Friday, November 29, 2013

First Blood and the Ruger American Compact- Part 1

My good friend Eric came to me at work a few months ago and asked some questions about setting up a hunting rifle for his son, Isaac. I had helped Eric set up a 30-06 that spring and provided some basic shooting instruction- his 12 year old son was now looking to equip himself for pursuing big game that fall.

Of course, I was enthusiastic about the project as we reviewed several of the available models. Isaac decided on a Ruger American Compact. The compact version of the rifle came with a 12.5" length of pull and an 18" barrel, as well as a small selection of short action calibers perfect for a new shooter. His was chambered in .243 Winchester. I've often heard the .243 equally praised and scoffed as a hunting cartridge for big game hunting. The .243 was an easy adaptation of the .308 Winchester simply necked down to .243/6mm bore and is commonly viewed as a very practical round for both varmints and "small big game" and has a selection of bullets available for either purpose. The round's praise centers around light recoil that encourages good shooting and the cons center around a lack of power for suboptimal hits. Isaac, not having shot anything more substantial than an air rifle previously, wisely opted for the "less recoil=better shooting" concept.

A couple of days after picking up the rifle, Eric and Isaac dropped by the house to equip the rifle with a  scope and head out to the range. The father/ son arrangement had Isaac spending some of his hard earned "wood splitting, yard mowing" money and if he did then Eric would provide the scope. It's very easy as a hunting and shooting enthusiast to get sucked into the heady world of custom rifles, premium ammunition and European optics, but most hunters don't care nearly so much about such things and when your money comes to you at $5 an hour wielding a splitting maul and a push mower- you're doubly concerned with cost. I've received a couple of emails wanting a review of more inexpensive rifles…so to those readers, you're getting your request met.

In regard to cost the Ruger American shown through. Very similar to "budget" rifles from several other makers, it features an injection molded stock, a "trigger in a trigger" to get a decent pull without a lot of expensive hand fitting of the mechanism, and a tubular push feed action that's more forgiving in a mass production environment. My impression upon inspection of the new piece was highly favorable- they'd made every effort to produce an inexpensive rifle…but not a cheap one. I've had enough experience to know the difference and while my personal tastes and budget tend toward more esoteric pieces, there's absolutely nothing wrong with inexpensive and good enough. However, I detest "cheap" and often think they represent a false economy that fails to meet the intended need and new shooters are often handicapped right out of the gate with a cheap rifle or a cheap scope or both. On the Ruger sample the trigger broke clean and the extra tab in the center didn't bother me at all. I ran a couple of patches down the barrel to remove any manufacturing debris and was pretty impressed by the finish of the bore- something Ruger has not always excelled at in days gone by. The finish was a pretty well executed basic matte black. There were certainly no frills to be found, but no glaring flaws either.

Eric had provided a very common Nikon Prostaff 2-7x32 scope- a sensible power range for the rifle and cartridge and a set of low height Leupold Rifleman aluminum mounts for the Ruger supplied and installed Weaver type bases. The scope was clear and bright and certainly cost effective. Mounting and bore sighting the piece proved straight forward and simple and the final effect was a very well balanced and light hunting rifle that fit Isaac well. A few minutes safety instruction and we were off to the range.

Isaac has also picked up a couple of boxes of Federal "Blue Box" ammunition in the 100gr weight. Nothing fancy here but a proven performer in a lot of rifles I've had over the years for accuracy and appropriate bullet construction for big game hunting. Eric took the rifle and proceeded to fire three rounds. I was watching through the binoculars and saw a nice, tight cluster appear just a few inches from the bullseye. A couple of clicks on the turrets and the second group was centered nicely there and a mere 1.25" in diameter. Isaac took the rifle, assumed the prone position and fired a nice 2" group on the bull- a great effort for the first experience with a high powered rifle.
Several more similar groups out to 150 yards and we were all satisfied with the results. I'm pretty sure with a little better rest and possibly some different ammunition we would have no issue getting reliable sub MOA groupings with the rifle.

As far as cost goes it broke down to something like this:

Rifle: $310
Scope: $170
Mounts: $20
Ammo: $40
Sling: $20
Case: $40

Total: $600 ready to hunt.

I've got to admit that I've spent considerably more on a rifle that didn't shoot nearly this good, much less one with a scope and other required accessories. I certainly believe that we've entered a new era of firearms, optics and ammunition manufacturing- CNC machining and manufacturing has made tolerances not achievable in years gone by not only possible…but affordable. As a result we often now find very inexpensive rifles that shoot as a good (or better) as the efforts of highly skilled gunsmiths only a generation or so ago.

After a couple more practice sessions with the rifle, Isaac got a "go" for big game hunting with the piece.

More to come in "First Blood….Part 2"

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Its that holiday again. You know, the one that's wedged inconveniently between the end of hunting season and Halloween and Black Friday. Some merchants have decided to start the annual Christmas gift shopping season a little early this year and encroach upon our day of Thanksgiving. I've even heard more Christmas carols and so forth on the radio- I hope they realize that for every Christmas song played before Thanksgiving an elf drowns a baby reindeer….

All that aside- I do observe Thanksgiving. A long and laboriously prepared meal of the year's bounty, some good friends, and a lot of reflection upon the blessings we've received. A time of camaraderie and fellowship and…. thankfulness.

I do realize I have much to be thankful for. In no particular order on the outdoors front-

A safe hunting season that was injury free.

