Saturday, May 9, 2015

Startling Results.... The Browning X-Bolt Stainless Stalker .270 Winchester

A few weeks ago I wandered into the big Hook and Bullet store up in Fairbanks with instructions from the wife to go get myself something that goes bang as is her habit from time to time when fiscal matters are sunny enough to allow such a purchase. Of late, my exclusive interest in shooting sports revolves exclusively around high powered hunting rifles.

I looked around at length at the rack. I'd been interested in trying something new for a while now, something smaller bore and excellent accuracy with limited recoil. A rifle meant for sheep and caribou up high, mule deer and antelope, maybe those spooky Coues deer living into the big canyons of the Southwest. I looked long and hard at found something that I'd never had before. A Browning X-Bolt. It was trim, felt good and while I've never been much of a Browning fan this one had a very interesting appeal.

My main point of contention with American rifle makers is that they seem to over build things... certain companies excel at minimizing dimensions (Kimber's petite 84M for example), but when you buy a Remington 700 in .223, the receiver diameter is the same as for the .375 H&H. Just a lot of metal you don't really need to get the job done. I know why they do it, but it still seems out of place.

The X-Bolt has an almost European sort of aesthetic... which makes sense when so much of Browning's design team is European, a relationship that goes clear back to the turn of the 20th century. The receiver is pretty trim for a long action cartridge and sit low in the stock. The stock is also pretty trim, thin in the forend with a bit of a chamfer. The safety is where you typically find it on Brownings- on the tang and there is a well thought out chamber lock disconnect on the root of the bolt handle which allows you to remove a chambered cartridge without disengaging the safety. The safety, thoughtfully, locks the bolt- a feature I like.

There are several variety of X-Bolts in different finishes and given my proclivity for mountain hunting in harsh weather- I chose the "Stainless Stalker"...and all stainless steel metal work with a polymer stock finished in what Browning calls "Duratouch". The stock just feels nice. I picked up a model in .270 Winchester. My last .270 was a very traditional blued/walnut/ quarter ribbed Ruger that was, frankly, too darn nice to pack around in the mountains. This Browning should be better in that regard.

I picked up a set of Warne "Maxima" bases and rings. The bases attach to the rifle with 4 screws (hence the 'X' in 'X-Bolt') and while you'd think it's for strength, it's not. The bolts third lug raceway runs between the mounting holes allowing a much thinner receiver ring. Very nice. A Leupold VXIII 2.5-8x36 completed the setup which came in ready to hunt at a respectable 7.6 pounds on my hanging scale. Not a true lightweight in today's market, but still a light rifle that carries, balances and shoots well.

I began the shooting chores the way I usually do. From the bench I ran a target to the 100yd berm and loaded the magazine with 4 of the very pedestrian Federal "Blue Box" 130gr loads. I tend to start with Blue Box because I've gotten outstanding results in the past in a variety of rifles and it's, well, cheap. I fired one round and saw it land on the target 4" to the left of the centerline and I made the adjustment.

The next three rounds did this...

That's a 100yd, 3 shot group that's right at .75"...the easiest rifle I've ever got shooting well and sighted in.

Given that benches aren't common out on the tundra, I did some more shooting and turned in this 7 shot group at 300yds...from sitting.

That'll do. Just fine.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Gear Nerds and Kit Tarts...Beginner's Conundrum

I will freely admit it... I'm a Gear Nerd.

I just genuinely like some of the latest and greatest products to come down the pike. I'm not very gadgety however, I just like very good versions of a very basic set of equipment that hasn't really changed much over the years. Since I'm firmly in middle youth, I've seen the rise of the cult of mountain hunting, the rise of ultralight backpacking, the rise of modern archery, and the rise of the ORV. I've also seen several rather esoteric concepts come and go over the years as well.

I'm certainly not against folks trying to make a buck or two, or kill a buck or two; but at some point this hunting things can turn on us. We can spend an enormous amount of dollars on stuff that really doesn't do much for us in the field. I know, I've got a pile of stuff that I don't have a use for anymore and if I'm honest, never really did. A lot of the marketing surrounding hunting is geared to get folks who are passionate about the chase to continue it in the off-season by spending money year round. Not really anything wrong with that per se, but it isn't maybe the best use of resources.

