John Mattera


John Mattera

718 825 6201

Dakota Model 76

There is a time proven adage that says: “You can judge a man by the company he keeps.”  For we are judged in this world by our friends, by who we hold dear, and those who seek our company in a good way—this can tell so much about who we are.

Time spent afield is the grandest of days for the truehearted among us; it is so much better spent with good friends enjoying good times.  If we add to that equation good rifles, our time in the field becomes further celebrated, for life is too short to shoot rifles without character.

In my time, I have had the superb opportunity to hunt in some very good company.  I have also hunted with some rifles that were legend long before I was born, owned and hunted by the most famous hunters before us.  But in truth, a rifle does not have to be expensive nor world-renowned to be a time-honored friend and faithful companion.  About my only criteria for such is that it fits well, shoots straight, and has enough umph for whatever might be on the menu—these are the basic ingredients for success and memorable times.

On a safari to Zimbabwe in early season, it was my great pleasure to hunt with a couple of good friends and with a great safari outfitter; also to carry a true modern classic afield.  It was my hope that someday this rifle would to stand the test of time.

My hunting companions knew a thing or two about good rifles as well.  Duke McCaa, owner of Gulf Breeze firearms, is without a doubt the world’s most authoritative guru on Dakota rifles outside of the company proper.  The reason is simple: Duke custom-builds and sells more Dakota rifles than anyone else—the man knows his Dakota rifles.

My third travel companion was Carlos Martinez of Dakota, who rounded out our trio as we met up at Zambezi Hunters Safari’s Mahayana Zimbabwe camp.

My rifle was a brand-new Dakota model 76 in .404 Jeffery.  A year before, Duke and I designed it on paper, called to Carlos to get the gears in motion, and then the project was handed over to (INSERT NAME HERE) to oversee the building project.

Rifles that come to shooters south from Sturgis are the zenith of style and performance.  I am somewhat reluctant to admit that I own more than my fair share of Dakotas.  But not an indictment of favoritism; it is just that the rifle is so well made I am inclined to hunt with them often.

Built on one of the finest actions manufactured in the world today, the Dakota model 76 brings the proven features of both the ’98 Mauser and pre-64 Winchester model 70 into the twenty-first century.

My new Dakota was the Safari Model, the medium robust of the model 76 line—lighter than the African model and heavier than the Classic.  For my money, it was the perfect platform for a modern, dangerous-game hunting rifle.  I carry the rifle more than I shoot it, so, I chose to forgo the extra weight, but she is heavy enough at nine pounds to handle the authoritative recoil of hunting dangerous game.

I chose the caliber with great enthusiasm; I have been a long fan of the .404 Jeffrey cartridge and hunted with it quite often in the past.   I often hunt with rifles a hundred years or so old, but now teaming it up with this modern classic made for great expectations.  So, I picked a cartridge that has been putting game in the salt shed for more than a century.   The .404 is a medium-large game collector and has been a caliber of the chosen professional for that whole century past, used by more African game wardens and the favored turn-bolt cartridge of the rank and file hunters of dangerous game above all other 40 caliber rifles of the day.

The .404 Jeffery was well received in its day and well used on the Dark Continent in the heyday of African safari; performance of the .404 is similar to other mid-forty African dangerous game cartridges with less felt recoil.

The cartridge designed for the magazine-fed rifle up to the task of hunting and stopping dangerous game was developed in 1905, and was the ballistic equivalent to the proven .450/400 double gun cartridge of the day. The .404 pushes a .423 projectile through a .424 diameter bore at that magic velocity of 2150 feet per second, a time-honored and proven recipe for success; too fast or too slow and problems arise, but send a 400 or 450-grain projectile out at that magic velocity band and it is a winner.

My rifle action, along with a 23-inch barrel and all metal surfaces, were coated in an old-time rust-blue finish and sported the serial number 404NITRO.  How cool?

