March 1999

Briley’s New Trans Pecos Rifles: Engineered For Accuracy

This Houston-based company is best known for its choke tubes and shotgun innovations. Now, sportsmen and gun fanciers can add high-end rifles to that reputation.

The business risks inherent in launching a new firearm are so sizable that many companies prefer to play it safe when it comes to new-gun production. As the auto industry knows, it’s much easier and cheaper to change the sheet metal on an existing model than it is to re-engineer a product from the wheels up. Moreover, in regard to guns, even if the concept sells well and recoups its development costs, there’s the additional worry that a new product has a lifetime of potential liability in front of it—such as when a customer leaves a cleaning rod in the barrel and proceeds to blow part of his face off. Thus, whipsawing caused by sales concerns, development difficulties, and the great unknown conspire to dampen the ardor of most gun designers.

That makes it even more significant when a gun like the new Briley Trans Pecos bangs on the clubhouse door of established rifle brands and demands to be let in. The Trans Pecos is a fresh formulation of the tried-and-true bolt-action centerfire rifle, created, surprisingly enough, by a company better known for its choke tubes, shotgun work, and more recently, for custom-production handguns.

“We began developing the Trans Pecos three years ago,” said Briley General Manager Chuck Webb. “I can tell you there were a lot of Sunday nights spent on the machines milling out parts when everybody else was at home. We always knew where we wanted to go with the gun; we just had to figure out how to get there.”

Where Webb, Briley rifle gunsmith Bobby Pitchford, and other metal-shaping talent at the company wanted to go was into the $3,000-a-gun range, usually populated by Kenny Jarrett-class custom-gun builders. Such craftsmen ordinarily take over-the-counter firearms, especially those built on the Remington 700 action, and work hundreds or thousands of dollars of blueprinting, squaring, and woodworking magic on them. Essentially, the customer sends the gunsmith a sow’s ear, and he gets back a silk purse.

The downsides in the production gun-cum-custom gunsmith process are time and money. The customer buys an over-the-counter 700, sends it to his choice of ‘smiths, and 18 to 36 months later, pays a bill for $2,500. He’s then ready to hunt.

Briley is seeking to short-circuit that process by offering a gun that has all the fine touches necessary for guaranteed 0.5-MOA accuracy on a gun that can ship inside three weeks. Here’s how Briley plans to offer this combination of accuracy, beauty, and speedy delivery.

What Is a Trans Pecos?
Not too many people know what “Trans Pecos” means, so a quick geography lesson is in order. The Trans-Pecos (with a hyphen) is a region which contains the mesquite-covered plains, plateaus, and mountains of western Texas drained by the Pecos River westward to El Paso. But to people who know the region, the name Trans-Pecos also carries other, more subtle meanings. It is big, uncrowded, and original. All three of those descriptions could apply to the Trans Pecos gun as well.

Briley’s magazine-fed and single-shot Trans Pecos centerfires are solid guns sporting 24-inch and 26-inch Lothar Walther barrels. We tested a wood-stocked .308 Winchester and a composite-stocked .22-250 Remington, which respectively weighed in at 9.6 pounds (scoped) and 12.6 pounds (unscoped).

Click here to view the Briley Trans Pecos .308 Repeater features guide

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Click here to view the Briley Trans Pecos .22-250 Single Shot features guide

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“A lot of the weight in those guns are in the barrels,” said Webb. “We plan to build mostly No. 3 and No. 5 contours, which have more metal on them. These are guns made to shoot accurately and consistently first. It’s very difficult to make lighter-contoured barrels perform within the accuracy range we’re promising.”

Other equipment includes parts made by Briley and pieces from other suppliers. The extractor, for instance, is a modified AR-15 piece. “They’re indestructible and readily available,” Webb said. The bolt spring is a to-spec item made by Wolff, the pistol-spring manufacturer. The trigger is a Jewell benchrest model. Many of the other pins and springs are picked up from existing parts supplies. Otherwise, where possible, Webb used already fabricated parts from their own house (such as the magazine release button, which is purloined from Briley’s pistol division), and in-house machinery and talent, essentially soaking up excess machine and operator capacity.

