September 2000

Tested: A Trio of Big-Game Busters in .375 H&H Magnum

Rugerís Magnum takes the cake as a dangerous-game gun, and we also like Sakoís 75 Hunter. Unless you want to get eaten by a bear, pass on the Winchester Model 70 Safari Express.

[IMGCAP(1)] Holland & Holland’s .375 Belted Magnum came into being in 1912 along with a sister cartridge having a flange, or rim, for single shots and double rifles. In 1905 Holland had developed the world’s first belted case for a much less powerful cartridge, the 400/375. The concept worked well enough that they used it for several other of their proprietary cartridges, like the .275 Magnum, the somewhat later .240 Magnum and the well-known .300 H&H Magnum, which came out in 1925. The big .375 is Holland & Holland’s most famous cartridge, and it’s just as good today as it was 88 years ago.

The .375 Magnum proved to be a splendid success in Africa. Original ballistics gave a 235-grain bullet about 2,800 fps, a 270-grain bullet about 2,650 fps and a 300-grainer about 2,500 fps. Holland & Holland actually designed this cartridge so that all three weights of bullet would strike at the same aim point. Even more amazing, they got their double rifles to perform extremely well with all three weights of bullet, one of the grandest rifle-making achievements of all time. This meant the cartridge, and good rifles made for it, were ideal for the world-wide hunter who wanted to pack only one rifle. With a good .375 H&H Magnum and a variety of ammunition in three bullet weights, he had all the rifle he’d ever need.

For many years Holland and a few other British manufacturers, plus Mauser on the Continent, were the only producers of rifles chambered for the .375 H&H Magnum. The main reason was the length of the cartridge required a long action, and not too many makers produced rifle actions long enough to handle it. Mauser, in fact, developed its famous magnum-length action specifically for big British cartridges, though Mauser developed some of its own big cartridges as well.

Western Cartridge Co. began loading the .375 H&H Magnum (and also the .300 H&H Magnum) in 1925. In 1936, Winchester began chambering its Model 70 for the .375 H&H, and this broke the stranglehold the Brits and Germany had on the cartridge. The resounding success of this great cartridge worldwide ensured its longevity, and it is with us today in many makers’ catalogs.

Do you need a .375? It’s a great cartridge. It kicks, but how much it kicks depends on load intensity and rifle weight. With a light load in a heavy rifle, just about anybody can shoot it all day long. This cartridge is one of the world’s best for an all-purpose rifle. Certainly, it’s too much for whitetail hunting or varminting, but it’ll do it. On the other end of the scale, the .375 H&H Magnum has been used extensively for elephant hunting. It’s a bit small for that job, but again, it’ll do. There is probably no better all-around cartridge for Africa or Alaska. The only problem might be in getting a rifle of the exact weight for your uses, such as a light one for all-day packing, or a heavier one for all-day bench shooting, from the maker of your choice. A secondary problem might be in finding one in the first place, because most makers produce a run of them and then wait until there’s sufficient demand to make another run. They’re not always on your dealer’s rack.

But we found three of them to test. We acquired a Ruger M77 Mark II Magnum ($1,550), Winchester Model 70 Safari Express ($865), and a Sako Model 75 Hunter ($1,219). All of them had wood stocks, and two of them had iron sights. Whether or not you choose to scope your .375 will ultimately be based on your prospective use of the rifle, but with most factory loads, the .375 produces very significant recoil, and your scope and mounts better be up to it. In the course of our testing, we broke our favorite Artemis 3-9X variable scope.

We tested our trio of .375 rifles with three types of ammunition, Remington Premier Safari Grade with 300-grain Swift A-Frame bullet, Hornady Heavy Magnum with 270-grain Interlock bullet, and an old friend in the form of a mild handload using Speer’s great little 235-grain spire-point bullet.

Here’s what we thought of each gun individually:

Ruger M77 Mark II Magnum
Our recommendation: There are both cheaper and lighter .375s out there, but we felt the Ruger offered so much for its price —great looks, great balance that belied its weight, superb iron sights if you don’t want a scope, great wood, and outstanding workmanship—that we give it an enthusiastic Buy rating.

