POOR MAN’S CUSTOM RIFLE

(An earlier version of this essay appears in Hunting & Safari Magazine)


Specialized jobs require specialized tools: a carpenter’s hammer differs from that of a cobbler or a silversmith, a masonry drill isn’t the same as one used on wood.  The principle of tool specialization applies as much to the rifle, the basic tool of the hunter, as it does to any other. 

I’m by no means “rich” as most people would define it, but now and then I get enough money in one pile to go on a safari: when I committed myself to an elephant hunt, I recognized that no rifle I owned was suitable to this special task. 


Any number of mass-produced rifles in any one of dozens of calibers will meet 99% of the average hunter’s needs.  But the fact is that sometimes “Old Reliable” isn’t up to scratch. For hunting elephant, a specialized job, I needed a new, specialized, rifle; one suited to my unique personal requirements.  Dangerous game hunting is just that: potentially very dangerous.  A rifle for it would have to be “just so,” so I could shoot it well and have complete confidence in it.  I would be betting my life—and a non-trivial amount of money—on that rifle’s performance.

Of course there are also mass-produced rifles suited to hunting elephant, available at reasonable prices.  Why not choose one of those?  To begin with, none of the available choices represented everything I wanted in the way of caliber, barrel length, stocking-up, sights, etc.  Any of them could have been modified to meet my requirements, but why do that, when I could build one from the ground up at the same price, give or take a few dollars? I had some very strong and specific ideas, and while some of the available products had some or even most of the features I wanted, none of them had all of them. Not a few had some I deeply disliked.  Nor, as it turned out, did any off-the-shelf item have a significant price advantage.  “Custom-order” was, for me, the only way to get the rifle I had in mind at an affordable price.


The first decision I had to make was which caliber.  Many people opt for a .375 H&H, but I’d been advised by my PH that the .416 bore was superior to the smaller .375; in his experience the .375 was just barely adequate for elephant, with little margin for error in tight situations.  He uses a .416 rifle as his working gun on everything.  His opinion was echoed by other PH’s and most books on dangerous game calibers.  A .458 of some kind was another possibility, but based on readings and expert evaluation, it seemed actually to be a bit more than I really needed.  With all indicators pointing to mid-sized bores, a .416 seemed pretty much the best compromise.  But there are several .416 rounds, how to choose which one?

Naturally I first thought in terms of the classic .416 Rigby.  Introduced about 100 years ago, it was an instant success and has a great reputation, but it meant building a rifle on a “magnum” length action.  It’s possible to shoehorn the Rigby into a standard-length Mauser 1898, but I didn’t want a Mauser. As good and as strong as the Model 1898 is, even a standard length Model 1898 action is large and heavy.  The magnum length receiver is even bulkier and heavier.

Another significant drawback is the price of .416 Rigby cartridges.  The price of dangerous game ammunition is trivial compared to the overall cost of the hunt, but I needed to practice a good deal before I left.  At twice the price of the .416 Remington—whose ballistics are exactly the same—the Rigby was dropped from consideration.  It would do nothing the Remington round wouldn’t, and the latter would fit into any standard-length action. Plus, the Remington round can easily be found in Africa if I needed more, while the other .416's (e.g., the .416 Taylor and .416 Ruger) are less readily available.

I like heavy bullets for increased penetration, and I needed penetration, not expansion. From the very wide variety available in .416 Remington, eventually I chose Hornady’s “Dangerous Game” series with 400-grain solids.  These heavily-jacketed projectiles hold together, penetrate in a straight line with 100% weight retention.  One bullet was recovered from my elephant, totally un-deformed after penetrating several feet of bone and muscle: that’s perfect performance.  An added bonus is that Hornday’s excellent product sells for much less per box than any other brand. Alongside the other costs for a dangerous game hunt, the ammunition is peanuts, but it hurts to spend $10 per shot, and that's what some of the premium stuff costs in .416 Remington. The .416 Rigby is twice that!


