rain pouring down, we headed to Wenig's.  Their business office is located in an old bank building.

After checking in with the front office staff, we went around back to the actual workshop.  (Never mind the reflection of me taking the photo!)

The shop is spacious and spotless, which is fairly amazing when you figure they're constantly sanding wood.  Here's a picture of Jewell standing by the picnic table where we dumped all our gear for the day.  The central office on the left belongs to Fred Wenig who made us feel welcome as he bounced back and forth between making phone calls in his office and sanding a stock on the workbench to the right.

Inside the workshop, we met Jimmy, who has been making stocks for 36 years.  He took some measurements from the "close but not quite" stock we had on Jewell's 391, and then went back to this room to find a pre-cut stock that had dimensions somewhere vaguely in the ballpark of what he thought she needed.  This photo shows about one-third of the stocks that were in this walk-in closet.

With that stock fitted on the O/U, Jimmy had Jewell mount the gun and started making notes and measurements.

Wenig uses a somewhat different approach to making stocks.  The "usual" method of making a shotgun stock involves the use of a "try gun," which is a gun with an essentially infinite number of adjustments for the stock so that LOP, cast, drop, comb height, etc. can all be adjusted and fit to the shooter.  At that point, lots of measurements are made and handed off to someone who can then carve a stock to those dimensions. 

In contrast to that, Wenig starts with a prototype stock (my term, as I have no idea what they call it) that they pull from that walk-in closet shown above.  They then start adding (with wood pieces and Bondo automotive body filler) and subtracting (with rasps and wood files) from the prototype stock until they get it exactly right.  For Jewell, Jimmy first glued a long triangular piece of wood to the bottom of the stock so she could get it up to her cheekbone, but still have plenty of wood down in her shoulder pocket.  A Kick-Eze recoil pad was then mounted.  Jimmy filled in the gaps with Bondo, and as the process continued he added and removed Bondo to customize the butt of the gun to her shoulder pocket, while keeping her eye lined up exactly down the midline of the barrel.  He spent another 20-30 minutes working with her on getting the palm swell to strike exactly in the middle of her palm, so that when she picks up the gun, her hand is positioned exactly where it needs to be for ideal mobility and trigger reach.  That's the kind of customization that I'm not sure is possible with a traditional try-gun.

Here's a picture of Jimmy and one of the other Wenig folks applying Bondo to the comb (cheekpiece) of the stock.  You can see that a recoil pad has been placed, and that the bottom of the stock is flat from being sanded for a tentative fit.

Here's a picture Jewell holding the modified prototype stock about midway though the fitting process.

Once the prototype has been modified to a perfect fit, we were shown a selection of wood from which to choose for the final stock and forend.  They just brought out some pieces in the price range we had indicated.  They probably don't let customers in the wood room lest they be paralyzed by indecision, and/or face bodily harm from a spouse who doesn't believe you could spend $3200 for a top-end block of wood.  We settled for something well down the line, classified by Wenig as "Medium Fancy."  Here's a picture of Jewell's stock blank, after being wiped with water to show the grain, and then rough-cut to shape with a bandsaw:

Now is where the process gets really interesting.   The customized prototype stock and the rough-cut blank are mounted on a machine originally designed to duplicate furniture legs and spindles.  The machine operators uses a "tracer bit" (again, my term) to follow the contours of the prototype stock, while a cutting bit moves in an identical 3-dimensional pattern on the stock blank.  The operator uses a long bar to control the up/down, side-to-side, and back-and-forth directions of the bits, while simultaneously using a handwheel to spin the stocks around their long-axis (like a barbeque spit).  Wider bits are used initially to remove material quickly, and then the operator changes to smaller bits to get closer duplication of corners and angles, as well as the inletting for the receiver.  Interestingly, I noticed the operator using a thin shim when setting up each cutting bit, so that the newly cut stock is just a few hundredths of an inch larger than the prototype in every dimension.  This allows for the loss of material to final sanding and finishing.

This machine is large and complicated (and Wenig's has 3 of them).  Photos really don't do it justice.  Here a photo of the two stocks being set-up in the machine, with the long control bar to the operator's right:

And here's a photo of the tracing bit (on the left) and cutting bit (on the right) in action:

And here's the nearly finished product:

This portion of the project takes about an hour.  In the meantime, Jimmy retrieved 3 pre-cut Beretta 682 forend blanks, and conferred with two other employees and my wife about which one best matches the grain of the stock they are making.  (I was off taking pictures.)  He then began working on fitting the gun's forend latch to the forend blank, ultimately making sure that nothing is binding, but leaving no free-play either.  I think this took him the better part of an hour.  About half-way through I thought he had to be finished because it seemed to fit as well as any factory gun I've ever assembled, but he kept at it until he was convinced that it was perfect.