A wonderful harvest of nature's bounty- caribou, salmon, halibut, ptarmigan and grouse. My freezer runneth over- my family's meat for a year or more.

The opportunity to assist two new hunters with their first centerfire rifles and their first big game animals.

My son's first Sharp Tailed grouse.

The opportunity to teach at Becoming an Outdoors Woman to an enthusiastic group of ladies.

The camaraderie and companionship of a collection of fine outdoorsmen and women- their friendship in wild places is truly one of the things I cherish in this life.

A wonderful spouse and son who often accompany me…and aren't afraid when the work gets hard and things get messy.

And you- my readers and friends- who share this voyage through life in the wild with me and my friends and share your voyages in return.

Thank you,

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Modern Sporting Rifles…or Elmer Fudd Rants Again.

I received some email correspondence a couple of days ago asking me about my opinions on "Modern Sporting Rifles" which is apparently the new buzzword for "AR-15 type rifles".


I've largely avoided gun control related topics here and plan to continue in that vein; so don't confuse the following public response to a private email with any sort of political stance about AR15s (and related type arms), gun control, or any other Second Amendment sort of issue. The content here is purely technical. With that out of the way….

I hate them.

Yep. You read that right. Hate. Me, the lover of all things that go bang and I hate the AR15.

Let me illuminate for a moment while some of you catch your breath before you pound out a nasty gram in your email.

I have had a considerable amount of experience with the AR type rifles. Enough to understand the design, the operation, as well as shortcomings of such equipment so don't confuse my preference as one born of ignorance because it simply isn't true. While the AR is perhaps at this writing the single most popular rifle in America and is being manufactured and sold by darn near everyone. Many of those folks are pressing the AR into service in every aspect of the shooting sports and that includes hunting. If the AR was kept in the world of 3 Gun and Doomsday Preppers I probably wouldn't even bother to hammer something out, it's when they enter the hunting field that my real interest is piqued.

An acquaintance recently asked me about my favorite AR for hunting. Well, uh, none to be exact. Back in the way back when I had a nice Colt Match rifle that I used to pot groundhogs out of farm pastures with and was shooting with a buddy who had his Dad's ancient Remington 700 in 22-250. It was old and I believe the first 3-4" of rifling was simply missing, it's Weaver steel tube scope was white on one side from rubbing on the gun rack in the pickup. I wasn't shooting that great that day and had missed several when my friend offered a couple of shots with the 700. I lined up on the next available groundhog and pretty well decked him without a lot of drama. For the rest of the day we traded off shots with the rifle. Even though my Colt was among the finest such rifles available then…it was easily outdone on some oversized marmots by a battered and abused Remington. My expensive Modern Sporting Rifle was completely shown up by a $100 piece of crap with a bad barrel. I could have easily out shot him in a 3 gun match and much rather had mine in combat…but we were doing neither. We were killing groundhogs.

That made me start thinking that as a hunter I was barking up the wrong tree. I drifted from the AR to the bolt gun and never once looked back.

Fast forward twenty five years and now the AR is the darling of the shooting world and many new models are being marketed specifically to the hunter rather than the shooter. Several of the younger hunters I've talked to have expressed a lot of desire for a "Modern Sporting Rifle" to hunt with rather than Dad's old relics… I gotta wonder when any of my bolt guns achieved relic status. My son was quite enamored with one after shooting some ptarmigan this year thus equipped and every sporting goods store has seemingly devoted half the rack to them. So for the contrarian opinion- here are some of the cons for using a AR in the field.

1) Trigger. AR triggers have come a long way but they are still basically inferior to what you can get on a bolt action rifle. Most of the triggers are of the two stage military type and are a mushy, creepy, heavy sort of affair. A good AR trigger is really a terrible bolt action trigger and what most folks find acceptable on an AR would send them running for the gunsmith on a bolt action. Really good triggers cost a bunch of money in an AR and if you have a bunch of money to spend…. which brings me to point two.

2) Cost. ARs cost a lot of money. Most quality models go north of $1000 pretty quickly and for a really good grade with the aforementioned decent trigger you can about double it. For $2000 you can buy a top shelf bolt action rifle (with a good trigger as standard equipment), a really good grade scope and some ammunition to boot. In these days I've worked with a couple of younger shooters who bought low end bolt actions from Ruger and Savage and spent less than $600 on a rifle, scope, sling and some ammo…and are getting MOA accuracy from the bench and success in the bush. There is no AR on the planet that will equal either of those rifles in the hunting field for even twice their price.

3) Weight. I'm a foot hunter and spend every hunting season walking dozens (if not hundreds) of miles over rough terrain. I try to carve out the balance between durability and lightweight in all of my equipment- rifle included. The AR-10 in .308 Winchester usually weighs in at about 10-12 pounds scoped. A common .308 bolt gun will be a third less than that and it's no trick at all to get one half that. Think five pounds isn't significant? Go do it and then come back. Sitting in a tree stand all day the weight isn't an issue, at 8000' I've seriously considered burning my camp so I won't have to carry it back down the mountain.

