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Old Toys
June 2002
Gerhard Schroeder

"In .308? What exactly is it?" "Don’t know, Smokey said it’s a Remington." "Remington! What kind?" "Don’t know, Schroeder!"

That was the heart of our conversation centering around two heavy-barreled rifles that David’s friend had gotten a hold of. Having a soft spot for the .308 Winchester caliber, this rifle intrigued me due to its chambering alone.

Months later I was in the market for another Remington 700 short action, I mean money burning a hole in my pocket, and the Crossroads Show coming up. This eventually got Smokey and me on the phone, and we agreed that I would get his .308 to check it out. It wasn’t what I was looking for, since the medium weight 26" barrel was attached to an old 1903 action, made by Remington. But what would it hurt to check it over? David got it into my claws the very next weekend.

It looked old alright, had no sights, no scope or enough threaded holes for a mount, but numerous other threaded holes, most likely for some old scope or sight mounts. Whoever built it must have been on the lower end of the metal blueing learning curve (I fixed that with random application of camo paint).

The stock wasn’t pretty either, but its generous dimensions and form spoke of functionality. The gun had the appearance of an old target rifle, well, at least the stock looked like it. Problem is that I know too little about old centerfire target rifles, or all the disciplines that require such a weapon.

Anyway, I took the 1903 Mauser (oops, Remington) out into the desert, and function-fired it with South African mil ball, cheap .308 ammo I could buy for less than reloading would cost. There’s a little more to this story. The rifle’s "twin" is a heavy-barreled 30-06 on an Enfield action with normal sporter stock, and Smokey reported that brass was totally sticking in it. Consequently I pulled the trigger on round #1 with caution.

It went off, even left a normal hole in the large cardboard. Bolt lift, however, was quite sticky near the end. Extraction was fine. I repeated the process for a total of five rounds. ‘Old Ugly’ at least worked, though with a stubborn bolt lift.

On the way home I evaluated this rifle. Here was a strong, controlled-feed action that could potentially be converted to any serious big game cartridge. The 1903 served this country in both world wars, so there is no question about this Mauser-type action. The trigger was better than factory issue, the stock seemed to fit me, plus it was nice ‘n wide for resting on bags and featured some sort of accessory rail. I wondered who had customized this beast, and for what purpose, and how many rounds, if any, had gone through this .308 barrel. Was the gun even considered complete? I wanted to know how good, meaning accurately, ‘Old Ugly’ would shoot. Maybe I could talk Smokey into letting me play with it some more.

"Smokey, she goes bang, only bolt lift is rough." "Okay." "Uh, the way I see it we’ve got three options: I’ll give it back to you, or you let me play with her some more, or I’ll make you an offer." "Make me an offer!" I did, he accepted, and ‘Old Ugly’ stayed with me. I guess I always wanted a .308, just because I like that caliber, and this gun had controlled feed to boot. I also guess that I must have been mentally prepared to sink a couple of my allowance installments into this project, should it be required.

There was some risk involved, knowing so little about the rifle. Sure enough, it did not take long for me to regret my decision. The metal was harder than any gun I ever intended to sink a drill and tap into. But not too hard, and so I spent one after-work evening to add just one threaded hole so I could install a Weaver base. You guessed it, the tap broke right when it was about deep enough. In disgust, I put the oldie away, and went to bed.

The next day good advice came from the friendly folks in our machine shop. With fresh hope I drilled out the broken tap with a carbide end mill, only to break that one too. But it had gone deep enough, and I finally could knock both out. The Weaver plate was screwed down on a bed of epoxy. Now I felt much better about ‘Old Ugly’. The modified bolt handle even allowed for low mounts. Nice! Through elbow grease in the form of continued cycling while well oiled, the action also lost some but not all of its roughness.

The very next weekend Glenn and I were woods-bumming. That gave me a chance to put the .308 on paper. Well, I had expected better, groups were about one and a half inches. But then again, that may have been me. You see, with all these damn muzzle brakes I have become a total recoil whimp, and ‘Old Ugly’, even though fairly heavy, kicked me more than I liked. Often enough, three or four shots would bunch up below the inch mark, then the next round would open things up. I pledged to keep playing with it.

Since it’s very difficult to harvest a gun’s accuracy with a lousy trigger, this was the next item to come under attack. And here a real pleasant surprise in the form of a Timney. Another evening at the workbench made the trigger simply ‘right’! Shooting was more fun now, but groups remained above the inch mark.

Reason enough to consider ‘Old Ugly’ for an upcoming "Running Boar" event. A light load, 27 gr of IMR4227 topped off with 110 grains of bullet, was easy on both shoulder and bolt lift. This rifle has a generously styled bolt handle, swept back so it would be directly in line with the trigger. And so it turned out that ‘Old Ugly’ provided the fastest ‘cycling’ of all my bolt guns, with dummy loads at least. Sure seems that nothing beats a controlled feed when it comes to fast follow-up shots. ‘Old Ugly’ served me just fine during the "Running Boar" shoot.

A quick word about the 110grain round nose bullet: I’ve tried both the Remington and Speer soft point products. They seem to be an aerodynamic nightmare, but within 300 yards they’re accurate enough for the field as long as I figure out how much higher to aim. What I find amazing about these lightweights are their terminal properties. When they encounter flesh and bone above 2100 fps, they turn into ripping sledgehammers. Their stopping power just seems out of proportion.

It was inevitable, ‘Old Ugly’ also got its nose threaded. A used recoil pad increased the stock length by a half inch, which I found to be better for benchrest shooting. Now a full case of H380 (51 grains) made the 110 gr roundnosers go right at the inch and a quarter mark. I also attacked the action bedding, but this simply seems to be a ‘one inch plus’ gun. In fact, this may be the sign of a worn barrel. Most bullets go into a decent group, but then comes a flyer.

Oh well, it’s a hell of a rifle, ugly, just functional, and therefore deadly. There are a bunch of critters already that can no longer argue about it. And that will be Old Ugly’s duty, backup gun in rat country, club events where utmost accuracy is not required (running boar; silhouette), backup gun for hunting big game, and busting rocks on a lazy day. In fact, despite the one-inch+ performance, I had enough confidence in Old Ugly that I took my bighorn sheep with it.

In the mean time, the "twin" also found a new owner. I had it on display during a Varmint #2 event a few years ago. Nobody made an offer then, but Glenn took it home, thought the gun and deal over for some 10 days, then went for it. Don’t know exactly what he did to the Enfield. In comparison to ‘Old Ugly’, that Enfield now looks mighty fine. He also did quite OK during the Varmint #3 event that year.

If this sort of project interests you, keep your eyes and ears open. There may be an old toy around that’s just for you. They need someone to play with them. These oldies seem to be low risk. As long as a proven action is at the heart of one, they will perform.

Not hooked yet? Consider an old 8mm Mauser. Simple reason: military 8mm ammo can be had for under 10 cents per bang. That is less than the cheapest 150+ grain .30 cal projectiles alone cost these days, not to mention primer, powder, brass and labor to load ‘em up. Just because the ammo is cheaper than anything I could load myself, I picked up a used Turkish Mauser that someone had already sporterized (meaning they cut the stock off). Can’t tell you exactly how accurate this fifty-dollar gun is, but it’s a blast to offhand at distant rocks. And the ammo has punch, launching a 154 grain FMJ (of course) at over 3000 fps out of both the Turk and Kelley’s Yugo-Mauser. That shows, those rocks get hurt.

Go play!

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