Sunday, August 22, 2010

Shooting Dad's Old Gun

Up here fall is fast approaching with our first hard frost last night and a couple of chevrons of geese flying overhead this afternoon. I spent the bulk of the day tidying up the garage and moving things into our small barn for the winter. After supper, my son began to pester me about going moose hunting but work duties and general exhaustion made me grimace at the thought of dealing with a moose should we be so fortunate to shoot one. Being the on call guy meant I really needed to stay somewhat close to work in case the routine emergency popped up.

"I'm just too tired," came my excuse.

"I want to go out," my son countered," how about rabbit and grouse hunting instead."

We had been meaning to explore a promising area that was recovering from a burn some ten-odd years ago and now looked like prime habitat, complete with a jeep trail that wound several miles from the highway back toward some long forgotten mining claim. A rabbit or a couple of grouse sounded good, especially since me friend Hubert had been blogging about his Italian recipes for rabbit. I quickly began to pack a few items in the jeep for a short jaunt down the road. I threw a couple of jackets in the back and a water bottle and went to choose a gun.

My usual small game weapon of choice has been the .22 rifle for a lot of years now- clean, quiet and efficient to 50 yards and maybe a bit beyond with the right shot its a proven performer for me. But I was feeling slightly melancholy as I peered into the overstuffed cabinet. As many of you may be aware, my father passed away recently and my recently roomy weapon locker now contained the family artifacts and was much fuller than usual. My son crowded in beside me to retrieve his .22 carbine and looked inside at the array of guns he isn't use to seeing.

"Why don't you take Papaw's gun?", queried my son.

"I don't know...might.", I replied. Feelings of grief began to swell up from somewhere deep inside. Looking in there at the pieces that I remembered from childhood when I first began to hunt as a kid about my son's age brought back a flood of memories- my father's "Invincible" Winchester Model 12, a Marlin saddle gun, several others and finally the Model 37 in 20 gauge. I had associated so many of these things for so long with my childhood home and my father that it seemed wrong when I began packing them for the long trip north. In his final days at the hospital he was quite explicit that I was to take the guns to Alaska to use on hunting adventures there with Evan. He had been trying to get me to take them on for several years prior whenever I visited but I always came up with one excuse or another- baggage fees, inclimate weather, guns too small for Alaska critters, and so on. But it looked like I wasn't going to get out of it anymore as his condition worsened. Finally the day came when I had to crate them up for the trip to Alaska.

So with a feeling of melancholy I reached past the .22s and rested my hand in the Model 37. An early model built sometime prior to World War II, the best we figured since these guns were produced without serial numbers, it had the distinction of being the first single shot shotgun produced with a steel frame (as opposed to ductile iron) that resulted in a single barrel gun of incredible lightness and minimal dimensions in the smaller gauges. This example had been purchased by my great grandfather and it performed farm duty and eventually went to my grandfather who also used it on farm duty. I still remember as a small child looking up from the front seat of his pickup and seeing the gun hanging there in the gun rack on the back window. The gun rode there so long the bluing wore off the bottom of the receiver near the hinge point until my Dad inherited it upon his passing and gave it an easier life. I had shot the gun a fair amount as a kid but don't remember my Dad shooting it very much- he had inherited "The Invincible" Winchester from my Great Uncle and he preferred it for everything. I only recall him messing with the 20 gauge much later in life to rid the house of woodpeckers and the occasional groundhog. The booming of the shotgun was out of place in my Dad's newly suburban home (the houses seemed to fill in the gaps). I told him that the noise would eventually piss off the peasantry to which he replied, "I don't care- the woodpeckers are tearing up MY house."

I took the gun and broke the action open- amazing that after eighty plus years the action and ejector gave a positive "click" as the gun snapped open. I tried out the partially shrouded hammer and tested the drop safety- perfect. Shouldering the gun a few times I was quite amazed- they don't make them like this anymore. Modern single barrel guns seem to be made as budget conscious as possible and are clunky to a fault, but not this thing. The trim receiver and light barrel gave this gun an airy feeling that's hard to describe- but I was well sure that I was handling an artifact from a time when gunmaking was considered an art. Any gun, regardless of price, was made of walnut and steel and meant to last generations in those days. I reached back into the cabinet and rummaged around long enough to find a partial box of Remington game loads in sixes. Heck- they probably were dated to when Nixon was in the White House but I'd give them a whirl anyway.

Still feeling a bit melancholy I rounded up my son and soon we were bouncing down the jeep trail looking for a wide spot to pull off and walk. A couple of miles in we rounded out on top of a pressure ridge that had wide firm gravelled spots in the tundra and we pulled out to start our hunt. We walked quietly up the trail looking for rabbits on the edge. Within the thick brushy areas we'd never see a rabbit but in the twilight one can frequently see them on the edges of roads and trails. A quarter mile in I spotted a rabbit some 50 yards ahead. I motioned for my son to sneak forward and take him with the rifle. He just shook his head and pointed back at me.

