The former U.S. president’s famous 1909-1910 safari left American hunters so confused it took almost a hundred years to recover. For one thing, even though Paul Mauser had done his good deed for the world more than a decade earlier in 1898, Roosevelt’s idea of an elephant gun was a Model 1895 lever-action Winchester in .405 WCF, a rifle and chambering never seen before and seldom seen since on the entire African continent. Whenever possible, however, “Big Stick” Roosevelt preferred to use one of his other Winchester leverguns in the decidedly “Little Stick” 30-03, a cartridge designed to punch small holes in half-dressed soldiers. Roosevelt arranged for 15 cases of Winchester rifles to be shipped to Mombassa and he used them to shoot up most things in British East Africa, the Belgian Congo and all the way up to Khartoum. He managed to bag more than 500 animals in a year, but his safari was not noted for a high incidence of clean, one-shot kills. Not only did Roosevelt know nothing about guns, he was half blind and a poor shot to boot.
One after the other, American writers Ernest Hemingway and Robert Ruark eventually followed in Roosevelt’s bloody footsteps, talking a lot about using “enough gun” but mostly using the smallbore 30-06, the minuscule improvement of the 30-03. Hemingway and Ruark, both of whose sporting backgrounds consisted mainly of fishing and shotgunning small birds, were apparently unaware that chasing a wounded animal all over the countryside and shooting it a dozen times in order to kill it usually meant you were not a very good shot or you were shooting the animal with an inadequate cartridge or both.
As their reports, a mixture of selective fact and writerly fiction, filtered back to American hunters of limited experience and American gunwriters of limited mental faculties, gross misunderstandings naturally followed. Because Roosevelt, Hemingway and Ruark didn’t know any better than to press the 30-06 well beyond its design parameters, the idea sprouted in America that the 30-06 was a proper cartridge for anything Africa had to offer. This undeserved promotion of a mediocre cartridge reached its peak with the safaris of C.J. McElroy, founder of Safari Club International who attempted to shock and awe half of Africa with his barely functional pump-action Remington 30-06, and Jack O’Connor, the recoil-allergic journalism teacher and smallbore writer who even considered his wife’s ladylike little 30-06 too much gun for most uses. The herds of shot-up, wounded and angry animals left behind in the bush to terrorize the locals was not reported by these megalomaniacs, and more gun-ignorant shooters were encouraged to continue to follow in their sub-caliber footsteps. Before long, the large quantities of cheap American-made rifles and easily obtainable war-surplus 30-06 ammo had seduced even a surprising number of Africans who couldn’t or wouldn’t spend the money for more suitable equipment.
Eventually, more experienced American hunters in Africa began to realize that they did, indeed, need more gun than any American cartridge could provide. Unfortunately, the response of American gun and ammunition companies, rather than offering a Mauser action chambered in the African cartridges already perfected by Germany and Britain during their African colonization, was to design (or steal) something different and proprietary which they could market as “new and improved” and which was actually either redundant or inappropriate.
Thus Roy Weatherby’s crackpot theories applying rodent-killing techniques to pachyderms; Winchester’s poorly designed and dishonestly marketed .458 Winchester Magnum; Remington’s long line of kidnapped and abandoned wildcats. Even Ruger, who was wise enough when Bill Ruger, Sr. was running things to chamber the Ruger safari rifle in .416 Rigby, thus forcing ammo companies to manufacture the grand old cartridge, now sees a burning need to introduce a proprietary .375 Ruger cartridge that has absolutely no benefits over the timeless .375 Holland & Holland.
We can only be thankful that the indomitable Elmer Keith insisted that the Winchester Model 70 rifle he helped develop be offered in .375 H&H, making it the first American factory rifle ever chambered in a proven African caliber. In fact, this was the only decent choice in American factory rifles until 1964, when the idiots running the Winchester company replaced the Model 70’s Mauser-type action with a cheap-to-make push-feed contraption no better than the lowly Remington 700, thus relegating America’s only Africa-class production rifle to the dustbin of history.
Thereafter, every proper African hunting rifle made in America had to be custom-built by the few talented gunsmiths who knew what an African rifle was, and the guns were priced accordingly. It would be many years before a moderately priced factory-made rifle suitable for African hunting would be available in America. And it wouldn’t be America that produced it, but a new-old country called the Czech Republic finally emerging free and independent from the toxic swamp of Soviet communism where America’s left-wing politicians had cast it in the aftermath of World War II.
A few CZ 550 Magnum rifles had been trickling into the U.S. since 1991, but few shooters paid much attention until 1998 when Česká Zbrojovka established CZ-USA in Kansas City. The CZ 550 was, in fact, the latest iteration of the Brno ZKK 602, an Africa-class Mauser-type action and rifle famous all over the world. The Brno name was little known in the U.S., however, and even the CZ name was associated almost exclusively with handguns.
