October 2008

Dangerous-Game Rifles: When Only the Best Firearm Will Do

A Churchill Double 470 takes the self-protection cake, but take out a second mortgage to buy it. A custom Springfield 458 is a less-costly alternative, but a custom Mauser 458 doesn’t cut it.

Those who choose to hunt the world’s most dangerous game in the old way, relying on their own rifle and their own shooting (however you may be able to do that), must have reliable rifles. It matters not that your rifle can put all its shots into a single hole at a thousand yards if—only once—it ever fails to work. Failure generally comes when you’re tackling something that can kill you. One of our staff had that happen in Africa. The cocking piece came loose when he chambered a round in a custom rifle that had fired a thousand rounds with zero problems. It never happened before, nor since. Of course, most people never hunt dangerous game without a guide along. But what about the guide’s rifle?

The finest rifles for hunting dangerous game are those that can reliably shoot time and again with no problems, and of all rifles, the fine English-made double rifle has the reputation of having no peer in this field. In this test we were privileged to have the loan of just such a rifle, a Churchill double 470 that is currently for sale at $40,000. But do you really need a rifle that costly? Can’t you do just as well with a good 458 bolt-action rifle, especially a custom one that might cost more than, say, a Remington or Ruger, but has the advantages of custom fitting and best-quality setup? To evaluate custom 458s we acquired the loan of two custom rifles. One is based on a Czech VZ-24 action, and is valued at $1500. The other is based on a Springfield 1903, and is a more serious endeavor. It seemed to have it all, custom fitting, engraving, extensive action work, rust bluing, etc. It is valued at $15,000. We evaluated them first as dangerous-game rifles, but we also took a look at what else they offer the sportsman in search of a versatile big rifle.

Besides utter reliability, what must a dangerous-game rifle have? Smoothness and silence of operation are mandatory. Ejectors on double rifles can be deactivated if necessary, but they are godsends—if noisy—in some situations. Excellent triggers are mandatory, but they must not be too light. A non-glare finish is called for on stock and metal. Of course the rifle has to have a good recoil pad and a large area on the stock where it touches your shoulder. The rifle must fit you, so you can shoot quickly. Iron sights are mandatory, we believe. Much dangerous-game hunting is done in marginal light where a scope might be nice, but it’s also usually close-range shooting. A scope may be valuable for non-dangerous game and other such uses, but it can get badly in the way when you’re 20 feet from your target.

We shot our test rifles with factory ammo and handloads, wanting to experience the 458 with both 350-grain Barnes X and 500-grain Hornady steel-jacket solids, plus some lighter loads. We have some of the newest 458 factory ammunition coming, with claimed velocities over 2200 fps for 500-grain bullets, but it did not arrive in time. The 458 handloads we used are thoroughly tested over many years, and meet or exceed the velocities obtained with most older factory ammo. Commercial ammunition for these big rifles is not cheap. Current list price for ten rounds of Norma 470 ammunition is $212, or $21 a round. A case of 200 rounds of Federal 470 ammo is available discounted at $3000. Winchester 458 Magnum ammo is not that bad at $6 to $8 per shot, or from $120 to $160 list price for a box of 20.

The argument might well be made that no one really needs an elephant rifle. However, they are very much fun to shoot, as any owner can tell you. There’s also the hidden reward of mastering all that power, which in turn makes lesser rifles easier to handle, which makes you a better shot, which directly benefits the game you hunt. Also, generally overlooked in the gun press, there’s the fact that big rifles are always far more versatile than smaller rifles. With a 458 you can slay an elephant, or you can handload it with round balls and hunt rabbits. Can’t load down a 470, you say? The owner of our 470 has developed loads for 400-grain bullets that regulate well in the big rifle and cut recoil a bunch.

So for the most bang for the buck, build your own loads if you have a big rifle. You’ll be well rewarded. Some very fine 470 bullets cost $2 apiece, but there are cheaper ways, including paper-patched cast lead, so save your brass. Handloading the 458 with cast bullets can cut ammo costs to less than that of store-bought 223. So which is better, bolt-action or double rifle? Here’s what we found.

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