By Bill Krenz
No one in his right mind would use a .458 Winchester Magnum to hunt elk.
The thought came uninvited as I lugged the 10-pound Winchester Model 70 African .458 up the Colorado mountainside. I had found this ponderous chunk of wonderful walnut and blued steel tucked in between the .270s and .30-06s at a gun show. The vendor, who had taken the rifle on trade, knew almost nothing about it. That was okay. I knew exactly what it was.
This was a classic rifle made for elephants and Cape buffalo, for lions and tall grass. It was a gun meant to be lugged under the broiling Africa sun and used to stop a charge. The clerk saw it as a firearm difficult to sell. I saw it as a rifle I'd always wanted to own, a dream gun. We haggled a bit over the price. Finally, I reached into my pocket, pulled out six $100 bills and paid the man. I smiled for the next week over the mere thought of owning that .458.
It is often an odd mix of want and need that prompts us to buy classic rifles. Outside of maybe a few brown bear guides, no hunter in North America needs a .458 Winchester Magnum, a rifle capable of launching a 510-grain bullet with 5,000 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. The sensible side of us knows that a single .30-06 is more than adequate for almost everything we might possibly hunt on this continent. But making every rifle decision based on practicality is boring. So we covet additional rifles, and particularly classic rifles.
We envision ourselves slipping through the trees with timeless rifles utilizing classic cartridges like 7x57 Mauser, .257 Roberts or .35 Whelen. A few of us even daydream about the really big classic boomers, something along the lines of a .375 H&H, a .416 Rigby or a .458 Win Mag. When it comes to classic rifles, practicality often flies right out the window.
Still, most of us are tethered to earth by our pocketbooks. We scrape to buy a classic rifle that tickles our fancy. Fortunately, used-gun prices offer some relief. Local sport shops, gun shows and even the Internet are full of bargains on a wide variety of sporting arms. As more and more gun hunters dream of hunting with classic rifles, the used-gun market is flourishing.
My classic .458 came from a regional gun show. I inspected that rifle as best I could. The stock seemed sound, with no cracks or splits. The action and safety operated without a hitch. The bore seemed bright and sharp. In general, the gun appeared to be well cared for. I bought it hoping for the best.
Admittedly, buying a used rifle can be a bit of an adventure. I begin by rethinking each used classic. Collectors may think differently, but my interest almost always lies in hunting with the classic rifles I purchase. To do that, I cast an especially critical eye on the rifle's trigger, length of pull, scope system and barrel.
Getting it to Shoot
Few rifles shoot to their potential with their trigger set heavy. The first secret in getting most used rifles to perform properly is to have the trigger adjusted by a competent gunsmith to a crisp 3 pounds of pull. My gunsmith charges $35 for that adjustment, and it's money well spent. My classic Model 70 African .458 had a somewhat stiff trigger. It broke at nearly 5 pounds. Not terrible, but not what I wanted. I left it at my gunsmith on Monday and picked it up on Friday. Its newly adjusted 3-pound trigger felt much better.
A previous owner had fooled with the rifle's recoil pad, installing a white-line, ventilated number designed to play down the rifle's formidable recoil. However effective it may have been, that garish aftermarket pad clashed with the rifle's powerful lines, so I swapped it for a much cleaner Pachmayr Decelerator pad. That switch also gave me the opportunity to address the rifle's length of pull. Length of pull is the distance from the trigger to the gun's butt. Standard today is about 13.5 inches. I wanted a bit more to better fit my 6-foot frame, so I had an extra spacer added between the pad and the wood. The spacer would be easy to remove should I decide to trade or sell the rifle in the future.
The truth is, I enjoy finding classic rifles, buying them, fixing them up to shoot well and then, after a bit of hunting, trading them off to pursue yet another rifle. Those classic rifles may come and go, but the experience of hunting with each one remains.
A bit of research on the serial number of my .458 revealed that it was made in 1975. It had surprisingly good wood, unmarred bluing and came complete with a set of Redfield mounts and rings and an old Weaver K3 scope with a German post reticle. The mounts, rings and scope were removed and replaced with bank-vault-tough Conetrol mounts and rings, and a tried-and-true Leupold 1.5-5x scope from another heavy rifle.
The next step was to thoroughly scrub the inside of the barrel with liberal amounts of Shooter's Choice Bore Cleaner and Hoppe's Copper Solvent. Only after repeated wet and dry patches came out as white as snow was I satisfied that this barrel was ready to shoot.
Then it was off to the range to see what the rifle could do. Handloading can milk the best out of any rifle. But surprisingly often, factory ammo can do almost as well. The trick is to try enough factory loads until you find the right one.
