|July - August 2003
Volume 35, Number
Shoemaker's Model 98 Mauser .458 Winchester Magnum won't win any beauty contests, but it handles potentially dangerous game as well as any "show-room"rifle. Rifle photo by Dave Scovill. Moose photo by Ron Spomer.
Davy Crockett reportedly referred to his long
rifle as Ole Betsy. Hal Waugh, Alaskas first Master Guide, called his
favorite Winchester Model 70 .375 Weatherby Big Nan. Personally Ive
never been much of one for naming inanimate objects, but my all-time favorite rifle,
Ole Ugly, seems to have acquired a name by default.
I doubt if there has been a single
season in the past 18 years that at least one of my visiting hunters hasnt felt
obligated to comment disparagingly on its lack of aesthetics. The normal scenario happens
just after they have shown me their shiny, new, multi-thousand-dollar, highly detailed
custom rifle of which they are inordinately proud. I then, naively assuming that such
connoisseurs of fine armament will recognize real virtue, haul out my rifle - the one
their life may ultimately depend on. Eighteen years of use has honed the action to the
consistency of polished ice. Flicking open its bolt, Ill offer the rifle for their
Over the years Ive learned to
anticipate their reactions. It is much the same as if Id offered them a dismembered
body part from a leper colony. Recoiling in disgust, the inevitable comment is:
Thats ugly! I can count on one hand the number of hunters who have
actually taken it from me for even a polite, cursory look.
The singular exception to this was the
late Finn Aagaard. Ever a student of fine using rifles, he closely examined the rifle in
detail and then ask if he could shoot it. After firing a quick three shot burst (Finn
could make a bolt gun sing.), he handed it back to me and said he couldnt imagine a
better gun for its intended purpose. But even Finn, who seldom had a disparaging word
about anything, still felt obliged to inform me that it was ugly. Editor Dave Scovill,
after kicking the rifle around my hunting cabin for a few days, both figuratively and
literally, finally worked up the nerve to actually inspect it in detail. However he
wasnt as kind as Finn in his assessments of its appearance.
Webster defines ugly as unpleasing
to look at; aesthetically offensive. Over the years I have actually grown quite fond
of the rifle and personally find it rather attractive in a utilitarian sort of way.
Beauty is as beauty does, so they say. Webster also defines ugly as
threatening or ominous. That describes it perfectly. It is intended to be
threatening and ominous. If you told a Navy Seal his H&K PSG was ugly or a Delta Force
Ranger his Barrett was ugly, you would likely get a thousand-yard stare and a So,
whats your point? That is, if you were lucky.
I remember one muggy afternoon in late
1969, in the central highlands of Vietnam. We had just been extracted from the Ia Drang
Valley after a long, demanding, arduous mission. My small band of companions and I had
just off-loaded in a secure firebase and began walking toward the local watering hole.
Just as we were clearing the heli-pad, some high-ranking, spit-and-polish, rear-echelon
officer happened by and called us all to attention. Standing in front of us, he berated
all of us for our non-military bearing. He then reached out and took our point mans
CAR-15, gave it a cursory inspection and pronounced it an absolute disgrace.
We were all physically and emotionally
drained from our little foray in the jungle and definitely not in the mood for any petty,
REMF harassment. The trooper reached out and took back his carbine, slammed in a loaded
magazine and deftly jacked a round into the chamber. Looking the officer directly in the
eye, he said How would you like to look at it from the front, sir? The officer
turned and abruptly walked away. The very fact that we were standing there was proof that
our weapons worked.
Those vivid military experiences taught
me the only details seriously worth worrying about in a using rifle are those that relate
to function, and I remembered them when I began assembling Ole Ugly in 1984. I
made no compromises to aesthetics. It was built for go - not for show. Its sole purpose
was to protect my clients and me from Alaskas oversized brown bears. I described in
detail its inception and construction in an article in Rifle No. 100. Over the years there
have been a few minor changes and modifications, but my original concept was sound. It has
been carried thousands of miles and used to stop a number of irate, wounded brown bears.
It has earned my trust and has become my favorite rifle.