I had a very interesting conversation with a young man I'm starting to mentor a bit. He just got residency and is now in the process of equipping himself and has a ton of questions. I have to admit, I started hunting long ago as a kid, I was dirt poor, and there simply wasn't the plethora of options available. So much specialization has crept into the industry that just picking a very basic set of gear from the huge variety available is something of a daunting task- particularly for the neophyte who likely has little clue how such things might perform and typically doesn't have the budget to make mistakes.

So here is something of a primer on some of the most basic pieces of kit and some options.

1. Boots- if you are a Western hunter, you simply must have a good set of boots. There are more options than you'd believe possible but you only have one set of feet. I've been on multiple hunts that were ruined due to ill fitting or poorly performing boots. Spend whatever you can afford, ignore all the marketing messages and get a good stiff pair of boots the FIT YOU. If you're an Eastern whitetail guy you can largely wear whatever you please- I've killed multiple white-tails in whatever pair of sneakers were handy. Rubber boots seem to be the rage among white tail guys these days, no issue there either.

2. Rain Gear- you can spend a little or a lot, but good rain gear is a requirement in Alaska and a lot of other spots. For the budget conscious, a set of Helly Hansen Impertech is tough to beat. It doesn't breathe like Gore-Tex types but inexpensive breathable rain gear is often a disaster. For that matter, expensive breathable rain gear is often a disaster. Ignore the marketing- if your wallet is thin, Helly's. If you can spend a bit of coin, get the best mountaineering stuff you can swing.

3. Tent- the current craze is toward ephemeral shelters that maximize space and minimize weight. That's not a bad thing so long as it doesn't compromise waterproof and wind resistance, in a lot of cases- it does. You can get a perfectly serviceable tent for a couple hundred bucks (or used for much less) that will keep you dry and warm and not fold up in the first stiff breeze. I'm kind of old-school when it comes to tents so I'm unfazed by a lot of the newer designs and trends until they've been around for a while. I've seen a lot of tent designs die over the last 30 years.

4. Binoculars- if you're a Western guy, buying the best binoculars you can manage is not a bad idea. You can get perfectly serviceable binos for $300-500. If you're an Eastern whitetail guy, you might skip them altogether. Everyone waxes poetic about European Alpha glass...I do too. I may eventually buy some, but there are always other things to spend money on that seem to take precedence.

5. Backpack- every hunter should have a pack. Western guys and backpack hunters will typically have a large pack with a frame to carry camp or haul meat. Eastern hunters should still have a small daypack with necessities to take to the stand. You can spend a whopping amount on some pretty specialized packs these days with such exotica as carbon fiber frames and very lightweight fabrics. I've been bitten by the bug, but the results were mixed- I've got a collection of dead packs that didn't make the grade as a result. My favorite heavy haulers are a plain aluminum frame pack that cost $60 at an ACE Hardware store and a considerably more expensive Mystery Ranch NICE. Both of them have carried (without exaggeration) a ton of meat.

Now, just given these 5 items- the neophyte hunter can troll forums and read some of the more popular hunting magazines and come away with the idea that they need to spend at least the amount of a decent used car to get the equipment they need to be an effective hunter. Lots of energy and investment is spent on marketing to generate exactly that notion.

Pardon me folks...but that's pure, unadulterated horse poop.

Sure, good gear makes hunting more comfortable and using good grade gear is a pleasure in itself. There is a certain "pride of ownership" in shouldering a nice pack or peering through high end glass. Studying manufacturer catalogs and reading about other people's experiences online and in person can be endlessly entertaining. But that's not exactly the same thing as hunting.

I'll be the first to admit that I like some of the best equipment out there. But, don't misunderstand me at all, I'd not give up a single day in the field if I wasn't so equipped. Get the equipment you can manage and get out there and hunt. While the manufacturers and purveyors won't tell you the truth, I will.

