A Unique .257 Roberts Single Shot
by Steven Dodd Hughes

I’m often asked, “What kind of a hunting rifle would you build for yourself?” I’ve been very lucky, for a custom gunmaker, and have created and kept a number of guns and rifles of my own make throughout my career. Having been a bachelor for most of the time with no one else to worry about, I long ago decided a fringe benefit I ‘ought to enjoy was shooting and hunting with guns made at my workbench.

So what would this gunmaker create for himself given a reasonable budget and no particular deadline? Although I don’t think a fellow needs a reason to get a new gun, I had a definite purpose in mind. My primary big game hunting rifle was a custom side-lever Ruger single shot in .30-40 Krag. Many have seen the rifle via photos in magazine stories, but most who get a chance to handle the rifle are quite surprised at the 9 lb. 8 oz. weight. I’ve killed 17 head of big game in Montana and Namibia with the beast and have gotten tired of carrying it on more
than one occasion. I even bought a featherweight M-70 in .257 Roberts for antelope, but when it came time to go hunting, I just couldn’t bring myself to tote a factory rifle even if it was considerably lighter. I sold it.
Sidelever scope R-
Custom side-lever Ruger .30-40 Krag.

My plan was a .257 Roberts with a maximum weight of seven pounds. Some say all one needs to do is loose a couple of pounds of body weight, but I know the difference. Several years ago I sold a rifle built on speculation and immediately reinvested some of the dollars in a Dakota #10 single shot barreled action in, you guessed it, .257 Roberts. Dakota uses Walther/Lothar barrels and the two previous rifles I had built on these barreled action shot extraordinarily well. Dakota offers several different barrel weights and I chose one slightly heavier than standard in a 24” length. I also requested a barrel band sling stud and a quarter rib for a scope base, as I much prefer the rib to pedestal type bases. No sights, as I trust scopes and would use a muzzleloader if I wanted to hunt with iron sights.

About a year had elapsed before I received the metal and got some time to work on it. I detest the Dakota’s wimpy trigger guard and even wimpier trigger, so they had to go. I’ve done this conversion in the past but I had something new in mind for the guard. The trigger was a matter of hack sawing off the old one and TIG welding a new piece of strap steel for a larger, statelier trigger shoe. It takes me about two days to properly weld, grind and file up a new shoe but the results are a big improvement in the feel and looks of the unit. I like to add a tiny scroll behind the trigger shoe, just for sophistication.
Dakota elk-
The first custom Dakota #10 with elk trophy.

For the two previous custom Dakota #10’s I had made a larger and better-looking shotgun type guards. This time I wanted to fill in the cavity between the guard and the lever to make it look more like a British single shot, or the knock off Ruger #1. I mulled the idea over for quite a while before deciding to make a pattern guard instead of a one-of-a-kind so I could have a mold made to investment cast more.

Investment casting is used throughout the gunmaking industry with the most obvious examples being Ruger firearms. When I built muzzleloading rifles I used investment casting on a regular basis and knew a mold maker and foundry that would work with me. The way investment casting works, the original epoxy/aluminum mold is for making wax models of the part that are then fused together with wax sprues to form a “tree” of parts. This tree is then dipped into slurry of wet ceramic particles that adhere to the wax. When enough layers are built up, the ceramic tree is put in a furnace and the wax is burned out from the inside. This leaves a ceramic mold to pour the molten steel into.

Investment casting has about a 3% shrinkage factor in the process. To make the cast parts accurately, the original pattern must be made about 3% larger than what the finished part will be. This shrinkage varies a bit with larger areas with greater mass shrinking more than thinner, lighter areas.

Dakota 280 Left Checker to checker-
The second custom Dakota a .280 with bench-made trigger guard. Engraved by Bill Gamradt.

The Dakota guard has a very small base that fits to the bottom of the trigger plate. A small post on this base protrudes through the trigger plate and is held in place with a cross pin. Many factory #10 rifles have a noticeable gap between the guard bow and the lever, although I didn’t think they were supposed to.
I wanted the English guard to fit very closely to the lever so that when the rifle was locked up, the lever and guard appeared to be all one unit. It would have a much larger flat area contacting the trigger plate and nearly half of the loop of the bow would contact the curve of the lever. Also, I wanted the guard and front of the trigger to mate very closely and be nearly the same width.

The first step was to make a full scale drawing of the guard, the trigger and the action. With a drawing of the action, including a larger trigger I had done for designing a previous rifle, I sketched the new guard. It sure looked good on paper.

Now I had to make a pattern trigger guard that fit the gun exactly as the finished guard would. Then I would add three percent extra material to accommodate the shrinkage factor. I started as I would make any shotgun guard by bending a 3/4” wide, .100” thick piece of cold rolled strap steel to form the basic bow. This is not as easy as it sounds because the bottom has to match the flat of the action, the bow match the curve of the lever and the rear of the bow tuck in behind the trigger. It is best to cold bend the steel as much as possible because heating will scale the metal and adds to the work.

