Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas

Peace on Earth and Goodwill Toward Men....

Wishing you and yours a safe and prosperous New Year, wherever the trail takes you.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


Author's note: This was put together fairly quickly and in response to several inquiries regarding my thoughts on the recent mass shootings. It's not as polished as I'd like, but it's self reflective and I'll put it out there. I wanted to refrain from writhing on this topic at all as it ventures quite far from my usual genre. Comment moderation is on and given the amount of inappropriate commentary I've already read on this topic I may not publish any of them. Intelligent commentary is, of course, welcome.

As an observation about the events in Connecticut...

It seems to me that calling this event a tragedy isn't really correct- this is an atrocity. A school bus crashing on an icy road is a tragedy; the purposed murder of children is an atrocity.

The proper response to tragedy is sorrow, whereas the proper response to atrocity is rage.

And here's the rub- with these sorts of events the person primarily responsible often winds up dead in the act; leaving us rage without a target. People will sort this out in a variety of ways- some direct their rage toward the instrument (i.e. the gun), toward the shooter's family, toward elements of society they perceive to have enabled the shooter, to the government and, lastly, God. I've seen all of these responses in the last 24 hours, some of them within the ranks of my friends and family as well as myself.

While it's all very normal, it does leave us lacking with all the talk about changing our laws in response to such events in order to prevent it from happening again. All this misplaced emotional rage clouds our judgement and prevents us from having any sort of meaningful discourse. As a nation we demand action- and are far from being able to discern what, to whom, and to where.

Do we, as a society, need some type of stricter controls on arms? Or, as some suggest, less controls? I don't know the answer to either, but as an individual I take encroachment on my liberties quite seriously. I also take the safety of my family seriously and the safety of our nation seriously as well. If we are going to have a national discourse on gun control I'd certainly like it to be with the clearest minds possible and that isn't now. Most people I know with even a modicum of compassion are hurting. And angry. And confused. 

I believe we will, and should, engage in the debate about the ease of access to arms in our society. If undertaken, we need reason and diligence to protect both our liberties and our safety. But not now- now is the time for prayer, and tears, and mourning. Not a vicious debate.

Quick draw bantering- the same old tired cliches back and forth is meaningless and will only break our civil discourses down further. There are folks on both sides of this debate who will use the emotions of the day to further their agendas- and I don't care which side they're on- engaging in a sort of opportunistic ghoulism provided by the blood of innocents. It disgusts me beyond wrath and it should you too. To be perfectly clear- if at this point you're either calling for more gun control or crying out against it- your priorities as a human being, frankly, just suck. 

I'm suspicious of special interests, politicians and others (who may not actually care very much about the safety of our families) that are going to be talking a lot in the next few weeks about the safety of our families. For a lot of those folks it's about winning a long running debate, a philosophcal argument more so than anything else. They've entered into this discourse with their minds firmly made up from days and battles long past and aren't going to engage in anything new or meaningful at all. Mere vitriol for the cameras- soundbites to appease their supporters and donors. For so long the debate about arms has been between the margins- the vocal outliers on both sides who don't do a very good job of representing us. Any of us.

I'm also deeply suspicious of anyone who steps forward and purports to have an easy solution. This atrocity isn't merely about guns, if it were the solutions would be pretty simple. The factors that lead to these attocities aren't simple problems and there are no easy solutions. In fact- there may not even be a solution and that troubles me deeply. The problems in our society are many- easy access to weapons, a culture enamored with extreme violence as entertainment, a moral compass that spins wildly out of control, a national mental healthcare crisis, a generation of medicated and maladjusted young people- freedoms undertaken without responsibility. To focus on one element of this atrocity is myopic at best and irresponsible at worst.

As a nation built on democracy and civil discourse there will be time for all of that...but not now.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Practicool, not Tacticool...or I'm Officially Sick of Zombies

OK folks...here we are a week past Thanksgiving and a few weeks shy of Christmas and winter is upon us full force. It's dark and cold and, given the season, I've had to venture out to do the seasonal shopping. I absolutely refuse to participate in Black Friday madness so the shopping waited a bit until this week.

I tend to shop local as much as possible but given my locale there are certainly some things I have to travel to a larger city to find. While I'm there I generally like to make my way to the "Hook and Bullet Superstore"- which is basically everything you need and a lot of what you don't under one gigantic roof. I've been aware for some time that the outdoors industry is every bit as a fashion and fad driven as any other that markets it's wares to John Q. Public. I purposely try to stay out of the fray given my self admitted gear nerd tendencies (SBW would call me a 'kit tart' with a proper British accent) or I'd be right there with the rest of my gear nerd brethren arguing to the supremacy of 250 vs 300 gr/in merino wool, the 7mm vs the .30s, or some other vital minutiae.

That said- what I find on my visits to the "H&B Superstore" sometimes gives me no shortage of chuckles. It seems in the fashion driven world of hunting the word "Tactical" is back and "camo is the new black". It seems there is no end to what accoutrement manufacturers will slap camouflage paint on and no silvery, shiny surface they'll not black out in an effort to "tacticfy" it. Yep- camo, matte black, and the trendy "Flat Dark Earth" color (which conspicuously looks like old school khaki to me) on everything from clothes to packs to tents, to whatever. Among the wares tactified were knives, lighters, flashlights and other items it seemed to me might be in the outdoorsman's best interest to find quickly and not lose.

Case in point- a fine looking knife with a MARPAT sheath and handle and a blade coated with some type of FDE coating. You know, as a guy who uses a knife in the field quite a lot  I'll be dead level honest with you- I'd lose that thing in a second. I'd set it down while working on a critter and never find it again. Heck, I've lost bright, shiny and pretty knives to the tundra and boreal forest without trying. These days I buy knives that are two things- inexpensive and, preferably, orange. You know, a knife is a pretty important piece of equipment to the outdoorsman and it seems silly to make one harder to find on purpose- especially since no one I know ever spooked a deer or moose with the handle of their knife. Of course, if you make knives I can see some value in making them easier to lose.

Come on guys (and it's always guys)- we're hunters not ninjas.

The other fashionable artifact I saw in great abundance were zombies. Yep....zombies. Unless you're living under a rock or are my next door neighbor you're already quite aware that folks in the US (and maybe other places as well) are flat out fascinated with the brain munching undead. I gotta admit that I find the notion a bit less than appealing. Maybe more so since it's now infected the outdoor market and I saw items such as "Zombie Max" ammunition- might sound like a joke but the bullets are real. Not funny. Seriously. I also saw a "Zombie survival kit" (not on my list of things I worry about), zombie targets (again, not on my list) and a shotgun marketed as a "Zombie Slayer". You know- maybe I need to lighten up a bit but marketing real arms and ammo to the X-Box crowd might not be in our collective best interest.

After seeing these sorts of products, maybe we could start a new trend..."Practicool". You heard me- an item that's practical in it's construction, useful in this paradigm of existence and made in a color that doesn't virtually guarantee it's immediate loss. How about an orange handled knife that costs a mere $15? Everybody ought to have two! Tents would come in one color....bright yellow and ammo will kill real creatures as opposed to mythical ones out at the Walter Mitty Gun Range.

Alright, rant off.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


I'm Thankful.

