Friday, March 7, 2014

Getting Old…or Confronting Your Prejudices.

Getting old is hard. Among all the physical things that happen like the aches and pains that accompany parts of your anatomy that your twenty year old self never knew you had- there is the tendency among those who live long enough and still pay attention that you will eventually have to confront your own prejudices.

As a guy whose been a lifelong rifle nut, I've had a long standing hatred for "budget" rifles. Back in the day even good grade rifles were plagued with problems and even custom jobs were a dicey proposition when it came to accuracy. I heard all the claims back then and got burned pretty hard a couple of times on rifles that were supposed to be inexpensive performers that turned out to be anything but. I've been burned on good grade stuff that was dropped at the gunsmith shortly after picking it up from the dealer.

The record on scopes back then was as equally dismal- good grade glass from a name brand maker cost a lot of money and everything else basically sucked for half the price. Fogging, imprecise adjustments, crosshairs that disintegrated before your eyes and more commonly- just dim, crappy images were the norm. I knew more than one hunter who basically just shot a aperture sight- at least as good as the middle of the road scope back then and far more reliable.

So friends, it's no wonder that my prejudices pushed me toward the front of the catalog- where all the good stuff was. It cost more, it generally performed better, as was usually more reliable (or last if it wasn't, it had a warranty). I left the low grade stuff for the neophyte, the casual duffer who wanted something to hunt with from time to time but really wasn't an enthusiast to be taken seriously.

And there I stayed.

I've sneered at most of the economy stuff and if I was being polite I'd just ignore it. But something I didn't expect happened. While I was spending hard earned dollars on top shelf equipment and having a thoroughly good time hunting and shooting with it- the low end stuff got better.

A lot better.

As CNC machining and manufacturing spread and became the new norm for industry- all those cheap, crappy guns and cheap crappy scopes suddenly got something of an upgrade. With CNC, it's no harder to get .001" than .005" tolerances since it's all basically done in the workstation- the day of the master craftsmen watching the dial extra close for some extra pay is long over- with the tolerances sorted out digitally the materials themselves got the upgrade. In the competitive industries (especially optics) each manufacturer spends a certain amount of money researching and developing new materials and processes to give themselves an edge over the competition and those technologies have a tendency to migrate down the line as the years roll by…after all - they spent the money to develop it, why not leverage it in the lower end line when something else has come along to be  the "New Thing"?

Even those manufacturers who aren't at the leading edge of industry do a little "R&D" of their own- "replicate and duplicate"- by taking last year's "Big New Thing" from a competitor, copying it,  and making it their "New Big (Cheaper than Theirs) Thing". And such is the pace of industry. Who can win when they do this?

You do.

I've had the extreme pleasure of helping several people over the last year assemble "budget" rifles and then helping them learn to shoot and as a result I've gotten to spend some time at the range with guns I'd have simply overlooked a few years ago as "low grade" and never given them a second thought. In the process I've eaten some crow and plenty of humble pie. Some rifles from Tikka, Savage, Ruger and Thompson. Rifles that all cost 1/4 to 1/3 what a new Winchester or Kimber will set you back and without exception each of those guns was equipped with a "low end" scope from Nikon, Burris, or Leupold.  Not anything from those makers' premium lines- but the $150-200 line- common stuff like a VX-1, Fullfield II, or Prostaff.

And the results were far from merely acceptable. Most were spectacular when you consider the meager cash outlay.

The Tikka/Leupold was likely the most expensive combo of the bunch ($800) and would shoot right with my much loved Nosler/Zeiss….for 1/4 the price. A genuine 3/4 MOA rifle with 3 factory loads of hunting bullet. I'd have thought it a fluke, but another friend bought one like it and it shoots as good as the first. Perhaps the worst of the gang was a Thompson Center with a "mediocre" performance of 1.25 MOA and it still outshoots my Kimber on most days.

So while my advice for many years was "Buy the best you can manage", it's no longer appropriate as the gulf between "entry level" and "best" is nowhere near the chasm it formally was. These days the extra cost commanded by the top shelf makers for their premium line is mostly for baubles and bits- gadgets and features on rifles that most hunters neither need nor want or optical glass so good the difference is imperceptible to the human eye. For the hunter and shooter- we are truly living in the salad days.

These days my advice is- "Buy as good as you need and that'll be less than you think."

1 comment:

Phillip said...

Most of my hunting has been done over budget guns, and for years it was through budget glass (when I had glass at all). As I finally moved up a shade in means, I was able to upgrade my glass... but the only reason I ever bought a more expensive rifle than my Savage 110 was because I just really liked the Browning A-bolt... not because I thought it would be "better." And truth is, I still hunt more with the Savage than anything else in my safe.

The Tikka is another shocker, and while I don't own one myself, I've recommended it and helped friends get up and running with these rifles (bargain basement Sako) with very few complaints.

One trend I noticed this year at SHOT was the number of "package guns" that are topped with higher-end glass. Zeiss, in particular, is getting in on the action. Nikon has been in this corner of the market for a while, but they're becoming more prevalent, as are the Leupolds. You don't see as much Tasco or Simmons... but if you look at what's happened to the industry, these guys are being bought out by the big dogs anyway, and re-branded.

It is a good time to be a budget-conscious hunter.