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Handloading Beyond The Basics
Rifle Magazine
July - August 2003
Volume 35, Number 4
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 208
On the cover...
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.
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Davy Crockett reportedly referred to his long rifle as “Ole Betsy.” Hal Waugh, Alaska’s first Master Guide, called his favorite Winchester Model 70 .375 Weatherby “Big Nan.” Personally I’ve 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 hasn’t 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, I’ll offer the rifle for their inspection.

Over the years I’ve learned to anticipate their reactions. It is much the same as if I’d offered them a dismembered body part from a leper colony. Recoiling in disgust, the inevitable comment is: “That’s 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 couldn’t 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 wasn’t 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, what’s 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 man’s 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 Alaska’s 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 (Winchester’s original short magnum) proved to be a wise one. It’s 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 world’s 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 Jordan’s 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, “It’s 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 Hornady’s 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 bull’s 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 bull’s 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 hunter’s 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 animal’s 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 bullet’s 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. I’ll spare you the gory details, but by firing over a chronograph at our unique testing facility we obtained some interesting and valid comparisons.

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-Bullet’s, 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 doesn’t show it, that big, heavy roundnose somehow just seems more comforting.

Comforting, I suppose, is the adjective that best describes Ole Ugly. I’ve 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.

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