June 2007

Three .375 Hunting Rifles: New Models Lose Out to Older CZ

Remingtonís 798 and Rugerís new Hawkeye African canít beat the CZ 602 for dangerous-game, big-cartridge pursuits.

The grand old .375 H&H Magnum has been around nearly a century, and it still holds its own among serious riflemen. Could it possibly have a challenger today? Maybe, but in truth it would take a century to find out, and we’d wager the H&H version will still be around in a hundred years. We chose to put two modern rifles against a slightly older one built on the Magnum Mauser action. We looked at a rifle you can purchase today in the classic old caliber; how another rifle handled the big case a decade ago, and how well a young upstart cartridge does against the original .375 Magnum Belted Rimless, as it was once known. We gathered a classic CZ 602 ZKK Magnum Mauser (about $1200) and a new Remington 798 ($970), both in the .375 H&H version, and a new Ruger Hawkeye African in .375 Ruger caliber ($1095).

Ruger, Remington, Magnum Mauser

Our test guns included, from left to right, a new Ruger Hawkeye African in .375 Ruger caliber ($1095); a new Remington 798 ($970) in .375 H&H, and a classic CZ 602 ZKK Magnum Mauser (about $1200 today) also in .375 H&H. We thought the Remington 798 was a decent ri?e, but not one weíd take after dangerous game without some serious work to improve its ejection. The Hawkeye African ri?e caught our fancy, not only with its good looks, but also for what we think is an excellent new cartridge in a reasonably portable package that delivered acceptable accuracy. We would not hesitate to take this CZ to Africa as our sole ri?e. If you can ?nd such a ri?e, we believe you may need to do a touch of work on it, but when youíre done, youíll have a ri?e that we feel is superior in many ways to the other two tested here. At almost any price, this CZ rated an A+.

We tested the two .375 H&H’s with Hornady 270-grain SP InterLock and 300-grain FMJs, with Remington Premier Safari Grade loaded with premium 300-grain Swift A-Frame bullets, and with a handload featuring 300-grain Nosler Partitions. We shot the Ruger with only two types of ammo, both by Hornady. These were the 270-grain SP-RP and 300-grain RNs. Here’s what we found.

Ruger M77 Hawkeye African

.375 Ruger, $1095

On taking the Hawkeye African out of the box, we were struck with the beautiful stock shape with its excellent wrap-around forend checkering. In the recent past, such checkering was available only as custom-shop work, and it alone would set you back hundreds of dollars. Now, Ruger includes it as standard. The stock was free-floated, but you had to look hard to tell. A piece of paper slid back almost all the way to the action. The recoil pad was thin, and we wondered about that in light of the new soft ones Ruger puts on the synthetic-stocked Hawkeyes. But as you’ll see, we were in for a surprise. This rifle is available in synthetic, with iron sights, as the Hawkeye Alaskan. While the wood on the African Hawkeye was not stunning, neither was it plain. It was decent walnut with the grain running in the right direction. The matte bluing on the 23-inch barrel and action was complemented by the Ruger-Gray bolt and its handle, and by the gray trigger. The bolt held a controlled-feed extractor, and also had a bump to make the bolt work about as slick as that of a pre-’64 Winchester M70.

The iron sights bear special mention. The rear was a wide-angle vee with white centerline, and it was set well out on the barrel for fast and easy pickup. It was adjustable for windage. It slanted very slightly rearward, so it tended to stay black in most light. With strong light on it, the white centerline was easily seen. The front was a white bead, not quite ivory. The sights were easy to see in all light. In our brief and informal tests of the iron sights, shooting from a seated position at 50 yards, the Ruger put its shots with both bullet weights too low. We felt the front blade needed to be replaced with a shorter one to get the impact up, and in fact Ruger can provide a shorter blade. Changing it is easy. The front-sight mounting permits the blade to slide forward out of its dovetail by simply pressing a button. A flat-backed, gold-faced bead would be even better than the rounded "ivory," for some eyes.

