African Outfitter Back Issues: CONTENTS - June / July 2006 - (Vol 1/4)
Building a custom big-bore magazine rifle - Part I
by Johan van Wyk
Probably every serious rifleman out there regards the big-bore magazine rifles and doubles built by a select few English and European makers during the first half of the 20th century with a certain amount of awe.
These rifles, in the hands of countless game rangers, professional hunters and authors, have accounted for literally thousands of dangerous game animals in Africa, India, Alaska and just about every place where hunting and dangerous game were to be found.
Alas, although most of us would like to be the proud owner of a Rigby .416, Jeffrey .404 or Westley Richards .425, and the odd .470 and 500 Nitro-Express double, the sad but true fact is that most of us probably never will. There are many reasons for this. The first and most obvious is that there were never that many of these lovely old magazine rifles built to begin with. Take just two examples: John Rigby & Co only built 169 .416's prior to World War II, and original pre-War .505 Magnum rifles by George Gibbs of Bristol probably number less than 50. It does not take a genius to realise that today these rifles are valuable collector's pieces that sell for thousands of dollars on the used-gun market. It is no surprise that most of them have ended up in the vaults of wealthy New York investment bankers or Texas oil millionaires.
Another sad fact is that most of these fine old rifles are now nearing retirement age, with resultant metal fatigue becoming a factor. Also, many of them saw hard use with cordite-loaded ammunition such as Kynoch. Cordite burned considerable hotter than today's powders and many of these rifles had the rifling in their barrels washed out (usually most noticeable just in front of the chamber) due to a combination of cordite burn and infrequent cleaning.
Another reason for the relative scarcity of original English big-bore repeaters is that many of these rifles were, during the time of the Empire, issued to various African Game Departments where they were subjected to very extensive use. This is particularly true of two calibres: the .404 Jeffrey and the .425 Westley Richards. There must be quite a few rifles in these calibres languishing for lack of ammunition in government armouries in places like Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya. The sad but inevitable fact is that most of these rifles will probably never again see the light of day and will be destroyed or rebarrelled to .458 Winchester due to lack of ammunition.
The only realistic options for a hunter wishing to acquire a large-calibre magazine rifle is thus to buy a new rifle, or to have one custom-built by a knowledgeable gunsmith. The introduction of the Firearms Control Act in 2004 has had a very negative impact upon South African gun dealers and, coupled with a drastically lower demand for new hunting rifles and a certain reluctance on the part of the South African Police Services to grant the necessary import licences, has made it ever more difficult to buy new rifles. I suspect the route that most hunters will choose is to have a rifle custom-built to his specifications.
Much has been written about the subject, but an action featuring Mauser's claw extractor and controlled feeding is generally regarded as the preferred choice among experienced big-game hunters. When the chips are down and something big and smelly is bearing down on you with malicious intent, the last thing you want is a broken extractor and a case stuck in your rifle's chamber. It is true that many hunters rely successfully on push-feed actioned rifles like the Sako or Steyr Mannlicher, and to be sure these are fine actions, but they are not freely available in SA in component form and most hunters will probably choose something else.
In South Africa, I suspect that most will go for the time-honoured 98 Mauser simply for reasons of availability. For simplicity's sake, Mauser actions can be divided into three broad categories. The first is the commercial actions made by Mauserwerke AG up to the end of World War II. These actions were used for the famed sporting Mausers of yesteryear and were made from the finest steel (heat-treated for extra strength) and to exacting tolerances, and are much in demand the shooting world over by collectors and custom rifle builders. When available, these actions are a first-rate choice for a big-bore as they require minimal work to finish into a top-class rifle. Beware, though: they are scarce and do not come cheap.
The second choice would be a commercial Mauser action manufactured after World War II. Any number of manufacturers made close copies of the military Mauser action after the war in places like Belgium, Yugoslavia and Spain, some of which will serve just fine as the basis for a big-bore. First choice in this regard must go to the FN Mauser action. Fabrique Nationale of Herstal in Belgium initially made military Mauser rifles before World War II under licence from the Mauserwerke, and after the war, with all their machine tooling still intact, marketed a whole range of rifles and actions right up to the early 1970's. FN used their No. 5 action for their .300 H & H, .375 H & H and .404 calibre rifles and aside from having the bolt-face opened up to accept the larger case head, it featured a deeper and longer magazine box. If you are fortunate enough to find one of these, you have a prime candidate for a big-bore with a wonderful track record among experienced big-game hunters. Like the commercial Oberndorf Mauser, it will require minimal polishing and fitting before completion and was made from the finest steel available.
Other commercial actions manufactured since 1945 include the Santa Barbara from Spain and Yugoslavia's Zastava. These actions are superficially identical to FN's Supreme action and were probably manufactured with equipment bought from FN after they ceased production. The Zastava has been marketed for many years in the US as the Mark X, and by all accounts has a reputation for solid reliability. Lately, due to political instability in the Balkans, their fit and finish have not been up to the standards of previous years and if you are contemplating a big-bore on a Zastava action, it would probably be wise to have the action checked out thoroughly by a qualified gunsmith. Musgrave used the Santa Barbara many years ago on their production rifles and they quickly earned a reputation as dangerous when a couple of accidental discharges due to faulty safety-catches occurred. A gunsmith once told me that they are very soft due to lack of heat treatment, and as such they are perhaps not the preferred choice for a large-calibre rifle.