Years ago I built a bending jig from a piece of heavy angle iron that could be clamped in the bench vise. The flat upper surface has a variety of threaded holes and I made a bunch of 3/8” threaded posts to screw into it. The strap iron is left a couple of feet long so to have some leverage for bending between the posts.
With the rough bow formed as a simple “C” shape, I cut the end to length and started fitting it to the action and lever. A hole was drilled through the base and the mounting stud welded in place. Once it was ground and filed to rough shape, the guard tang was formed from 1/2” stock and welded to the rear of the bow. When nearly complete in the form of a standard shotgun guard, I installed it on the action, made a dam of modeling clay, poured in steel epoxy between the lever and the front of the bow. This would make a near perfect casting to turn it into an English rifle style. The guard was filed and polished to its finished form. This guard model consumed the better part of three days work and represented a spendy, but totally unique little unit that could be reproduced in multiples.
Dakota 257 R checker to checker-
Dakota .257 With proprietary cast trigger guard and custom trigger with scroll return.

Now came the challenge of making it three percent larger. For the mounting stud I slip fit a piece of brass tubing over another piece of post and chucked it in the lathe. The brass was very carefully turned down to a few thousandths wall thickness to slip over the post. For the mass of metal at the front and bottom of the bow, I snipped pieces of aluminum beer can ( .004” thick), bent and trimmed them to fit. The thin aluminum was scuffed and super-glued into place as was the post sleeve. The width of the guard had been left slightly oversize to make up for shrinkage. For each of the other parts of the guard, I measured the surface area, calculated the approximate percentage of shrinkage for that area and built it up by adding layers material. Much of it was done by guess-and-by-golly, and I left everything slightly oversize knowing I could always trim the castings afterward.

It was several months before the mold was made and steel cast guards delivered which was fine because some paying work had to go out of the workshop. The new trigger was installed and the rest of the many modifications I make to a #10 action were done before I started fitting the English-style guard casting.

Fitting the guard took quite a bit more work than I had anticipated. The mounting post was slightly oversize and filed to fit. The base that would contact the bottom of the action was milled perfectly flat, removing as little metal as possible. The mounting pinhole was located, drilled and the hole and post reamed for a taper pin to hold it more securely. After grinding and filing off the casting sprue, I started spotting in the outside surface that would contact the inside of the lever. Coating the lever with Prussian Blue spotting-ink and closing it on the guard showed me where it contacted and I filed only in those areas. After achieving a close fit I completely re-contoured the outside of the lever, deeply rounding it and giving it an almost sculptural look. All of the metal was turned over to my former associate Tom Harms for hand polishing.

Dakota 257 L long-
The custom .257 Dakota rifle.

The rifle was stocked with a very well seasoned, quarter-sawn block of California English walnut. Not at all flamboyant, it had great layout, nice dark color and a bit of fiddleback as well. The stock design has a lot more drop that Dakota’s, a wedge shaped butt profile and a steeply angled grip cap.

I wanted purposeful all the way and eliminated a cheekpiece and even an ebony forend tip. While I like steel buttplates, for a hunting rifle a rubber pad is in order. It took me most of two years to get the rifle stocked, and then most of another year before it was finished and checkered.

As I have often said, no custom rifle is complete without some engraving. Local engraver Suzi Bradley accomplished what my buddy James Tucker calls a “trim job”. All of the screw heads were treated to lovely rosettes, the caliber was recut on the barrel and simple nick & dot borders surround the action sides, the guard tang and grip cap. Simple and straightforward and Suzi did a wonderful job!

All of the metal was deeply rust blued. Our hand polishing methods and rust bluing procedures give a very smooth, almost shiny finish as would be found on a London made shotgun barrel. All of the screw heads were nitre blued for a sparkling luster. I originally mounted a Leupold 2x7 Compact scope (as shown in the photos) on the .257 but couldn’t get enough eye relief at my length of pull. I later purchased a matte VXII, 2x7 that is perfect for the rifle. Test firing with Winchester factory 117 +P loads gave me consistent near minute of angle groups.

The point of this story is that I believe a custom rifle, no matter how purposeful or straightforward, should have a unique character. Uniqueness takes thought, planning and time; bench hours. In the case of this single shot it was the trigger, lever and guard. I planned them to give the rifle a British flair and though the trigger is an ergonomic improvement, the rest of the work is mostly cosmetic. If one wants a totally utilitarian rifle, I whole-heartedly understand, that is what I wanted. But if it is to be a truly custom rifle, shouldn’t it in some special way, be different from all the rest?

One thing is for sure, come mid-October this .257 will be slung over my shoulder, quite some distance from the pickup, hunting pronghorn antelope.

This story was first published in
The Accurate Rifle Magazine in February 2004. I did hunt antelope with this custom .257 but was not successful. A couple of years later economic realities caused me to sell the rifle to a close friend and client who has successfully hunted with it. Such is life... On the Home page is a photo of a later .257 Roberts custom Dakota single shot done up in a more elaborate fashion. Both rifles proved to be extremely accurate with Federal Premium ammo loaded with Nosler 120 grain Partition bullets.

Dakota 257 1-
Custom .257 with the location of my secret pronghorn territory, the Devil’s Pocket.