Previous generations of hunters had to rely on the know-how of a professional gunsmith if they wanted a custom rifle.
Those days are over.
Modern manufacturing technology allows gun makers to cut receivers and barrels to such tight specs that even the least mechanically inclined among us (slowly raises hand) can build their own rifle quickly and safely. Donald Trump has claimed to be a “good builder” who “loves building.” Now, you can say the same about your hunting rifle.
Several companies offer bolt-action receivers designed for the at-home gun builder, but one of the newest and most popular is the Solus action from Aero Precision. Aero has built a solid reputation as a purveyor of AR-15 parts, and they’re hoping the same mix-and-match mindset that’s popularized the AR platform will translate to bolt guns. With nothing more than a barrel vice and a few wrenches, hunters and competitive shooters can install a barrel onto the Solus action or swap out an old barrel for a different caliber.
That flexibility lets you choose a barrel, stock, and trigger that meets your needs as a hunter or competitive shooter. For this build, I wanted a setup that could do both.
The Solus Action is the most expensive component of this build, but the juice is worth the squeeze, as they say. The Solus uses a Remington 700 footprint, which means that any stock and trigger designed for the Rem 700 rifle will work with the Solus. The 700 is one of the most popular bolt guns of all time, and there are tons of excellent aftermarket products available.
The action features an integral Picatinny rail, which is a fancy way of saying it’s machined into the receiver as opposed to being installed with screws. This ensures your scope rail won’t work its way loose over time. The trigger hanger allows for easy installation and quick replacement if a trigger breaks or gets clogged with debris, and the three-lug bolt with a 60-degree lift is smooth and quick to operate.
Perhaps the coolest feature of the action, and the one that makes it a great platform for a build-it-yourself rifle, is the integral recoil lug that allows the user to install a pre-fit barrel without checking headspace. If that sounds like Greek to you, I’ll explain.
Headspace is the distance from the bolt face to a point on the chamber. This distance must be precise to ensure that the bolt face is the right distance from the back of the case. Excessive headspace means the bolt face is too far away from the back of the case and can result in light primer strikes, failure to fire, blown cases, or unseated primers. Too little headspace can prevent the bolt from closing.
One of the reasons barrels are usually difficult to install on bolt-action rifles is because they often have to be reamed by hand to ensure proper headspace. Most casual gun owners aren’t comfortable with this crucial task, and so they rightly leave it to the professionals. But the Aero Solus action is compatible with a pre-fit barrel pattern called Shouldered Zermatt Origin (as well as Savage Small Shank barrels). If you order a barrel with this pattern, you can install the barrel and safely shoot it without checking headspace. While Aero still recommends confirming headspace before firing a live round, you're unlikely to have any issues.
The Solus action allows you to do this because Aero machines the receiver to such tight tolerances. Aero product engineers told me that for a receiver to accept pre-fit barrels, there can be no more than .002 inches of cumulative variation in the dimensions from the back of the bolt lugs to the bolt face, and from the lug abutments to the receiver face. Each Solus action spends 11 minutes being measured by a specialized machine, which is how it can average just .0005-inch variance among those combined dimensions–well below the minimum required variance.
"Our CMM machine ensures these tolerances are always true with very little deviation," John Warren, Aero's Product Development Manager, told me. "It also gives us the ability to go back and check the CMM data if a customer has an issue."
Bottom line? The Aero Solus action lets you select and install a barrel yourself and then swap out a barrel in minutes with just a few tools. Plus, if you ever want to switch to a cartridge that requires a different bolt face, the bolt head is removable. I selected the .478-inch bolt face, which works with 6mm/6.5 Creedmoor, 243 Win, 308 Win, and 8.6 Blackout. But if I ever want to switch to a big boy cartridge like the 6.5 PRC, 7mm SAUM, 7mm WSM, or 300 WSM, Aero also offers a .540-inch bolt. I wouldn’t be surprised to see another option for .223 Rem and .300 Blackout in the near future.