Click here to view the Ruger M77 Mark II Magnum features guide

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Some folks don’t know Ruger makes this $1,550 rifle. Actually, it’s offered in two chamberings, .375 H&H Magnum and .416 Rigby, one of the very few rifles in that chambering offered today. The Ruger in both chamberings was recently redesigned with a shorter barrel (23 instead of 26 inches) and a few other niceties that made it into a much better rifle. The current version of the .375 is a bit heavy at just under 10 pounds unscoped. As tested, with our 4X Artemis, it weighed 10.8 pounds unloaded and with no sling. That much weight was fine for extended bench sessions, but it might be a bit much for lugging in the field all day. A rifle of this power does not need to weigh as much as the Ruger does. We have fired a pre-war Super-Grade Winchester Model 70 that weighed just under 10 pounds with scope, and a CZ ZKK 602 that weighed 9.6 pounds with scope, and they were just about right.

The Ruger was big but well balanced. The first thing we noticed was the outstanding wood, on one side, anyway. The right side was nice, but nowhere near as attractive as the left. We prefer our rifles to be symmetric, but realize fancy wood is a very costly substance these days, and could live with what was on the Ruger. The wood was honey-gold colored with dark lines and swirls, and it had that to some extent on both sides of the buttstock, and on the forend as well. The stock finish was perfect. All pores were filled, the grain stood out nicely, and there was no excessive shine to the stock at all. The Ruger finish here would serve as an example to the rest of the industry.

The stock had a black-plastic forend tip that was so well fitted we thought the wood had simply been dunked into a bucket of black paint. The butt pad was very well fitted, but it was made of hard black rubber and was too small in area. This rifle weighed enough that recoil wasn’t a problem, but we’d like that pad to have been softer and the butt to have been larger. The checkering was cleanly done in adequate and attractive patterns, and it worked very well. The Ruger’s forend was thick and large, and gave us great control of the rifle in rapid-fire mode. There was no cheekpiece or cast-off, but the rifle fit all who tried it more than well enough. The pistol-grip cap was blued steel, with the Ruger logo in gold in its center.

All the metalwork was extremely well inletted, nicely polished and flawlessly blued. For a pleasant change, the usual booklet of instructions and warnings commonly found stamped into Ruger barrels was absent here. The only markings on the barrel were the caliber, the Ruger company name and its Southport, Connecticut, location. The metalwork was quite thoroughly bolted into the stock, barrel and all. There were two screws under the forend, and three larger screws going through the all-steel floorplate and trigger guard. The front one of these three was slanted into the action, common Ruger practice. Inside the stock were numerous tricks in the form of quite a lot of iron to prevent the rifle’s recoil from splitting that lovely stock. There was also a through-bolt near the main recoil lug all the way through the stock. The mass of metal near the center of the rifle contributed greatly to the balance, which was so good it belied the rifle’s weight.

Though the Ruger weighed slightly more than the Winchester, we thought it felt just as lively, if not more so.

The iron sights were again something the rest of the industry ought to try and match. The rear was a standing wide-angle V on a quarter rib, with two folding leaves. If you don’t like classic English express sights and can’t handle that perfect sight picture of a small front bead in the bottom of the wide-angle V, just flip up the first leaf and you’ll be looking through a U-notch with flat top. The forward leaf also had a U-notch, and was higher, for a greater but unspecified distance. This type of sight has been standard practice for over a century on British rifles, though the flip-up leaves on them generally are all wide-angle V shapes, and they usually have a vertical white line indicating the center.

The top of the quarter rib was file-cut to prevent glare. The foresight was a gold-faced bead in a ramped, barrel-banded base. The blade was interchangeable. We’d have liked a front-sight protector of some sort, but there were no provisions for one.

