December 14, 2020
By Joseph von Benedikt
The Uberti 1885 Courteney Stalking Rifle is chambered in .303 British, and it is a finely finished single shot that was conceived to provide modern shooters and hunters a classic, traditional rifle archetypical of Africa’s glory days. Each feature and characteristic of the rifle is reminiscent of the superb British stalking rifles of a century and more ago, and the model is named in homage to the great hunter/naturalist Courteney Selous (1851–1917). It celebrates the rifles carried by the early hunter-explorers who opened up the African frontier.
Great Britain’s legendary gunmakers used Martini-Henry single-shot actions (among others), but not Winchester 1885s, and in the post-Boer War era in South Africa, settlers and hunters heading afield with a .303 British were equipped with Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles, not single shots. However, single-shot rifles and the .303 British cartridge have a rich heritage on the Dark Continent, and conceptualizing them into a retro-modern stalking rifle was an appealing and intriguing move by Uberti.
Although John Browning designed the original 1885 High Wall action as a self-cocking action, this iteration by Uberti does not cock the hammer as the breechblock is lowered. This change is not really an issue, though cocking the hammer with a scope aboard takes a bit of fiddling.
To operate Uberti’s 1885, lower the lever, insert a cartridge, close the lever, cock the hammer, aim, and fire. Lowering the lever again activates the extractor, which pushes the fired cartridge case rearward from the chamber a quarter-inch or so. Flick the empty the rest of the way out with your finger or elevate the muzzle and shake it out.
The action, lever, breechblock, hammer, and trigger are nicely finished with a good polish and vivid color-casehardening. The barrel, barrel-band swivel stud, quarter-rib sight island, and ramp-type globe front sight are blued with a nice deep luster.
Uberti made a very savvy move with that quarter-rib sight island. It’s machined with a cross-slot Weaver-type rail in its top, enabling easy scope mounting. (A traditional, non-Weaver version is available for purchase from Uberti and is easily swapped for the Weaver-slotted quarter-rib.) A wide dovetail in the forward end holds a sturdy, shallow-V rear sight that’s adjustable for windage and elevation.
Up front, a long, sleek sight ramp is fitted with a bead front encircled with a removable globe. It’s a nice setup for those long, torrid days on safari and for still-hunting whitetails in the big woods of the North.
About three inches off the forearm tip is a barrel-band sling-swivel stud. Not only is it appropriate for the era and type, but also is arguably the fine touch that sets the Courteney apart as a proper African stalking rifle.
As for the barrel, it is 24 inches long, strongly tapered, and rifled with a 1:10 right-hand twist. It has six lands and grooves. The muzzle is finished with a simple bevel-type crown. The polishing is very good, and the excellent bluing glows deeply.
Nice, dense walnut with good color and a hint of figure is used for both the forearm and the buttstock. They match nicely, and the grain at the wrist of the buttstock is well laid out to provide strength through that weakest part of the stock. A subtle but nice African Heartwood tip sets off the nose of the forearm.
Wood-to-metal fit between the stocks and action and around the tangs is quite good. Wood pores are completely filled, and the finish is applied evenly and with excellent clarity, enabling the natural beauty of the wood to glow through. Checkering around the forearm and on each side of the grip appears to be machine cut, but I had to look closely to determine that. It’s very well done, without any uneven areas or visible discrepancies.
To give the Courteney Stalking Rifle a bit of tangible British flair, the stock was configured with a Prince of Wales rounded pistol grip. It’s open and comfortable and adds a bit of stability in field positions, as well as a bit of recoil control. Not that the .303 British cartridge recoils aggressively. A classic orange rubber buttpad with a leather-textured face and a black spacer removes what little bite the .303 British does have and provides a non-slip surface as well.
Ammunition in .303 British isn’t common, but it isn’t exactly difficult to find, either. I obtained Sellier & Bellot, Hornady, and Remington factory loads to shoot for this report.
To most effectively test the potential accuracy of the rifle, I mounted a lovely little Leupold VX-3i 2.5-8X 36mm on the quarter-rib rear sight island. It was easy to do and made the most out of the Weaver-type cross-slots in the rib.
Benchresting the rifle on Champion sandbags fore and aft, I got the scope-rifle combo hitting paper targets at 25 yards. Then I moved the target to 100 yards, where I fired a series of three, three-shot groups for average with each of the factory loads.
Candidly, accuracy wasn’t what I’d hoped it would be. Only one group clustered around the one-inch mark. Most were between two and three inches. However, I reasoned, this is a stalking rifle, and for use inside 250 yards, that level of accuracy is perfectly adequate. It’s not a quarter-mile hunting rifle, but then, neither were any of the vintage single shots it’s patterned after.
To be sure, handloading could and likely would provide an improvement in accuracy. But be aware that bore diameter is 0.312 inch, so standard 0.308-inch-diameter component bullets aren’t suitable.
Of the ammo I fired, Hornady’s 150-grain InterLock load produced the best accuracy, averaging right at 1.5 inches at 100 yards. It’s a good whitetail and wild hog load.
For use on elk or the bigger plains game species, I’d opt for either of the 180-grain loads or, better yet, handload a tough, controlled-expansion bullet.
