CZ 550 Safari Classics Express 9.3x62mm Rifle
By the Guns and Shooting Online Staff
CZ, of the Czech Republic, introduced their American model rifles to the US market some years ago and now the line has been extended to Safari Classics Magnum and Express models. The Safari Classics Express Rifles are chambered for cartridges that fit standard (.30-06) length actions. For 2010, the cartridges offered include .425 Westley Richards, .416 Ruger, .416 Taylor, .375 Ruger, 9.3x62, .338 Win. Mag., .300 Ultra Mag, .300 Win. Mag., .300 H&H Mag., .30-06 and .270 Win. We requested our test rifle in 9.3x62mm Mauser, a cartridge that is finally beginning to catch-on here in North America.
The 9.3x62 is based on what is essentially a .30-06 case with the shoulder moved forward to increase powder capacity and necked-up to accept the largest diameter bullet (.366") suitable for the case. The result is one of the world's most useful heavy game cartridges and it is just about the lowest recoil cartridge suitable for hunting all CXP3 and CXP4 game. It was intended primarily for use in bolt action rifles by African farmers and ranchers who could not afford expensive, double barreled safari rifles. A working cartridge for working men who might be hunting a deer-size Impala for dinner today and a rogue elephant tomorrow.
The 9.3x62 was a great success in Africa and quickly found favor for hunting heavy European game, such as red stag, bear, wild boar and Scandinavian moose. In addition, it is hard to beat for hunting elk, bear, moose, musk ox and bison in North America. American hunters are catching on to the merits of the 9.3x62 and ammunition is now factory loaded by Federal, Hornady and Stars & Stripes right here in the USA. Imported 9.3x62 ammo from Lapua, Norma, Sellier & Bellot, Sako and others is also available in the US market.
Guns and Shooting Online previously reviewed the Merkel 141 double and Ruger No. 1-S falling block rifles in 9.3x74R (see the Product Reviews page), a rimmed cartridge intended for use in single shot and double rifles with identical ballistics to the rimless 9.3x62, so we are well acquainted with the caliber's sterling performance. Either cartridge launches a 286 grain bullet (SD .305) at a typical factory loaded muzzle velocity of 2360 fps with 3536 ft. lbs. of muzzle energy. This load kills heavy game better than a .300 or .338 Magnum using bullets of similar sectional density and kicks less. In Africa, 9.3x62 is considered an "all-around" caliber, suitable for harvesting all medium, large and dangerous game and its only real rival is the .375 H&H. Its discovery by American shooters is long overdue and CZ is helping that happen by offering both their 550 American and 550 Safari Classics Express rifles in 9.3x62mm.
Safari Classics rifles are built in the CZ Custom Shop and are made to the customer's specifications. They feature a fully adjustable single set trigger, standard blued barreled action (rotary polished with about 400-grit), hinged magazine floor plate, straight comb stock of #1 fancy black walnut with dual recoil crossbolts, satin oil wood finish, Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pad and detachable sling swivel studs with a barrel band front mount. Three panel cut checkering includes wrap around forend checkering and generous checkering on both sides of the pistol grip. A CZ logo is laser engraved in the end of the pistol grip and 1" (25mm) high scope mounting rings are included.
Traditional express type iron sights are included. The rear sight is a shallow "V" rear with three leaves for elevation; the forward two leaves fold flat when the fixed leaf is being used. The leaves are for 100, 200 and 300 (yards or meters, we don't know which). The 100 and 200 blades proved to be correctly regulated for 100 yards and 200 yards in our range testing, but we didn't have a 300 yard range to check the "300" blade. The rear sight is adjustable for windage by loosening a tiny metric Allan set screw and sliding the sight in its dovetail. The standard front sight is a white bead on a barrel band ramp. It has a quick replaceable sight blade (just depress a button in front of the blade to remove). Red or gold bead front blades of various heights are available.
