Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Zen of Wingshooting...Hits and Misses.

After posting about my new Benelli shotgun I bought myself for my birthday last year, I had meant to post several times about learning to wing shoot. That's about where I left it. After a summer filled with work, training for a sheep hunt, hunting caribou, reviewing a couple of books and sundry other activities, I totally abandoned my efforts at learning to hit flying things. I did make a promise to myself to abandon the apparently slovenly practice of killing game birds with a .22, despite how efficient and clean it is, and instead propel my shooting to a higher plane and kill them on the wing. That frankly didn't go so good at first.

The first game bird I took this year was a large spruce grouse who made the error of hanging out in my front yard. My son spotted him while out playing with the dog and after an attempt to brain the rooster "cave man style" with a large rock he burst through the front door looking for a better weapon. Initially, I shooed him from such an endeavor but after a couple of insistent passes through the garage looking for his bow and BB gun I decided to take it to get in a little fresh game meat for my visiting extended family. While the shotgun resided in the safe quite capably, I never even so much as thought about using it until the grouse was leftovers after having fallen to a single .22LR "CB Cap" through his head out of my son's rifle. Efficient and clean harvest? Check. Elevating my wingshooting? Fail.

The second bird came after a lengthy dry spell because generally during big game hunts I won't take the time to kill small game for noise concerns unless I really want camp meat. During my moose hunts this year I saw dozens of grouse and regrettably no legal moose. After a long and very disappointing day searching an area I mistakenly believed a hotbed of moose activity, I did see a prize of a bird- a beautiful ruffed grouse. Ruffed grouse are wonderful eating, quite a bit better than spruce hens or ptarmigan, but somewhat hard to find in my location. Typically whenever I see one of these I'll make the effort to bag it but a problem presented itself. Since I was on a moose hunt without expecting to shoot birds, I was armed with only a high powered rifle. What to do? Something that my hunting companion didn't believe I'd do... I leveled down on that grouse with my .300 and aimed very carefully. A body shot at thirty yards would leave nothing but bloody paste and feathers but accounting for the distance between scope and bore and the short range zero I was able to pull off a bit of fancy shooting and literally pop the grouse's head off while leaving the edible bits untouched. Points scored for making do with a bit of short range sniping for a tasty delicacy? Check. Abandoning slovenly practices of ground sluicing winged creatures? Epic Fail.

My third attempt came during a caribou hunt that I was endeavoring with my neighbor and new hunting partner. I was already tagged out on caribou so I packed along the new Benelli with a mixture of ammunition- low brass number 6s for ptarmigan, 3" 00 Buckshot for bear defense, and 3" "Dead Coyote" T shot for roving predators. After a long and fruitless day looking for the herd that had already left the area, I noticed a covey of ptarmigan about a 1/4 mile distance. With only about twenty minutes of shooting light left I baled out of the truck and stuffed my vest pocket with shells and then loaded the magazine. Taking a heading through the snowy tundra and low brush I set off in pursuit of proper wingshooting.

Hearing the covey's roosting calls I quickly zeroed in on one visible at the edge of a band of low brush. Readying the gun, I crept up on the bird. Just when I thought I would have to chuck a rock to get the bird to flush, he ran backwards into the brush and out of sight. Frustratingly, I realized I would have simply shot him with  a .22 ten yards ago and would now be picking up the dead bird. Undaunted I crept up to the edge of the brush and then all hell broke loose.

Fully a dozen of the white birds exploded within five yards and took skyward. Startled, I tried to pick out a single bird and fired a haphazard shot- BOOM!- that didn't hit a thing followed by- BOOM!- another miss. I swung over to one rising up to my left and pulled the trigger- BOOM!- and saw the bird dive for the brush trailing feathers. Getting my wits about me finally I swung over on one flying straightaway slightly to my right and took a clean bead- BOOM!- and the bird crumpled mid flight amid a cloud of white downy feathers.

I reloaded, somewhat amused that in just a couple seconds I had emptied the autoloader's magazine, and went into the brush to retrieve the two I saw fall. The first I found rather quickly and I hadn't found the second one when I was joined by my hunting partner. "Go on and get some more...I'll find the second one." exclaimed my partner, apparently thrilled that we finally shot something after a long day of seeing nothing.

I climbed a small rise, convinced the birds wouldn't go far, and was quickly rewarded with hearing the cackles of the alarmed birds. The fact the birds were nervous didn't bother me- in fact, upon reflection I'm sure the birds started flushing earlier giving me more reaction time to swing the barrel. On the rise a couple flushed at about 7 yards, I picked the right and- BOOM!- the bird folded and gravity brought him to earth in a beautiful sailing arc amid a cloud of feathers. I swung left and- BOOM! BOOM!- two clean misses on the fast moving streak of white. I stuck my hand in my pocket for more shells and found nothing there but lint. Looking in the magazine I saw the follower. I retracted the bolt slightly and saw a shell stuck under the extractor- one shot left. Crap, where did all the shells go?

