Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Confessions of a Rifle Crank

Ok, I’ll admit it. I am a dyed in the wool rifle crank. I love rifles; I love messing around with rifles and have for three decades since that first Red Ryder on Christmas morning. So its no surprise to me that I’ve had a truckload of rifles over the years of varying degrees of quality, most of which have long since gone down the road.Some of them were safe queens and some saw genuine hard use but with the exception of the few that I have still; they all went to new homes while I pursued something with the elusive quality of “better”. I hate to think about all the money that I’ve spent pursuing that “better” rifle and some of the strange roads I’ve been down. It’s been educational and maybe that’s not a bad thing. The money would have been better spent on a mutual fund or mortgage and it was better spent than on booze or some other vice. So what follows are the confessions of a person whose spent thirty years popping primers and sending lead downrange. As a caveat let me state that my opinions have been formed during field use- primarily as a big game and small game hunter. A serious prairie dog shooter or bench rest competitor would have arrived at different conclusions than I have and that’s OK. I’m coming from the perspective of someone who carries a rifle by hand and shoots from a field position.

On caliber selection so much ink has been spilled that I hesitate to add to the deluge but I’ll give it a whirl. The odd thing about caliber selection is the overwhelming choices we have in the marketplace. We have a plethora of available cartridges all being sold or marketed in some form or another, so much in fact that collecting cartridges is something of a hobby by itself. Most of these are marketed as being in some way superior to all other similar cartridges generally based on some technical detail that qualifies only as minutiae. Let’s be honest, we all (at least rifle shooters) have some favorites and campfire arguments can almost break down into fistfights over which one works. After a long while in the field I’ve come to this conclusion- they all do. Given similar shot placement and a decent bullet, caliber may be darn near irrelevant on the majority of North American big game animals.

Don’t confuse what I’m saying. I’m in no way advocating that .22 caliber center fires are adequate for bison and bears or that a .375 H&H should be your primary rifle for all North American big game despite that there are those who espouse those exact views. What I’m saying is that the majority of cartridges between those two extremes perform so similarly in the field that caliber selection may be the least important factor in the equation. A million magazine articles, chat rooms and failed friendships have churned this topic endlessly while all but ignoring one salient fact- all of these rounds kill game very dead indeed. In that respect they are surprisingly equal. A quick check of my journals indicate that nearly all of my big game animals were taken with a .30-06 Springfield or .308 Winchester but I’m not kidding myself, there’s nothing magical about either of those numbers and the results would have been identical with any of dozens of cartridges. These days I tend to pick cartridges based on logistics- can I find a box in Moosejaw, British Columbia or maybe more importantly on deep discount at the box store sporting goods counter in Fairbanks, Alaska. I’ve chased the strange fire of “improved ballistics” long enough.

The other thing that tankers of ink have been spilled on is accuracy. No hunter is satisfied with an inaccurate rifle and whole industries have emerged to provide the hunter with a more “accurate” smokepole but I think we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. I’ll readily admit I’ve chased the gilt edge of accuracy as much or more than anyone but the pursuit was generally in vain. Colonel Townsend Whelen once scribed the idea that “only accurate rifles are interesting” but that was the turn of the last century when manufacturing was much less refined and a genuine two minute of angle rifle was an heirloom to be treasured. The industry standard was probably closer to six or eight minutes of angle; but don’t take my word for it- round up an old rifle and ammunition and go see for yourself. One starts to wonder “How did Grandad ever kill a deer?” I think we’ve oversold the idea of accuracy to generate sales to the point of ridiculousness. Let’s face it- when you manufacture a product with a life span of generations and a diminishing market, the only sure way to generate sales is to make you dissatisfied with what you already have. Many new shooters are incredibly unsatisfied if their new rifle doesn’t shoot into a minute of angle with bargain basement ammunition. We should expect that very thing when nearly every article in the sporting press includes an incredibly unscientific accuracy test whose results are generally “exceptional” to say the least. This may sound like heresy but I’m blowing the BS whistle loud and clear.

