This is a story about a particular rifle that has truly stood the test of time over a period of half a century, accounting for many excellent trophies on numerous safaris in several different countries over that period of time. No, it’s not a custom masterpiece costing many thousands of dollars; it is an “off-the-shelf” Remington Model 721 in .30-’06 Sprg.
I will endeavor to relate here some of the highlights of the performance of this very ordinary, but, in my mind, unique rifle that was used on safari for a period of more than 50 years. To tell the entire story of all its successes would fill a book.
The first time I saw this rifle was at the customs desk in the Nairobi airport in 1953. It was one of the firearms to be used on a six-week safari booked by a Mexican client and his son who were part of a large, influential family by the name of Longoria hailing from the Laredo area just south of the border. The father, Chito, and his son, Chitito, hoped to collect between them the Big Five, plus a comprehensive bag of East African antelope.
Other guns they had shipped included two Winchester 12-ga. pump shotguns and two Remington pump-action .22s. The clients planned on hiring two double rifles in .470 Nitro Express from the outfitters, Ker & Downey Safaris, for the dangerous game—elephant, rhino and buffalo. While handling the guns when clearing customs, I noted that all the guns had seen considerable usage, but appeared to be in good condition. Someone had tried their hand at checkering the pistol grip and fore-end of the Model 721, and a shotgun-style recoil pad had been fitted. I noted with satisfaction that a good quality 4X Redfield scope had been mounted using sturdy Weaver-style mounts and rings.
To say that Remington’s Model 721 was plain is an understatement. It was very basic, with a stamped steel trigger guard integral with a fixed magazine cover plate; even the safety catch was a stamping. The trigger mechanism, which exhibited a crisp single-stage pull, was also made from stampings. The Model 721 had a tubular receiver, recessed bolt face, button-rifled barrel and the “three-rings-of-steel” breech design.
This was a simple production rifle that proved to be good value and utility for those hunters who wanted an accurate and reliable gun without paying a fortune for it. The Model 721 and the short-action version, called the Model 722, were introduced in 1948 and saw production through 1962, when Remington’s extremely popular Model 700, based on the Model 721’s proven design, took its place. During its time, I imagine many hunters and shooters discovered, as I did, that the Model 721 was one of the most accurate mass-produced centerfire rifles of its time, and in the early 1950s it sold for less than $90.
I was intrigued, as I had seen one of these Remington “economy” rifles in .30-’06 on a previous safari with Robert Ruark. Bob brought one on his first Horn of the Hunter safari, and in spite of my initial reservations, it had surprised me by performing very well. In fact Bob collected most of his plains game and a leopard with it. He continued to use it on all his subsequent safaris, and I have to say it was the one rifle with which he could shoot really well. It was very accurate with no feeding problems (I even tried chambering a cartridge with the rifle upside down with success) and a trigger pull that a very expensive custom rifle would be proud of. The only possible criticism I could make would be that it might be a little slower clearing a jam due to the fixed magazine cover plate. I wondered if the Longoria rifle I was examining would acquit itself as well.
We commenced hunting in the Tana River region of Kenya’s Northern Frontier District (NFD). We expected to collect desert antelope as the hunt progressed, but the emphasis was on elephant and possibly rhino. After sighting in the Model 721—it shot a very tight group—my impression gained from the rifle of the previous safari was being confirmed.
A couple of Hunter’s hartebeest, or “Hirola”, both one shot kills, were collected on the first day’s hunting from the stretch of barren featureless scrub bush that stretches from the Tana River to the Somali border where these most attractive antelope of the hartebeest family make their home. Two lesser kudu, one of the most beautiful of antelopes, were bagged the second day and, as the hunt for elephant progressed, a couple of good gerenuk were added to the bag. The Model 721 was proving to be extremely accurate and effective using 180-gra. Winchester Silvertips.
We followed a number of large bull elephant tracks whenever we came across them but, as is often encountered with elephant hunting, we were repeatedly disappointed by small or broken ivory. When we were finally able to locate a nice bull of about 80 pounds-per-tusk in thick bush, Chitito quickly dispatched it using a double .470 supplied by the safari company.
We moved camp from the Tana River area eastward to the great sand riverbeds, or luggas, that drain the floodwaters from the Mathews range during the rains to be absorbed and evaporated by the scorching sands of the Chalbi Desert. We again set about hunting for elephant and rhino at the same time, collecting various animals such as Grevy’s zebra, Burchell’s zebra, Beisa oryx and northern Grant’s gazelle with the Model 721.
One day while we were following a good elephant track, we disturbed a rhino. It blundered about not really knowing whether to charge us or get out of the way, but as it had a very acceptable horn, Chito took a shot, knocking him down with the first shot from the .470 and finishing him with his second barrel.
By then, we had only one more elephant to collect in the NFD before moving the safari to Tanganyika, a three-day drive. Cruising along one of the luggas one morning, we came across a huge elephant track. It was fresh, but heading toward the Mathews range, which was within the Northern National Park, the boundary somewhere in the not too far distance. We abandoned the Land Rover and followed as fast as the loose sand would allow, hoping to come upon the bull before he crossed back into the Park. We tracked as fast as we could, but in places where he had crossed rocky ground, tracking was slower. Before long, we were gratified to hear a branch break and realized we were close.
He was in some thick bush when we first caught sight of him, the tusks hidden by the foliage. Just then, he lifted his head and I caught a glimpse of a grand tusk--long and thick. Now we had to find out if he had a tusk on the other side. As we waited with bated breath, he moved and we could finally see the other one. It was shorter than the first one, but still well over a 100 lbs.
He was moving slowly toward the edge of the thick bush so we moved into position to be able to shoot as soon as he was clear. He came forward slowly and, as soon as his shoulder was visible, I whispered to Chito, “Take him!”
We set up camp in northwest Tanganyika after two full days traveling from Nairobi and immediately set about scouting the area. No other safaris had been in the vicinity for some time and our chances looked promising.
As we collected more trophies, we removed the head and cape and the carcasses were hauled into suitable trees as bait in areas where a leopard might be lurking. The smaller gazelle-sized animals and warthog were used whole while the larger animals, such as Coke’s hartebeest, topi and zebra, provided two or three baits. The Remington was kept busy.
During the next few days, a large eland bull, and an outstanding waterbuck were bagged with the .30-’06 and a good buffalo with the .470. One morning as we were routinely checking our leopard baits, one of the trackers on the back of the Land Rover drew my attention to something a long way off across an open plain. The binoculars revealed a fine male lion accompanied by two lionesses. They were walking very slowly toward a patch of bush to our left front. We decided to abandon the vehicle and go on foot toward the bush where they were heading, hoping to intercept them as they approached it.