I started my accuracy tests with standard boxes of Federal, Winchester and Remington ammunition with bullets that ranged from 400 to 510 grains. Two sets of careful three-shot groups were fired with each load and the results recorded. Federal's 400-grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claws showed promise, as did Remington's 450-grain Swift A-Frames, but the .458 ammo that turned in the best performance in my rifle proved to be Winchester's plain Jane 510-grain soft points. Each cartridge was the size of my index finger -- the massive roundnose bullets looked like battering rams -- yet they punched big, round holes in my targets in tight three-shot clusters at 100 yards. The average group size was around an inch. With the right factory ammo, this big rifle shot surprisingly well.
Colorado's rifle elk season was just around the corner. Sitting there at the shooting bench, holding that elephant rifle and looking at the targets it had just shot cinched it for me. Lacking sufficient jumbo-sized game in the nearby Rockies, elk would have to do.
Elk are Tough
Our family elk camp is located at nearly 10,000 feet in a little timberline meadow surrounded by tall ridges. The Continental Divide is visible to the south, and the steep canyons we hunt tumble away to the north. For miles in every direction is the Gunnison National Forest, public land for all to hunt and enjoy.
On Friday, our small hunting group trickled into camp, tents were set up and old tales retold. During the evening meal, the inevitable debate on elk cartridges flared up once more. Is the .270 enough? Can anything be better than a .300 or .338? I sat back and let the banter run. Then, without a word, I placed a single .458 Win Mag cartridge at the center of the table. Jaws dropped and people stared. Someone finally picked it up, hefted it, read the headstamp aloud and whistled. Classics have that effect on people.
Winchester introduced the .458 Win Mag in 1956. The case is a shortened version of a .375 H&H and measures 2.5 inches from base to mouth. There is no shoulder. Case capacity is a whopping 93.3 grains of water. Standard loads included 500-grain solids and 510-grain soft points. Specifically designed for the heaviest big game on earth, the .458 pushes big bullets at nearly 2,000 fps and generates something like 2 1/2 tons of muzzle energy. The .458 Win Mag quickly became a standard in the African bush.
The second part of Winchester's .458 masterstroke was the introduction of an affordable rifle to go along with the new cartridge. At the same time it introduced the .458, the company also brought out a beefed-up Model 70 rifle called the African. That gun went through a number of iterations over the years, but was essentially the same big heavy-hitter when my particular rifle rolled off the Winchester assembly line in 1975. The Winchester Model 70 African is a classic rifle with plenty of Dark Continent mystique and history.
The opening day of elk season was a bust. The wind blew a gale, the aspens rattled and the pines swayed, and few elk were seen. Like most heavy-cover game, elk don't like high winds. High winds muddle their senses. The cow elk tag I had drawn for the hunt was burning a hole in my pocket.
On day two, the winds fell to a whisper and my big Winchester Model 70 African spoke.
I'd been slowly slipping through the dark timber all morning and worked my way into the heart of a favorite canyon. As I eased along, moving three steps at a time and glassing ahead into the timber, I spotted a big cow elk just before she stood up. Maybe it was my imagination or the rifle I carried, but she seemed to slowly come up out of her bed like an African lion rising up out of the tall grass. She was facing me almost dead-on at about 55 yards, and I remember thinking that this would indeed be a good test of the classic rifle. Elk are amazingly tough and seldom react to even a well-placed shot. Mostly, they just run off to die. This cow was no different. My crosshair centered on her chest, and at the thundering boom, she whirled and headed downhill. After three steps, she stumbled. After 10 steps, she wobbled. Within 30 yards, she was down. I covered her closely as I marched up on her, fully aware that I had the perfect stopping rifle should she charge.
I'd hit her where her throat joined her massive chest, and the entry hole seemed as big as a penny. From there, the big 510-grain slug traveled the entire length of the animal, and I found it, perfectly mushroomed, just under the hide on the back of the right hip. It had plowed through the chest cavity, the stomach cavity and that meaty hip before stopping up against the hide. That big soft point plowed through 56 inches of elk.
So, a 510-grain soft-point bullet from a .458 elephant rifle works just fine on Colorado elk. It is, one would have to say, bloody well adequate.
There is no practical reason why anyone would use a .458 Winchester Magnum to hunt elk. But I did and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It was a chance get to know a classic rifle and cartridge on affordable terms. Purchasing, outfitting and fine-tuning one of hunting history's most renowned heavy-game rifles, and using it successfully on a Colorado elk hunt, may be the next best thing to tracking pachyderms under a hot African sun. Sometimes, classic guns can take us on journeys to places we have always wanted to go. That alone is reason enough to buy yet another hunting rifle.