I checked the action to make sure I had slid one of the antique shells home and quietly made my approach. It had been a long time since I had killed anything with a shotgun so I was really quite unsure how close I'd need to get to make a decisive shot. I didn't remember what the gun was choked to (if it even says at all). At about 25 yards the hare stood on his hind legs with his ears erect- I was busted! I was sure the rabbit was going to bolt and as I shouldered the gun the snowshoe turned and took a single hop headed for the safety of the alders mere feet away.

The trim little twenty pointed like an old friend and simultaneously a magic wand. In one fluid motion of shoulder, cock and fire the hare was caught mid leap and rolled slightly up the trail in much less time than it took you to read this sentence. He kicked once and was still.
They really don't make them like this anymore.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

No Explanation Required....

This ranks up there with the "Butt Out" tool... but I'd probably try the bacon.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Perfect Practice makes Perfect- Part 2

In my previous effort I decried the declining state of field marksmanship among Americans but I feel some apologetic words are in order. One, America remains one of the last places on this spinning orb that an average man can go out and for an average weeks' wages, purchase himself a high powered rifle and cartridges and then take that rifle hunting for a large game animal with a minimal amount of government intrusion. I think that is a very good thing. Two, the declining state of riflecraft in America is notable because we have the masses out in the fields shooting game.

While I don't pretend to know many European hunters, the few that I've met in Alaska seem to be a very serious sort of rifleman indeed. A couple of Germans and an Austrian in particular were quite savvy and their guide reported them excellent marksmen and wonderful field hunters. But, I'd wager those gentlemen were the exception to the rule and a random cross section of Europeans would likely have as equally bad field marksmanship as Americans- if not worse. It seems that Europeans have many more restrictions and provisos on the purchase and shooting of high powered rifles than Americans have and the men who pursue hunting there must be very dedicated indeed. When a rifle subjects you to the level of hassle and expense the average European endures to own a smokepole, I'd wager a weekend warrior you are not.

But, take heart- the average American for a few shekels in ammunition and some spare hours of time can regain that status of marksman that our frontier heritage suggests. When we talk field shooting, we need to define what we mean and for me that means at variable targets at unknown ranges from a variety of positions. It's the positions I want to refer to today and for a more exhaustive volume I'll refer the reader to Cooper's Art of the Rifle for a detailed discussion of the various field positions (as opposed to the competitive rifle positions). A survey of hunters shows that many have simply rudimentary skills in shooting the rifle from any position but standing or benched and virtually no one uses a shooting sling of either the formal or hasty type. Indeed a quick search of shooting catalogs shows a lack of slings that are acceptable for field shooting. So here is a run down of the field positions from the least to the most stable.

Offhand- sometimes referred to as standing is simply raising the rifle and shooting it while standing erect on two feet. This is frequently used in the hunting field and almost no one does it well. It is my least favorite position because of its inherent instability- the body being a collection of bones and joints and muscles held in balance by a wonderful bio mechanical mechanism. In short the offhand shooter will notice their crosshairs wobble in all manner of directions after the briefest of moments holding the rifle on target. In the ye olde days a lot of shooting occurred from offhand but the reader will remember that shooting a black powder piece or lever action woods rifle the shooting typically occurred at very short range and frankly the meat hunters of yesteryear missed... a lot if their journals are to be believed. Standing is useful if intervening foliage is high or an animal stands suddenly from very close range (snap shooting). I'm not inclined to attempt offhand at more than 100 paces and even then if a rest is handy I'll use it. Folks tend to hold their trigger side elbow too low to the side which fails to seat the butt of the rifle in the shoulder pocket. On the African scene the PHs tote a system of shooting sticks to help the sportsman fire from offhand with tripod support since the grass tends to obscure the shot from other positions. I've played around with shooting sticks but I've found them a bother in North America since I don't employ someone to carry them for me. I carry enough stuff already.

Kneeling- reportedly the favorite of none other than Teddy Roosevelt but we must avoid the "stained glass" approach and realize that while Teddy was a conservationist and sportsman of the highest order- he was in real life a mediocre shot with terrible vision. On his African safari he typically shot from rock throwing range and still littered the bush with wounded animals. Within my realm of experience, I don't find this any more stable than offhand. Although the left elbow is supported, I don't find that its particularly useful with a shooting sling. I would only rate this useful for a sportsman attempting a quick shot under something- say low hanging tree branches or such. I believe that kneeling became standard practice within marshal environments where things shot back, shrapnel filled the air and your comrades behind you could very well be shooting over your head from standing position. As a hunting position I can honestly report to never having shot anything from kneeling and that isn't expected to change anytime soon.

