September 09, 2022
By Craig Boddington
The "Stalking Rifle" was developed in the British Isles as a fast-handling long-gun for hunting red deer and roebuck where a close approach, i.e., the "stalk," is everything. The concept was quickly adopted by soldiers, explorers and hunters headed to Britain's far-flung colonies. Rifles chambered in the 7x57mm Mauser cartridge, also known as the ".275 Rigby," were made famous by W. D. M. "Karamoja" Bell; these were the typical stalking rifles of the day.
Bell preferred bolt-actions, but the most famous African hunter of all was a single-shot man. Captain Frederick Courteney Selous, DSO, lived from 1851 to 1917. Selous went "out to Africa" in 1871 and began his career with muzzleloaders. By 1880, his favorite was a falling block Farquharson in .461 Gibbs.
In 1890, Selous guided British mining magnate Cecil Rhodes' Pioneer Column into Rhodesia, fought in the Matabele Wars, and later explored East Africa for the Crown. Along the way, he wrote nine books and hunted widely — not only in Africa, but in Europe, Asia Minor and North America.
When World War I broke out, Selous accepted a commission as an intelligence officer, serving in the East African campaign. In September 1916, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
On January 4, 1917, leading his troops forward, Capt. Selous was killed by a German sniper on the banks of the Rufiji River, in what is now a great game reserve that bears his name. He was five days past his 65th birthday. The German commander, Count Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, sent a note of condolence across the lines. It is said that this was the only time such a gesture, from a time long past, was rendered during the Great War.
The Stalking Rifle in .303
Selous used a number of falling-block rifles. I once hunted with a hammerless falling block in 6.5x53R that was made for him by Holland & Holland back in 1898. He had other H&H single-shots in .450/.375-2.5-inches and .303 British.
So, a single-shot stalking rifle dubbed "Courteney" is appropriate — and .303 British is the proper chambering! The .303 was Britain's service cartridge from December 1888 into the 1950s. A rimmed cartridge, it was adapted to few sporting rifles, but it remains common wherever the Union Jack flew.
Our .30-40 Krag is suspiciously similar to the .303 British, as is the Russian 7.62x54R. Initially loaded with a compressed blackpowder charge and a 215-grain bullet, the .303 was adapted to smokeless powder by 1892. The projectile was changed several times, but in 1910 the Mark VII 174-grain spitzer was adopted at 2,440 feet per second, which is still the benchmark for .303 performance.
By modern standards, the .303 isn't flashy, but it can get the job done. In Canada, it accounts for untold moose annually, and it is still widely used in Africa and Australia. By chance, the .303 has been near and dear the last couple of years. I have an old Holland & Holland .303 double that was my buddy Joe Bishop's. I spent a lot of time working up loads, so I wasn't clueless when Guns & Ammo Editor Eric Poole asked me to take a look at Uberti's new 1885 Courteney Stalking Rifle.
Some .303 barrels (and bullets) are .311 inch; most are .312 inch. The Uberti 1885 (and my double) have the more common .312-inch barrels. The double keyholes radically with .311 bullets, but it shoots fine with .312. The Uberti showed oblong 50-yard strikes with the .311 bullets I had and was hopeless at 100 yards.
This is not locked in stone. Alberta buddy Gordon Appleby has a Courteney, and he is getting good accuracy with Sierra .311-inch bullets. This makes sense: The lead-core Sierra should upset into the rifling, and a thousandth undersize isn't always fatal. That bullet may shoot fine in the Courteney, but I can't find any in these pandemic times! The Courteney and the double shoot well with Woodleigh, Hornady and ancient Remington-Peters, which are all .312-inch bullets.