Among the many blessings that I've received, I'd like to thank my readers- the folks who pull up a digital camp chair to the fire and listen to my ramblings with attentiveness and encouragement. The folks who correspond with me about my passions- the outdoors, hunting, fishing, geeking about rifles and equipment- it's that interaction that allows me to extend my adventures long past the actual event.

I'm also thankful for those who share their adventures with me. Those who allow me to tag along on vicarious adventures to places I'll likely never go, to see things I'd never see on my own. The folks who patiently answer my questions in my efforts to not just spectate- but to understand. It's these folks who make this whole blogging endeavor worthwhile.

So in conclusion- Thank You.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Steyr Scout Rifle....a General Purpose Rifle Redux

Sorry folks for the lack of posting...lots happening lately, most not worth writing about with a few notable exceptions and this is one of them.

In what seems like an eternity ago, my good friend and compadre' Ghillieman burst into my office for a friendly visit bearing the latest copy of some gun rag. There, featured on the cover was the long awaited creation of gun guru and Renaissance man Col. Jeff Cooper- the Steyr Scout Rifle. I'd been awaiting seeing one for some time and had followed it's development in the pages of Guns and Ammo for several years. If memory serves, it was some time in spring1998.

"We've got to get a couple of these...", remarked Ghillie. That remark set us on a course of motion that had me trading in most of my gun collection in those days of more meager means. Ghillie sold off a few pieces and the following week we placed a couple on order with our favorite cash depository (ie. gunstore). The wait seemed like forever but a few months later the guns arrived and we set out to shoot these things to death. I didn't hunt as much back then but used the rifle on several successful hunts and while it drew funny looks and more than a few snide comments- I was shooting better than ever with this odd looking rifle. I took several whitetails, including one at the long range of 275 yards. I took it on groundhog duty and shot many of the nuisance critters to embarrassing distances. I took a rifle class and   even though every other participant was equipped with some form of autoloading military derived rifle, at the end of it I held top gun in every category except missing fast. I truly believed that if I could see it, I could hit it. I credit the time I spent with that rifle to putting me well on the way to becoming a real, honest to God,  rifleman.

Time waits for no one and after a few years of joyful shooting I had the opportunity and desire to relocate to Alaska. The Steyr (along with almost everything else I owned) was sold off to finance that move. Of all the rifles I've had over the years, that Steyr was one of the very few that I regretted parting ways with. I made a couple of half-hearted attempts to replace it but ultimately never could close a deal. Steyrs are pretty hard to find most places and even more so in Alaska. Rifles of this quality are never inexpensive but when made by Austrians the cost gets just outright prohibitive to some.

The intervening years went by and one day recently I received a call I never expected.... Ghillie called and asked if I'd like to buy his Steyr in order to relieve some economic distress that long periods of underemployment tend to generate. Given it was a friend in need I (of course) agreed before the price was even discussed. I'd have simply sent a check if one had been asked for outright, but honorable men don't readily do that. Honorable men also don't make off with their buddy's prized possessions in exchange for cash either, except in the direst of circumstances. In the words of Cooper- "The Queen (referring to a favorite rifle) is not for sale. Given, loaned, borrowed, exchanged sure- but not sold." So an agreement was struck- I mailed the check and would take the rifle adventuring. When sunnier fiscal times arrived the arrangement could be reversed at his discretion and honor maintained all around.

After a long wait I finally got the rifle to Alaska and it was even more special than I remembered. The skills I acquired in the years intervening revealed details on the rifle I'd not appreciated previously. After several weeks of workday drudgery and fierce weather, I was able to take the rifle shooting. I planned to do a couple of things at once- first, evaluate the Steyr as a hunting weapon compared to a conventional bolt action rifle and second, evaluate some of Remington's "Reduced Recoil" ammunition. The light and diminutive Scout would be perfect for the second purpose. Recent winter storms had dumped several inches of snow in the last week and the day's temperature was a brisk -21F, neither of which were ideal range conditions for testing anything other than harsh environment resistance on part of the rifle and the shooter!

I placed a target at the hundred yard mark (110yds actually) and trudged through some deep snow back to the firing line. I used the Scout's bipod and nestled in behind the rifle and ran into the first snag- an 18" drift of snow midrange totally blocked view of the target when prone. Frustration. Given the short daylight, I simply turned my jeep perpendicular to the shooting lane and would shoot "jackass prone" over the hood. Not as accurate as true prone- it can be surprisingly good provided you don't inadvertently blast the paint off the hood.

I loaded 5 rounds of plain-Jane .308WIN Remington CoreLokt 150gr ammunition rated at 2820fps in the magazine. I settled in over a pack layer across the hood and at the last second removed my glove. I took a careful sight picture and noticed the thick Leupold crosshairs nearly obscured the target dot so I concentrated carefully and squeezed off a round. I looked through the binoculars and confirmed a hole gratifyingly on the 1.5" target sticker and proceed to fire four more rounds. I was pleased as punch to discover a tight group of 5 on the mark despite the loss of feeling in my trigger finger. This critter was ready to hunt!

For the next test, I loaded 5 rounds of Remington Reduced Recoil which features a 125gr bullet at 2660 fps and claims a 50% reduction in recoil. Big Green also advertises these rounds shoot to the same point of aim out to 200yds as their other ammunition. To say I was skeptical on both points is something of an understatement. After warming my hand up beneath my parka I sighted in on the next target and squeezed carefully. Bang! I was surprised by the loud noise but little recoil I experienced. A quick check with the binoculars showed a neat hole in the 2" circle. Wow. I fired the remainder of the magazine into the target and had a group that was slightly larger than what I'd fired with the conventional powered ammunition. About 1.75"- not a stellar group by today's standards, but certainly acceptable given the range limitation of 200yds and the fact the rifle is zeroed for an entirely different weight of bullet and stills hits to POA.

Photo above- the left group is Remington Reduced Recoil Ammunition. The right group is conventional 150gr Remington CoreLokt ammunition. No adjustment to the scope zero was made between groups.

Without lab type equipment I can't validate the claim of 50% but I don't doubt it. Recoil was much softer than conventional ammunition and I would hazard the the kick was about on par with a 22-250 or .243. Very soft shooting for a lightweight .308WIN and perfect for anyone who's recoil shy- which is why I bought it to start with. Not myself, but for my 11 year old son who is a beginning and enthusiastic hunter looking to drop a caribou. This combination should make a very nice piece of equipment for such a purpose. I don't know if the POA/POI will be an equivalent in every rifle but it would certainly be worth a try if you have a budding hunter as your ward. Regardless of which ammo was used the next rifle recoiled much more severely.

Next, I took my beloved .300WSM out for a comparison to the Steyr. This rifle has been my main hunting rig for several years and is a rifle of known accuracy. The rifle is in theory a .75MOA rifle with a 3-9x Zeiss scope and Nosler custom ammunition and should shoot circles around the Scout. I loaded the internal magazine and fired three shots at the next target. The group was bigger than I expected- I've shot much better with the rifle. I can only attribute it to my freezing fingers, the impromptu rest, or the fact that in the frigid air my breath was landing as a thin layer of ice on the ocular lens with each exhalation. Another three round string and the group size was about the same as the Steyr's- 1.25" but by the last shot the target was significantly obscured by the ice. The Steyr with it's intermediate eye relief scope mounted forward didn't accumulate any frost at all despite spending more time behind it. Significant when hunting in Arctic conditions? Could very well be.

