Safari. The mere mention of the word obtains my undivided attention. it is the concept of a hunting adventure in the wild places of Africa. It’s undoubtedly my happy thought. The word safari is taken from the KiSwahili dialect of East Africa. It simply means ‘journey.’ It represents the challenge of shooting a big-bore rifle. It also represents being in an environment where there are animals large enough to take your life with ease. The CZ 550 American Safari rifle is, in and of itself, a journey. It has its roots in the Czechoslovakian Brno ZKK 602 rifle, and has come a long way to get to the current inception. That ZKK 602 is still revered among those who enjoy the big bore bolt-action rifles. The action is considered as rock-solid and reliable as a Mauser 98.
The action itself is very strong, making a perfect platform for the popular rimless safari cartridges: like the .375 Holland & Holland Belted Magnum, the .416 Rigby and Remington Magnum, and the .458 Winchester and .458 Lott. Today’s CZ 550 is a worthy descendant of the ZKK 602. Because it is a true controlled round feed action, it has the same large magazine capacity as the 602, and offers the reliability needed for those who are among dangerous game on a daily basis.
Bolt Action Rifles
In the last century, bolt-action rifles become the consummate blend of reliability and affordability when it comes to dangerous game rifles. Yes, I am a fan of the double rifle and all of its baggage, including the logistic and romantic virtues. However, if I need a rifle capable of handling the world’s game and I need it on a budget, the bolt rifle will get the nod every time. The Mauser 98 action, developed at the end of the 19th century, remains to this day a staple among bolt rifle designs. There’s a good reason for this. Its design is simple, strong, and fully functional at the worst of moments. Mauser 98 clones are still the basis for fine dangerous game rifles. And the CZ 550 action is a proud descendant of that honored German design.
The 550 is a controlled-round-feed action. This means the bolt face uses a claw to grasp the cartridge rim directly out of the magazine and will control that cartridge all the way into the chamber. While having been debated for decades, this feature is usually a universal requirement among the Professional Hunters who use a bolt-action rifle. I personally insist on it – though I know those who do not and have lives to tell the tale – for my own dangerous game guns, and the CZ 550 action is properly equipped with this feature, again a carryover from the Mauser 98 design. The 550 also uses a blade ejector, one of the strongest and most reliable designs on the market. Those two features alone should warrant the choice of a CZ 550 as a safari gun, but there’s much more offered that adds to the list of benefits of this rifle.
CZ 550 Ergonomics
If you prefer iron sights for dangerous game work, and that’s a perfectly viable sighting system, the CZ 550 is well equipped. Express sights, built around a fixed rear sight for 100 yards and undershooting, features a wide V and a vertical white line in the classic safari tradition. Additional leaves, marked for 200 and 300 yards, flip up to extend the range of the rifle. All these possibilities mate up with a fine barrel-band front sight bead, hooded for protection. The hood has a nice little window cut in the top to allow the natural light to flow to the front bead. The sights align very naturally, and though that small bead can be a bit tricky on a dark background, it allows for precise shot placement.
- Cartridges: .375 H&H (tested), .416 Rigby, .458 Winchester Magnum, .458 Lott, .505 Gibbs
- Capacity: 5 + 1 rds.
- Overall Length: 46.5 in.
- Barrel Length: 25 in. Hammer-forged steel; 1:12-in. twist
- Trigger: 2 lbs., 4 oz.; single set
- Stock: Turkish walnut
- Weight: 9. 4 lbs.
- Sights: Express three-leaf iron sights, receiver milled for Talley scope mounts
- Safety: Two position
- MSRP: $1,215
- Manufacturer: CZ
The CZ 550 differs from the Mauser design in its safety, which is a two-position affair. Flip it forward to fire. It’s located on the right rear portion of the receiver. The forward position puts the rifle into battery, and allows the operator to work the bolt. The rearward position blocks the sear and the bolt together. To remove the bolt from the action, a small spring-loaded tab is depressed on the rear left side of the receiver, and the bolt pulls out of the action.
The CZ 550 also has a handy maroon colored cocking indicator at the rear of the bolt. I like these little visual reminders of the status of a rifle, especially when I’m after dangerous game. A hinged floorplate with its release located on the muzzle side of the trigger guard is a smart idea. It releases the cartridges in the magazine for unloading. That magazine is another of the positive features of the CZ 550. My test rifle was chambered in .375 Holland & Holland Belted Magnum. It held five cartridges in the magazine and one in the chamber. That is a very reassuring number.
