We released the "Building a Backcountry Rifle" series through the Hunt Backcountry Podcast in 2016. Episodes in that series covered rifle selection (Episode 67), caliber/cartridge selection (Episode 69), bullet selection (Episode 70), scope selection (Episode 71), and even shooting tips (Episode 72 & Episode 73).
For the past 4 years since that series, I have been working on putting together a rifle system that met my goals and was relatively budget friendly. The use case for this rifle is varied. I wanted a single rifle that was suited for the Rocky Mountain west, capable in the whitetail woods of the midwest, and sufficient for numerous species in Alaska. I also wanted it to be something extremely shootable; a rifle that I could spend time ringing steel with and not hate myself when I put a lot of rounds through it in a single session.
Because this would be a rifle that I spent time lugging around the mountains, I wanted the complete package (rifle, optics, and all accessories) to weigh 8-9 pounds. A fully equipped rifle in that weight range is light enough to carry all day, yet isn’t so light that it is troublesome to shoot in less than ideal positions.
A fairly unique factor for me in this build is that I am left-eye dominant and have always shot right-handed bolt actions from the left side. When it came to this build, I finally decided to transition to a left-handed action.
Phase 1 — The Basics on A Budget
Like many of you, I don’t have the budget for a custom-built rifle. Such high-end rifles can easily run $4,000-5,000 before you even add an optic. My goal was to have a solid, ready-to-hunt package with my initial budget of $1,500-$1,750. That's not a small chunk of change by any means, but when looking at a rifle that will get serious backcountry use, and include travel for destination hunts, it is worthwhile to make sure you're spending what you can on gear that won't let you down.
I knew that I would eventually upgrade and enhance certain aspects of the rifle system, and over the past few years I have done just that. But beginning with the basics for my initial budget, here is what I started with…
- Tikka T3X Lite: $715
- Leupold VX-5HD 3-15x44: $900
- DNZ Game Reaper Scope Mount: $50
- Butler Creek Mountain Sling: $20
The total for these items came in at $1,685.
Let’s take a look at each component in more detail…
TIKKA T3X LITE
Tikka's T3-series of rifles has a great reputation for being inherently accurate and extremely reliable. Tikka's newer T3X improves upon the original T3’s stock, which commonly received some justifiable complaints. Weighing around 6.5lbs, the T3X Lite is a great foundation for the goal weight I had for this build. The Stainless version has obvious benefits for spending time in the field, and especially for the multiple trips that this rifle has taken to Alaska.
In the end, the T3X is a “no fuss” rifle that, without any modification, shoots incredibly well for "hunting accuracy". I have had upgraded triggers on previous rifles that don’t feel or function as nice as the Tikka’s factory trigger out of the box. And the smoothness of the Tikka action is impressive for a factory gun. My T3X has exceeded the positive reputation it is known for and the high hopes I had for it. If I were spending less than $1,000 on another factory gun, I don’t think I’d consider looking elsewhere.
LEUPOLD VX-5HD 3-15x44
It is common advice to spend as much, or more, on your scope as you did on your rifle. Honestly, I haven’t always followed that advice. However, for this rifle I wanted a scope that I knew would be extremely reliable through travel for out-of-state hunts and during extended hunts in tough terrain. I also wanted to balance the durability and reliability of this scope with something that was relatively lightweight. I wanted a lot of versatility, but not a lot of complexity. And I obviously wanted great optical clarity, a forgiving eye box, and a company that would stand behind their product.
Leupold’s VX-5HD seemed to meet my needs, and having now spent plenty of time behind the scope on countless range trips and numerous hunts (including two trips to Alaska), I can confidently say that is has met my needs. I would happily spend the majority of my budget on this scope again.
DNZ GAME REAPER SCOPE MOUNT
DNZ Game Reaper mounts have proven to be a simple, reliable, and easy-to-use system on the multiple rifle and scope combinations I have used them on. The alignment of the mount has always been spot-on, making it easy to mount a scope at home and not rely on extensive ring lapping for proper fit and function. There are rings that offer a lower profile, but don’t let the size of the DNZ mounts lead you to believe that they are heavy. The mounts are precision machined from a solid block of top-grade billet 6061T6 aluminum that is very lightweight, yet incredibly durable. I have had these mounts on several rifles and have always been fully satisfied with them.