Conclusion- the Scout is a very well thought out rifle with more than acceptable accuracy for hunting with either load I tried. It's forward mounted scope is a great feature for hunting in extremely cold weather. The Scout is also a very "handy" piece- well balanced and thought out. It's hard to describe but some rifles just carry and hunt much friendlier than others and the Steyr gets high marks in that regard. Despite our proclivities to talk in circles about benchrest accuracy, the truth is that with either rifle with any load I fired today a big game animal within practical shooting range would have been in significant trouble. When fired under challenging field conditions the limiting factor on accuracy was me- I couldn't leverage the superior accuracy of my .300 to fire a better group than with the Steyr and could barely better it's secondary load. Chalk it up to "practical accuracy" vs. "intrinsic accuracy".

Bottom line- cabin fever is relieved, shooting is fun, and I'm darn thankful I get to spend some more time in the field with a rifle as unique and pleasant as the Steyr Scout.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Sonny and the Sharp-tail...and Tacos.

It was a gray Saturday evening. The family is out of state, leaving the dog and I holding down the fort. With the work week over and weekend chores done, we did the only sensible thing a man and his dog can do with left unattended...we went hunting.

I've never been an avid waterfowl hunter; it always seemed to require things that I didn't have access to as a younger man so the duck hunter's itch never really caught hold. In my "middle youth", as SBW would say, I'm trying not to toddle into old age stale and listless so I'm trying to expand my hunting experiences into areas I've previously left unexplored. Case in point...waterfowl. While caribou hunting this year I saw thousands of ducks and given my goal of caribou I didn't take the time to pursue any even though I could have easily. With a caribou safely ensconced in the freezer and the season closed for the rut- I decided to invest in a duck stamp and see what I could do.

A midweek initial foray into the swamp yielded no ducks but I saw lots of them and spooking a bunch tucked into the weeds yielded a hasty shot that connected with nothing. The rest of the evening I watched ducks cruising the far shore well out of my reach. As an ill-equipped duck amateur I was finding this frustrating. So my Saturday evening trip found Sonny and I bound for a series of high country pothole lakes that I hoped would yield some ducks.

We arrived and something that never fails to amaze me had happened. On a small lake that earlier in the month had held hundreds of ducks now was vacant- not even a ripple populated the glassy surface. We hiked a couple miles from lake to lake and each time the story was the same- the ducks had vanished like water in a sink when the tap was turned off. Still, time in the field hiking around with a gun in hand and a young dog crashing the brush around you is never wasted.

The enjoyable hike ended back at the Pathfinder and I wasn't ready to give it up and go home just yet, we still had a half hour of daylight and we were in a good area for grouse and ptarmigan. A few minutes with an Avid Gun Tool and the Benelli was reconfigured for upland game. The modified steel choke for the heavy duck loads was replaced with a more open improved cylinder choke for fast flushing grouse using a smaller lead shot. After remembering my performance on the ptarmigan covey last year and how often I had ran the gun dry I removed the magazine plug as well. I reloaded with high brass 6's and was ready to go.

Sonny took the lead and we cruised down the ridge top where the gravel bands made clear, hard trails through the low brush for easy and quiet walking. We had made our way just about a quarter mile and the grouse flushed hard from dog about 30 yards forward and left. The big rooster sounded like Huey helicopter when he took off- wings beating furiously against the sky. Not the most graceful fliers in the avian kingdom, he made a long, slow traverse from my left to my right- silhouetted perfectly against the steel gray sky. The gun flew to my shoulder of it's own accord and cracked once. The grouse's wingbeats stopped abruptly at the report, the sky erupted in feathers as the bird cartwheeled from the sky into a band of waist high brush.

The dog was on him in a flash and emerged just seconds later with the bird held in his jaws. One thing that has surprised me since we've gotten the dog is just how expressive and how tuned to human interaction they are. The look on the dog as he trotted to me with the bird was one of pure ecstasy. Tail high and wagging, gait like a prancing pony, even his eyes showed a joyful light. People who have dogs as family members probably know what I'm talking about and everyone else probably doesn't have a clue. Sonny reluctantly gave up the bird he was so proud of and given the remaining light decided to hunt our way back to the vehicle.

Upon arrival back at home I pondered the best way to render the sharp-tail into a tasty supper. Game birds are pretty versatile and the whole effort of plucking and roasting a grouse just seemed out of place for the type of food I was craving...which was Mexican. A long held pet peeve of mine is that folks think game meat has to be prepared in some exotic way that parallels the often extraordinary effort that goes into the procurement of it. As a result, a lot of hunters are sitting on freezers of meat they seldom eat either due to constraints of time or skill. With a couple of adjustments to the cooking method, game meat can often be used in place of (and frequently superior to) domestic meats. So Roasted Grouse Under Glass or Sharp-tail Tacos? Tacos it was.

I split the skin open on the grouse and using a sharp knife filleted the breast halves from the carcass. I split the legs and trimmed the meat off the bone and gave the dog a little for his efforts. Despite the size of the bird- that was about the extent of edible meat on the carcass- I've never found sharp-tail to have enough meat on the backs to warrant the effort unless you roast them skin on. I clipped a wing to forward to ADFG for a biological sample and gave the other to the dog to play with while I made dinner.

I took the breast halves and boiled them in some water that I seasoned with a little garlic, some minced onion and a bit of chipotle seasoning. I let them simmer for the better part of an hour that way and then let them cool. After they'd cooled enough to handle, I shredded the meat with a fork which served two purposes really- to prepare the meat for the next phase and to look for errant pieces of shot. One thing I've always hated about the shotgun is the tendency to leave wee bits of metal in your food. Surprisingly the prepared meat tasted a little bit like dark pork. Perfect for what I was going to do next.

After shredding and ensuring the meat was shot-free, I placed in a skillet over medium heat and added a couple pats of butter, some chili powder, some more onion and some more chipotle seasoning and let it start to saute. I popped open a can of green chilies and drained them- then added the contents to the skillet. By this time the smell in the kitchen was incredible and I thought the dog would drown in his own drool. I heated a couple of tortillas and layered in some meat mixture with lettuce, taco sauce, some shredded cheese and a little bit of sour cream.

The Sharp-tail Taco- not the traditional way to eat a game bird but excellent nonetheless.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bone Sour Shame

Anyone who has read my blog for any length of time, knows that I am first and foremost a table hunter and that I'm pretty much fanatical in my approach to field care of meat. I feel that once you shoot and kill an animal, you pretty much owe it to that animal to utilize the meat as efficiently as possible. Wasting game either through purpose or negligence is a shameful thing. In that vein, I'd like to share an experience I had recently.

After tipping over this year's first caribou, my family and I worked diligently and quickly to field dress and quarter the caribou and remove it from the field. The shot occurred at approximately 5:30p and by 7:00p I was packing it to the vehicle. An hour and a half from death to transport- cool temperatures and a stiff breeze had cooled the meat quickly- excellent. A two hour drive to my home (9:00p) and I took the meat, hung it and rinsed it with cold water and washed away all the blood and whatever minor debris it inevitably accumulates from field dressing. I also trimmed off a small amount of bloodshot meat and some miscellaneous fat and inedible bits. After the meat was clean, I hung it in my garage and placed a fan on the floor to keep a steady stream of cool air flowing over it all night. I finally retired to the shower at just after midnight.

