Looking for the right stock with Ben Cartwright

Ben Cartwright took up clay shooting recently. We followed his early progress – now he wants a stock for his Caesar Guerini

Ben was initially happy with the adjustable factory stock on his gun

Figuratively speaking, it took about a year and a half for the lustre on my Caesar Guerini Summit Ascent to wear off. The gun, it should be noted, was and still is, in fine form. Its grade 2 walnut stock catches my admiring glances. The gun is attractive, nicely balanced, handles well and is a delight to shoot.  

I’d taken my time to choose my first gun: the Caesar Guerini was the one that most met my needs and the one that felt the best to shoot at a price point I could afford. When I purchased the gun I had several instructors check gun fit and get it as close to optimal as was possible.

I was happy with the setup and it was sufficient for the novice targets I was taking on. I had considered having a formal gun fitting, but I held back because I sensed I needed to perfect my gun mount first, which was inconsistent. I think this was the right decision at the time. 

The character of the gun and the way it interacted with my body revealed itself the more time we spent in each other’s company. During those 18 months I came to realise I must have some strange body geometry.

It’s the only explanation I can think of and yet I’m only 5ft 10in and of average build. Well, on the top half at least – gravity and a penchant for a good pie putting me in the above average category around the midriff. 

The most pressing manifestation of this was the adjustable comb being all the way over to the right. It was cast off as far as it would go and my eye wasn’t aligned down the centre of the rib. I could still see some of the left barrel. One afternoon, after a practice round at Edgehill I put up an Instagram post showing the gun from the rear.

One would be forgiven for thinking I had the cheeks of jazz trumpeter. Top shooting coach Ed Solomons charitably called it ‘‘Christmas gun fit’’. Another shooting instructor kept telling me to turn my nose into the barrel more.

He may have had a point – trying to get my eye more along the rib – but if he was using my nose as a reference it wasn’t much good, as it’s off-kilter thanks to various adventure sports fails and other childhood capers.

So there I was, with little negative thoughts and realisations starting to creep in. If only I could get the comb over more… If only my hand grip felt more comfortable… If only there was more palm swell to fill my hand… If only my wrist wasn’t cocked downwards to reach the trigger… If only the butt plate connected fully into my shoulder… 

In late November 2019, after a practice round at Hereford and Worcester Shooting Ground (HWSG), I did a pattern plate test to check if what I thought was happening out on the ground, was indeed happening. Sure enough, after a couple of plates, it showed I was consistently off to the left and just below the centreline of the target.

This may explain why I was missing down the side of targets and struggling with springing teals. Whilst all the top gun fitters will tell you that a pattern test is not the be-all and end-all in terms of proving gun fit, it does act as a good indicator.

The workbench of MGS owner Kristian Reilly at his facility, where Ben visited

It was the verification I was looking for. My shooting was no longer making those early leaps and bounds – usually two forward and one back. Now it was all about marginal gains.

In order to progress I needed to ensure the point of impact (centre of the shot pattern) was where I was looking (often and incorrectly referred to as “point of aim”). I wanted to eliminate any margin of error in gun fit and thus reduce, as far as possible, the variables I had to focus on.

But what to do about it? Over the course of the two years since I’d started shooting, one name had popped up a number of times – Midlands Gun Services (MGS).

They are highly regarded by a number of the top UK shooters for servicing, refurbishments and stock making. Fortunately for me, as the name suggests, they are somewhere in my “manor”, given that I live in Warwickshire.

In February of this year I drove up to Shrewsbury for my appointment with Kristian Reilly, the affable owner of MGS at his purpose-built facility just outside Shrewsbury. I started the conversation along the lines of the changes I wanted to the existing stock.

We were joined in the discussion by his stocker, Roberto Zucchinelli. I pointed and described what I was after and they pulled faces and sucked their teeth. Clearly, this wasn’t going to be as straightforward as I’d hoped!

Kristian wanted to see how I mounted and shot with the gun so we walked to his underground testing range to pattern plate my Summit Ascent. I was glad of this as it acted as a double check to my previous test at HWSG. The results were the same – left and low.

Back in his workshop, with benches adorned with all manner of hand tools and measuring instruments, we discussed the pros and cons of making modifications to my stock.

It could be done, but unfortunately it would significantly compromise the looks, strength and re-sale value. If I tried to sell it, I would either have to buy a factory stock replacement or offset the price to accommodate.

The biggest challenge was achieving more cast off when the adjustable comb was already hard over. Potentially, a scallop of wood could be taken out of the adjustable comb and the stock.

On inspection, we found the stock rod offset to the left (as seen from the rear). After modification there would be little “meat” left in the stock face which would reduce its thickness and strength and thus leave it prone to failure.  

There were three options open to me: the first was to butcher the existing stock, which was the least viable option; the second was to go for a custom stock, and the third was to sell the gun and buy another (if I could find one that fitted me off the shelf–unlikely).

The first option pretty much ruled itself out. As for the third option, I was very happy with my Caesar Guerini and could see no reason to change it other than buying a gun with a better trigger pull.  

Kristian examines the amount of cast-off on Ben’s Caesar Guerini

I weighed up the costs of having a custom stock made. I had bought the gun brand new for £2,700 (RRP £3,350). Kristian informed me that a grade 2 custom stock would cost me £1,400, and £1,600 for a grade 3 stock.

It was a lot of money, and more than 50% of the original purchase price of the gun, but would it be money well spent? The cogs whirred… and I arrived at a conclusion.

In order to become a better shot, improve my competition scores and reward me with many years of enjoyment, I felt the investment would provide a good return. 

I turned to Kristian, smiled at him and said, “So, where do you keep your grade 3 blanks then?”

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