My rifle is built on a Savage-built long action. The E.R. Shaw Company of Bridgeville, Pennsylvania, uses Savage actions exclusively for their custom-built products.  Shaw is a very old (100+ years) and well-established firm, long in the business of supplying barrels to major manufacturers.  A few years ago they branched out into custom rifle production: an article in Field & Stream magazine had directed my attention to them.  I took the opportunity to see some of their guns at a trade show and was impressed by their fit and finish, even more so by the huge variety of calibers and options. Shaw quoted a price for exactly what I wanted that beat those of mass-produced guns, but with my choice of finish, barrel length, contour, and stock material.  At $300 less than a decent European brand or one of the “name” American ones, I felt I couldn’t go wrong.

While I have nothing against Mauser rifles per se, the Model 1898—pretty much the yardstick by which all big game rifles are measured—has never had much appeal for me.  This is simply personal preference. The Model 98 is a great design, but the fact is that several modern day actions (all of which trace their descent from it) are genuine improvements. I have a great deal of experience with the Savage “Model 110” and its variants.  The basic Model 110 was designed in the late 1950’s: it has not so long a lineage as the Mauser, but nearly 60 years have proven its strength and dependability.  In one form or another it’s been in production longer than any other US made bolt action, and Savage has “rung the changes” with innumerable variations over the years.

They have never been regarded as beautiful, but (for technical reasons beyond the scope of this essay) Savage rifles have a long-standing and very well-deserved reputation for inherent accuracy.  Despite being designed for low production cost, virtually any run-of-the-gun-shop Model 110 derivative will shoot 1.5 MOA, right out of the box.  Anyone who’s built a rifle  (especially on an ex-military action) knows that achieving that level of accuracy isn’t easy, nor is it cheap.  But with Savage rifles it’s routine.


The current version of this time-tested rifle has other features worth noting.  First is the so-called “Accu-Trigger,” introduced about a decade ago, which permits adjustment to the weight of pull the shooter prefers, with complete reliability and repeatability, and no chance of setting it so light that it will discharge accidentally.  Yes, commercial after-market triggers for other actions will do the same, but the Accu-Trigger is a standard part of the package.

Another is a tang-mounted three-position safety.  The “flag” safety of the Mauser designs is very positive, but it often interferes with scope mounting. It can be awkward to put off as the gun is mounted, but snicking off a tang safety as the rifle is raised is a fast, instinctive movement.  The side-mounted safety lever used in some other actions can be inadvertently pushed off if it strikes a belt or other piece of gear; the sleek, low-profile sliding button of the tang safety doesn’t project above the surface of the action.  Additionally, a tang safety is suitable for either left or right handed shooters.  This wasn’t one of my criteria (I’m right handed) but Savage has always made left-handed variants of their rifle and for others it may well be a significant consideration. (For many years, the only left handed bolt actions on the market were Savage 110’s.  They more or less owned the “southpaw” market for decades.)

One objection to the Savage design is that it has a “blind box” magazine: there’s no floor plate that can be opened to dump unfired rounds.  Of course, that also means that there is no floor plate that can open inadvertently, a not-unheard-of occurrence.  It should also be pointed out that having cartridges completely inside the stock with no opening to the outside except the breech is an advantage in dusty conditions. Finally, none of the professionals with whom I’ve hunted (nearly all of them using Mausers) bother with the floor plate anyway: they simply cycle unused ammunition out by working the bolt.  The Savage safety allows this to be done without fear of dropping the firing pin. 

Another criticism some have of the Savage is that it’s a “push feed” action, without the much-ballyhooed “controlled feed” of the Mauser, in which the extractor claw picks up the cartridge rim as it rises from the magazine and “controls” its entry into the chamber.  This is claimed be more reliable than a push-feed action.  But my Savage rifles will feed anything reliably, even empty cases, and even when cycled upside down.   I’ve never been able to cause a jam, not even by short-stroking the bolt. 

I deeply dislike synthetic stocks, both for aesthetic and practical reasons.  No matter how expensive, they’re downright ugly and they look cheap. Plastic is cold to the cheek. Furthermore, even high-end ones are hollow, making alterations a major undertaking. With my short arms I need less length of pull than most shooters, and I knew that I was going to have to have the stock altered to my dimensions. For all these reasons a synthetic was out.   Nor do I care much for laminated stocks.  They’re very stable, but unfortunately very nearly as ugly as plastic ones. None are attractive, and some are downright garish, with layers dyed in near-fluorescent colors. 