Extra cost options include an ebony forend tip, steel or skeleton steel grip caps, mercury recoil reducer, muzzle brake, quick detachable scope rings, matte or rust blue metal finishes, corrosion resistant coating, jeweled bolt, jeweled magazine follower, three position wing safety, wood upgrade, custom stock dimensions, glossy stock finish and several other options. We think that a blued steel pistol grip cap and a high polish blued metal finish ("Weatherby blue") should be added to the list of standard features. Prices start around $2500. Given our druthers, we would opt for the gloss oil stock finish ($80), skeleton pistol grip cap ($375), jeweled bolt ($110), jeweled magazine follower ($110) and ebony forend tip ($250). Action tuning is supposed to be standard on all Safari Classics rifles, although the bolt rails of ours were only marginally smoother than those of the standard CZ 550 American we also reviewed. Our test rifle's only optional extra was a jeweled bolt.
CZ 550 rifles are built on a lightly modified Mauser 98 type action with a square bridge receiver. Features include a cock on opening bolt with dual front locking lugs, receiver mounted ejector, full length extractor and controlled feeding. The flat-bottomed receiver is machined from steel billet and incorporates an integral recoil lug. There is a one-piece, steel, trigger guard/bottom iron with a hinged magazine floorplate. The magazine floorplate release is located in the front base of the trigger guard. There is a streamlined cap at the rear of the one-piece bolt to protect the shooter's face from escaping gasses in the event of a blown primer and gas relief ports in the bottom of the bolt that vent into the magazine well. A visible and tactile "cocked" indicator protrudes from the back of the bolt shroud. The bolt knob is a smooth ball. The standard, low, two-position safety locks the bolt closed when applied. The bolt release is a small lever at the left rear of the receiver. Like all CZ 550 rifles, the Mauser 98 type action has a generous, open top loading/ejection port that simplifies the single loading of a single cartridge under duress, although normally cartridges should be fed through the magazine. The top of the receiver is machined with 19mm dovetails that accept the supplied CZ scope mounting rings.
The CZ/Brno Mauser is widely recognized as one of the world's great bolt actions, suitable for use in a dangerous game rifle. However, the bolt rails of our test rifle evidenced excessive machining marks, despite its alleged action tuning. The inside of the receiver should have been polished before this rifle was permitted to leave the shop. This problem was also evident in a standard grade 9.3x62mm CZ 550 American model that we were reviewing at the same time, so the rough interior finish is not restricted to a single rifle.
The CZ single set trigger (push the trigger blade forward to set) is fully user adjustable with screws for weight of pull, sear engagement and over travel. The owner's manual includes instructions and a helpful diagram for trigger adjustment. Just drop the barreled action from the stock, which requires removing only two screws, to access the trigger adjustments. There is a separate adjustment screw for the set weight of pull. We adjusted our test rifle's trigger to release at 2.5 pounds un-set and 12 ounces after being set. After adjustment, the trigger releases cleanly and with no apparent creep, whether un-set or set. The trigger automatically un-sets upon firing. In the event that the trigger is set and the rifle is not fired, you can safely un-set the trigger by putting the safety on or by unlocking the bolt and then pulling the set trigger.
Our test rifle was supplied with full fancy walnut befitting a bespoke rifle; grain, figure, color and symmetry are excellent from the tip of the forend all the way to the recoil pad. The style of the CZ Express stock is American Classic, with a straight comb, cheekpiece and rounded forend that fits the human hand. The recoil pad is a black Pachmayr Decelerator, one of our favorite pads. There is a right hand palm swell in the pistol grip and the nose of the comb is fluted on the right side (but not the left!) to provide extra space for the shooter's thumb. The laser cut checkering is attractive and functional. Our only complaint about the stock is that we feel the pistol grip is too thick through the wrist and should be smaller in diameter; removing the unnecessary palm swell would help. The receiver is tightly glass-bedded in the stock, while the barrel is fully free-floating.