4) Ballistics. Since we're talking about shooting real live critters, the subject of ballistics must come up. The AR-15 is most frequently found in .223 and that is arguably unsuitable for a big game rifle. Before anyone writes me and tells me I'm full of beans- I've shot big game with several cartridges, including the .223 and I consider it suitable only for very small deer at very close range and only then with good bullets- certainly a specialist's weapon. A few varieties of new cartridge for the AR-15 action are available but most don't equal the .243 Winchester in either power or range and the meager .243 has long been regarded as the minimum reasonable power level for a deer or antelope rifle. I guess I can't get my head around using the bare minimum when shooting for blood. Many indigenous peoples make marvelous use of light caliber rifles around the world, but as a sportsman I can only consider that I have a better choice they may not. Besides, indigenous hunters seldom read gun rags, shooting blogs, or spend inordinate amounts of time thinking much about it. Indigenous subsistence hunters also have substantial time and more opportunity than the typical sport hunter so passing a shot that's a bit far or not ideal isn't a big deal to them.

To get to really big game you have to step up to the AR-10 action in the .308 Winchester family of cartridges. While I do like the .308 Winchester very much and have used it extensively as well as recently started work with the 7mm-08; I can't help but think for the general run of North American big game these are really seen as the sensible minimums rather than the ideal. My own results with the .308 on a biggish caribou made me want my .300 so bad I could taste it and the results compared to my partner's .338 were simply shocking. For the woods hunter after whitetails only the AR10 is likely just fine ballistically but it is really a lot of fuss for the power level to achieve what the common 30-30 has been doing for 120 years. For the Alaskan hunter after moose and caribou with the odd grizzly bear thrown in you'll want something with more range and power than you can rationally stuff into an AR action. There are a few ARs being developed that either house or approximate the .300 Winchester Magnum, but they're even heavier and more costly than the AR-10 at this point.

5) Repeat shots are vastly overrated. If you don't do it right the first time, the second shot usually isn't any better. The ability of a fast follow up shot is usually cited as a major advantage for the autoloader but I have to wonder- with better ballistics, better trigger, better ergonomics, and not sucking wind from hauling a 12 pound rifle around…would a second shot be required? With practice a good shot with the bolt gun can reload pretty darn fast and a good shot seldom needs number two. I have shot multiple times at game but if the first one doesn't connect, number two isn't very likely to either. In my experience, the repeat shots are usually good for entertainment value at the range, making a cacophony of noise, and scads of empty brass to reload. Killing stuff? Er, not so much.

I'm certain at this point some of you have already exclaimed, "Yeah but…." and I realize that many folks take this issue well beyond the technical discussion I've presented here and I'm good with that. If toting an AR into the woods gives you a sense of freedom or is aesthetically pleasing to you- then, by all means, carry on. Several friends of mine will occasionally take to the field with one- fully realizing the handicap they've actually placed themselves under. I, for one however, would love to see the shooting community to stop presenting the "Modern Sporting Rifle" as the widespread and inevitable evolution of the hunting rifle. It just simply isn't an ideal hunting arm for the serious sportsman in my (maybe not so humble) opinion. Looking around, I count dozens of serious and accomplished hunters as my personal friends, and they almost never carry one in the field- so maybe I'm not so alone as I thought.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Random Thoughts on Melissa Bachman and the Lion

By now I've received more than a couple emails asking me what I think about Melissa Bachman and her now infamous lion posting on Twitter and the apparent ensuing hullaballoo following.

First- I don't watch television much, nothing on cable or satellite, and I am entirely unfamiliar with either her television show or her personally. I know she's been in the media after being bumped off of some survival show and frequently the target of anti-hunting groups. I have no idea about her hunting ethics or lack thereof. I generally avoid hunting television because it usually just disappoints or infuriates me. Celebrity hunters are something that admittedly confuse me.

Second- I did read some of the comments aimed at both her and at her detractors and her supporters. Gave that up pretty quickly too- a bunch of vitriol for naught. A lot more heat than light mostly and largely uncalled for.

Third- I've occasionally received the hate mail. I kinda hurts but mostly I just feel sad that somebody goes out of their way to try to piss me off. I suppose on a larger scale seeing someone publicly declare you should die painfully for doing something you love would pretty much not be fun.

Fourth- the comments I've seen, nearly in their entirety presume that the lion carcass was not eaten. In South Africa it almost certainly was…maybe not by Bachman, but someone chowed on lion and most everything else shot on the safari. "Trophy" hunting is hard to define for most hunters, I guess anti-hunters would be without reference.

The one fact I've seen little of is that of how the African model of wildlife management works. Unlike the American model- the success of the African model hinges upon the game animals having economic value. The very fact someone drops the (not inconsiderable) sum of cash to hunt lions is the ONLY reason there are even lions there to hunt in the first place. If lion hunting were illegal then the lions would surely be pushed aside by other profit making industries as a nuisance. Human farmers and ranchers have a long history of dealing with apex predators and crop depredators pretty harshly. The African model turns elephants and lions and other wildlife into a valuable resource rather than a dangerous or expensive nuisance. So rather than the local people poaching them off, they are protected and utilized as a renewable resource. The local populations utilize the meat, cash flows into rural communities without much industry and the wildlife have some serious advocates for their protection.

As much as the thought baffles me- it appears that old Simba took one for the team…without his death the entire area he lived would be devoid of wildlife and, maybe more importantly- devoid of lions.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Ballistic Chit Chat…or Anecdotal Evidence

Now that hunting season is winding down with the growing cold and failing light, I finally have some time to ponder a few of the events of the last few months. While not exactly a thorough article, I do feel it is of value to record our experiences with various cartridges and bullets. When viewed singly, they are merely anecdotal evidence- who could draw any substantial conclusion about what you could expect from cartridge or projectile from a single or even a handful of animals?

