Bolt Action Rifles for Dangerous Game

By Chuck Hawks

Winchester Model 70 Safari
Illustration courtesy of U.S. Repeating Arms Co.

There seems to be a lot of interest in the subject of dangerous game rifles, and some misconceptions, especially on the part of younger hunters. I don't pretend to be an expert on hunting dangerous game, but I am an avid reader and researcher and I tend to think that it is better to benefit from the experiences of others rather than to learn every painful lesson first hand.

It seems that knowledge that was paid for in blood in the last Century is already being forgotten in this one. Perhaps it is time to review some of that hard won information about bolt action rifles and cartridges intended for hunting dangerous game.

Advantages of Bolt Action Rifles

Bolt action rifles have several advantages over other types identified with hunting for dangerous game (typically the single shot and double-barreled rifle). Among these are the following.

  • Bolt actions are repeating rifles with a typical capacity of four shots in most belted magnum calibers (one in the chamber and three in the magazine) before reloading is required.
  • The typical bolt action, because of its camming action when the bolt is opened, has more extraction power than any other type.
  • Bolt action rifles are generally capable of very good accuracy, much better accuracy than double rifles.
  • Bolt actions are as strong or stronger than any other action type and can handle the most powerful high-pressure cartridges.
  • The bolt action is simpler than other types and can be field stripped and cleaned without tools.
  • Bolt actions are, in general, the most reliable type of repeating rifle.
  • Bolt action rifles are usually very easy to equip with a telescopic sight.
  • There is a wide selection of different brands and models of factory made bolt action rifles, something for every taste and budget.
  • Bolt action rifles are comparatively affordable when compared to most other types.

Disadvantages of Bolt Action Rifles

Bolt action rifles are, of course, not perfect, and they also have disadvantages compared to other types. Among these are the following.

  • They are the slowest of the repeating actions for a follow-up shot.
  • Operation requires removing the shooting hand from the grip and the trigger, disturbing the aim.
  • They are physically longer and thus less handy than a single shot or double rifle with the same length barrel(s).

Stock Fit

It is absolutely necessary for the stock of a dangerous game rifle to fit the shooter. The subjective recoil effect of any powerful rifle cartridge can be minimized by a stock that fits properly. A stock that doesn't fit can make even a .30-30 unpleasant to shoot. Unfortunately, cartridges considered adequate for hunting dangerous game are almost invariably of the powerful, hard kicking type. Worse, it is nearly impossible to snap shoot or point shoot with a poorly fitting stock.

Even though the stock dimensions given in manufacturer's brochures may seem identical, different brands of rifles come with subtly different stocks. Even if a hunter cannot afford a custom fitted stock (and few can), it is critically important to try a variety of factory made rifles to find one that fits properly.

Some minor adjustments are neither difficult nor expensive. For the person with long arms, a factory stock that otherwise fits correctly may be lengthened by inserting a spacer between the recoil pad and stock, or by having a gunsmith fit a thicker recoil pad. Conversely, a stock may be shortened by fitting a thinner recoil pad, or having a gunsmith trim the end of the stock. Wood can be removed from a comb that is too high, and a comb that is too thick can be thinned.

Do whatever is required to insure that the stock fits correctly. It is probably the single most important feature of any high powered rifle. (For more on stocks, see my article "The Rifle Stock.")

Bolt Throw

The turnbolt action is an inherently slow form of repeating rifle. Even so, there are differences between brands regarding speed of operation and the time required for a follow-up shot.

One factor affecting the speed of operation is the length of the bolt throw. Obviously, a longer cartridge requires a longer action, which has a longer bolt throw. There are at least three common action lengths that might be used when hunting dangerous game. These are short actions (.308 length, such as the .350 Rem. Mag.), standard length actions (.30-06 length, such as the .338 and .458 Win. Mags.), and magnum length actions (.375 H&H length, such as the .416 Rem. Mag. and .458 Lott). There are also special actions for oversize magnum cartridges like the .416 Rigby and .460 Weatherby Magnum, which cause problems because of their big diameter; they are only about 0.15" longer than a .375 H&H cartridge. The longer the bolt throw, other things being equal, the longer it takes to operate the action.