What kind of accuracy does the hunter need? Despite the perplexing commentary among hunters about shooting 300, 400 and even 500 yard shots; the number of animals taken under 100 yards is at least an order of magnitude higher than those in excess of 200 yards. If you encompass all animals taken under 200 yards you have a very high percentage of the animals taken in North America annually. At ranges of 200 yards a 4 minute of angle rifle will place every shot within an 8” circle. An 8” pattern is well within the kill zone of almost all big game animals. I’ve not encountered a factory rifle that shot worse than that in at least a decade by any manufacturer. Conversely, I’ve encountered dozens of hunters that couldn’t shoot an 8’ pattern at 100 yards from a field position with any rifle whatsoever. Not to be the squeaking wheel or the kid pointing out that the emperor has no clothes but I think we are concentrating entirely too much on this idea of a genuine “minute of angle rifle” when as a group we are genuine “minute of barn door” shooters. I do own a couple of exceptionally accurate rifles- neither have killed anything requiring their accuracy whatsoever. In fact the last game animal I killed with my “MOA” rifle was at a range more suitable for a bayonet or slingshot- a mere 40’ and I’ve only taken a single animal past 200 yards when I was much, much younger. Even with my MOA rifles I’m confident it’s not a shot I’d even attempt today. These days I’m concentrating on my skills more and my rifle’s intrinsic accuracy less- a lot less.

The third and final leg of my stool of confession is that of optics and sights. I am a big fan of optics and I’ve owned nearly as many scopes as I’ve owned rifles. In fact it’s safe to say that among the hunting fraternity we are a nation in love with the telescopic sight. That is a good thing, but I believe the pendulum has swung the other way. If any of you have made do with the “buck horn” sight often found on rifles of the past era; and you’ve searched in vain for that front sight at the ragged edge of dawn on the shoulder of a deer easing through the big oak forest- you know exactly the advantage a scope sight offers. But for those of you who’ve lugged a scope as big as a Meade telescope mounted ponderously high on your rifle action up the sheep mountain to finally punch your tag at midday and spitting distance you also know what I mean about the pendulum leaving us behind.

A casual look through sporting literature of 50 years ago reveals something interesting. Variable power scopes were rare and often mistrusted, a 2.5X was common, a 4x was considered a “mountain scope” for long range shooting at big game and a 6x was considered a “varmint” scope- suitable only for prairie dogs at long range. The few 8x and 10x scopes manufactured were considered a “target” scope and completely unsuitable for field use at all. If you fast forward to today you’ll find variables outnumber fixed powers by a fair margin and the upper limits on power often exceed 10x. These higher powers require bigger objectives to provide any clarity or brightness and that adds weight. I readily admit to owning several of these “moonscopes” for only one reason- shooting tiny little groups from the shooting bench. While seeing a cloverleaf pattern on the 100 yard frame is very gratifying it has absolutely no bearing on being successful in the game fields whatsoever. At magnifications over 4 or 5x from a field position about all I see is myself shaking and at 8 or 9x my field of view is so small that an animal must be nearly out of shooting range to track it on the move. Large power has in my mind a single field use- very small targets that are relatively stationary, like woodchucks, groundhogs, prairie dogs and the like. High powers, large lenses, long tubes, weight- these are all things that hamper rather than help a hunter in the field. The more field experience I gain the more I realize the simple fact- large variable scopes encourage fiddling and smaller fixed power scopes encourage shooting. Rememeber the reputation of the American as a rifleman overseas was built on shooting big game with a .30-06 or .270 and a 4x scope.

So the question then becomes “why?” It’s the question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately while I replay the past seasons over in my mind and look forward to the opening of the next. Why do we buy new rifles year after year? Why do we put on scopes more suitable for viewing lunar craters than moose? Why do we shoot rifles that fire expensive ammo and generate recoil only the most stoic of us can withstand? Why are today’s deer cartridges considered yesterday’s bear cartridges? Have the game animals changed that much?

