KOLSKOOT | 2021 |By JOHAN VAN WYK

Winchester’s Safari Express - a worthy dangerous-game rifle

Besides the Mauser M98, the Winchester Model 70 is in all probability the best known and most respected of bolt actions. For almost a century, and despite many changes, the Model 70 has remained in production and continues to sell well despite fierce competition from rivals.

 

THE START OF THE MODEL 70

The Model 70 went into production on 20 January 1936 at Winchester’s plant in New Haven, Connecticut. It was released on 1 January 1937, by which time the factory had produced more than 2 000 rifles. Model 70 receivers were machined from chrome-moly steel and finished by hand, including the Winchester logo roll-marked on the left wall of the action. This was followed by spot-hardening of the extraction cam behind the bridge, as well as heat-treating, tumbling, and bluing before the actions were sent for assembly.

 

A few things set the Model 70 apart from the beginning. It was fitted with a well-designed and comfortable stock and soon earned a reputation for good accuracy – the barrels featured hand-cut rifling. In addition, the Model 70’s bolt handle was designed to clear low-mounted scopes and had a simple, reliable and adjustable trigger. 

 

Calibre-wise, the Model 70 was available in a host of chamberings from the .22 Hornet up to and including the mighty .458 Winchester Magnum, introduced in 1956. From an African perspective, however, the two most important chamberings were the .300 and .375 Holland & Holland Magnums. By chambering rifles for these two cartridges, Winchester proved that the Model 70 action could be lengthened to accommodate .375-length cartridges. In addition, by chambering

for the .375 H&H, Winchester placed a solid, reliable and affordable big-game rifle within reach of the man on the street. In hindsight, it was a stroke of genius, and to this day, Model 70s in .375 H&H are something of an African stalwart.

 

MODEL 70 ACTION

The heart of any rifle is its action, and the Model 70 certainly has many redeeming features. The most noticeable characteristic of the action is the broad, non-rotating claw extractor, borrowed straight from Mauser. The claw ensures positive extraction and control-feeding and has come to be regarded as a must-have for any rifle intended for dangerous game or even just rough work afield.

 

We have already touched on the bolt handle that will clear a low-mounted scope, and in combination with this, the safety catch will not interfere with a mounted scope either.

 

Another feature of the Model 70 is less obvious: It makes use of a cone-breeching system. What this implies is that the breech-end of the barrel is funnel-shaped. It is a system that certainly aids in the smooth feeding of cartridges into the chamber. Still, critics claim that it is not as strong as the system used, for instance, on the Remington 700 or Mauser M98. However, with ammunition loaded to normal service pressure, there won’t be any problems with cone-breeching, and it certainly wouldn’t have remained a feature of the Model 70 for all these years if it was a weak spot.

 

TROUBLED WATERS

Sadly, by the early 1960s, the Model 70 was in trouble. Manufacturing costs rose steadily through the years, and by 1960, it was decided to alter the Model 70 action to make it easier and cheaper to manufacture. The result was a much-altered Model 70 action that was introduced in 1964 with serial number 700 000. To say that the new action caused a major earthquake in the rifle world would be an understatement!

 

The “improved” Model 70 did away with the tried-andtrusted claw extractor. The magazine box and trigger guard assembly were now made from aluminium and the stock had cheap, nasty white-line spacers, poor inletting and even worse chequering. Winchester had certainly done a proper hatchet job on the Model 70 and, what is worse, the public did not take kindly to the changes, causing sales to suffer even further.

 

Despite this, Winchester stuck to their guns with the Model 70. In 1968, a new antibind rail smoothed bolt travel, and a few years later, changes were made to the stock design. By 1984, Winchester had a shorter Model 70 action in the works for cartridges like the .243 Winchester. In due course, stainless steel actions also became available.

 

Olin, long-time owners of Winchester, sold the company to a group of investors calling themselves the US Repeating Arms Company (USRAC) in 1981. In 1984, USRAC filed for bankruptcy. Then, in 1987, a group of five investors acquired Winchester. One of these investors was Fabrique Nationale from Belgium, who were taken over by the giant French armaments conglomerate, GIAT, in 1991.

