By Todd Burgreen, GUNS Magazine
With “black rifles” dominating the gun media as of late, it’s easy to forget other firearm types exist. Don’t get me wrong, I have done my fair share of articles involving AKs and ARs; however, my first interest in firearms was hunting rifles typified by bolt-action rifles. Sometimes a little inspiration is needed to get an article idea out of one’s head and down on paper. I inherited a Winchester Model 70 Classic Safari Express chambered in .458 Win Mag from my father. We had always planned on going on an African safari or Alaska trip together. Unfortunately, time passes a little too quickly and best intentions do not pan out, as I lost my father a few years ago to cancer. I will have to be satisfied writing this article in lieu of the hunting trips. But our connection will always be present in the Winchester Model 70, and will passed on to my own sons in due time.
The Model 70 Classic Safari Express is one of Winchester’s controlled round-feed models reintroduced in the early 1990s. Of course, Winchester Repeating Firearms recently went through another trying period in its history with closing its New Haven, Conn. plant in 2006. Thankfully, FN decided to continue Model 70 production in its FNH USA Columbia, S.C. plant in 2008. The Model 70 in this article was produced and purchased well before this latest Winchester drama.
For clarities sake (or lack thereof) Winchester Repeating Firearms has produced four different rifles under the Model 70 designation, with all four still in circulation. In a nutshell, the first Model 70 is the legendary pre-64 Model 70 — the “rifleman’s rifle.” It cemented Winchester’s reputation with hunters when combined with the Model 1894 lever’s legacy. The post-64 Model 70 version nearly destroyed Winchester’s credibility because of the abandonment of controlled round feeding and other modifications in its design that lowered manufacturing costs.
Another limb on the Model 70 family tree arrived in the early 1990s, with controlled round feeding reinstituted and the “Classic” designation chosen to separate it from other Model 70s. The latest Model 70 is the one currently being produced in the FNH USA Columbia factory.
The .458 Win Mag Model 70 featured in this article falls under the Classic-era model designation. The Classic returned the majority of pre-64 features, with minor differences in stock and action design. The commentaries I have read seem to agree that the Classic Model 70 encompasses features making it superior to the original pre-64 Model 70 — except for nostalgia reasons that is. The Classic Model 70 is more scope friendly, as it comes already drilled and tapped. Another improvement is found in the trigger geometry, allowing for simpler adjustability. The return of controlled round feeding made the difference for most dangerous game hunters and brought the Classic Model 70 back into the fold with hunters. I will avoid the debate between push feed versus controlled round feed by urging readers to review writings and opinions of experienced dangerous game hunter and come to their own conclusions.
The .458 Win Mag cartridge was introduced in 1956 and first chambered in the Winchester Model
70 African rifle. It was designed to compete against the .450 Nitro Express and the .470 Nitro
Express cartridges found in big-bore British double rifles.
The Model 70 Classic Safari Express featured was supposed to be my dad’s
someday rifle for Alaska and Africa. Sadly he was never able to make the trip.
As I mentioned earlier, the Winchester Model 70 Classic Safari Express .458 Win Mag came into the family based on a desire to hunt in Africa and Alaska. Some would argue that the .458 Win Mag is excessive for anything in North America. A .338 Win Mag is more than sufficient and offers greater flexibility. All I offer in rebuttal is you are never over gunned as long as you can place the bullet where it belongs. The possibility of an Alaskan hunt led to a desire to modify/improve the base Model 70 Classic rifle. The inspiration was based on Alaska’s harsh hunting conditions in terms of environment. Brockman’s Custom Gunsmithing was chosen to do the work on the Model 70. I knew of Brockman’s reputation because of the lever-action work he had performed for me on a Marlin 1895 lever action.