Specifications for the CZ 550 Safari Classics Express Rifle
Upon close inspection, we found bluing salts around and under the front sight ring and the barrel band (sling) ring of our Safari Express rifle. This indicates that there were voids in the solder securing the rings when the barrel was blued and the bluing salts penetrated into the voids. Because bluing salts absorb moisture out of the atmosphere, their presence will inevitably cause corrosion and eventually, perhaps years in the future, the rings will become loose. A stop-gap measure would be to remove the barreled action from the stock and slosh the barrel around in a vat of gently boiling water to remove as much of the bluing salts as possible. (Some, inevitably, will remain.) The proper remedy is to remove the barrel from the receiver, unsolder the barrel bands, re-solder them properly, then polish and re-blue the barrel. This is certainly not impossible and most custom gunmakers can do such jobs, but it is time consuming and expensive. (Fortunately, custom gunmaker and Gunsmithing Editor Rocky Hays is a member of our staff!) Once removed, the barrel bands can be deleted (if the iron sights are not needed) and a conventional sling swivel stud installed in the forend. This improves the appearance of the rifle, is in keeping with the "all-around" 9.3x62 caliber of our test rifle (which will soon wear a 1.1-4x24mm Zeiss Victory scope) and is the option we will pursue.
We were understandably anxious to get this very attractive Custom Shop CZ to the rifle range to see how it would perform with its express sights. Safari rifles are one of the few types that are still hunted with iron sights, primarily because dangerous game is typically shot inside of 100 yards and often inside of 50 yards. Unfortunately, the entire Guns and Shooting Online staff is middle aged and our eyes now lack the accommodation necessary to get the most from iron sights, but we did our best. Although impractical in the field, reading glasses helped us see the sights at the range. Consequently, we did our shooting for record at 50 yards, rather than the 100 yards at which we typically test scoped rifles. (For shooting results from a scoped 9.3x62mm CZ 550 rifle with an identical--and equally accurate--barreled action, see the review of the American Kevlar model on the "Rifle Articles and Reviews" index page of the Rifle Information page.)
As usual, our testing took place at the Izaak Walton outdoor gun range south of Eugene, Oregon. This facility offers covered bench rests and target stands at 25, 50, 100 and 200 yards. It had rained all week, typical of springtime in Western Oregon, but on the Friday we made it to the range the weather was partly cloudy with a high temperature of 59F degrees. The light and variable breeze did not exceed about 12 MPH.
We used a Caldwell Lead Sled FCX rifle rest weighted with 25 pounds (one bag) of shot and fired three-shot groups at 50 yards for record. Called flyers were re-shot, since our intention was to test the rifle, not our (questionable) shooting ability with iron sights. The factory loaded ammunition we requested for this review from Hornady and Stars & Stripes was back ordered due to the ongoing Obamination ammunition shortage and did not arrive in time. However, we did have three reloads available for testing. These were loaded in new, unfired Lapua brass with Winchester WLR primers and 286 grain Hornady SP-RP Dangerous Game bullets. The variation was in the type of propellant. We used IMR 4064, IMR 3031 and Hodgdon Varget powders for a nominal muzzle velocity of approximately 2350 fps for all loads from our test rifle's 23.6" barrel, essentially duplicating the ballistics of standard 9.3x62mm factory loads. Guns and Shooting Online Managing Editor Chuck Hawks, Gunsmithing Editor Rocky Hays and Technical Advisor Bob Fleck handled the shooting chores.
AVERAGE 50 YARD GROUP SIZE FOR ALL LOADS TESTED = 1.27" (2.5 MOA)
This rifle was supplied with a factory test target showing a three-shot group fired at 50 meters. It measured 13/16" center to center, which is right in line with our shooting results.
Our CZ 550 Safari Classics Express rifle may have some minor quality control issues, as mentioned in this review, but it shoots good! The Classic stock design handles recoil well and the rifle's accuracy speaks for itself. Chuck and Rocky thought the CZ express sights were excellent iron sights, while Bob had trouble with them and this showed in his groups, which were consistently the largest of our three shooters. Feeding and functioning were perfect throughout our range session, as you would expect from an action renowned for use in dangerous game rifles.