BUTLER CREEK MOUNTAIN SLING
A simple, no-frills, lightweight, adjustable rifle sling. Not much to say here. It does the job.
Phase 2 — Functional Upgrades
The basic setup above is functional and will get the job done. In fact, it shot great and I had no problem filling tags with that rifle setup. I could have stopped my "build" here and would have had a usable rifle. But as I got more time behind the rifle I noticed some areas I wanted to improve upon. There were two primary upgrades that took my basic Tikka rifle to the next level…
Mesa Precision Altitude Stock (bottom) vs Factory Tikka Stock (top, with DIY paint job)
ALTITUDE STOCK by MESA PRECISION ARMS
The factory Tikka T3X stock is about what you’d expect for plastic on a $700-800 gun. The more I shot it — both in practice and in the field — the more that certain deficiencies in the materials, design, and shape began to bug me. Namely, the play in the forend, the grip angle, the comb / cheek weld, and the overall feel. I began research stock upgrade options and stumbled upon the Altitude Stock from Mesa Precision Arms.
In my research, the Altitude seemed to eliminate or improve on all of the complaints that I had about the factory Tikka stock. Now that I’ve had the stock for more than a year and have had it in the field on numerous hunts, I can confirm that it is a massive improvement. Yes, the stock costs nearly as much as the Tikka rifle itself, but it is the single best investment I have made in upgrading the rifle.
If you look at reviews of Tikka rifles, they are known for having solid, reliable and smooth actions, paired with accurate barrels. When you upgrade the stock on a Tikka you are keeping everything that’s great about the Tikka and dropping it in a stock that is fitting for such a great rifle platform. To make a vehicle analogy, you are taking a high-performance motor and pairing it with a chassis and suspension that is capable of improving the handling and performance that the motor can provide.
Adding the Mesa Altitude Stock brings my total rifle cost to around $2,300. At this point, my Tikka is beginning to feel and perform like a custom rifle, but is still without the price tag of a full custom build.
After I had extensively tested the Altitude Stock, we had John from Mesa Precision Arms on the Hunt Backcountry Podcast to talk about stock design and the benefits of upgrading from a factory rifle stock... Listen to Episode 204: Custom Rifle Stock Anatomy, Selection, and Benefits
Save $100 a Mesa Stock
For a limited time, Mesa Precision is offering an Exo-exclusive discount on their Altitude Stocks. Use the code "MESA100" to save $100 on any stock purchase. Mesa offers the Altitude Stock for Tikka actions, as well Remington 700 and 700-based actions... Save $100 with "MESA100"
REPLACING THE BOTTOM “METAL”
The factory Tikka comes with a plastic trigger guard and magazine housing, as well as a plastic magazine. Those components feel cheap and definitely didn’t give me the confidence and assurance that I wanted for a hard-use backcountry rifle. I initially replaced the factory plastic with the Mtn Tactical Gen 2 Bottom Metal. The replacement is solid aluminum and also features a much-improved shape on the trigger guard, which allows for easier operation with gloved hands. The Mtn Tactical bottom metal was an easy upgrade and allowed the factory magazines to be used, but I still wasn’t a fan of the factory magazines and occasionally had issues with the factory magazine releasing incidentally.
I have recently switched over to Redsnake Tactical TIkka Bottom Metal, which I should have done in the first place. (Learn from my lesson.) The Redsnake bottom metal is more than just a metal replacement for the factory plastic. Redsnake’s design offers an improved magazine release and is compatible with AICS magazines, which allow for a longer overall cartridge length for best performance with today’s modern bullets. (It is available for both short and long actions.) And, yes, it also features an enhanced trigger guard design.
