Winchester’s ‘Rifleman’s Rifle’ returns in three big bore calibers
by Buck Pope
Just recently there were some good happenings at Winchester Repeating Arms and that was the return of one of the favorite rifles of any serious big bore shooter or African big game hunter. The Winchester Model 70 Safari Express Rifle is now back. It took several years to get this Safari Express model on line.
As most of us know, there was a short period of time when Winchester was out of business. The closure of the Winchester plant in New Haven, CT, which was owned then by United States Repeating Arms Company (USRAC) was March 31, 2006. All of us Winchester Model 70 fans were super concerned, as this looked to be the end of this great rifle and also the Winchester firearms name.
As many know, the Model 70 dates back to its introduction in 1936 by the original Winchester Repeating Arms, and quite a history unfolded. The famous pre-64 Winchester Model 70s were made from 1936 to 1963, “The Rifleman’s Rifle,” and are considered highly collectable.
The Winchester Model 70 went through a major design change in 1964 and the rifle lost a number of the features and quality that set it apart from competitors. However, fortunately, over time the desirable features and looks started to return to the later Model 70 Winchesters. When the name was later brought out by USRAC additional changes were made, improving the function and looks of the rifle. However the cost of making the rifle, union demands and management issues finally did the company in, and that Winchester closed its doors in 2006.
Then, in 2007, it was announced that Winchester was now back and under the leadership of Herstal Group which is FN Herstal and Browning Arms. With this announcement the name Winchester Repeating Arms was now back from the old days and this was all truly exciting news.
Under the new ownership, certain models of Winchester firearms would be manufactured at the FN Facility in Columbia, SC. The return of the Model 70 was kicked off with a few design changes, but the basic design of the Model 70 with the famous Model 70 action, claw extractor, controlled feed, and other features were maintained in the rifle. There was one significant change and that was the trigger. The simple and great trigger we all liked since its birth was gone. It was replaced with a box trigger that is called the M.O.A. trigger.
The first line of rifles to be built at the FN plant were the Model 70 Featherweights in .270 Winchester and .30-06 Springfield calibers. Browning decided to have a group of writers come to the FN plant and spend several days seeing the rifles being made and also shooting them.
I was one of the fortunate writers to be invited and it was a very informative and fun-filled event. The last afternoon we went to the range and shot their new rifle line and also other FN military products.
I happened to get a Winchester Model 70 Featherweight in .30-06 Springfield caliber to test out for accuracy. I was using Federal Premium 168-grain ammunition with the Sierra Matchking bullet. I must say I was rather set back by the three-shot group I got, that being 0.250 of an inch at 100 yards. I wasn’t the only one shooting well, several other writers were experiencing 0.500 and under groups. FN makes their own hammer-forged barrels and I was most impressed with their manufacturing processes and controls. The plant is totally modern and up-to-date with CNC and other machinery that can make firearms with exacting tolerances.
But they also had a challenge: to make a rifle that looked and felt as much as possible like the old classic models, yet accomplish this task using the latest in modern technology. In addition to being a handsome and accurate rifle, it had to be priced to be competitive in the marketplace.
The plant also makes a high volume of military-type firearms which I also observed being manufactured. Bottom line is I went away very impressed with the ability of this company to make quality Winchester Model 70 rifles.
Since that time the Winchester product line has grown with a number of new calibers including magnum calibers. However, missing in the Winchester line were any rifles made in calibers larger than the .338 Winchester Magnum. And, to be more specific, Winchester was lacking a line of rifles and calibers geared for the big bore shooters and Africa-type calibers for the largest big game, along with the mighty bears of the world.
We all waited and hoped to see a Classic line of big bores to be made in the Winchester Model 70. We needed the return of the Model 70 Safari African-type rifle for the really big and dangerous game.
Then it happened. Winchester announced last year it was coming out with a Winchester Model 70 Safari Express line of rifles in three big bore calibers. We could expect to see these rifles right near the close of last year.
Finally, I received one of the rifles in .458 Winchester Magnum caliber. They were offering three calibers, namely: .375 H & H Magnum, .416 Remington Magnum and the .458 Winchester Magnum. (Refer to Rifle Specifications Chart.)
I must say my first impression was most favorable. It looked like a classic Model 70 with its dark walnut wood and rich matte blue finish. As I handled the rifle, I very much liked how it handled and came to my shoulder It had the famous Model 70 controlled-feed action with its big claw extractor and their very popular three-position safety. I must admit I have been a big Model 70 fan since I got my first one back in the 1950s.