 

Notwithstanding corporate moves and shakes, Winchester made a somewhat hesitant return to the claw extractor on some models in 1987. Public response was immediate and positive and during the next five years, Winchester quietly shelved what had become known as the post1964 Model 70 action.

 

Because of various factors, however, the Model 70 still couldn’t come close to covering its manufacturing costs. So, by 2006, Winchester’s owners decided to close down the historic Winchester plant in New Haven. Annual losses were in the millions, and yet again, everyone thought that the Model 70 was doomed, this time for good. Luckily, this was not the case.

 

 A NEW FACTORY

FN moved the manufacture of the Model 70 to a new, state-of-the-art factory in Columbia, South Carolina, and started manufacturing a somewhat changed Model 70 rifle there in 2007. The changes to the action include a new anti-bind system, as well as a new trigger system called the MOA three-lever trigger. This last change has always been somewhat puzzling to me as the original trigger system was easy to adjust and reliable to a fault. However, the new system works well, so Winchester presumably had their reasons for making the change.

In 2013, the final assembly of the Model 70 moved yet again, this time to a plant in Portugal. This is how things stand at the time of writing. The new Portuguese-assembled rifles are clearly stamped “Made in USA. BACO, Inc., Morgan, Utah – Assembled in Portugal by Browning Viana”.

ENTER THE SAFARI EXPRESS

Earlier, we touched on the fact that Winchester chambered Model 70s for heavy calibres almost from the start. Happily, this trend continues, and Winchester’s flagship heavy hitter at this stage is called the Safari Express. As can be imagined, it is aimed very much at safari hunting and the African market.

 

The Safari Express is available in three Magnum bigbore chamberings: the .375 H&H, .416 Remington and .458 Winchester. Magazine capacity is 3+1 across the board. Good, sturdy, adjustable, express-type open sights with a nice, big brass bead up front and a wide V-blade at the back are a standard fit, as are two strengthening crossbolts through the stock, a smidgen of epoxy compound internally around the recoil lug, as well as a barrel-bandmounted front sling swivel. The metalwork is finished in a non-reflective finish that almost feels like satin to the touch. It looks good and is practical on a hunting rifle.

 

The stock appears to be from American black walnut (Juglans nigra) and is crafted in a very practical style for a bigbore. The butt, which is fitted with a solid black Pachmayr recoil pad, is broad enough to soak up the recoil, and the comb with cheekpiece is in the classic, straight style. It has enough drop to allow comfortable use of the open sights but accommodates a low-mounted telescope equally well.

 

Two-panel chequering on the grip and a wraparound pattern on the fore-end, which has enough meat on it to allow a nice, firm grip under recoil, are standard. The individual diamonds of the chequering were a touch too sharp for my taste. I found they would dig into my hands under recoil, so I would prefer the chequering, although it is well executed, to be less sharp.

 

Out of the box, the trigger of the test rifle in .416 Remington Magnum was a tad heavy for my liking, but this can be easily remedied with the help of a gunsmith. The stock fitted me nicely, but a colleague who happens to be quite a bit taller than me remarked that the 13¾” length of pull was slightly too short for him. Barrel length is standard at 24”, and overall empty weight is 9 lbs, although a Safari Express in .375 H&H felt slightly heavier because of the identical barrel profile.

 

As is to be expected from a dangerous-game rifle, the Safari Express functioned without hiccups. It smoothly cycled Hornady factory ammunition and ejected empties with authority. The .416 Remington is no lightweight cartridge, but the weight of the rifle, combined with the sensible stock design, made the rifle comfortable to shoot.

 

All in all, I have to give good marks to Winchester’s current big-bore bone cruncher. The Safari Express is an attractive, well-made rifle that will give many years of trouble-free service. If I happened to be in the market for a factory rifle chambered in a bigbore cartridge, I would definitely give the big Winchester some serious consideration.

 

The Safari Express retails for approximately R45 000 (at the time of writing). Winchester rifles are imported into South Africa by Inyathi Sporting Supplies. If your local dealer does not stock them, ask them to give Inyathi a call on 012-808-9911.