Sunday, August 5, 2012
Selecting The Perfect Alaskan Rifle...or A Low Maintenance Killin' Stick
The first thing we'll examine is the overall composition of the rifle. After hunting here for well over a decade, I can honestly report that the conditions are extremely hard on rifles. The main hunting season takes place in August and September and for most of Alaska those months are usually the rainiest of the year. In fact, as I write this I've just returned from a caribou hunt (photo above) that saw all of a half hour's sunshine the entire trip. That alone would recommend a rifle of the stainless/synthetic variety. Mountain hunting is also very hard on a rifle's finish and while there is certainly nothing wrong with taking a blued/wood stocked rifle into the sheep mountains, be aware that finish work you've paid for will likely be destroyed over the course of a few years hunting. I've done it, a couple times now. My current rifle has a kevlar stock and Cerakkote finish and frankly it shows a lot of wear and tear from backpacking in the high country. Matte stainless steel and an indestructible plastic stock just make a lot of sense here.
The action is something that is hotly debated among serious rifle cranks and while I won't delve into the numerous minutiae that define the course of the debate I will say that I have a slight preference for controlled round feed for hunting where something may bite back. Rifles with such actions are the Winchester 70 (real old and newer models), the Ruger 77 MkII and Hawkeye, the Kimber, and the Montana 99 as well as any of the Mauser derivatives such as the CZ. I have quite successfully used many push feed rifles in Alaska- examples are the Remington 700, Weatherbys, Browning, Savage, and most European rifles (excepting Mausers of course). And while it's not something to really get wrapped around the axle about, I do suggest the reader wade into some of the better produced literature about the topic prior to purchasing a rifle- Craig Boddington's North American Hunting Rifles and Safari Rifles have whole sections devoted to lengthy explanations of both action types, their advantages and disadvantages, without delving into the hysterics common on the subject.
The scope is something I've discussed before in my blog at some length and my preference for fixed power scopes is something I've made well known. On the "Perfect" Alaska rifle a fixed 4x or 6x is right at home in most of our hunting environments- the notable exception being the coastal alder thickets which are really no place for any scope. I've used Leupold, Burris, and Zeiss scopes with great success. With variables, which are really more common today, something on the order of 3-9x40 is an excellent choice. A couple things to avoid- high magnification and large objectives. In Alaska, hunting season still has lengthy daylight hours and I've never found myself wishing for a brighter scope to make a dusk or dawn shot. The large objectives are most commonly seen on European scopes where hunting is conducted in full dark by our standards. It just puts the scope too high for a comfortable cheek weld and a larger objective is more prone to damage than a smaller scope tucked low onto the action. When shooting at a moose under 300 yards, a 6x scope is perfectly adequate and 9x is frequently unusable in a field position- more magnification than that is simply too distracting. With rifle scopes the adage, "you get what you pay for" is certainly true and economy scopes should be avoided like plague rats.
Practicality is something I both endeavor for and hate at the same time. I readily admit my personal collection of hunting rifles borders on the esoteric but I would never suggest any of them as a "Perfect Alaska" rifle either due to obscurity or cost to other people. In the interest of practicality let me suggest to the reader that tankers of ink have been spilled writing about the attributes of various rifles without regard to how they'll be used in the field. I'll tell you, in Alaska, a rifle will be carried for miles, rained on, filled with glacial silt, beat and banged about on pack frames, ATVs, snow machines, airplanes, boats, occasionally used as a walking stick and generally regarded as a tool. This is a place that makes serious rifle cranks cry buckets of tears. For a practical hunter, spending a months salary on a rifle just doesn't make any sense given the treatment it will receive so we'll add cost to the mix as well. Durability is something we also want to add in and that'll nix most of the really lightweight rifles. While we want to avoid the economy rifles we don't exactly need to spend a lot of cash either. The same advice could be applied to scopes as well- buy reasonable quality but don't overdo it either. Many folks (myself included) will spend big dollars chasing gilt edged accuracy- in a hunting rifle it's mostly unnecessary since very few hunters can shoot up to their rifle's capabilities from a field position anyway. The sub MOA rifle bumping off a critter at extreme range is mostly a Walter Mitty fantasy that's exploited by marketeers to generate additional sales.