Sitting- the classic position of the mountain hunter is likely my favorite and one every western hunter should practice exhaustively. With you posterior on the ground, legs spread about 90 degrees and knees bent so the thighs or shins contact the triceps you can get remarkably stable in a hurry while the elevation allows you to shoot over sagebrush and tundra alike. The position also allows for a lot of elevation adjustment making it perfect for the mountains. Pitfalls are folks trying to rest the elbows on the knees but the joint on joint contact makes for a slippery platform. Since the left elbow (assuming a right handed shooter) is resting on something solid its perfect for the shooting sling. A good shot with experience in sitting can make some remarkable shots and gives up very little to a neophyte on a benchrest. This was reportedly Jack O'Connor's favorite position and he extolled its virtues in print frequently. If I could only choose a single position to shoot from the rest of my life- this would be it.

Prone- lying flat on the stomach with the legs spread well apart, both elbows planted solidly on the ground this is the most stable of the field positions. Its pitfalls are that its slow to assume and slow to discontinue but the hunter tucked into this position can rival a benchrest with a little practice. Intervening vegetation can be a serious hindrance since any vegetation up close will obscure the target completely. Since the elbows are supported, a shooting sling can be very effectively employed and a roving hunter who carries a day pack can use this as sort of front rest for exceptional accuracy. I've used this position from rock outcroppings above arctic valleys to devastating effect and routinely shoot sub-MOA groups on targets and can ring steel gongs to well beyond 300 yards-much farther than a shot at an animal can be justified. This should be practiced every time you go to the range. The average mountain hunter may be able to employ it perhaps 1 time in 5 but most experienced hands will take a 250 yard shot prone over a 75 yard shot offhand every time.

There are a lot of other positions that have been written about but most are an adaptation of one of these four such as the "jackass" positions and frankly too numerous to discuss in detail since the pros and cons of the original position tend to apply to the "jackass" as well. Many had their origins within the military community such as the rice paddy prone or Hawkin's Fist and are of limited scope to the hunter. A hunter who rarely fires from rice paddies or from behind battlements and foxholes or the like, that they aren't worth more than a passing mention. The exception I'll make is "jackass prone" which is frequently executed when hunting from vehicles (or ATVs and snowmachines for that matter) and often seen at gravel pits and other informal shooting ranges nationwide. The common position is the hunter spread out over the hood of a vehicle with the rifle supported by both hands and both elbows firmly planted on the hood's surface. The waist is bent to accommodate the height of the vehicle and the feet are firmly planted on the ground and spread as far as possible. My only advice is to ensure that the piece's muzzle is well above the painted surface since the muzzle blast of a magnum is generally sufficient to peel paint. Don't ask how I know.

The shooting sling is a poorly understood device and while formal rifle competition has pretty much solidified what the shooting sling is, this is of little consequence to the hunter. For the hunter the sling is used to carry the rifle and then to "loop up" for extra stability whenever the position allows for the left elbow to be supported (again, right handed shooter). A study of the "hasty sling" is greatly recommended. In positions where the left elbow is not supported the sling does no good whatsoever. It amuses me greatly when in the sporting press we see some great Bwana attempting to look "professional" while looped up in a sling while standing offhand! The largest hindrance to the shooting sling is the slings themselves- a cursory look at rifle accessory catalogs have slings of every persuasion- mostly unsuitable. The shooting sling should be of an inelastic material, materials that stretch, so vogue in use today, are largely useless since its tension within the sling is the mechanism you use to promote stability. I also prefer slings be of uniform width- the "cobra" type slings are not exactly idea for the purpose. My favorite is an adjustable sling of canvas or nylon, about 1 1/4" wide with rugged swivels.


A 150 yard group from sitting without a sling- 3 and 1/8" or just slightly more than 2 MOA. Adequate for all but the smallest animals at long range.


A group fired from the same position with the same rifle and ammunition... this time with a hasty sling. 1 and 3/8" or slightly less than 1 MOA- very good shooting from a field position and just about the limits of the rifle from a benchrest. This is adequate for any field shooting you might do.

