Saturday, May 9, 2015

Startling Results.... The Browning X-Bolt Stainless Stalker .270 Winchester

A few weeks ago I wandered into the big Hook and Bullet store up in Fairbanks with instructions from the wife to go get myself something that goes bang as is her habit from time to time when fiscal matters are sunny enough to allow such a purchase. Of late, my exclusive interest in shooting sports revolves exclusively around high powered hunting rifles.

I looked around at length at the rack. I'd been interested in trying something new for a while now, something smaller bore and excellent accuracy with limited recoil. A rifle meant for sheep and caribou up high, mule deer and antelope, maybe those spooky Coues deer living into the big canyons of the Southwest. I looked long and hard at found something that I'd never had before. A Browning X-Bolt. It was trim, felt good and while I've never been much of a Browning fan this one had a very interesting appeal.

My main point of contention with American rifle makers is that they seem to over build things... certain companies excel at minimizing dimensions (Kimber's petite 84M for example), but when you buy a Remington 700 in .223, the receiver diameter is the same as for the .375 H&H. Just a lot of metal you don't really need to get the job done. I know why they do it, but it still seems out of place.

The X-Bolt has an almost European sort of aesthetic... which makes sense when so much of Browning's design team is European, a relationship that goes clear back to the turn of the 20th century. The receiver is pretty trim for a long action cartridge and sit low in the stock. The stock is also pretty trim, thin in the forend with a bit of a chamfer. The safety is where you typically find it on Brownings- on the tang and there is a well thought out chamber lock disconnect on the root of the bolt handle which allows you to remove a chambered cartridge without disengaging the safety. The safety, thoughtfully, locks the bolt- a feature I like.

There are several variety of X-Bolts in different finishes and given my proclivity for mountain hunting in harsh weather- I chose the "Stainless Stalker"...and all stainless steel metal work with a polymer stock finished in what Browning calls "Duratouch". The stock just feels nice. I picked up a model in .270 Winchester. My last .270 was a very traditional blued/walnut/ quarter ribbed Ruger that was, frankly, too darn nice to pack around in the mountains. This Browning should be better in that regard.

I picked up a set of Warne "Maxima" bases and rings. The bases attach to the rifle with 4 screws (hence the 'X' in 'X-Bolt') and while you'd think it's for strength, it's not. The bolts third lug raceway runs between the mounting holes allowing a much thinner receiver ring. Very nice. A Leupold VXIII 2.5-8x36 completed the setup which came in ready to hunt at a respectable 7.6 pounds on my hanging scale. Not a true lightweight in today's market, but still a light rifle that carries, balances and shoots well.

I began the shooting chores the way I usually do. From the bench I ran a target to the 100yd berm and loaded the magazine with 4 of the very pedestrian Federal "Blue Box" 130gr loads. I tend to start with Blue Box because I've gotten outstanding results in the past in a variety of rifles and it's, well, cheap. I fired one round and saw it land on the target 4" to the left of the centerline and I made the adjustment.

The next three rounds did this...

That's a 100yd, 3 shot group that's right at .75"...the easiest rifle I've ever got shooting well and sighted in.

Given that benches aren't common out on the tundra, I did some more shooting and turned in this 7 shot group at 300yds...from sitting.

That'll do. Just fine.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Gear Nerds and Kit Tarts...Beginner's Conundrum

I will freely admit it... I'm a Gear Nerd.

I just genuinely like some of the latest and greatest products to come down the pike. I'm not very gadgety however, I just like very good versions of a very basic set of equipment that hasn't really changed much over the years. Since I'm firmly in middle youth, I've seen the rise of the cult of mountain hunting, the rise of ultralight backpacking, the rise of modern archery, and the rise of the ORV. I've also seen several rather esoteric concepts come and go over the years as well.

I'm certainly not against folks trying to make a buck or two, or kill a buck or two; but at some point this hunting things can turn on us. We can spend an enormous amount of dollars on stuff that really doesn't do much for us in the field. I know, I've got a pile of stuff that I don't have a use for anymore and if I'm honest, never really did. A lot of the marketing surrounding hunting is geared to get folks who are passionate about the chase to continue it in the off-season by spending money year round. Not really anything wrong with that per se, but it isn't maybe the best use of resources.