It is our shared experiences that give us a trend over time. With modern hunting, tightly controlled bag limits, and the plethora of new products hitting the shelves (as well as old favorites being discontinued) no one of us might actually get in enough actual shooting to really explore how bullets perform on game. In the old days we would rely on the world's great (or maybe not so great) hunters who often shot hundreds, if not more, animals in a lifetime. Often with the same rifle or with just a few loads. Modern gun and hunting writers, such as Craig Boddington, do a great deal of hunting but by virtue of their career use a plethora of different rifles and ammunition. The days of market hunting are long over and none of us will likely surpass the lifetime bags of any of those guys on a general run of game- and we probably shouldn't. The average, even very successful, North American hunter will be unlikely to get a significant amount of experience with a cartridge and load in a lifetime of shooting. Or at least enough to make a definitive statement about it's worth. A guide or PH might- but his impressions are of the shooting of clients or shooting when things go very wrong. It also supposes that a guide is terribly interested in such esoteric facts and they frequently just aren't.

So it is in this vein, that I've decided to just post some impressions of the loads and field performance I've seen this year- either that of myself or my companions. Some of the shooting I witnessed first hand, others I just helped in the butchering. Not that anyone could (or should) draw any firm conclusions from this- it is simply one more piece of anecdotal evidence to add to the greater body.

.338 Winchester Magnum/ 180gr Nosler Accubond- I saw two caribou shot with this load this year and came away impressed. The first a small bull at moderate range and the second a large bull at 300 yards. Both died instantly and no bullets were recovered. Significant was the fact both were quartering shots and the bullet penetrated a LOT of caribou- including some bone and still sailed through.

.300WSM/180 Nosler Accubond- I've used this load on more game animals in recent years with excellent results. This year's effort was a single bull at about 100 yards. Shot twice and the shooting was not very good. Bull died quickly and no bullet was recovered. This combination continues to impress after quite a few animals though.

.308 Winchester/ 150gr Remington CoreLokt- I shot a large bull at 300 yards. Although accurate, this was stretching this load's capability from a carbine in my opinion. Two broadside lung shots failed to fully penetrate- the bullets were not recovered. A third shot in the neck penetrated fully. I did find some evidence of bullet fragments in the wound channel.

.243 Winchester/ 100gr Federal Hot Cor- I saw a small cow caribou shot with this load at close range (30yds.). It was a quartering to shot and the bullet entered the neck and was recovered in the offside rear hip. I didn't weigh the bullet but it looked to have shed a fair bit of material. The cow went down in just seconds from what was probably a severed femoral artery and a lung hit. In retrospect, the smaller rifle was more capable that I gave it credit for on a quartering shot and I'd suggest the result would have been better at longer range and a better shot angle.

.300 Remington Ultra Mag/ 150gr Scirocco- easily the highest impact velocity of any round in the group. I've seen three caribou taken with this combination from 150 to 400 yds. and it is shockingly deadly- even with some marginal hits. Meat damage from hydrodynamic shock is nothing short of fearful however. I am curious how the light and fast bullet translates in a moose, but in caribou sized creatures no bullets or fragments were recovered.

.300 Winchester Magnum/ 180gr Barnes TSX- this round resulted in the death of a small moose, it's likely not representative of the expected performance as the shots were taken at extremely long range (est. 700yds). I counted 3 sets of bullet holes but the internal damage showed little expansion (most likely due to low impact speed). I wasn't doing the cutting but I'd expect that the bullets barely expanded, much less fragmented.

.300WSM/ 180gr Trophy Bonded Bearclaw- shot quartering through lung shot on a middle sized moose at 100yds. A magazine worthy, perfectly mushroomed bullet recovered under the off side hide that weighed 172.8 gr. The moose took about a dozen steps and went down for the count.

Some opinions that I've formed are such….

1. Nothing wrong with standard "cup and core" bullets like the CoreLokt and Speer Hot Cor. Be aware that high speed impact will fragment these and might not be suitable for some magnum cartridges. At moderate range, in standard cartridges they do just fine. At longer ranges these don't impress much.

2. Modern controlled expansion bullets in high speed magnums are great at longer than average range. In fact, I have to say that of all the shooting I saw this year, a lot of it was at the 300 yard mark or more and the results were pretty darn good. Much better than you could have expected 50 or even 20 years ago. I'm a real fan of the Nosler Accubond and Trophy Bonded Bearclaw bullets in the .300 class rifles.

3. Modern controlled expansion bullets rely on high impact speed to a degree to perform their best. If long range shooting is on the menu, then perhaps a softer bullet is in order- realizing that a close range opportunity will turn it into a grenade. I also think (from mine and other anecdotal evidence) that modern controlled expansion bullets are mostly a waste of time (and money) in standard velocity cartridges.

Shoot straight friends!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Hunting with the Steyr Scout…or the Redux, Redux.

Much has been said over the last 15 years in the hunting and shooting press about the Steyr Scout. One of the things I've found interesting is that the content as related to hunting with the piece is almost entirely theoretical. A lot of that has to do with the way most hunting and shooting magazines publish pieces about guns in particular. A vendor will send the magazine a sample of a particular rifle whose editor will then assign the gun to a writer who will (ostensibly) shoot the gun on a range or perhaps take it on a hunt or two and then write a piece about it. Few of the guns reviewed are the author's personal arms and most are sent back to the vendor after the shooting is done. The days of an objective gun press  are long over and most pieces get an astounding review and are usually featured in some prominent (read:expensive) advertising within the magazine.