Lilja Precision Rifle Barrels has been building barrels since 1985. Their barrels have won events in every major benchrest tournament, and they’ve been used by the U.S. Army Rangers, U.S. Navy Seals, the FBI, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, to name just a few alphabet soup agencies.
The barrel I received was made with 416-type stainless steel, and every barrel is pull-button rifled to ensure a uniform twist rate. When the drilling and rifling work is done, every barrel is also stress-relieved in a vacuum furnace and inspected with a video borescope.
This barrel is a #6 contour, measures 22 inches, and is chambered for 6.5 Creedmoor. I’ve heard such good things about Lilja barrels that I went with them even though they don’t offer Zermatt Origin pre-fits (though they do offer Defiance Rucks and Zermatt RimX). Fortunately, Carson Lilja recommended a gunsmith that could do that work for me. Lilja sent the rifled barrel to Chase Fisher of Fisher T&C, and he threaded the back of the barrel to Zermatt Origin specifications and threaded the front to 5/8x24 to accept most muzzle devices.
This added some cost to the overall project, but allowed me to use a Lilja barrel on the Solus action without having to check headspace. Both Lilja and Fisher did excellent work, and I’d recommend both outfits if you’re looking for a barrel of your own.
Chassis systems are all the rage these days, but I like a more traditional profile. That’s why I went with the XRS Chassis System from MDT. The XRS features a full-length 6061 aluminum chassis clothed with a set of polymer panels that give the rifle a more familiar look. The rubber overmolded grip can be swapped out to change the angle, the stock can be adjusted for both length of pull and cheek rise, and the plethora of M-lok panels can accept an array of accessories.
The system is on the heavy side at nearly four pounds, but that’s the great thing about the Solus action–it’s easy to find lighter stocks for the Remington 700 footprint, such as the 1.9-pound HNT26 system from MDT.
Rounding out this build is the Diamond Trigger from Triggertech. Developed in partnership with the K&M Shooting Team, the Diamond Trigger is a top-of-the-line trigger from a top-of-the-line company.
The trigger can be adjusted from <4oz to 32oz, and the hardened 440C stainless steel internal components ensure corrosion resistance and an extended service life. Mine came from the factory at 1.5 pounds (24 oz), and has precisely zero creep. “Trigger creep” is the give you feel in a trigger after you hit the wall of resistance but before the trigger actually breaks. Creep harms accuracy because it makes the trigger pull less consistent. Triggertech claims to have developed a zero creep trigger, and I gotta say, they did it.
Aero Precision published a video demonstrating a complete rifle build with the Solus action, so I won’t reinvent the wheel. If you want a detailed how-to, watch the video. I’ll stick with the highlights.
First of all, I was impressed with just how easy the process was to complete. If you’re like me, you’ve watched car, appliance, and home repair videos and thought, “That doesn’t look so hard.” Five hours later, you’re 20 minutes into a 90 minute video and nowhere near fixing the problem. This wasn’t like that. The build flowed exactly as advertised, and I had a functioning rifle in about as long as it took to watch the instructional.
You should know that in order to install the barrel to the action, you’re going to need a barrel vise ($300) and a proprietary Solus action wrench ($100). If you don’t have foot-pound and inch-pound torque wrenches already, you’re going to need to purchase or borrow those as well. Acquiring those tools adds to the overall build cost, but the barrel vise comes with multiple sizes so you can use it for whatever barrel or muzzle device installations you need.
Here’s an overview of the process:
1. Secure the barrel in the barrel vise
2. Apply anti-seize grease to the barrel threads and hand tighten the action
3. Tighten the action to 75 ft.-lbs. using the action wrench and a torque wrench
4. Install the trigger hanger and the trigger
5. Install the barreled action to the stock, per the manufacturer’s instructions
That’s pretty much it. I had some trouble installing the stock to the action because I didn’t have Allen wrench bits that were long and skinny enough to use with my inch-pound torque wrench. But other than that, the build went exactly like you see in Aero’s video.
