A dandy little number sir?
There is something to be said for trim, fast-handling rifles.
Iam sure there are many who like small, trim, wellbalanced rifles chambered for mild cartridges. Gun writers sometimes refer to such pieces as “dandy rifles” – a blend between a dainty and a handy rifle.
I’ve been involved with firearms for the past 30 years, both repairing them as well as building new rifles. It seems to me that long-range, target-type rifles chambered for relatively new cartridges that boast efficient sharp shoulders and impres- sive ballistics for their size are currently the “flavour of the month”. Such rifles typically have Remington-type actions and match-grade, semi-bull barrels, 28 to 30” long. These rifles are usually equipped with big, heavy and expensive high-power, top-quality scopes. I’ve seen such rifles deliver incredible accuracy at ranges I wouldn’t even want to mention.
Ordinary Joes with not so ordinary rifles are getting longrange groups that not too long ago would’ve been unheard of except in Benchrest circles. But the rifles that produce such groups are too heavy for most types of hunting. They’re best suited to shooting from static positions and with a stable rest.
Just as technology developed for Formula 1 racing eventually ends up in the family car, shooters across the board will eventu- ally benefit from this surge to produce very accurate rifles, including the reloading developments that contribute to such accuracy. People walking into my shop get a horrified look on their faces when they pick up a .375 H&H weighing 9lbs. “It is going to kick, please fit a muzzle brake and maybe a mercury brake too?” they often ask.
I firmly believe that if a welldesigned rifle of appropriate weight has too much recoil, the best remedy is to get a smaller calibre. The ultimate stalking rifle to my mind would be a vintage .275 Rigby, which translates to a well-balanced 7x57mm Mauser of appropriate weight.
For some years now I’ve been impressed by the small action of the Zastava Model 85, although I’ve never bought a Zastava for myself and can’t remember ever using a rifle with such a miniaction. However, about three years ago a Model 85 rifle was brought into the shop. It was a poor specimen that had seen some hard use, perhaps – judging from its condition – on a
The barrel was completely buggered with heavy rust inside. It was missing the rear main screw as well as the magazine follower and spring. The action had pit marks and rust on the outside and a bit more serious damage on the guard and floor plate. The cost of repairing the damage and replacing the barrel prompted the owner to buy a new rifle instead. I transferred the rifle to our stock with the aim of using it as a source of spare parts in future. After about six months an idea started forming in my mind. Why not use the action to build a miniature stalking rifle?
Those who are familiar with the wildcat 6x45mm cartridge speak highly of it and I thought it would fit the mini-Zastava perfectly. The 6x45mm is simply a .223 Remington case with the neck expanded to take 6mm bullets. The reports of some 6x45mm users would seem to indicate the cartridge possesses some sort of X-factor. Others attribute similar extraordinary traits to the 7x57. I’m of the opinion that the performance levels of both calibres have more to do with moderate recoil and launching heavier bullets at relatively low velocities.
The 6x45mm has an almost cult-like following in South Africa among some. It became so popular that factory ammunition was available for a while. Loaded with 100gr, soft-nosed bullets, it is ideal for the hunting of medium-sized antelope such as impala, springbuck and blesbuck at moderate ranges. I’m sure some hunters have used the 6x45mm on bigger game as well.
The small Zastava action and the 6x45mm cartridge are just about made for each other. The fact that I got a 6x45 chamber reamer as part of a trade, fitted in well with my plan. I had a discarded 6mm Tikka barrel on register and, as required by law, an application to build a 6x45 rifle using the .243 barrel and the bedraggled Zastava rifle’s action was sent off to the CFR. Approval was granted fairly quickly so the work began. I wanted the rifle to be compact and quick handling and with that in mind I decided on a barrel length of 18”. The barrelled action was then sent off to the SBS for proofing.
Waiting for the steelwork to return was a little stressful. What if something gave way under firing with a heavy proof load? It’s not called “proofing” for nothing. While I awaited the return of the barrelled action, an idea began to form. Since I was already using a beat-up action and a freebie barrel, why not see how many components I could salvage from the spare-parts heap to complete the project?
RE-SHAPING THE STOCK
The factory stock of the Model 85 Zastava has a very high comb, and the pitch of the butt plate is completely wrong. As soon as you put the rifle to your shoulder, you realize something isn’t right. Luckily, the stock has enough “meat” in all the right places which allowed re-shaping. I turned it into a classic-style stock by removing the Monte Carlo comb and altering the cheek-piece, then shortening the fore-end and slimming it down. I removed an ebony fore-end tip from an old stock I had on hand and transplanted it onto the Zastava. A solid black, used recoil pad and an old steel »
» grip cap also helped transform the ugly duckling into a swan.