Don't get me wrong- a truly good gun's maker can pay for ad space and it's certainly not in the financial interest of a magazine to poo on a client's product. I've no idea how much premium ad space is in a major magazine but cheap is not something that comes to mind.

Where does that leave the consumer? Well, pretty much at the mercy of friends, their own judgement, or a growing handful of guys who publish reviews of stuff on the growing blogosphere without the goal of financial renumeration. Of particular interest should be the guys who actually use a product in an actual hunting environment over a period of time. A review of a product by an amateur blogger who merely pontificates about a particular piece is no better or more valid than the pontification of a paid professional in my estimation. It takes someone who puts in the hard miles to really ferret out the good and bad. I don't frequently review products because it takes a lot of work to put in the time- a single hard hunt will often reveal gaping flaws but seldom do the real winners emerge until seasons later.

I've been an enthusiast of the Scout Concept since at least the mid nineties and followed it's production in the pages of Cooper's writings and finally culminated that in the actual purchase of a Steyr Scout. Even after my personal Scout was sold to finance my relocation to Alaska, I followed the developments and with some surprise, I was delighted when a major maker like Ruger produced a well done version of the Gunsite Scout after Cooper's passing. I acquired another Steyr from a lifelong friend and spent a lot more time shooting and hunting with it over the last couple of years. It is without hesitation that I report that I've read nearly every word published about the piece and so much of it is just theoretical gibberish we should all just dismiss much of it outright.

The first thing to realize is that the Scout concept is not a specialist's rifle. If you want something to punch small groups in paper or hunt elephant or shoot prarie dogs or clear rooms of terrorists or shoot critters at impossible distances please look elsewhere. The Scout is rightly thought of as a generalist's rifle. Something that does much acceptably but nothing perfectly. It is not a rifle that a guy can shoot off the bench a few times and get any sense of it's intrinsic design genius or flaws. It is not a rifle that you can Walter Mitty your way into appreciating by fantasizing about the impending zombie apocalypse or any other end of the world as we know it. It takes actual miles and real blood to appreciate it for what it is and for what it isn't.

Now that Ruger is producing a Scout rifle, I expect the concept to become ever more popular and I would hope not misunderstood. While the Steyr was Cooper's own project- the price tag was much too high to ever gain widespread acceptance in the marketplace. Ruger's version is much better done than the somewhat chintzy Savage effort and priced in line with middle of the road sporting arms. So much of the existing material out there is either survivalistic (it was released two years prior to Y2K and it's attendant madness) or compared to other rifles in situations clearly outside it's design (room clearing? seriously?). Even much of the press devoted to the newish Ruger Scout is from folks more interested in the martial aspects of the rifle rather than it's utilitarian qualities. I believe that 16 years association, exploring and hunting extensively in two corners of the continent give me a fairly good perspective on the concept.

So here we go:
Accuracy: the Scout is often termed an inaccurate rifle but nothing could be further form the truth. It is not a bench rest rifle and is not set up to appropriately get tiny groups from a bench. Once someone masters the precise aiming technique of using the corner of the heavy Duplex reticle, groups of about 1 MOA are entirely achievable. A hunter cannot approach or use this level of accuracy in the field so having a "more accurate" rifle is pointless. For field shooting, both of the samples I've fired would easily hit 6" targets to the limits of ethical field shooting. I've recently shot a caribou at 300 yards and hit 3 for 4 on a moving target and have hit groundhogs (a large type of marmot) back East further away than that. That's good enough.

Bipod: the Scout's bipod was often criticized back in the day as being not robust enough. I didn't understand it then and I still don't. I've never had an issue with either that I've owned under some pretty typical conditions for a hunting bipod. Heck, I can concoct a scenario in which I could break an anvil…am I likely to? No. Much of that worry comes from Gunshop Commando HQ. I also heard it criticized as being too tall. If you shoot it from a bench it is too tall. From prone on the ground it is perfectly acceptable and neither myself (5'11"), my wife (5'2") nor my son (4'10") have any issue with it. Aside from some making longish shots with it, it makes a convenient "kickstand" while you're cleaning a rifle or placing one on the ground while you attend to other tasks in the field. I think the integral bipod is one the rifle's very best features.

Weight/Length: the Scout weighs in at about 6.5 lbs and 39" long. By today's ethereal standards it is no longer a "lightweight" rifle, but back in the day it was one of the lightest production pieces available. I currently have two lighter full size rifles chambered in heavier cartridges. The lightweight coupled with short length makes the rifle "handy"- even a light rifle can be a pain when they're too long. Handy. There's no better term for it. Whether being carried in hand, on a sling, on an ATV or in a bush plane- a short rifle is easier to deal with and gets knocked around less, hung up in branches less, and overall just friendlier to deal with. This was really apparent when I tried skiing with a slung rifle. Cross country skiing is a movement heavy activity and a full size rifle was always hitting something when slung across the back. The Scout tucks in nicely behind the back and stays out of the way.