It took us Americans a while to realize that a proven controlled-round-feed rifle in real African calibers was available for the price of a common Remchester at our local gun shop. Eventually, shooters and hunters began to discover and understand this amazing fact on their own with no help from the gunwriters and magazine editors who, in this country, are genetically incapable of conceiving a story that doesn’t begin “The new super-duper perfect rifle for whitetail deer is ...” The untraveled authorities who presume to inform the American hunter don’t really believe in their heart of hearts that smokeless-powder rifles larger than .30 caliber exist in the real world outside of literary fiction, and they were shocked to discover how many of their readers were far ahead of them.
Pretty soon, American game from elk to deer were falling to hammer blows from Bavarian stocked CZs in 9.3x62mm Mauser, .375 Holland & Holland, .416 Rigby, .458 Winchester Magnum and .458 Lott. Even jackrabbits and ground squirrels were being blown to bits by the big guns. Having discovered too late that shooting big-bores quickly becomes an incurable addiction, Americans started joining Safari Club International by the tens of thousands and boarding jets to Africa.
The rich ones packed custom Mausers hand-made by the best American gunmakers who are, quite ironically considering the low quality of American factory rifles, among the best custom gunmakers in the world. The not-so-rich ones mostly packed CZs, off-the-shelf or moderately customized, and were just as proud.
Alice Poluchova is recognized as the architect of CZ’s successful invasion of America. She went to work for CZ in her native Czech Republic as Export Sales Manager while she was still working on her Master’s Degree from Silesian University. After graduating with honors, she was soon on her way to Kansas City to open the new American arm of CZ as Vice President and Chief Financial Officer. She expected to work six months, get the office up and running and then go home. But Alice fell in love with America, and Americans soon started falling in love with CZ. When Alice was named President of CZ-USA, big-bore rifle lines utilizing the CZ 550 action started growing even faster.
A medium size 550 action is ideal for the 9.3x62mm Mauser cartridge, and this classic African loading is available from CZ in a full-length Mannlicher-style stock that’s handy, elegant and uncannily accurate. The large magnum 550 action is used for the bigger cartridges –- .375 H&H, .416 Rigby, .458 Winchester Magnum and .458 Lott. These “Safari Magnum” rifles are available with CZ’s famous schweinsrucken or “hogsback” stock with the Bavarian cheekpiece, or with a straight-combed “American-style” stock.
The recent line of CZ “Safari Classics,” with upgraded walnut and a variety of options and custom features, are available in .300 Holland & Holland, .404 Jeffery, .450 Rigby, .500 Jeffery, and .505 Gibbs. The most popular caliber in this line, perhaps surprisingly, is the .505 Gibbs, one of the very largest sporting cartridges ever produced, and virtually any other caliber is available on custom order. The Safari Classics typically use McGowan barrels, and are stocked, fit and finished in CZ’s Kansas City Custom Shop rather than the Czech Republic. While many consider Czech workmanship superior, the level of customization offered in this line of rifles would not be possible without utilizing local talent. Each rifle is built to the customer’s specs.
Jason Morton, head of CZ Marketing and Public Relations, says, “Our Custom Shop really does offer anything that’s technically possible. It’s just a matter of time and money. Our Safari Classics are meant to show what can be done, but there are an unlimited number of options that are possible. We provide a list of standard options and we can go well beyond that. We’ll do that to any of our rifles, not just the Safari Classics. We’ve always included fancy-grade American walnut, barrel-band sling mount, mercury recoil reducer and glass bedding in the .505 Gibbs. Throughout this year we’ve added glass bedding to all those rifles, and we’re going to double crossbolts on all those rifles. We’re offering more services from simple things like smoothing up the action, shortening barrels, making stocks from customers’ blanks, to all kinds of customizing across the whole line.”
“It feels good to build something,” Poluchova says. “When we started, most Americans had little idea what a CZ was or where it came from. That’s really changed. I’m very proud of the CZ heritage and I really believe our guns are superior. Our big-bore rifles account for as much as 70 percent of the market in some African countries. When we go to the Safari Club International convention in Reno there is always an extremely high level of awareness and interest in our guns. It is very exciting.”
CZ’s impact on the American market has been tremendous. I am not alone in giving CZ much of the credit for making the quality control problems of Winchester painfully clear and bringing about the discontinuation of the Model 70 and the demise of that company; for forcing Remington to import Mauser-type actions from Zastava Oružje in Serbia as a last resort before selling the company off to private investors; for the money and asset hemorrhaging of Ruger; and for the bankruptcy of Dakota which was temporarily saved from total extinction only by financial sleight-of-hand.