How much difference does the sling make? About 50% decrease in group size which means a 200% increase in stability. Remember the hunter's mantra: If you can get closer-get closer. If you can get more stable- get more stable. The intelligent hunter will commonly practice assuming these positions even in non range settings (with an empty piece or drill rifle if you've got one) at home several times per week. In the hunting field is not the time to be fidgeting trying to figure out a sling adjustment or which leg points which way. I'm also an advocate of living with your rifle on a frequent basis. Work the action. Practice engaging and disengaging the safety. Work the bolt. Dry fire (again with an EMPTY piece observing all directional constraints) so that the break of the trigger is well known. Incidentally, I've never known a shooter with extensive dry fire practice to develop a flinch or have a negligent discharge. I've known numerous shooters have negligent discharges by this point who seldom handle their rifle outside of hunting season. I've often heard the adage that familiarlty breeds contempt but I'm not sure it applies to rifles. Many hunters fail in the field every year simply because they aren't familiar with the basic mechanism of their rifle. An intimate familiarity with your rifle and a developed repertoire of field positions will put you at the top of your class among fellow hunters.

Good luck and good hunting!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Perfect Practice makes Perfect- Part 1

We've all heard the old adage that practice makes perfect but nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that perfect practice makes perfect and nothing else. Imperfect practice does nothing except solidify bad habits and instill a false sense of confidence in shaky abilities. Being a person interested in the shooting sports, I've noticed a few things regarding practice and some critical elements that I think we're missing very badly in the 21st century. African PHs (professional hunters) and Alaska guides share many things in common and one of them is the opinion that clients tend to overestimate their shooting ability by factor of (at least) ten. Both have gotten used to the practice of consoling a client who's shooting poorly by saying that "the light is different down (or up) here... you'll get used to it." Both have also gotten quite terrified of letting a new client shoot much past bayonet range until the client has proven himself a competent hand with a rifle and the pre-hunt ritual of "rifle zeroing" conducted under the pretense of calibrating rifle scopes after shipping is as much for checking to see if the client is "calibrated" as for the stated purpose. Sad to say but the American sportsman these days is largely a pathetic example of field marksmanship.

Why would this be? The American sportsman at the turn of the previous century was a marvel to the sporting world with good aperture sights, early scopes and smokeless ammunition. Those early adventurers to Africa and Alaska were often men who spent considerable time afield with a rifle in their hand as well as men with more than a passing interest in riflery. The reputation of the Yankee marksman soared. These days a visiting sportsman is assumed a clod until proven otherwise.

I believe one of the reasons for this radical shift in field shooting ability is the way the typical hunter approaches rifle practice. These days we tend to fixate on mechanical accuracy and I see a lot of shooters firing little bitty group after little bitty group from a shooting bench without ever checking to see what they're capable of from a field position- that is assuming they even know how to get in a field position! Unless you drag a shooting bench to the hunting field (and indeed the shooting rail in a treestand or a hotchkiss is just that) that is a form of practice that has little value beyond confirming that your scope and rifle are roughly in alignment. I actively advocate the idea that once you install a scope on a rifle, choose a load, and get the two to shoot into alignment; that you never shoot that rifle off of a bench again. Rifle ranges frequently frustrate this in that shooting from anywhere but the bench is frowned upon if not outright prohibited. Given that so many of us are now urban dwellers forced into static ranges- that may have a lot to do with our collectively abysmal field shooting.

For those of you with appropriate access to vast wilderness or exceptional real estate here is an exercise to try out with a partner and it can be great fun, Take a standard paper plate (about 8" dia.) and staple it to a cardboard box (do not give it a center or 'bullseye"-animals are not so equipped) in front of a proper backstop but avoid a well cleared shooting lane. Start with a zeroed rifle, three rounds in the magazine and empty chamber, and whatever accoutrement's you typically hunt with. For myself that means a windbreaker or rain coat and a loaded day pack but only take what you routinely carry in the field. Start with your back to the target and start jogging on the go signal away from your target and toward your partner. Your partner (his back to you from well beyond the maximum shooting line) sounds a signal at some random interval of time (about 10 seconds is a good place to start) upon which you turn, take whatever field position is appropriate for the distance and terrain and fire three rounds into the plate as fast as you can accurately place them. You can make it more challenging by having your partner sound a second signal after 10 seconds (more or less) to cease fire- after all, animals won't give you all day to make the shot! The goal is to simulate a target that appears at an unknown range with intervening vegetation under physical stress and time constraints. Sounds a little like hunting doesn't it?

After running this drill a few times in a row you'll see why the shooting bench is totally unlike anything you'll encounter in the field. I ran this a few times this morning with my son acting as my partner- on my first run, the range wound up being 130 yards (measured later via GPS) and I scored 2 of 3 hits from standing. Standing is the worst position imaginable by the way but I was forced due to a large clump of willow between me and the target that prevented even kneeling. On my second run, I fired from prone on a small rise at 180 yards. Prone is wonderful if intervening vegetation and terrain allow and I scored 3/3. My last run was stopped at 270 yards and I fired from prone position again but this time using my day pack as a rest and scored 2/3. Its amazing how much your breathing affects your accuracy (particularly prone) but its common in mountain hunting to shoot when out of breath so mountain hunters best be familiar with the phenomenon.