The CZ 550 American Safari Magnum uses a 25-inch hammer forged barrel in .375 H&H. The barrle is of a rather heavy contour, keeping the weight forward. The rifle’s trigger is a proprietary CZ design and is a single set trigger. In the standard mode of operation, the trigger breaks at 2 pounds, 4 ounces. When the trigger is pushed forward, you get the ‘set’ mode, where it will break at a mere 11.5 ounces. A good trigger will make or break a rifle, and the CZ 550 has a good trigger, for certain. Coupled with the capabilities of the .375 H&H cartridge, this makes for a solid setup.
American vs. European Safari Stocks
The CZ 550 American Safari Magnum is designated as such due to the configuration of its stock. The CZ550 Safari Magnum – what I would call the European counterpart – has a significant drop at the heel in comparison to the American Safari Magnum, which is stocked with a straight comb, perfect for use with a scope.
The stock is Turkish walnut, with two crossbolts to combat the effects of recoil. CZ has opted to go with a sling stud on the forend of the stock, rather than the traditional barrel band location. This could pose an issue with a hard-recoiling caliber like the .458 Lott, but I found it to pose no problem with the lighter recoiling .375 H&H.
A pliable, 1-inch black recoil pad helps to take the sting out of the big safari cartridges. My test rifle had a length of pull measuring 14 ¼ inches, which just so happens to fit me perfectly. For reasons I cannot firmly ascertain, rifles of European design tend to run longer than do our American rifles. I’ve found they fit me better, especially in serious cartridges.
If I had to file a complaint about the CZ 550 American, it would be in the size of the stock. Simply put, it’s huge. Now, when it comes to a hard-recoiling rifle, I’d certainly want a stock that’s too thick than one that is under-built and would risk a break or crack at the most inopportune time, but I firmly believe the CZ 550 would balance and carry much better if the stock were put on a diet.
It feels, well, swollen, for lack of a better term. It feels a bit thick through the wrist and pistol grip, and is certainly bigger than any of the other safari guns I’ve spent time with. Again, mechanically this poses no problem. I usually like things overdesigned, but in comparison to other stock designs, it’s definitely shopping in the plus-sized department. I suspect the stocks for the whole line are cut to the same dimensions, so on a .375 H&H it would feel large. That said, the overall shape of the stock, if chunky, is good, and helps to keep recoil to a minimum.
The CZ 550 action uses an integral scope base cut into the receiver. This is good, as less moving parts equals less opportunity for something to shoot loose or for a screw to be sheared off. For my dangerous game guns, I like Talley rings. They have tight tolerances, and when they machine apart, they machine it right.
I’ve yet to need to lap their rings. The detachable models, as I installed on the CZ 550, return to zero each and every time. I’ve used them on rifles as big as the .500 Jeffery and .505 Gibbs and they’ve yet to fail in any aspect. In those Talley rings, I mounted a Riton 1-5x24mm riflescope, with a 30mm tube and an illuminated reticle.
Now Riton isn’t exactly a household name, but I’ve seen their scopes around. I was as eager to test their glass. I’m usually not much of an illuminated reticle guy, but considering the caliber and the possible uses of this firearm – Cape buffalo, which are a black target in the shadows, or perhaps a leopard at last light, or even black bear – I thought it’d be fitting.
Off to the Bench
The .375 H&H Magnum has the reputation it does for very good reasons. It is, in the opinion of this author, the single most useful cartridge ever developed. It was designed to use bullets weighing between 235 grains and 300 grains, all at respectable velocities. With a good spitzer bullet, the .375 H&H will mimic the trajectory curve of the .30-’06 out to any sane hunting range. It will do so with considerably more horsepower. Modern bullet developments have done nothing but augment the capabilities of the cartridge, including monometal designs, and commercial heavyweight offerings up to 350 grains. I grabbed a pretty diverse selection of factory ammunition for testing, wired up the ol’ Oehler 35P, and headed to work.
For testing, I chose the Nosler Custom with 260-grain AccuBonds, the Federal Cape Shok Premium Safari with 300-grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claws, Norma American PH with the 300-grain Oryx bullets, and the Norma African PH ammunition with 350-grain Woodleigh soft points and full metal jacket bullets.
This covers a pretty broad spectrum of hunting situations, from plains game, elk or moose out to 300 yards. It could go even more with the 260s, general hunting with a .375 with the 300 grainers. The pair of Woodleighs would be absolutely perfect for hippo, buffalo and elephant. Well, it turns out this CZ 550 is a shooter.
First, all the ammunition both fed and extracted perfectly, a very important point for a dangerous game rifle. Even unfired ammunition cycled out of the rifle without issue, which is something all hunters should check in their rifle, should you have a misfire that needs to be cleared quickly. Recoil was more than manageable, and I’ll attribute that to a rifle on the heavier side of average and a well-proportioned stock.