Another nice touch on the Ruger was the barrel-mounted front-sling stud. Putting it there keeps it away from the supporting hand in recoil, and that’s a good idea. The Ruger’s action was controlled-feed. The overall length of the action was 9.4 inches from the front of the front ring to the back of the top tang. The left side measured 7.5 inches to the rear of the left flange, just in front of the bolt shroud. The bolt was very slick, much more so than the Winchester Model 70 even after that rifle had been fired a bunch. The left side of the bolt body had a stop, similar to those on pre-’64 Winchester Model 70s, and that undoubtedly helped give this rifle its slick feel as it glided along the left-side rail. The bolt could be removed from the rifle like a Mauser 98 bolt, by pulling outward on the front of the bolt stop. This was located at the left rear of the action. The safety was a three-position device at the right rear of the action. It remained with the action when the bolt was withdrawn. It was nearly hidden in the side of the bolt when fully on, but we had no problems with it. The center position permits cycling rounds out of the box, and also disassembly of the bolt.

The floorplate was hinged and stayed shut until we wanted it. Unfortunately, the one significant flaw we found with this nice .375 was that the floorplate appeared to have been sprung (though the rifle was new), because there was a gap near its front end that let lots of light through. The magazine held four cartridges down, and a fifth in the chamber. The Ruger came with rings, and we used them to mount a 4X Artemis scope.

At the range we found the Ruger to be quite accurate with two of the loads. A relatively inexperienced shooter tried the rifle and claimed that its kick with the light 235-grain handload was reasonable, and he felt he could shoot the big rifle all day with it. We fired one spectacular group with the Remington load featuring the A-Frame bullet. Three shots went into half an inch at 100 yards. Several other three-groups had two shots nearly touching, with the third just over an inch away. Clearly, the Ruger would respond to serious load searching.

The Hornady Heavy Magnum load was serious but essentially useless medicine. It kicked much more than the other loads, and was decidedly unpleasant even in this heavy rifle. We wonder if it might be a step in the wrong direction. The .375 doesn’t need more horsepower. If you need more rifle, we advise getting one with a larger hole in the barrel. The Hornady load drove its 270-grain bullets at 2,820 fps in the Ruger and 2,850 fps in the Winchester, compared with original ballistics for that bullet weight of 2,650 fps.

Finally, we tried the Ruger rapid-fire, and it was easy and fun to make fast repeat hits with it. We did note that it’s possible to put the safety on while palming the bolt, but it never happened in our limited testing.

During our test shooting, two rounds failed to fire. Their primers showed a light firing-pin strike. On inspection we discovered some rust on the firing pin and inside the bolt where the pin passes through it. We cleaned it out, and had no further problems.

Winchester Model 70 Safari Express
Our recommendation: Although Winchester has a grand reputation, this rifle didn’t fulfill the promise of the old “rifleman’s rifle” slogan of this firm. We’d have to pass on it, and recommend you Don’t Buy it.

Click here to view the Winchester Model 70 Safari Express features guide

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The Model 70 was a business-like rifle with few frills. It seemed to have everything you’d want including a workable set of iron sights. The dark, reddish-tinted walnut stock had some figure and was finished quite well, with all pores filled and with a dull sheen that helped give the rifle its purposeful look. There were two crossbolts in the stock, one just in front of the trigger guard and one under the main recoil lug area. The barrel was not floated. There was no forend tip and no pistol-grip cap. The recoil pad was nearly as soft as we wanted. More important, Winchester got the butt size of this rifle right. The pad area was a full half-inch longer than that of the Ruger, and significantly wider. This is how the butt of hard-kicking rifles ought to be. The larger area distributes recoil over more of your body. This Winchester is the first American-made rifle we’ve seen that has this small but very important detail done correctly.

The bluing was semi-matte, and the inletting was very good throughout the rifle. The stock had decent but not totally sharp checkering in an odd-shaped borderless area on each side of the pistol grip, and wrap-around checkering on the forend. The rounded forend felt quite good and was large enough to give a solid grasp on the rifle. We liked the cheekpiece, but our lefty didn’t care one way or another. We liked the front sling swivel stud placed on the barrel, and also the front sight cover. The front bead was white-faced and large enough to be seen through the wide-angle V-with-U-notch rear sight (a dubious item – essentially a clean buckhorn).

