September 23, 2010
Our reloading editor stumbled onto a rare rifle and cartridge combo that he simply couldn't pass up.
Lane's special rifle is a
1948-vintage Winchester Model 70 that was customized by gunsmith Al Biesen and engraver Tommy Kaye.
You've probably heard several versions of the adage, "If you're not very smart, it pays to be lucky!" Fortunately, that's often been my lot in life. Just recently, I stumbled on to the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire a 1948-vintage Winchester Model 70 originally reworked by custom gunmaker Al Biesen and embellished by engraver Tommy Kaye.
For years, I'd wanted to attend Tulsa's huge gun show--11 acres under one roof with more than 3,500 trade tables. I finally followed through with my unfulfilled intention last October.
Longtime friend and fellow collector Don Findley was staying at my hotel, so I rode with him and his friend, Tom Nations, to the show each morning. Of course, we talked about guns all weekend, and that's how I got interested in Tom's custom Winchester Model 70 in .308 Norma Magnum.
Originally chambered in .300 H&H with a 26-inch barrel, Biesen had reworked the rifle in the early 1960s, first by setting back the barrel so the original chamber would clean up, then turning it down and shortening it to 24 inches. He also replaced all the bottom metal to complement the trim French walnut stock. Of course, it has Biesen's signature recessed checkering and classic-style comb.
The rifle was subsequently tastefully engraved and further adorned with carved gold inlays of various Alaskan game animals. The relatively uncommon chambering only added to its allure, especially to this handloader. Actually, the Biesen/ Kaye custom Model 70 was so attractive, the odd chambering probably wouldn't have mattered.
Nations bought the rifle about 10 years ago, and as you can see in the photos, the rubs and bumps on the barrel, scope, and stock demonstrate it has not simply hung on the gun rack since leaving Biesen's shop.
Nations threw in five boxes of factory ammo, 100 new Norma cases, new dies, a vintage 3-9X Leupold scope, and a Hoyt quilted-canvas gun case. The serial number indicated the rifle was made the same year I was born.
How in the world could I turn down such a deal? I couldn't.
After returning home, I called several acquaintances to share my good news and to learn more about the rifle. Tom Turpin, a custom Model 70 aficionado, suggested I write about it. Jim Carmichel, who has owned several Biesen rifles, shared his extensive knowledge about the man and his custom rifles. I commented to Carmichel that when mounting the gun, it felt like it was made just for me. He replied, "That's the mark of a quality custom firearm."
Another friend examining photos of the rifle at this year's SHOT Show commented, "The flowing, continuous wraparound checkering on the wrist is impossible to execute. Yes, I know I'm looking at a picture of it, but it's still impossible!"
As the photos show, Biesen truly was a master at doing the impossible. And obviously, Kaye's artistic additions were also tastefully done.
Back in 1936, Winchester upgraded the rather plain Model 54 bolt-action rifle with the Model 70. A few years later, America entered World War II, and Winchester stopped production of sporting firearms to support the war effort. Soon after hostilities ended, commercial sales resumed, and the popular Model 70 regained its well-deserved reputation as the "rifleman's rifle." Vintage Model 70 production continued until 1964 with only a few minor changes.
The Model 70s made just after the war are referred to as "transition" models because they still have most of the original, prewar features, such as early safety and bolt stop and club-shaped receiver tang.
Pre-'64 Model 70s like this one feature the rotating Mauser-type extractor that provides positive, controlled-round feeding of the cartridges from the magazine. Opening and closing the jeweled bolt on this rifle compares with the smooth, secure operation of a bank-vault door. The extended H&H magnum-length magazine is quite spacious, accommodating four belted-magnum cartridges. The vintage Leupold scope is still as crystal clear as the day it left the factory. The vintage Pachmayr pad--still available from Lyman Products--easily tamed the rifle's modest recoil. Trigger pull measured consistently at 3 pounds, give or take an ounce.
If I get the chance, I plan to take it afield charged with a selected handload. It's beautiful, but that surely doesn't preempt its primary purpose as a hunting arm.
In the mid to late 1950s, Winchester designed the .458, .338, and .264 Magnum cartridges by simply shortening the .300 H&H Magnum case so the new rounds would fit a standard-length (.30-06) magazine. The .458 Win. Mag. has a straight-tapered case. The other two were formed by necking down the .458 Win. Mag. case, eliminating most of the H&H's generous body taper and creating a relatively abrupt shoulder.
