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The Low Cost Dangerous Game Rifle
My next expensive hunt will be a seven-day African Cape buffalo effort. Short term, seven to ten day, specialized African hunts are what most Americans undertake, usually involving some sort of plains game package. I will concentrate on taking a buffalo, but I might end up in a situation where I have a few days on my hands and want to hunt something else. A versatile big game rifle is the best choice for these circumstances.
Choosing a moderately priced safari rifle can be a challenge. Many dangerous game bolt action rifles can cost up to half of my total budget. A hunter needs to ask just how much such a rifle will be used. If all you are going to do is to take one or two hunts, do you really need to spend more than $1,500 on a dangerous game rifle? You will, after all, be backed up by a professional hunter and his equipment in Africa.
I experimented with several moderately priced new and used bolt actions over a four year period. I bought, sold and borrowed these rifles to satisfy my driving curiosity. I learned a lot and eventually settled on a .375 Ruger African and a customized Ruger .458 Winchester Magnum. Iíd like to share some opinions with you, based on my experiences. Of course, no matter what conclusions I drew from my experiences, there are any number of people who will disagree for sundry good reasons.
When it comes to African hunts, most people will tell you to take at least two rifles. Taking a "classic" battery of three rifles is expensive and in our age of short term, limited bag safaris, usually unnecessary. Taking one is viable, but there is always the risk of the rifle failing in the field. While I believe that the odds of modern rifle failure are slim, like so many others, I chose to take two. I am taking two for another reason. It is a mental thing and a confidence issue, but I do not shoot borrowed rifles worth a damn. I shoot much better with a familiar rifle that is loaded with cartridges that I have tested.
It is advised that both of the rifles be chambered for dangerous game calibers legal for the country in which you are hunting. These should be common calibers. The most commonly recommended calibers for a two rifle battery by professional hunters responding to a recent Craig Boddington inquiry were .416 and .375. .375 is a top professional hunter recommendation for a single gun, two-gun and three-gun safari battery. It is generally suggested that the .375 H&H is adequate for all African game. It is the premier all purpose African load. A .375 is also more practical for hunting heavy or dangerous North American game (bison, moose and the great bears). The .375 H&H has a trajectory similar to a .30-06 shooting heavy bullets, but packs much more energy.
I usually purchase test rifles and keep them for a while to not only see how they function, but also how they hold up to field use. Many rifles have looked good coming out of the box and then failed to measure up in the field. I prefer the flexibility of buying a rifle rather than using a company sample on a short term basis. I can usually tell after one deer season whether I want to recommend a rifle and/or keep it. You cannot tell what a rifle is really capable of by shooting a box or two of shells or from a single hunting experience. Since I take good care of them, I seldom lose much money. Generally, I break even, or close enough to call it so.
A major issue I had with a number of rifles was with what I call ďresponsiveness.Ē While accuracy is important, I believe that handling qualities are equally, if not more, critical. Another issue is dependability. If I have a big game rifle that will feed and fire every time and handle in a responsive manner, pinpoint accuracy is much less important. I have heard from guys who claim they would not hunt with anything that wonít print MOA groups. Iíll hunt with a responsive, dependable rifle that can only produce three or four inch groups any day over an awkward or finicky MOA rifle. I consider bench rest accuracy to be third or fourth down on my list of desirable traits. (Amen! - Ed.)
I have read the argument advocating controlled round feed over push feed in a bolt action dangerous game rifle. I believe that controlled round feed is a fine feature. Push feed rifles can be very quick and essentially fool proof. If the rifle is responsive, dependable and acceptably accurate, I donít care whether it is push feed or controlled round feed.
I fooled with some inexpensive Model 98 Mauser .458 Winchester Magnum conversions. I bought some of these rifles for as little as $450. I found that I could purchase very good used .458ís for much less than .375ís, .338ís, or any of the Weatherby calibers. There are more of them out there and most shooters quickly find that they can't stand the recoil. The problem with .458 conversion rifles is that many do not hold up under sustained use. Cartridges do not feed properly. Sights and magazine floor plates often failed to hold under recoil. I usually ended up with at least $700 in all of these rifles without completely correcting the problems.
