July 2015

338 Win. Mag. Bolt-Action Duo: Henriksen Versus Winchester

Custom gunsmith Iver Henriksen was Elmer Keithís favorite firearms craftsman; here, we take an in-depth look at one of his rifles alongside a reworked Model 70 Winchester.

The gunny student who knows anything at all about Elmer Keith will probably know many of Keith’s guns were sold off recently by a well-known auction house in Maine. Apparently, the auction was a huge success, and some of the offerings proved to be bargains. A brace of like-new Ruger No. 1 rifles sold for less than their combined new MSRP prices today, and a fabulous engraved and gold-inlaid Model 70 made by Frank Pachmayr for Elmer Keith sold for less than some unadorned custom rifles made by some makers on today’s market.

Both of these are now excellent 338 rifles. The Winchester, left, has been modified to have a steel trigger guard and throated to accept the long-seated bullets that the Henriksen likewise accepts.

Among the auctioned rifles were several by Keith’s favorite gunsmith, Iver Henriksen (1910-1987). In fact, our Senior Technical Editor made a solid absentee bid for one of the Henriksen-Keith rifles. Alas, the rifle sold for three times that bid. From this auction, we discovered that if a rifle has Henriksen’s name on it, especially if it was owned by Keith, it will have a value of about $5000; but of course that’s not guaranteed. So we thought we had lost out on the chance to examine and test a Henriksen rifle. As luck had it, however, a friend of the magazine owned one of Henriksen’s rifles, but didn’t know it. We were talking with him one day and he said he had a rifle made by some Montana gunsmith. We asked if it could possibly be a Henriksen rifle, and he said he didn’t know. When we got a chance to examine it, we saw the Henriksen name written around the base of the barrel, and explained to our friend what he had.

He graciously allowed us to borrow it for this report. He later found out the design and layout of this particular rifle in all its aspects had in fact been suggested by Mr. Keith to its previous owner. The rifle is a custom FN Mauser 98 in 338 Winchester Magnum with fabulous wood, and it is fitted with a classic Balvar 8A Bausch & Lomb 2.5-8X scope with the windage and elevation adjustments in the bases.

We chose to test it against a modern Winchester Model 70 in the same caliber, the rifle having also just been fitted with one of the old B&L Balvar 8A 2.5-8X scopes in adjustable-base mounts. We tested this rifle in the December 2012 edition of Gun Tests where it got high marks (A-). The Model 70, now owned by our Senior Technical Editor, got some serious upgrading, which put it into the realm of the Henriksen for its ability to handle long-seated bullets. Here’s what we found.

This is how Henriksen put his name onto the barrels of his rifles. He used topnotch barrels and selected the best of them for his work.

Iver Henriksen Mauser 98 338 Winchester Magnum, ~$5000

The rifle had no iron sights, which we regretted, though the B&L scope setup allowed, in years past, for an iron-sight accessory to be installed in place of the scope, if field conditions warranted it. The action was a Belgian FN, with a side safety similar to that found on Belgian Browning rifles. The left side of the rust-blued action had the FN logo followed by ACTION – MADE IN BELGIUM. The tightly and fully bedded heavy 26-inch barrel had 338 WIN MAG on its left side, and just in front of the action ring was Henriksen’s name rolled into the barrel’s rear end. The right side of the action was drilled and tapped for a receiver sight, and the holes were filled with tiny screws. The bolt and extractor were rather garishly jeweled, the bolt polished bright, and the bottom of the bolt flattened and nicely checkered. The floorplate was hinged, and the trigger guard was contoured so it resembled some of the English rifle treatments we’ve seen. Although it utilized a standard-length follower, the magazine box was a full 3.6 inches long. That of the unaltered Winchester M70 was about 3.4 inches long. This means the Henriksen rifle could utilize 0.2 inch longer overall cartridge lengths in the standard 338 case, which is a significant amount of extra space, and the rifle was throated to take advantage of this. The Henriksen barrel spins the bullets one turn in 12 inches. The metal was all rust blued, and was in superb condition.