I retrieved the bird and made my way back to my partner still searching for the second bird of the first flush. He still hadn't found a thing. I noticed from my vantage point a bird about 5 yards to his left- on the ground and moving in a crippled wobble. I called out and had him maneuver well out of the line of fire. Fearing the bird would simply run on the ground into the brush or flush and I'd miss with my only shell I raised the gun and fired- BOOM!- and finished him. We collected the remaining bird for a total of three and headed back for the truck. It was getting pretty dim with the sun below the horizon as we crunched our way over the snow, arriving there we started cleaning the birds. Within moments the covey landed within a hundred yards of our location and started their cooing, roosting cries.

"Heck! Go get some more if they want to be dinner that bad. I'll take care of these.", cried my partner. I stuffed more shells in my pocket and the magazine tube of the gun and set off. I quickly flushed a fast moving bird quite far out- BOOM!BOOM!BOOM!- and missed every time. I had to get better at this kind of shooting and judge what kind of lead was required at what distance- wondering bewilderedly what sort of Euclidean geometry and vector calculation would get me on the birds. I reloaded and continued with just enough light left for a couple more moments. I flushed a rather large hen out of the brush about 5 yards out and she appeared to hover there slow motion for a few moments in midair, twisting and turning, trying to determine which direction to take flight. She turned on the wing and headed straight away gaining momentum as the butt of the gun hit my shoulder. The bird seemed to by flying in slow motion but I seemed to be moving at faster than normal speed.

There in a brief moment, frozen in time, I finally got it. The entire wingshooting zen I had read about for years caught up with me full force as the entire moment felt right. Not calculated, not aimed, not consciously and deliberately fired. The gun, the trigger, the bird, the eye- all in alignment of their own accord. I don't remember the shot or the recoil; all I remember is seeing the bird fold in mid air and hearing the "ka-Chunk" of the action as the smoking hull was ejected and then seeing the bird hurtling to the ground streaming downy feathers with the golden, orange sunset on the white mountains beyond. It was all those things that wingshooting writers endeavor to describe in flowery language and fall (myself included) woefully short.

Firing without conscious thought at a target that presented itself unexpectedly- quite the opposite of rifle shooting. I am quite accustomed to taking deliberate shots at distance with the rifle and this whole process seemed rather haphazard. Roaming over the country, blasting haphazardly- that is until that moment when everything lined up. Not to delve too far into the sound of "one hand clapping" but the experience of instinctive shooting was rather new to me. Feeling slightly overwhelmed, I searched the brush for the downed bird and after looking for it just a moment I realized it was really too dark to continue. I finally retrieved the bird and made my way back to the truck- a very happy...wingshooter.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Making Sense of a Magnum

Its been a few years since I switched from my long held standard hunting cartridge to a "magnum" cartridge and what follows are some of my impressions I've developed while using it in the field. While the Internet is chock full of countless folks churning electrons and armchair ballisticians like to debate the minutiae between the various cartridges, I wanted to avoid that. I simply can't convince myself that a big game animal can discern the difference in a 7mm vs. a .30 caliber or 2800 vs. 2900 feet per second given a life studying such things in the field. But I've come to the conclusion that there is a difference between standard and "magnum" cartridges in the field and like everything else- there are pros and cons to examine.

First off, let's be realistic- "magnum" originated as a name for an extra large bottle of champagne and the term was applied to the early enhanced class of cartridges due to their larger case capacities. When the magnum craze hit the sporting community in the mid-20th century, the marketing departments of all the various manufacturers applied the term to all sorts of new products and cartridges whether they offered enhanced capability or not. For the purpose of this article consider any cartridge, .338 or smaller, capable of throwing a standard weight for caliber projectile to 3000 feet per second at the muzzle a magnum cartridge whether it has the title or not. For instance, all of the Weatherby cartridges easily make the cut but so does the 280 Remington Ackley Improved which gives up nothing to the 7mm Remington Magnum. The fireplug shaped 350 Remington Magnum is a magnum in name only and fails to reach 2600 fps with most practical bullet weights as does the new line of Ruger Compact Magnums despite the marketing. Manufacturers furthered the confusion by slapping belts on nearly every cartridge in the 60's and then making cartridges in the 2000s that had no belts but exceeded the belted cartridges level of performance.

Since I don't subscribe to paper theory I'll have to compare the two cartridges I have the most on game performance comparison with- the .30-06/.308 and the .300 WSM/ .300WM. I used the .30/06 and .308 nearly 20 years and if there's a difference in the field I can't determine it. I've also used the .300WSM and .300 Win Mag quite a lot and balistically there isn't a nickel's worth of difference between them either. I won't talk numbers of creatures killed since that generally devolves into a discussion that borders on the vulgar, but I've shot a fair number of representative animals with each to feel comfortable that my impressions are solid while that number isn't near what one might expect of a Craig Boddington it is certainly on the high side for the average recreational hunter today. When you add in the number of animals I've witnessed shot with the respective cartridges I become quite convinced that the data pool is big enough to encompass a few anomalies as well as anticipated results.

While I certainly don't support the idea that the standard cartridges are insufficient for most big game I do think the magnum class of cartridges (at least in the .30calibers) is an all around more effective tool for the hunter- particularly the Western or Alaskan hunter hunting large game over wide open or mountainous terrain.  In the East, at least in my experience, the magnum class of cartridges is completely over the top except in very specific circumstances. I know that piles of big critters have been killed with the '06 and I've put many of them in that pile myself but if the dear reader will bear with me I'll explain my thought process.

