November 28, 2022
First, if you'd like to read the follow-on segments of this three-part series, visit Choosing the Right Cartridge for Hunting Dangerous Game and Handloading and Other Tips for Hunting Dangerous Game. A rifle used for hunting potentially dangerous game has to be powerful enough to quickly stop an animal capable of destroying the hunter while handling quickly enough to get off a well-aimed shot during an unexpected charge. It must also be heavy enough to absorb recoil while being light enough to be carried on extremely long treks.
African professional hunters sometimes describe rifles brought by clients as safari-ready or not, and from what I hear, all too many fall into the latter category. Broken stocks, scopes and open sights falling off, hinged magazine floorplates suddenly going “bombs away,” cartridges failing to feed, spent cases not ejecting, the list goes on. Other types of actions are available, but for a number of reasons, the bolt-action rifle is the best choice for those of us who travel to the African continent for hunts of a lifetime. Mention dangerous game in North America, and the giant, salmon-eating grizzly of coastal Alaska springs to mind. Among both hunters and guides, the bolt-action rifle reigns supreme there as well.
Regardless of whether the bolt of a dangerous-game rifle is cycled rapidly or slowly, it must feed cartridges with total reliability. Someone who has shot a rifle enough with the ammunition to be used to become convinced this is true is good to go.
Step one in determining the reliability of a new rifle or one that has been seldom used is to load dummy cartridges (no powder or primer) with the bullet to be used on the hunt. If both expanding and non-expanding (solid) bullets will be used, dummy cartridges containing both should be on hand. Ten rounds of each is a good start.
Place a plastic tarp or an old blanket on the ground to prevent ejected dummies from landing on dirt. And after filling the magazine, start from a relaxed, rifle-down position; shoulder the rifle; and while aiming at a target, “rapid-fire” all those dummies by cycling the bolt and pressing the trigger as quickly as you can until the rifle is empty. If a rifle gobbles up 100 “rounds” without a single bobble, it has passed the first test toward becoming a legitimate dangerous-game rifle, one you can bet your life on.
But since you are having so much fun, run the dummies through another 100 times for good measure. If you experience a single bobble, take the rifle to a good gunsmith for a fix. In addition to determining the reliability (or lack of same) of your rifle, you are at the first step of learning how to quickly get off accurate follow-up shots. More on that later.
While the synthetic stock has its advantages in rainy Alaska, many hunters still prefer wood. This especially holds true among those who hunt in Africa. Dangerous-game cartridges often generate considerable recoil, and a wood stock needs to be reinforced to prevent splitting. The stock on my Winchester Model 70 Super Express in .458 Winchester Magnum is an example of excellence in stock reinforcement on a standard-production rifle. In addition to a pair of steel crossbolts in the stock (one behind the recoil lug, the other between the trigger and the magazine cutouts), a second recoil lug is attached to the bottom of the barrel about seven inches forward of the receiver. Both recoil lugs rest in generous puddles of extremely hard synthetic bedding compound.
A riflestock is weakest at its wrist, and while it is not often broken by recoil, there are other ways it can be snapped during a hunt. I recall an extremely rough boat ride during a brown bear hunt in southeastern Alaska when a heavy piece of gear fell on my rifle stowed in a soft padded case. Suddenly, it had a two-piece stock. During a buffalo hunt in Botswana, a member of the staff removed a friend’s .450 Watts rifle from the rack of the hunting car, accidentally dropped it on hard ground, and broke the stock at its wrist. He finished the hunt with his professional hunter’s loaner rifle. This can be avoided by reinforcing the grip with an internal steel rod.
Clint Meier of Lone Jack, Missouri, specializes in refinishing, recheckering, repairing, modifying, and reinforcing riflestocks. His work is simply amazing, and he will perform any or all of the modifications I have described and many more.
Stock fit is extremely important. Practice shouldering your rifle, and if the butt occasionally hangs on the clothing you will be wearing on a hunt, the stock is too long. I recommend that while hiring a professional to shorten the stock, go ahead and have a Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pad installed. Rounding its corners and grinding a shallow bevel at the top further discourages snagging. Do whatever is required to make the stock fit perfectly for you. I began shooting my father’s rifles and shotguns at a young age. Their stocks were too long for me, so I learned to push a gun a bit forward while bringing it to my shoulder. It is something I still do, even when shooting a gun that fits me perfectly.
Having the hinged magazine floorplate release due to recoil just after you have started the show with that first round can be rather inconvenient if not fatal. The magazine of a rifle remains loaded until an animal is down or the hunting day comes to an end, so the trapdoor is seldom used. Fasten it closed with a strip of masking tape (it won’t harm the stock finish) or have its latch pinned by a gunsmith. You don’t need to open the floorplate for safely unloading the magazine; short-cycle the bolt and allow them to drop into your hand.
A Mauser-style, control-feed action on a dangerous-game rifle is the world standard, and I have long been fond of it. With that said, I have yet to have the extractor or ejector of any push-feed action fail. The key is keeping the boltface, extractor, plunger ejector, and its tunnel in the face of the bolt clean and free of dirt, dust, rust, and shavings from the heads of cartridges.