I awoke the next morning, sore from previous day's hunt, and went to garage to check on the meat. It was cool, dry and the steady airflow had crusted the meat over beautifully. I made an appointment at the local game processor for the early afternoon to hang the meat and age it and then butcher the caribou into roasts, steaks and burger ready for freezing and storage and eventual consumption by my family. At the requested time (2:00p) I placed the pieces in clean game bags and transported it to the processor where it was tagged, weighed, and hung in a large commercial cooling unit. I've processed game in my home before and while home butchering is quite simple, it is time consuming and with my busier fall schedules the last few years it is simply more convenient to let the pros handle it. I turned the clean, cool meat over the processor and watched them move it into the cooler at 2:40p. A bit over 22 hours from the time the trigger was pulled and I feel like the care I gave the meat during the interim was about all I could have possibly done. I'm not worried about losing one scrap to improper field care. I tell you all this to set the stage for what I witnessed while waiting to check in my caribou and some of the horrendous mistakes I saw.

When I arrived at the processor, someone else was in front of me. The processing staff was bent over a large moose leg with a knife, going through repeated motions of cutting and smelling the meat. From the extreme scowl and the "not-so-friendly" exchange between the staff and the customer I knew I wanted to ease on up to the dock to try to get an idea of what was going on. The staff person had noticed an odd odor about the meat when the person brought it in and decided a thorough inspection was in order and questioned the hunter at length about the time of death, field care, etc. to get a better idea about what was going on biologically.

As the repeated tale went, the hunter and his partner saw two large (and legal) bulls together in a marsh one morning. Hunter One shoots Moose One and down it goes. Hunter Two then implores Hunter One to abandon his animal and pursue Moose Two. The pair pursue Moose Two over hill and dale and finally tip it over in a mini-fusillade of rifle fire in the afternoon. The pair then dress out Moose Two- which takes until dark. They then retired to camp for the night and return to Moose One the following morning...a full 24 hours after shooting it. I apologize if the flow is wrong since the entire exchange was too long and some of the details changed over the course, but this was the best I could decipher.

It biologically makes sense given that Moose One had lain all day in the sun and all night in the marsh. Not field dressed, not quartered, not anything. What I strongly speculate is this- the carcass hit the ground at it's normal body temperature. The moose's marvelous fur, location in a low area away from the breeze, and insulation from the earth by thick marsh grass ensured the meat cooled extremely slowly. Of more concern, the animals viscera and blood contain a lot of water so this warm, wet environment yielded the perfect environment for all the wee beasties living within the carcass to positively flourish. Not only flourish, but using the liquid medium of the moose's own juices spread throughout the carcass from hotter areas (near the core bones) all through the meat. The only pieces that may have escaped are the ones just under the "up" side hide that would have cooled a bit quicker while the hide was exposed to cooler night air. The process is known as "bone sour". It is devastating to edibility of the meat and just as remarkably simple to prevent.

What the processing staff found is that the hunter's inattention and slovenly practices had basically reduced several hundred pounds of wonderful meat to dog food.

I'll refer the reader to a previous piece I wrote on proper field care here. But the basics are that as quickly as you can remove the organs, entrails and blood. Next, remove the hide,quarter the animal, cool it and then get it the heck out of the field. When dealing with animals as large as moose, one at a time for the hunting party is certainly more than enough to attempt to handle- particularly in the early season.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Revelation Knife

As you may have noticed by the little banner on the upper left, I am on field staff for a company called Real Avid. The company makes a selection of hunting and shooting accouterments. A few days after I signed the contract a neat little package arrived in the mail containing their signature product- the Revelation Knife with instructions to take it out and get it dirty. That I could do.

The following weekend I took my neighbor out on a caribou hunt and we were quite fortunate after a long day of stalking caribou and seeing them in the hundreds- to finally close the distance on a good sized cow. My neighbor made a stunningly skillful (or stunningly lucky) 309 yard neck shot and neatly dropped the caribou instantly into a pile. Turns out I'd get to try that knife out after all!

The knife has a couple of LEDs built into the handle that illuminates the cutting edge of the blade (hence the moniker- Revelation). Purpose built for those times when you drop an animal at the productive times at last light, it neatly solves the problem of putting some light on the task of field dressing your animal. I've done this task with a flashlight clenched in my teeth and while wearing a headlamp as well as by the beams of various vehicles- none are ideal since all methods leave a lot of shadows on your subject. Far from just a nuisance, wielding sharp knives in places you can't see can often result in whittling on your own digits- a bad deal.

Since we'd dropped this caribou at 5:30 in the afternoon and had three hours until dark, it was unlikely that we'd be able to take advantage of the lights to their fullest but we'd give the rest of the knife a workout. Some initial impressions are the knife appeared well made for it's modest MSRP and while 440C stainless isn't my favorite blade steel, it is entirely up to the task of a hunting knife. It was also quite sharp out of the box and noticeably absent was the incredibly annoying "wire edge" so prevalent on a factory sharpened knife. Just a good working edge was there. The handle was made of some type of polymer with a slightly tacky feel that provided good grip- even wet or bloody. At the pommel was a small threaded plug that contained the battery pack for the light and on the scale side was a small button that turned the LEDs on and off. The sheath was a rather simple (and effective) pouch style made from nylon and plastic.

We easily made the initial incisions and after using a bone saw to cut through the sternum, activated the lights to make the often difficult cuts around the diaphragm. My partner was only slightly experienced so being able to see what he was doing was a real confidence booster. In just a few minutes he had the internal organs removed cleanly. At this point we started skinning the animal and the drop point blade made efficient work of the task and we quickly had an entire side complete. The blade easily separated the front quarter and we placed it in a game bag. We went to work on the rear quarter and the blade stood up to the often rigorous wrenching required to separate the ball joint without damage- I've broken two knives doing such work so it didn't pass without note. We filleted out the tenderloin and backstrap and we were ready to flip and repeat.

Despite the foul weather and high winds, after only about an hour or so we had the caribou broken down into two manageable bundles and ready to pack out the half mile or so to our boat. After butchering the entire caribou with little additional tooling except a bone saw, the edge remained sharp enough to butcher another one without resharpening. I generally think the ability to butcher one big game animal without retouching is quite sufficient and this one passed the test with flying colors.

My only complaint with the knife (and I've shared the commentary with the makers) is that the black handled knife disappears easily in the field- I much prefer that sort of tool to be in a blaze orange color for easy location during use and to prevent loss...but that'll be a topic for my next post.

Per Real Avid- The Revelation knife is available at Wal-Mart, Dick's Sporting Goods, and (of course) the Real Avid website if you'd like one of your own. I would expect other retailers to pick it up in due course as well.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Cover That Muzzle!

A sharp-eyed reader wrote to me after my last piece and asked what was wrong with my muzzle in the original of the above photo.

In short, the answer is "Nothing". That appendage on the end of my rifle barrel is good old electrical tape. "Why" you may ask?

Simple- to keep unwanted stuff out of the muzzle of my rifle. Hunting is often a very sloppy affair- water, snow, mud, sand, glacial silt and all kinds of other detritus just wait out there in the wilds to lodge themselves in the barrel of your rifle. If you're unlucky enough to actually pull the trigger on your rifle with debris in the barrel you could (at a minimum) damage the barrel of your rifle or (at worst case)   burst the barrel and injure you.

