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.