While hunting Asiatic buffalo in Australia with Bob Penfold, I examined a Remington Model 700 in .308 Winchester used by him for 20 years while culling thousands of animals as a government employee. By his count, the rifle had digested just over 300,000 rounds, and its barrel had been replaced several times. The extractor was replaced at about 250,000 rounds, not because it had failed, but because its claw had become worn enough to occasionally slip over the rim of a fired case and leave it in the chamber.
For safety sake, the hunter does not chamber a round in his rifle until a shot at game is imminent. There usually will be plenty of time to load a cartridge into the chamber while still some distance from the animal. But the unexpected sometimes happens, and the chamber has to be loaded when the animal is quite close. Most game animals have excellent hearing, and if one is suddenly there yet unaware of your presence, the noise of chambering a round can cause it to quickly vanish or turn an easy shot into a difficult one.
With most rifles, quietly chambering a round from the magazine without making a sound can be quite difficult. If there is time, slowly retract the bolt, manually insert a cartridge into the chamber, and while pressing down on the top cartridge in the magazine, slowly push the bolt forward and rotate to its locked position. Loud “clicks” made by some actions just as the bolt rotates to locked and unlocked can often be silenced by pushing or pulling hard on its handle.
With plenty of practice at home with dummy cartridges, you will learn how to do this quickly, quietly, and without taking your eyes off the target. Before leaving the subject of maintaining total silence at a crucial moment, learn to operate the safety of your rifle quietly by grasping the lever or button with your thumb and finger and easing it to its “Fire” position.
The action of a dangerous-game rifle should be extremely smooth with no trace of binding when its bolt is cycled. Some factory-built rifles will pass the test, fresh from the box. Among those in my battery, a Winchester Model 70 Super Express in .458 Winchester Magnum built by U.S. Repeating Arms in 1988 is tops. Tied for a close second place are a Ruger Model 77 Magnum in .416 Rigby and a Model 700 Safari in .416 Remington Magnum built by the Remington Custom Shop in 1987. The actions of all were extremely smooth to begin with, and they have become even more so due to years of use.
Cycling the bolt of a new rifle hundreds of times will make it smoother. Perhaps even better is to pay a gunsmith who is experienced in that type of work to hone the action to butter smoothness.
The Mauser ’98 action of my custom rifle in .35 Whelen was a bit rough, and while building it, Butch Searcy worked his magic. A thin coat of Tetra Gun lubricant to the outside of a bolt works wonders, and it does not attract dust in the field. Making sure the interior of the bolt is clean and free of rust along with keeping the firing pin cocking cam surface of the bolt greased reduces bolt lift effort.
Initial shots taken at dangerous game in Africa seldom exceed 100 yards, with 25 yards and less not uncommon. A brown bear in Alaskan alders can also be an in-your-lap opportunity. This requires a riflescope with an extremely large field of view.
On the lower end of a variable-power scope, 1X or 1.5X is ideal. Most manufacturers list field of view in the number of feet at 100 yards, and since it is an angular measurement, dividing by four reveals its field at 25 yards. Outstanding choices and maximum fields in feet at 25 yards include the Zeiss Diavari 1.1-4X (30), Kahles 1.1-4X (27), Zeiss Z/ZM 1.25-4X (26), Schmidt & Bender 1.25-4X (24), Swarovski PH 1.25-4X (24), and Trijicon AccuPoint 1-4X (23.5). The longer the eye relief, the better, with not less than 3.5 inches preferred. The rifle should always be carried in the field with the scope set on its lowest magnification.
An exception to ideal scope magnification is when hunting interior grizzly in the mountains of Alaska where shots sometimes have to be taken at greater distances in open country. On one of my hunts there, the outfitter recommended a 7mm or .30 magnum, so I chose the very first rifle built in 7mm STW. The only opportunity I got at a huge bear was on the final afternoon, and since the animal was just over 300 yards away, the Swarovski 4-10X scope on my rifle helped in precise bullet placement, and the bear went down with the first shot.
To determine the ideal mounting height of a scope, close your eyes, and shoulder the rifle with your usual cheek weld. If you open your eyes and are not looking dead center of the ocular lens, scope height needs to be adjusted up or down.
If the magazine runs dry and an animal requiring more follow-up shots is still in sight, manually single-feeding cartridges and firing the rifle single shot is quicker than taking the time to reload the magazine. For this, a two-piece scope mounting base is best because it does not partially block the ejection port, which has now become a loading port.
And you do not want to have to carefully place a cartridge into the action and then start it into the chamber in order for the rifle to feed. Toss a cartridge through the port, slam home the bolt, and shoot is how it must work. If your rifle will not feed in that manner, take it to a gunsmith or trade it for one that does.
Using dummy cartridges, practice single-loading while keeping the rifle shouldered without removing your eyes from the target. And always have extra ammo within easy reach on your belt.
I still occasionally enjoy using open sights, and the Zeiss 1.5-4.5X scope on my Ruger Model 77 Magnum in .416 Rigby is held in place by quick-detach rings from Alaska Arms LLC. The quick-detach mount made by Talley is also good.
A dangerous-game rifle is carried in the field a lot more than it is shot, and for comfort during those endless treks across tundra or veldt, it should have a sling with quick-detachable swivels. To prevent big-cartridge recoil from banging the front swivel against the hand, it should be attached out on the barrel. Having it there also lowers the muzzle of the rifle as it is carried, making it less likely to snag something in the field.