Selous may not have used one, but he was certainly aware of the John Browning-designed Winchester Model 1885. With an exposed hammer, Browning's design was self-cocking; Uberti's version is not: After dropping the lever, inserting a cartridge and closing the lever, you must cock the hammer in order to fire. If you don't fire, drop the lever and the hammer is deactivated, returning it to the safe position. Then, you start the sequence anew. The original Winchester 1885 was made until 1920. Some 140,000 rifles were chambered to the largest array of cartridges of any Winchester model. Since 1996, Winchester (winchesterguns.com) have offered reintroductions of the 1885 in several configurations, and Uberti has also produced several 1885s.
Uberti's 1885 Courteney Stalking Rifle offers a whole new look. The 24-inch barrel has a medium contour, giving the rifle an overall weight just more than 7 pounds. I like the weight of the stiff barrel; it gives the rifle a nice, solid heft that feels good in the hands.
The barrel has a 1:10-inch twist, which is standard for the .303 and able to stabilize the common range of .303 bullets from 150 to 215 grains. Unusual in today's world, the Courteney has excellent iron sights, a hooded bold and visible bead at the front, and an adjustable shallow "V" rear sight mounted on a quarter rib. The quarter rib has four slots for Weaver-style mounts to allow for a full choice of optics. Selous never saw anything like that, but I think he would approve. He understood product evolution as he made the transition from muzzleloaders to blackpowder cartridges, and then to smokeless powder velocity.
The barrel, rib and sights are blued, but everything behind the barrel is nicely color-case-hardened: Action, trigger, hammer, lever and tang. The casehardening is well done, the colors even.
It's really the stock that makes a stalking rifle. At just 81/2 inches the forend is short. It's what the Brits would call a "stalking forend," with a heartwood tip. The forward barrel-band sling swivel stud is mounted 4 inches ahead of the forend, close to the mid-point of the barrel. This does two things: It gets the stud far enough forward so that it can't possibly bite your hand during recoil. Then, when the rifle is slung, the muzzle is low and unlikely to catch on branches.
The buttstock is good, straight-grained walnut. It has a reddish stain that English gunmakers often preferred. Pistol grip is the rounded Prince of Wales style, with a good, half-inch "rifle" recoil pad with black spacer. The comb is straight with just a little drop at heel. For me, the rifle comes up perfectly with the iron sights on target. It's impossible to stock a rifle for both scope and iron-sight use. Classic stalking rifles always assumed iron sights, and the Courteney is no different, but, with a low-mounted scope I had no problem adjusting my cheek weld for a quick sight picture.
Checkering is well-executed with a checkered panel on each side of the pistol grip and a wraparound panel on the forend. Wood-to-metal fit is excellent. Butt to muzzle, Uberti's is a clean, simple rifle that I couldn't help but to like.
Like most 19th century single-shot actions, the 1885 is an extractor gun, absent ejector. Drop the lever and the extractor starts the case out of the chamber, but it must be manually plucked or shaken clear. This takes some getting used to, and it's more complicated with a scope because you must reach underneath the ocular bell. In the field, it's easy; just elevate the muzzle and the case drops clear. On the bench, it's not so simple. To avoid losing my position between shots, I kept a screwdriver handy so I could catch the rim with the blade tip.
In addition to range work, I carried the Courteney every day of our Kansas rifle season, finally taking the "cull buck" I wanted on the 11th evening. So, sitting mostly on tree stands in thick timber, I prepared for shots I didn't take. To cock the hammer, I had no trouble getting my thumb between the hammer spur and the ocular bell. However, to decock the hammer, avoid the temptation to let the hammer down manually. Use the action as intended and drop the lever, which returns the hammer to its safety position.
The trigger pull was a pleasant surprise. It was exception-ally light; on this rifle it measured 21/2 pounds! Many Model 1885s were target rifles, so light triggers were essential, but I expected a heavier pull weight with this modern-made Stalking Rifle. Undoubtedly, they vary, but this trigger was wonderful — except that I had to get used to it. During the Kansas rifle season, and for initial shooting, I mounted Leupold's new-for-2022 1.5-4x20mm Patrol riflescope. It's a minimalist scope that looked good on the Courteney, and it had enough capability for thick-timber whitetails. For shooting groups, I needed more magnification, so I switched to using a Trijicon AccuPoint in 3-9x40mm.