Reserve Magazine: the reserve magazine in the rifle's butt was often the point of conversation among the early survivalist crowd that initially flocked to the rifle (largely through space age aesthetics). Some loved the fact a guy could have 20 rounds on board using 10 rd magazines (no one asked 'why?') and some criticized it's location as being suboptimal for "tactical reloads" (whatever the heck that is). Having a spare 5 round mag in the butt does a few things- it balances the rifle to a more neutral position- neither butt nor muzzle heavy, it keeps an extra payload available when things don't go exactly according to plan-see my previous caribou story, and it allows a convenient place for special purpose rounds- either light loads for small game or ultra heavies for bear protection. Some early reports have the magazine falling out under recoil- a glitch certainly correctable now that I've never experienced personally after much shooting. While it is by no means one of the rifle's better features, it's a touch than I really appreciate.

Intermediate Eye Relief Scope: this is one of the features that causes folks the most heartburn and some people can't get used to it at all. It is also the one feature that people associate most closely with a "Scout Rifle". Properly done you shoot with both eyes open. If you close your non-dominant eye you miss out on the effect in large- that of having an enormous field of view. It has been criticized as not being adequate for field shooting at long range- I've proven that incorrect to myself several times with a lot of range shooting and big game hunting shots at well over 200 yards. Many dismiss the scope as suitable only at close range….that's pure poppycock. Groundhogs are not terribly large creatures and I've splattered several at ranges too embarrassing to publish. High magnification is not required for long distance shooting and I've found the .308's trajectory much more problematic at long range than lack of magnification. At typical woods ranges, I find the IER faster than irons and much more accurate in low light- having shot several whitetails in the big oak woods. For the Eastern US hunter an Aimpoint type scope might be the ultimate for using in the dark woods where ranges seldom exceed 100 yards but not a handicap if one encountered shot down a right of way or open field.

Two serious pieces of criticism I've heard from serious hunters do hold water. One, is that an IER scope is more subject to glare when backlit-particularly when the sun is low to the horizon at either dawn or dusk. That's a valid point and one that effects conventional scopes as well, just not to the same degree since the shooter's head shades the ocular lens. The field shooter will have to be aware and be ready with a hat some other object to shade that ocular lens or risk being too dazzled by the reflection to shoot. It hasn't been an issue in my hunting but it certainly could be. Two, the lack of magnification makes judging trophy animals difficult. I know a lot of guys will turn a scope up for a last minute check to determine the trophy quality or legality of an animal before pressing the trigger. The IER scope is not at all suited to that. Personally, I've already done that by the time I put the crosshairs on the animal with my binos but if a last look at a critter is important to you then an IER scope is probably not your cup of tea.

Interchangeable Butt Spacers: one of the better features on the rifle is the variable length of pull achieved by the use of interchangeable butt spacers. Quite important for a couple of reasons- for one, my whole family shoots this rifle and each of us has a preferred length of pull. It's not something I'd want to change while a critter is in sight, but it's a simple matter to change it at camp for whoever is the primary shooter of the day. Even without multiple users, being able to change L.O.P. for seasonal clothing is very convenient since in my early season I may very well be hunting in a simple t-shirt and in winter I'll have multiple layers or even a thick parka. I wish this would catch on among other manufacturers as it's very convenient. Ruger now features this on a few different models, including their Gunsite Scout, but I don't find the result terribly aesthetically pleasing and it does require tools which would make doing the job in camp kind of a drag.

Back Up Iron Sights: originally I was in love with this feature. Thinking being that you ran with the scope and if the scope failed you could easily transition to the back up sights. It's not a feature exclusively featured on Scout Rifles and the virtues of back up sights have been extolled for a century since scopes became a feature on sporting arms. In use however, their utility tapers off. Stocks are generally set for either irons or scopes. Rifles meant for scope use tend to have higher combs and irons tend to have lower ones. A comb height that works well for a scope will be too high for irons and one set for irons will be too low to get a cheek weld with a scope. In fact, the irons on my Steyr are so low that I have trouble getting my head scrunched down on the stock enough to see through them. Great idea but tough to execute on a rifle. Any rifle. It may be a moot point since rifle scopes are so darn good these days that field failures are incredibly rare in the real world. A good quality scope will take an incredible amount of abuse before failing. In fact, the last person to adjust the Leupold scope on my rifle was the Steyr factory…16 years ago.

Mechanical Complexity: if there is one thing I don't like about the Steyr it is the mechanical complexity of the action and trigger. Field stripping the bolt reveals what I've come to expect from Bavarians in general and Austrians in particular…a whole bunch of little bitty parts assembled by gnomes in a factory powered by unicorn flatulence and fairy magic. Incredibly complex assemblies for something so simple in function, it makes one wonder about the robustness of such things in the field. I've used both of mine in some challenging conditions without failure but a failure in the field is probably not repairable there. It may not be repairable on the average gunsmith's bench and very well may need a trip back to the factory or importer. It does yield some interesting features with respect to locking the bolt, an excellent safety and a very weird but excellent trigger pull. But I still wonder about its long term reliability.