All three of our testers commented positively about the excellent CZ trigger. Chuck and Bob fired their groups with the trigger un-set, while Rocky set the trigger. Either way, this CZ trigger is far better than average, a fitting fire control system for a $3000 hunting rifle.
Since we had a CZ American Kevlar model in 9.3x62mm on hand while we were shooting the Safari Classics Express, a brief comparison of the two models is unavoidable. They are built on identical barreled actions and they performed identically. The two barreled actions were identically polished and blued. The best groups with both rifles repeatedly went into 1.5 MOA. Although the Kevlar model had a somewhat lighter set trigger pull and the Express rifle had a somewhat lighter un-set trigger pull, the differences were minor and didn't matter in our testing. (We adjusted both triggers based on "that feels good," but at different times; hence the variation.) While the Express is stocked in fancy grade walnut and the Kevlar is stocked in Kevlar reinforced fiberglass, the stock shapes are the same and both materials functioned equally well from the bench rest. They are both supplied with excellent Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pads and we could detect no difference in subjective recoil when we fired the rifles from an unsupported offhand position.
A word about the subjective recoil of these 9.3x62mm rifles: This powerful, hard hitting cartridge is the mildest of the dangerous game cartridges in terms of recoil, yet it carries a Hornady HITS rating of 1863 at 100 yards. It kills as well as a .338 Win. Mag. (1744 HITS), but kicks noticeably less. We consider the 9.3x62 to be the best balanced of all the medium bore cartridges. No cartridge that develops over 3,500 ft. lbs of energy from the muzzle of a hunting rifle can be called a soft shooter, but the 9.3x62 is a bargain, in terms of recoil, for its killing power.
The price of a CZ 550 Safari Classics Magnum or Express rifle, although high compared to that of a standard CZ 550, is in line with prices of comparable safari grade rifles from other manufacturers. CZ offers an exceptionally wide selection of calibers, including European favorites like our 9.3x62, which are unavailable from most other manufacturers. The CZ 550 Safari Classics Express is a fine rifle that practically anyone would be proud to own. We now have ours, and our friends at CZ-USA would like to build one for you.
A couple of weeks after this review was published our good friends at Leupold sent us a set of their excellent, medium height, 30mm ringmounts (#61885) for the CZ 550 receiver dovetail. This allowed us to mount a Zeiss Victory Varipoint 1.1-4x24mm riflescope, which has a 30mm main tube, for review on the CZ Safari Express rifle. (See the Product Reviews page for the review of this scope.) The very first 100 yard, 3-shot group we fired after installing the Zeiss scope on the rifle measured only 7/8". This was done using the handloaded ammo with the 286 grain Hornady SP-RP bullet and IMR 4064 powder.
The Leupold precision ringmounts are the lowest we could find for this rifle, since the fat ocular bell of the Varipoint scope must clear the bolt handle. They are also much neater and cleaner than the CZ ringmounts. Another selling point of these ringmounts, for those who believe in back-up iron sights, is that they are each clamped securely to the rifle by a single Torx screw. Slip a tiny Leupold Torx wrench into your hunting kit (supplied with the ringmounts) and in the event of damage to the scope in the field, the rings and scope can be removed for use of the rifle's express sights in about 10 seconds.
A scope in the 1-4x or 1.5-5x range is ideal for a dangerous game rifle. At maximum magnification it allows for shots beyond the MPBR of the cartridge and at low power is has a huge field of view for fast, accurate target acquisition; very important in the event of a charge. Should the hunter have set the scope at its maximum magnification (4x in this case) for a long shot and forgotten to return it to low power, there is still enough field of view to give the hunter a fighting chance in the event of being surprised by an unexpected attack. Make the same mistake with a high power scope in the 3-9x or 4-12x ranges and the hunter's chance of survival is dim. All that will likely be seen when he snaps the rifle to his shoulder is a patch of fur, a situation not conducive to long term survival.
RIFLE REVIEW SUMMARY
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