The fix is easy. Take a 1.5" piece of electrical tape and put it over the muzzle. Take a 3" piece and wrap it around the barrel to secure the first piece in place. Now your rifle is protected from getting stuff in it you'd rather not have.

Years ago as a teen, I dropped my 30-30 while descending a small bluff. The rifle fell about 15' straight down and stuck itself stock up in the E. Tennessee red clay mud. The bore was hopelessly clogged with mud and every effort I made to remove it in the field was in vain. Hunt OVER.

Just last year I was hunting with a friend on a winter caribou hunt when he rolled his snow machine and (unbeknown to him) filled the barrel with snow. That snow melted from some heat source (snow machine, body heat we have no idea) and the melt water ran down into the action and refroze on the bolt face and chamber. A few hours later we spotted a wolf resting in a clearing- my partner attempted to chamber a round and couldn't close the bolt. It took a few minutes to diagnose the problem and even longer to try to fix it with a lighter. By the time the rifle was back in action the wolf was long gone.

In either of the above instances- firing the rifle with the obstructed bore could have been catastrophic. Firing your rifle with tape over the muzzle isn't dangerous- the escaping gas and bullet easily bursts through the layer of tape and it doesn't appreciable change the point of impact of the rifle. After firing you can unwrap the second piece of tape, remove the burst first piece and discard then tear the longer second piece in half and protect the muzzle again. As a bonus, the tape can also protect the rifle's crown from damage which will ruin your rifle's accuracy permanently until the ministrations of a gunsmith cure it and lighten your wallet in the process.

Tape. Simple fix to keep your rifle in action under trying conditions.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Persistence- Family Style

The caribou season was moving along nicely into week 6, albeit without bagging a critter. I had been hunting pretty consistently over the last month- always seeing animals, got in a few stalks along the way but never connected. My best opportunity had occurred on opening day- I crawled to about 350 yards of a really nice bull at first light. The shot was pretty long for the opening bell and I didn't want to stretch the barrel out that much- I passed figuring we'd see more caribou later in the day. I didn't see another for a week. I went on several short day hunts, more akin to pre-season scouting than hunt in the summer heat.

Later in the month, a couple of weekend forays into the high country revealed that the unseasonal heat and bugs were keeping the caribou in the high hills near the vegetation line for their comfort. Hunting was slow even though I made a couple of unsuccessful ventures above 5000' in what resembles sheep country in the hopes of bagging one. Chasing a caribou that far, that high is pretty much a fools errand (although great fun) since there is little in the way of cover. Although they aren't the most wary of creatures, simply pursuing them over open ground is rarely successful.

A couple of day hunts into the area revealed high winds and not a creature stirring and a weekend hunt with a friend that pushed thirty miles into the Alphabet hills yielded brief glimpses of bears and bull moose but only fleeting glimpse of caribou- running flat out, on the wrong side of the swamp, or at the top of the mountain that, all intents and purposes, could have been the surface of the moon. But one common factor remained- none of the animals we were seeing were in large groups, just a few groups of three or four but mostly singles and cows with calves. Despite the September date on the calendar the animals were acting more like summer caribou- in small groups, in summer range, not moving much during the day. In short- a lot of hours of eyeballing past the great beyond.

As a partial subsistence hunter, this endeavor isn't merely recreational (despite having a genuine good time) as a major portion of my family's calories come from wild game and fish. By week five, I was really ready to get my hands bloody and displace some of the air in my freezer. Another weekend long hunt revealed nothing of interest except seeing groups of caribou on mountaintops- at least the herding behavior was a precursor of the migration when the animals would come down into range of the rifle. A long vehicle ride all the way to McLaren Summit revealed a group of 12 caribou being pursued separately by at least 8 hunters in 3 different groups at a range of two miles. Entertaining, but not doing anything about the air in the freezer.

Week six rolled around and as much as my pride in my prowess hates to admit it- I was getting desperate. I bailed out of work as early as I could on Thursday and packed a few meager articles and headed down on a solo search and destroy mission. A lot of spotter time on Thursday night revealed absolutely nothing and with a lot of reservations I horsed down a freeze dried meal and climbed into the cargo hold of my Pathfinder to catch some sleep. Before I drifted off, I spent an hour reading Steve Rinella's new work- Meateater, remembered some of the camping trips with my late father, and stared at the stars for a little while. The heavy and melancholy thoughts soon had me chasing sheep in the alpine meadows of my dreams.

First light found me already drinking coffee waiting for enough solar radiation to make the binoculars work. As the dawn turned from grey to pink to orange I had a renewed sense of optimism. Halfway through my second cup,  I turned to glance north to a high saddle and bigger than life I saw a large bull sky-lined about a mile and a half away on the east side, at the base of a 6000' peak. I thought I heard angels singing. I had packed for the field the night before and I only needed seconds to verify the contents of the pack, lock up the vehicle with my Spartan camp and start heading up.

I practically sprinted up the mountain, at about 2000' I passed the snow line,  a small squall had left the red and gold and grey of the tundra with a skiff of snow on the ground. In the gloom of dawn I pressed upward. By the time I reached the apex of the saddle at about 4000' I had shed nearly all my layers and was sweating heavily in just a light merino wool T-shirt despite a temperature of about 28F. My breath escaped in great clouds of steam as I fought for breath after the hour long climb through the rough tundra.

Cooling down just enough to use the binoculars without fogging the lenses, I glassed the half mile wide alpine basin I was on the rim of. I spotted the small herd in just a few moments- in the intervening hour they had moved further east and were in a small, green growth bowl at the base of the higher peak on the opposite side of the basin. I quickly made out a plan to approach using a series of shallow ravines and depressions. As I moved east as quickly and quietly as I could, I only had intermittent visibility on the caribou. I was desperately afraid as dawn turned to day the animals would turn and move up the high slope and out of practical reach. I had seen it time and again the last few weeks.

After dodging a maze of ravines I finally got to the spot I just flat ran out of cover. The caribou had become aware of my presence but still showed no sign of alarm. I did a quick count- 9 animals including a very nice sized bull. I glanced back toward my camp- 2 miles or so but all downhill. The pack out would really take a long time. I decided to move slowly forward and see how close I could get before needing to fire. After a mere 50 yards the caribou all stood and stared in my direction.


I laid my pack down on a small rise and assumed a prone position- how far? No idea. In good light across known terrain I'm not a good hand at eyeballing range and on the high barren plateau in the dawn's flat light I simply had no idea. The animals began to act fidgety, not panic but I knew what would happen next. The caribou would simply move higher while browsing faster than I could walk. Now was the time. I lined up on the bull and flipped the safety off. How far? Still no idea, but the shot looked doable albeit long. I placed the crosswire just behind the bull's shoulder and took up slack trusting my rifle's ballistics would carry the distance.


The crack split the unearthly quiet of the dawn mountains and I looked for signs of a hit...nothing. I cycled a fresh round into the chamber and stared intently as the caribou stared back at me apparently bewildered at the sudden peal of thunder. I re-evaluated the distance- it must of been longer than I thought. I broke every rule in my personal book and elevated the crosswire to hold on the bull's back line and took up slack on the trigger a second time.


The bull didn't register any sign of a hit but the whole group had had enough of my predations and started browsing uphill and while they were probably out of rifle range when I started, within moments they would certainly be out of rifle range. I cycled the action a second time to pick up another cartridge.

This was stupid.