I think the answer is fairly complicated and I’m sure each of us have a variety of reasons but I think for me it’s an attempt at controlling those limited things I can. We go afield and we can’t be sure of seeing game, or getting a shot off or whether the climate will cooperate. So in our minds we subconsciously think about the things we can control- our rifle, our equipment, our hunting areas, our cartridges. Our own insecurities- our shooting ability, our stalking skills, our tracking skills, even our dumb luck encourage us to purchase equipment we don’t need. Those among us whose trade is sales at times are willing to exploit those insecurities to make a profit and at times our clamor for a better mousetrap results in something different but usually not better. So as a confession of a rifle crank I realize that it’s the carpenter and not the hammer that builds a house. I’m committed to doing those things that increase my likelihood of success- practice, spending time afield, scouting, and studying my quarry in the off season when the pressure is off to learn its habits and its haunts. In short, building my skills to make up for whatever perceived deficiencies are in my equipment and not the other way around.


Dennis A Carroll said...

Good post. Great thoughts.

In my experience, most people have a tough time making a shot over 300 yards, and for most shooting the 30-06 is king.

tom said...

Friend from gunsmith college and I sat around an African campfire (he's a native over there and lives there) with beers a few years back after a successful day of hunting.

Specifics don't matter other than we'd both gotten kills, his at about 75 and I had a bit of luck and good kentucky windage on one past 300, but later in the evening we got to talking shop and both agreed that there really hadn't been any useful innovations in cartridges since much after WW II that weren't just duplicates of something that already existed ballistically except a few rarities and some improved bullet designs and powders. I speak this as somebody that owns stuff like a 6.5 Grendel as well as Black Powder Express rifles and a matchlock.

We both are primarily fixed power and iron sight hunters too and that also came up. Our varmint guns wear 8X scopes. Big bores have express sights or a 2 or 2.5X. In betweeners wear 4X or 6X or Irons. You get better light transmission for your money every time with fixed power at the same price point and if I'm scouting for things rather than shooting at them, that's what the expensive variable spotting scope that goes all the way up to 25X I carry is for...

Ideal cartridge is one you can shoot well at the ranges you intend to take the game at that's capable of taking the game. That's different on every hunt, therefore there is no ideal cartridge.

African hunter friend of mine got tired of carrying multiple rifles and settled on using his own range of loads he was intimately familiar with in .458 WinMag for everything from antelopes to ele instead of taking a bunch of rifles along. Matched pair of rifles with quick detach scope mounts and 2 leaf express sights too. In North America he liked .270 or .300 WinMag for everything but varmints, either/or.

I own too many guns because I tend to build them and buy them, depending, and I'm usually not keen on selling, though I've sold some I didn't like at all. I take afield what seems most likely appropriate for where I'm headed.

tom said...

FWIW as to "mostly all of them work in most all situations", that campfire day my vriend was shooting a 6mm and I was shooting .375H&H at the same size game. Only difference in the final reckoning was my shot was louder and a bit luckier, considering the range. Most every large game animal I've ever taken has been well inside 100 like everybody else.

mdmnm said...

Good thoughts and I generally agree, especially that time is better spent on practice and skills, rather than acquiring the latest, greatest rifle/cartridge combination. However, while "At ranges of 200 yards a 4 minute of angle rifle will place every shot within an 8” circle. An 8” pattern is well within the kill zone of almost all big game animals."- if the hunter holds 2 minutes of angle, and happens to wobble to the outer edge of his 8" circle around his point of aim, then his rifle adds another 8" of error (not going to happen all the time, but possible) then the bullet strikes 16" from point of aim, which is getting out there. Conversely, if the rifle holds minute of angle, then he's only 10" off, which can make a difference between a good lung hit and something marginal, especially on deer. Nothing can beat the confidence inspired by knowing that if you do your part, the bullet will hit exactly where you're aiming, not "pretty close" or "in the general area". That same confidence will cause you to hold closer (thinking "any mistake is me, not the gun") and shoot better.