Just in front of the scope are the old and new trigger-guard and floorplate assemblies for the Winchester. The one on the left is the all-steel part that also fits the 375 H&H Model 70, along with a longer follower and new spring. We got an extra magazine box, and had to modify the ejector. The bolt and the rest of the rifle remained the same as before, but we throated the barrel to accept longer bullets. That box in the background holds a Brownells screwdriver and bits.

The oil-finished stock wood was a fine piece of figured walnut, and its checkering was nicely done. Of about 20 lines per inch, it fully wrapped the forend in a borderless point pattern and had well-formed and generous patches on each side of the pistol grip. The bottom of the pistol grip had a checkered steel plate protecting it. The butt had a black Pachmayr pad that was now on the stiff side. Henriksen passed away in 1987, so that pad had been on there a while. It seemed to have enough life left in it that we were not worried about recoil, and the rifle’s empty weight of 9.7 pounds also helped us to not worry. The stock had Keith’s “Monte-Carlo” design that keeps the kick off the face, and the cheekpiece was generous in size. The stock also had some cast-off, so we knew this rifle would not hurt us even if it had been fitted with a steel butt plate. The stock had two quick-detachable sling-swivel attach points, and the forend had an ebony tip. The forend was also affixed to the barrel with a third screw, about midway between the front action screw and the forward sling swivel lug. The bolt was slick and smooth, feeding was the same, and the trigger pull was excellent.

On the bench at the range, as expected, the weight of this rifle combined with the excellent stock design kept the kick to a minimum, though it was still not all that much fun with our heavy-bullet loads. With 225-grain Winchester and 250-grain Remington factory loads, the rifle put its shots into less than 1.5 inches reliably. We then tried with a modest load of the 300-grain Nosler Accubond loaded with Reloder 22 powder, and after the first shot, which landed an inch away, we got a group of just 0.4 inch, all shots touching. We repeated this, and each time it seemed the rifle would shoot the first shot from a cold barrel an inch or so from the next three, which would land within half an inch of each other. These bullets were seated out to nearly touch the rifling. Fired cases showed rounded primers, so we were nowhere near the rifle’s potential. Even with the odd grouping, the rifle did quite well enough, we thought, to make good use of the 300-grain Accubond bullets. Our only problem with this rifle was in dragging it out of our hands to give it back to its owner.

Many online sources suggest a 1-in-10 twist, or faster, for this bullet, though usually at higher velocity than we were pushing it. In light of that, we were surprised the rifle worked so well with its 1:12 twist with this long bullet.

Our Team Said: All things considered, we conclude that if you can acquire a Henriksen rifle for most any price, you’ll be mighty pleased. In fact, you ought not to ever regret it. This one showed us what a fine custom rifle ought to look like and how it ought to perform. We believe Mr. Keith would have been quite happy with this one.

Winchester Model 70 Alaskan 338 Winchester Magnum, $1340 and Bausch & Lomb Balvar 8A Scope and Mounts, from $100-$250

Winchester Model 70 Alaskan 338 Winchester Magnum, $1340

Our Tech Editor liked this rifle enough that he bought it, but he decided he didn’t like the aluminum trigger guard. Steel is stronger, holds its finish better, and resists scratches better. He also wanted to extend the magazine and throat the rifle so it would accept bullets seated out longer than normal. This is something Elmer Keith had discussed in his writing. Keith had recommended Henriksen to our test rifle’s former owner, so it was no surprise the Henriksen rifle had had this treatment done to it. Keith liked long, heavy bullets, preferring the old heavy-jacket 275-grain Speer bullet in this caliber. When we tested this Model 70, we also had a new Model 70 on hand in 375 H&H Magnum, and our Technical Editor pointed out that the floorplate of the 375, which was steel, would fit the 338 with no alterations of the stock. Accordingly, he arranged to acquire a steel trigger guard/floorplate, longer follower and new follower spring, along with a second magazine box, to work into one that would match the 375’s for length. These parts can sometimes be purchased from Browning, at a total cost of around $300. With the cost of the gunsmithing and bedding yet to come, the price for this setup goes up to about $1800.