Ballistic Potential: the factory Scouts are all limited to the .308 case and the .308 Winchester is the most common chambering. While the .308 is certainly no slouch in the hunting field it is often criticized as being inadequate for the beasts the Scout specifications called for- 400 kilograms (1700 pounds) at 300 yards. This encompasses a lot of critters- some I'd shoot with a .308 and some I wouldn't. The Scout is certainly not a dangerous game rifle (that's why they built the much maligned and poor selling .376 Steyr) but a moose or elk are big animals and 300 yards is a long way. Even on my 500 pound caribou the results were not dramatic enough for my taste. I would likely draw the line at 500 or so pounds at 300 yards and maybe 1000 or so at 150yds. It is interesting to think what might occur if the excellent WSM line of short magnums were used in a Scout although I admit that may be missing the point altogether. The .358 Winchester and the .338 Federal are both short actions but neither have made it into a Scout in factory form. For most folks though, the .308 and 7-08 are completely adequate for any hunting they may do.

So that's a run down of the features of the Scout but I'm really afraid that even a brief description of the features or a longer technical run down (which I've tried to avoid and can be found elsewhere) really do due diligence to the rifle. Hunting with a nice rifle has a feel that is hard to describe- a well balanced piece feels lighter, a well fitting stock puts the reticle immediately in front of the eye, handiness is only appreciated in an alder thicket. And the sum of those things can only be appreciated over time and terrain. At this juncture I am attempting to procure a Ruger Gunsite Scout and hope to do a review of it in a future piece.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Godzilla the Caribou vs. Evan and The Scout

The early caribou season had progressed slowly. We had hunted a lot, but the hot dry summer kept the bulk of the herd socked away in the high mountains- well out of our reach. Not that we didn't try, having hunted 10 days in the 2 weeks between my Coffee Cr. caribou and the beginning of this tale. We would go out frequently and always see caribou- small cows and calves, a yearling bull maybe- nothing I was going to burn my second tag on. It's not that I'm overly picky about trophy quality since I am first and foremost a table hunter, but size is also pounds. The small bull we shot in the early season was delicious but we'd eat through it by New Years.

Evan had a wonderful encounter where we had a cow and a bull calf walk straight through our area. Even though the bull calf was legal on our "Bull Caribou" tag- we passed, my Labrador retriever weighed more. We decided to let him grow up a few years before we shot at him. Evan did however decide to stalk the creatures for practice and in a show of growing independence made me stay at our lookout while he went solo up the ridge to where the pair had disappeared. After leaving me with the rifle he made his way through the brush and was soon over the summit in pursuit.

I was there enjoying the day when Evan burst over the edge running flat out. It was rather comical afterward- the look of terror on his face while he sprinted down the ridge, his feet hitting the ground about every third step. Within seconds he was back at my side panting. I was chuckling since nothing had followed his hasty retreat and he was apparently whole despite the heart rate and gasping.

"What in the world is that about?" I inquired, certain this was going to be entertaining.

"That caribou, she was going to charge me!" he replied. I was immediately doubtful since a caribou's first  and only defense is to run like heck when threatened. I've never heard of a caribou charging anything despite the fact they have the largest antlers of any deer species on earth relative to their body size. Evan went on to explain (between gasps) that he had found the pair and he crawled through the bushes to get closer. He reported that he was making his way when he looked up and was nose to nose with the cow.

"And then what happened?" I queried.

"She snorted really loud and then pee'd all over the place! She was going to charge me!" he recounted in wide eyed terror. The thought of Evan crawling right up to a caribou and then having them "discover" each other at bayonet range was hilarious. I don't know who was more scared- Evan or the cow- but they both hauled butt from the scene. I carefully explained that caribou don't really charge but if that had been a cow moose she would have stomped him into a hole in the ground. I'm betting that lesson will stick for life.

Without a shootable critter showing up to the party we headed to camp.

We met up with my friend Gary the next day and headed back to the field. Although the caribou had been scarce and few had been taken, the migration had to start sometime. I awoke with a good feeling. The autumnal equinox and the harvest moon had shown brightly the week before. It just felt like a good day to be hunting despite a lot of evidence that it shouldn't be. An overnight snow storm had left 12-18" of fresh powder on the ground which would make stalking hard but tracking easy. We only had a few days left on our early season tags and we both hoped to get a good sized animal after we both took smaller bulls earlier in the season. It was with a renewed sense of optimism that we left early that morning.

As we made our way over a small ridge in a new area we saw what we had been waiting for. Caribou. Lots of them, including some big bulls. The deep powder made the approach difficult but within a few minutes we had closed on the herd's flanks which were being guarded by a couple of big old bulls. Evan immediately named the one he wanted Godzilla. In retrospect it was probably the largest caribou he had ever seen so the name is more apt than I thought at the time. These were old animals, already pushed out of the herd by younger, stronger bulls. These old gentlemen were on their way to checking out…we decided to speed them along on the journey.

We decided to take them. We closed to a small barren rise and looked across the snow covered ground. There was no cover and no way to approach- the bulls had already spotted us. The range was nearly three hundred yards. I had been trying to get Evan on a caribou all season and set up the Scout rifle on it's integral bipod. He lined up the shot on one bull and Gary had went prone over his pack. Evan, being the most inexperienced would shoot first and then Gary would take the second animal. I was rifle-less, intending on letting Evan do the shooting and not wanting to finish the day packing two rifles if we were unsuccessful. In just a few minutes I would want my pet .300WSM.

Evan got into position. He had practiced out to 150 yards with confidence but this was twice that far. He looked through the scope and breathed and as much as I love my Scout- this was not the most ideal situation for the carbine and certainly not with a neophyte on the trigger. After a long moment's consideration and in a moment of exceptional restraint, Evan exhaled long and said, "It's just too far for me to shoot Dad. You take it."

