Monday, July 20, 2015

Use Enough Gun

Looking through my analytics, I see that a piece I wrote some time ago about selecting the perfect Alaska rifle is hands down the most popular piece I've written here. It has consistently generated more page views, and not unusually, more email than any post to date. You can view the original here.

In that piece I only mention 4 cartridges- the .270, the .30-06, the .300 and .338 Winchester Magnum. A guy could select one of those and be a happy hunter for the rest of his days.

Since then, I've received several pieces of correspondence regarding other cartridge choices. I tend to view such discussions as a lot of fun (who doesn't like to discuss guns and cartridges?) but as much fun as they are...they are largely pointless.

What do I mean? I'll explain. Most cartridges between .270 and the .338WM will perform so similarly in the hands of the average hunter...there's basically no difference in the field at all. Comparing the .270 Winchester to the .280 Remington to the .30-06 or the .300 Winchester to the .300 Weatherby or .300WSM are all just drawing distinctions only discernible on a ballistic chart.

Critters rarely read ballistic charts.

There is one class of cartridges though that I'm getting a lot of correspondence about though that I have to draw the line on. The cartridges all have one thing in common- small bores, average velocity and very long for caliber bullets and all are pretty much marketed for long range shooting. Typical numbers are the .260 Remington, the 6.5 Creedmoor and the 6.5x284 Norma.

For long range shooting, they are the cat's jammies and for deer hunting they do just fine when loaded with hunting bullets. Many of the target and match bullets loaded in these cartridges are completely unsuitable for hunting big game though, so choose wisely. The 6.5x284 is often compared to the trajectory of the .300 Winchester Magnum and it's true. In terms of energy and effect on game the 6.5 just isn't close. Not in recoil either. In long range target shooting, high recoil will ruin scores. Almost all the top competitors have moved from the big magnums to the .25s and the .264s.

But big game hunting isn't long range target shooting. The typical hunter won't fire more than a couple of boxes of cartridges a year. A fraction of what a competitor will fire in a single match. A hunter looking to shoot a moose or caribou will do better with something harder hitting since the accumulated effect of recoil never takes hold. As compelling as the 6.5s are for long range shooting...Alaska hunters are better armed with something heavier.

Use Enough Gun.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Memory Collector

And now for something a little different...

Here's a short film by a couple friends of mine, starring another friend of mine on a caribou hunt. I knew they were up to no good while we ate burgers in Fairbanks on their way up. I think it turned out pretty well.


Sunday, June 7, 2015

Rimfire Madness....the CZ-USA 452 'Special"

I've written several times in the past that I have a real affinity for the bolt action .22 Sporter. I cut my teeth as a wee tot on an ancient Marlin bolt rifle. These days the rifle resides at the ancestral home and technically belongs to my if technical ever mattered much as far as ownership was concerned. Some time in my college years, I was smitten by the prospect of the .22 autoloader and had a long string of them...each a little more clunky than the last.

Finally, some time about my 30th birthday I treated myself to a real treat- a Kimber 22. Stocked in nice walnut the rifle was really too pretty to hunt with. It was pretty much the most expensive rifle I owned at the time, even more expensive than my matching Kimber 84M. But it was a purchase I didn't regret at all- that rifle literally transformed me shooting ability from talented amateur to, well, serious amateur. All humility aside- the rifle made me an honest to God rifleman.

I shot that rifle more than anything I've shot in my life.

It was the first rifle that I owned that I got good enough with to shoot up to the level of the rifle and it only came with thousands of rounds down range. The rifle would hit a dime at 50 yards with relative ease and on calm days a quarter at 100 yards wasn't unreasonable. My small game hunting became something else entirely- several hundred hares, a slew of feral rabbits and a pile of grouse fell to the rifle. If it was under something like 80 yards, it was as good as done if I had any sort of rest at all.

But like every other sad story of my life... I parted ways with the rifle to fund some project or another.

Fast forward a couple years later. My son's 10/22 autoloader was equipped with a trigger only a liability lawyer could love. I decided that I had to rectify the bolt action sporter mistake for good.

A visit to the local hook and bullet had just the remedy for my disease- a CZ model 452, this one a "training rifle" with a long barrel and a tangent rear sight. I took it home immediately. Not a cheap piece by any means- the Czech economy is still stagnant and the meager asking price is a genuine bargain for a rifle stocked in wood and machined out of blued steel. At first I mounted a Nikon 4x on the rifle and found that it had the wonderful accuracy the CZs are known for- not quite what my Kimber would do...but close. After a while I decided to try the tangent sights and once the scope was pulled off I fell in love again with shooting an iron sighted rifle. I took it hunting...the squirrels and ptarmigan out to ranges of 50 yards were simply in trouble.

Why bring this all up?

Well, shooting with a rimfire is one of the best ways to get good at shooting, but only if the rimfire feels like a centerfire and you shoot it like a centerfire. In the not so distant past a lot of folk's rimfire shooting was loading up a high capacity magazine in something semi-auto and just letting it rip downrange. I've seen it far more than enough to know that it's common. A perusal through the gun rack will reveal a lot of rimfires that are made to look like submachine guns and a lot of other stuff.

Fun maybe, but I have a hard time taking it seriously.

Especially given that in the post-Sandy Hook era finding any sort of quantity of .22LR ammunition is next to impossible. I've not personally seen more than a few boxes of .22 ammo on the shelf in the last 4 years and all priced roughly double. Burning that up in what amounts to a playtoy makes no sense to me.

But one at a time, through a good rimfire rifle...that'll stretch that $10 box of 50 into something worth the coin. The CZ is certainly a good rimfire rifle. Out of a box of 50, I've missed exactly 2 shots at game- that's a lot of protein for the price of a box, even at current prices. Perhaps its time we re-evaluated what the .22 is.... a serious gun for serious hunting and target shooting.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Travelling...a Nice View

I've been on travel the last couple of weeks, doing a fair bit of hiking here in TN. Here is the view from a long abandoned (but still standing!) fire tower on the northern terminus of Bay's Mountain. The tower is an hour's hike from Bays Mountain Park headquarters.

The tower itself is a relic from days long past. The Civilian Conservation Corps, a job relief program from the Great Depression that began in 1933, built this one and many like it in what was perhaps the first look at a nationwide conservation natural resource strategy. The CCC ran until 1942 when the World War II draft rendered it obsolete.

During those lean 9 years, 3 million young men built parks, roads and bridges as well as planted 3 billion trees, and completely changed wild land firefighting techniques. The workers got $30 a month (they had to send $25 home to their family) as well as 3 squares a day (tough to find in the Depression), shelter, and clothing. An interesting chapter in American history to be sure.

Here is a recruiting poster from the CCC, circa mid 1930s.

Back to the AK summer in a few days!

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.