Military Mauser actions are plentiful and cheap in South Africa and will probably be the action of choice for most hunters. They were made by a bewildering number of manufacturers, mainly countries under German occupation during World War II, and as a consequence they differ widely in quality. It would take an article in its own right to describe the military actions more fully, but as a rough guide those made before or during the early part of the war by Brno, FN, DWM and Mauser (amongst others) have earned a reputation as solid performers once the rough spots have been squared away. These actions usually require extensive gunsmithing to ensure reliability, and most people choose to install a new magazine box, safety catch, trigger and bolt handle. Again, let your budget and your gunsmith be your guide in this regard. If properly polished and fitted, though, such an action will not let you down.
Another fabulous choice is the famed pre '64 Winchester action. These actions, the heart and soul of the "Rifleman's Rifle", have a wonderful reputation for reliability and accuracy and also require minimal gunsmithing as they were usually well finished at the factory. Second-hand pre '64 actions are advertised for sale from time to time, usually salvaged from rifles with worn-out barrels, and if you are lucky enough to come across one a competent gunsmith will be able to turn it into a "Rifleman's Big-Bore" for you that ought to give trouble-free service for many years. The newly revived controlled-feed Winchester Model 70 is perhaps an even better choice as it comes from the factory with a slightly longer magazine box, and the Magnum Dakota action, a modernized Model 70 action at heart, is just superb. Availability is a headache, though, and your only option in this regard is to buy a complete rifle and have it restocked and customized, an expensive proposition to be sure.
Should you be contemplating a rifle chambered for one of the really big thumpers like the .505 Gibbs or .460 Weatherby, things get complicated. These calibres require actions that are longer than the standard-length actions made by most manufacturers, and the traditional choice was always the Magnum Mauser action. This was Rigby's choice for their famed pre-war .416 rifles and George Gibbs used them for his .505. Production was forcibly halted as a result of the Mauser factory in Oberndorf being destroyed by French occupation forces during 1947 – the shooting world has been so much poorer since then. A French gunsmith by the name of Polonsky brought temporary relief in 1955 when he introduced the Brevex Magnum action. This action was huge and well finished and was used by many gun-makers (among them Rigby's) for building large-bore rifles. By the late 1960's, however, the Brevex action also was no more. Both the Magnum Mauser and the Brevex are today prohibitively expensive, extremely rare and enormously prized collector's items. If you are lucky enough to own or find one, you have a basis second to none for a big-bore magazine rifle.
A number of German and US companies manufacture new Magnum Mauser-type actions today, and even SA's Vektor made one for a time. All these are expensive and difficult to obtain in SA. A much cheaper alternative, though, is available from the Czech Republic – the Brno ZKK 602 or its modern incarnation, the CZ 550. Brno rifles have been available for many years in SA and have earned a solid reputation for reliability. The 602 is a full-blown Magnum-length action that has been used by, among others, Rigby to build rifles in .416 Rigby and larger. In the 1990's it was reworked and reintroduced as the CZ 550 with a different safety catch, bolt shroud and trigger. Lately, CZ has started to offer complete rifles in some of the classic big-bore calibres of yesteryear as well as a few modern ones like the .505 Gibbs, .450 Rigby, .416 Rigby, .404 Jeffrey and .458 Lott. Many of our local gunsmiths are well versed in fine-tuning and customizing these rifles to the point where they are transformed into works of art from the homely workhorses that they were when they left the factory. The ZKK 602, in particular, has achieved a remarkable measure of popularity in the US over the years. As far back as 1969's Gun Digest, it was described as "…the finest action by anybody since 1898" and "…engineered for ruggedness and simplicity, and with a great margin for abusive use." With praise like that, it is no wonder these actions have achieved somewhat of a cult status in recent years, and they now sell for more than complete rifles. They are still a reasonably affordable choice for a custom rifle, though, and they offer the best Mauser features that have endeared big-game hunters for many years such as the claw extractor and controlled feeding.
Another option for the budget-conscious hunter is the Pattern-14 Enfield. A-Square Co. in the US has been using this action for many years as the basis for their "Hannibal" big-bore in calibres like the .500 A-Square. This is a huge action but not the most beautiful one from an aesthetic point of view. It requires a lot of polishing to transform it from the ex-military sow's ear to a traditional-looking silk purse, but if a second-hand ZKK 602 is beyond your means and you simply must have a .505 Gibbs, the P-14 is an option.
Many heavy calibres, although preferably built around a longer action, can be made to work reliably from a standard-length action. They include the .404 Jeffrey, .416 Remington, .375 H & H and .500 Jeffrey. If your budget will not stretch so far as to include a Magnum action of one sort or another, your choice will of necessity be limited to these and other similar calibres. Others, like the .505 Gibbs, .500 A-Square and .460 Weatherby, cannot be made to work in a standard-length action and a Magnum action is an absolute prerequisite. The first and most important order of business before investing in a suitable action, therefore, is to choose a calibre of your liking.
Another factor to bear in mind is magazine capacity. A Brno 602 or CZ 550 in .375 H & H holds five cartridges in the magazine, but those same rifles chambered for the .505 Gibbs will normally only hold three cartridges. Similarly, a .404 Jeffrey built on a standard-length Mauser action is almost guaranteed to take one round less in the magazine than a .404 on a Magnum length action. This becomes an important consideration in hunting dangerous game, and I can do no better than to quote the late Peter Capstick on the subject of magazine capacity in dangerous game rifles: "The more the merrier!"
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