The Mk X Mauser action is as reliable as
- well - a Mauser. That is why I chose it in the first place. Polished and honed by years
of use, the fat, wicked little .458 rounds positively slither into the chamber; and when
the heavy, rugged Model 98 firing pin drops, I can count on ignition. Although the
exterior finish shows innumerable worn layers of varying hues of Rustoleum paint, the bore
is still dime bright. The old Brown Precision fiberglass stock that I cut, chopped and
built up with multiple layers of fiberglass cloth and resin to fit me has proven to be as
stable and rugged as the action. The Redfield dovetail mounts with the Pilkington quick
release lever eventually wore enough to need replacement, but the little 2 1/2x compact
Leupold scope has taken a lickin and kept on tickin.
My selection of the .458 Winchester Magnum
(Winchesters original short magnum) proved to be a wise one. Its not the
biggest, fastest or most powerful; yet, like the .45 ACP in pistols, it has become the
standard by which all others of its kind are judged. A vast majority of the worlds
professional hunters have used it with absolute confidence for nearly 50 years. Because of
the myriad vagaries of big game hunting, failures eventually crop up with every caliber,
and there have been a few high-profile critics of the .458. The fact that a small number
of the failures showed up with the .458 Winchester Magnum is statistically insignificant
as a vast majority of hunters are using it.
Author Craig Boddington queried over 100
working African professionals when he wrote his book Safari Rifles. Forty-eight of them
said they preferred the .458 Winchester for hunting large, thick-skinned game. That was as
many as all the .416 Rigby (18), .470 Nitro (15), .460 Weatherby (3), .450 Nitro (3), .416
Hoffman (3), .404 Jeffery (3) and .475 No. 2 (3) users combined!
Mike LaGrange, a problem animal control
officer for Zimbabwe National Parks has shot over 6,000 elephants. Six thousand! That is
not a misprint. In his line of work, he tested and used virtually every rifle and caliber.
Due to his unmatched experience level, the Zimbabwe parks department asked him to write a
guide book for Zimbabwe hunters. Titled Ballistics in Perspective (available from
Professional Hunter Supply, PO Box 608, Ferndale CA 95536), it is a superbly informative
little book and is written in the same concise format as Bill Jordans No Second
Place Winner. Mike thoroughly discusses the low velocity and lack of penetration
attributed to the .458 Winchester, but states, My personal choice, not considering
weapon action or reliability, which are important factors in dangerous game hunting, is
the .458 Winchester. He also states, Its not the most powerful big-game
cartridge, but properly loaded, the .458 magnum has enough power to comfortably stop any
animal in any situation.
Even Harry Selby, the dean of all
current professional hunters and the guru of .416 Rigby fans, has sold his .416 Rigby and
purchased a .458 Winchester, which he claims to have absolute faith in. So
while a few writers may attempt to make a name for themselves selling articles
bad-mouthing the .458, the rest of us continue ignorantly along, bashing bellicose brutes
and living to tell the tale. Even if the controversy surrounding the .458 were as bad as
the nay-sayers claim, it is relevant only for elephant and, to a lesser extent, buffalo
hunters using solid bullets. With softnose expanding bullets the .458 is wickedly
effective on any soft-skinned game.
For the first five years that I used Ole
Ugly, I relied exclusively on Hornadys excellent 500-grain roundnose bullets ahead
of 70 grains of IMR-3031. Muzzle velocity in its abbreviated 21-inch barrel matched the
factory claimed 2,040 fps, and results were always impressive. Any bear I ever tagged with
a solid hit immediately went down. They occasionally got back up but did so noticeably
slower than if they had been hit with a .375 or .416.
The late Jack Carter sent me one of his
first boxes of 500-grain Trophy Bonded bullets, which I promptly loaded over the same
powder charge. That fall moose season I had an opportunity to test one. One evening I was
sitting on a small knoll with a moose hunting client when an absolutely massive, 74-inch
bull moose stepped out of a stand of willows a half-mile away and began ambling toward us.
The terrain was open tundra, and there was nothing we could do but sit and wait.