Once that project was done, he and fellow master stock-maker Elbert spent another hour or so making inletting the stock to fit the receiver, and perfecting the external wood-to-metal fit.

By then it was noon, and we all broke for lunch.  When Jewell and I returned from lunch, Jimmy and Elbert were waiting for us, and we followed them a couple miles out of town, past the Buffalo herd,

to Wenig's test range.  This consisted of a patterning board and a shelter from which Jewell could shoot at some straight-away outgoing clay pigeons to confirm that the gun was hitting where she was looking and that birds were breaking with authority.  I won't say she hit all of them, but the smile on her face indicated that I'd just scored major husband points.  (You can imagine there's some pressure to perform when someone hands you a gun you've never shot before, fitted with a stock they've just spent 5 hours making to your definition of perfection, and everyone's just standing there watching your every move to figure out if any misses are due to you or the gun.)

I don't have any pictures of the test-firing because it was pouring down rain, and I was more interested in seeing how she shot the new gun than taking pictures in a downpour.

With the successful test firing completed, we all headed back to the shop.  We filled out final paperwork and I wrote Wenig's a nice check.  The gun was left behind where it will be final sanded by these folks,

and then checkered by one of these folks:

 

It will then be finished in Wenig's standard gloss finish, and will arrive at our home in 6-8 weeks (an exact date was agreed upon, but the timing varies by time of year, so I don't want to raise false hopes by quoting a number here).

It was now about 2:00pm, and with the reason for our trip now wrapped up, we headed out of town.  On the way, I had to grab this shot.  We've all seen houses with old cars or even a school bus sitting out front, but I did an honest-to-goodness double-take when I saw this:

Yes, that's really an airplane fuselage parked in the carport.  I'm sure there's a great story behind that.

Back on the road, we stopped in Columbia, MO at a second Bass Pro Shops store, and I cleaned them out of their 14 boxes of 28 gauge AA shells, at the same great price I found at the St. Charles store.  From there, it was on to Rend Lake, where we spent the night at the Seasons Lodge, which was still renting rooms at the off-season rate of $90 for a room with a spa and fireplace:

The next morning we had a great buffet breakfast at Gibby's on the Green (right across from the Lodge), and then headed out to shoot Sporting Clays at the Rend Lake Shooting Complex.  (Jewell was shooting her Beretta 391 auto-loader, for what may be the last time.)

This was really the only part of the trip that was somewhat disappointing.  I'd read and heard great things about the Shooting Complex and sporting clays course, but had never been there.  What we found was a minimally stocked Pro shop and a course that had us hunting for trappers twice due to dead batteries on their automated trap machines.  That wouldn't have been a big deal, except for the fact that they were shooting an NSCA classification tournament that day, and Jewell and I were the first shooters.  So it wasn't as if we just strolled in and happened to catch them at a bad time.  Prior to shooting we were talking to one of the operators who told us that he and 3 of his friends had just leased the complex this year, because the state of Illinois has now decided that it isn't politically correct for the state government to be running something as controversial as a shooting facility <sigh>.  So, it's not clear to me exactly when the Rend Lake Shooting Complex had it's downturn.  Perhaps it was underfunded by the state, and these new operators will turn it around.  Or perhaps it's the new operators who have cut back on the Pro shop and other services to make a larger profit.  I just don't know.  Still, 3 hours on any sporting clays course is better than 3 hours on the highway.

Having finished up the clays course a bit after noon, we were back on the road for the quick 110 mile drive back to Evansville.

We're now back home with nothing to do except wait for the arrival of Jewell's newly stocked Beretta.  I'll try to remember to post a picture once it arrives.

One final note:  Jewell feels that it's important to note that I'd been hitting the Mountain Dew pretty hard on the drive from Lincoln to St. Louis.  It was time for a bathroom break, and as luck would have it, there was no indication of any rest stops anywhere soon.  So we pulled off at the next exit, only to find ourselves stuck in a Friday afternoon backup of cars.  Fortunately, the road sign ahead indicated that the exit had what I needed, and she just had to get a picture of it: