Deer seasons in most of the USA doesn’t start until September – but if you’re looking to harvest some whitetail this year you’re probably already planning your hunt now.
Hopefully, you’re planning on shooting and developing your loads for upcoming hunts and maybe spending some time hiking, working out and getting ready for long days in the field and packing that hard-earned venison back to the trailhead. If you haven’t started yet, get going.
This fall some 10 million hunters will go afield in search of the whitetail buck of their dreams. On average, about 6 million deer will be harvested.
Though the numbers seem astronomical, consider this. In 1900 it is estimated that less than 500,000 whitetail deer remained in the US. As of 2013, there were an estimated 32,000,000 whitetails.
A true conservation success story and one that points to the hunter as the true conservationist.
The whitetail deer is the most popular big-game species to hunt. Partly because of the sheer numbers, but also because the whitetail can be found from as far north as the Arctic Circle in Canada to Brazil and Peru in South America.
From the east coast to the west coast whitetails can be found in every state in the Lower 48.
Whitetails live in vastly different habitats. You may find them in the edges around agricultural operations such as beans, corn, and alfalfa. Some you find at high elevation in the aspens in Colorado and Wyoming. Others prefer the tight, close confines of the river bottoms.
Because of the adaptability of whitetails, where you hunt will largely determine the rifle and ammo combination needed to be successful.
The whitetail is the smallest of the deer species in North America. On average a mature buck will weigh about 150 pounds, and a doe about 100 pounds. They are thin-skinned and have a relatively dainty bone structure.
So cleanly killing a whitetail does not take a specialized or heavy rifle and cartridge. A well-placed bullet from nearly any centerfire rifle will allow you to ethically take whitetail deer.
There are a lot of options when it comes to rifle and cartridges, let’s take a look at some good choices for whitetail hunting to get you started down the path to a whitetail hunting career.
You’re kidding, right? With all the fast new and sexy cartridges out there, why do I list the .30-30 first?
In all likelihood, the .30-30 Winchester Centerfire has taken more whitetail than any other cartridge. Often packaged in a compact, light and easy to carry lever-action rifle, the .30-30 makes a lot of sense.
There are a lot of whitetail in the river bottoms and thick forest and swamps. Shots will be short. You’ll likely be on a stand or stalk hunting and catch a glimpse of a whitetail sneaking through the woods.
Traditional open sights or a peep sight are quick to acquire and quite accurate for 50-100 yard shots.
Any good bullet designed for tubular magazines will be fine. My Winchester Model 94’s prefer 150-grain flat-points.
Normally you need to use round nose or flat nose bullets in a tube magazine for safety reasons, however, Hornady now offers a tube magazine safe spitzer cartridge using their FTX bullets. Although these cost a bit more than standard .30-30 rounds, they offer better penetration, better accuracy, longer range, and more reliable feeding.
The .308 was originally designed as a military cartridge. Sportsmen quickly realized that the .308 cartridge design was very accurate and could be housed in short action rifles, making them quite handy in the field.
The .308 gives up very little performance as far as velocity and energy compared to the 30-06. What it doesn’t do is recoil very much. A .308 with good 165 – 180-grain bullets will easily handle all your whitetail hunting from very close cover to 300+ yards with good optics.
Another military cartridge adopted for sporting use. The .30-06 is a do-it-all cartridge.
With the exception of big bears and the dangerous game of Africa, you would be well-served with a quality bolt action rifle in .30-06 to take on virtually any big-game species on the planet.
In fact, in his book “One Man, One Rifle, One Land” JY Jones writes about his quest to take all 43 North American Species with the same .30-06 rifle.
Loaded with bullets from 150-180 grains, the .30-06 is a solid choice for someone who wants to hunt big game and do their hunting with one rifle.
I know, ‘who hunts deer with an AR?’. Truth be told, lots of folks do.
The AR is one of, if not the fastest selling rifle platform available today. The simple fact is the AR is today’s modern sporting rifle.
Light, handy, ammo is stocked in every gun store in the nation and in all different loads, and priced so an AR-15 is within reach of nearly anyone.
However, several states require deer hunting to be done with a cartridge larger than .23cal and/or have magazine restrictions for what can be used in a hunting rifle – check your regulations before deciding on your rifle!
If it is legal and you do choose standard .223/5.56mm as your cartridge you should be aware that although possible, these cartridges limit you greatly. Choose heavy grain, soft tip ammo and keep your range within 150 yards and a standard AR-15 will serve you well.
But if you’re looking to expand your options – you can always choose a new upper for your AR-15 and unlock a whole new world of ballistic possibilities!
Uppers in cartridges such as 6.5 Grendel and 6.8 Remington SPC are fine options – however, the far more popular is the .300 Blackout.
The .300 Blk gets a lot of press for use in AR’s and some specialty handguns. It was designed in part to work well in AR’s as well as for use in suppressed weapons systems.
If you want to hunt with the .300 Blackout, stick with bullets that 150 grains and you will get adequate energy and penetration on deer-sized game out to 200 yards.
While the above cartridges will likely serve the vast majority of whitetails hunters just fine, there are those who may wish to stretch the yardage a bit or pursue bigger game. If you want to stay in the AR platform look closely at the AR-10 platform and move into the .308 Winchester with 150 or 165-grain bullets.
We’ve laid out the differences between the AR-15 and AR-10 and should Help You Decide Between the AR-15 and AR-10.
Now you have a powerful cartridge in a semi-auto package capable of taking game cleanly at extended ranges. You will pay a penalty in weight and cost, but it is a viable option if you plan to hunt in areas where shots may be long.
These are the only 2 bullets I’ve recovered from game shot with a Nosler Partition.
While not at all an exhaustive list, I believe anyone looking to start big game hunting with whitetails will be well served with the above choices.
As for what rifle to buy, you have to decide. My personal experience has been mostly with bolt actions; Remington Model 700, Tikka T3 Lite, Ruger Mod 77, Ruger American Predator and semi-custom Mauser 98’s. All work well. All are accurate. All kill whitetail deer just fine if you place your shots correctly.
If you’re interested in the newest iterations of hunting rifles, check out our Best New Hunting Rifles of 2018.
Now that you have a rifle in hand, what else do you need to have to be able to spend the entire day in the field hunting?
I’m a little over-the-top in what I carry. I grew in the Scouting program and I am a firm believer in Being Prepared.
Also, being from the Northwest I carry more gear than the average hunter because we have wide temperature swings, it will most likely be raining and/or snowing and I want to be sure I am 100% able to function on my own and not be a burden on my partners.
Let’s take a quick look at the very minimum I would have in my pack for a day of whitetail hunting in northeast Washington. I will not go too much into clothing since that is a regional and seasonal variable that everyone needs to deal with on hunt-by-hunt basis.
In the photo below is my gear:
Here’s a quick run-down of what you see and why. Starting in the upper left of the photo:
Again, this is what I have found works for me. Every area and every hunt is different, so adjust your gear accordingly. But you will find after a few trips there are some things that always get used and will go in your pack every time you go hunting.
A note on meat care: I mentioned boning your deer. I am a big proponent of quick and quality field care. I will go out on a limb here and say that most ‘gamey’ meat results from poor care of the animal in the field.
With any animal the number one enemy is heat. Get the animal broken down and cooling immediately. That means skin off, and meat off the bones. There is a tremendous amount of internal heat and the quicker the meat is separated from the bones, better.
Because nearly all of our hunting is done in the backcountry we bone our animals on spot using the ‘gutless method’. Check the link and do some research on your own. I think you will find it’s a quick, clean and easy way to care for deer.
They even have videos taking you step by step as they clean a Bull Elk!
Because whitetails live in such vastly different habitats, tactics must be adjusted depending on the location. However, there are a few things that remain constant that will help you tag a whitetail this year.
Whitetails are creatures of habit. They stay pretty close to one area and tend to use the same trails and routes. My preferred method of hunting is to find an intersection of two or more trails in the timber or edges of food crops. I’ll then find a good place to sit, usually on the ground with a tree or log to my back.
Then I get comfortable and wait. Be sure to situate yourself so you are downwind of the prevailing winds in the area. If you have too much scent blowing across or down the trail you may alert the deer.
Take another look at my pack list. Once I leave camp I intend to stay out until dark. I have my lunch, a closed-cell foam pad to sit on and appropriate clothing. Yes, I get cold. Yes, I get bored. Yes, I have sat in the pouring rain and wet snow all day.
But here’s the deal. Most hunters go back to camp in early or mid-morning. Most go back when the weather sucks. I have found that whitetails, especially in cold weather tend to get up and mosey around about 11 in the morning. They get stiff and cold too.
They will get up, eat a little, take a leak and maybe look for an area in the open if the sun is out. I have killed the majority of my whitetails mid-morning.
Whitetails like thick stuff. Human eyes are good, but not great. For the most part, we detect motion.
So if a whitetail is moving through heavy timber or brush you may notice the movement, not necessarily the deer. With binoculars, you can pick apart the timber. You see more color. You see shapes.
One of my PH’s in South Africa taught me a lot about thick cover hunting. He always said, “look through the bush.” Meaning, look beyond the stuff on the edges.
Look through the screen. Change the focus on your binoculars so you see through different layers of the cover. You will be surprised how much more is out there than if you just sit and watch.
Whitetail bucks are solitary creatures. However, if you can hunt a late season, your odds go up.
In general terms, the rut begins to crank up in mid to late-November and will run through December and January in many parts of the country. As the rut approaches, the bucks begin to wander more in search of ladies.
As such, they spend more time on the move and are a lot less wary. They are intent on breeding. Not necessarily paying attention. That said, if you are hunting a late season and you have some does or youngsters walk past your stand, get ready.
Often a buck will be following behind to determine if a suitable mate is ahead of him. Be sure you are dressed for the weather this time of year. It will be cold and often wet.
While in your sitting spot keep your rifle across your lap and at the ready.
You will often only have a couple of shooting lanes and even if the deer are just walking you only have a few seconds to make your shot.
If you have to reach for your gun and make noise or sudden movements, you will very likely not get a shot. You must be ready to quickly identify if your buck or deer is legal and then make a very quick decision to either shoot or not shoot the deer.
I shot this buck on cold November day after I had built a fire to warm up and have some coffee. It was 11 am.
How can you not? You are hunting. You are in the woods, with a rifle in your hands, a tag in your pocket and a whitetail somewhere in the neighborhood.
Yeah, you may walk miles. You may freeze on stand. You may get wet.
So what? You’ll likely be in camp or home sometime tonight. You can get dry, warm and fed when you get back.
Take a camera and shoot photos of your gear, your stand, your rifle. Shoot a pic of that pesky squirrel telling the whole basin you are under his tree.
Hunting is about making memories and enjoying your outdoor heritage. Tying your tag on a whitetail and enjoying the pure organic protein the venison provides is a bonus.
What deer have you harvested? Planning your first trip? Let us know in the comments!
Muzzleloaders have come along way and there has been enormous improvements in muzzleloading technology. Traditionally, able to take down target at 50-75 yards, current muzzleloaders can reach out at longer ranges.
There’s mixture of sentiment as to which muzzleloader to go with. Modern day hunters have the latest piece of weaponry with all the gizmo. While some old school purist just want to use their old style muzzleloader.
Finally, a few that just want a reliable muzzleloader.
Whichever side you fall on there is something for everyone. Have a look at this best hunting muzzleloader list.
This is just a small list, there may be others out there at a lower budget, let us know what you prefer below.
I was with noted outﬁtter, Gerald Fluerty of Wildside Hunting Safaris, and we were in pursuit of red stags on the North Island of New Zealand. I’d ﬁlmed TV shows with Gerald before, but this time I was carrying a camera, hoping to capture some action on ﬁlm.
The hunter was Macie Stewart, a 16-year-old high school student from my hometown of Springfield, Oregon. It was her second day of the hunt, and while she’d passed on a couple nice stags, the rut was in full swing and the valleys echoed with roaring red stags; she was in no rush to end the hunt.
Finally, the fog cleared just enough to conﬁrm the stag in front of us was a shooter. Inching into a better shooting position, Macie got set up in the shooting sticks and waited for the stag to stand.
Moments before darkness consumed us, the fog fully lifted, the massively racked stag let out a deep, guttural roar, and then stood up from his bed. That’s when Macie let him have it with her .308. The stag stumbled and fell.
“Oh my gosh, he’s way bigger than he looked through the scope,” said Macie as we approached the downed stag. Gerald and Macie exchanged high ﬁves and hugs, as this was a moment each will remember forever.
And in a wrestling match, she would have scored two points for a takedown.
Less than a month prior to her late March hunt for red stag in New Zealand, Macie was on the wrestling mat in Portland, Oregon’s Memorial Coliseum. Here, she became the ﬁrst girl in her high school’s history to earn a state wrestling title. From athletics to hunting, Macie Stewart has achieved a lifetime of success, and she’s only a junior at Thurston High School.
“I SHOT MY FIRST BLACK-TAILED deer when I was 10 years old, on Oregon’s Mentored Youth tag,” Macie recalled. “I was with my dad, and it was the day before Halloween. It was a fun hunt, but I messed up something on the camera and I lost all the photos of that deer. I didn’t think much about it then, but now I really wish I had them.”
“I like looking back at the pictures of my hunts because they bring back so many memories that went along with it, not just of the animals, but of the people, the places, and so many other things that go with the hunt,” Macie said. “There are so many fun memories that hunting creates.”
Macie began her wrestling career in sixth grade. “Even before I started wrestling, I was around it a lot,” she explains. “My brother, Zane, who is two years younger than me, started wrestling when he was ﬁve, so I was always around it and liked it a lot.”
Early in high school, Macie tried cheerleading and softball, and while they were fun, to her they just lacked something. “I’m a really competitive person,” Macie elaborated. “But I also love the family feeling wrestling has. Everyone in wrestling is like a family, and when you meet up at big tournaments with other schools, it’s like a bigger family. It’s fun and everyone supports one another. I also like the intensity that goes with wrestling, so that’s my sport, what I do year-round either with my school or in clubs.”
I’ve been on many hunts with Macie and her father, Chris Stewart, over the years. Chris and I took Macie and my son, Braxton – who are the same age – to Wyoming for an antelope hunt when they were 13. They both got nice bucks on a truly memorable hunt. On another hunt in Oregon’s Coast Range, Macie got a Roosevelt bull ﬁve minutes after Braxton got a bear. That was a fun night in camp. Braxton also ﬁlmed Macie taking a ﬁve-point Roosevelt the season before that.
When asked if she gets nervous, Macie smiled, and said, “No, not really nervous; I get excited, but not nervous. I don’t know why.”
SHE DIDN’T FEEL NERVOUS when she stepped onto the mat for the state title match either. She’d entered the tournament as the number one seed, which can add pressure to anyone, let alone a kid. She won the semiﬁnal match by a big margin, and though her title match lasted three full rounds, Macie won 6-0.
“I was in pretty good shape heading into state,” Macie shares. “I felt good, but not overconﬁdent.” She feels that way on many hunts, too.
She wasn’t nervous at all during the ﬁnal moments of her red stag hunt. I know of many seasoned hunters who would have been on edge with the long wait and anticipation. “That stag wasn’t going anywhere, we were hidden really well in the trees and the wind was good; we just needed the fog to lift so I could get a shot. That hunt was all about patience.”
“Being in good shape is the key to success on the mat and in the woods,” Macie notes. “And having wrestling season be the same time as hunting season helps, a lot. Hunting deer and elk isn’t easy, and when I push hard on those hunts, they’re actually great workouts that help me keep in shape for wrestling.”
Macie points out other correlations between hunting and wrestling and how they beneﬁt one another.
“Wrestling makes you mentally tough, so the patience part of hunting comes easy to me. The challenges encountered while wrestling also prepare you for so many situations where you need to be mentally strong in life, and have perseverance, and I see that a lot when I’m hunting. Sometimes I want to sleep in instead of go hunting, but when I get out there, I’m always glad I went.”
She goes on. “When you cut weight in wrestling and you ﬁnally win, it’s a great feeling, because you put in so much work to get to that point. It’s like hunting. You put in all this hard work and it comes down to one shot, and when you make that shot, it’s so gratifying. Wrestling and hunting teach you to never give up, because if you quit, you’ll never reach your goal.”
“My favorite part about hunting is being outdoors and getting to travel to other places,” Macie said. “Hunting has allowed me to see some really cool things I otherwise wouldn’t have seen. I also love eating wild game; that’s all our family eats. It’s way better tasting than meat from a store, and way better for you. Being a wrestler you have to be in good shape, all the time, and eating wild game keeps me ﬁt, no doubt.”
WHEN ASKED HOW MANY BLACKTAILS and Roosevelt elk she has to her credit, Macie had to think, and still didn’t know for sure. “I don’t really keep track of that kind of stuff,” Macie smiles. “To me it’s more about the experience and the memories, not about numbers.” But she did recall some of her more challenging hunts.
“I’ve had some tough blacktail hunts,” Macie recalled. “There was one big three-by-three a couple years ago. Dad and I spotted him from a long way away, and we had to patiently stalk through the woods, then the edge of a logged unit. Finally, we got to within 50 yards of the bedded buck before we could see him. He was really hidden and we had to move carefully on that one, but it wasn’t easy because it was getting dark out.”
“Last year was a fun hunt, too,” Macie continued. “My brother had shot a big buck in a unit, and packing that buck out, there was so much sign that we went back the next day and spotted another big buck in the same unit. We could only get to about 300 yards, but I got prone and felt really solid, and connected on the shot. That buck had a giant body. We quartered and packed that thing out, but had to go get help from some of our wrestling buddies to do it.”
When asked what she most recalls from her hunts, Macie didn’t hesitate. “The people and the places are what stand out most in my mind,” she said. “This New Zealand hunt was extra special because Mom was with me, while Dad and Zane were hunting another area. That was the ﬁrst time she’d been with me when I shot an animal, in all these years.”
“I also loved the way people in New Zealand hunt,” Macie added. “When we hunt at home, we stay out all day. In New Zealand we got up, ate breakfast, went hunting for a few hours, came back for a big lunch, where their family joined ours, went back out hunting until dark, then their whole family was together again with us for dinner. It was like Thanksgiving every night.”
With May upon us, where will you ﬁnd Macie Stewart? She has a spring bear tag, so you can bet she’ll be spending time in the woods. She also has a demanding spring and summer wrestling schedule, one that takes her around the country, possibly the world. Last year she qualiﬁed for a tournament in South Africa.
What I appreciate most about Macie Stewart is how hard she works. Be it wrestling or hunting, she’s diligent and positive. She doesn’t brag, ﬂood her social media sites with boastful images of animals she’s taken, and she has nothing to prove to anyone.
I’ve been on many hunts with Macie, and not once has she cared about putting on makeup, ﬁxing her hair, painting her nails or worrying about what she looks like in the photos. Macie is an accomplished hunter, statechampion athlete, and a hard worker who will be an achiever in life, no matter what she decides to do. ASJ
Editor’s note: Scott Haugen is a full-time author and TV host. His show, The Hunt, can be seen on Netflix. To learn more about the show or New Zealand hunting, visit scotthaugen.com.
THREE NEW BOWS ADDED TO GEN-X LINEUP
FULL LINE OF BOWS NOW AVAILABLE FOR HUNTING, BOWFISHING AND TARGET ARCHERY
Gen-X Archery is adding three new models to their line of bows, expanding their offering to a full range of hunting, bowfishing and target shooting bows that combine versatility and velocity with simplicity and power.
“These three new bows round out our offering to archery enthusiasts from beginners to avid bow hunters,” said Todd Bahnub, President of Gen-X. “All of our bows are made in the U.S., and continue our tradition of offering durable bows with great features and technology that stand up over time. We call it the Gen-X Factor.”
The three new bows include:
The three new bows round out the full Gen-X collection which also includes:
The new Gen-X bows are sold as stand-alone bows or as kits, except for the X-WON which is bow only, and are available for purchase at their newly updated website: www.genxbows.com.
About Gen-X Archery:
Gen-X Archery offers a full line of premium bows for hunting, bowfishing and target archery, all made with pride in the U.S.A. For more information visit: genxbows.com
Today, the latest incarnations of these ﬂagship models of American hunting riﬂes all have a suggested retail price of close to $1,000. In little more than a decade, these iconic American riﬂes have essentially doubled in price.
Not everyone can afford to lay out that kind of change for a hunting riﬂe. The Even fewer can afford semicustom or custom riﬂes, and if you have to ask the price of, say, a ﬁne European double riﬂe, you may want to be sitting down when you hear the answer.
Of course, gun makers are well aware of this economic reality and have scrambled in recent years to produce more affordable guns for the masses. Many of these guns won’t win any beauty contests. Some may be described as downright ugly. Actions may be less than silky smooth, and stocks may bend in a stiff breeze. They’re often described rather euphemistically as “budget-friendly” or “entry-level” riﬂes. These are, of course, handy phrases when you’re trying to avoid using the word “cheap.”
Have the manufacturers cut corners on these guns? You bet they have, but they had to in order to make the guns less expensive to produce and offer them at what are, by today’s standards, crazy-cheap prices.
TODAY, VIRTUALLY EVERY MAJOR mass-manufacturer of hunting riﬂes has added an inexpensive riﬂe to their product lineup. While some have derisively called this a race to the bottom, I don’t exactly see it that way. Sure, I’m fond of guns that have richly ﬁgured walnut stocks, elegantly engraved receivers, and ﬁt and ﬁnish reﬂective of old world craftsmanship, but those guns won’t smack deer into the freezer any more effectively than most of today’s more affordable riﬂes. Advances in manufacturing processes and materials now enable gun makers to offer inexpensive riﬂes that resist the elements, work reliably and shoot tight groups – and that’s all many buyers, especially ﬁrst-time buyers, are looking for in a hunting riﬂe.
Here’s a quick roundup of some of the more popular inexpensive riﬂes currently on dealers’ shelves. Since there must, I suppose, be rules to the game, I’ll limit this discussion to riﬂes that you can buy at a real-world price of $500 or less.
Consider, for example, the Thompson Center Venture riﬂe, with which I’ve had a fair amount of experience. These riﬂes feature a free-ﬂoated barrel with 5R riﬂing and pillar-bedded action. I used the Venture Compact model chambered in .308 Win. on a memorable Texas deer hunt, dropping two whitetail bucks and two does with four shots guns over two days of hunting. Several other outdoor writers did the same. I didn’t subject that riﬂe to accuracy testing, but I did test an identical gun chambered in .22-250 Rem. Five of six factory loads shot sub-minute-of-angle best groups, easily living up the riﬂe’s MOA accuracy guarantee. I was impressed enough that I bought a Venture Predator riﬂe, chambered in .204 Ruger, and it regularly shoots half-inch groups with its preferred load. That’s more than can be said of many more expensive riﬂes. You can ﬁnd the Venture for less than $500, but if that’s too rich for your blood, you can look for the no-frills TC Compass riﬂe for less than $400.
Another $500 riﬂe I’ve had some experience with is the Winchester XPR riﬂe. The one I tested, chambered in .30-06 Springﬁeld, put six different factory loads into groups averaging 1.3 inches, but that’s only part of the story. It dropped a 165-grain Federal load with Nosler Ballistic Tip bullets into average groups of 0.58 inch and a best group of just 0.31 inch. This gun is quite similar to the Browning AB3 riﬂe. Both have decent triggers, a boltunlock button, 60-degree bolt lift and detachable box magazines. Both are offered in a variety of conﬁgurations and calibers, and if you shop around, you can ﬁnd either one on sale for about $500.
