Such Guns As Dreams Are Made On

Dakota Arms doesn't build a lot of rifles and shotguns--just fine ones.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Don Allen was a pilot for Northwest Airlines and a gun nut who, in 1972, began a stock-making business in Northfield, Minnesota. As the '70s progressed, he expanded into selling walnut to other custom-stock makers and designed a stock-duplicating machine. In 1977, he and his wife, Norma, incorporated their enterprises; seven years later, they took it to Sturgis, South Dakota, where the company became Dakota Arms.

Don Allen was also a fan of the prewar Model 70 Winchester bolt action, which was produced from 1935 to 1963 and was generally regarded as the finest sporting rifle ever produced in America. But over the years, collectors had driven the prices of the guns through the roof. So why not, Allen reasoned, build an improved version of the Model 70, producing it at a price any serious shooter could afford? In collaboration with ace gunsmith Pete Grisel, Allen designed just such a rifle and called it the Dakota Model 76. It retained the Model 70's full-length extractor and wonderful, simple trigger. The stock was elegant, and the gun sold for $1,750.

The first Dakotas sold well enough that by 1992 Dakota's sales had trebled, and its 21,000-square-foot building had turned into a small factory. Today, five machinists, four polishers, five stock makers, and two checkerers turn out about 900 rifles every year. Equally important are the machines, because each Dakota rifle is produced 60 percent by CAD/CAM machine work, and 40 percent by human hands. New guns are modeled in 3-D on a computer by production manager Ward Dobler.

Though Dakota's quality constantly improved over the years, Allen and Dobler realized that the guns' accuracy needed a major boost, so they switched from conventional bedding to pillar bedding and turned for their barrels to Lothar Walther, a German maker whose quality control is top-notch. As a result, Dakotas will now shoot as well as anything you can get.

Today's Lineup
If you are looking for a Dakota, you have a choice, to put it mildly:

  • The Model 76 is the basic Dakota rifle (just about all Dakotas come with a long list of optional features, so you can have yours made very plain, very fancy, or anywhere in between). It also comes in African and Safari models with iron sights and "dropped" magazines that hold four big cartridges instead of the standard three.

  • The Traveler is a takedown model that assembles and disassembles without barrel threads (which can wear loose over time) and can be packed in a suitcase along with extra barrels of different calibers.

  • The Model 97 Hunter series is designed for the most precise shooting and utilizes a round-bottomed action. The series comprises the Long Range Hunter, the Lightweight Hunter (well under 7 pounds and, with a fiberglass stock, the least expensive of the Dakotas), and the Single Shot Varmint Hunter.

  • The Model 10 Single Shot Falling Block is a rifle boiled down to the absolute minimum, as slender as a swagger stick, and one of the most beautiful firearms produced by anyone.

  • The Double Rifle is an adaptation of Dakota's round-action side-by-side shotgun, which I will get to in the next sentence.

The Legend
In 1996, Dakota designed a round-action side-by-side shotgun called the Legend. Round actions are not new, but they are very scarce because they're difficult to manufacture. However, the round (in cross-section) receiver results in lower weight, a beautiful profile, and a truly wonderful feel in the hand. The Legend is manufactured in two grades by Ferlib of Italy and is a to-order proposition with a wide range of available options.

The Cartridges
You can get a Dakota rifle chambered for just about any standard cartridge (the most popular are the .270, .30/06, and .375 H&H;), but if you'd like something more exotic, Dakota has its own line of fat-cased magnum cartriidges, which came out in 1993. There is a 7mm, .30, .330 (actually .338), and .375 that are based on the .404 Jeffrey case; and a .450 Dakota whose ancestor is the .416 Rigby.

So Why Spend the Money?
To understand this, we have to go back to the old Model 70. It won shooters' hearts because it had beautiful lines, was dead reliable and quite accurate for its time, and was put together by people who were themselves shooters and knew what a rifle was supposed to be. Dakotas parallel this exactly. Even the plain ones are beautiful; they are dead reliable and much more accurate than the old Model 70s.

Those who buy them simply want to do their hunting with something that's made as well as it possibly can be. That's why they spend the money. As Don Allen says, "We sell to CEOs and airline pilots and truck drivers and farmers, and what they all want is a gun that's built for them-and quality."

You can reach Dakota Arms at 605-347-4686; www.dakotaarms.com.