Over wide open and mountainous terrain the ranging abilities of even great hunters are suspect and with a .300 class rifle you simply have to put the animal in the cross hairs and shoot. Many high speed thirties are suitable for a 250 or even 300 yard zero allowing a dead on hold from the muzzle out to the limits of ethical shooting. While it may seem a trifling detail- nearly every miss I've seen in the field occurred when the hunter was attempting to "help" the trajectory and aiming high resulting in shooting over the animals back. Just a few weeks ago I helped a less experienced hunter harvest a caribou at longish range with a .300 Ultra. I've passed on shots just like that with my .308 simply because I wasn't comfortable guesstimating the bullet drop. With the fast thirty it was a simple matter of holding the crosshairs steady and practicing good shooting technique.

Another thing I've observed, and the reader will have to excuse the lack of concrete evidence, is that a fast thirty given similar shot placement almost always seems to kill the target animal quicker than a standard cartridge. I don't know why. My habit has been the broadside, behind-the-shoulder-lung shot for many years and with the .308 and '06 I've been used to uniformly dead animals. But, they generally didn't tip over in their tracks and sometimes a little bit of judicious tracking was involved. While tracking isn't the end of the world it isn't the ideal situation either. With the magnum class of cartridges, nothing I've shot moved more than three or four yards from the point of impact with the majority falling where they stood. I've heard many theories as to the mechanism of injury that causes this and I must admit they all sound suspect; but there is no arguing that the amount of shooting I've now done with the .30 magnums resulted in uniformly fast kills with little to no tracking involved. In my book that's a very good thing.

That kind of performance doesn't come without a downside, some of it mitigatible and some not. The first serious downside to using that kind of velocity is meat damage. I am foremost and always a table hunter, so meat damage is something I'm exceedingly conscious of. With a magnum class rifle you need to do a couple of things to minimize meat damage- the first is shot placement. I know that I've often heard the dictum preached that you should shoot the point of the shoulder. The thought being that once the shoulder is significantly damaged it makes the escape of the quarry unlikely. I don't know about that, since I've seen several three legged deer harvested that managed just fine but I do know that high speed bullets smashing through shoulder bones destroys a lot of meat. As a consideration, the hunter should aim behind the shoulder and strive for a lung shot that avoids the thicker bones and muscle tissue of the shoulders much the way a bowhunter would.

The other consideration to reduce meat damage is for the hunter to use a tougher bullet. The fantastic .300 Weatherby built its reputation using much too soft cup and core bullets that on a behind the shoulder lung shot detonated like hand grenades and dropped game like Thor's hammer. Those same soft bullets would also fragment on shoulder shots, destroy a fair amount of edible meat and occasionally fail to penetrate the chest cavity. Most of the early criticism of the Weatherby cartridges centered on meat damage complaints. It's no surprise that Weatherby was the first company to commercially load ammunition with the Nosler Partition bullet- the first "controlled expansion" bullet that would withstand the high speed impacts common with all magnum cartridges.

With good shot placement and a modern bullet designed for higher impact velocity the amount of meat damage can be greatly reduced. On both caribou this year I didn't lose a significant amount of meat while a companion shot one with a .300 Winchester Magnum, hitting both shoulders and he lost several pounds of edible meat in the process. Identical quarry, identical ballistics and nearly identical range but vastly different outcomes. Shot placement and bullet construction matters.

The other downside to the magnum class cartridges is sheer recoil. While I think that the primary effects of recoil are felt between the ears rather than the shoulder there is no denying that some individuals find recoil at even moderate levels distracting enough to preclude good shooting. There are a few things you can do to mitigate recoil effects- first is to wear good hearing protection on the range. Most shooters find muzzle blast more disturbing than actual recoil so minimize that as much as possible. In that vein, do not muzzle brake your rifle. Muzzle brakes increase the amount of the muzzle blast directed back toward the shooter and can be more disturbing than recoil itself. A shot without hearing protection can be disastrous to the ears almost without fail.

Another item to reduce felt recoil is to make sure the stock fits properly and avoid those endless hours of shooting from a bench where felt recoil is perhaps its worst. Almost anyone with a well fit stock can handle surprisingly large cartridges from a good field position. There certainly is a learning curve to shooting magnums and I advise anyone getting one for the first time to practice often but keep the number of shots per range session fairly low. Even as an experienced shooter I find myself anticipating recoil after a while (see flinching!) and I know its time to transition to lighter rifles or call it a day.

If a shooter simply finds they can't handle the recoil of a magnum class cartridge then the only sensible course of action is to sell it off and get something more tolerable. But, with a little judicious range work and perhaps a bit of instruction almost anybody can develop the ability to shoot the magnum class of cartridges (particularly the lesser ones, ie. 257 Weatherby, 270WSM, 7mm Remington Magnum, etc.) quite effectively in the field. For those hunters willing to put in the work to master them, it is an investment that will return tremendous dividends in open country shooting.