CZ has been a contributing factor in the American hunter’s realization that there is more to life than whitetail deer and push-feed 30-06 rifles, that Africa and African hunting are accessible, and that Africa-worthy rifles can be affordable and are fun to shoot even in your own backyard. If this expansion and intensification of the market has led to the downfall of noncompetitive manufacturers of medium and low-end rifles, it has had the opposite effect on the high end. Shooters who can afford to have custom rifles hand-built on precision Mauser-design actions such as those from Granite Mountain Arms, Stuart Satterlee, and Waffenfabrik Hein are doing so.
The custom rifle business in the United States is more vibrant than at any time in history. African hunting by Americans is on a powerful upswing with no end in sight. Classic cartridges are being recognized for their excellence of design and are seeing use in the hunting field again. Safari Club International, the most sophisticated and influential hunting organization in the United States and the world, has a membership of 50,000. None of these exhilarating developments would have such a sharp edge to them had it not been for CZ’s swashbuckling entry into the market a decade ago.
“I was born in a communist country,” says Alice Poluchova, “so of course we weren’t allowed to own guns. We weren’t even allowed to protect ourselves. There were no shooting sports. Hunting was forbidden. It was exactly the way the communists and leftists and anti-gun people want the United States to be, and that makes me shudder. When the Czech Republic became a free and independent country in 1993, legislation was passed so that citizens could once again own firearms, and I became much more involved in shooting.”
Indeed, CZ doesn’t make a handgun, shotgun or rifle Alice Poluchova doesn’t shoot – on a serious, regular, competitive, sporting basis.
“One of the nicest parts of my jobs is that I get to shoot every gun we make. That includes IPSC and trap and skeet and taking all of the safari guns to Africa. I’ve been to Zimbabwe and South Africa three times, for both plains game and dangerous game. I have two of the Big Five so far – a lion with the .450 Rigby, and a buffalo with the .458 Lott.
“The African hunting market in the U.S. is stronger than it ever has been. I think what’s happening is that it’s still relatively reasonable to hunt in Africa. You can pay X amount of dollars in the U.S. for a single elk hunt, or you can spend the same money and, once you’re over the fear of the long flight, you can hunt five or ten animals in South Africa. Thanks to SCI and the community of world hunters and the stability we’re seeing in RSA and the fact that other African countries are opening up, the people who have always dreamed of hunting in Africa can now do that.”
I’m happy to hear that Alice’s favorite rifle is the .450 Rigby, because it’s certainly one of mine as well, and I believe it was a brilliant and courageous move by CZ to offer the .450 Rigby as a standard chambering. Another thing I’m happy to hear is Alice’s talk of plans for CZ’s future.
“There are people who can afford to spend $50,000 on a full custom gun that’s a work of art,” she says, “but most of us work hard for our money and are conscious of value and want to get the most gun for the money. When we go to Africa, we’d rather spend say $2,000 or $3,000 on a perfectly working gun and the rest of the money on hunting more animals.
“We’re going to introduce a left-handed 550 magnum action, and we’ve talked about bringing back some of the CZ over/under rifles. Back in the old days, during the communist time, the state-owned company in the city of Brno was one of the largest small arms manufacturers in the world. In terms of sporting guns, the Brno 602 bolt-action rifles were actually made by CZ in Uherska Brod but they were called Brno anyway. That all changed when the Cold War ended and the company historically known as Zbrojovka Brno eventually went bankrupt. This year, the owners of the CZ factory in Uherska Brod bought them out and now we can use the name Brno again. That factory is producing sporting guns for the European market and will begin producing guns for the world market in 2008. The last ten years we worked hard to change the name of Brno to CZ and now we can use it again.
“Our plan for the next few years is to re-establish the Brno name along with the CZ name in the U.S. in the dangerous-game rifle market. I go to Africa and see the 602s in the hands of outfitters and PHs who’ve used them for 10 or 20 years, and it makes me proud. No product is perfect, but the historical record shows that our guns work year after year in the most demanding conditions. Dangerous-game hunting is one of the markets where we have long been one of the top in the world.”
Indeed, those of us for whom the dangerous-game rifle represents the absolute pinnacle and quintessence of sporting arms have always known that you can never have too many CZ/Brnos. So on those cocktail-party occasions when somebody tries to tell me all about how Theodore Roosevelt and his 15 cases of Winchesters opened up Africa for American hunters, I usually take the opportunity to point out what Alice Poluchova has been up to in Kansas City the last few years.