For those of you unaccustomed to this type of shooting, be prepared to have the old ego bruised a bit. I considered that a very good performance but from the bench I could have fired much smaller groups and fired with more accuracy. But the purpose of the exercise was to practice field shooting- not see the limits of mechanical accuracy that my rifle is capable of.

Once you get the idea you can run this scenario with endless variation but one of my favorites is an unbleached paper plate on a brown cardboard box- have your partner affix it off center to make it more realistic of hitting a kill zone on a similar colored background.

Good luck and good hunting!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Moose at Castle Rock


"Daddy, isn't that a moose?" queried my young son from our perch he had nicknamed "Castle Rocks". The Rocks were a series of abrupt rocky spires and scree jutting from the ridge face about halfway to the 3500' summit. The spires and their connecting cliffs and scree fields made a roughly continuous wall, some 1/2 mile long and 300 feet above the more gently angled lower slope that led to a wide Arctic Valley a mile across. It was easy to see how his young imagination could fill in the blanks with a buttress or two and a shallow pond at the foot could easily be a moat. For our mission this evening we couldn't have been in a better place.

We had climbed up here some two hours earlier to glass the broad valley for moose. While crossing the valley floor we noted some respectable sign that moose inhabited the valley- several tracks, a denuded spruce tree that had provided a rubbing spot for a bull's velvet, several piles of scat. In two hours of glassing methodically we hadn't seen much except a pair of hawks hunting over the valley- diving sporadically and emerging seconds later with an unknown mammal in their talons. Between glassing the ground over and over and restless fidgeting, Evan had discovered a sparse campsite with a 6' diameter shallow pit ringed by a 6" tall wall of broken rock- its purpose unclear and its age (modern or ancient) imperceptible. Humans didn't generally camp here on the exposed spaces and expanses of high tundra, preferring the friendlier river valley some mile and a half distant. A search for artifacts revealed nothing except a Great Grey Owl pellet that Evan seized with relish- his school curriculum called for finding and dissecting an owl pellet this year and this was his first find. I was impressed he could even identify an owl pellet- so much older than I think he should be.

"That's a cow, Ev- we're looking for a bull." I replied. With my subsistence tag I could shoot any antlered moose instead of relying on the sport hunts more complicated system of antler width and brow tine counts. I was hoping for a young bull; a spike or yearling before the rut. With a small family, a small bull would provide a year's worth of excellent table fare with minimum waste. It was also preferable since I was hunting in a non-motorized zone- all the meat would be carried out of here on my pack frame via the heel-toe express. One doesn't get trophy greedy when you have to haul it out by yourself.

At that magical moment in time, when all the moose's internal alarm clocks went off, they began to slowly rise from their beds and moose began to appear throughout the valley like stars appearing in the sky at dusk. We scrutinized each one, looking for the bull that we knew would be here. Seeing a large moose in some scrubby timber we launched a stalk on what I supposed to be a bull- a half mile of progress would reveal a very large cow standing near a dead alder tree. We stopped in mid descent and glassed some more. One moose after another appeared until at last I saw what I hoped. A bull had stepped out into an alpine clearing some two miles distant and through the 10x binoculars I could see his antlers clearly skylined every time he raised his great head. The hunt was on!

Evan and I quickly made a plan. I desperately wished we hadn't made a false start after the cow on the opposing drainage- we had given up the high ground advantage and we were out of time to make another ascent given the rapidly vanishing sun. What lay between us was two miles of open tundra interspersed with several drainage creeks; each a thick tangle of alder and willow- impossible to cross quietly or quickly. Up high these streams are smaller and the brush beaten low by the fierce wind, but on the valley floor these streams created small marshes and quagmires, much wider, with alders that were as impenetrable as an African boma and some 10 feet high. Evan is very new to hunting and this would be just his second stalk. I considered abandoning him here- to watch as I crossed the valley at speed; but I erased that thought quickly. He had performed to perfection in a practice stalk on a caribou just last week and we closed to 75 yards with a dozen shooting opportunities before calling it off.

As we started moving behind a screen of low bushes I felt a breeze on my face- that was one thing in our favor -at least our scent would be going the opposite way. I stopped at the first drainage course, the brush was lower than I expected and we crossed in a moment. I studied the bull through the glass- he was unalert but had been joined by a young cow in his clearing. In the rut that would have been a good thing, something to occupy his apple size brain while we snuck death upon him. But now she represented another set of ears and eyes and a nose to detect our presence. We made a steady and determined move across the valley in the failing light, the moose apparently uninterested or unaware of our movement, and arrived at our next obstacle- another drainage.