I am old school and I love wood, especially on the rifles I take to Africa.  So, Duke picked out a spectacular piece of Turkish walnut for the craftsmen at Dakota to work their magic.  It came out beautiful, Fleur-de-Lis checkering over awe-inspiring deep grains.

My rifle, as with all Dakota rifles that leave the factory, are broken in and then test-fired before they ever see the light of day.  Real shooters, with factory ammo, nothing leaves South Dakota without a sub-MOA endorsement.

When I asked how it came out (INSERT NAME HERE) gave me a wink and a nod – I took that to mean “good things…”

Range Day one with the Dakota rifle was great from the get-go.  I topped the rifle with a Swarovski ZI-6 1-6 dangerous-game scope with a lighted reticle sent from EuroOptics, added Talley mounts, and I was in business.

Hefting the Dakota to my shoulder, I rolled the bolt in my hand and I could not help be impressed by how she felt as I worked the action and took in her line. The workmanship was unsurpassed – there is just something elegant about a well-made bolt-action rifle.

Smooth!  Was good enough a description as any.

It was obvious that this rifle was built for a rifleman.

For my whole life there are few things that I aspired to with more enthusiasm than to attain the rank of “Rifleman.”  I always felt that if I could achieve that goal, most situations that rise in the field would work themselves out.  But being a Rifleman is not a casual commitment—it is a lifetime of learning.

For a Rifleman is a man who can consistently hit what he can see from a variety of field positions at a variety of ranges.  To be a “Rifleman” is to be an ethical, safe, and efficient hunter.  It is not a badge that you wear on your sleeve; it is a knowledge you keep tucked away, rarely talked about, just emphasized each and every time you press the trigger.

It is always a work in progress, for if I ever become satisfied with my shooting skills, I know it will be time to take up a new hobby.

On the range, the first thing I did was run a dry patch through the bore, then I slipped in a couple of Swift .404 A-Frames into the chamber, leveled off with a paper target out at 50 yards, and printed a very respectable four-shot group.  Next, I moved to 100 yards and was again pleased with the results of four shots right up against each other.  A few clicks up and to the left, and I was in business.

There are many theories on zeroing a dangerous-game rifle, but I like the 50 yard zero that places my rounds well within minute-of-buffalo-heart accuracy for any distance that I might happen across a big old buff at ethical shooting ranges.

All range days should be this easy, and I was happy to be off the bench and into field positions.  For shooting dangerous game calibers off of a bench can hurt, and doing so too often can let any number of shooter- induced maladies creep into your performance.  It was up off hand and on sticks as I put another 100-plus rounds through the Dakota over the next three weeks to get a feel for the big gun and see if there were any hiccups.  But all was wonderful in our little corner of the grid-square; so, the next stop was Africa!

We were hunting elephant; Duke, Carlos, and I were led by our PHs Winston Taylor and Peter Creighton, along with our number-one tracker Tsongora, and our official government game scout.

During the course of our trophy ele hunt, a tuskless cow was also on the quota, and Carlos was looking to fill that tag.

If you ask any learned hunter what he dreads the most in the way of Africa’s most dangerous animal, opinions will vary wide and far.  Lions, leopards, and buff all drive fear in the heart of man.

They can all kill you quickly and without a second thought; most will do so with a smile on their faces.

I’ve been up close to them all; for my money, the most dangerous animal I have ever consistently crossed would have to be a cow elephant, especially a tuskless cow.  They just seem to have a chip on their shoulder, at least the ones that I have met.   “MEAN” is about the most apt description.  Maybe it’s a deep-seated feeling of genetic inferiority, or some other mental ambiguity.  They seem to be forever stressed and ill-mannered.  So, it was with these thoughts in mind that I accompanied my two faithful companions and our PH Peter Creighton into the bush.

