Wednesday, November 12, 2014

My Savage Beast

The Gun

When I was a young college student in the 1970's, I bought an old rifle out of a barrel.  It was a Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk1* made by Savage in 1942.  It was a sorry beater that had seen better days but I loved the feel of it.  I fed it cheap surplus .303 ammunition that smelled of rotten eggs and demanded cleaning immediately.  I never expected much out of it than to plink.  Eventually my exploring of the art of the rifle would lead me to other pastures and the old gun reigned as queen of the closet.

Lend-Lease "U.S. Property" stamp.

Then in 2005, the Civilian Marksmanship Program came to Camp Pendleton, California and hosted the Western Games.  Back in those days, all I had for the game was the M-1 Garand but it whet my appetite for more.  Over the next few years I bought an M1903A3 Springfield and started to ponder what to shoot for the Vintage Military Rifle class. The smart money told me to go for a Swedish Mauser in 6.5x55.  I actually started down that path but something deep inside hit me.  I owed this gun in the back of the safe a chance to shine in the sun.  Out came the Savage.  I started by shooting it at club matches. It had issues. The stock was loose. The rear sight was a folding leaf set for 300 yards.  The ammo I had was both corrosive and erratic.

Proof mark and not so proof mark.  DP means drill pattern; the kiss of death for a service rifle.  But this gun had a great barrel and it turned out that what was wrong with it was that somewhere it its life a too short mismatching numbered bolt body wound up in the gun.  Replacing the bolt body with a longer one got it to headspace with SAAMI gauges with a size "0" bolt head.  It may not last forever but I have it feeling it'll be tight a good long time.

The conventional wisdom about Lee-Enfields in competition said let it go and learn Swedish.  The gun has a DP stamp on the action which means Drill Pattern.  It had been rejected from service at one point and obviously resurrected of sorts by the gunsmith at the shop that had put it in that cheap deals barrel in the 1970's. Fine. Whatever. I was determined to get the gun to win a medal.  But there was one thing it had going for it that meant everything.  The barrel of the gun was in superior shape and had the most magical "goodness" to be wanted in a Lee-Enfield, a throat that provided good two point contact for a boat tail hollow point bullet between the case mouth and the rifling verified using a Stoney Point gauge.  I know accuracy potential when I smell it.  I spent the money and fitted a replacement stock set from Numrich.  I learned about, ordered and fitted a longer size "L" buttstock. I changed the rear sight.  I got commercial Remington brass and stocked up on 174 gr. Sierra Match Kings.

In 2009, I took it to Phoenix, Arizona's Ben Avery Shooting Complex where the CMP Western Games had moved to.  Things didn't quite go as planned.  I learned that guns with no windage adjustment are rather hard to shoot precisely in the wind.  But all that really did was make it so now I really wanted that medal.  A hiatus from shooting because I owned a bank risk ratings company and some fool blew up the banking system in 2008 meant I wouldn't bring the Enfield to Western Games again until 2013.  I shot the gun occasionally.  I loaded up full-sized once fired Remington cases with 38.0 grains of H4895 under 174 SMK's and headed to Phoenix.  What ensued was an exercise in determination to finish the match.  The case heads began to separate; five of them completely and many more incipiently by the time I was done. I wrote a blog entry about it last year called ".303 Learning Curve".  You can read about it in the other blog post but the short story is an adventure in learning about Lee-Enfield headspace and lots of sight parts swapping later, the end result was a gun that printed tightly.  It's a tale as much about how miraculously helpful the worldwide community can be as it is about a year used to rethink and rebuild my approach to my gun.  I an forever grateful for all the help and advice I received from around the world.  I've undoubtedly spent more on this gun than I originally paid for it by a lot.  Fine. Whatever. Such it is when men obsess.

Testing the Savage at the Burbank Rifle and Revolver Club in Castaic, California swapping front sight blades until it shoots into the 10-ring with a comfortable sight picture with the rear sight dial set at 200 yards.  Notice the 2013 trigger weighing inspection tape around the trigger guard.