Here is the moose at about 800yards. I've circled him for you.

I studied the bull now- we had closed to something on the order of 800 yards in the last hour and a half and his antlers were now fully visible to the naked eye. The white of the bone and shredded velvet visible in the glass. I'm no great shakes at field judging moose but I guessed him in the mid 40s and very big in the body- probably a three or four year old just hitting his mating prime and we were stalking him through his harem. I desperately searched the wall of alders to the front looking for a passage and found a faint trace of a game trail. I checked the moose and the wind one more time, adjusted my daypack to keep it from snagging on the brush and with Evan eager on my heels, plunged into the brush as quietly as I could. We belly crawled and picked our way through the head high tangle as quietly as possible. I couldn't tell how far we'd go but this drainage was marshier than the previous ones and supported more robust alders and several willow thickets. Visibility was mere feet and I desperately hoped we didn't spook a lounging moose in this jungle or worse yet, a bear. After a half hour we emerged on the far side, soaked from the marsh and shivering from adrenaline.

I surveyed the landscape ahead and looked at the moose. We had 200 yards of relatively open ground to cover until we hit the next drainage and the bad news was those alders were fully 12 feet tall and the expanse was a true quagmire in a deep ravine some additional 200 yards across. The pair had been joined by another cow- this one older and they were still feeding in the clearing. I could detect a rise on the far side of the ravine and the bull was about 200 yards from the far side of the alder band. 600 yards to go and Evan was wired so tight he was practically vibrating. We took a moment and prayed for success. A mosquito bit me on the back of the hand and I gently blew it off. "A mosquito?", I asked myself. "They don't fly in the wind."

And then I noticed it. The wind had died as the sun had set behind the western mountains and we had dead calm. The bugs emerged and flew around us as we stared at the bull through the glass. This was not good.

We crossed the remaining 200 yards as quietly as time allowed- one eye on the moose and another on the terrain ahead. Whenever one of the moose would raise its head we'd freeze in place, afraid to even breathe. Evan was reasonably concealed at a scant bit over 4 feet tall and wearing a camouflage jacket; I was not so well dressed at six foot in blue jeans and a blue windbreaker. I remembered I had a brown shirt on underneath and I quietly shed the windbreaker, my bare arms becoming a buffet line for the bugs. We stopped at the wall of brush on the ravine edge a little over 400 yards from the bull.

This is where most stalks get tricky and this one was no exception. I was pretty sure the younger cow had spotted us because she looked in our direction every few minutes. I looked hard at the bull and eyed the ravine nervously- no way I could cross that 200 yards of green hell and not spook the moose. I might as well have played a trombone or fired a revolver in the air for all the noise I'd make getting through there. I only had about 15 minutes of useful light left and we were quickly running out of options. I looked at my son, still hanging tough for a nine year old, and then at my watch, 11:50pm. We had been stalking this bull for nearly three hours.
\I was sitting there pondering the "what to do of it" when I knew we were in trouble. A slightest breeze started cooling the heavy perspiration on the back of my neck. Mountain hunting often sees bizarre, swirling wind currents and this was pretty common. As the sun set and the earth cooled that all-day steady easterly breeze was replaced by doldrums and as the earth radiated its warmth away further the cooling, contracting air of the mountains began to pull the air westerly.

Right toward our bull.

We were about to be busted and when our scent reached the already skittish cow I was pretty positive she'd vacate and take the bull with her. I contemplated the unthinkable, shed the daypack and pushed it in front of me. I slowly assumed the prone position, flipped up the lens caps and chambered a round as quietly as the mechanism would allow. Firing a 180 grain bullet from my 300 magnum with a 200 yard zero I would be about 20 inches low at 400 yards. The bull was 400 yards, right? I looked through the crosshairs and held the horizontal wire right on his backline, estimating that the round would drop into the realm of his vitals. Evan was now lying down with his fingers in his ears waiting on the shot and holding his breath, he wanted this bull so bad he could taste backstraps for breakfast. I watched the bull react through the scope as our scent filtered through the brush and reached his nostrils.

His head snapped upright and he looked straight at me while broadside, suddenly aware that the meat-eaters had come calling. I could see his gears turning and his flanks rippling, this was going to be over in a couple of seconds one way or the other as I slipped the safety off and took up slack on the trigger.

"What the hell was I doing?", my mind raged. "You don't shoot past 300 yards."

The bull was wonderfully large in the 4x scope and I was confident from years of practice at extended ranges. The classic "angel and devil scenario" was being played out inside my head at high speed. If the wind hadn't shifted he would have likely fed closer allowing a solid 200-250 yard shot. If we hadn't wasted time stalking a cow we'd have come in on this old boy from above and hammered before he knew we where there. If I had been alone instead of taking the kid with me I could have made better time... If I had a rangefinder...If....