I had a very interesting conversation with a young man I'm starting to mentor a bit. He just got residency and is now in the process of equipping himself and has a ton of questions. I have to admit, I started hunting long ago as a kid, I was dirt poor, and there simply wasn't the plethora of options available. So much specialization has crept into the industry that just picking a very basic set of gear from the huge variety available is something of a daunting task- particularly for the neophyte who likely has little clue how such things might perform and typically doesn't have the budget to make mistakes.

So here is something of a primer on some of the most basic pieces of kit and some options.

1. Boots- if you are a Western hunter, you simply must have a good set of boots. There are more options than you'd believe possible but you only have one set of feet. I've been on multiple hunts that were ruined due to ill fitting or poorly performing boots. Spend whatever you can afford, ignore all the marketing messages and get a good stiff pair of boots the FIT YOU. If you're an Eastern whitetail guy you can largely wear whatever you please- I've killed multiple white-tails in whatever pair of sneakers were handy. Rubber boots seem to be the rage among white tail guys these days, no issue there either.

2. Rain Gear- you can spend a little or a lot, but good rain gear is a requirement in Alaska and a lot of other spots. For the budget conscious, a set of Helly Hansen Impertech is tough to beat. It doesn't breathe like Gore-Tex types but inexpensive breathable rain gear is often a disaster. For that matter, expensive breathable rain gear is often a disaster. Ignore the marketing- if your wallet is thin, Helly's. If you can spend a bit of coin, get the best mountaineering stuff you can swing.

3. Tent- the current craze is toward ephemeral shelters that maximize space and minimize weight. That's not a bad thing so long as it doesn't compromise waterproof and wind resistance, in a lot of cases- it does. You can get a perfectly serviceable tent for a couple hundred bucks (or used for much less) that will keep you dry and warm and not fold up in the first stiff breeze. I'm kind of old-school when it comes to tents so I'm unfazed by a lot of the newer designs and trends until they've been around for a while. I've seen a lot of tent designs die over the last 30 years.

4. Binoculars- if you're a Western guy, buying the best binoculars you can manage is not a bad idea. You can get perfectly serviceable binos for $300-500. If you're an Eastern whitetail guy, you might skip them altogether. Everyone waxes poetic about European Alpha glass...I do too. I may eventually buy some, but there are always other things to spend money on that seem to take precedence.

5. Backpack- every hunter should have a pack. Western guys and backpack hunters will typically have a large pack with a frame to carry camp or haul meat. Eastern hunters should still have a small daypack with necessities to take to the stand. You can spend a whopping amount on some pretty specialized packs these days with such exotica as carbon fiber frames and very lightweight fabrics. I've been bitten by the bug, but the results were mixed- I've got a collection of dead packs that didn't make the grade as a result. My favorite heavy haulers are a plain aluminum frame pack that cost $60 at an ACE Hardware store and a considerably more expensive Mystery Ranch NICE. Both of them have carried (without exaggeration) a ton of meat.

Now, just given these 5 items- the neophyte hunter can troll forums and read some of the more popular hunting magazines and come away with the idea that they need to spend at least the amount of a decent used car to get the equipment they need to be an effective hunter. Lots of energy and investment is spent on marketing to generate exactly that notion.

Pardon me folks...but that's pure, unadulterated horse poop.

Sure, good gear makes hunting more comfortable and using good grade gear is a pleasure in itself. There is a certain "pride of ownership" in shouldering a nice pack or peering through high end glass. Studying manufacturer catalogs and reading about other people's experiences online and in person can be endlessly entertaining. But that's not exactly the same thing as hunting.

I'll be the first to admit that I like some of the best equipment out there. But, don't misunderstand me at all, I'd not give up a single day in the field if I wasn't so equipped. Get the equipment you can manage and get out there and hunt. While the manufacturers and purveyors won't tell you the truth, I will.

The ONLY thing that kills critter is time in the field- and you can't buy a single additional second of it.