column By: Lee J. Hoots | July, 18
Just barely a scrawny teenager, the first “deer rifle” I ever hunted with was placed indifferently into the palms of my hands – by a fellow I had never met – in the cold, early morning darkness on opening day of deer season atop some forgotten ridgeline in the southern desert country of California. It was some sort of iron-sighted .30-06, presumably brought along expressly for my use over a day and a half because my father carried our only rifle suitable (meaning legal) for deer, a scoped Ruger 77 .243 Winchester. As far back as I can remember, the state’s silly game managers restricted the use of .22-caliber centerfire rifles when it came to big-game hunting. (There was, and is, a Marlin 336 RC .30-30 Winchester in the family, but it was loaned out at that time to an uncle who moved to Montana.)
Having not given much thought to that cold desert hunt until recently, and remembering shooting the .243 a fair amount prior to the hunt, I find it odd that Dad would have let me get weighted down with an unfamiliar .30-06 and its form-following recoil. It’s possible the “men” figured I had no chance of hitting anything anyway, but I was full of teenage grit so figured to be the first to shoot a deer regardless. As it turned out, we never saw a buck, and the cold, high-elevation winds turned that “grit” into a fine powder anyway.
Looking back on it now, the whole situation may just have been an unspoken lesson from a man to his 13-year-old son. Dad was a conservative fellow, strict enough but otherwise calm. As the years went by more quiet lessons were passed along – with the exception of being thoughtful when discussing what someone else should hunt with. That advice would have been helpful later in life because it was in those early days of tramping over the desert mountains (occasionally with a deer tag in pocket) that an appreciation for sporting rifles was kindled. No one could have known it would lead down a career path kicked off only a couple of years before Dad died.
Over time I’ve explored the workings and history of as many rifles and cartridges I could get my hands on, permanently or for just a short time – particularly bolt-action rifles. As such, I’ve fielded a lot of questions about rifles over the years, both from friends and magazine subscribers, and provided honest answers. Readers will find no self-insertion of omniscient superiority here, though now and then letters show up asking for advice as to which rifle, cartridge or bullet should be used for various hunting applications. The old standard answers that used to get published in “Letters to the Editor” columns in the old magazines I used to read front to back in my youth included, but were not limited to, “The one you shoot best” or “The one you have the most confidence in,” and perhaps regarding rifles only, “The one that fits you.” Then, of course, there was the ubiquitous “Shoot several of them, and narrow it down from there,” which generally implied “See notes above.” What kind of help is that? Who has the time and resources to “test drive” three or four new rifles?
It is, however, a risky business telling some other hunter they should buy, and be happy with, Rifle X chambered for Cartridge Y. Fortunately, trouble has been safely avoided by asking one or two questions that have sometimes not been considered. Several years ago a good friend and neighbor who had dabbled in bowhunting wanted to purchase a rifle for deer hunting, and possibly elk, owing the fact that he had several coworkers who hunted (or had plans to do so) in Colorado. This chum of mine had narrowed his choices down to two fine .30-06 options in roughly the same price range; one with blued steel and a walnut stock and one with a black, injection-molded stock and bead-blasted, matte-black steel.
I had on hand one of the walnut-stocked rifles and had field experience with the other. The trouble was, he wanted me to choose for him. Both rifles were known to shoot well, but the matte-black finish was as homely as a wet rat. So one simple question was asked: “Do you want to look at a matte-black, plastic-stocked rifle for the rest of your life?” I handed over several boxes of .30-06 ammunition, and he stopped by two weeks later to show me a shiny, new walnut-stocked rifle and asked me to help him mount a glossy Leupold scope (which, by the way, are no longer available).