The metalwork was tied to the stock with but two screws, one at the front of the magazine well and one at the back of the trigger guard. The steel floorplate was hinged, and stayed shut until needed. It, like that of the Ruger, was easily opened for unloading. The jeweled, controlled-feed bolt had a lug at its front end to aid smoothness, but this rifle’s bolt was not all that smooth to lock. Opening and closing, it felt stiff even after our firing sessions. Inspection showed a portion of the bolt stop mechanism, affixed to the front of the bolt just behind one locking lug, was quite tightly fastened, and gave significant resistance to rotation. Lube and working-in seemed to help a bit, but it’d be a long time before this bolt was as smooth as the Ruger’s had been right out of the box.

The magazine held four cartridges, but would not permit the bolt to close over the top round, so the capacity was three-plus-one, one less than the Ruger. The Winchester weighed 9.4 pounds with no scope. It weighed 10.6 pounds as tested. When we mounted our Artemis 3-9X variable in Weaver rings and bases, we discovered we had to remove the rear iron sight and its base. This by itself is not a condemnation of the rifle. Some scopes would clear the rear sight. However, we’re glad we had to take it off because we learned what a poor setup it was. This sight had clamped but driftable windage adjustment, plus minimal elevation adjustment by two tiny screws that held the vertical-sliding rear U-notch blade to the substantial base. When we took the sight off the rifle, we discovered, much to our surprise, that the entire rear sight apparatus was held to the barrel with a single small screw. This is not the way to keep a sight on a hard-kicking rifle, folks. Also, if the rifle fell and hit a rock you’d be without a rear sight. Lots of folks use only iron sights on their .375s, and if you’re in the heart of Africa or Alaska, you’ll need sights on your rifle. This one needs work to make it a serious tool, in our view.

With the scope mounted we proceeded to the range and cut loose with the Winchester. The trigger pull was all right, and broke at 4.0 pounds with zero creep and minimal overtravel. The Model 70 didn’t like our handload, giving 3-inch-average groups. Our prediction was that the Winchester had accuracy problems, and we were right. The Ruger hadn’t liked the hot Hornady load, and neither did the Winchester. It gave one three-shot group of 7 inches. One of the Ruger’s groups measured 4.5 inches, so we weren’t too surprised at the poor showing of the Hornady ammo in the M70. The Winchester liked the Remington Safari ammunition best, but the best group was a boring 2 inches, although two of the shots touched.

Near the end of our shooting session we saw the reticle begin to rotate on the Artemis scope with each shot, and it ended up about 15 to 20 degrees out of plumb. Something had come loose inside, and though subsequent testing indicated the scope was still capable of giving at least usable accuracy, we decided to replace the scope and retest.

Unfortunately, the Winchester had other problems as well. The rifle fed the second round reliably only about half the time. Ammunition type didn’t matter; all of it had essentially pointed noses. We could not get past this function problem, and it ruined the rifle for us. It didn’t show up in slow fire from the bench, but we could jam the second round often enough in rapid fire that we’d have to say it was a two-shot rifle, with the third round problematical. That’s not good in a rifle that someone might take against dangerous game. The jamming round popped up too high and hit the top-right end of the barrel, which prevented the bolt from going any farther forward. We note this was a coned-breech rifle, with a “funnel” directing rounds into the chamber.

All in all we were displeased with the performance of this Model 70. The concept was pretty good. Some things were done well, like the huge buttpad, barrel-mounted sling swivel, protected front sight with large bead, and the thoroughly workable checkering and attractive stock finish. Other things were not quite right, like the poor mounting of the rear sight base, the odd look to the rear blade, and of course the fatal failure to feed.

We wondered about the innards of this rifle, and how Winchester thought the gun could stay together with but two action screws, compared to five for the Ruger. We decided to look.