I'll apply my advice to a rifle here and while it may indicate a preference for a brand it does not- it is simply applying criteria to a large number of pieces and selecting one that I feel meets the criteria better than the others. It is simply a starting place for the reader to apply their own criteria too and perhaps make a different selection based on what's important to them. I think when you boil down the available choices the Ruger 77 Hawkeye is perhaps the best example of a practical "Perfect Alaska Rifle", so in brief here's how is stacks up. The 77 is available in stainless and synthetic trim as well as a tough laminated wood for those that can't abide plastic. The action is really a very basic Mauser derivative and has the attributes of CRF, a three position wing safety that blocks the striker, a reasonably robust and open trigger mechanism and integral scope bases that are overbuilt if anything. To that action I'll add a Leupold FX-II 4x or 6x scope or perhaps a Zeiss Conquest 3-9x40 in the Ruger rings. I'll exchange them for lows rings if I'm using a scope that will fit (Ruger used to do this for the price of postage and still may, it's worth checking out).
In Alaska, a .300WM or .338WM Ruger All-Weather is perhaps the single most common arm- available (with ammunition) in darn near every place that sells guns and also in a robust secondary market as well. These are mass produced guns and are ordered by box store chains by the truckload- I've regularly seen the mentioned rifle on the rack for $600 or less despite Rugers rather generous published MSRP and on the used market I've purchased examples for as low as $200. For the hunter on a tight budget a used (even a well used) M77 is probably a better value than a new "budget" rifle from other makers. The Ruger is a pretty robust piece and due to the casting process they pioneered, most of the metal work is pretty good and tolerances are tight enough to function well without being so tight the rifle is easily jammed with the inevitable grit they accumulate in the field. Theoretically its an inferior rifle to a more expensive Winchester or Kimber- it certainly weighs more and the fit and finish is certainly sloppier but for a rough treatment piece- who cares? The critters certainly won't mind you've shot them with an ugly gun.
Adding a mid grade Leupold or Zeiss (both commonly available here) you could easily purchase a new rifle with scope of reasonably good quality for less than $1000, perhaps enough less to equip it with a decent sling and a box or two of ammunition. A price low enough that you'll actually get out and hunt with it without mental anxiety. I've hunted with several folks now (also inveterate rifle cranks like myself) who fussed and fiddled with their more expensive rifles while in the field to the point of distraction. One such gentleman brought a gorgeous European rifle topped with an expensive German scope that he carried in a padded, waterproof bag to protect it. Several times during the hunt he stopped to examine the rifle for damage. While I don't disagree that the piece was beautiful and accurate as well as a superb example of the rifle maker's craft- it also represented this guy's personal worry stone. I've taken expensive pieces into the field and I must admit, those first nicks and scrapes hurt. Watching my new Nosler 48 slide down a scree chute was like watching an old lady open her car door into your new Corvette. Unless you're just a real shooting enthusiast who derives a lot of pleasure from hunting with specialized pieces, it just isn't worth it. To my chagrin, I've got a couple of pieces that I won't generally hunt with for fear of damaging them in the field.
After three decades as a hunter, I've yet to experience a situation where a particular rifle made the difference between success and failure. I have seen where a better pair of boots, a better grade tent, better rain gear and so forth would have made a difference in the hunt. I've also seen a lot of guys toting spendy rifles and the rest of their gear was basically crap. They're putting emphasis on the wrong thing but hunters have had excessive affinity for their weapons since the dawn of time, I doubt my meager contribution will change that much. Personally, most hunters are better off concentrating their efforts on things other than the shooting iron for field success.