By Tom Beckstrand - Photos by Mark Fingar
Rifle stock combs have migrated north at glacial pace for the past 200 years. Long ago, it was bad business to put our face down at the receiver's rear end because bad things happened there. Wheels spun and chunks of stone created sparks that made the rifle fire. Because of that, stock combs were low enough that our head was almost completely upright with little stock contact while looking through our sights.
With the advent of smokeless powder, first with iron sights and then with scopes, shooters learned that placing our head firmly on the comb aided in accuracy. They made or purchased stocks with higher combs that allowed them to consistently place their head in the same spot, which greatly increased accuracy.
Most stock manufacturers still haven't seen the memo and continue to produce stocks with combs designed for aesthetics first and functionality second. This isn't much of an issue for a traditional hunter or casual shooter. They aren't going to spend enough time on their rifle to notice a problem. However, military and law enforcement snipers should be keenly aware of what the comb can do to provide both comfort and performance.
LAW ENFORCEMENT ASPECTS
No sniping demographic is better served by an adjustable comb than the law enforcement sniper. LE snipers spend a lot of time behind their rifles during callouts. They can spend hours observing the target and reporting to command what's happening at the crisis site. A rifle must fit well if we expect the sniper to remain mission-capable for hours at a time.
Sadly, few LE rifles fit the sniper well. Many departments don't see the need to buy an adjustable comb when rifles without the feature "shoot just as well." An adjustable comb won't make a rifle any more accurate, but it will make the rifle infinitely more "shootable."
A quick test to help convert skeptics can be done with a stock that doesn't have an adjustable comb. Start by shouldering the rifle and resting your cheekbone along the comb. Completely relax the neck muscles and then open your eyes. You will likely be staring at the back of the receiver. The only way to fix this issue is to muscle our head up enough to see through the scope. The bigger the objective lens and the higher the rings, the worse the problem becomes.
This problem doesn't become fully evident until the sniper experiences a situation where he's required to look through his scope for a few hours without breaks. Pain is a wonderful instructor. The low comb height predicated by a non-adjusting stock relies on muscular tension to keep the sniper's head in position behind the scope. Over time, those muscles will fatigue, ache and eventually exhaust.
Some snipers try to fix the problem by adding stock packs that place padding atop the comb, elevating it. This is a step in the right direction, but it's frequently inadequate to achieve the needed height. The correct height usually requires comb additions that interfere with bolt cycling or involve lots of closed cell foam and tape.
The answer is an adjustable comb that moves vertically and laterally. Vertical adjustment provides the optimal height without requiring muscular input. A comb that adjusts laterally accounts for a skinny or fat head. If you have a basketball-shaped head, push the comb away from your face. Narrow faces will likely benefit from pulling the comb toward their face.
Military snipers, like LE snipers, need an adjustable comb to remain comfortable behind the rifle. However, the military sniper also benefits from an adjustable comb because of the head control it offers, making it easier to spot the impact of our rounds and shortening re-engagement times.
A sniper lacking firm comb support while looking through his scope is going to have their skull rolling around like a bobblehead when firing the rifle. This is especially true with the big magnums.
Head movement resulting from recoil will make it almost impossible to spot where our rounds impact, especially when shooting at high magnification. The key to fast and accurate shooting at high magnification is an adjustable comb. With an adjustable comb, the sniper can firmly anchor their head and gain solid contact with the rifle. This minimizes head movement and increases the probability of maintaining the field of view during recoil. It also becomes an invaluable part of recoil management.
Effective recoil management lets us see where rounds impact and makes it much easier to adjust our point of aim to hit our target. This happens quickly and gets more difficult at higher magnification, because the higher the magnification, the smaller the scope's exit pupil.
A smaller exit pupil makes it easier for the sniper to lose the image they see through the scope with very little head movement. Firm contact with a well-placed adjustable comb is our No. 1 ally to mitigate head movement and maintain a sight picture during the recoil cycle.
If money is tight and you can't afford to spring for an adjustable comb, get as high a comb as possible. If there isn't some inletting on the comb to allow the bolt to cycle, the comb isn't high enough. The only time we need a lower comb is if we're shooting fast at very close distances. In that instance, avoid anything that hinders head movement. However, stocks that don't impede head movement also fail to provide any support for deliberate shooting, which is where a sniper spends most of their time.
For the penny-pinchers out there, we recommend Magpul's 700 Hunter, provided you shoot a Remington 700 clone. The comb uses inserts to get the proper height and offers an inexpensive and reliable way to accept detachable box magazines.
There is no shortage of stocks and chassis with adjustable combs, and most are OK choices for duty rifles. However, a couple of chassis stand out for the additional adjustment they offer. There is no such thing as too much comb adjustment. The more we can tweak and adjust a comb to fit our face, the more comfortable we will be and the better our chances of spotting where our rounds impact.
KRG (Kinetic Research Group) has an adjustable comb that can adjust vertically to an almost infinite number of settings. The cheekpiece has a shallow angle on one side and a steeper angle on the other. The shooter can switch the orientation to get the angle that fits best.
Accuracy International (AI) has the most comprehensive adjustment system we've seen. The AI cheekpiece adjusts vertically and horizontally on both the AT- and AX-series rifles. The horizontal adjustment requires loosening a couple of Allen screws, but allows the shooter to get the cheekpiece where it's most comfortable. For professional use, it's hard to go wrong with the AI system that's available as a chassis or complete rifle.
As a word of caution, adjustable combs are a tremendous blessing 95 percent of the time. However, it is important to remember that a rifle fit for prone shooting may be difficult to use from other positions. Consider how your unit and department employs snipers before tailoring a rifle to one scenario. I'd have no problem getting my rifle tuned up for strong-side prone shooting if I spent most of my time observing on the perimeter. A lot of LE snipers do this. I would probably leave it in this configuration most of the time and be ready to adjust as the situation changes.
Military snipers need to be a bit more cautious. A rifle set up for awesome strong-side shooting will be extremely uncomfortable when shot off the weak shoulder. If I had a .300 Win. Mag. or a .338 Lapua, I'd set it for prone shooting with the comb providing maximum support. I'd approach a .308 much differently. I'd also practice quickly transitioning my comb and length of pull settings for dedicated prone fire and general field use.
Precision rifle competitors that see any number of positions in a match should also be cautious about going all-in on max comb support. An adjustable comb can make spotting impacts much easier when done correctly. It can also make ambidextrous employment very
difficult, especially when the clock is ticking.