“What is your employment, Mr. Zent?”
“I’m an editor … I work for NRA.”
He smiled big at that and wanted to bump fists. “I’m in! I’m one of your members! You guys do a great job for law enforcement. Welcome home! Now proceed over to Row C.”
At the end of Row C I waited impatiently for the inspector to beckon. It had been a long trip, concluding with two and a half days in transit, and I was aching to get back home. Then for five minutes the man scowled back and forth between my passport, the customs forms and his computer monitor. Finally he questioned, “What kind of gun is it? Dakota? That the manufacturer?”
“Well I don’t see that here,” he glared at the monitor. “Let’s have a look. Put the gun case up here, unlock but don’t open it, step back and put your hands on the rail where I can see them.”
Whoa—never heard of Dakota rifles? Can’t be much of a gun guy, I thought.
As he pulled the big bolt rifle from its case his hard look eased. “You shoot anything with this?”
“A Cape buffalo.”
“Nice,” he said, sounding genuinely appreciative. Then after placing the rifle back down he reached out briefly to touch the handsome XXX-grade walnut buttstock. “Very nice.”
Maybe he was more of a gun guy than I had assumed, or maybe getting his hands on a truly fine firearm had triggered some kind of transformation. If so, he certainly wasn’t the first American shooter inspired by a Dakota.
Refining A Classic
More than any other rifle, the Dakota Model 76 is America’s answer to vintage British bolt-actions that earned renown in African gamefields. Like the Rigbys, Holland & Hollands and Westley Richards studded throughout safari literature, it is based on the Mauser 98 controlled-round-feed platform that adapts beautifully to medium- and big-bore variants. Also like the Brits, the Dakota is widely admired for workmanship that clearly sweats the details in fit, finish, functionality and good looks.
And that’s what elevated it a notch above its other progenitor, the Winchester Model 70. Designers purposely modeled the Dakota rifle after the Model 70’s styling and fire controls, in fact it was intended to reincarnate the beloved “rifleman’s rifle” at a time when Winchester had surrendered to push-feed economics and before other American-made clones had surfaced. But even at their pre-’64 best, Supergrade Model 70s rarely sported wood equal to Dakota’s baseline XX-grade walnut and were never so lavishly hand-finished.
Though America’s gun culture quickly acclaimed her the prettiest girl in town, the ensuing courtship has actually been rather stormy. Naysayers howled at a rifle that cost three or four times more than market-leading bolt-actions, and some owners expressed disappointment in their costly rifles’ accuracy. Then after the 2003 death of Dakota founder Don Allen, ownership changes and mismanagement put the company onto a financial roller coaster that ultimately resulted in bankruptcy and receivership. When unpaid suppliers balked, orders were delayed, and guns that did emerge didn’t always have the fine wood that makes a Dakota a Dakota. Many predicted Dakota’s demise. But because a determined, if demoralized, group of machinists, assemblers and stockmakers kept showing up and working with what they had, continuing to build guns even when the next paycheck wasn’t a sure thing, the doors stayed open. Just when things were looking particularly bleak, an angel stepped in.
This well-heeled angel, Freedom Group, acquired Dakota in June 2009, further diversifying a firearm portfolio ranging from old-liners, such as Remington and Marlin, to prominent AR makers Bushmaster and DPMS. Unlike most of the others, Dakota will never generate high sales volumes or government contracts. Could it be that the money men behind Freedom Group aren’t the tightfisted bean counters gun writers often imagine? Could it be they truly are lovers of fine guns? More importantly, do these sharp businessmen see a profitable future making high-end hunting rifles?
In September I hunted in Africa with an array of newly manufactured Dakota rifles, and then a month later I visited the plant in Sturgis, S.D. There I got to meet many of the hard-working, hometown heroes who kept Dakota going, and I saw first-hand how infusions of capital and new technology are allowing them to produce rifles that look as good as ever, and likely shoot even better.
Dakota arrived on the scene in 1986 when Allen and fellow custom gunsmith Pete Grisel collaborated to design the Model 76. Although they were master craftsmen, both men were also ahead of their time in embracing emerging technology. Allen was the wood specialist, a noted stockmaker who traded in fancy woods and designed and built stock-duplicating machinery. Grisel was a machinist who early on realized the potential of computer-numeric-controlled (CNC) centers to make firearm components that included his coveted original actions and bottom-metal assemblies.
They touted their creation as combining the best features of the 98 Mauser and Model 70, but in fact it improved the breed. Dakota’s bolt body, like the Mauser’s, extends forward of the twin locking lugs 0.167 of an inch where, upon lockup, it protrudes into a recessed breech. The case head is then enclosed in a solid steel collet, an effect similar to the safety-conscious system provided by the Remington Model 700 and others, though achieved by different means. Clearly it improves on the Model 70’s open cone breech/bolt face engagement that does not fully support the case head. The familiar Mauser claw extractor is fully 0.385 of an inch wide for utmost strength in removing stubborn cases, and a spring-mounted ejector angles up from the receiver floor. The bolt must be cycled completely rearward to eject and reload.
The Dakota bolt release is machined to fit flush into the upper left receiver wall so that there is no protruding button or lever. It pivots forward 90 degrees to free the bolt, and then when returned is almost invisible. Not only is it pleasing to the eye, but when closed, the release’s angled base acts as a gas shield in the left-hand lug raceway.
The one-piece bottom metal, based on Grisel’s popular custom-rifle embellishment, secures a magazine whose “reverse round” follower positions the first cartridge on the left side (in right-hand guns), a reverse of the normal arrangement intended to aid hurried reloading. Even in the biggest magnums, magazine capacity is four rounds.
Allen’s stock design conforms to traditional American styling—a straight comb with gentle fluting, gradual pistol-grip radius, and slightly tapered forestock rounded at the end. Early company literature talked about a shooter’s “emotional” attachment to a fine stock, and that set the tone for Dakota’s most distinctive feature. At minimum, purchasers would get deluxe walnut, and they could upgrade to their hearts’ content. But Dakota wouldn’t sell ho-hum wood.