I must point out that after the second less-than-impressive group, I gave the rifle a quick medical check to ascertain whether there was anything awry. To my surprise, the scope base-sight island was tangibly loose. So I removed the scope, removed and cleaned the mounting screws, applied a small drop of LocTite to each, and torqued the base back into place. I then went back to shooting. Unfortunately, group sizes improved only a little.
On the plus side, the Courteney Stalking Rifle is 100 percent reliable. It never failed to fire or extract a cartridge. Loading it with the scope aboard was a bit tricky. Chambering a cartridge requires the shooter to seat the round firmly forward against the extractor to allow the top front edge of the breechblock to clear it and raise into the closed position. Because the scope partially blocks easy access to the breech, I had to make a point of threading my thumb into the back of the action under the scope and pressing the cartridge forward into the chamber.
And as I mentioned earlier, cocking the hammer with the scope in place was a bit “fiddly,” but it caused no problems. The trigger pull averaged 5 pounds, 4 ounces, which is a bit on the heavy side, but it was quite crisp and easy to control.
Recoil of the .303 British round in the Courteney Stalking Rifle, while discernible, is quite pleasant. At 49,000 maximum psi, the .303 British is not a high-pressure cartridge, and the kick is not sharp or vicious. It could be compared to a quarter-size version of the mild-kicking .375 H&H.
Introduced in 1889 for use in Great Britain’s Lee-Metford rifle, the .303 British was originally a blackpowder cartridge. It successfully made the transition to smokeless gunpowder in 1891 and went on to a glorious 70-year service history.
Like many classically European cartridges, the C.I.P (Commission Internationale Permanente, which is the Continent’s equivalent to the U.S.’s SAAMI) gives the .303 British a higher pressure ceiling than U.S. ammo factories. European guns chambered in .303 British are pressure-tested at over 66,000 psi to ensure they’ll safely fire and function with European ammo loaded up to about 53,000 psi. It’s not a big increase over U.S. factory loads, but it is worth noting.
Originally, .303 British military ammunition was loaded with a 215-grain roundnose bullet with a full metal jacket. Several iterations of it proved unsatisfactory for various reasons, including lack of puissance in combat. A hollow-nose version replaced the roundnose, and it enjoyed a brief period of military use, during which it proved to be very effective before being designated as inhumane by the Hague Convention in 1899.
Early 1900s saw an international move to pointed, lighter-weight bullets in military ammunition. They recoiled less and flew faster and flatter than the old roundnose heavyweights. Britain took the concept a step farther when it introduced a sleek 174-grain composite bullet with an aluminum insert in the nose. Exiting the muzzle at about 2,440 fps, it tended to yaw and tumble violently on impact, imparting dramatic wound channels. As a result, it was more effective in combat than earlier FMJ projectiles and more effective than the ammunition fielded by some competing nations during World War I.
Hunters of yesteryear and today tend to prefer expanding bullets. Several ammo companies offer factory-loaded softpoints like those fired for this article. Barnes, Remington, Speer, Hornady, Sierra, and Woodleigh either make or have made component bullets for handloaders.
In addition to Africa, the .303 British cartridge was and is popular among hunters in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. With heavy-for-caliber bullets, it’s reputed to provide excellent penetration, making it suitable for close range use on the biggest hooved game in North America.
When handloading the .303 British, neck sizing can increase case life and accuracy because most old surplus military rifles have generous chamber dimensions. Prime with standard Large Rifle primers.
Hornady’s data suggests H414 for best velocity with heavier bullets in the 174-grain range and up. H4895, Alliant Reloder 15, and IMR 4064 also give good results. For lighter bullets in the 150-grain range, Reloder 15 earns top velocity honors. Varget and IMR 3031 are other good options.
Up close and personal, the Uberti 1885 Courteney Stalking Rifle will perform beautifully in the field. Most .303 British ammo isn’t suitable for use on game much past 300 yards, so the moderate accuracy is perfectly acceptable. It’s classically configured, handles beautifully, and exudes vintage panache. If you prefer to stalk close rather than shoot far and want a beautiful, traditional single-shot rifle with which to prowl the woods and the open plains, you’ll do well to consider the Courteney Stalking Rifle. And don’t let the fact that it’s built in Italy confuse you; I say it is beautifully British.
Uberti 1885 Courteney Stalking Rifle Specs
- Manufacturer: Uberti USA, uberti-usa.com
- Type: Falling-block single shot
- Caliber: .303 British
- Cartridge Capacity: 1 round
- Barrel: 24 in.
- Overall Length: 37.5 in.
- Weight, Empty: 7.13 lbs.
- Stock: A-grade walnut; African Heartwood forearm tip
- Length of Pull: 14.5 in.
- Finish: Blued and color-casehardened steel, satin wood
- Sights: Adjustable shallow-V rear; hooded bead front; quarter-rib slotted for Weaver rings
- Trigger: 5.25-lb. pull (as tested)
- Safety: Halfcock hammer
- MSRP: $1,729
Uberti 1885 Courteney Stalking Rifle Accuracy & Velocity