For several years, controlled-round-feed (CRF) rifles have been the standard for hunting dangerous game, and almost every article written on the subject makes reference to the widespread belief that CRF rifles are more reliable than their push-feed (PF) counterparts.
CRF rifles such as the Mauser 98 and the pre-'64 Winchester Model 70 offer full-length claw extractors that catch the base of the cartridge as it is removed from the magazine and hold the cartridge against the bolt face throughout the chambering, firing, extraction and ejection process. On the other hand, push-feed rifles such as the Remington 700, Weatherby Mark V and Savage 110 shove the cartridge forward into the chamber, and the small extractor doesn't "catch" until the cartridge is chambered.
In theory, the CRF action is more secure since it has a bite on the cartridge throughout the entire process (hence the name). One of the oldest arguments against PF rifles for dangerous game is that they won't cycle reliably when they are upside down and that the cartridge will fall out of the magazine before being chambered, a very bad scenario when you are being mauled and want nothing more than to kill the animal that's trying to stomp, gore, bite and scratch you to pieces.
For this test, four rifles were used: two CRF (a Winchester Model 70 Safari Express in .416 Remington Magnum with a full-length extractor from the mid-1990s and a Montana Rifle Company XWR in .270 Winchester) and two PF guns (a Weatherby Mark V Dangerous Game Rifle in .375 H&H Magnum and a post-'64 Winchester Model 70 in the same caliber).
Each rifle was fired in three-shot groups from a prone position, and I rolled over on my back and worked the bolt after each shot, a long and painful experience that I don't recommend to anyone. By the end of the day, my shoulder was aching, I'd burned up a sizable amount of money on ammunition, and I had a clear answer to the question of whether push-feed guns would cycle when they were upside down.
Before I get to the results, it's worth mentioning that, besides their different extractors, PF and CRF rifles have very different ejectors. Both PF rifles tested used a plunger-type ejector mounted on the bolt face that forces the spent cartridge out of the action. Contrarily, CRF rifles rely primarily on a fixed blade ejector located at the rear of the action. When the bolt is drawn fully back, the cartridge strikes the blade and is catapulted out of the action. Since a spent casing that won't eject is perfectly suited for causing a malfunction, this was as much a test of the ejectors as the extractors. When you're dealing with dangerous game, everything has to work perfectly.
Four Tests, One Malfunction
The first rifle I tested was the CRF Model 70 .416 Remington Magnum with a classic full-length extractor. After the first shot, I rolled over, worked the bolt and saw just what I expected: The spent brass whirled away when it struck the ejector blade, and the return bolt stroke slid another massive .416 cartridge into the chamber. I fired the next shot, rolled over, and that's when things went sour. As the bolt came back and the empty case struck the blade, it flew out past my head just as advertised, but the last loaded cartridge in the magazine did a nose dive out of the magazine and hit me squarely in the chest. That wasn't supposed to happen.
I repeated the test three times, and in every case the last nose-heavy cartridge flopped out of the magazine, and the loaded cartridge hit me A-frame-first as the bolt came back. It was very disheartening. I'd completed one test and had one failure. Things improved with every subsequent test, and there wasn't a single malfunction or failure to feed with any of the other rifles, push-feed included. The post-'64 .375 H&H Winchester Model 70 functioned without a hitch while being cycled upside down, and the Weatherby did exactly the same.
Both CRF rifles didn't seem to know whether they were upside down, sideways, nose-down or in any other position. The Weatherby's ejector was noticeably springier than the old Model 70, and it kicked the empty brass farther away from the rifle. The Montana Rifle Company XWR, another CRF gun, performed perfectly as well. The old myth suggesting that PF rifles won't cycle upside down is just that, for both of the rifles tested that had the "less reliable" engineering performed without any problems.
That's not to say that CRF rifles don't have their advantages when hunting dangerous game; they prevent accidental double-feeds because the cartridge is controlled from the time it comes out of the magazine until it is sent flying by the blade extractor. Having that sizeable extractor grip the cartridge as it's drawing out of the magazine offers considerable peace of mind. Both actions are capable of feeding upside down, though.
It should be noted that the CRF Model 70 I tested is not the same Model 70 Safari Express that is in current production. Yes, aesthetically they are the same, but the .416 I tested was made in a different factory, and the fault wasn't that of the rifle's action but, in my estimation, a weak magazine spring that allowed the last cartridge to slip out of position. I haven't tested the new Model 70 Safari Express using this same method, but I believe that it would perform perfectly when cycled upside down. The sloppy spring has always been an issue with that particular .416, an affliction I've never noticed while testing the new version of the rifle that debuted in the late 2000s.
However, the failure in this test serves as a reminder that one small problem, no matter how insignificant it may seem, could spell trouble when dealing with dangerous game. If your life is on the line and a very large, aggressive animal is close at hand, it's good to know whether your rifle will function reliably in a compromising position.
Learn more about hunting dangerous game in this segment of "Guns & Ammo TV," airing Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on The Sportsman Channel.
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