Starting at the age of six with a Daisy BB gun, I began wreaking terror on the birds in the surrounding woods of my grandparents’ dairy farm. I received my first shotgun at 10, and my first .22 rifle at 12. Looking back, and counting up, I have been shooting rifles for—well--a long time.
Shortly after I began shooting, I discovered Robert Ruark, who wrote for many of the big outdoor magazines in the fifties and sixties, and began his series of columns that would later become one of the all time hunting classics, “The Old Man and the Boy.” I devoured everything he wrote.
Ruark wrote about all kinds of hunting, and his greatest love was hunting in Africa—going out into the bush and “walloping” an amazing variety of game—including a lot that would turn nasty in a heartbeat and attack you. His joking reference to “walloping” referred to the immense cartridges of the safaris, and what they did to the game they hit—they “walloped” them.
I now, after all these years, know what Ruark was talking about.
I just spent the afternoon testing and firing a break-action single-shot rifle from CVA (Connecticut Valley Arms—one of the biggest manufacturers of muzzleloaders and primitive rifles in the country.)
The rifle they sent me to test is the new Optima Elite—a break-action rifle that has interchangeable barrels…you can go from muzzleloader in .45 or .50 caliber to a centerfire single-shot in quick time—and the choices of calibers go from .222 and .223 through a plethora of popular calibers all the way up to the venerable old .45-70.
Since more states are expanding the definition of primitive weapons, what used to be called “muzzleloader season” is considerably more in some areas. Some states now consider a firearm “primitive” if its design, and the cartridge it fires, were in production before 1900.
Enter the CVA Optima Elite in .45-70. The cartridge is a classic, of course. It was carried by the U.S. Army in the Sharps Rolling Block carbines, saw action in the Indian wars in the last quarter of the 19th century, and fed a lot of buffalo meat to railroad men during the push to cross the continent with rails.
The designation referred to a .45 caliber bullet, pushed by 70 grains of blackpowder—a stout load back then which decisively stopped whatever it hit. The strength and popularity of the cartridge has remained strong, and many well-known rifle manufacturers chamber rifles for it today.
But whether you want this rifle to expand your seasons by allowing you to make “primitive” hunts with a single-shot centerfire cartridge, or you are such a purist only a front-stuffer will do to hunt during the primitive season, this versatile piece will answer practically all your needs.
CVA has done it right on this package—the gun I received had a premium Bergara barrel—manufactured in a region of Spain famed for producing fine fireams.
But CVA went further by contracting with Ed Shilen to oversee the design and manufacture of these barrels on most of their upper end guns. Shilen’s barrels are famed throughout the shooting world as some of the finest custom-made tubes available. With Ed Shilen, you’re getting a barrel designed by a guy with 13 world benchrest titles who has been inducted into the Benchrest Hall of Fame.
But everything about this gun is quality. I was impressed with the whole package which consisted of the Bergara barrel, on which was mounted a Bushnell 3X9 variable scope, pop-up scope caps, a contour sling, and one of the most effective and comfortable recoil pads I have ever pressed into my shoulder.
I don’t own a scope that does not have pop-up scope covers. I like being able to keep my glass covered and clean until I’m ready to shoot, and then with the push of a finger on the front, and my thumb on the back, I’m ready to shoot.
This package came with “Bushwhacker” pop-up mounts. These seemed to be of a little less expensive manufacture—the back cover doesn’t release from a button like my regular style covers. But these work, and are less intrusive on the ends of the scope—simpler made, and smaller to boot—a plus in my book, since they work well.
The scope was attached to the barrel with a type of rings and mounts new to me. Durasight’s Z-2 alloy is claimed to be 50% stronger than aluminum, yet is priced about the same.
While I’ve never been a real fan of Weaver-style mounts—a flat mounting base on which the rings holding the scope are clamped and held with a variety of screw systems—this setup intrigued me. The vertical split rings were generously proportioned, and looked strong and solid. In addition, the mounting grooves were deep, and held by Torx® screws—an increasingly popular way of securing rings to bases.
The setup looked and felt overbuilt—something I definitely like in my rings and bases. You can have the most accurate barrel ever built, and a custom scope worth the price of a small car, and if the two are not solidly mated, you have nothing except a rifle that won’t shoot well.
The sling bears a mention. Quake Industries manufactures an entire line of contour slings for long guns they call “The Claw.” The pad is of a rubber-like compound that is molded into the sling webbing, allowing about ½” of stretch—this spreads the weight of the firearm across your shoulder, greatly increasing the load bearing area, and making the rifle easier to carry. In addition, it is very non-slip. It is an innovative and comfortable design, and one I intend to use on my other rifles.
I don’t know what CVA did to invent their recoil pad on this Optima Elite—it’s called “Crush Zone™,” and that aptly describes its effectiveness. I shot near a box of Hornady LeverRevolution 325 grain .45-70 ammunition in the late afternoon wearing nothing on my upper torso but a t-shirt. The recoil from this cartridge on this seven pound rifle is fierce—I came as close to getting “scope-eye” with this one as I have in decades. And my shoulder is not bruised at all. The Crush Zone™ pad is an excellent addition to an excellent system.
I also liked the Monte Carlo-style cheekpiece hump in the Optima Elite injection-molded stock…it just seemed to fit, and my cheek nestled perfectly into place on it each time.
So after all these impressive cosmetics, how did the rifle shoot?
The picture tells the tale—once I got it tuned in and on the paper, I settled into the gun, and brought in some impressive groups. Only after finishing the session did I realize the targets had been set up at 115 yards instead of 100.
The target pictured shows two groups of three. The first had two bullet holes touching, and another landing just inside an inch. Some gun writers measure inner edge to outer edge of the two holes furthest apart—thus giving the rifle the benefit of the doubt.
I don’t like this method, however. To me, minute-of-angle means exactly that—the rifle prints all the rounds inside an inch—and this one did it exactly.
It was gratifying to turn the Bushnell scope 12 clicks to the left (each click is ¼ inch), and see the next bullet move almost exactly three inches to the left, printing two inches above the aiming point on the target. The next bullet touched that hole. The next was a flyer—probably the result of aging eyes that prefer a more powerful scope, and the fact we were shooting 15 yards further than we should have been. The group still fell well within 1 ½ inches—the CVA brochures claim custom performance without the custom price—indeed, the package delivers as promised.
What is there to say? CVA has a winner here. An interchangeably barreled rifle that will allow the dedicated hunter to hunt muzzleloader and centerfire. And a cartridge that prints thumb-sized holes in paper, travels 2050 feet per second, allows you to print three inches high at 100 yards, and prints only four inches low at 200 yards is definitely going to “wallop” a deer, or anything else you might want to sling it towards.
While he has been passed on for many years, I can’t help but think Ruark would have approved mightily of this rifle—and loved the new Hornady cartridge.