September 23, 2010
By Joseph von Benedikt
CZ-USA's Model 550 Safari Magnum is a great choice if you want a really capable big-bore and need the best value for your money.
By Joseph von Benedikt
Three-leaf iron sights are classic, if not really necessary, on a rifle in .458 Lott. The author found that by taking a coarse bead the sights were properly regulated to make center-mass hits on a target out to 200 yards. At 300 the front bead obscured the target frame.
Old Brno rifles were built with the safety backward — by American way of thinking, at any rate. Not so CZ's Safari Magnum; it has a safety that rocks forward to disengage. The red dot shows the gun is ready to fire.
European influence is obvious in the design of the Safari Magnum's stock. Though the author prefers a classic American look, it mounts well, feels good in the hands, and provides a good cheekweld and proper lineup with the iron sights.
There's no such thing as overkill. Strictly speaking, dead is dead. However, in terms of cartridges, it's easy for a hunter to "underkill" something. Especially when that something has not only the ability but often the distinct desire to make you a part of his new diet or inflict a return on the annoyance you've just caused him.
A small bullet well placed is much better than a big one poorly placed and in most cases will save your professional hunter or guide from having to tighten his belt and explore anything nasty in order to drag your wounded game out where you can take pictures. However, in the case of a hunter who may face ill-tempered game alone, such as a government game-control hunter in Africa or an Alaska resident who sallies forth solo into the wild yonder, I firmly believe that one should carry the best tool for the job. Sometimes that means a rifle chambered for a very big cartridge indeed. It's worth noting that it will take time and effort to become proficient with it in order to avoid that big-bullet-poorly-placed syndrome.
For our "magnum" issue, I wanted to review a rifle chambered in .458 Lott — one of those cartridges that has the deserved reputation of being able to cheerfully take on any and all game that walks. Wildcatted in 1971 by Jack Lott, it was adopted as a factory offering by Hornady in 2002. It produces an honest 2,300 fps with most loads — a threshold considered by many to be the minimum to properly handle big, heavy-boned dangerous game.
I chose a particular rifle for two reasons. First, it was affordable, as big-bores go, with a listed MSRP of $1,179. Bolt-action rifles in .458 Lott are available from Ruger, Weatherby, Kimber, Dakota, and others, but prices start around $1,800 and the sky's the limit. Second, it is the U.S. version of the well-loved 602 Brno, a Mauser-based rifle that has been serving African settlers and hunters faithfully for many decades. CZ-USA's Model 550 Safari Magnum is renown for it's performance and durability under any and all circumstances, and while it may not be as smooth-cycling as some, the big nonrotating claw extractor, fixed ejector, and proven design give a modicum of comfort to those intentionally — let's call spades spades — going into harm's way.
At the range, I put 90+ rounds through the .458 Lott-chambered Safari Magnum. That translates into roughly 7,200 foot-pounds of recoil (minimized by a Lead Sled, thank goodness), a frightening $450 dollars worth of ammo, and 529,000 ft-lbs of muzzle energy sent downrange toward the unsuspecting target berm.
The straight-walled cartridge is not hard to handload, providing much cheaper ammo than the $5-a-pop factory stuff. Also, it's safe to shoot .458 Winchester Magnum ammo through a .458 Lott chamber, similar to using a .38 Special in a .357 Magnum chamber.
Knowing I could do familiarity and close-range practice with any odd remaining cartridges of the seven loads I obtained to shoot through the rifle, I mounted a Bushnell 1.25-8X 32mm Elite 6500 scope and fired accuracy tests first to ensure I'd have enough to get both groups and chronograph data. The scope is a great one for the Lott or any other big-bore, as it provides a very generous 5+ inches of eye relief.
Shooting Times accuracy-testing policy is five, five-shot groups through all rifles except lightweight hunting versions. The CZ is anything but a lightweight, weighing in at roughly 11 pounds including scope, but in the case of a rifle that rearranges your spine and suggests an appointment with one's chiropractor with each shot, I exercised my editorial prerogative and figured three, three-shot groups would suffice.
The rifle impressed me by turning in honest MOA accuracy with one load, and accuracy average across the board was a very respectable 2 inches at 100 yards. Best of all, each load impacted in roughly the same area, allowing a hunter to switch loads with impunity in order to cater to any situation.