In 1959, Norma followed Winchester's successful format of packing magnum power in a standard-action-length cartridge and quietly introduced the .358 Norma Magnum. A year later, Norma developed the .308 NM by simply necking down the .35-caliber case.
Norma's original U.S. marketing scheme for the .308 NM focused on having custom gunsmiths convert suitable military surplus Springfield 1903 and 1917 Enfield .30-06 rifles. Of course, M98 Mauser and Model 70 Winchester rifles were also prime candidates for custom work, too. At first, Norma only offered .308 NM brass for handloading. However, factory ammo followed about a year later.
Neither the .308 NM nor the .358 NM were chambered by any of the major U.S. arms makers. The .308 NM was only offered in Belgian FN Browning, Danish Schultz & Larsen, Swedish Husqvarna, Finnish Sako, and British Parker & Hale rifles.
In 1963, five years after its two bracketing calibers debuted, Winchester introduced the .300 Win. Mag. But Winchester didn't simply domesticate the .30-338 wildcat round as everyone had expected. The .300 Win. Mag.'s shoulder is much farther forward, making the neck noticeably shorter than normal, i.e., less than one caliber length.
After just a few years, shooters had se
veral options for a .30-caliber magnum. Of course, if the available options include a wildcat, a foreign cartridge not chambered in any domestic rifle, or the new .30-caliber magnum that was being offered in the rifleman's rifle, the choice is obvious. The .300 Win. Mag. remains one of the most popular cartridges of American hunters.
It's worth noting that the case capacities of the .300 H&H, .30-338, .308 NM, and the .300 Win. Mag. are approximately 80, 79, 81, and 83 grains of water, respectively. Loaded to equal pressures and with the same bullet and chambered in comparable rifles, there's not a dime's worth of difference among them. Different barrel lengths and chamber/barrel dimensional tolerances can affect muzzle velocities much more than a grain or two of propellant.
The Combo At The Range
I fired nearly 500 rounds while preparing this review. The accompanying chart does not include several test loads comprised of components that are obsolete, discontinued, or otherwise unavailable. As more and more rounds were assembled and fired, the data clearly indicated the vintage rifle could deliver solid, 1.5-MOA hunting accuracy.
The first four rounds I fired were the remnant of an old box of factory ammo, and my chronograph recorded the 180-grain Dual Core bullets at 3,163 fps average velocity. Then I fired a five-shot group of Nosler ammo. Although velocity was indicated to be 2,975 fps, the ammo averaged nearly 200 fps less.
I fired three-round groups of four additional Norma factory loads, including a fresh box loaded with 180-grain Oryx bullets. They all averaged 2,918 fps--about 250 fps less than those first four factory Norma rounds. The extended freebore was serving its purpose quite well, limiting chamber pressures.
Then it was time to check out some handloads.
As you can see in the chart, relatively slow-burn-rate propellants are best suited for reloading the .308 NM. Either IMR or Hodgdon 4350 are the fastest recommended propellants, and the maximum charges of the slowest propellants exhibit nearly 100 percent load density with several bullets even seated out to slightly longer than 3.5 inches COL. The data indicates how easy it is to duplicate .30-06 ballistics if the quarry and terrain do not require magnum power. At speeds faster than 2,700 fps, Remington Core-Lokts and Winchester Power-Points delivered the best accuracy of the handloads tested.
One disturbing trend occurred at least 40 percent of the time. I would usually begin each session by firing 10 rounds slowly, and then I would set the rifle aside to cool. Then I would fire another five-shot group before setting it aside to cool again. The first bullet from a cold or cooled-down barrel would usually strike near the point of aim. However, three or sometimes all four of the remaining bullets would group close together but 1.5 inches or so from the first one. Most of the second five-shot strings from a warm barrel would often group with no apparent flyer. It probably is caused by how the barreled action is bedded, but the rifle shoots good enough, and I'm not about to mess with Biesen's stock.
All of my test loads used 180-grain bullets with one exception. I had heard that Berger was marketing its VLD Match bullets for hunting, so I ordered some 185-grain samples and assembled a box of test loads based on my previous range results and recommended load data for Lapua's MEGA bullet. The final group for record measured 2 inches. However, the last four Berger bullets fired in that five-shot string--from a cool barrel--grouped under a half-inch but low and left away from the first one.
Okay. So it's not a tackdriver, and for all intents and purposes, the cartridge is strictly a handloading proposition. But working with this rifle/cartridge combo has been the most fun I've had for a very long time. It has become my go-to big-game hunting rifle, the one I will choose when the choice is up to me because of its aesthetic qualities, its history, and the shear joy it brings to me.