The rifle had some weight to it and that was ideal because you are shooting big calibers with some serious recoil. The rifle, without adding a scope, came in at 9˚ lbs. and after a scope and mounts were added it was now at 11 lbs. This is a weight I think is about right for a caliber such as the .458 Winchester Magnum and the other two big calibers offered.
The .458 Winchester Magnum dates back to 1956 when it was introduced as part of four new calibers to come out over a four-year period. As a matter of interest, the other three were the .264 Winchester Magnum in 1958, the .300 Winchester Magnum in 1963 and the .338 Winchester Magnum in 1958. All of these calibers were made off the .458 case. The .458 Winchester Magnum was made for Africa and the largest and most dangerous big game animals in the world. It uses bullets with weights up to 510 grains. It is a most impressive cartridge with quite a solid reputation for taking large and dangerous big game. In addition it is very popular with a number of guides in Alaska who want a back-up rifle for brown bears.
As an example of its power take a Winchester 500-grain Nosler Partition bullet. It is rated at 2,010 fps and is rated at 4486 ft.-lbs of energy at the muzzle. I might also add this bad boy also gives off a bit of recoil. As an example, an 11-pound rifle in .458 Winchester Magnum and using 500-grain bullet gives you 57.32 ft.-lbs of recoil. For comparison a .30-06 Springfield caliber firing 180-grain bullets in an eight-pound rifle gives off 20.04 ft.-lbs.
The Model 70 comes with a 24-inch barrel, which I personally wish was a 22-inch barrel. This would offer just a bit faster handling capabilities. It is a medium heavy barrel and balances out nicely. The rifle comes with quality open express-type sights. The magazine capacity is three rounds which is typical of this caliber rifle. The bottom metal is steel and has a quick release to drop the floor plate to remove the cartridges. The metal on the rifle is very nicely finished in a matte blue. My rifle had a quality piece of dark American walnut with dimensions ideally suited for a rifle in this type of caliber. It also comes with a one-inch solid black recoil pad which matches up very nicely with the wood stock.
The receiver is drilled and tapped to receive bases for a scope application. So the next step was to mount a quality scope on the rifle and see how accurate it was. I selected a personal favorite scope for it, that being a Swarovski Z6i which is a 1-6X power 30mm scope with a proven record. I have used this model scope on several bear hunts in Alaska and have been very impressed. I mounted the scope onto the rifle using Talley bases and rings. I have been using Talley for a number of years and find them to be totally dependable. As much as I liked the rifle already, the bottom line is just how well did it shoot?
Out into the hills I went and set up my shooting bench and support equipment to see how this rifle grouped at 100 yards. As much as I can handle recoil as well as most fellows who do a fair amount of shooting, I have found an aid that greatly helps out on the recoil end. It is called the Caldwell Lead Sled and it really works. You add several sand bags to the sled platform and you’re ready to shoot.
I had three makes of ammunition to use in testing out the rifle. You may refer to the “Firing Results” Chart B to see the performance of the rifle.
The rifle was very accurate and the best grouping I got was a 0.313 group using the factory Winchester Supreme 500-grain Nosler Partition bullet. I also might add, that it shot the other two loads quite well with both under 0.500 of an inch. I did a bit of research and found out that on a general basis the .458 Winchester Magnum is an accurate cartridge to begin with. Even with that knowledge I thought the rifle shot extremely well and one couldn’t ask for much greater performance.
I decided to take the rifle apart and take a look at its internals. The one thing I was most impressed with was the double recoil lug that was on the barrel. In addition to the standard recoil lug, Winchester had added a second lug as used by some custom rifle makers. This helped control the barreled action and greatly increased its bedding rigidity. That is one of the reasons the rifle shot so well.
The rifle also had a few other, what I would call custom, features not typically found on a standard production rifle. As an example, it had a swivel band mounted in front of the forend. It also had an inletted swivel base for the rear stock. The stock had a cheekpiece that added to its classic lines. There is no doubt that the folks at the FN plant are making an excellent high-performing rifle.
This rifle is priced to sell well at $1,349.99 and, with all the added features and its excellent accuracy, it is a winner all the way. There is no question in my mind the “Rifleman’s Rifle” is back in the big bore calibers.
Chart A: Rifle Specifications
|Winchester Model 70 Safari Express
||.458 Winchester Magnum, .375 H&H Magnum ,.416 Remington Magnum.
|Chart B: Rifle Performance
|Target distance: 100 yards, 3-Shot groups
||Bullet Wt. / Type
||450-gr. Barnes DPS
||500-gr. Swift A Frame
||500-gr. Nosler Partition
|Winchester Repeating Arms
|Caldwell Lead Sled
Online: caldwellshooting .com
|Tally Mfg. Co.
|Federal Premium Ammunition
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