Though still widely loaded, the .303 British round is not one of the popular numbers. Few production runs have been done recently. Bottom line: I haven't been able to find fresh factory ammo for more than 18 months. Time to handload.
I started with plenty of cases, Hornady's 174-grain round-nose Interlock, 215-grain Woodleigh and a small supply of old 215-grain Remington-Peters — all .312-inch bullets. My old double, circa 1895, was regulated with 215-grain bullets. With doubles, it's largely a matter of duplicating regulation velocity, but who knows what actual velocities were in the 1890s? It shot well with 42.5 grains of H380 for 215-grain bullets, and it grouped even better with 38 grains of IMR 4064 with 174-grain Hornady bullets. These loads gave me a starting point for the Courteney, but they were slow, about 2,160 feet per second (fps), to keep pressure down. My only goal was to bring the barrels together. I quickly learned that the Courteney didn't like the loads with 215-grain bullets. That was fine; my supply was limited, and 215-grainers are hard to find.
I concentrated on using 174-grain bullets, and for the strong 1885 action I upped the powder charge. The .303 British is a simple cartridge to load with medium-slow-burning powders, cases crimped into the cannelure. I worked up with RL15 and IMR 4064, 4320 and 4350, using Hornady's current (10th Edition) manual. I must say, the data seems conservative (and probably is) for a low-pressure threshold because of older rifles. I approached suggested maximums without getting anticipated velocities. Part of this was expected since the data is based on a 251/4-inch barrel; the Courteney is 24 inches. So, I deducted 50 fps. Maybe this rifle has a "slow barrel." My "shoot for groups" loads of 40 grains RL15, 39 grains of IMR 4320, and 44 grains of IMR 4350 were all supposed to approach 2,400 fps. At 2,360 fps, only the 4350 load came close; the RL15 load clocked 2,274 fps; the 4320 load a very slow 2,191 fps. Well, that's plenty of velocity for deer and hogs at close range, which is what I had in mind for the Courteney anyways. Accuracy was what I cared about; I can play with the loads later.
I did not expect miraculous groups, but at first I was frustrated. There were large group-to-group variances and vertical stringing. Rifles with two-piece stocks are often challenging. The Courteney forend is attached to the barrel by a screw 21/2 inches behind the forend tip. Presto! I added tension on that screw and vertical stringing almost vanished. I'll be honest, I'm not certain I've found the sweet spot, and I have to find more .312 bullets before I can do more experimenting. Just keep that in mind: If your accuracy isn't what you think it should be, change the tension on the forend screw and see what happens.
My averages with Guns & Ammo's test rifle — using the same bullet but three propellants — were consistent at just less than 11/2 inches. In my view, that's just fine for a hunting rifle chambered to such an old cartridge. Within those averages were some excellent groups.
Regrettably, by the time I figured out the screw tension trick, I was running short on bullets, and .312 isn't a bullet diameter that's readily found. So, for record I settled on five three-shot groups. The best single group was with RL15, which was less than a half-inch. However, this load had the greatest velocity spread (nearly 100 fps), and also the greatest variance in group size. Though not the best average, the IMR 4350 load was the most consistent and had the highest velocity. That's probably where I'll start next time. More range work remains.
I've always wanted a rifle on the Model 1885 action. Part of the reason I've never owned one is that I could never figure out what cartridge. I never imagined it would be a .303 British, but why not? It's a classic, mild in recoil, with plenty of power for the hunting I'm likely to do. I suspect I can fine-tune the groups, but, if not, it's plenty accurate for a stalking rifle with the credo, "Get as close as you can, then get 10 yards closer!" I think Frederick Courteney Selous would have appreciated this rifle.
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