For this rifle, Ruger brought out another new cartridge, the .375 Ruger. It has the .404 Jeffery base, and the brass is the same length as .375 Dakota, a bit over 2.5 inches. The .375 Ruger has a shorter neck, which means it holds more powder. The benefit (for both Ruger and Dakota) is that this cartridge can perform as well as the old .375 H&H Mag in a shorter, lighter rifle, which makes for a more generally useful package. Will the new Ruger do everything the classic old .375 H&H did? Not yet it won’t. First, it’s new. You won’t find brass easily. At this writing only Hornady loads ammo for it. You won’t find .375 Ruger ammo in every little gun store west of Dar Es Salaam, like you can for Holland’s cartridge. But we predict a happy future for this rifle/cartridge combo. As noted, Dakota has a similar cartridge, but rifles chambered for the .375 Dakota aren’t offered for as low a price as the Hawkeye, nor do they have the name recognition of Sturm, Ruger & Co. And that goes a long way with the guys who buy the guns.

We shot a few rounds using the iron sights from the bench at 100 yards, and though not centered, we printed a three-shot group of about 1.2 inches. Moving up to 25 yards, three shots went into less than half an inch from a seated position. The good news was that the rifle didn’t hurt us. Ruger’s new Silvers-like pad used on all wood-stocked Hawkeyes works quite well, though it doesn’t give the impression it would. Some will want a softer pad, but we could easily make do with this good-looking one. It’s a big improvement over the ones found on earlier Rugers.

With our 12X Leupold attached, the Ruger performed to our satisfaction, though we found a few glitches. Glitch number one was that this brand-new rifle wasn’t as slick in its feeding as it could be. On a couple of occasions we had to work to get the cartridge out of the three-shot magazine and into the chamber. We had one round absolutely fail to go into the chamber, though it popped up behind the extractor all right and went part way home. We suspect the cartridge rim struck the edge of the chamber, though we could not find the problem nor repeat it. Ejection was perfection. We liked the trigger, but it could have been a pound lighter and would have pleased us more. Our best group was 1.6 inches, with the rest around 2 inches. We suspect the gun needed a touch of bedding adjustment. We’d full-length glass-bed the stock tight to the barrel, drop the trigger pull a pound, make some reduced handloads, and go from there.

Remington Model 798

.375 H&H Magnum, $970

Our test Remington had enough weight, about the same as the CZ, but was more massive feeling because of the stock design. The heavy laminated stock worked well here. It added needed mass to this powerful rifle. We liked the folding rear sight, though we didn’t think much of the sight picture. It was the classic American U-notch rear, adjustable for elevation by loosening two small Phillips-head screws. Together with the bead front it gave the shooter a poor reference for elevation. Despite that, in our casual testing of the iron sights the Remington struck where it looked at 50 yards, as did the CZ. We liked the presence of iron sights, but not the pattern. The sight picture could not compete with the near-perfect iron-sight setup on the other two rifles. The rear sight was placed well out on the barrel, which is where it belongs for faster use and a better sight picture in dim light. We noted the rear-sight blade had two identical U-notches. If we owned this rifle, we’d file one of them to a wide vee. The 798 did provide a "dust cover" or hood for the front blade. The CZ had one; the Ruger did not.

The bluing was quite good, though the action was on the sticky side at the beginning of our testing. The magazine held four cartridges, but with four in there, the top cartridge would not feed. The mag had a hinged floorplate, with the release button placed crosswise in the front of the trigger guard. The safety was a heavily serrated button at the right rear of the action. Toward the rear was on. The bolt could be worked with it on. Extraction was classical controlled-feed Mauser. This action was normal 98 length, not Magnum-Mauser length like the CZ.

We found the trestle-style recoil pad to be very effective. In fact, we all thought this Remington was the most comfortable of the three rifles. Some of that comfort came from the cheekpiece. Neither of the others had this. We thought the free-floated barrel was too long at 26 inches, but that’s a personal thing. The balance was not quite up to that of the CZ, but few rifles are. The stock finish was superb, and seemed impervious to scratching. The checkering was attractive and functional. The stock had two cross bolts for added strength. There were sling studs, but the front one belonged on the barrel. It banged our forward hand a time or two. The Ruger also had this failing, but its fine wrap-around checkering helped keep our hand in place and out of the works.

We tried to mount our 12X Leupold, but would have had to remove the rear sight to do so. It didn’t want to budge, so we borrowed the 1.5-5X Leupold from the CZ. This scope is just about ideal for a rifle of this type, with its heavy crosshairs, easily seen in dim light. We put it on the Remington in Weaver bases and rings, and took the 798 shooting. We found that you have to use care in the selection of mounting screws for the rear scope base. There’s not a lot of steel where it mounts, and you may have to shorten your screws to make sure they don’t foul the bolt guide. Ours just touched, but didn’t present a problem.

