August 24, 2015
By Brad Fitzpatrick
In 1986, gunsmith Don Allen and machinist Pete Grisel joined forces to develop a hunting rifle that combined the reliability of a controlled-round-feed design with luxury accoutrements that, until then, were largely reserved for the most expensive bolt actions from Europe's storied gun makers. This new rifle would borrow the same basic design element that made the Mauser 98 and, later, the Winchester Model 70, famous: a full-length claw extractor that bites the rim of the cartridge while feeding and retains its hold on the rim throughout the firing, extraction and ejection processes.
This design assures the cartridge will cycle properly because the claw extractor secures the cartridge throughout the entire firing sequence. Many hunters, particularly those who hunted dangerous game, wanted this level of insurance, and in 1986 it was hard to find an American rifle other than the Ruger 77 employing controlled-round feed. Winchester's Model 70, which until 1963 used the system, had dropped the full-length claw extractor in favor of a more economical push-feed design.
Allen and Grisel understood the value of controlled-round-feed rifles, and they knew hunters wanted an American-made bolt gun using the system. These hunters found what they had been looking for in Allen and Grisel's new design, the Dakota Model 76.
From the outset, Dakota rifles were built with excellent stocks from walnut blanks varying from very good to drool-worthy. The 76 features an action that looks very much like the early Model 70 design with several mechanical improvements. Unlike the original Model 70's open-cone breech, which did not fully support the case head, the Dakota bolt has a steel collet extending beyond the bolt face and locking lugs to fully surround the case head — supporting the case head in the event of a rupture. The design allows for the claw extractor system and provides an extra level of protection similar to push-feed designs.
In addition, the claw extractor on the Model 76 is wider than the Model 70 at 0.385 inches, allowing for even more bite on the surface of the rim. The 76 uses a spring-mounted ejector that protrudes from the receiver to provide positive ejection when the bolt is pulled fully to the rear, and spent casings strike the ejector blade and are sent spinning into the air with authority. Sliding the bolt forward picks up another cartridge from the magazine, the big claw bites the rim, and the process repeats.
Dakota, which is now part of the Remington Outdoor Company (Remington, Marlin, Bushmaster, Nesika, DPMS and other brands), has upgraded its factory to include the latest wire EDM and CNC machining technology. At the heart of the company, though, are the skilled gun makers who put tremendous time and effort into each rifle that comes out of its Sturgis, South Dakota, facility. Current models include the Classic, Alpine, African, Safari, PH and Traveler, among others.
Of all Don Allen's innovative design features, perhaps the most groundbreaking is his takedown rifle, the Dakota 76 Traveler, in which the barrel and fore-end can be removed with one full turn of an Allen-head "tightening" screw on the right side of the stock. Once the screw is loosened, the barrel and fore-end assembly is pulled straight forward from a sleeve in the receiver.
I have to admit to being skeptical when I read the directions. I am used to takedown rifles that use an interrupted thread design, and I'd never encountered a system this simplistic. I turned the tightening screw on my test rifle 360 degrees counterclockwise as instructed, using extreme care not to let the wrench break free and scratch the gorgeous stock, grabbed the fore-end, and pulled the two halves of the rifle apart. The whole process took less than 10 seconds.
While the Traveler's design is simple and user-friendly, the design requires a great deal of labor and skilled machining says Ward Dobler, the company's operations manager.
"Most takedown rifles use an interrupted thread system, but interrupted threads can wear out over time," says Dobler. "Don Allen worked very hard to develop the Traveler's smooth sleeve system, in which the bolt actually locks into the barrel. With the bolt closed, you don't even need the tightening screw. It's just there to hold the two halves of the rifle together when you're cycling the action."
On the left side of the rifle there's another Allen-head screw that acts as a mechanical wedge to release the receiver from the barrel, but this screw is really just a safety mechanism to help separate the barrel and receiver if they don't easily come apart.
"The left side screw is really a safety system," Dobler says. "If you put the gun in a safe, oil can lacquer-up over time, and that can cause the barrel sleeve to seize. The left-side screw offers you the leverage you need to separate the two halves of the gun."
Unlike the right-side tightening screw, the safety screw on the left side is turned in a clockwise direction. In the event you need the leverage to disassemble the gun, the left screw helps remove the barrel, but the directions provided with the rifle instruct the user to ignore that screw altogether unless the barrel assembly is jammed in place.
And don't get the idea these two screws are obtrusive or ugly. They are recessed slightly into the stock, their black coloration helps them blend into the figure and flame of the walnut, and the fit and finish is excellent.
The advantage to this system, aside from the obvious ability to break down your gun for easy transport, is the Dakota system allows you to have one rifle that fires two different cartridges within the same family.
The Model 76 Traveler is available in three grades — Classic, Safari and African — but because of variations in the physical dimensions of the fore ends you can't mix and match sets. That means if you want a .458 Lott African your other barrel will also have to be an African Grade regardless of caliber so the action and fore-end mate correctly.
