I like the big CZs pretty much the way they are, but here was a chance to push the envelope, to refine all the approximations and break the backs of all the compromises that are part and parcel of any factory-made rifle. One CZ would remain stock, but the other would become what is referred to in the trade as a “semicustom” rifle, “semi” only in the sense that the basic action and barrel began life together under the artificial lights of a factory rather than in the sparkle of a gunmaker’s eye. It would be sort of like sending one of your young daughters off to learn how to manipulate silverware and dance the tango. And explaining to the other daughter that she had to stay at home.
The first thought of some shooters faced with two almost identical rifles might be to change the caliber of one. After all, the big CZ magnum action can handle just about anything. But that thought never entered my mind. The .375 H&H is a cartridge that is not to be fooled with, as evidenced by the fact that the British, who invented it, gave it one of those long aristocratic names -– 375 Holland and Holland Rimless Belted Magnum Nitro Express. And since it is arguably the single most universally useful all-around cartridge on the planet, everybody obviously needs at least two of them.
I might add that I don’t much approve of all the “improvements” upstart manufacturers trying to promote some nonexistent proprietary advantage have attempted to perpetrate upon this classic cartridge from shortly after its introduction in 1912 right up to the present day. These fall into the same category as “improved” Mauser 98 actions, being nothing more than oxymoronic exercises in vanity or fraud. It should be understood that when a person says .375 he means .375 Holland & Holland Magnum, not some short, fat, ugly, ultramoderne or hyperventilating perversion of it. Glad we got that straight.
CZ is the only possible way a native English-speaker can indicate the name Česká Zbrojovka, which simply means Bohemian Arms Factory. The company, located in the town of Uhersky Brod in the Czech Republic, has been making fine firearms for more than 85 years and knows something about its business. CZ has prospered no matter whose flag was flying over it at the time, including those of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia, Germany’s Third Reich, the U.S.S.R. and, finally, the red, white and blue of the free Czech Republic. CZ is also one of the few major arms makers who still takes the time and trouble to make a true controlled-round-feed Mauser 98-type action, the irreplaceable heart of any dangerous-game rifle. Luckily for us, ever since the Soviet Union demonstrated the unifying power of leftist ideology by coming completely apart at the seams, CZ has distributed and marketed its rifles in the United States, home of more dangerous-game hunters than any other country in the world.
Looking at the CZ sisters side by side, there were clearly some things I wanted to do beyond the mandatory trigger work, internal polishing up, smoothing out and other such feet-wiping operations every factory rifle yields to before entering my gun room. Both of these had already spent a little time in the workshop of CAM Enterprises, the dba of Russell and Chick Menard, and had come out smooth and tight.
The Menards are a husband and wife gunsmithing and rifle building team whose workshop is located on their ranch just outside Prescott, Arizona, one of the main gun centers in the country. Every facet of the gun culture is richly represented in Prescott, including commercial manufacture (a big Ruger factory is here and Bill Ruger was a local presence when he was alive), training (Gunsite is just down the road, as is Louis Awerbuck and his Yavapai Firearms Academy and quite a few more founts of firearms handling wisdom), the gun publishing business, and custom gunmaking in all its glory with all the attendant artists, craftsmen and skill-sets required. The Menards are an important part of this latter group (whose godfather for many years was the legendary Fred Wells), and spend most of their time working with Granite Mountain Arms, barrel-maker Dan Pederson, stockmaker Robert Szweda and many other firearms luminaries and skilled professionals in the area. Both of the Menards are accomplished well-rounded gunsmiths, with Chick enjoying a particular reputation for her engraving artistry (she’s a protégé of Fred’s widow Rachel Wells) and lever-action restorations and Russell as the man you go to when you have a difficult chambering or feeding problem or want a custom rifle built, especially on a Mauser action. There are undoubtedly other families in the Prescott gun mafia which I am somehow forgetting to mention and of which I shall be painfully reminded.
Meanwhile, back to the CZ. The single-set trigger, which is standard on most CZ rifles, is a potential delight. All it normally needs is the proper adjustment. The set trigger is adjusted by a screw in the trigger guard as usual, and the un-set trigger is adjusted by three separate screws accessible once you slip the stock off the barreled action. Beyond that, the CZ trigger group is complex, with more than thirty working parts. I’ve seen several guys take one of these triggers completely apart, but Russell Menard is apparently one of the few guys who can put one completely back together again. This useful talent, plus a little Menard voodoo, doesn’t hurt if you want a trigger pull perfectly to your liking.
Both rifles had Turkish walnut stocks. Like hand-carved Turkish meerschaum tobacco pipes, these tend to be nice but some are a whole lot nicer than others. The stock on one, an upgraded European Lux model which is no longer imported, was so beautifully grained that any thoughts of refinishing could wait until I had to really work to come up with a new rifle project. The stock on the other was so plain that it hardly deserved to survive the next marshmallow roast. As I looked closely at this homely sister my imagination kicked out of the starting gate and I realized the green thoroughbred was soon going to be transformed beyond all recognition.
The first order of business was to procure a high-grade blank of seasoned Oregon Black Walnut from Goby Walnut Products over in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Goby has specialized in custom milling those big beautiful Oregon trees for 30 years and produces some of the most nicely figured air-dried gunstock blanks I’ve seen.