Rounds fed easily from mag to chamber, with only a hitch of roughness along the way. They all fired, but extraction proved to be a problem. Unless we worked the bolt really fast, which was not normal in bench shooting, the empty brass commonly failed to exit the rifle. In some cases it fell back into the raceway. In others, the empty stuck between the lower round and the top edge of the left side of the action, and protruded halfway out of the rifle. Very vigorous operation of the bolt tended to eliminate this problem. It may be that a good deburring of the entire action and bolt would ease both feeding and ejection…or it may not. But you really ought not to have to do that. After all, you’re buying a complete dangerous-game rifle, not a preassembled kit. We had this ejection problem throughout our shooting session. It didn’t go away by the wearing away of a few burrs. The feeding and bolt operation did seem to get smoother, however, as we went along.

The best group, 1.3 inches, was with the Hornady 300-grain FMJ "solids." Most groups were two inches or larger. This was a disappointment to us. Many groups had two shots less than an inch from each other, with the third out in left field. We suspected the bedding. All the screws were checked and rechecked, and all were tight and stayed that way. The trigger pull, at 3.9 pounds, was okay. We noted that the current crop of .375 H&H ammunition, particularly that from Hornady, is a whole lot hotter than it was 15 or 20 years ago. In our experience this cartridge can benefit greatly from reloading, and that is doubly true today.

CZ Brno ZKK 602

.375 H&H Mag., $1200

We had the loan of this fine rifle from one of our staff. This rifle was purchased new around 1995. It had high-quality fancy walnut, an exceptional piece with fine figure and tiger striping. This grade of wood on today’s 550 American Safari would up the price to over $1600

The owner had scraped off the epoxy finish and put an oil finish on it, and the grain was thus brought out very well. The epoxy finish had hidden much of the figure, the owner said. He also recut the checkering in the original pattern. The owner had also slicked up the rifle here and there all over, but he told us he would not have done so if the rifle hadn’t had the makings of a truly fine rifle. The stock shape was akin to early English classic rifles. The recoil pad was the trestle type, though stiffer than that of the Remington.

The bluing was CZ’s original, and was appropriate. It was not glossy, yet not matte. It looked very like rust bluing. The action was the true square-bridge Magnum-Mauser length, and held five rounds in the magazine. The mag had a hinged floorplate opened by a button in the front of the trigger guard. The action was bedded to the wood full length, and there was a third bolt beneath the slim forend tying the wood to the metal. The owner had installed hidden protective cross bolts to preclude the wood ever cracking. The stock had a tiny repair behind the tang, which used to touch the wood. It had been repaired and relieved to avoid future problems.

This rifle had by far the best balance of the trio. It came quickly to the eye, and with the scope off, we found ourselves staring at a perfect sight picture from the Express-style sights (two folding leaves, and one standing) with no effort on our part. The rear sight had a wide vee notch and a white center line. The hooded front had a plain black face to its bead. There had been a white dot in front, but it was gone. The stock had originally been fitted with sling swivel studs fore and aft, but the owner removed them. He said the front one commonly hit his fingers, and he preferred to carry the rifle slung on his shoulder without a sling of any sort. We thought the forward one should have been installed on the barrel, but CZ didn’t do this, nor do they today to the very similar 550 Safari rifle. However, some of the Safari Classic rifles, in some fine old calibers, have the stud on the barrel. We noticed the bottom of the bolt knob had bare metal. The owner told us he had removed some sharp edges.

The trigger pull turned out to have a trace of creep. This, the owner told us, was common for the CZ rifles of this era, and if you have such a rifle and want the creep eliminated, he has found the Robar Companies (www.robarguns.com), for one, do an excellent job on these triggers.

CZ milled the action on top to accept the Australian QD rings used on this rifle. CZ has a similar setup today on the Model 550. This test rifle had a Leupold 1.5-5X scope in detachable mounts. Millet, B Square and Warne make rings that fit the CZ 602. We don’t know the maker of these Aussie rings, but they worked well. On the range, we found the hot Hornady ammo didn’t do much except shake the finger-tightened scope loose. Retightening it got us about 2-inch groups or thereabouts. But when we tried some of the handloads that the rifle’s owner had made to give the old original .375 H&H ballistics, we got the best groups of the test. Three 300-grain Nosler Partitions left the barrel at just under 2500 fps and landed in a 0.8-inch group. And then this fine rifle did it all over again. Remington’s Safari Grade fodder gave 1.6 groups with the same-weight bullet 100 fps faster. Speed didn’t help, in this case.