No idea how far, by myself miles from camp. The only thing worse than missing a third shot would be connecting on one. I jacked the live shell out of the chamber and looked across the divide at the caribou moving steadily up the slope. This distance was really farther than I thought (or wanted to believe) it was. Keeping my eyes on the bull I watched to see if he'd suffered a wound. He moved without hesitation or limp- I had missed clean.

After the caribou had walked clean out of sight over the east summit I lay there in the snow for a long time. As the fatigue and exertion of the climb caught up to me I began to just feel defeat. Sometime prior to achieving hypothermia, I put my layers back on and started the long trek down the mountain to camp. In retrospect, I'm glad no bears were there on the mountain because my head was down and my thoughts were miles away. When I reached my camp, I drank some water and made another freeze dried meal. After eating it- I threw all my stuff back into the rig haphazardly and headed for home.

It began to snow.

I awoke the next day in a thorough funk. My wife is used to seeing this sort of melancholy behavior toward the end of hunting season. We got a slow start to the day and I must admit- I moped my way through preparation to go again. My wife and son would go and we'd make it a Saturday picnic outing with the possibility of scoring an animal. I wasn't hopeful, but we set out anyway.

After arriving in the hunt area, it didn't take long to find a group of caribou moving west along a ridge about a mile distant. We drove further and got in front of them and I started a half-hearted stalk with my son in tow. The caribou were feeding away from us on a parallel ridge and would pass about a mile to our south across a wide band of alders and head high brush. We watched them a little while and when they crossed the ridge we turned back for the vehicle. I paused a moment and decided to walk to the east side of the ridge and look back up the valley to the area that paralleled the area's only highway.

Movement caught my eye.

A group of five caribou were feeding to the north- toward the highway, about a half mile to the road and a half mile from us. I looked again. They were just browsing, not really making distance. A long ravine would put us on an intercept course if we hurried. We quickly slipped over the ridge and started a quick sprint to close the gap. I felt hope creeping in again. After a few minutes of steady travel, my wife glimpsed them sky-line themselves as they crossed a small rise. As we came to the base of a small ridge I looked up and there on the ridge, just below the summit was the band of caribou.

I wasted no time and crashed into a prone position- I looked at the group, they consisted of a small bull and a large cow as well as three yearling calves. I zeroed in on the large cow and fired.

Boom! No reaction. I cycled the bolt and fired again- Boom! The caribou humped up at the impact of the bullet and went wobbly-legged over the summit of the ridge. Given the reaction I was sure the caribou had taken a good lung shot and would certainly be dead on the top of the ridge and I picked my way there past a small lake and up the brushy slope.

When I topped out I saw the entire group standing around a downed animal. That reaction isn't really unusual as I've had to shoo caribou away from one I've just shot before. What did surprise me is that the cow stood up when I approached to about 50' from dead astern. That wasn't supposed to happen. The cow turned her head to look at me, obviously very ill from my earlier shot. I quickly raised the rifle and placed the crosshairs between her eyes with a sense of personal failure for the moments of suffering she'd endured.

The rifle cracked and she was down for good.

The family gathered around the fallen animal, the largest bodied cow caribou we'd ever seen. The rest of the band of animals ran about a quarter mile off in the distance and stood there and stared as these odd grey and green coated harbingers of death gathered around their matriarch. My first two shots had both hit her low in the lungs and I'm surprised she had the steam to move at all when I got to her, if she'd have ran she'd have been down in mere seconds. We would work together as a family in the cold wind and butcher this caribou- hauling it off the mountain in our packs on our backs. We finished just as the sun began to set and turned the tundra into the most radiant red and gold.

It was a good day. I was exhausted and bloody, but it was a good day.

Monday, September 3, 2012

No, No, No...NO!

I've recently received some correspondence regarding my scope recommendations and thought the commentary worth passing along. I'll not say much about the actual exchange but here is the gist of it in a nutshell.

I wholeheartedly suggest, endorse, recommend, and use scopes of moderate power and, given a choice, will choose a fixed power almost without exception. For example- 4x, 6x and 3-9x40 are all in my arsenal of rifle glass and I've used them with much success. While there are other choices out there and people can make up their own minds on such topics, the concept as discussed in correspondence is simply abominable.

What the correspondence suggested was that a hunter should consider higher powered variable rifle glass and use that in lieu of carrying either binoculars or a spotting scope. I think that's a bad idea for a couple of reasons....

1. Scanning open country with a rifle scope will tire you out pretty quickly



It doesn't take a genius to figure out that scanning with a rifle will point that rifle at all manner of things that the hunter has no business pointing a rifle at- not the least of which is other hunters. I've been "scanned" with a rifle now a couple of times in the field and it makes my blood absolutely boil.  There is no valid reason or excuse for it and it is a slob's technique par excellence. I've heard of one instance where such a hunter found a note thanking him for peering at the note writer with a rifle scope- affixed to the hood of his truck with a nail pounded through the metal.

In review, here are the common field glasses and their purpose.

1. Binoculars- use these to find game, scan the hills and generally look at stuff you want to look closer at. 8x42 or 10x42 sizes are about perfect for the Western or Alaska hunter and serviceable models start at about $150 ( the random example Nikon in the header photograph was $210 and represents their mid priced line). Decent glass is just more affordable than it's ever been. Top shelf glass is wonderful if you can swing it financially but even economy glass is better than a naked eyeball or, God forbid, letting your muzzle purposely cross another hunter. I've looked at other hunters looking at me with binos and it elicits a friendly wave across the distance.

2. Spotting Scope- use this to evaluate game for legality, trophy quality, determine what an unknown  object actually is, or in extreme instances find game at very long range. You can spend a little or a lot but a decent spotter is a real asset to the serious open country hunter. I've seen other hunters with my spotter miles away, I don't think they even knew I was there.

3. Rifle Scope- use this to KILL game. It doesn't do the functions of either 1 or 2. You don't point rifles at things you haven't determined make dead- that includes other game and for darn sure it includes other hunters. So if that's you- stop it immediately and take a remedial Hunter Safety Course while you're at it because you apparently didn't get it. I've said it before- on a properly conducted hunt you might use a rifle scope for all of about 30 seconds- once you've found, evaluated, stalked and are in a position to make a killing shot. Only then does the rifle scope come into play.

Stay safe out there folks.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Caribou Camp, the View From Here

Here's a view from caribou camp...no caribou taken, but plenty seen with the spotter. The animals are hanging at high elevation near the vegetation line. We've observed them ganging up and prepping for the upcoming migration....then caribou hunting really takes off.

This image below comes from the top of the mountain directly over the spotter in the above photo....range is about 3 miles and about 3000' vertical.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Eye Dominace and Youth Rifles: Hodgeman Rants

As my son gets older, he is proving to be an enthusiastic hunter like myself. As he finds himself a "tweener"- apparently an age between true kid-dom and the teen years that escaped the common lexicon when I was that age- he is no longer content to merely follow along as I hunt or simply be an "add-on" to the chase. He wants to be a full participant. That was confirmed to me after last year's caribou hunt; my son spent an hour at the sporting goods counter staring through the glass display looking for the best hunting knife to skin big game. It is entirely possible to go afield with a gun and not be a participant in the hunt, but wielding a knife on downed game- that's full on desire.