I understand that synthetic stocks are exceptionally durable and free of warpage, and that laminated ones are also very stable. But these weren’t important factors. A working PH needs a rifle he can bang around and use roughly every day, I don’t. I needed a rifle I could use now and then, and whose appearance didn't require me to wear a bag over my head in shame. For the same reason, I went with blued steel: Shaw offers stainless steel actions, but those offend my eye very nearly as much as plastic stocks. Call me a hide-bound old mossback, I don’t care: proper rifles have blued steel actions and walnut stocks, and that’s what I ordered.

I think a rifle should have a high-polish blue finish.  A matte blue was available, which perhaps might have been less likely to reflect light and frighten game, but I’m dubious about that.  I simply preferred the polished finish and the way it looked against the very nice Boyd’s walnut stock.  

I like a 24” barrel.  I do quite a bit of hunting in dense brush and am comfortable with that length.  It develops the full ballistic potential of the .416 round: opting for a shorter barrel would have meant giving up some of it. The barrel is of course free floated, contributing to the rifle’s accuracy.

Having settled in my mind what I wanted, I placed my order. Sixteen months later it arrived, exactly as specified, with only one or two minor tweaks remaining to be done.


The first was the matter of iron sights.  There is a deplorable practice today of selling center fire rifles without any sights at all.  Manufacturers argue that “It isn’t necessary to install sights because shooters always use scopes anyway.” This is arrant nonsense and sophistry. The real reason they do this is that it costs them a good deal less to make and install a barrel without sights.  Advertising has conditioned shooters to accept the absence of sights as a “feature,” a classic triumph of marketing hype over common sense. No one in his right mind would have a dangerous game rifle without iron sights. 

No matter how reliable and sturdy a scope or its mount may be, it can break; no matter how efficient an illuminated sight may be, batteries can go dead.  On my last safari my partner’s heavy-recoiling rifle literally ripped the scope mounting screws out of their threads, ending the gun’s usefulness because he had no iron sights.  Spending thousands of dollars on a safari, while relying on $30 scope mounts or a $2 battery is—at best—false economy. Good, rugged iron sights are always there and always work, as a reliable and necessary “back-up.”

Dangerous game is hunted at short range, so getting a sight picture quickly is important.  I opted for a fully adjustable Williams rear ramp, with a very wide, shallow “Type B” blade; and for the front sight the largest white bead available.  This combination allows me to acquire a sight picture instantly.  During initial sighting-in I found it easy to shoot 2” groups at 100 yards with this combination.  In fact, the rifle shoots better than I do: it’s no exception to the general rule about Savage-action guns being inherently accurate.



The major advance in sighting equipment in recent years is the so-called “red dot” sight.  With an internal pin-point light source and a rear-surface mirror that reflects the tiny bulb, a red dot sight has zero parallax, infinite eye relief, and doesn’t require a shooter to focus on three points simultaneously.  The bright red aiming dot simply “floats” in the field of view, allowing shooting with both eyes open, never losing sight of the target.  It’s nearly instinctive in use, and represents a real improvement, especially at short range.  If anything can be said to make a conventional rifle into a sort of Death Ray, it’s a red dot sight.  Put the dot on what you want to hit, pull the trigger, that’s all that’s needed.

After due diligence I chose an Aimpoint Micro H-1 sight.  It’s small and light, exceptionally rugged and recoil resistant, completely sealed against dust and grime, and has a very wide range of adjustment.  Each positive “click” is ¼ minute of angle, and it holds zero perfectly.  Once set, it never changed point of impact in practice sessions, nor even after transport to Namibia in the tender care of the gorillas who handle airline baggage.  As is true of most red dot sights it has no magnification factor: the target is seen at “1X.” In my hands it proved to be very effective, even faster than open sights, and much friendlier to my aging eyes.

My choices added up to as close to The Perfect Rifle as I could have wished.  Even adding in the price of the iron sights, minor stock work needed to fit my frame, and the Aimpoint sight, I spent considerably less on my Shaw Mark VII than I would have on a “name brand” mass production rifle. 

Did it work?  It sure did: see the picture for proof!