One of the most aesthetically pleasing and feature-rich offerings among the bargain-priced riﬂes is the Mossberg Patriot. This riﬂe’s lines are very much in a classic conﬁguration, and you can get it with stocks that are walnut, laminate, black synthetic or synthetic Kryptek Highlander camo. Standard features include drop-box magazines, ﬂuted barrels with recessed crowns, a spiral-ﬂuted bolt and adjustable trigger system. I tested one in .25-06 Rem., and ﬁve different factory loads turned in sub-MOA best groups. Surprisingly, I’ve seen the basic black synthetic model retail for less than $300.
ANOTHER POPULAR ENTRY in the value-priced category is the Ruger American Riﬂe. I haven’t tested one yet, but have just received the Predator model, chambered in – wonder of wonders – 6mm Creedmoor. I plan to give this one a thorough workout as soon as I can obtain enough ammo to put it through its paces. Available in several conﬁgurations, this riﬂe has an adjustable trigger, cold hammer-forged barrel and a tang safety. It utilizes an integral bedding block system to free-ﬂoat the barrel and has a removable rotary magazine. The one-piece bolt has three locking lugs and a 70-degree throw to allow ample room for mounting scopes on the bases supplied with the riﬂe.
According to Big Green, also known as Remington, the bargain-priced Remington 783 is “not dressed to impress, it’s dressed for work.” With a MSRP of $399, the 783 has freeﬂoated, button-riﬂed barrels mated to receivers that are pillar-bedded to a high-nylon-content synthetic stock. The riﬂe is equipped with an adjustable trigger and, notably, detachable steel magazines. The bolt has two locking lugs and a 90-degree lift.
The main thing going for the Savage Axis riﬂe is the fact that it is, well, a Savage. That usually means you can expect good out-of-the-box accuracy. With an MSRP of around $368 and a real-world price of around $330 for the basic model with a black synthetic stock, you’ll get a riﬂe that uses the classic Savage locknut approach to set headspace set to minimum. This has always driven some purists mildly nuts, but it signiﬁcantly contributes to the accuracy Savage riﬂes are known for. Barrels on the Axis are button-riﬂed. The two locking-lug bolt is unusual in that it uses a ﬂoating bolt head design, which theoretically also contributes to accuracy. Detachable box magazines are part metal, part plastic, with metal feed lips. Triggers on the Axis models I’ve seen aren’t overly impressive, but at a cost of about $450, you can step up to the Axis II riﬂe and get the Savage Accutrigger and a Weaver Kaspa 3-9×40 scope.
These riﬂes and others like them may not be your ﬁrearms cup of tea, but taken as a group, they ﬁll an important gap in the marketplace. They give people who might not
otherwise be able to afford a decent riﬂe an affordable entry point into hunting. If we’re going to preserve our cherished hunting traditions in this country, we’re going to need their participation – and their votes – in the years ahead. That’s worth thinking about the next time you bypass the bargain-riﬂe section of your local gun store. ASJ
The Squirrel Master Classic could be classiﬁed as a friendly competition, as it pairs up teams consisting of an outdoor TV personality, a young person involved in 4H Shooting Sports, outdoor writers, and a squirrel dog handler. The teams compete in a morning and evening squirrel hunt with a shooting competition at midday. This year, the range was supervised by world champion shooter Doug Koening, whose most recent major win (as of this writing) came at the 2016 NRA Bianchi Cup.
Scoring is simple. The team with the most squirrels and most points earned in the shooting competition wins the competition. In order to qualify to take part in the event, the six 4H shooters in this year’s classic had to compete with other 4H’ers for the privilege. The lone girl in that half dozen, Moriah Christian, outshot all of her colleagues during the shooting competition.
ALL HUNTING AND COMPETITIVE shooting is done using Gamo air riﬂes, the event’s sponsor. Each hunter this year were supplied with Gamo’s new Swarm .22-caliber pellet riﬂe (see sidebar), which features a 10-shot detachable magazine, eliminating the need to reload after each shot.