Its something I must admit pleases me in no small way, but I must confess that it's not something that I've demanded of him lest it drive us both to misery. We started him on the BB gun- a version of the classic Daisy- and after he learned the basics of gun safety, and while going through the frustration of teaching him the marksmanship basics I learned that he is "left eye dominant". As some information, eye dominance has nothing to do with "handed-ness", in fact my son has the worst condition possible- "cross eye dominance" wherein he is right handed and left eyed. I speak from experience being firmly left handed and right eye dominant. With a handgun, cross eye dominance isn't really a disadvantage at all but with a rifle, shotgun or bow it can lead to a lot of frustration and requires a lot of training to overcome.

Determining eye dominance is a straightforward test- have the person form a triangle with their thumbs and forefingers held at arms length and look at you through it from across the room. The eye you see back through the opening is their dominant eye. Various military organizations through the years sought to make everyone shoot right-handed rifles operated from their right side regardless of eye dominance- thinking it was solely a training issue. Maybe if you're teaching a bunch of neophytes to operate automatic rifles it isn't much of an issue, but in the hunting field where we demand reflexive and natural action it is detrimental. Shouldering and shooting a rifle or shotgun should be as instinctual as possible.

After instructing him to hold and shoot from his left side (trigger hand or bow grip being the left one) and sight with his left eye, his shooting improved tremendously. The inexpensive lever action BB gun was relatively ambidextrous and I managed to find a fairly well made youth bow in left hand and that's where my good fortune pretty well ran out. I started searching for a .22 rifle (the greatest training weapon ever devised by man) and found relatively little in a left hand bolt action with a kid sized stock. I examined a couple such weapons and found one that even though the bolt was on the left side, the safety was not. Slung over the left side, the safety would likely rub on clothing or packs and become set to FIRE inadvertently- bad show. One example I found was so poorly made with such a hideous trigger it would have been more trouble than it was worth- and it carried a substantial premium over the right handed version of the same weapon! I eventually settled on a Ruger 10/22 Compact. The semi-automatic action isn't really a favorite of mine for a youth rifle, but it's pretty well made, correctly proportioned, common and relatively ambidextrous.

Our recent shotgun acquisition mentioned in my last piece is really very nice, being well proportioned, well made and a truly useful hunting arm. The pump shotgun loads through the centerline, the safety is located on the tang and is ambidextrous as well (not all pump shotguns share this feature by the way). About the only criticism I can offer is that a left handed shooter is perhaps at slightly greater risk in the event of a case rupture since the ejection port has the right side of the face in it's vicinity for escaping gas where a right handed shooter would have only the point of the shoulder as a potential injury. That's a pretty minor point however since shotguns operate at pretty low pressure and I can't remember ever seeing a modern shotgun shell rupture- and I've fired thousands and seen many times more fired by others. As an older teen there are some true left hand pump shotguns and the Browning which both loads and ejects from the bottom- making it truly ambidextrous.

This year, he has expressed a desire to tag a caribou and I'm endeavoring to find him a correctly proportioned, left hand rifle in a small centerfire rifle caliber and I'm not having much luck. I've seen one example, so poorly made that it would basically become value-less on purchase. I've seen a couple more in various maker's catalogs but all the retailers I've ventured into at this point didn't have anything on the rack. One hates to custom order an expensive rifle without being able to shoulder it for fit. There are a couple suitable lever action rifles which by nature are ambidextrous (maybe those old guy's from the early era of smokeless arms really did know what they were doing?) by design if you discount the addition of a push button safety- which is a modern insertion into an old design that is both pointless and obtrusive. I could likely make do but the tubular action requires flat point bullets which severely limits range. Don't get me wrong- I dearly love the lever action 30-30 (in fact, I killed my first big game animal with one) but hampering a young hunter to 100 yards in the wide open West or Alaska seems like handicapping them unnecessarily.

Here lies the source of my rant. We've been told for many years that we should encourage "non-traditional" markets to take up the shooting sports- that's ladies and youth for those that don't speak marketeer. Both generally require a stock that is quite different to something a full grown man would shoot. But when you endeavor to outfit those ladies and kids with a decent rifle you're forced to make a lot of compromises. If you happen to be an enthusiastic young hunter or a lady taking up the shooting and hunting sports and you happen to be left eye dominant, you will likely not have something to select from on the rack. Without a resident rifle geek (like myself) helping guide your purchase, you will quite likely end up spending your money on something that is uncomfortable, inefficient if not outright unsuitable. By this point I've talked to several lady hunters who were making do with rifles they wish they'd never purchased. How many haven't I spoke to- who shot an uncomfortable rifle a few times and gave it up. I've also encountered far too many youths shooting a rifle with a stock a couple inches too long or reaching over the top to work the bolt. Only in the last couple of decades have left hand rifles even become generally available and several makers still offer no left hand option at all.

So here is my challenge to both arms makers and retailers:
Roughly 50% of the population is female. Roughly 20% of the population is left eye dominant. Roughly 10% of the population are children of hunting age. That's a lot of potential hunters and shooters we're leaving purposely out in the cold. In the days of old your clientele mainly consisted of grown men or older teen boys (who use adult sized rifles) and your manufacturing methods were laborious and tooling both expensive and inflexible- the argument that you didn't have enough market to justify the substantial cost was likely correct.

That was yesterday- history.

Today the fastest growing segments of the shooting and hunting sports are women, followed by children. In fact I haven't talked to many male adult onset hunters over a long period of time. I personally know several women who took the sport up in middle age- with no background whatsoever. Thanks to the work of a lot of people- the hunting and shooting sports are reaching out and attracting both a female audience and a younger one. Those folks need equipment. To the maker- new machine equipment is CNC driven and the concept of tooling a left hand action that once took revamping an entire line of dedicated manual machines can now be accomplished with a few mouse clicks on the CAD/CAM station. The tooling costs for producing a dedicated left hand gun is minimal. Since most gunstocks are now injection molded plastic the cost of producing one is rather minimal since CNC injection molding is now as common as CNC machining. And by the way- the arms you produce for ladies and kids are largely junk, built to a price. It's true that neither ladies nor children are large buyers of multiple arms (rifle geekdom seems solely a male pursuit) but you're giving them little encouragement with your product line.

Yesterday I visited two of the largest arms retailers in Interior Alaska- one of the most ardent hunting markets in the US. I looked at racks that contained many hundreds (I admit my tendency for hyperbole- but that statement is literal) of guns and out of over perhaps 400 centerfire rifles, I found about 15 left hand guns and 0 with a youth stock. Right hand youth rifles numbered about 20. You are leaving a lot of clientele (with cash in hand) without an option. I've often heard that "there's no market" and that's true with 1950's data but I believe today's figures are driven by your inventory- the lack of a ladies or youth market is an invention of your own making. With no stock on hand to demonstrate, sales are low. Low sales numbers are certainly a rationale to the makers that there's no point in investing in making the product.

A word on your gun counter staff (this is generic and by no means universal)- how about some training? The majority of counter staff I spoke to yesterday had little idea what was even available within your own product lines. The all-male staff reaked of Alpha Man syndrome so severely that a female customer would likely be offended if not dismissed outright- no surprise the sole female customer I saw after 5 minutes of condescending, empty-headed diatribe just wandered off. Often the gun counter advice is just wrong... when I mentioned a lefty kid gun I had multiple self proclaimed experts heartily recommend I "just teach him right handed".As an adult hunter, he can make his own choice to train himself to shoot that way and overcome his natural tendency and eye dominance. As his Dad however, I'm going to teach him and equip him to shoot correctly.