“If you had to tool up from scratch and build this gun,” Webb said, “I’d hate to think what that would cost.”

The Heart of the Trans Pecos
Webb and Pitchford both are self-described accuracy nuts, and their different perspectives lead them to an unusual development process that eventually birthed the Trans Pecos.

Pitchford’s expertise is making inaccurate guns shoot better. He has bled in rivers of fiberglass and removed mountains of wood shavings trying to make production-gun groups shrink to as near as MOA as he can get them. Accordingly, he’s a big fan of pillar bedding and aluminum bedding blocks, when the project parameters allow. Webb, on the other hand, understands how gun parts must be designed for them to be produced in reasonable amounts of machine time. All the screws, springs, tenons, rails and other details must be married on time and inside budget to allow a gun to have a fighting chance at success in the market.

Their collaboration lead to a series of decisions that now form the heart of the Trans Pecos line. Pitchford’s insights on action rigidity, bolt-bearing surfaces, and center-on-center gun repair led Webb to construct a new bolt action that removes most of the inaccuracies of production guns from the get-go.

Webb explained that the gun was built to keep all the elements square and on center from the bore outward. This means that when the barrel is screwed into the action, the center of the bore aligns with the center of the action. Inside the action, the bolt then runs centered into the boreline, and the bolt face sits squarely on the chamber mouth. The more accurately these matings can be accomplished, the more accurately the gun will shoot. When this process is carried out after the fact, it is called blueprinting, or trueing, the action.

However, trueing the action on an existing product isn’t easy, which is why the process takes so long and costs so much in a custom-gunsmithing setting. Every facet of the action upgrade must be held as close to tolerance as possible, because tolerance stacking—accrued variations—can lead to quite a bit of slop. Slop leads to variation in bullet positioning, bullet depth in the chamber, and other critical tolerances, which in thigh-bone-connected-to-the-hip-bone fashion causes changes in barrel vibration, variation in pressures, uneven heating, and other accuracy-destroying problems.

“That’s what custom gunmakers do—tighten tolerances and remove manufacturing defects,” Pitchford said. “We wanted to build the gun without those problems in the first place.”

The $3,500 Question
Of course, talking the talk and walking the walk are vastly different things, as Webb knew. His challenge was to build an action that could eventually be run on CNC machines, which can hold very tight tolerances and reduce hand fitting. So he spent many nights at the shop fashioning a blank action out of aluminum stock, essentially drawing the action in metal as he went along.

“My first goal was to get something that worked,” Webb said. “Once that was solved, then we could work on getting it built. But I needed to be able to see the piece in my hands to know what had to be done next.”

The result was a steel three-lug action with a 60-degree bolt throw. Webb explained that three lugs are critical in ensuring the bolt centers in the action, keeping the necessary concentricity. The bolt body itself is turned and bored from a single piece of heat-treated bar stock, which ensures it’s straight, rigid, tough and won’t shift its shape, since the metal is already hardened.

With the action, the bolt, and the barrel sitting center-on-center, the next trick is to ensure those relationships don’t get stressed in the stock, throwing the pieces out of square. The solution: Bed the action to metal, not wood.

The traditional way this is accomplished in a full-length wood stock is to separate, as much as possible, the barrel and action from the stock using fiberglass bedding. In composite stocks, an integral metal bedding block under the action accomplishes the same end. However, Webb and Pitchford decided to avoid the problems posed by wood as a stock material by laying the action in an aluminum frame and free-floating the barrel out of the action.

Other guns have used metal frames; in fact, a currently shipping competition rifle, Walther’s KK200 smallbore competition gun, has an aluminum stock with wood laminate on the handling surfaces. Hunters, however, would likely rebel at the idea of shooting an all-metal gun, Webb opined. “We needed to keep the accuracy and the warmth of wood.”