The day started grand enough, a bit on the hot side, but nothing oppressive.  Soon, we came upon a nice-sized herd of elephants.  So far, this hunt did not even warrant conversation, as the big bulls remained elusive, but the fun was about to start.  Peter and Carlos decided to fill the tuskless chit and take one.

Unbeknown to us, there was another herd of another forty or so elephants just within rifle shot of the herd that we were tracking.

Peter spotted a big old cow; so, he and Carlos, along with the two trackers, went off in pursuit, leaving Duke, myself, and the game scout up on this little rock promontory that was about to get renamed for all time.

While the faithful hunters were off on their stalk, it became evident to Duke and I that we were being surrounded as a mix of cows, young bulls, and a few calves, as they were making their way up our little escarpment looking for an afternoon meal.

In my travels, I have learned to be very wary of certain sounds that spell danger.  The clank of an AK-47 as a 7.62×39 round chunks into the chamber is high on my list.

I have a lifelong fear of AK-wielding persons for many reasons, the simplest of which is that I have never seen one who fully understands the weapon. Therefore, it can be dangerous to friend and foe alike.

Obviously, our game scout was nervous enough by our surrounding situation to chamber a round in defense.

My response was to take a step behind him.  His immediate reaction was to step behind me; I guess he heard the Bwana stories!

Again I stepped backwards and again he shuffled behind in our dance.

Now I had multiple adversaries to deal with, and he just became one of them!

Then, that rifle shot sounded—the one that let the other elephants within gunshot range know we were there!  Followed by the PH’s back-up shot and then two more – rifle shots amid a few high-pitched whines of a dying elephant.

Now it was game on; there was a big, old matriarch in the herd who took great exception to Carlos’s shot, and in her rage let that sentiment be known in the destruction of more than a few innocent trees.

For the next 45 minutes, we were hunted.  I firmly believe the only thing that separated us from tragedy was the swirling wind.

Over the trees I could see a dozen trunks in the air, all doing their periscope impersonation trying to get our wind, all driven on by that mad old matriarch and her terrible temper-tantrum.  They knew we were there, but could not locate us.

Someone once asked me what my favorite gun was.

My answer was simple: the one I had in my hands when I needed it.

This was one of those times.  I can’t say that I’ve never been more scared.

I just could not remember when!

That big Dakota was a reassuring friend as those tense minutes ticked away.

But further stress arose as I felt down for my culling belt and counted the rounds that hung at my waist.

I can attest that there is no worse feeling than running out of bullets in a gunfight, and there was little doubt that the chances to get into one were pretty high.

As we sat on this rock pile, concealed by a few small trees, and held our breaths, not uttering a sound, I started thinking about how badly I wanted to go home.

Ever so slowly, the other elephants began to wander off in small groups. Only the old matriarch and an audience of two or three followers remained loyal to her vocal pleas.  Then, she too drifted off and we let off a collective sigh of relief.

We christened our little mound “Last Stand Rock;” the name fit, for if we were found, it would forever be known as “Bloody Rock Ridge.”

As for my Dakota .404 and I, we became fast friends.  In fourteen days, I never fired a shot, as the elusive bull of my dreams remained as such. But she was my favorite rifle that day, and has since won a place in my heart.  She looks good, shoots straight, and faced the Charge of the elephant without falter.

I wish I had been that brave!

Carlos Martinez and Duke McCaa with Carlos’ fallen tusk less, Both are carrying Dakota model 76’s in 400 H&H

In a more sedate moment on the same ridge, everyone in the village turned out for the rewards of the hunt.  When the cutting was done the only thing that was left was the depression where the elephant had fallen.

A sight to stall the heart of any elephant hunter – a big ele track with a well-worn down heel.  Unfortunately this was all we saw of the old monarch.

 You have to be in elephant country- a grand old baobab tree

a group of mixed cheeky elephants, these guys were more a bluff than angry.

The amazing lines of my 404 NITRO aka “Jeffery” is the perfect example of “Beauty and the Beast” in one trim rifle.