According to Dobler, the most common pairing is the .300 H&H and .375 H&H, but there are many cartridge options available, including pairings from Dakota's own line of proprietary cartridges.
All Model 76 rifles are pillar-bedded, but those chambered for heavyweight calibers (.416 and up) and all of the African Grade rifles and barrel sets receive Devcon bedding. Devcon is considered by many gunsmiths to be the most effective bedding compound available.
When I'm testing guns for RifleShooter I usually head to the local public range, but I decided not to do that with the Traveler. In part, I knew it would draw a crowd to my bench and everyone would want to handle this elegant and expensive rifle that had been entrusted to my care. Additionally, this test would take longer than most range sessions because I was not only examining the rifle's accuracy but also its repeatability after disassembly/reassembly, so I took the gun to a private range where there wouldn't be any distractions.
Dakota provided me with Talley bases and 30mm rings, and I mounted a Burris Veracity 2-10x42mm on the Traveler. As you might expect with a rifle of this quality, every mechanical operation was slick and smooth. The bolt runs seamlessly through the raceway, thanks in part to Dakota's advanced wire EDM machining as well as the individual attention each of these guns receives at the factory.
The model I tested was the Traveler Classic grade, which features pillar bedding, a standard internal box magazine with floorplate release on the front of the trigger guard and no iron sights. But like all Dakota rifles, the Classic grade can be had with a wide array of options (at extra cost, of course). The bolt handle on this particular gun had been upgraded to include three-panel checkering, and it provided and extra level of grip when working the action and added to the gun's regal bearing.
The three-position safety is similar in design and function to the one you'll find on a Model 70, but there's no obvious bolt release button or lever on the left side of the receiver. Instead, the Traveler, like other Model 76 rifles, uses a swing-out lever that rotates forward 90 degrees to allow for bolt removal. When closed, this lever rests flush with the receiver.
I loaded three Hornady 180-grain Interlocks into the magazine, cycled the Traveler's action and settled down behind the Bastogne walnut stock. Accuracy with factory ammunition was excellent, as you can see in the accompanying chart. You would expect this from from a rifle of this ilk, but perhaps the most telling test was how well the rifle performed after being taken apart and reassembled.
Dakota promises you can sight in the Traveler, disassemble the gun, put it back together and expect bullets to land in the same place. To test this claim, I paused between each three shot group to take the rifle apart and reassemble it. In addition, I waited for the rifle to cool completely between shots. It's hardly fair to compare one group fired from a cool barrel with another fired from a hot one, so testing the Dakota's repeatability required an additional hour of cooling time.
I gave the barrel time to return to ambient temperature between three-shot groups, then compared the location of the groups relative to the center of the target to determine whether or not the gun was living up to its claim of repeatable accuracy. And just as Dobler said, the groups remained very close. Using the grid system on the target, I placed a black dot at what I believed to be the center of each group fired, then used the grid to compare points of impact for all three groups tested.
The Hornady Interlock loads had a repeatability measurement averaging 0.49 inch at 100 yards. As this load proved to be the most accurate in this rifle, I think it makes sense its point of impact was also closest on reassembly. The second load I tested was Winchester's 150-grain Super-X Power-Core load, which averaged right at 1.0 inch of accuracy and provided repeatability measurements of 0.72 inch. Federal's 165-grain Fusion load produced average groups of 1.21 inches and had a repeatability measurement of 0.97 inch among the groups fired. In short, the Traveler lives up to its claim regarding both accuracy and, perhaps to a lesser extent depending on your expectations, point of impact retention.
As an avid shotgunner, I love the Traveler's stock design. The straight comb helps consistently align the eye with the scope, the wrist of the stock is straighter than many other bolt actions, and the fore-end is rounded and narrows toward the ebony tip. All this gives the Traveler the feel of a fine shotgun, and it comes easily to the shoulder and points naturally.
As I mentioned, the Classic is available with lots of options, and the gun I tested had plenty: a leather buttpad; wraparound checkering; a jeweled bolt with the aforementioned three-panel checkering; ebony fore-end tip; inletted swivel; barrel band sling stud; a gold oval for adding initials; and upgraded Bastogne XXX walnut. The base price of the standard is $7,240 while the version I tested sells for $10,320 ($160 of which is the cost of the bases and rings).
So, no, it's not a rifle for everyone, but for those with the means it's a beautiful, well-built and accurate rifle that can be broken down for travel and reassembled when you get to your destination — with the assurance you're going to be quite close to your original zero. The addition of an extra barrel does, in essence, allow you to own two rifles when purchasing a Traveler combo and makes this a much more versatile firearm for the traveling hunter.
Before you roll your eyes at the price, bear in mind that, despite the cost, this is a rifle built on a blueprinted action with the finest components and requires a great deal of time and effort to produce — not a gun that slides off an assembly line. Attention to detail costs money, but if you are into luxury travel, this is your rifle of choice.