But other things are not equal. More important to rapid operation is the smoothness of the bolt throw. The famous old Mannlicher-Schoenauer action was noted for its ultra-smooth operation because it was closely fitted and used a rotary magazine that reduced bolt drag. The modern Weatherby Mark V action is also noted for smooth operation. It uses a fat bolt body the same diameter as its 9 small locking lugs. This eliminates much of the bolt slop common to conventional two-lug bolt designs. The Weatherby Mark V is probably the fastest of the modern turn-bolt actions to operate.

Most Mauser derived bolt action rifles have two front locking lugs and require a 90 degree rotation of the bolt to unlock the action. Some actions use three or more locking lugs spaced in such a way as to allow a 60-degree (Browning A-Bolt II) or 54-degree (Weatherby Mark V) bolt rotation. This shorter bolt rotation allows more space between the bolt handle and a low mounted telescopic sight, and allows faster cycling of the action. It may be happenstance, but both the Browning and Weatherby actions also use smooth bolt knobs (a ball in the case of the Weatherby and a flattened and angled sphere in the case of the Browning) that contribute to smooth, fast operation.

The fastest form of bolt action rifle is the straight pull action. The Canadian Ross rifle of pre-WW I fame was the first of the breed with which I am familiar. Such rifles have never been popular because they usually sacrifice too many of the bolt action's virtues (camming action on extraction, controlled feed, simplicity of design) for a fairly minor increase in speed of operation. The straight pull bolt action is still slower than a lever, pump, or autoloading rifle. They are seldom recommended for use on dangerous game due to lingering questions about reliability, especially in adverse environments, which date clear back to the days of the Ross rifles.

But straight pull designs are still occasionally seen. And they do provide faster follow-up shots than a turnbolt action. The two with which I am somewhat familiar are the Blaser R 93 and the Browning Acera. The latter is basically a manually operated version of the BAR autoloader, with the BAR's multiple lug rotating bolt head. The only magnum caliber for which the Acera is chambered is the .300 Winchester Magnum. The Blaser action uses an expanding collar to lock the bolt, and is available in a wide variety of powerful magnum calibers from the .257 Weatherby up to the .416 Remington Magnum. Obviously, faster is better when hunting dangerous game, but not to the exclusion of all else.

The Bolt

The bolt body of a turn-bolt rifle can be made from a single piece of steel, or assembled from two or more parts. A one-piece bolt body that includes the locking lugs is generally stronger and more trouble free than a multi-piece bolt body, although more expensive to manufacture. Again, this is a small matter, but it is a point in favor of the one-piece bolt designs used in rifles such as the Ruger M77, Weatherby Vanguard, Weatherby Mark V, and Winchester Model 70.

Recoil Lug

Some modern actions, usually those based on round receivers formed from bar stock, use what is essentially a heavy washer trapped between the barrel and receiver for a recoil lug. This system in inexpensive to build, and seems to work; the Remington Model 700 action is an example of an action with this type of recoil lug. Far stronger is a stout recoil lug machined as part of the receiver. The Mauser 98, Ruger M77, Weatherby Vanguard, Weatherby Mark V, and Winchester Model 70 are examples of actions that use this more expensive, but superior, recoil lug design.

Controlled Feed

Professional hunters and those who have a lot of experience hunting African dangerous game with bolt action rifles usually favor controlled feed designs, such as the Mauser Model 98, Ruger Model 77 Mk. II, and Winchester Classic Model 70. These use full length Mauser pattern extractors that capture the rim of the case as it is pushed out of the magazine and positively align the case with the chamber (hence "controlled feed").

A Mauser type action will feed correctly with the rifle held at any angle or even upside down. Not usually a consideration, it might be if the hunter has been bowled over by a grizzly bear and is trying to operate the action as he rolls on the ground. Also, controlled feed prevents double feeds. When the extractor has captured one cartridge, a second cannot leave the magazine without the first being ejected. Either way, only one cartridge makes it into the chamber. With a push feed action, incorrect operation (double stroking) the bolt can result in two cartridges trying to enter the chamber at once, jamming the rifle.

Not that push feed rifles such as the Browning A-Bolt II, Remington Model 700, Sako Model 75, Savage Model 110 series, and Weatherby Mark V are not perfectly acceptable for most purposes. But the tiny margin of extra feeding reliability credited to the controlled feed design gives it the advantage in a rough and tumble situation.

Extraction

Full length, Mauser pattern extractors not only increase feeding reliability, they take a bigger bite on the rim of the fired case, making the extraction of dirty or oversize cases more certain. Actions such as the Weatherby Mark V, which use shorter and smaller claws, are reputed to be next best for extracting balky cases. And actions like the Remington Model 700, which uses a circlip extractor in the bolt face, have the least extraction bite.

