September 29, 2021
Note: This article is featured in the October issue of Game & Fish Magazine, on sale now. Learn how to subscribe.
Spend time around hunters, and rifles will be discussed. Things like cartridges, actions, triggers, magazines, barrels, riflescopes and much more will be debated. But rarely will the discussion turn to cheek weld, which is the contact made by the shooter's cheek with the comb of the stock. This is partly because many hunters do not understand the importance of it.
There are several areas of shooter-rifle interface. One is where the hands hold the stock; another is where the stock rests against the shoulder. The placement of the index finger on the trigger is also a critical aspect of shooter interface. So, too, is the interface between the shooter’s dominant eye and the sights. This is largely determined by comb height, and it is where cheek weld comes into play.
Up until the later part of the 20th century, sporting rifles were designed to be fired with open sights. Their stocks had a lot of drop at the comb with even more drop at the heel. This profile worked for open sights; when you shouldered the rifle and placed your cheek on the comb, your eye would line up with the sights.
As riflescopes became more popular, some manufacturers stopped selling rifles with open sights but did nothing to adjust the comb to allow for good cheek weld with a riflescope, which was mounted higher. Many rifles still require you to raise your head off the stock to see through a riflescope.
A solid and repeatable cheek weld is similar to an anchor point in archery; it helps you mount the rifle the same way every time. A good cheek weld that lines your eye up with the riflescope permits you to achieve sight alignment faster; you don’t have to move your head around to see through the riflescope. It also makes tracking an animal through the scope smoother, and it makes finding an animal in the scope after recoil easier and faster. Most importantly, as part of doing the same thing the same way every time, a cheek weld that consistently aligns your eye with the scope makes you more accurate.
So why has it taken so long for rifle manufacturers to embrace an ideal stock configuration for use with scopes? I’m not sure; they had the answer more than 35 years ago.
In the 1960s, a West Virginia teenager was given an air rifle. It had open sights, but he realized a riflescope would offer at least a 33 percent advantage because instead of looking at a rear sight, front sight and target, he would only have to look at a reticle and target. He mounted a riflescope to his Crosman only to find his cheek was no longer in solid contact with the stock when he fired. The visual advantage gained by the scope was lost in the physical disadvantage of not having a good cheek weld.
A couple decades later this boy designed his own bolt-action rifle ideally configured for use with riflescopes. He did two important things to the stock. The nose of the comb was positioned 5/8 inch below the centerline of the bore, and the heel of the stock was positioned 1/4 inch below the same.
This placed the comb so that with good cheek weld the shooter’s eye would perfectly line up behind a riflescope mounted 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 inches above the bore centerline. The design also created negative drop to the comb so it would slide by your cheek as opposed to slamming into it during recoil.
The man was Melvin Forbes, and his company, New Ultra Light Arms, built the first bolt-action rifle with a comb height ideally situated for proper eye alignment with a riflescope while maintaining good cheek weld. (To be fair, Weatherby had tried this with its Monte Carlo stock design. It helped with cheek weld, but the excessive drop exaggerated recoil.) Steyr emulated Forbes' stock profile on its Scout Rifle, and Nosler used a similar design on its custom rifles. Kimber also followed suit but added a bit more drop.
Most bolt-action rifles made today still have stocks with a comb height better configured for open sights than a riflescope. Shooters often get around this by building up the comb with strap-on pads or even automobile body-repair putty. More recently, with the introduction of the precision rifle, we’ve seen the inclusion of stocks with adjustable combs.
With its AccuFit system, Savage incorporates interchangeable comb sections that allow a shooter to precisely tune the stock to the height of the riflescope. The stock of the Benelli Lupo accepts Combtech cheek-pad inserts of different heights for the same reason. Ruger even offers stock modules with different comb heights for its American Rimfire line.
Regardless of whether you're shooting a conventional hunting rifle or more of a precision rifle design, having a good cheek weld will improve your shooting. Of all the considerations you make when selecting a new rifle, choosing one with a fixed, adjustable or replaceable comb height ideal for the riflescope you’re using is one of the most important.