The 550 Safari Magnum has European styling, and while I'm partial to a classic American stock, it shoulders well and feels good in the hands. Also, the comb affords a good cheekweld and brings my eye nicely into alignment with the iron sights, which are a three-leaf Express rear arrangement and a bead front. Why one would need three leaves (for 100, 200, and 300 yards) escapes me, but I do like having a 200-yard leaf. I'd never want to take a first shot on anything bad and burly at that distance, but it could come in handy if confronted with the unfortunate need to put another shot into a wounded animal that was rapidly becoming acquainted with the horizon.
Express sights are excellent for quick shooting, and in the case of a cartridge such as the .458 Lott, where bullet weight and flight characteristics rarely vary much even from one brand to another, the sights should come spot-on from the factory — at least at the close ranges where rifles so chambered might be called upon to pry one out of a tight spot. In order to test the express sights, I removed the scope, put the Lead Sled away, and fired the rifle from the shoulder.
My first two shots on a 10-inch round bullseye at 25 yards struck 5 inches low and 1 inch left of center. The Express rear sight has a very generous, wide V-notch, and I'd been drawing a fine bead. I moved to 50 yards, took a much coarser bead with the top of the front bead level with the top of the ample rear sight notch, centered the bead in the 10-inch bullseye, and placed a bullet an inch left of center.
That front bead is small and tends to get slightly lost in the rear, but when sighted as described, the rifle put bullets within a few inches of center at 100 yards, and with the first leaf flipped up did the same at 200 — actually pretty impressive performance.The same bead that se
emed small at close range covered a 10-inch bullseye at 200 completely, and though I'd posted a target at 300 yards, the front bead covered even the target backing, making it impossible to aim. I decided to forgo shooting at 300. Half a box of shells from the shoulder is aplenty for one day — the rifle recoils with profound authority.
The one feature that I'd eliminate from the 550 Safari Magnum entirely is the single-set trigger. While nice on lighter calibers, it is out of place on a big-bore, dangerous-game rifle. Trembling, fear-sweaty fingers and feather-light triggers do not mix. Besides, even without setting the single-set function the trigger gives a clean, reasonably crisp 4-pound pull that is very consistent. On my Lyman digital trigger scale it varied by less than 3 ounces over 10 cycles.
My only other complaint is the location of the front sling swivel. Classic big-bore bolt actions typically have the front swivel located on the barrel just off the end of the fore-end. It doesn't just look cool; it protects your front hand from getting torn up by a fore-end-mounted swivel stud under rather savage recoil.
One impressive feature of the 550 Safari's magazine box is that it easily fits five of the banana-size .458 Lott cartridges and allows the bolt to close home over them without a hint of binding, and it actually allows the insertion of six rounds in order to properly pick up a cartridge and chamber it with the controlled-round-feed bolt's claw extractor. It has an honest five-plus-one capacity. Useful for a professional performing an elephant-culling operation, perhaps, but if I personally ever need that many without time to reload, you'd best just ready the pine box.
I found that four of the six factory loads I shot averaged over the touted 2,300 fps listed on the box — a nice benefit that can be attributed to the 25-inch barrel. The extra length also gets muzzle blast out a bit farther from the ears, adds sight radius, and gives just a shade more recoil-killing weight up front.
Speaking of velocity, one load that turned in a nice round 2,311 fps showed hints of trouble. While shooting groups with Conley Precision Cartridge's TSX load, one round displayed slightly sticky extraction, repeated by the final round in the string of nine. As I ejected that last cartridge, the primer fell out of its pocket and rattled around in the magazine box. The primer pocket was sooty and slightly enlarged. Bad. Not only was the hot factory load a bit stiff to extract, that primer on the loose could have gotten wedged somewhere and stopped function, something undesirable when a truculent beastie is breathing down your sweaty neck.
The load was also quite accurate until the shot thrown by that errant hot load opened up group average. CPC's load featuring the Swift A-Frame bullet performed without a hiccup.
Is CZ-USA's 550 Safari Magnum rifle in .458 Lott one that I would carry into a dicey encounter with something capable of killing me? Absolutely. If I had Harry Selby gripping the back of my khaki shirt, I might choose something with a bit less recoil, but in a mano-a-mano scenario, I can think of little better than a dependable, accurate rifle shooting a 500-grain bullet at 2,300 fps for sorting out an argument in the bush.