One strategy is to buy a solid, no frills, new rifle and have it upgraded or refined by a competent gunsmith. New CZ, Ruger Hawkeye, Remington, Savage, and some other moderate cost dangerous game rifles can be purchased for less than $1,000. For a couple of hundred bucks, a good gunsmith can tune the action and refine the trigger. A person can end up with a very good rifle at fairly modest cost.
There are many pristine .458 and .375 rifles on the used gun market. I have examined a number of twenty and thirty year old big game rifles that probably were not fired a dozen times. Consider making an effort to find one of the bargain high end used rifles that are out there from Browning, Winchester, Ruger Safari Magnum and Weatherby. There are some bargains because heavy calibers are not shot a lot by most hunters and after a few hard recoiling shooting sessions, some folks just want to get rid of them.
Another consideration involves the total number of heavy game rifles in the .40 caliber or larger class that are on the market right now. New rifles in this class are being sold in a far higher proportion than are being seriously used. These big rifles very seldom see much use because there are simply not that many appropriate hunting opportunities.
I committed to a .458 Winchester Magnum for my primary buffalo rifle early on. The big decision for me was what to use as a "light" rifle. I was originally torn between the .375 H&H and the .300 Weatherby. Which I chose depended on where I would end up hunting. If it was Namibia, I planned to take a .300 Weatherby, because there plains game is generally taken at longer range and even though the Weatherby would not be a good choice for buffalo, it would be nearly perfect for everything else. I felt that a .375 was better for Zimbabwe and Mozambique. However, after shooting the .375 at various ranges, I ruled the Weatherby out. A .375 has all the range capability that I am likely to need.
I tried a .376 Steyr SBS Pro Hunter in the field and a .376 Steyr Scout at the range when the round first appeared. The .376 Steyr is a wonderful big game cartridge. Recoil is comparatively moderate and accuracy is very good. Because of cartridge base and rim dimensions, however, the .376 Steyr cartridge will probably not be chambered in mainstream American rifles. The Steyr rifles are a bit Teutonic for my tastes. I thought that the Steyr SBS rifle was slow on repeat shots and I simply did not care for the butter knife bolt handle. I hunted one whitetail season with the SBS Pro Hunter and sold it. The Scout version is out of my price range.
I hunted deer, elk, and feral hogs with a restored 9.3X62 Model 96 Husqvarna. It was a beautiful handling, accurate rifle. I loved the way the round performed. The magazine box was short for most modern 9.3X62 factory loads and unless the soft points were shaved, they often hung up. Unfortunately, although adequate, the 9.3X62 is not accepted in some countries as a legal dangerous game round. I moved on to other rifles because of the magazine issue and to the availability and convenience of other rounds. There are some excellent CZ 9.3X62 rifles on the American market, however, that function perfectly with modern ammunition.
I tried CZ Model 550ís in .458 Lott and .458 Win Mag. The number one South African professional choice that I observed was the BRNO 602, which is the same basic rifle with a Euro style stock. The 550 is a good, modestly priced rifle. Both of my examples hold five rounds and feed very well. Both could have stood some more polish and finish work. Bolt travel is gritty and bolt throw is long. They were accurate and handled heavy recoil very well. I believe that the standard set trigger is practical for many situations. The open sights are robust and generally practical.
I had difficulty getting any scope rings to hold on either rifle and elected to hunt with open sights only. The Lott is simply more cartridge than I want or need. I can tolerate the recoil of a .458 Win. Mag. much better. Hornady .458 Win. Mag. Dangerous Game factory loads are only 50 FPS slower than the Lott. .458 Winchester Magnum ammunition failure is no longer an issue. With that said, the magazine on both rifles is magnum length and .458 Win Mag cartridges tend to unevenly work forward under recoil, a situation that could present some problems in the field. The only reason I did not choose the .458 Win. Mag. CZ 550 is that I liked another .458 Win Mag better. I had no problems with it that could not have been solved by my gunsmith.
I shot Weatherby Mark V rifles in .460 Weatherby and .378 Weatherby. It is a beautiful rifle and these are fantastic rounds . . . for someone else. While I found the .458 Lott uncomfortable, the Weatherby cartridges were punishing. I seriously considered a Mark V Dangerous Game rifle in .458 Winchester Magnum, but I found a similar .458 at a much lower price, so I did not pursue the DGR. However, it would be a good choice.