This B&L Balvar 8A scope and its external mounts added some weight to the rifles. This is a two-piece base. Note the curved leaf spring and the tight star nut (arrow), which made all the difference in its accuracy. We didnít know it must be as tight as your fingers can get it. That brought our groups from 5 inches down to 1. The adjustments are easily made and lock solidly with huge screws. If the scope is banged, it springs back into perfect zero. The 40mm objective lens gathers lots of light.

As noted, the new steel trigger guard slipped right into the 338’s stock with no alterations needed. By removing the rear spacer from the magazine box, the box was no longer joined at its rear end. However, the fit in the wood of the stock was snug enough that nothing else was needed. The stock held the magazine together perfectly. We were able to alter the ejector by softening it, drilling a new hole, and reshaping the metal to work perfectly with the longer cartridges. An easier solution would have been to get a 375 ejector. We had been concerned that ejection would be a problem. Early rifles had the rear action ring shortened to give more room for the outgoing spent cases, but ejection has not been any sort of problem as long as we’ve worked on this rifle.

There remained the throating of the barrel so it would accept the longer-seated bullets. Our main intention for this rifle was to use handloads featuring long, heavy bullets like the beautiful 300-grain Nosler Accubond boattail, which is 1.75 inches long. Seating that long bullet out would give more room in the cartridge for powder, which of course applies to all bullet weights in this cartridge, but works best with the heavier bullets. The lighter bullets would not gain much if anything from this extra magazine length.

We borrowed a Clymer throating reamer from gunsmith Don Fisher and put it to use on the 338 Model 70. After some problems associated with the reamer’s mount, we were able to throat the barrel the required extra length, about a quarter inch. When we removed the magazine-box filler, it gave us 0.230 inch more length in the box. We went a little deeper than that because some freebore had done wonders for a similar rifle in the past. The Winchester has a twist of 1 turn in 10 inches, which we thought would work well with the longer bullets.

The next step was to find, buy, and mount a Balvar 8A scope, along with the correct bases. After some lengthy research and a diligent search, we found what we needed on eBay. More on the scope later. With the scope mounted, we shot the modified rifle with our test load, using Reloder 22 powder and the long Nosler bullet. To our chagrin, the bullet didn’t shoot worth a whoop, at first. We got groups from 3.5 to 5 inches at 100 yards. Could the problem have been with the scope? We wondered. We made a list of possible problems, but before we started digging into the rifle’s bedding, we phoned Doc J. Lillie, a friend of the magazine who had extensive experience with the older B&L scopes, specifically the 8A that we had on our Winchester. The good doctor advised us that the little four-legged star nut is supposed to be screwed by hand all the way up, pressing the spring leaf firmly against the base of the scope-ring mount. Not knowing any better, and not having the original instructions, we had made the nut snug, not tight. We promptly and fully tightened the star nut and went back to the range. With no further alterations to the rifle, we fired groups with our 300-grain load of around an inch, to our great joy. Our next step with the rifle will be to fully bed it to the muzzle with Brownells Steel Bed, adding some cross screws as needed to prevent the stock from ever splitting.

We are very happy with the modified Winchester. It still handles factory loads perfectly, with accuracy as good as it was before we went at it. We noted a slight drop of about 35 fps in the velocity of the factory Winchester 225-grain load from our previous test, but we believe the gain in potential for the heavier bullets far outweighs that loss. The road is now open for experimentation with long, heavy bullets, which is what we had in mind for this rifle.

Our Team Said: This alteration might not be for everyone, but we are pleased with the new setup, not the least of which gives us all-steel metalwork in this rifle. We originally gave it an A- for the aluminum parts, but now in all steel, with extended box and throated, it’s a Grade A rifle.

The eyepiece of the old B&L Balvar A scope was serrated for easy power changing. Both the new Winchester and old Mauser were fitted with Balvar A 2.5-8X scopes, which in our empirical tests were at least as good as anything made today. In the early 1950s, they sold for $100, and the mounts were extra. Clarity was superb, and we liked the tapered reticle.