As a final step to verify Aero’s claims about their product, I brought the complete rifle to a gunsmith to check the headspace. The gun passed that test with flying colors. No headspace issues, and I haven’t seen any high pressure signs on any of the cartridge cases.
You don’t build a gun to take up space in your safe. You build a gun to shoot the crap out of it, which is exactly what I’ve been doing.
I wanted this gun to be set up for competitive events like NRL Hunter without being too heavy to carry out to a deer blind. I sacrificed some bullet velocity by using a 22-inch barrel, but that decision saved me some weight and allowed me to use a heavier profile that wouldn’t heat up as quickly. That turned out to be a good decision. The #6 contour barrel stays remarkably cool even after nine or ten shots in succession. I don’t have a laser thermometer, but I know that while other guns are too hot to touch after that many rounds, this barrel wasn’t.
The rifle does weigh 12.4 pounds with a Vortex Razor HD LHT installed. It’s not a gun I’d be excited to carry up and down a mountain for 10 days at a time, but it’s doable for the kind of hunting I do here in East Texas. Plus, I can save another few pounds by swapping out the chassis for a lighter, Remington 700-pattern stock.
While that extra weight can be a nuisance in the field, it’s ideal for long days at the range or a competition. Recoil on this rifle is minimal, especially with the already manageable 6.5 Creedmoor. With a suppressor (Dead Air Nomad-L with Q Cherry Bomb mount), that minimal recoil practically disappears.
Limiting recoil improves accuracy, but not as much as a good trigger. The TriggerTech Diamond trigger is a pleasure to shoot. It’s one of those triggers that seems to go off as soon as you think, “Shoot,” and it helped me touch off shots at exactly the right moment even when dealing with wobble while shooting from a barricade.
I tested accuracy from 100 yards using four varieties of Sig Sauer ammunition and a sled. I shot five, five-shot groups with each kind of ammunition and recorded bullet velocities.
|Average Group (in)
|Small Group (in)
|Average Velocity (fps)
These 130-grain hunting loads performed the best. They gave me the smallest group, the smallest average group, and the lowest standard deviation. That’s good news for me when I take this gun into the field and bad news for the local population of feral hogs.
I admit, I had fantasies about this rifle printing teeny, tiny groups using any kind of ammunition. But despite what gun forums might say, even the best rifles have their preferences. My experience testing firearms with factory ammunition is that not all of them will shoot well, and a 0.66-inch average is pretty damn good–especially for a hunting bullet.
Of course, for maximum accuracy, Carson Lilja recommends handloading your own ammunition. Some barrels prefer one bullet weight or style over another, and some shoot better with a certain kind of powder. Handloading allows you to tailor your ammunition to your specific barrel, and I’m confident these groups would shrink even more with a little load development (be looking for a future article along those lines).
Here are my takeaways after finishing this project.
First, it ain’t cheap. You can adjust your overall cost by selecting less expensive components (which is one of the best things about building your own rifle), but you’ll spend as much on the Solus action as on a quality hunting gun. You’ll also have to spend money on the tools needed to put the rifle together, though you’ll then be able to use those tools for future builds.
Second, the build process is fantastically easy. You don’t have to have confidence in your gunsmithing abilities because building this gun doesn’t require any. If you can use a torque wrench, you can build this rifle.
Third, getting the results you want might take some tinkering. I’ve seen guns shoot Sig’s match ammo better, and if I want consistency at 800, 900, or 1,000 yards, I’ll need to find a load this gun likes using a high-BC match bullet. But that’s part of the fun. If I wanted a bespoke competition rifle out of the box, I wouldn’t have built it myself.
Finally, there’s something incredibly satisfying about shooting a rifle you built using parts you selected. Smarter people than me have observed that to really own something, you have to put in some sweat equity. I feel like I really own this rifle, and that’s worth a little extra work and expense.