I borrowed a Ruger No.1 Tropical in .416 Rigby and bought a used No. 1 Tropical in .458 Winchester Magnum. I did not like .416 Rigby recoil in this rifle and the round is very expensive to shoot if you are not a reloader. I liked the .458 Win. Mag. Ruger No. 1 in spite of poor open sights, but there were too many experienced guys who told me to stay with a bolt action for dangerous game. Still, I gave the No. 1 serious consideration. It is dependable, a pleasure to carry, accurate and handles the .458 Winchester Magnum round very well.
The .416ís are quite popular right now and something of a fad, even though both the .416 Rigby and .416 Remington Magnum have been around a while. From what I have read and heard from those who have used them, they are very good dangerous game rounds. Finding an economy .416 other than a CZ 550 or Remington 700 is unlikely. I didnít investigate the .416 cartridges other than the one test drive with the Ruger No. 1. There were simply so many more, good, .375ís and .458ís on the market that I ignored the .416's.
I hunted with a .375 H&H Savage Model 116 Weather Warrior. I believe that this model is currently out of production in this caliber. The Savage is a very accurate rifle and designed for rough environmental conditions. It has open sights to back up a scope. Its only sins were that it is too light in weight for a .375 and it has many plastic components. I donít think that the average hunter would shoot this rifle enough for those traits to become major concerns. I also did not care for the action's heavy resistance to bolt lift when I cocked it. The Model 116 Weather Warrior is a great, inexpensive bear country rifle. I initially planned to take the Savage to Africa to back up a CZ 550.
After I thought I had made my final choices, I blundered across a heavily customized original (tang safety) Ruger Model 77 in .458 Win. Mag. with New England Custom three leaf express sights, Black Ice metal finish, custom composite stock and a Celini muzzle brake. Its only sin is that the front sling stud is attached to the forearm rather than the barrel. The former owner had never cycled a round through it after extensive customization and the dealer just wanted to get rid of it. I can understand the dealerís position. .458 Win. Mag. isnít a practical caliber for the customers who frequent his shop. For me, it was a surprising bargain in a configuration that I felt would be perfect for this hunt.
The Ruger handles very well for someone who is comfortable with heavy deer and elk rifles. Its overall configuration is less robust than many dangerous game rifles. A hunterís preference for a lighter dangerous game rifle is purely a matter of taste. Recoil traits are excellent for an eight pound rifle because of a very well designed recoil suppressor. Many professional hunters do not like to have clients carry rifles with recoil suppressors.
The custom Ruger was the fastest cycling big game bolt action that I had tested up to that time. The rifle is very accurate. The open sights were the best I tried and certainly the quickest on target. I liked this custom Ruger so much that I gave it serious consideration to be my only rifle. I would concentrate on my buffalo and take any other trophies opportunistically if that game was within the range of an open sight .458 Winchester Magnum rifle. Having hunted in Africa with muzzleloaders, I was comfortable with that decision. A .458 Magnum is quite credible for open sight shooting of bushveld game. A light weight, compact scope can be easily held in place under recoil using standard Ruger rings.
I was having lunch with some writers at the Shot Show when the topic of my next African hunt came up. I got a full dose of why I didnít want to take just one rifle to Africa. It was then that the .375 Ruger African rifle was brought into the conversation. Their reasoning was that if I liked my custom 77 that well, I needed to take a second look at the Ruger African. I had examined a .375 Ruger African at an earlier Shot Show and test fired a .375 Alaskan. I was very impressed with the thought and engineering that had gone into both models. I felt that the Alaskan was a nearly perfect configuration for big bear country, but thought .375 Ruger recoil was pretty stiff. They observed that except for the lack of a recoil suppressor, the African had essentially the same handling traits as my custom Ruger. If my rounds did not make it to my destination, I could still fall back on the .458 with local ammunition and be no worse off.