I would love to tell my readers that I made a single, stunning shot and anchored that bull in the clearing. But that's not what happened. I'll leave the lie telling to the paid gunwriters, they apparently need the money more than I do. A last light shot, at long range, at a good size bull, surrounded by heavy brush while escorting a nine year old? Not hardly smart. Discretion became the better part of valor and I put the safety on and rolled over on my back- exhausted from hours of stalking this grand animal. As the adrenaline drained from my system, my legs turned to rubber and I dug through the pack to retrieve my canteen and eat a handful of blueberries I hadn't noticed I was lying in. I couldn't imagine how awful the feeling would have been to be stumbling around up there in that brush, in the dark, with a single LED headlamp. Looking for a wounded bull with one of my bullets in its guts; explaining to my child how Dad had rightly lost his mind for a minute and shot at a set of horns.

I felt better as we sat there and the sky turned its last stages of orange and pink from the setting sun. We talked a little about ethics and hunting and what it means to kill responsibly. Why Daddy hadn't start banging away like an artillery barrage over a set of antlers that nobody ate.

What it means to hunt.

What it means to love what you're about to kill.

What it means to give your quarry a good death.

Not some abstract lesson from a book or a lecture from a teacher about doing the right thing. But something played out in the wilderness, written in sweat and wind and tension and oddly enough disappointment. A lesson for my son to carry through life about what it means to tell yourself, "No". It had been a long day as we shouldered our packs to start the long hike back to the Jeep in the dark, our feeble lamp lighting our way.

"This was the best hunting trip ever Dad.", remarked my son, "Do you think that bull will stay here so we can try again?"

"I'm betting he will, the season has just begun." I replied as we wound our way down the far side of the ridge. "I'm betting he will..."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Living with the WSM...




It's been a long while since I've had the opportunity to post very much thanks to work and a family crisis down south but since hunting season is nigh upon us I've had the chance to do some range work with one of my rifles that I'll tell you about.

When you mention the .300 WSM you generally get a couple of reactions from shottists and hunters alike. One camp will talk about how fast you can shoot with such a little bitty cartridge and how its a .300 Winchester Magnum stuffed into a .308 action and when you shoot one rainbows and skittles burst from the ejection port. Well, frankly its not all that but more on that later. The opposing camp will talk about how this ridiculous cartridge is doomed for failure and instant obscurity, how it's little better than an '06 and how you can't buy ammo and.... well you get the point. Truth is that neither camp has likely spent a whole lot of trigger time (three rounds at the range with a casual acquaintance's isn't enough) with a real live living breathing specimen. I wound up with one of these quite by accident and here's how it happened.

The Rifle-

Honestly the rifle was something I really wanted regardless of cartridge and I more or less talked myself into the WSM round based on the rifle's merits alone. I justified the cartridge precisely because it was wedged ballistically right between the .300 Winchester Magnum and the .30-06- two cartridges with very good pedigrees that I've had significant experience with in the past. The rifle is a Nosler 48 Sporter and its a hard core hunting rifle. Fiberglass stock, Cera-Kote finish, Blackburn bottom metal, tack driving accuracy. Yep- its all that. It's also a push feed chambered for a cartridge that's essentially a shortened .404 Jeffery, for those of you inclined to pay attention to such things. Did I mention this short cartridge is also loaded to the gills with gunpowder and factory rounds push the very edge of SAAMI pressure limits? More on that later.

The good....
The rifle does shoot as good as they say and I've shot MOA groups with boring regularity using Nosler's ammunition as well as Federal "blue box" for half the price. Its also a surprisingly light and "huntable" rifle with great field manners at a spartan 7.5 pounds wearing a Leupold 4x scope and nylon sling. I've appreciated the weatherproof coating while chasing caribou in the rain and the trigger is something akin to 3 pounds of blessing. If you pick up any number of gun rags you can read glowing reports about these to your heart's content because since their introduction they've been the subject of numerous reviews. I've had mine since introduction and managed to hunt with it quite a lot over the last three years so I've formed a pretty good opinion of it.