The Fodder

On to ammunition.  As documented in that previous blog about this gun, I've changed so much.  I abandoned almost all of my old dies except for the seater and wound up with a Redding body die and neck sizer for case preparation.  I use the body die sparingly.  Just enough to get clean feeding.  I went from a full size die - that causes case head separations - to a Lee Collet die - not enough neck tension - and finally to a Redding neck sizer die.  That's a mouthful and about the original purchase price of the rifle in itself.  So be it. We're talking determination here.

One sentimental nuance.  After last year's debacle, a fellow shooter handed me two boxes of empty PPU brass.  I carefully sized and then fire formed this brass to the Savage's chamber.  I took these cases back to Ben Avery in 2014.  A fellow shooter's generosity also deserves its day in the sun.

The Savage No.4 Mk1* with the two boxes of PPU cases I was handed in 2013 in Phoenix.  A CMP GSM Course A match expends 35 rounds.  5 sighters, 10 slow prone, 10 rapid prone and 10 offhand all at 200-yards shooting at an NRA SR target.

A Redding body die, Redding neck sizer and Lee seater die are the new kit for making my .303 British competition ammunition.  Military cases have a thicker web and are much preferred versus the thinner U.S. commercial brass.
Cases sized and cleaned.  Notice that the shoulders are blown out from fire forming them to the rifle chamber.

Primed using Lee's excellent press top priming tool.  Yes that is a Lee Classic press with a three hole turret top.  I modified it this way because I have so many of the three hole turrets and I like that they aren't as crowded as the four hole ones.  It has a lot of power for sizing and it's very precise for seating.
Yes I throw my charges.  So do the big ammunition makers.  These second generation Lee Auto-Disk Powder measures with the elastomer wipers are amazingly consisted.  This one has a stacked double disk cavity and it is delivering 38.0 grains of H4985 in one drop.  Confirmations with an electronic scale say all is well.
The 174 grain Sierra Match King.

Another loaded round ready for the 2014 CMP Western Games in Phoenix, Arizona.
A tray of .303 British match ammunition in the making.

And then it's off to the races.  All triggers need to be weighed to make sure they make minimum weight. If you pass you get your yellow tape.  If you ever spot someone's rifle with this inspection tape in the trigger guard, it means the rifles been to one of the major competition tournaments.

2014 inspection completed.

The Day of Reckoning

So what happened?  Phoenix was as Phoenix is.  It was a sweltering, sunny day.  A mad dogs and Englishmen out in the noon day sun kind of day.  A day where one fills one's quart container with ice water, drinks it all and sweats it all out kind of day.  Well the gun and ammunition came through wonderfully. Rifle operation was smooth as silk. Sights dead on using a comfortable sight picture.  The ammunition fed like a charm, stayed together and shot tightly.

On the line at Ben Avery Range at the 2014 CMP Western Games cradling the rifle between shots.

The pure joy of working the bolt of a Lee-Enfield No.4 Mk1* that you've spent a lifetime with at a major U.S. rifle tournament is worth the journey to get there.

I love this picture taken by the CMP photographer.  It captures the complete focus and concentration at a rifle match; the very essence of first person competition.  It absorbs you into a bubble where it's just you, the gun and the target.  I've been doing it since I was nine years old and I would not trade the experience for the world.

And at long last, I met my goal that this old friend brought home its first CMP achievement medal.

The payoff.  How fleeting this moment that has so much meaning.  That is world champion Gary Anderson presenting my my Bronze CMP Western Games Vintage Military Rifle Achievement medal.  Great man from whom I have learned a lot.  It is a privilege to call him friend. 
This was a hard won trinket.  It means a lot to that young college student that lives inside me that bought that cheap rifle so long ago.  Best piece of bronze I've even acquired.  I was walking on air.

The Savage No.4 Mk1* with its medal.

What's next?  The progression of CMP achievement goes bronze, silver, gold and wood.  Wood meaning winning the overall match and getting a plaque.  We'll see how far this goes.

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