The ONLY thing that kills critter is time in the field- and you can't buy a single additional second of it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The 7-08 Remington....or Mr. Manners Goes Shooting

I've been messing around with the 7-08 Remington now for a couple of years and have gotten enough field experience to go ahead and offer up this piece. Don't mistake this for something exhaustive, it's not; but it does offer an introductory look at what I consider one of the best balanced cartridges out there in my (not so humble) opinion.

Sometime back in 1958 or so, some enterprising fellow necked down the then new .308 Winchester and stuck a 7mm (.284") bullet in it. The idea stuck and it survived as a frequently seen wildcat in one form or another as the 7/308 until Remington decided to offer it legitimacy as the 7-08 Remington in 1980. Ballistically speaking, it is simply the very old and very good 7x57 Mauser in modern guise and the cartridges don't have enough difference in performance to even talk about. Come to think about it, it's not really much different than the .280 Remington in most factory loads and not far off the .270 Winchester either. If there's a better performing quartet of cartridges under .30 caliber, I just don't know what it is.

The 7-08 can fit into a true short action and can be built into a rifle of surprisingly moderate weight and generally does well with barrels as short as 20". The cartridge also generates a surprisingly mild recoil and is commonly touted as an idealized youth and ladies rifle and found in small carbines just like the one I outfitted my son with. I'm very good with all that, but I believe to think that it's just a good ladies and kids gun does the cartridge something of an injustice.

It's just plain good.

What the 7-08 has going for it is extremely good manners. The cartridge doesn't beat you to death with recoil. The muzzle blast isn't fearsome. The cartridge does well in short barrels and a standard 22 or 24" tube will yield great results. The cartridge also has a tendency for stellar accuracy. Stoked with the proper projectile, it might just be the ideal deer cartridge for all of N. America. Built into a true lightweight rifle, it might just be the idealized sheep gun. If you build a rifle with some heft to it, it becomes a bench gun with enviable performance.

It's really pretty sad, but I came late to the 7-08 party. If I'd have found the 7-08 back in the day, I'd likely have never owned a .308...or even an '06. I know for sure I'd have never bought a .270 if I'd arrived at the 7-08 first. That's pretty high praise indeed. I don't think it's a giant killer, certainly outclassed for moose and grizzly, but for the guy who hunts deer, caribou, hogs and black bears it's likely the only rifle you'd ever need. I'm not an elk hunter but I would go bigger, although I know a couple folks who took their elk with the 7-08 without undue drama.

If there's one drawback to the 7-08, it's that companies keep loading it with bullets that are far too tough for the mild speeds the 7-08 generates. For instance, the Federal 140g Trophy Bonded load leaves the muzzle at 2800 and at 200 yds is going along at 2300 feet per second. By the 300 yard mark it's down to 2100. That's an awfully tough bullet to expand well at 2100. I'm probably in the minority here, but at these old fashioned speeds there's simply nothing wrong with old fashioned bullets. The ancient Nosler Parttion, the soft Ballistic Tip (Hunting), the Speer Hot-Cor and Remington Core Lokt have all performed well at these speeds for decades. No need to re-invent the wheel here.

Almost everyone makes a a good rifle these days in the 7-08, including the typical carbine length rifles with shortened stocks for smaller statured folks but it doesn't stop there. Remington chambers their wonderful Mountain Rifle in 7-08 and Kimber chambers it in their 84M action in several models. For the Eastern deer junkie, their Adirondack would be a superb backcountry gun. Sako, Browning, Winchester...heck, almost everyone makes a 7-08 to almost any taste. A friend even has one in his Remington 700 Tactical...a heavy barreled tack driver that kills deer with regularity on his farm.

With mild recoil, a moderate report and good bullet performance over normal game ranges with standard bullets...there's just a lot to like when you go shooting with Mr. Manners, the 7-08 Remington.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Vestigial Man

Author's Note: Something a little different and more creative than I normally do.

The Vestigial Man
I detect within myself the yearning for things real. Not the illusory perception that comes from staring into an illuminated rectangle all day; but the tactile, the concrete, the solid.

I have become uncomfortably comfortable in a society too accustomed to life in the abstract; moments of fancy, of imaginary heroes in vain battles, catalog solutions to vexing problems lived only in the mind.