None of these later designs take as positive a grip on the case rim as a Mauser claw extractor, making failures to extract slightly more likely. I have used many brands of bolt action rifles over the years, most without full length extractors, and only one gave feeding or extraction problems (a Remington). I can live with that record, but then I don't make my living protecting clients from charging beasts, either.

Ejection

For a dangerous game rifle, a plunger ejector in the bolt face (as per Remington, Weatherby, and most other push feed actions) is a positive advantage. It always ejects the fired case clear of the action regardless of how slow the bolt is operated. With a fixed ejector (used in the Mauser 98 and most other controlled feed actions) it is possible to open the bolt too slowly to fully eject the fired case. This can result in a jam if the bolt is then run forward without clearing the fired case.

Another weakness of the fixed ejector is that it can be damaged or bent if unfired, very heavy cartridges such as the .458 Lott or .416 Rigby are extracted and ejected smartly. This has happened when emptying the magazines of controlled feed rifles with blind magazine floorplates. Contrary to the sentiments of traditionalists, the plunger ejector is more positive, if less convenient for reloaders.

Another consideration is the size of the ejection port. For both ejection and loading a single cartridge, the bigger the better. The modern trend is toward small ejection ports. These make for a stiffer and theoretically more accurate action, but their primary advantage is reduced manufacturing costs. Actions like the Steyr-Mannlicher and Tikka T3 are the worst offenders, and should be avoided. The Remington 700 has a noticeably smaller ejection port than the Mauser 98, Ruger M77, Weatherby Mark V, Weatherby Vanguard, or Winchester Model 70. Any of the latter are faster to single load. The large loading/ejection port is also an advantage at the rifle range.

Magazine Capacity

Clearly, the more shots the better when hunting dangerous game. You shouldn't need more than one or two shots to end any hunt. But when things go wrong they tend to go wrong in bunches, and who knows but what just one more cartridge in the magazine might make the difference between success and disaster. Some rifles have a greater magazine capacity than do others. Some cartridges are so fat that fewer of them will fit in a standard magazine. The latter are not desirable if a smaller diameter cartridge of similar performance is available.

Magazine Floorplates

As handy as I find hinged magazine floorplates to be, they can dump the remaining cartridges out of the magazines of rifles with heavy recoil at the most inopportune moment. Many dangerous game specialists prefer blind magazines for this reason. Some rifles designed for heavy recoil, such as the Weatherby Mark V, feature magazine floorplate catches with a particularly generous bite to forestall this problem.

Iron Sights

Iron sights are simple, inexpensive, and durable. The traditional sights for dangerous game rifles of all types is the shallow "V" open rear sight called an "express" sight combined with a front sight featuring a large brass or ivory bead. This combination interferes less than other rifle sights with simply "pointing" the rifle (as one points a shotgun without actually aiming) at a charging animal at very close range. The aperture rear sight with a large ring (or "ghost" ring) mounted on the receiver of the rifle, combined with the same type of front sight (or a square post), is relatively fast to acquire and more accurate than an express sight, but less suitable for "pointing" in an emergency. These are probably the two best choices for the hunter who favors iron sights for use on dangerous game.

The biggest drawback to all iron sights is that they require the shooter's eye to correctly align objects at different distances with great precision. With a large diameter aperture sight the eye must shift its focus between the front sight and the target. (The shooter simply looks through the rear ring and does not try to focus on it.) With traditional express sights the eye must shift its focus between the back sight, front sight, and target. With either type the eye must shift focus precisely and very rapidly to insure that everything is correctly aligned before the shot is fired.

Younger shooters with good eyesight can make a pretty fair stab at using either ghost ring or express sights, but older shooters or those who must wear glasses or contact lenses, simply cannot. Either type makes the acquisition of a correct sight picture relatively slow (compared to optical sights), and the large front sight blocks a significant portion of the target. The express rear sight also blocks out the foreground.

Telescopic Sights

Most hunters, young or old, will do far better shooting with a telescopic sight. Scopes place the aiming point and the target in the same optical plane. This eliminates the necessity for the eye to align a back sight, front sight, and target that are all in different planes of focus. Modern scopes generally use some sort of tapered crosshair as an aiming point. This is conspicuous, much more precise than an iron front sight, and obscures very little of the target or the surrounding landscape.