I re-profiled the barrel to a muzzle diameter of 14mm. The profiling also resulted in a freefloated barrel from the receiver all the way to the ebony foreend tip. The front sling swivel – another second-hand item – was attached to the barrel rather than the stock. Accuracy advocates don’t like the idea of barrel-mounted swivels, claiming they can negatively affect barrel vibrations, but the old rifles built by famous arms-makers had barrel-mounted swivels. One of the reasons was that a barrel swivel lowers the rifle’s muzzle when slung over your shoulder. It thus prevents the muzzle from catching low hanging branches. For my part, a barrelmounted swivel just looks great, and that’s the way I like it. It is my rifle, after all.
My next concern was the rifle’s weight. Being a compact, shortbarrelled rifle in a light calibre, it would make no sense if it weighed the same as a factory rifle with a 22” barrel. I wanted the Zastava to weigh under 6lbs with everything on board, so I drilled some holes in the back of the stock and hollowed out the fore-end to lighten it. A check on the scale revealed too little weight removal so I was going to have to take more drastic steps – removing metal rather than wood. I was happy with the barrel profile, and I certainly didn’t want to make it any shorter. Instead, I slimmed down the lug area, which was much thicker than necessary anyway. I also removed steel low enough on the action so that the cuts are not visible once the stock is fitted. I had no luck in locating a magazine follower, so I made a new one out of aircraft-grade aluminium.
I cleaned up the left sidewall of the action and removed the factory inscriptions, and on the spur of the moment I cut a thumb slot in the sidewall so it would resemble a Model 98 Mauser. This was a good decision. It saved a lot of weight and drew favourable comments from guys popping into the shop to check on the progress of the project.
A Thor scope base came with the Zastava rifle. It looks good but is heavy, so off I went to the spare parts bin where I found appropriate Weaver bases and 25mm rings for the 1-5x20 I had in mind for the little 6x45. I had to modify the bases to match the profile of the receiver and the spacing of the holes in the top of the action.
After assembling the rifle and fitting the scope I must say the 6x45 felt well-balanced and very lively in the hands. However, another check produced disappointment again. Close, but still more than 6lbs. Back at the workbench I took the rifle apart. The factory trigger is an all-steel affair that, in conjunction with the side safety, is quite heavy. Since the action is called a miniMauser by some, I took a long shot and fitted a Thor trigger with an aluminium body, made for the M98 Mauser. It worked perfectly. It’s very light and a dead ringer for a Timney trigger. Aircraft-grade aluminium? I’m not sure.
Back to the electronic scale once more and this time the readout showed the magical figure: just under 6lbs. I took a photo to record the fact!
There is something special about a light, nifty rifle. This one has impressed those who have handled it, so much so that I was offered a very nice rifle in a swap. Tempting, but I was able to resist. I showed it to a customer, who passed it to his wife. She shouldered it a couple of times and then whispered out of the corner of her mouth, “Ask him if it is for sale”. I intend to hang onto this rifle as the whole project was very satisfying. The fact that I was able to nearly complete the rifle with parts from the second-hand bin was a big factor in keeping the cost down. The only real cost was in the labour, which you don’t really keep track of when you’re doing it for yourself.
So how does it shoot? Initially I loaded some cartridges with 87gr bullets in front of 22 to 24gr of S321 powder. All I was looking for was acceptable hunting accuracy, and I still need to do a lot of load development to get to the true potential of this rifle. The 87gr bullets were replaced with 70gr GS Customs with which I am very happy. The little rifle was a joy to carry and during the 2016 season I shot a young fallow deer ram at roughly 80m after a long stalk.
Back to what I have said in the first paragraph of this article. There are indeed many shooters who like trim, fast-handling rifles. We are just not exposed to lightweight rifles to the same degree as yesteryear. I think handling such a compact, lightweight rifle makes you feel like a kid again. Pick up a Mannlicher-Schönauer carbine for instance and see what I mean. I bet you’ll like it. It might just feel...dandy!
My compact, lightweight “spare parts” Zastava in calibre 6x45. The rifle weighs in under 6lbs. Photos 1 & 2 show just how short the Zastava Model 85 mini-action is when compared to actions used for “normal” rifles.
When the stock was done I added chequering to enhance it.
Wood was also removed from the barrel channel to lighten the stock. I wanted a “stalking” rifle weighing no more than 6lbs.
To save weight I removed steel from the recoil lug area and also cut a thumb slot into the action.
The stock was reshaped into the classic style.
Here my son demonstrates the clean lines and the compactness of the little “spare parts” Zastava 6x45.
The 6x45 compared to a normalsized target shooting rifle.