We found a very rigid floorplate/mag-bottom assembly, designed to have great bending resistance. This easily eliminated the need for the middle screw. The magazine box was sheet metal, separate from the rest of the action. We found a large recoil lug permanently attached to the barrel by what appeared to be careful welding. Both it and the large recoil lug at the front of the action were bedded in a flexible clear-plastic-like substance, but the contact area of plastic to steel was nowhere near 100 percent. The contact area at the front lug was perhaps 1/8-inch high. If we owned this rifle we’d apply Brownells’ Steel Bed to replace the soft material, and would also drill and tap the front lug and secure the stock to it with a third bolt. In fairness, the soft stuff seemed to work, as the stock wasn’t split. We don’t believe that soft bedding compound helped accuracy. We found the interior wood was not completely protected by stock finish, and there was lots of thin oil inside the stock.

Sako 75 Hunter
Our recommendation: We would have preferred iron sights, and in fact believe that all .375s ought to have them. In spite of the one failure to fire we gave this lovely rifle a Buy rating. We think it’s well worth the money.

Click here to view the Sako 75 Hunter features guide

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Our first impression of the $1,219 Sako .375 was that it was extremely well made. The wood was dark and rich-looking and reasonably well finished. The inletting was superb, and the fitting of the butt pad was perfect. The rifle had nice lines with a cheekpiece, significant cast-off, great checkering with ribbon enhancement, and excellent balance. We noticed there were no iron sights, and we’d have liked them. Ideally, we’d have liked the Sako aperture rear with two-position elevation and a good flat-top post with hood, as we’ve seen on older Sakos, but it was apparently discontinued long ago.

Close inspection showed that the wood pores were not perfectly filled, but the overall impression of the stock finish was very good to excellent. The solid red rubber recoil pad was rounded at the top, but we feel it was way too firm. However, it was, like that of the Winchester, rather large in area. The buttstock was of the Monte-Carlo type with a large and comfortable cheekpiece that would recoil away from the face, and that promised some shooting comfort with this hard-kicking cartridge. The rifle had a sling stud on the forend, which should have been mounted on the barrel. There was a very small pistol grip cap that did little to protect the pistol grip from nicks and dings, but it had a nice appearance, and held the Sako name.

This rifle had a detachable magazine box made of aluminum, with a plastic follower and steel floorplate. The .375 Sako 75 Hunter comes without iron sights and with the detachable magazine, according to the company’s latest catalog. A rifle such as the .375, we feel, ought to have iron sights as an option. Sako lists them for the .416 Remington version of the “75 Battue” model, which has a shorter barrel and a quarter rib with wide V rear. The Sako Deluxe has a hinged floorplate and non-removable magazine, but still no iron sights. The Sako Deluxe costs $1,754.

Our rifle’s detachable magazine came out very easily by pressing a lever, located at the front of the floorplate, toward the rear. This released the box, so we could peer inside the rifle and discover there was no finish on the wood exposed inside the magazine cutout. We wetted this area several times and got significant whiskers to rise from the unprotected wood. We’d put some linseed oil or synthetic varnish inside the stock to keep oil and water from ruining the nice wood from the inside out. Sako recommends keeping the inside of the stock oiled (linseed oil), but put nothing there themselves.

There was a palm swell for right-handers, and in fact this was a very comfortable rifle for north-paws. The cast-off permitted the right eye to easily line up with the barrel. The stock dimensions seemed to call for iron sights more than for a scope. With the face securely down on the stock comb, the shooter’s eye was about half an inch above the top of the action. The forend was nicely shaped and large enough to give good control.

The 24.5-inch barrel was free-floated back to the front action ring. The gap between stock and barrel was larger on the right side than on the left. The wood-to-metal fit on the rest of the rifle was well done. The metal was well polished and well blued. The top of the action had Sako’s integral tapered scope-mounting bases, and a set of (extra-cost) Sako rings came with the rifle. Moving rearward, we found an odd red dot on top of the bolt shroud, which was not a cocking indicator. There was a cocking indicator that protruded beneath the bolt shroud in the form of a small red dot on top of a piece of steel. The red dot on top of the striker was part of Sako’s unique Key Concept, a bolt-lock system. This permits the owner to completely prevent bolt movement and lock the firing pin when total security of the rifle is desired, as when storing the rifle. A key comes with the rifle to effect this ingenious safety device.