A scope also allows you to identify what you are looking at. It is much easier to tell the tip of a horn from the tip of a branch, or a man in a brown coat from a bear when looking through a scope. The only real drawback to a telescopic sight is that it makes unaimed fire (pointing) difficult.

Most shooters can acquire a correct sight picture and get off a shot faster and more accurately with a low power scope than with any type of iron sight. A low power scope is the most popular type of optical sight used for hunting dangerous game.

Note the emphasis on "low power." Magnification must be low to maximize the field of view. A wide field of view is absolutely critical for fast target acquisition, particularly of large animals at close range. Lower power also usually comes with generous eye relief, an important consideration when mounting a scope on a hard kicking rifle.

The relatively restricted field of view of a medium or high power scope can make target acquisition slow or impossible. If all you see is hide when you look through your high power scope at a charging buffalo, it's pretty hard to determine where to place the bullet to stop him.

A fixed power scope in the 1.5x to 2.75x range is hard to beat. Such scopes from the better manufacturers are lightweight, compact, durable, optically excellent, and have a wide field of view. They allow precise aim over all ranges at which dangerous game should be shot. Everything that you want in a scope for a dangerous game rifle can be had in a low magnification scope; they are even reasonably priced.

The alternative to the fixed power scope is the variable power scope. A variable power scope somewhere in the 1-4x range may be a perfectly satisfactory choice for a dangerous game rifle. The extra magnification makes it a bit more precise when shooting at the range, and is an advantage when attempting a shot at a small, non-dangerous animal beyond 200 yards. But remember to reset the magnification to the low end after every such use. What you don't want is to engage a dangerous animal at close range and then discover (too late!) that you left your variable scope set to its highest magnification and you can't find the beast in the reduced field of view.

For this reason general-purpose variable power scopes such as the popular 2.5-8x, and 3-9x types are not recommended for use on dangerous game rifles. Not only do they usually have a smaller field of view and less eye relief even at minimum power, the first time you forget to reset such a scope to its lowest setting may be your last. Low magnification scopes are simply safer.

That low power scope should be mounted as low as possible and directly over the bore, an aid to fast shooting. The scope mount should be very solid, particularly on the powerful rifles normally used for hunting dangerous game.

The reticule should be visible even in poor light. A duplex type of reticule is probably ideal, but a 4 to 6 minute Lee dot or medium-heavy standard crosshair is also good. Fine crosshairs and Mil Dot crosshairs are not so good, and should be avoided, as should any other complicated or range-finding type reticule.

On rifles of exceptionally heavy recoil (greater than, say, a .375 H&H Magnum) an extended eye relief scope mounted forward of the receiver may be appropriate. This mounting location dramatically decreases the field of view (which is the problem with "scout" rifles), but with practice some shooters learn to compensate by shooting with both eyes open.

Electronic Sights

Red dot sights, with or without tubes, are easy to use. They offer an essentially unlimited field of view, since they have no magnification. Like a scope, they put the aiming point (usually a glowing red dot) and the target in the same optical plane. They are, naturally, highly visible in bad light. And they are entirely suitable for eyeglass wearers, older hunters, and everyone else. While probably not quite as accurate as a 2x scope at longer ranges, they are more accurate than iron sights, and much faster to align.

They would probably be the best choice for hunting dangerous game if it were not for the fact that they are battery dependent. I use red dot sights on some of my hunting pistols, and I like them very much. If a battery failed in the field, I would simply replace it. (I carry a spare.) But battery life and performance are susceptible to extremes of both heat and cold, and dangerous game is often hunted in just such places; Alaska and equatorial Africa come to mind. And, considering Murphy's Law, I am not quite ready to bet my life on a sight that requires a good battery to function.

Muzzle Brakes

Muzzle brakes should be avoided on any rifle used for hunting dangerous game. As nice as is their recoil reduction capability, the (literally) deafening report of a powerful rifle equipped with a muzzle brake leaves the hunter unable to hear for some time. This creates a bad situation, as sometimes it is necessary to hear a dangerous animal coming to avoid being eaten or stepped-on. This is especially true when hunting animals that travel in herds, prides, or packs. Hunter injuries and deaths are often attributed not to the target animal, but to another that attacked from behind. In such situations the hunter's hearing is his only early warning system.

