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A Custom-Made Surprise

A Custom-Made Surprise

Photo credit: Michael Ives

It began as a search for a solution. How do you develop a long-range hunting rifle for a shooter who needs special adaptations?

An Iranian shape charge hidden on the side of a road in Baghdad removed my right arm below the elbow and mangled my left hand. While I continued shooting and hunting after the injury, I soon learned as an arm amputee and wounded warrior there is no specialty gun shop that would cater to my needs.

My journey back to shooting started while I was still a patient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The civilian husband of one of my Army caretakers was a hunting enthusiast who spent his spare time arranging hunting trips for wounded warriors. A mere two months after losing my arm, he encouraged me to begin learning to shoot left-handed. In a cold, dark, cinderblock room in a corner of the Walter Reed parking garage was a shooting simulator—the same type used throughout the Army to teach recruits basic rifle marksmanship. The guns were pneumatic to simulate recoil, and shot a laser beam at a projected screen that displayed pop-up targets exactly like an army qualification range.

Despite my military training and 27 years of shooting experience, as a left-handed shooter I was suddenly a complete amateur. I had to learn how to hold a rifle and squeeze the trigger with the only three functioning fingers on my shrapnel-damaged left hand. The normally light eight-pound rifle was now incredibly heavy due to muscle atrophy from weeks of lying in a hospital bed. The steel hook that replaced my right hand did a poor job of gripping the stock and maintaining control of the rifle during recoil.Despite my military training and 27 years of shooting experience, I was suddenly a complete amateur when I began shooting left-handed

Despite my pain and struggles, my third iteration through the simulator I shot “expert.” It was abundantly clear I would forever struggle to tie my shoes and button my shirts, but I would still be able to send lead downrange and hit my intended target.

My first deer season as a wounded warrior came in November 2007, about three months after I was discharged from Walter Reed and the military. To prepare, I fired 10 rounds through my right-handed Browning BAR Lightweight Stalker .308 at a target 100 yards away, a better-than-nothing exercise to prepare me for the annual father-son ritual. After years of listening to my father gripe about being a left-handed shooter, I quickly learned what he was complaining about. While there are obviously left-handed rifles available, finding one on short notice that might work with my injuries simply wasn’t feasible.

Despite my difficulties and the last-minute preparation, I bagged an eight-point buck only 15 minutes into opening morning. Five days later I bagged two doe on the same drive—one running full speed more than 100 yards away. Despite being a newly minted left-handed shooter with a few missing body parts, I was still lethal behind a deer rifle.

Photo credit: Michael Ives

I’ve taken a total of 14 deer with my Browning since I lost my arm, but there are a number of difficulties I’ve yet to overcome. I have no trouble squeezing the trigger, but I have difficulty maintaining control of the rifle without a pistol grip and with only three functioning fingers. And with only my hook to hold the front of the stock, I accept scope eye or a bloody nose as part of a successful hunt.

While I love my Browning, I eventually decided to search for a more suitable rifle for my hunting needs. Emails were sent back and forth between some of us behind the scenes at NRA American Warrior magazine, searching for answers in uncharted territory. Who makes a stock that will work with my shrapnel-damaged hand? Who makes a larger bolt handle that is easier to grip? How will I maintain positive control of the rifle with only my prosthesis? Unfortunately, my life as a wounded warrior dictated that my time and money would be better spent elsewhere, and the project was shelved indefinitely.

Unbeknownst to me, however, the custom rifle project continued behind the scenes, spearheaded by American Warrior contributor Hoser Freeman. Hoser has over 20 years of service in the Air Force and currently serves as a C-130 flight crew member. A very knowledgeable firearm guru who spent several years on the Air Force Shooting Team, Hoser used his contacts to see who might donate their time and efforts to such a unique rifle project.Unbeknownst to me, however, the custom rifle project continued behind the scenes, spearheaded by NRA American Warrior contributor Hoser Freeman

The list of contributors soon became a veritable who’s-who in the firearms industry. Glenn Harrison at Defiance Machine provided the action and valuable insight on building a left-handed rifle. Thomas Manners of Manners Composite Stocks was a key part of the build, donating the thumbhole stock of choice. He approached George Gardner at GA Precision Rifles to see if he would be willing to donate to the project. George handled the gunsmith work, including the custom clear coat. Frank Green of Bartlein Barrels donated a barrel in the desired caliber, contour and twist rate. To round out the rifle, Sky Leighton of Burris Optics donated one of the company’s new 3-15 front focal plane scopes. Of course a rifle without any ammunition is useless. So Guns & Gear Editor Frank Winn contacted Jay Duncan at Gorilla Ammunition, who donated 300 rounds to break in the rifle. From start to finish, the entire project took five months.

With the build completed, the Warrior crew needed an excuse to get me halfway across the country to present the rifle. Just a week prior to the 2016 SHOT Show, I was told there was a wounded warrior story they needed me to cover. I was simply told there was a rifle being presented, and that I was the man to write the story. With no other details, I packed my bags and caught a flight to Las Vegas.

The morning before the presentation I covered as much of the show as possible, visited familiar faces, looked at new gear and wondered who might be getting the rifle. Eventually I found my way to the NRA booth for the presentation, scanning the crowd for the unknown subject of my feature story.

Photo credit: Michael Ives

The rifle was presented by Chris W. Cox, executive director of NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action. As soon as Cox began the presentation and mentioned “world champion lumberjack,” I knew I’d been had. I never had a clue that I was the wounded warrior receiving the rifle!

After I was presented the rifle, I got to meet all of the amazing people who contributed to the build. I learned one of the hardest parts was trying to fit a custom rifle to someone who wasn’t actually present or available to answer questions. But I’d say they hit their target. With only a few minor tweaks I’ll soon be ready to send some lead downrange.

I owe a huge thank you to everyone who took part in the build. First and foremost, thanks to Hoser Freeman who headed up the build and used all his contacts in the industry to help make it happen. Thomas Manners of Manners Stocks, Frank Green of Bartlein Barrels, George Gardner at GA Precision Rifles, Sky Leighton of Burris Optics, and Glenn Harrison at Defiance Machine for offering up their products and services to create an incredible rifle. And of course, thanks to everyone behind the scenes at NRA American Warrior for making this happen, and for giving me the opportunity to contribute to a great organization and publication for freedom-loving American warriors like me.

Words cannot describe how incredibly grateful and excited I am to be presented with such an amazing rifle.

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