The bolt had Sako’s three locking lugs and recessed head. A small spring-loaded extractor rested between two of these lugs, and it worked well. The ejector was fixed into the action and slid upward into a slot on the bolt head when the bolt came to the rear of its travel. This system has worked well for Sako. The safety was on the right rear of the receiver. Forward was the firing position, and a little additional lever permitted opening the bolt when the safety was on.

The action was secured to the stock with two bolts. Also, there were two cross bolts to prevent the stock from splitting. The trigger pull was very good, with absolutely no creep and very little discernible overtravel. It broke at 4.5 pounds, and we’d have liked it lighter. The trigger was internally adjustable, so the pull could be reduced easily.

With the 4X Artemis scope aboard, we found the rifle shot the Remington 300-grain Swift A-Frame bullets best of all. They came zipping out of the Sako at nearly 2,600 fps and thunked into groups just over an inch. The Sako did better than the other two rifles with the hot Hornady 270-grain ammunition, putting them just under 3 inches. That’s barely acceptable for hunting. These 270-grainers were coming out of the Sako at more than 2,850 fps. It’s times like these when the iron sights show their worth, because the scope hit each shooter’s hat or glasses with every shot with that brisk Hornady ammunition. In fairness, the Artemis scope had a protruding eyepiece. Other brands of scopes might give more eye relief. However, this same scope never hit us when we had it mounted on the Ruger, with its greater weight. As tested, the Sako weighed 9.6 pounds with scope, 1.2 pounds less than the scoped Ruger, and 1.0 pound less than the scoped Winchester. This was actually enough weight for control of the .375’s power, as long as you don’t shoot lots of heavy loads from the bench.

We had one failure to fire. The firing pin struck a weak blow to a primer and the round didn’t go off. We looked inside the bolt—which comes apart easily and by a clever mechanism—but all we could find as a potential source of the trouble was what appeared to have been a metal chip lodged near the front end of the firing pin. There was a significant scratch on the nose of the pin. We found a small brass chip within the bolt. Another possible source of trouble could have been a weak striker spring, but we doubt that, because more rounds would have misfired. We’d certainly fire a lot more rounds through this Sako before we took it on an extended hunting trip. Rapid fire presented no problems. The bolt operation was very slick and positive, about as good as the Ruger’s, and the Sako handled everything without a hitch.

Bottom line here is the Sako was attractive, fed and ejected perfectly, and gave more than good enough accuracy with the Remington ammunition. The magazine stayed in place throughout our testing. We actually forgot it was detachable, and loaded it from the top for all our shooting. The box held four, plus one up the spout.

Gun Tests Recommends
Ruger M77 Mark II Magnum, $1,550. Buy it. We liked the Ruger a lot. Feeding and ejection were flawless, accuracy superb, and overall balance and appearance enough to make anyone proud. We loved the Ruger’s trigger, which broke cleanly at 3.5 pounds. All in all, the Ruger Magnum in .375 was a superb, if slightly heavy, rifle. We’d pick the Ruger over the Sako because of its many nice features, like perfect iron sights, no-extra-cost scope rings that came with the rifle, better wood with better finish, superior trigger pull, and its great balance and accuracy. We also preferred its controlled feed over Sako’s push-feed. We don’t like detachable magazines on dangerous-game rifles, and the .375 qualifies. In spite of its extra cost, the Ruger was a lot better rifle if you’re in the market for a .375.

Sako 75 Hunter, $1,219. Buy it. Though we wished the Sako came equipped with iron sights and a fixed magazine, the gun’s light weight, fine workmanship, attractive lines, and excellent accuracy still earn this rifle a thumbs-up from our testers.

Winchester Model 70 Safari Express, $865. Don’t Buy it. Consistent failures to feed were a fatal flaw, in our view.