With the wood on the way, Russell and Chick Menard took the next step in the metalwork beyond the trigger job and lapping the action smooth. The factory CZ comes with a 25-inch barrel, which I find unwieldy especially since I normally carry a rifle in the muzzle-down position favored in Europe and Africa. The Menards cut the barrel back to my preferred 22-inch length and did a fine 11-degree target crown on the muzzle with a protective ridge around it. The factory barrel-band front sight ramp was replaced with a graceful unit from New England Custom Guns complete with an NECG flip-up ivory bead so big and white even I can see it. A Talley barrel-band sling swivel was also added because this is a better arrangement, not to mention more traditional, than the fore-end-mounted sling swivel installed at the factory. CZ also uses a bolt handle with a hollow knob on the end which, while functional enough, is unsightly. The whole thing was removed, and replaced by an elegant bolt handle with four-panel engraving by Max McFarland from Brownells. Finally, the action skirt, tang and front lug were carefully tapered for a more precise fit into the upcoming new stock.
I have nothing against manufacturers engraving their name on the action, as this is certainly a source of pride for all concerned, but when the name and a lot of other unnecessary information is hammered into the steel by some recent graduate of the Sunset Strip School of Billboard Design, it’s a bit much to say the least. All of this, save the serial number itself, was deftly removed. A tasteful identification of “CZ 550” on the action and “375 Holland & Holland” on the barrel would be added later by Chick Menard, who knows her way around engraving tools. As though to make up for the rifle company’s heavy hand with a hammer, the CZ Customer Service people were knowledgeable, friendly and helpful beyond the call of duty (and way beyond what you can expect from most rifle manufacturers these days) according to the Menards, who dealt with them several times during the course of the project.
With the basic metalwork done and stock blank in hand, I paid a visit to Robert Szweda, my stockmaker of choice. Bob is another member in good standing of the Prescott gun mafia and has built many stocks for Fred Wells, Granite Mountain Arms, and any number of custom builders around the country. The CZ factory hogsback, or schweinsrucken, stock fits me very well for both scope and express sight use and is probably my favorite stock configuration of them all. Szweda didn’t want to just copy the CZ stock, however, and he assured me that he could retain the critical measurements including drop at comb, drop at heel and pitch in a stock of his own creation. There were some other things I wanted, like a slimmer, more open wrist and a shorter fore-end, that were easily accommodated. Bob decided the single factory cross-bolt was better relocated, and he also installed one of Steve Heilmann’s classic grip traps. The result has elements of English, European and American stock design, masterfully blended in a unique whole with an integrity of its own.
Szweda and I took some time to discuss the checkering, as he is known as a very fine craftsman with the checkering tool. We decided on a graceful but aggressive 22-lines-per-inch fleur de lis with points, a wrap-around pattern similar to one he had come up with for a Fred Wells presentation gun a few years back. I think it is incredibly beautiful, perfectly executed and extremely functional. Can’t get any better than that.
Back at the Menards, the action and barrel were tastefully re-engraved, the metal very finely bead-blasted, polished and blued (the Menard’s bluing technique produces a deep satin sheen that looks every bit as good as a super-expensive rust-bluing job at considerably less cost), then sent back to Szweda for final fitting of wood to metal. The complete rifle then went back to the Menards for test firing and any final tune-ups.
My new semicustom rifle is, to use a figure of speech in a literal way, drop-dead gorgeous. Looks and feels like a killing machine that could charm the pants off an old buffalo bull before sending him flapping his way toward Syncerus heaven. Weight of the rifle all up with a big 30mm 1.1-4x24 Kahles Helia C scope in Warne QD rings and a Murray leather sling, is 10½ pounds, about ½ pound lighter than the factory gun similarly equipped and a lot more agile and graceful in a compact package. It’s built for heavy loads and just the right weight and balance as far as I’m concerned. Performance with different kinds of ammo at the range and in the field are things I’ll report on later, but I can tell you right now that she dances like Ginger Rogers –- pretty face, nice butt and quick as a switchblade.
The problem I have is that now the formerly better looking daughter who stayed at home suddenly seems a little awkward, thick in the ankles, doesn’t have refined table manners and can’t really dance. Maybe she’ll grow out of it.
factory barreled action:
P.O. Box 171073 Kansas City, KS 66117-0073
Toll-free:1 800 955-4486Phone: (913) 321-1811E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
metalwork and gunsmithing:
CAM Enterprises, Custom Gunsmithing by Russell and Chick Menard
19546 E. Wagontrain Dr.
Mayer, AZ 86333
Goby Walnut Products
5016 Palestine Road NW
Albany, OR 97321
stockwork and checkering:
4120 N. Bitterwell
Prescott Valley, AZ 86314
200 South Front Street
Montezuma. Iowa 50171-1000
Phone: 1-641-623-5401 or 1-800-741-0015
New England Custom Gun, Ltd. (NECG)
438 Willow Brook RoadPlainfield, NH 03781Phone: (603) 469-3450Email: email@example.com
Stephen R. HeilmannP.O. Box 657 Grass Valley, CA 95945 Phone: (530) 272-8758 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
2 Slater Road
Cranston, Rhode Island 02920
Email: email@example.com (Lutto & Associates)
Warne Manufacturing Company9057 SE Jannsen Rd. Clackamas, OR 97015Phone: 800/683-5590 or (503) 657-5590
Murray Custom Leather
P.O. Box 373Aledo, Texas 76008Phone: 817-441-7480Email: firstname.lastname@example.org