The active pursuit of dangerous game is far and away my favorite style of hunting. I don’t intend to demean any of the other game animals — I love it all, from rabbits to pheasants to deer — but when dangerous game is on the menu, you have my full and undivided attention. The gear required for hunting dangerous game — specifically the rifle — must be rock solid, as with failure comes the potential for loss of life.
With dangerous game, particularly African dangerous game, comes visions of ornately engraved double rifles and cigar-sized cartridges, of equatorial sun and thirst, and also the wallet, of a well-off gentleman. While those rifles are certainly still relevant (I absolutely love the modern-day Heym 89B double rifle) the price tag of the highest end rifles need not prevent the common hunter from enjoying a dangerous game hunt. There are options, affordable to the working man, which will totally suffice for any dangerous game situation without hesitation.
I was raised in a household where money was a scarcity, and while hunting was a central theme each autumn and winter, when it came to firearms, form followed function. Everything from the choice of cartridge — which was selected to offer the widest selection of hunting applications — to the need for simple things like checkering were considered; my Dad still retains the ability to find a rifle that is bare-bones and scoffs at my appreciation for fine walnut. That said, a rifle’s engraving never stopped a charge, and the finest color-case hardening doesn’t make a rifle any more accurate. Let’s look at some affordable, yet dependable options for a dangerous game rifle, and what features I consider a necessity.
Undoubtedly, if you’re on a budget, the double rifles are pretty much off of the menu. Even the most affordable will start at right around $5,000. That will leave us with the bolt-action, the single shot and the lever gun. The lever guns, chambered to .45-70 Government using hopped up loads, .450 Marlin or perhaps .405 Winchester, have been used with varying degrees of success, but certainly lack the capability of those cartridges that work best in the bolt guns. Single shots are a viable option, but realize: that using a single shot rifle will more than likely result in your professional hunter (PH) joining the soirée, so if you’re comfortable with that so be it. For our discussion, we’ll narrow it to the bolt-action rifles.
Considering that the law prescribes a minimum bore diameter of .375 inches across almost all the African continent for dangerous game, our rifle choices will include those chambering for the .375 H&H and .375 Ruger as the smallest choices. Furthermore, for affordable rifles, our cartridge selection will more than likely top off at the .458 Winchester Magnum or .458 Lott. While both of these calibers will be at the ends of the spectrum, there are some good choices in the middle, like the .416 Rigby, Remington and Ruger.
The CZ550 American Safari Magnum. A rugged and dependable rifle, the CZ550 uses a Mauser-style claw extractor and a fixed, blade ejector. That combination has proven itself for over a century, and it is the nucleus of what I consider to be the best dangerous game bolt rifles. CZ stocks the American Safari Magnum for low-mounted optics yet includes a good set of iron sights in the express configuration. With a single standing rear sight and two folding leaves for greater distances, the CZ550 American Safari Magnum gives a bunch of value for the investment. The single-set trigger, which becomes significantly lighter when the shooter pushes forward on the rear of the trigger, makes distant shots on plains game much easier. Should you encounter the kudu of a lifetime while returning from a blown stalk on a buffalo, this rifle will have no issues making a distant shot. The MSRP on the CZ550 ASM, chambered in the universal .375 H&H Belted Magnum, is a mere $1,215, and the .416 Rigby is $1,318. Considering that amount of money puts a perfectly viable dangerous game rifle in your hands, this is a whole lot of rifle. I have found the stocks on CZ550s to feel a bit bulky, but they have a reputation for being strong, even with truly hard-kicking rifles. If you seek reliability on safari, the CZ550 is hard to beat.
The Winchester Model 70 Safari Express. The Rifleman’s Rifle is right at home on the dark continent, especially in this configuration. Using the classic pre-’64 controlled round feed action, the Safari Express has what it takes to get the job done. As a matter of fact, there have been a couple of safaris where the only rifle I brought along was a Winchester 70 Safari Express in .416 Remington, a very flexible cartridge that can handle anything on earth. A matte finish on both the metal and stock, dual crossbolts — important to prevent stock cracks — and all-steel hinged floorplate are all nice appointments.
A recessed crown, perfect for maintaining accuracy, and two recoil lugs (both bedded), classic Winchester three-position safety and a 1-inch Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pad round out the list of very useful features. The Safari Express wears a good set of iron sights, with the single rear sight being fully adjustable for windage and elevation, yet is stocked for use with optics as well. A barrel-band sling swivel mount will prevent that front stud from slamming into your off hand under heavy recoil. My own rifle, one of the late New Haven models, uses a set of quick release mounts, so I can easily and quickly remove the scope, should I be forced a follow-up shot on a wounded dangerous animal into the thick bush. My rifle is still very accurate — printing just under 1-MOA with my hand loaded ammo. And I’d take that rifle for any hunt, including elephant. Weight, before optics, runs right around an even 9 pounds, and these rifles balance and carry very well. The Safari Express is available in .375 H&H Magnum, .416 Remington Magnum and .458 Winchester Magnum, all at an MSRP of $1,560.
The Ruger Hawkeye African. Ruger has always been synonymous with value because they’ve consistently provided features that a shooter needs at a price point that represents value. From the original tang-safety Ruger Model 77, to the Model 77 MKII, to today’s Hawkeye series, the Ruger bolt-action rifles have remained dependable. The Hawkeye African is built smart, especially for a hunter on a budget. For the dangerous game species, the Hawkeye African comes in a pair of chamberings, which Ruger developed in conjunction with Hornady ammunition: the .375 Ruger and .416 Ruger. Both of these cartridges have proven themselves on all species of dangerous game. The Hawkeye African uses a Mauser-style claw extractor and a fixed blade ejector for dependable cycling, and a wing-style three position safety. A removable muzzlebrake is a great feature for introducing a shooter to the big bore cartridges, though I’m pretty certain that all the PHs would appreciate it you removed the brake for hunting. Ruger uses the same integral scope recesses in the receiver as other Hawkeye models, but offers the wide-V safari style rear sight, and a bold white bead on the front sight for quick target acquisition with iron sights. The LC6 trigger is a decided improvement over the MKII-era triggers; not too light for work on dangerous game, and not so heavy (as with the MKII) that accuracy is affected. Ruger has built the Hawkeye African with a one-piece solid steel bolt, and include a barrel-band sling mount. I like that Ruger has shaped their stocks very close to the dimensions and feel of those rifles of lesser caliber, offering continuity. I’ve had the opportunity to spend a bit of time with the Hawkeye African in .375 Ruger, and found it to be a well-balanced, nice handling rifle. If you feel you’d like a bit more cartridge than one of the .375s, do not hesitate to look into the .416 Ruger; I’ve loaded a considerable amount of ammunition for it, and have found it to be just as capable as the .416 Rigby or Remington.
The Savage Model 116 Bear Hunter. This one’s a sleeper, in that the Savage line of rifles — while a popular choice for North American game, as well as African plains game — isn’t generally thought of as a dangerous game choice.