Period. End of story.

Eventually a company will make the transition to the modern market and to my mind it can't happen soon enough.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Boy and His Dog

The early season had been plodding along like it usually did, warm temperatures and lots of bugs hampering hunting efforts. With daytime highs in the 70s and sometimes 80s, the caribou clung to the high country and summits-terrain one may associate with sheep more so that caribou. Only in the very early morning could a hunter find the animals within reach and moving. In the opening week of hard hunting I had only a single stalk under my belt. I carefully approached to within 350 yards well before 7:00am and the morning winds carried my scent right to him but it didn't matter. Despite the cool of the early morning, the small herd of caribou were already feeding to the high country, moving steadily away and up. I passed the shot, 350 yards is a long way and it is much too early in the season to attempt to stretch the barrel that much. An intervening ravine kept me from getting closer and I watched the bull  feed clear out of sight. That was opening day and I hadn't seen a caribou since.

Later in the week, Evan and I sat perched on an opportune knob glassing high tundra for any sign of the caribou that had to be moving through the area any day now. But we saw nothing. Tired of the tedium of endless glassing I'd endured I asked Evan if he'd like to spend the last hour of the day hunting for birds with his new shotgun. His reply was an enthusiastic, "Yes!"

I unpacked his new shotgun and inspected the chamber before handing the weapon to him. The gun was a Mossberg 510 in 20 gauge, made to minimal dimensions to fit a kid or a very small framed adult with a length of pull of just 10.5". Much too small for Dad to even shoulder. A friend won it at a Ducks Unlimited banquet and being childless, offered it for sale to me at a good deal. I inspected it and was on it like a duck on a junebug. Most youth guns were cheap affairs or simply an adult version with the stock and barrel sawn off- mostly an unsatisfactory weapon to hand a kid. This thing was built just like the company's adult sized 500- 3" chamber, 3 shot magazine, interchangeable choke tubes, decent recoil pad. A serious hunting arm made to fit the smallest hunters. How could I have said no?

My son made the transition from single barrel .410 to the pump action 20 gauge with only a little instruction under my watchful eye. At first he was uncomfortable with the recoil, but after firing his .410 at a hare earlier this year only to have it run off unfazed I explained his technique was solid- but his gun wasn't up to the task of a 40 yard shot. His 20 gauge would've made the difference.

I watched him load the magazine with three of the yellow hulled sixes and stuffed a handful into his jacket pocket. I didn't know what to expect. Satisfied that he had rounds in the tube but nothing in the chamber like I'd taught him, we set off with Sonny the Lab in the lead letting his nose steer our course through the broken bands of brush and tundra.

After a quarter mile of meandering, Sonny's reaction changed and he froze staring intently. I told Evan to chamber a round and ensure the gun was set on safe. I heard the roosting coo of a willow ptarmigan just ahead in the bush. I reached forward to grab Sonny's collar- he's not a trained bird dog but rather just a great trail dog with manners. The second my hand touched his back, his tail wagged through a 180 degree arc and he exploded forward toward the birds and with a flying leap crashed right in the middle of the covey.

The brush exploded in flapping wings and a giant, pale dog snapping at them as they fought for altitude.

Evan held his fire, likely as much from surprise as from fear of hitting his suddenly ill mannered mutt. I watched as a pair of ptarmigan flew a mere thirty yards away and landed under a slight piece of brush. I called Sonny to my side- smiling ear to ear if a dog could do such a thing, evidently pleased with him self and the preceding ruckus. I held his collar and pointed out the pair to Evan and said, "You go on up there, I'll hold the dog- just walk 'em up and shoot when they start to fly- just pick the closest one and let him have it."

Evan nodded in agreement and checking his safety, crept forward slowly and intent on the birds. He closed to perhaps twenty yards and the birds got uneasy and flapped and strutted a few time. Even across the short distance and above the dogs loud panting I could hear the safety snick off. I watched as he mounted the shotgun to his shoulder and held his finger straight along the receiver well away from the trigger and he took one more step in their direction.

The nearest bird flapped his wings and leaped for the sky; only a foot or two above the ground the shotgun boomed and the air around the bird turned white with a cloud of feathers. The bird crashed back to earth in a tumble of wing beats into the second bird who took the initiative to make a run for it. With the excitement of the moment, the pump gun was sitting with an expended round in the chamber and the second birds gambit paid off- he flew several hundred yards and dove into some of the thickest, densest brush the mountain had to offer.

"You got him son!" I exclaimed with joy, forgetting my grip on the dog who rushed forward to the bird. We immediately followed just as the dog picked the ptarmigan up in his mouth. Fearing the worst from my untrained dog but before I could speak my son yelled out "Good dog Sonny! Give!" and the dog plopped the warm bird at his feet. Evan picked it up with no small sense of wonder.

His first bird!

We placed the bird in our pack and after carefully checking the gun and retrieving the ejected cartridge- Evan patted the dog on the head and said, "Go get 'em Sonny, find us another bird" and they set off across the way toward the distant brush where the rest of the covey had landed. I kept up close behind, having a little trouble seeing to walk in the dim light with a few tears in my eye as I watched them work over the next band of brush,

A boy and his dog...

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Selecting The Perfect Alaskan Rifle...or A Low Maintenance Killin' Stick

While I'm generally loathe to write up the "Perfect This or That Rifle" piece, the question does come in correspondence often enough that I feel like perhaps something in that vein is in order. While there is no such "Perfect" rifle that fits everyone's taste or even need, there is a trend I've noticed in my own hunting armament that I would like to pass on in the form of some very generalized guidelines. These guidelines are from times when I done it wrong, so let my fiasco be a learning experience.

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.

The cartridge is also something I've written about a few times and while there are a vast number of suitable choices I'll endeavor to whittle the number down to just a few. While we could write an entire volume on selecting the perfect cartridge for each individual species and area of the state, most local hunters make do with only one or two. The visiting sportsman will often bring specialized equipment for animals such as brown bear or bison but the resident hunter is more of an opportunistic generalist. Alaska's hunting season have significant overlap and I've often carried a half dozen or more tags into the field for creatures as diverse as grizzly bear, moose, and Dall sheep. If the "Perfect" Alaska rifle is to be used on the general run of animals here it certainly gives us some criteria. First, the cartridge must be reasonably flat shooting to the limits of the hunter's ability- call it an arbitrary figure of 300 yards. Second it must have the capacity to anchor the largest animal hunted. I'd like to avoid discussions of stopping an aggressive bear since that would take the discussion into vastly different territory but hunting a bear and stopping one are two very different things. Thirdly, while I am a rifle enthusiast and like experimenting with newer cartridges, that is something of a different hobby than hunting and I feel that sticking to common cartridges is likely in the hunter's better interest. While it would be very hard to argue against a .30-06 or even a .270 due to their overwhelming popularity, I believe the size and ranges of many Alaskan animals dictate something with more oomph. I'll limit my discussion here to just two- the .300 Winchester Magnum and .338 Winchester Magnum- as meeting the criteria for flat shooting and powerful enough for the largest animals provided the shooter can tolerate the substantial recoil. They're  also prolific enough to find ammunition almost universally throughout the state. Many years of load and bullet development in those two cartridges have resulted in a wide variety of factory ammunition suitable for anything that walks in the 49th state.

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.