It was decided the .458 Win Mag Model 70 Classic Safari Express would have the following work done by Brockman’s: 1) install Brockman’s patented B.E.S.T. muzzlebrake; 2) MPI’s super magnum “Dakota”-style fiberglass stock fitted 3) lap scope rings and mount Leupold VX-3 1.75-6x scope 4) adjust trigger to 4.5 pounds; and 5) smooth/slick action for smooth manipulation and most importantly foolproof functioning. All tasks had one goal in mind — ensure a reliable, durable, zero-retaining rifle. For most, this is the Holy Grail for dangerous game hunting in terms of rifle performance.
The Model 70 Classic Safari Express featured is equipped with a 22″ barrel, with an express-style rear and hooded front sight. (The front sight’s hood was removed to minimize obstruction with the Leupold scope when set at its lowest magnification level.) The rifle weighs approximately 10 pounds empty with the MPI stock and Leupold scope mounted. Overall length of the rifle is nearly 44″ to the tip of the installed B.E.S.T. brake. The Winchester Model 70 Classic Safari Express has a hinged floorplate magazine accommodating three .458 Win Mag rounds. Winchester utilizes a 3-position safety on the Model 70, allowing for the action to be worked while remaining on safe.
The scope ring lapping and fitting of the Leupold VX-3 to the Model 70 Classic
better allows the scope to stay secure while buffeted by .458 Win Mag recoil.
The .458 Win Mag cartridge was introduced in 1956 and first chambered in the Winchester Model 70 African rifle. It was designed to compete against the .450 Nitro Express and the .470 Nitro Express cartridges found in big-bore British double rifles. The .458 Winchester Magnum was created for hunting dangerous game animals by emulating the performance of powerful English double rifle cartridges in a bolt-action rifle, i.e. 500-grain bullets driven at 2,100 fps. The use of a bolt-action rifle offered hunters a cheaper alternative to the labor-intensive custom big-bore double rifle. Ammunition was also more readily available with Winchester and other American companies producing it compared to the often-proprietary British calibers.
The history of the .458 Win Mag is not without some problems however. Issues arose in the late 1960s related to reliable ammunition performance in terms of the velocity generated, and more significantly ignition when fired. To this day, any mention of the .458 Win Mag will generate a comment based on this stigma of erratic performance. Most agree the problem is traceable to a type of powder used with the compressed 500-grain factory loads and has long been resolved. This is supported by the number of .458 Win Mag chambered rifles found in the hands of professional hunters, park rangers and other individuals who carry a dangerous game rifle for a living.
The Brockman B.E.S.T. brake is not essential for a dangerous game rifle. However, the muzzlebrake does encourage more range time with the .458 Win Mag. More range time equates to more familiarity with a rifle that is going to be used in a serious situation. More range time means any issues with function will become evident on the range and not in the field, where it could be disastrous. While not trying to be dramatic, a brown bear or African dangerous game hunt is not your typical white tail foray, where fumbling with your rifle results merely in a missed opportunity on a deer. A missed deer is bad enough; problems against quarry capable and willing to kill you is an entirely different matter.
The greatest concern with a brake is the effects of increased muzzleblast on hunter and guide when afield. There are muzzlebrake models that can be removed. However, this often raises problems of shifting point of aim because of the variation in barrel harmonics between when the brake is installed and removed because of weight difference on the barrel.
Brockman’s B.E.S.T. brake solves this dilemma with its patented ball bearing design that allows it to be turned “on” or “off” with a twist. This means it’s not removed from the barrel or shifted in position. Barrel harmonics remain the same. My testing with Federal and Hornady .458 Win Mag loads supports the theory via rounds on paper. Federal 350-grain SP and 500-grain Trophy Bear Claws (TBBC) combined with Hornady 500-grain DGS bullets showed no shift of zero between B.E.S.T. brake’s “on” or “off” positions. The Federal 350-grain SP loads were purchased with the rifle many years ago. I do not see the Federal 350-grain load listed any longer in Federal’s catalogue of available .458 Win Mag loads. Several ammunition makers — Winchester, Hornady and Federal — still cater to the big cartridge with numerous factory loads available.
Next, field testing the big gun