The answer was a two-piece stock of English walnut bookending the aluminum frame. The barreled action, including a machined-in action lug, fits into the frame, and the barrel floats clear of the frame and forend. The forend piece includes a tenon, which is screwed onto the front part of the frame. An angled screw in the buttstock joins the rear shooting surface to the back end of the frame and provides strength to the thinner grip area. The result is essentially a three-piece gun. In our view, the lines from the buttstock flow smoothly into the hard-coated aluminum frame, and then into the forend. We think the gun looks great.

But Does It Shoot?
Making a pretty gun is actually pretty easy. Make a pretty gun accurate is much more difficult—but the Trans Pecos succeeds, in our estimation.

Our tests of actual customer Trans Pecos guns in several different cartridges showed that each one could outshoot our ability to place the shots using a hunting scope. Though we didn’t lot-test different brands of ammo, we witnessed multiple-group tests of shipping products fired with factory ammunition—Federal Premium—that measured a half inch and smaller at 100 yards. Pitchford, who enjoys benchrest shooting, said, “We haven’t had one yet that wouldn’t shoot. There’s really no reason for them not to, but you never know until you actually put rounds downrange.”

In addition to the manufacturing reasons cited above, the Trans Pecos shoots well because of human factors. The guns come equipped with crisp Jewell 6-ounce triggers, set by Briley at 3 pounds. Another helpful feature is the sight line the gun’s rear buttstock forces the shooter to maintain. The straight, classic stock on most hunting guns usually doesn’t offer enough wood to the cheek, allowing different head pressures to be placed on the gun shot to shot, which changes how the gun recoils, which changes where the bullets hit. The Briley wood stock has dimensions more akin to competition silhouette models, which have high cheekpieces that supply firm face contact with the gun. The composite stock has an adjustable cheekpiece and buttplate to achieve the same ends. Also, the stock has enough drop in the toe for the gun to sit comfortably in the shoulder while a standing shooter’s head remains erect. Most shooters will find medium rings provide the proper height for the shooter to see through the scope properly. A thick, soft Kick-Eez recoil pad provides a tacky shooting surface for the gun butt. A sprayed-on finish provides a low-lustre, grip-friendly wood surface.

Is The Trans Pecos Perfect? Not Yet
Do we have quibbles about parts of the Trans Pecos? Very few. Points on the bolt shroud are sharp, and when the bolt is removed for cleaning, it can mark the gorgeous wood on the comb nose. The forend shape is too blunt, and our eyes would prefer a more tapered front end. We liked the safety’s location beside the trigger, since it blocks easy access to the trigger as well as prevents the gun from firing. But we suppose it would be possible to inadvertently pull the trigger when engaging the safety rearward. The magazine, which sits nearly flush with the bottom of the action frame, can be difficult to remove. We found it easiest to open the action, depress the mag-release button, and push the magazine out. Also, we would prefer the magazine release button to be on the underside of the action, where it’s less conspicuous. The bolt-release button, located on the right side of the trigger guard, was unnecessarily stiff.

Most problematic, in our view, is Briley’s limited cartridge selection: .22-250, .243, .260 Remington, 7mm-08, and .308. These medium-length rounds perform fine on game from deer to elk, but not too many Safari Clubbers will want to step down from their belted magnums regardless of how accurately they can shoot. Of course, not having the gun chambered for the very popular .30-06 and .270 rounds will bother some potential buyers.

Gun Tests Recommends
Getting half-inch groups out of a hunting gun is not a standard to which all Gun Tests readers will aspire—some deer hunters will never make a shot longer than 50 yards in their lives. But for Western hunters who often have chances at deer, antelope, and elk 300 yards and out, having a half-inch gun is a great confidence builder.

We can debate the merits and demerits of long-range shooting all day, but in our opinion, Briley’s Trans Pecos rifles remove any question about what—or who—caused a miss. If you can afford the $3,500 ticket, the Trans Pecos is worth the ride.