Regardless of whether we'd score an animal or not today- this hunt was a success. For a young and eager hunter to peer through his scope at a big bull after a long and hard season and then decide to pass the shot was something I was extremely proud of. Many youth and a lot of adults get overwhelmed with their blood lust and send bullets across the tundra at impossible distances. I had coached him on the importance of knowing when to make the shot and when to pass and it was gratifying as a Dad and mentor to see that lesson sticking in the heat of the moment.

I slid behind the rifle and lined up the shot. With a scope magnification of only 2.5x- the crosshairs obscured a lot of the distant animal. I had previously shot a whitetail at 225 with the rifle so I new it would carry the distance. Even though we were spotted, we were still far enough away that the bulls just peered at us without much alarm. They would get nervous and feed up the mountain away from us and push the larger herd in front of them so we would have to conclude this pretty soon or risk them moving out of reach.

My bull was rock steady in the scope with the bipod deployed and Gary had been ready to shoot for a minute. I whispered to him- "Take yours Gary." He must have had the slack in the trigger already taken up because the punctuation on the sentence hadn't left my mouth with the big .338 boomed. The 180 grain bullet streaked across the distance in a flash and I heard the impact- a hollow thump and his bull collapsed in a heap. Even though I don't care for the .338, there is no doubting it's considerable killing power.

I looked at the remaining bull through the scope, applied pressure to the trigger and the gun rang out. My 150 grain, .308 Winchester crossed the distance much slower than Gary's magnum bullet and the impact of the shot was clearly discernible- what the German Jaegars call the kugelschlag. The bull humped up at the impact but stayed on his feet. I reloaded the rifle, lined up the crosshairs and shot again. Boom…Whap! The bull took a couple of steps in the deep snow and was making a run over the hill.

I had reloaded the rifle and applied a generous lead- Boom! I saw a geyser of snow erupt in front of the bull. I had applied to much lead and shot in front of the animal. Even though the shot didn't connect it had a desired effect in that the bull stopped, turned 180 degrees and started back across the small bowl he was in. I reloaded again and applied what I hoped to be the correct lead and pressed the trigger.


It has often been said that the two loudest noises in the shooting sports are a bang when expect a click and a click when you expect a bang. I can attest that is true and am happy to report it on the latter; the striker hitting the dud primer was so loud in my mind that I could swear it echoed off the far hills. It puzzled me briefly but I ejected the faulty round and chambered the last remaining round in the magazine. I  acquired my sight picture, briefly exhaled and executed what Cooper called a "compressed surprise break". Better known as shooting in a hurry.

The gun roared for the fourth time and the bullet sailed downrange. I clearly heard the impact and the bull turned in his track, spraying a geyser of blood as he fell into a heap. Although the elapsed time couldn't have been more than a few seconds, it felt like an eternity. We made our way to them through a snow and brush choked ravine, taking the time to scout out and stomp a good trail in the snow since we would have to ferry several loads of meat apiece back through here. We soon had the bulls in hand and set about the usual tag cutting, trophy photo taking, and butchering tool arranging that is our usual ritual.

We started on Gary's bull first, and while such things are frequently given to exaggeration, I believe I would have had a hard time rolling it over solo. A very big bodied bull with large antlers, I looked back at mine- equally large.  I was very happy the day was shaping up to be a nice one, temperature right at freezing with a warm sun and a cloudless, windless blue sky- the perfect day for both field butchering and meat care. I felt fortunate that we had got on these early in the morning because hauling both of these off the mountain on our backs the mile back to the camp would take most of the day. If this had been at dusk we would have no choice but to leave these here in the dark and start again in the morning.

Gary had placed his shot very well. The animal had been quartering away and he hit it right behind the last rib and punched his bullet clear through and out right in front of the bull's shoulder. The carcass was an impressive wreck internally and death was largely instantaneous. We moved to my bull and saw that my shooting was good but the .308 carbine's mild ballistics really showed at this range. Shots 1 and 2 had both punched cleanly though both lungs but lacked the velocity and energy to create a lot of drama and neither had resulted in an exit wound. Don't get me wrong-these wounds were clearly fatal even individually but the bull might have travelled a couple hundred yards before succumbing to the inevitable. A lot of hunters would be content with such a follow up- admittedly in 12" of fresh snow tracking the bull would be a piece of cake but I like to finish such things quickly and I'm not afraid to expend ammunition. Shot 3 was a miss and 4 a misfire but shot 5 had hit where the chest joined the neck and blown out the bull's jugular- death was extremely quick albeit a bit gory on the fresh snow for the faint of heart.

Butchering took on a leisurely pace and we took great pains in the meat care. With the gorgeous weather, difficult ground conditions and mild temperature there was simply no need to get in a hurry. To rush would only invite an injury- quite likely with sharp knives and heavy loads on uncertain terrain. By day's end we had all the meat recovered and in an unusual twist for both Gary and I, both heads saved for mounting in the vehicle. At check in Gary's bull was somewhat lighter but live weights on both bulls were estimated at 450-500 pounds which is pretty darn big for the area. They both took five trips to get off the mountain in our packs and each load weighed 60-80 pounds. Which was plenty for the steep and snow covered terrain.

At the conclusion though, the finest bulls either of us had taken or likely will for some time to come and both yielded an abundance of meat for the impending winter.