A secondary consideration is that muzzle brakes are illegal in some African jurisdictions due to the damage they cause to the hearing of scouts and gun bearers. And, for much the same reason, many North American big game guides will not allow clients to use a rifle equipped with a muzzle brake.

Cartridges for Dangerous Game

Because of the recent popularity of the Winchester Short Magnum (WSM) and Remington Ultra Mag cartridges (short and long) and all the attention they have gotten from gun writers, rebated rim designs have become accepted. In the past, rebated rim designs were viewed with some (justifiable) suspicion. Rebated rim cartridges are not a good choice for repeating rifles that may be used on dangerous game, no matter how slick the advertising hype or impressive their ballistics. The rebated rim gives the face of the bolt less rim to catch and push on when it is moved forward. This makes over-ride jams more likely than with a full diameter rim.

Dangerous animals are a different proposition than other game, and cartridges for use on dangerous game should be held to different standards than normal hunting cartridges. Any unnecessary decrease in reliability should be unacceptable. Especially when there are so many suitable cartridges available with full diameter rims.

A rebated rim also allows more unsupported area at the head of the case when the bolt is closed, increasing the chance (however miniscule) of a case head rupture. In normal use this is not a problem, and in most instances I would not lose any sleep over it. Obviously, for example, Remington thinks that the Ultra Mag cartridges are perfectly satisfactory, and Winchester has admitted no qualms concerning their WSM cartridges.

On the other hand, belted magnum cases have exceptionally strong heads due to the extra thickness of the belt. They may have any shape of shoulder, sloping, radiused, or none at all, because they headspace on the belt rather than on the shoulder.

Another feature of some modern rimless and rebated rim cartridges is a very sharp shoulder angle of 30 degrees and more. Small sharp shoulders, such as are found on the classic .416 Rigby, have proven satisfactory. But wide sharp shoulders, such as are found on the WSM line of cartridges, could potentially cause a problem. Such shoulders are used because they increase the case capacity slightly (and hence muzzle velocity), and they are believed to increase the uniformity of the powder burn.

The problem with the sharp shoulder angles found on some modern cartridges is that they can decrease the feed reliably of magazine rifles. A short, fat case with wide, abrupt shoulders is the worst shape in terms of feed reliably. This is one of the reasons why classic dangerous game cartridges such as the .375 H&H Magnum have sloping shoulders. The designers of such cartridges put their customer's safety above maximum velocity, combustion efficiency, or sub-MOA accuracy.

High Pressure Loads

Most British dangerous game cartridges are intentionally loaded to rather mild pressure by modern magnum standards. This is because they are mostly used in Africa and other hot climates, where the sun may have heated the rifle and ammo to about 120 degrees F. by the time they are needed. That substantially increases the chamber pressure compared to the approximately 59 degrees at which loads are tested in the temperate climates.

It's a good idea not to reload to maximum pressure in any cartridge intended for use in hot climates. Such loads may be fine in Europe or North America, but the pressure may become excessive where the Big 5 live. The .300 H&H, .375 H&H, .416 Rigby, .470 NE et al are perfectly adequate for their intended purposes as factory loaded. Higher velocity, greater energy, or flatter trajectory are not required. Excessive pressure can cause problems such as stiff actions, stuck cases, bulged brass, or even head separation, none of which are desirable when one's life may be on the line.

Conclusion

Dangerous animals are large targets, and should not be shot at long range in any event (50 to 150 yards is considered ideal). Even double barreled rifles, which have about the least accuracy and long range potential of all big game rifles, and which typically use cartridges loaded at moderate pressure and velocity, have proven to be more than adequate, even outstanding, for shooting dangerous game. These are points worth remembering.

None of the factors mentioned above are likely to cause a problem. But one jam in 10,000 shots is more than a guy who regularly bets his life on the reliability of his rifle is willing to accept if it can be avoided simply by using another cartridge or another brand of rifle. Seeing a client get tossed by a buffalo just once in a lifetime because his gun jammed, or failed to feed, or the magazine floorplate flipped open and left him without a follow up shot is object lesson enough for a professional hunter.

Living in the U.S. in the state of Oregon as I do, I don't ordinarily hunt dangerous game. But if I were buying a new bolt action rifle specifically for the purpose of hunting dangerous game, I would take these matters into account. And I would not choose any short action caliber with a fat, rebated rim case and a sharp shoulder angle.




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Copyright 2003, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.


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