Grass not always greener
Sam Garro’s highs and lows in quest for a .375 H&H Magnum rifle
A few years back I committed to the purchase of a .338 WM as my firearm of choice for the large-bodied sambar deer and water buffaloes of the Northern Territory, using Woodleigh’s 300gr RNSN and solid projectiles. A trip to Arnhem Land and the ensuing hunt with an accredited outfitter resulted in my first trophy buffalo. While I was happy enough with the calibre, I also favoured the .375 H&H Magnum (Mag) with a little more knock-down power and ability to better handle a 300gr projectile, compared to the much longer 300gr .338 WM which on occasions has been known to tumble and hit the target side-on. The .375 H&H Mag also has more of a pushback recoil compared to that sharp kick the .300 WM and .338 WM are noted for.
Brno ZKK 602 .375 H&H
My quest to find a .375 H&H Mag I’d be finally comfortable with took me on a rather roundabout and regrettable journey in some respects and, with hindsight, I wish I’d stuck to the initial choice I’d researched. It was at a military and collectables show I bumped into a gun dealer walking the isles who happened to stock the very rifle I was after, a used but in good condition 1979 Brno ZKK 602 .375 H&H Mag for $17,000 and previously owned by the son of the owner of Evans & Balfour, a prominent Melbourne gunshop at the time.
I considered myself lucky to find one so easily as such a firearm in its condition is snapped up as soon as advertised. Made by Brno Arms of Czechoslovakia, the reliable and reputable Mauser 98-style full commercial magnum action has preferred Monte Carlo walnut stock and a square bridge receiver. Add to that a curved standard-type trigger, ramp front sight and express rear sights (one fixed and two folding-leaf for 100, 200 and 300 yards), five-round capacity and control round-feed action. This suited me for hunting dangerous game from thickly padded wild boars and heavily built sambar deer to scrub bulls, bantengs and buffaloes along with other big game if I went abroad.
Swayed by a Custom M98
Barely a month had passed when a stunning looking Custom Mauser 98 .375 H&H Mag rifle built by a gunsmith in South Africa and advertised on a gun-sales website for $3250 caught my eye. It was built on a Colombian 1930 FN Mauser 98 medium action with lustrous blued barrel and metalwork and featured a walnut stock. While I’d just acquired the Brno and had no intension of buying the Custom Mauser, I figured there was no harm in taking a look. Big mistake! Handling this fine piece in the gunshop and admiring its features, my mind was overtaken by an urge to somehow own it even though it was way outside my budget.
Where there’s a will
I’d no problem with the Brno as it was well balanced and performed accurately at the range using various ammunition. Yet over the coming days that custom rifle played on my mind until I decided I must have it, though I still had to work out how. In the end an initial deposit followed the balance in three weeks, allowing me time to sell the Brno and some of my well-kept Puma knives and European trophy mounts to secure it. I also bought a Leupold VX-R 2-7x33mm #4 German Fire Dot scope for mounting on the rifle.
It was a couple of months later when trialling the rifle at the range I encountered my first unexpected problem. In all my careful checking and scrutiny of the firearm, the magazine box meant to hold three rounds could only comfortably take two without the bolt jamming when trying to chamber the third.
With custom-built rifles using old Mauser actions, original accompanying components like a one-piece triggerguard, magazine box and floorplate assembly are difficult to source, so gunsmiths often resort to making the parts themselves. But then it depends on the expertise and capability of the gunsmith to make it properly and how much the owner’s prepared to spend.
In this case while everything appeared satisfactory, the fabricated magazine box wasn’t quite right and had some play in the stock. Furthermore, the medium actions on which so many custom rifles are built are a little restrictive for the bullet length of larger calibers like the .375 H&H Mag compared to a magnum action which allows for greater clearance.
To cut a long story short I gave the rectification work to Bob De Vries, a highly-skilled gunsmith at Kudu Services, at the same time requesting he install crossbolts to strengthen the stock and for the rear of the action to be honed back within parameters to improve top feeding. Bob did a fine job in all that was requested. He hand-made and shaped a new metal box and floorplate from quality steel for a tight fit in the stock and action, so all rounds chambered and extracted flawlessly.
While the rifle with added improvements was working properly the overall cost of the firearm, quality scope and expensive fix was far greater than anticipated and almost twice the price of the gun. In the end after enjoying it for a brief time I reluctantly sold it, albeit at a bit of a loss as is often the case in such scenarios. I could’ve traded it before the fix but that would be handing the problem to some else, so a costly lesson learned.
Another .375 H&H Magnum
Now I was back to square one with no .375 H&H Mag and having gone through the mill with the custom rifle, I looked for a quality factory-built one in the calibre. The Winchester Model 70 .375 H&H Mag made in the US at around $2200 was the preferred option, though a few months passed before one eventually came up in good condition. Again it was a quality firearm that performed accurately and I couldn’t fault it, though the overall feel and balance wasn’t the same as the Brno. I persisted with it for a couple of years before finally moving it on and thereafter put the calibre out of my mind for a time, knowing I should’ve stuck with the first Brno.
Brno ZKK 602 .375 H&H Magnum: Part 2
Mates returning from successful Top End wild boar and buffalo hunts and the thought of revisiting there myself at some point rekindled a dwindling flame, hence a renewed quest to find a similar Brno ZKK 602 Mag of the era. Over the following months a couple in good condition were passed up as they either had the less-preferred Bavarian stock or the stock or other parts modified and I was after an all-original.
Then an earlier one made in 1987 with 25mm CZ gloss blued steel rings was advertised for $2200. Always sceptical of buying sight unseen I contacted the dealer in Queensland to ascertain its condition and ownership history. I found the dealer genuine, stating it was previously owned by a serious collector who, due to illness, wasn’t able to enjoy it and it sat in his safe for several years.
The metal blueing, action, rifling and walnut stock (except for some cosmetic marks) were all in good condition and if I wasn’t satisfied I could return it. The action had also been bedded and barrel floated, as well as crossbolts fitted with buffalo end-caps by noted Queensland gunstock maker Gabe Gatti. On that basis I went ahead with the purchase and wasn’t disappointed, though to improve aesthetic appearance I decided to refurbish the 36-year-old stock using Tru-Oil finish.
The Brno ZKK 602 .375 H&H Magnum noted for its accuracy, ruggedness and six-cartridge capacity (one in the chamber and five in the magazine) has been used extensively in Africa by professional hunters and together with the .338 WM, is their preferred minimum dangerous game calibre in the Top End. Once the rifle was sighted-in using handloaded Woodleigh 270gr RNSN bullets, tight groupings were achieved at 25m and 50m and satisfactory at 100m, though the target at that range was so small and it was a blustery day. For more accurate shot placement and effect, most dangerous big game is often taken within the 100m range.
The .375 H&H Mag rifle journey was interesting at best, in that it inadvertently enabled me to derive greater appreciation and understanding of what’s involved in building a properly functioning Custom Mauser 98 H&H Mag rifle. How things at times are not what they seem despite appearance and close scrutiny and how sometimes it’s better to stick to what you set your mind on and worked for you. Yet all is not lost as a well-kept quality firearm will normally attract interested buyers and sell within a reasonable time to recoup your money. Or you could consider another firearm or project build as there’s nothing wrong with trying to own a prestigious and finely crafted memento.