In the last couple of weeks, something unusual has happened- I’ve been watching television. In general, I’m not really a regular TV watcher but the last few weeks my Netflix account has had some interesting selections become available- namely History Channel’s extremely interesting series “Swamp People” and “Medicine Men Go Wild”. “Swamp People” deals with life in rural Louisiana swamp country, featuring particularly the commercial alligator hunting season and the people who work it. “Medicine Men Go Wild” follows a couple of British physicians as they travel the globe and study indigenous cultures’ medical and health practices- the particular episode I watched portrayed the Chuchki of Eastern Russia, very similar to Alaska’s Inupiat people.
What I found interesting about both shows is the relationship of their subjects to their environment and how both explored hunting cultures in the field. Of course, being the gun nut that I am I was amazed at the variety of weapons being utilized by these folks and just how pedestrian they were when compared to the armament of a typical Western sport hunter. I was also fascinated by the remarkable similarity to my own experiences within the indigenous and subsistence hunting community of rural Alaska.
The first example was the weapons utilized by the “swampers” of Lousiana- primarily a variety of inexpensive .22LRs in all action types. Given the condition of the weapons it’s apparent that gun care isn’t really a priority with most of them. The largest rifle I could identify was a .223 Mini 14 rifle wearing a fairly optimistic scope and much reference was made to the “Magnum” which referred not to some big brass bottled centerfire rifle, but rather the rather humble .22 Magnum. That’s hardly a hot number by any means when you consider the size and weight of a full grown American Alligator. I also noticed the ranges were remarkably short despite the on-camera chatter about marksmanship- most of the hooked alligators were shot at point blank range. Not to oversimplify that statement- keep in mind the alligator was often a violently moving target and the vital zone was a small area on the back of the skull, but talking of marksmanship at contact distance seems a bit odd. A few alligators were shot utilizing the Mini 14 and an unidentified bolt action at a range of perhaps 60 yards or so…again a rather close shot for a scoped centerfire rifle despite the target being small.
As a second example, the weapons utilized by the Chuchki were even more basic. Being located in remote Eastern Russia (surprisingly close and nearly identical in many ways to Western Alaska) the weapons had even less diversification. The indigenous hunters there survive on a diet primarily of fish and sea mammals with the odd caribou throw in for a bit of variety. Fascinatingly, one hunter described the villager’s rationale for using the spear (despite contrary government regulation) over the rifle to hunt walrus. A herd of walrus apparently spook and stampede easily at the sound of gunfire but not the silent efficiency of the spear. The film showed a rather graphic (for television at any rate) segment of a walrus kill using the spear and even I was rather amazed at the speed and efficiency the hunter possessed. After thinking a bit I was pretty convinced the guy had a fair handle on the anatomy of the walrus too- he struck behind the ribcage (far too aft in my mind) but drove the spear forward- penetrating the diaphragm, the lungs and the heart. Death of the huge mammal was remarkably quick. On the ocean much use of the harpoon was shown on both walrus and a gray whale- not as killing instruments but to affix large floats to prevent the animal's escape and tire them quickly so they could be safely approached and dispatched with a rifle. In pre-modern times the large plastic floats would instead be made of inflated seal skins and the steel points would have been bone but the concept remains unchanged and remarkably effective.
As to firearms utilized among the Chuchki, given their location in Russia, I was not surprised to see the single example being a Kalashnikov variant. I was however surprised to see the rifle being utilized for animals as large as walrus, caribou and to deliver the killing blow on a gray whale. Bear in mind the mild ballistics of the 7.62x39 round are about equivalent to the old American cartridge the .30-30 Winchester and these days it is often bashed among American sport hunters as being inadequate for such nominal critters as whitetail deer and black bear much less creatures that weigh in excess of 800 pounds. Although the show didn’t explicitly talk about it- the Chuchki live in an area that is well inside the ranges of both the Polar and Brown bears, hardly what we’d consider within the capability of the 7.62x39 round but the Chuchki remain apparently unconvinced.
Within the realm of my own experience, I’ve travelled within rural Alaska and the subsistence hunting community. The subsistence community is a mixture of Native subsistence hunters living in what you could consider a traditional community as well as non-Native “bush dwellers” who live at least a partially subsistence hunter/trapper lifestyle. Without a doubt the single most common rifle I’ve found in the Native communities is the Mini 14 in .223/ 5.56 NATO. In fact, in several villages the stainless Mini 14 was the only centerfire rifle I’ve seen. None of the rifles in those villages were equipped with a scope. In the typical village store the only rifle for sale was a Mini 14 equipped as well as 55gr FMJ ammunition being the only available cartridge. While that is certainly not a choice I would make, the meat racks in the village were full of caribou so apparently it works despite what I might think. Other weapons were almost exclusively 10/22 rifles and Remington 870 shotguns sold in those same village stores. Without exception every one I examined was battered beyond belief.
I’ve seen and heard a tremendous number of stories about those hunters and their marginal rifles and I've seen taken game that includes everything up to grizzly and polar bear. I remember seeing one picture of an 11 year old girl with her Dad’s Mini 14 and one very dead polar bear and I couldn’t help be think that my .375 might just be superfluous after all. I’d hate to think of the outcome if that’d gone wrong though since it was a single shot at 20 feet through the brain that did the trick. I don’t know what makes the smaller calibers so prevalent among the subsistence users but one thing is certain- they know how to make them work for them.
After some time among subsistenece hunters my thoughts on appropriate weapons has changed somewhat as has my view on the tactics of subsistence hunting. When one looks at the subsistence hunting community, it's more that weapons that make up the package that yields so much success. That'll be the topic for a different day however.
Next post: Habits and skills of the Subsistence hunter that sets them apart from a more typical “sport hunter”.