Upgrading to the Redsnake AICS Bottom Metal is another upgrade that’s all about function. It improved the durability of the rifle (replacing plastic), the ergonomics and handling of the rifle (enhanced trigger guard shape), the reliability of the rifle (better magazine release design which prevents accidental magazine release), and the down-range performance of the rifle (extending the capabilities for loading modern bullets).
If you budget allows, this is no doubt a worthwhile investment — especially if you will be handloading for your rifle.
Phase 3 — Customizations and Styling
Everything above has been about function and performance. But part of what makes a custom rifle so appealing is that they are sexy. Yeah, admit it. The styling of a sleek custom rifle is appealing.
I found two upgrades that gave my Tikka that “custom touch” without breaking the bank.
LONGRIFLES INC. BOLT FLUTING
I sent my factory Tikka bolt off to Longrifles Inc to have it fluted. No, I didn’t do this “upgrade” to save a minuscule amount of weight; this was purely an aesthetic upgrade for me. Longrifles Inc not only did a fantastic job on the fluting, their turn-around time and communication throughout the process was well beyond what I expected for the price I paid. Longrifles offers several fluting patterns you can choose from, allowing you to add a custom touch to your rifle that meets your preferences. I have had a couple of bolts fluted by Longrifles Inc. now, and every time their service, turn-around time, and quality of work has been unbelievable for the nominal price of $30.
LUMLEY Ti/CARBON BOLT KNOB
I expected this upgrade to be purely cosmetic. It looks cool. And who doesn’t like Titanium and Carbon Fiber? But after running this bolt knob I actually did notice an increase is usability. This upgraded bolt knob is drastically larger (yet lighter) than the factory bolt knob, which has made a difference when running the bolt under stress and/or with a gloved hand. Not the most functional improvement ever, but combined with the “custom feel”, it was a nice upgrade for $60.
Phase 4 — A Work In Progress
This rifle has been in progress for years now. In that time I have filled numerous tags, taken it to Alaska twice, and been ringing steel at distances that puts a smile on my face. I truly, truly love this rifle.
One of the great things about this DIY “build” is that I have been able to make these upgrades myself, as the budget allows. It is great to go all-out on a custom rifle build if you have the budget for it. But budget aside, there’s something to be said about starting with a basic factory rifle, getting to know it, and investing in upgrades that specifically address areas that you personally have identified and areas to make improvements.
I have other upgrades in the works for this build, including a Thunder Beast Ultra 7 Suppressor (which is “in jail”, waiting for NFA Approval). To accommodate the suppressor, I needed to thread the barrel, which I found to be less than ideal on a Tikka lite barrel profile without cutting the barrel down significantly to gain the barrel thickness needed for the thread pattern. (Here are some technical specs on barrel diameter and threading.) Instead of cutting my barrel down significantly, I just recently had the guys at Mesa Precision Arms swap the barrel for a Tikka Pre-Fit Carbon Fiber Barrel from Proof Research.
With the barrel upgrade, my Tikka "rifle" has essentially turned into a custom rifle built on a Tikka action. Going from factory rifle to "custom" rifle happened over the years — spreading out the investment of budget over time, and specifically investing in upgrades after realizing what I wanted to address from the factory configuration. This process of upgrading from a factory gun give you the ability to decide what to upgrade, when to upgrade, and what upgrades matter to you.
I hope that this information not only provides you insight into the possibilities for a factory rifle, but helps you evaluate your budget, your needs, and where you money is best spent when it comes to upgrading a factory rifle, building a semi-custom rifle, or investing in a fully custom rifle build. There is certainly a lot to consider.
UPDATE: Check out Mark's follow-up article on this rifle, detailing the results with his Proof barrel, Thunderbeast suppressor, and load development: Semi-Custom, Suppressed Hunting Rifle — Mark's Upgraded Tikka, Part 2
Mark Huelsing is the host of the Hunt Backcountry Podcast and works at Exo Mtn Gear — though he's never been able to figure out his job title. Connect with Mark by sending him an email (mark at exomtngear.com) or connecting on Instagram, @MarkTheFark.