Somewhere down in my core, I crave the damp, close feel of the woods and the brilliant starkness of desert and the vast emptiness of night. I find an empty place in my soul and my nostrils for the sound of the arrow striking home and the acrid smell of blood. A long forgotten part of me senses something vital is missing and longs for dirt under my fingernails and drinking from bubbling springs.

Without the sensation of movement that comes with the stroke of the paddle, the gait of a horse or the stride uphill; I suddenly lose my sense of place. Effortlessly gliding and rolling from hither to yon; without the exhaustion I don’t know how far I’ve travelled or where I am.

I fear I’m lost.

My black and white life is lived in the churning of electrons, sustained by eating flaccid, soulless meat; my existence ruled hour by hour by the clock. I’m trodden endlessly amid the wheels turning everywhere. The wheels are so hard at work turning the wild land into timidity, my time into money and my dreams into ashes. I exchange all of my time for the coin of the realm and find that it is never enough. That ancient man killed his food with a stick and tilled the ground with a stone and still had time to develop art and language and leisure is a marvel to me, the modern man.

A modern man who almost forgot who he is, the ancient man.

That any remnant of him remains in me is a mystery. I hear the creaking of a taut bow in my dreams. I have visions of sprouting kernels amid the moist earth. I can smell the scent of drying meat and wood smoke through the vents. I see deer by the road and envision cedar shafts striking flanks. I’m confused; there is no place in my orderly asphalt world for such things. No experience in the digital world the vestigial man in me can relate to.

The yearning for things real remains regardless- the taut drawn bow, the paddle dipped in the water, the sound of deer in the oaks, the taste of venison cooked over open fire- vague recollections from forefather’s lives long ago lived. 

The modern man views such things as diversion from real life, to the vestigial man they are real life.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Answering Critics...or Barking Up the Wrong Tree

As much as I detest dirty laundry in public...I've got to say something here that might torque a few screws. The topic at hand is something all writers must deal with-  criticism. Bear in mind this doesn't include thoughtful commentary, which I love- even when it runs counter to my opinion. The difference can be vague and admittedly can be based on how I feel at any particular moment, day or occasion but thoughtful commentary is appreciated while an ad hominem attack on me or my work is not.

In short- I will typically not respond to criticism via email or comments. Just won't do it. Wouldn't be prudent.

Allow me to explain in brief since these are recurring patterns.
1. Criticism of my writing style. I appreciate the feedback but I don't have time to engage in long private discourses on the merits of the Oxford comma and my considerable love of hyperbole. I primarily write this for my own personal amusement, ego stroking, etc...generally without revision. So expect some mistakes, I'm human. Putting twenty hours into a 2000 word unpaid blog post isn't something I can do- sorry, now go find some illiterate person and teach them to read and write.

2. Criticism of my opinion. I've formed my opinions over many years of personal experience. Your experiences may have lead you to different opinions. That's OK. Since the content I have presented here varies from narratives, techno rifle geekery and some Op-Ed type stuff- it's a mixed bag. If you disagree with me that the .30-06 is a dreadfully boring cartridge choice or that the Chuitna Coal mine is a bad deal for Alaska, so be it. Belittling me is unlikely to change that and I don't feel compelled to explain myself to everyone who can hit 'send' on an email. I also do not "owe" you equal time to express your opinion on my forum. Blogger is still free, so have at it. Again, this does not include well reasoned correspondence- as a guide,  if your note to me includes the word "idiot" "moron" or "dumbass" then it likely doesn't make the cut.

3. Criticism of my vocation. I am an outdoorsman: a hunter, an angler, and a gatherer. Many, if not most, of my activities are pretty hunting-centric. I feel like I'm a respectful guy in the field- I respect the animals, the environment and my fellow outdoors-folks alike. Trust me- "hoople-heads" in the field bother me more than they bother you. And for the love of God, do not ask me if I "ate that animal I murdered" one more time.  The answer is, I DID and will do so until I am no longer able.