There was a small pond about 400 yards
from us, and the bull eventually reached it and stopped. It was getting close to dark,
there was no way to stalk closer, and we were afraid we would miss an opportunity of a
lifetime. The hunter thought he could make the shot. Lying prone and using my backpack for
a rest, he held the crosshairs over the bulls withers and fired. I was watching
through my binocular, and the bull never moved. I saw a splash of water behind and
apparently above the bull and called the shot high. He held lower and shot again; this
time I saw water splash in front of the bull. His third, and last, shot in the rifle again
made a splash behind the bull but appeared to have possibly hit him. He then told me his
remaining ammunition was back in camp and asked me to try a shot. The bull appeared to
have been hit, and I agreed.
With 500-grain bullets I keep Ole Ugly
sighted in dead on at 100 yards. My trajectory table, while not exact, is simple, quick
and easy to remember and satisfactory for the large animals I am hunting: one foot drop at
200 yards, 3 feet at 300, 6 at 400 and 12 at 500. Figuring the bulls body was a good
3 feet deep, I held 4 feet high and fired. The 1,800-pound bull gave a violent shudder, we
heard the bullet whack, and he collapsed where he stood.
Upon butchering we found two of the
hunters bullets had struck the bull low in the chest but had failed to expand and
done very little damage. The single 500-grain Trophy Bonded bullet had taken out one rib
going in, completely removed the top of the animals heart, removed two ribs on the
way out and was found under the hide on the offside. It had expanded to over an inch in
diameter. Considering the bullets velocity had to have been down somewhere around
1,100 fps, it was impressive performance.
I remained completely satisfied with both the
500-grain Hornady and Trophy Bonded bullets, but my son Taj got to playing around with his
.458, drop tubes and various powder/bullet combinations and got me interested as well. One
summer we were presented with a unique test medium when two dead, 40-foot gray whales
washed up on our local beach. Ill spare you the gory details, but by firing over a
chronograph at our unique testing facility we obtained some interesting and valid
First off, discounting bullets designed
for the .45-70, all the bullets over 400 grains held together and penetrated exceptionally
well. Penetration, with but one exception, was directly proportional to expansion. The
exception was 400-grain Barnes X-Bullets. Loaded on top of 80 grains of AAC-2200, they
gave 2,200 fps and penetrated as deeply as any 500-grain bullet yet opened as wide as the
super expanders. The four separate petals expanded to an average of 1.1 inches in
diameter. The 500-grain Hornady and 450-grain Swift clocked nearly 2,100 fps ahead of 73
grains of IMR-3031 and penetrated almost as deeply as the X-Bullet yet only opened to an
average of .80 inch. The 500-grain Woodleigh and Trophy Bonded bullets, over the same load
of IMR-3031, expanded to a full inch or better in diameter, which curtailed their
penetration by a couple inches. The 400-grain Kodiak bullet, with the same load as the 400
X-Bullets, penetrated as well as the 500-grain Woodleighs and Trophy Bondeds but
only opened up to .80 inch. Each of them showed 90+ percent weight retention.
Recoil is noticeably less with the
400-grain bullets, and performance is still spectacular. I now primarily use 400-grain
X-Bullets, as they shoot well in my rifle, while Taj prefers the slightly faster 400-grain
Kodiaks and the 450-grain Swifts. Both of us, however, still carry a fistful of 500-grain
Woodleighs or Trophy Bondeds just in case we have to wrinkle a wounded bear out of the
pucker brush. Even though our testing doesnt show it, that big, heavy roundnose
somehow just seems more comforting.
Comforting, I suppose, is the adjective
that best describes Ole Ugly. Ive used other rifles and calibers. My .505 Gibbs
certainly hits with more authority, and my .416 Rigby and .375 H&H both shoot flatter
and offer more versatility. Yet all of them require a long action. The extra little
quarter-inch of throw never seems like much on the range, but under stress I consciously
have to pull the bolt all the way rearward on a long action; whereas, a slick Model 98
seems to work with just a flick of the wrist. Under worst case scenarios, when things
really get tight and serious, and the world drops into slow motion, except for that
rapidly advancing nightmare at the end of your tunnel vision, that extra motion can seem
like an eternity. That is when the stubby .458 Winchester, in a well-honed,
standard-length, rugged Mauser, that fits like a glove is just beautiful.