There are very few rifles on hand with plastic stocks for reasons having nothing to do with accuracy potential, especially considering the fact that manufacturers have long ago started putting bedding blocks in their stocks – a trend that largely got off the ground when Savage began using its AccuStock on all centerfire rifles. Accuracy can be exceptional and consistent, and most riflemakers offer stiff, injection-molded stocks as a result. Bedding blocks can now also be found in laminated and even walnut stocks. Friend Don Bitz (stockeystocks.com) is the largest after-market supplier of rifle stocks with bedding blocks in them, and among other projects such as lightweight carbon fiber stocks, he’s currently pioneering the use of new synthetic compounds to make lighter, stiffer injection-molded handles for bolt actions.
Tastes in rifles obviously vary widely. This sometimes comes down to brand loyalty or even family tradition. If a fellow’s grandfather shot only (insert any popular brand) rifles, chances are his father did too, and there’s little reason to suggest straying from the line.
However, the narrow-mindedness in regard to what constitutes a good rifle, as witnessed in hunting camps and at the local shooting range, is often befuddling, and it gets even uglier when it comes to cartridge preferences. I have literally seen grown men turn a quiet campfire discussion into an outright shouting match over whether or not the .280 Remington is a better cartridge than the .270 Winchester. No joke!
The race to win an argument has become even more complicated in the last decade due to the introduction of “more efficient” cartridges. Consider the popular 6.5 Creedmoor, .26 Nosler and the 6.5-300 Weatherby Magnum as prime examples. All three of them have been noted as more efficient than other cartridges by various writers in multiple gun magazines. Yet those self-same writers have provided no definition of “efficient,” and none of them that I recall have ever discussed in the same story the fact that a dozen or more new powders have been introduced in the last several years, thereby allowing cartridge manufacturers to improve velocities while staying within industry-specified maximum pressures in both new and old cartridge designs alike. In addition, ammunition manufacturers usually have access to powders, or powder blends, that handloaders likely will never be able to buy.
Then there’s the development of more streamlined bullets with higher ballistic coefficients (true efficiency gains in aerodynamics) that have more relevance, along with new powders, than does case length or shape. Even so, many hunters do not realize that any ballistics gain goes largely unrecognized until shots are stretched out beyond 500 or 600 yards. An “efficient” bullet is the one that kills the deer, elk or whatever, cleanly and quickly. As such, favorite, traditional lead-core bullets maintain a prominent role in big-game hunting, where to this day most deer and elk are shot within 300 yards or so.
(For the record, I have owned a blued Ruger M77 Hawkeye 6.5 Creedmoor with a 26-inch factory barrel for nearly a decade and have shot both mule deer and pronghorn with it. I rather like the cartridge, though I can’t justify the idea that cartridge design alone makes it more “efficient.”)
The most interesting cartridge information seen lately was shared in another firearms magazine. The author was discussing the difference between the 6.5 Remington Short Action Ultra Mag (SAUM) wildcat and Hornady’s new 6.5 Precision Rifle Cartridge. To shorten a long story, he indicated the wildcat did not feed well from a top-fed rifle due to its rebated rim. True enough, the SAUM indeed has a rebated rim . . . but the difference between the head and rim diameters is .016 inch. I’ve shot a couple of different 7mm SAUMs over the years and still have a Model 7, and both rifles have fed quite well. Maybe Remington knows how to get the magazine and bolt face geometry just right, and nobody else does, but I doubt that.
With all these strange ideas floating about, it was rather a pleasant surprise when a coworker happened by my office two days before this was written to enthusiastically discuss the probable purchase of a new bolt rifle. This fellow explained that he was looking for a hunting rig for deer, pronghorn and, if he was lucky enough to someday draw a tag in Arizona, elk.
When asked what he was considering (I was thinking rifle models), he answered thusly: “I’m contemplating a .30-06, a .308 or a 6.5 Creedmoor. But I’m leaning heavily toward the .30-06, although I’ve heard the Creedmoor is highly accurate. And I think I’ll be happier in the long run with a wood-stocked rifle.”
Then there was a pregnant pause, so another honest reply was offered: “I’ve shot a lot of game with all of them. For what you intend to use it for, you’ll be very happy with any of the three, and all of them can be very accurate.”