I talked to company representatives and ordered one. The .375 Ruger African weighs in at 7 ĺ lbs. The metal finish is matte blue and my rifle has a decent American walnut stock. While the Alaskan modelís Hogue synthetic stock is an excellent choice for the rough and wet conditions of the far North, a more traditional walnut stock is more comfortable to use in hot, dry, tropical conditions. A laminate stock would be stronger, but I believe that Ruger wanted a more traditional look for the African. The barrel is 23Ē long with an overall length of 43 3/4Ē. Magazine capacity is three and it has an excellent three-position manual safety. It has an improved trigger and controlled round feed. It has a cross pin recoil lug that was not present on the original models. The Ruger Africanís express sights are the best that I tested. A robust front blade white ball sets off dark targets very well and it is dead on at 100 yards. Balance is splendid.
Recoil is substantial, but not significantly different from the .375 Holland and Holland Savage 116 Weather Warrior or even my Mark V .300 Weatherby Magnum. I learned one very important shooting trait about heavy recoil shooting while I was testing all of these rifles. It made perfect sense later on when I read how light framed people seem to have less trouble shooting hard recoiling rifles than large men. Being a big, strong guy, I was holding hard recoiling rifles too tightly against my shoulder. I would tense up, draw the rifle tightly against my shoulder like a vise and soak up the punishment. I learned through trial and error to not hold the rifle in such a tense stance and allow the recoil to raise the barrel in an upward motion. I quit fighting the rifle and allowed my body to work with the recoil.
This last weekend I ran twenty rounds through my .458 Magnum and twenty through my .375 Ruger in less than an hour without even a sore shoulder to show for it. This was a far cry from the shoulder bruising punishment I had taken with some of the early test rifles.
Scope choice is critical for hard recoiling rifles. I recommend a compact scope with long eye relief. I want that scope far enough forward that it cannot get to my face under .375 Ruger recoil. I took a Weaver Grand Slam in 1.5-5X32mm on my first trip. There are more expensive scopes, but few are better. I set the scope on 5X and left it there throughout the entire hunt. I have not made a final decision on what scope I intend to take this time, but it will probably be a fixed power with no more than four power magnification or a low magnification variable. I intend to see how a Weaver V3 holds up on this rifle. So far, it seems to be ideal.
The advice I received regarding the similarity between the African and my custom Ruger .458 was generally good. Only the safety locations are noticeably different. The new African feeds and ejects cartridges smoothly, is more compact and quicker to the shoulder. It handles and carries like a deer rifle. The Ruger African is very similar in weight and configuration to my old Husqvarna 9.3X62, except that it is a new rifle with a better recoil pad and a more modern cock-on-opening bolt system.
I ordered 270-grain Hornady Dangerous Game SP-RP rounds for the Ruger African. Thatís $50 per box for those who are curious; about $6 a box more than Hornady .376 Steyr, $23 less than .458 Hornady 510 grain Soft Points and roughly the same as Hornady .375 H&H Magnum ammunition. The .375 Ruger round is also offered with a 300-grain RN and a 300-grain FMJ-RN for extremely heavy game.
With a 200 yard zero, the 270-grain bullet impacts eight inches low at 300. That translates to point blank sighting at any big game I want to take beyond 200 yards and, to be perfectly honest, I wonít attempt such a shot in Africa. It is simply too expensive to wound an animal and not have anything to show for it.
This round cycles like a dream in this rifle. Recovery and second shot target acquisition is exceptional. I have a full hunting season to learn this rifle. I plan to run many rounds through the Ruger between now and when I leave for Africa. Hunting whitetails and feral hogs with a .375 may seem like overkill, but I know of no better way to develop confidence in a rifle.
That is how I ended up with a .375 Ruger African and I will sell my other test rifles to help pay for my trip. I plan to use the .375 as my primary rifle and take the .458 for backup duties. The main disadvantage is that the .375 Ruger round is new and not common and will prove to be difficult to obtain if lost in transit. However, such a mishap is no more likely than shipment damage, scope malfunction, or stock failure. To Rugerís credit, I have a very responsive, accurate and sturdy rifle at a competitive price that needs no gunsmith refinement. That was the idea behind the development of the .375 Ruger cartridge and M-77 African rifle in the first place.
Copyright 2008 by Randy D. Smith. All rights reserved.