So there- sorry for the little rant but my email inbox is becoming increasingly filled with correspondence from people "taking me to task" for all sorts of things, including not responding to their "taking me to task". Some advice I got a very long time ago from a writer I respect a great deal was simply this, "If you believe you have something interesting to say- say it with conviction. And never, ever, ever....respond to a critic."

I see no reason to not follow his lead.

Thanks for your patience.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Other Hunters...Thoughts on Competition

I got an interesting piece of correspondence regarding dealing with competition in the field. Being that I hunt in a relatively crowded section of the state, I see other hunters frequently and have come to a few conclusions.

So in brief-
Just because another person is in the field- doesn't actually mean they're competition. From my experience, about 10% of the folks you see simply don't have a clue what they're doing. If they're your competition...better find a new vocation. Most of them will never venture off the pavement very far and after talking to them, it's really apparent they stand a better chance of killing an animal with the car. I usually try to help these folks to the limits of my ability.

Another 80% are people who are there to "hunt". They typically show up in RVs, have a giant trailer of ATVs, and a giant cooler full of beer. The typical day will be sleep in, big breakfast, a ride in the afternoon on the ATV called "hunting", shooting in the gravel pit, a big dinner, capping the day off with a half rack around the bonfire. You seldom find these folks very far from the road or trail and if they're on foot it's just to pee. I'm all for folks having fun in the outdoors, but I find it hard to consider what they're doing..."competition". I usually find them an annoyance, just more folks clogging the trails and if they take an animal it's dang near an accident.

The remaining 10% though...are killers. The hunting guide and author Tony Russ once subtitled a book, "Why 10% of Hunters Take 90% of Game" and I think he is spot on. That 10% is up early, out late, on foot far from roads and trails, and will be looking to avoid you just as much as you look to avoid them. Competition? I have a hard time looking at them that way, because if you see them in your can bet there's game there and likely enough to go round for all of you.

Pulling Tags...the ADFG Drawing System

Well, the ADFG drawing was held yesterday and a great many people managed to pull the tag of a lifetime. Still yet, many more were bitterly disappointed.

I've received a couple inquiries about how the draw works.

In short- unlike a lot of the West, Alaska's drawing system doesn't accumulate points. Every year, everyone has exactly the same chances of drawing. Some people think that isn't fair...well, maybe. But with few exceptions- every animal available on draw is available over the counter. Maybe not in the areas, or seasons but a sheep hunter can still hunt sheep and a moose hunter can hunt moose.  Bison are too limited to have an OTC tag and muskox are subject to a complicated system of registration and subsistence tags.

But then- how does a guy actually draw some tags? Easy- apply for a lot.

My family has pulled a half dozen draw tags over the years, the latest a very nice "Any Bull" moose tag. We typically put in for anywhere from a dozen to twenty per year. Every year. I did draw a coveted DCUA Sheep tag with very long odds, but I may not ever draw another. I've never drawn a bison tag and may not. But I have drawn a couple of good caribou tags and a couple moose tags. None of those tags had long odds at all.

When I hear people complain of "never drawing a tag" or "the system is rigged"...the facts are they usually put in for very few tags and the ones with the longest odds to boot. If you only apply for DCUA sheep and Bison you can expect a long dang wait to pull one.

How bad are the odds- well the ADFG publishes that in the draw supplement.
Several Bear tags on famed Kodiak Island are nearly 100% draw, sure it will cost a small fortune to get you in there to hunt that tag...but you will draw it.

Almost ALL of the trophy area sheep tags like DCUA and Tok Management are less than 1%. These are simply a hard tag to draw...few permits and a huge number of applicants.

Everything else is in the middle.

So here are some rules of thumb...
1) The easier the tag is to draw....the harder the hunt area will be to get to.

2) The more desirable the species as a trophy (ie. Dall Sheep) is...the harder the tag will be to draw.

3) Bison are the equivalent to winning the "Alaska Meat Lottery".

4) DO YOUR RESEARCH...figuring out how you'll hunt a tag after you draw it, isn't a very good plan.

5) Apply for a lot of tags. My circle of friends pulls some sweet tags every single year. Collectively we apply for (without exaggeration) hundreds of tags so the odds are in our favor.