The not-so-good...
Despite the fact the rifle is built from first rate components there are a few items that I find wanting after living with the rifle for a bit. First of all is the bolt handle- the thing is knurled like a rasp all the way around and angled backwards slightly. That apparently is to get the angle just right to cause the maximum damage after contacting your trigger finger knuckle during recoil (more on that later...). The safety is a good design but I rather prefer the M70 type flag safety over the "Remington Switch" riding on the starboard side of the rear receiver ring. At least in the three position style the bolt locks in the rear most position. A word is in order on the coating- I've seen similar ceramic based coatings being advertised on rifles regularly these days but this one is kind of disappointing. It works well enough until you bump it against something; say a rock or a pack frame during the course of your hunting. This entirely weatherproof wonder finish is pretty prone to chipping on contact with anything harder than fifth grade math. Mine has a series of chips and dings up and down the barrel from just two seasons in the field. Good news is the a recoat of the same material is commonly available at the local gunsmith and its quite reasonable to apply. Of the things I don't like lastly is the price... (not that price is of any great concern with an item that should last generations) but these things are not cheap. They're not even moderate. I hate to portray any kind of buyer's remorse but I'd think long and hard before doing this again, truthfully I've spent less and been happier with a rifle that's inferior to this thing in every respect. I want to believe that every word of the ad copy is true- rifle cranks are like that. While they are a great rifle (don't get me wrong, a fabulous piece of equipment) I don't think they're worth the considerable freight they command. That can be said of many things these days so I am aware it could just be my age showing.

The Cartridge-
The .300 WSM has been out for a good while now and despite the initial pessimism from a certain element of the firearm enthusiasts crowd about the imminent demise of the round, it's still around. The round was introduced with a great deal of hoopla. Winchester (reading their usual playbook) generated a lot of fanfare and rated the cartridge at 3050fps with a 180gr bullet initially; matching (and in some cases slightly exceeding) the .300 Winchester Magnum. I'd bet darn few .300WSM rifles ever zip one that fast out of the barrel though. Shooting mine over a chronograph yields 2900 fps and a little bit of change. It's quite likely that factory ballistics were taken with a 26" pressure barrel, never mind a 26" barrel on a short action rifle makes about as much sense as lipstick on a hog. Most WSM chambered rifles will come with 22-24" barrels and never get close to the 3000 fps mark. When you lighten the payload to 150gr. bullets though, the story changes a bit and with the lighter slugs you can match the velocity of a .300 Win Mag. with relative ease in a shorter barrelled rifle. With bullets heavier than 180 grains the longer bullet starts crowding powder space and performance lags well behind what the bigger case .300s are capable of.

What does this mean to the hunter? Well for one, I think bullets lighter than 180gr. make no sense in a magnum rifle at all. All but the toughest 150gr. bullets become bombs at those high velocities and while they will fly slightly flatter initially, the lighter slug loses velocity quicker and for true long range work is inferior to the 180gr. The 180s at 2900fps make a very effective load but then again the same bullet in a .30-06 makes just as good a load. With judicious hand loading or "light magnum" ammunition you can get 180s perilously close to what the .300WSM shoots out of the '06. I'll leave it to your Google prowess and reloading manual perusing to check it out.

I guess a better question is why do you need to. The '06 and its kin have proven they have the right stuff to kill game to 300 yards since Theodore Roosevelt and Stuart Edward White. Its smaller cousin the .308 Winchester is virtually indistinguishable from it in the hunting field and both of those rounds do well in barrels as short as 20 inches. The .300 WSM will generate more velocity than the '06 but the shorter, lighter action is the draw and a three shot magazine is the drawback. Another issue is recoil- short actions, light barrels and featherweight stocks shooting heavier bullets at high velocity equal R-E-C-O-I-L and lots of that too. I've shot a fair bit in my life and a fair bit with heavy guns but the lightweight magnums have something special in that department. In all seriousness- I take one look at mine and visions of Dall Sheep dance in my head. That kind of hunting is carrying a rifle for two weeks and firing it a single time.

There are some other significant problems with shooting bullets at high velocity in cases that are smaller and that is pressure- lots of it. The cartridge is rated at 65,000 psi which is right where the SAAMI limit is and where Weatherby loads most of their cartridges at too. I've had several types of factory ammo exhibit stiff bolt lift, cratered primer pockets and wonder of wonders a stuck case. I managed to remove the case without too much hassle but the fact I had been bear hunting with the rounds earlier in the week didn't leave me much confidence in the rifle or the cartridge for a while.

As a consequence I believe most manufacturers are going to start downgrading the velocities a bit and back off on the pressure. While the rounds I'm shooting now are slightly cooler than those first ones, the accuracy is certainly first rate and my confidence in the rifle's functioning is growing back ever so slowly. There are no flies on the reputation of a 180gr Partition at 2900fps for killing almost anything, but its not what was promised in the beginning.

So there you have it- a beautiful, accurate rifle tailor made for Alaskan hunting that sells for what a good used car used too. One that fires a ponderous cartridge that's under performing and effective at the same time. But boy does it shoot and it packs in the mountains like a dream come true. I guess I'll use it a while longer.