28 November 2006

Rifles and Hunting Memories

A note from a friend set me to thinking about the subject of cartridge selection. For those of us whose lives revolve around the out-of-doors, it is an interesting subject that also connects with the selection of gear & style for fishing, skiing, camping, hiking, etc. But because research shows that nearly all hunters are shaped by childhood experiences of hunting, I’ll bet that rifle/cartridge selection is more conditioned in this way than is the selection of other outdoor gear.

In my own case, I was fortunate to have been raised by my grandfather and to have experienced hunting with him and many of his friends. They were a dedicated lot who hunted everything they legally could (well, and sometimes some things they legally could NOT): white tailed deer & black bear, turkeys & pheasant & ruffed grouse & woodcock, squirrels & cottontail rabbits & snowshoe hares, and ‘coon & fox.

Gramps worked with Bernard Dutka, who owned a truck garage. During hunting season most anytime and throughout the year at lunchtime men gathered around the big coal-fired potbelly stove. They argued cartridges and rifle & shotgun actions and philosophical questions such as, “Who owns the deer?” and “What does it mean to be a good hunter?”

Gramps hunted deer and bear with a Winchester M55 takedown 30-30 with open sights (ivory bead front) and Mr. D used a Savage M99 300 with scope. I could never shoot Gramps’ 30-30 well, in part because I found the narrow steel butt plate and sharp comb punishing. He was deadly with it, however, up to about 200 yards. The M99 was by far the most popular rifle model, with a few in 250-3000. Other choices ranged from the Courteau family’s proclivity for 410 shotgun slugs (they didn’t kill many deer) to my uncle’s 270. One guy who always killed his buck swore by his Savage bolt action 22 Hornet. For some reason there were very few military surplus rifles (“sporterized” or otherwise), which seem to be fairly common in Montana. I began with a lightweight Sako in 308. It was my Dad’s new rifle and he foolishly boasted that if I killed a buck my first year (I was 12) the rifle was mine. Mr. D helped insure that I did indeed kill a buck, and he also insured that Dad kept his word. I still have this rifle, and I’ve killed a bunch of elk with it since moving to Montana in 1990.

Bernie’s Truck Garage also functioned as a sort of butcher shop, especially in the evening on the first day or two of deer season, and on the weekends. By the age of 11 I was skinning and quartering deer in exchange for the hide—which usually sold for about three dollars. It seemed like a lot of money at the time. On a busy evening I might skin and quarter six or so deer, but in those days a buck was hard to come by and there were usually just two or three. The two-day long doe season could be very busy, and my grandmother got angry because I would be at the garage until nearly midnight. I needed help with the meat saw but handled the skinning myself. The experience was especially rewarding because I could also take in the hunting talk of the men, and because I could observe the various ways deer were shot. Single shots through the ribs or to the neck; multiple wounds with gut shots, broken legs, and bloodshot haunches; and tales of wounded deer never found. I like to think this experience (along with my own mistakes, truth be told) made me a little choosy about how and where I shoot deer.

At the same time I was reading every magazine article about hunting and rifle/cartridge selection that I could get my hands on, which is how I learned of Ned Roberts .257 wildcat based on 7 X 57 Mauser. We also had a renowned custom rifle shop – Clare Taylor & Don Robbins -- near my town. They built mostly bench rest competition rifles, but were advocates of small bore high velocity cartridges, and I absorbed some of their enthusiasm. Somehow, all of this culminated in my buying the Winchester M70 Featherweight—the only new rifle I’ve ever bought. For some reason, I have always been skeptical of new commercial calibers (though I esteem wildcats), especially the so-called magnums. I’ve had four friends and hunting partners who used magnums (two 300 Winchester fans, one 7mm Remington, and one 338 Winchester). Three were lousy-to-mediocre shots, and at least one of them has come to terms with the problem and given up the magnum. My dear deceased friend Ray Ott shot the 7 mm, and he shot it as comfortably and as accurately as I shoot my little 25 Roberts.

As for bullets, until recently I used Hornaday’s 100-gr soft point and was happy enough with their two inches at 100-yards accuracy. Several years ago I switched to Nosler’s 100-br boat tail “ballistic tip”—primarily because a friend gave me a few to try out, and they proved to be phenomenally accurate (sub moa) in my rifle. A dozen or so deer and three antelope later, and I am a little uncertain about their performance—they seem to be more “explosive” than the Hornaday, especially at close range. I’ll give them another year or two on deer and antelope before switching back.

Just this year, because I anticipated my hunting apprentice using the 25 Roberts for elk, I tried some 100-gr Barnes all-copper X bullets. They are very accurate, also, and did a very good job on AJ’s cow elk. He shot her high through the lungs at long range (well over 200 yards) and the bullet made a big hole, taking a rib on the way out. Elk can go a long ways on a high lung shot, and this cow did (well over a half-mile)—but she also ran only downhill and was pretty well bled out when AJ & I got to her. I decided against the heavier (115-gr or 120-gr) Barnes because they are a very long bullet (copper density being lower than lead) and the heavier bullet would have to be seated very deeply, cutting into powder capacity. Also, I have shot Nosler and other 115-120 gr bullets in this rifle, and they never shot particularly well. 87-gr bullets shoot about as well as 100-gr, but I quit killing ‘chucks and coyotes and foxes a long time ago.

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