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
Accuracy is not so much an issue with .458 Win Mag chambered big-bore rifle. This is because of the close-range nature of dangerous game hunting — most shots are taken under 50 yards. This is due to terrain most likely hunted, the size of the animal requiring the utmost of terminal ballistics to be applied and frankly the importance of ensuring shot taken is placed into a vital organ area. The Federal 350-grain SP delivered 1.75″ 3-round groups at 100 yards and the Federal 500-grain TBBC gave 2.25″ groups. The Hornady 500-grain DGS loads produced similar-sized groups in the 2″ range. Needless to say, bench testing was not a popular activity, with few volunteers to assist. A PAST recoil pad was used. After establishing a baseline for accuracy, the Model 70 was fired from field position as intended by the shooting gods for the rest of the evaluation.
A good part of the Model 70 Classic evaluation was
conducted during realistic winter conditions.
Echo Valley Training Center’s Jungle Walk range was utilized for testing. The ability to move through its varied terrain and engage randomly placed targets hidden within cover suited the .458 Win Mag Model 70 evaluation perfectly. Humble deer targets were used in lieu of Cape Buffalo and Elephant targets; these were in short supply at my local gun store. Ranges involved were 15 to 40 yards with multiple shots fired at most of the targets. The emphasis was on accurate shot placement and working the Brockman’s tuned bolt without removing the rifle from the shoulder. The low 1.75x setting on the Leupold VX-3 allowed for a wide field of view and quick target assessment/engagement. The MPI stock combined with the B.E.S.T. brake tamed recoil to manageable levels, even with the 500-grain .458 Win Mag loads. The 100-plus rounds of Federal 350-grain SP inherited from my father with the rifle were used for the bulk of evaluation.
I noticed the Winchester Model 70 Classic Safari Express’s placement of the forward sling swivel on the barrel was no accident. A sling swivel on the rifle’s fore-end would have proven painful to the shooter’s hand when it dragged across one’s palm from recoil forces. Make no mistake, while manageable due to MPI stock and Brockman’s B.E.S.T. brake, recoil with full-power .458 Win Mag loads is not a pleasant experience, especially when firing more than a handful of times during a range session.
I have no means of scientifically quantifying recoil reduction with Brockman’s B.E.S.T. brake between the “on” and “off” positions. I offer anecdotal information in lieu of empirical. The first round fired through the .458 Win Mag was with the brake off; it taught me an important big-bore lesson. I am acquainted with .375 H&H and .340 Weatherby rifles. I thought recoil with the .458 Win Mag, while greater, would be manageable based on experience with other rifles. Well, the first round fired showed importance of having everything tied down, especially one’s tongue inside one’s mouth. Eventually, the bleeding stopped, and the shooting session continued. With the Brockman B.E.S.T. brake on, the upward recoil of the stock into my face and rearward push into shoulder was substantially reduced. The upward recoil into my face is more my sensitive area in terms of recoil than the rearward shoulder shove. I would venture the Brockman brake reduced the Model 70’s .458 Win Mag recoil into the .300 Win Mag category.
The MPI “Dakota” stock also assists with recoil management. The MPI’s design helps dissipate felt recoil. The MPI stock also satisfies various concerns with the Model 70 besides recoil. A favorable aspect of the handmade fiberglass stock is its durability both against the elements and punishment a stock takes in terms of .458 Win Mag recoil. This dual durability contributes to our goal of overall reliability. There is no time for swollen or split stocks in the field. Every MPI stock is multi-laminated and inspected frequently during its hands-on construction, and are not injection-molded via machine. MPI offers many different styles of stocks, including super magnum models, for any rifle caliber over .375 H&H. It’s double reinforced along the action area and the sides of the magazine well to better withstand the stresses of big-bore recoil. MPI claims its super magnum stocks are virtually indestructible when bedded properly. The MPI-stocked Model 70 has a great feel to it and the rifle balances well. This is no small matter if a quick shot is needed on an animal in close cover as is typical, or, dare we say, because of a charge.
Brockman-worked Winchester Model 70 was evaluated at Echo Valley Training
Center’s Jungle Walk range, allowing for field expedient positions to be used.
After establishing a baseline for accuracy, the Model 70 was fired from field position,
as intended by the shooting gods, for the rest of the evaluation.
Another key component addressed in the Model 70’s modifications is its sighting system. Some would council against even mounting a scope on the Model 70 .458 Win Mag. The prevalence of scopes with the last three generations of hunters often means scopes are now more natural to use than open sights. A quality scope’s light-gathering capabilities in thick bush should not be discounted as an important advantage in making a killing first shot.
Leupold bases and rings were used to mount a Leupold VX-3 1.75-6x scope. Brockman’s lapped the scope rings and mounted the scope as part of their service. I have read unlapped scope rings bear less than 40 percent on a 1″ scope tube. This did not sound prudent with the recoil forces involved with the .458 Win Mag. Brockman’s mounting and lapping of the Leupold gave the confidence that the scope will stay aligned in the field and recoil would not affect it at the worst time. The Leupold VX-3 1.75-6x scope features a 32mm objective, offering better light gathering than most dangerous-game-type scopes in the genre with straight tubes. The better light transmission and image quality at dawn/dusk sealed the deal in my scope selection process.
As a finishing touch for the Winchester Model 70, Brockman’s adjusted the trigger for a crisp 4.5-pound release with no creep. The main idea for the trigger was consistency. A sub 4.5-pound trigger is not warranted on a hunting rifle that may be used in cold climates or in thick cover. The Model 70’s action was “tuned” for smooth operation.
More paramount for the action work was reliable functioning. For me, a dangerous game rifle is better served with these modifications than blueprinting or truing the action with gilt-edge accuracy in mind. Sub-MOA accuracy is not the goal for a .458 Win Mag rifle. A rifle like the Model 70 Classic Safari Express is expected to perform under 100 yards, not because of ballistics, as 200 yards is quite possible. Rather, the type of game hunted demands proper bullet placement and the utmost power delivered to ensure the quick demise of the animal hunted; this translates into close shots usually under 50 yards.
All game should be taken at the closest possible range. Excuse the sarcasm, but this is called hunting. A certain degree of compromise exists concerning effective distance for harvesting deer, elk, etc. based on caliber used, hunter experience and terrain hunted. Dangerous game like Alaskan brown bear, Cape Buffalo and elephant have no such leniency. A hunter must get close and place the bullet properly.
The constant talk of reliability doesn’t mean hunters are a paranoid lot. Only that it is prudent when hunting dangerous game to worse-case scenario everything. Remember, plan for the worse and hope for the best. The Brockman-worked Winchester Model 70 Classic Safari is a much better weapon in its current form than when it left the factory. All aspects of its modifications had one purpose — more reliability and durability to better increase its performance. Perhaps one day the Winchester Model 70 will finally make it to the hunting destinations intended by my father.
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