Bausch & Lomb Balvar 8A Scope and Mounts, from $100-$250

Many years ago, during the middle 1950s, B&L offered this scope for the then-lofty price of $100. That would be about $875 today. Mounts were extra at $25. The Balvar 8A was, and may still be, without peer. These fine scopes were all made entirely in the USA with some of the finest optics in the world. There is nothing in the scope that can be easily broken nor rearranged. The company actually drove nails with one as an advertising demonstration. Deep-water immersion was another grueling test to which this riflescope was submitted in the B&L ads. However, many folk, like some of us at Gun Tests, were put off by the adjustments in the bases. We recently decided to learn what we have missed all these years, acquired two Balvar 8A scopes in excellent condition, and stuck one on the test Winchester Model 70.

To adjust the power, the earlier Balvar 8 had a ring you gripped and twisted, but for the 8A you grab the entire ocular end of the scope, which is serrated, to change the power. This gives a good grip when scope and hands are cold. There were also 2.5X Baltur, 4X Balfor, 6X Balsix, and 8X Baleight fixed versions, an early 2.5-4X, and then came the 2.5-5X Balvar 5 and 2.5-8X Balvar 8. Everyone seemed to want the big variable 8 and especially the 8A. The objective is 40mm. Eye relief is very good for hard-kicking rifles like our 338s, and the eye relief does not change with changing power. After the 8A came the Balvar 8B, also called the Trophy, which had internal adjustments. That scope was made in Japan. With the Balvar 8A, there are no adjustments within the scope other than the ability to focus it for one’s eyes, in the conventional manner, and of course the power-changing system. The scope presents only a straight tube, which was machined from a solid billet of aluminum. The reticle is formed into the glass, has a taper to it, and doesn’t change size with changes in power. Neither is there a change in focus, eye relief, nor in point of impact with changes in power. In practice, we found the tapered reticle works very well. It has the features of a duplex reticle without the steps. To mount this scope you need a set of rings that grasp it in the middle, and there are several types of those. The problem today is to find a set of bases for your particular rifle. Bases for the more common rifles like Winchester Model 70s, Remingtons, and Mauser 98s should be somewhat easier to find than those for less-popular rifles. There were one-piece and two-piece bases. Our test Henriksen has a one-piece base, and the Winchester has two pieces. In addition there were two scope-attaching methods, the early plunger type and the later star-nut type. The Henriksen has the plunger; the Winchester, the star nut. As mentioned above, be sure to tighten the star nut fully, pressing the attaching leaf spring up snugly against the base of the ring mount. This is per B&L’s written instructions from long ago.

One of the main selling points of this scope is that you could buy one scope and several sets of bases for your different rifles. Changing the scope from rifle to rifle was easy, and each rifle’s zero didn’t change when you took off and replaced the scope. The base adjustments lock in place by large opposing screws, so they can’t change. The support points, i.e., the V-blocks that hold the scope in position, are well spaced apart. If you dropped the rifle or the scope got banged, the spring-loaded mount would return it to zero every time, and the spring-type mounting also tended to reduce potential damage to the scope tube.

We found the serrated eyepiece gave excellent traction for changing the power, unlike many other scopes we’ve had over the years. One of our old scopes had a stud sticking out of the power ring so you could force it to turn when its guts got frozen. Another variable scope we had, long ago, had a setup similar to the Balvar. You’d grab the eyepiece and twist it to change the power. One day in the field we wanted more power, grabbed the ocular, and twisted. It was so cold the scope froze up, stuck internally, and instead of changing power the eyepiece simply unscrewed.

Our Team Said: By empirical testing we found the old B&L Balvar 8A to be superior to many high-grade modern scopes for resolution and flare prevention. The image clarity was only matched, not exceeded, by that of a very costly Leupold Mark 4 Mil-Spec 10-power scope with 30mm tube. In short, we have not found any reason to reject these old scopes in favor of any modern units. We have no intention of “upgrading” the one on our new Model 70, nor does the owner of the Henriksen rifle.

If you want one, check eBay diligently. There are some great bargains to be had, even though these scopes, rings, and bases are getting increasingly scarce.

A former excellent source of bases and mounts and a few scopes, Mr. H.E. Gibbs, apparently had a fire that destroyed all his stock, and he is no longer in business. We wish him the best, and wish you luck if you choose to get one of these older B&L scopes and use it.

Written and photographed by Ray Ordorica, using evaluations from Gun Tests team testers. GT