While the competition is intense for the coveted squirrel trophy awarded to the winners, the real emphasis here is on the young hunters. The TV personalities attending this year – Jackie Bushman, Michael Waddell, Travis “T-Bone” Turner, Kenneth Lancaster, Ralph and Vickie Cianciarulo, and Richard Eutsler – along with Gamo president Keith Higginbotham and others at the event all recognize the need to encourage and nurture young people in hunting and the shooting sports.
In the end, Turner’s team (which I was fortunate enough to be a member of) took the trophy, and while we were very pleased I saw no smiles bigger than those of the young 4H shooters. They had a day in the beautiful Alabama woodlands following some feisty squirrel dogs, shooting air riﬂes, and spending time with some of their media heroes. It was a day they will not forget anytime soon – nor will I, for that matter – and that, my friends, is whole idea of the Squirrel Master Classic. ASJ
The two simple words said much more than they implied. First, both Poen van Zyl and I clearly understood we each knew which of the reedbuck rams were to be killed, and second, it was down to a matter of the mathematics involved in taking him cleanly. Based on my professional hunter’s momentary silence, I responded with a brief question of my own.
“Just hold on the point of the shoulder, and squeeze the trigger.” Poen van Zyl may have thought in Afrikaans, but knew how to guide a visiting sportsman in English. The Schmidt & Bender’s crosshairs quickly settled on the ram’s shoulder, and I broke the trigger of the Heym SR30 like you’d snap an icicle in two. Even through the recoil, I could see the lean reedbuck fold and collapse to its death; the .300 Winchester Magnum had once again done its job, as it had on so many other African species. Though the riﬂe and optic were new to me, the cartridge and bullet were not; I have come to love the .300 Winchester Magnum, and the Barnes LRX is among the best projectiles the company has ever produced.
Barnes Bullets – the success story of Randy and Coni Brooks – has its roots in the brainchild of Fred Barnes, who saw the need for quality softpoints in a number of different calibers. Fred had a limited success, but his name surely carried on, deﬁning a trend in modern bullet construction that is equal parts revolutionary and genius.
I am on the young end of the gunwriter age spectrum, but at 45 years old I am also wise enough to know whom to contact for the story. Randy Brooks and I have had more than one conversation, albeit via telephone, regarding the roots of his company and the development of the Barnes X bullet. As the famous story goes – and as it was related to me directly – the good Mr. Brooks was glassing for Alaskan bears when the impetus for a genre of projectiles popped into his head. “If the lead core is an issue with bullet separation, why not take the lead out?” And thus the Barnes X monometal softpoint was born. And while that bullet gave me equal parts exhilaration and ﬁts of mania, I loved the design. Being an all-copper bullet, the Barnes X was designed to expand into four petals, giving a devastating balance of expansion and penetration. The original design had some issues with accuracy and copper fouling, but that was all rectiﬁed with the release of the Barnes TSX – or Triple Shock X – bullet, which has three large grooves on the bearing surface to reduce fouling and improve accuracy.
The TSX, and its tipped counterpart, the TTSX, both serve most hunting scenarios perfectly, the LRX – or Long Range X bullet – has a sleeker profile and higher ballistic coefficient, to retain as much energy as possible downrange, and keep the trajectories flat. The LRX retains the royal blue polymer tip of the TTSX, but the ogive is engineered for the best downrange performance, and will indeed show the benefits over the flat base spitzers out past 250 or 275 yards.
The LRX, like all Barnes bullets, are praised and noted for their weight retention, as the monometal construction prevents any jacket separation – because there is no jacket – but it’s the accuracy potential of the LRX that truly opened my eyes. I’ve loaded this bullet in several different cartridges – with the best results coming from the .30-caliber magnums – and all of the accuracy has been more than acceptable. But it seems that the 175-grain .30-caliber LRX has garnered a special place in my heart.
While testing the new .30 Nosler, I utilized a number of bullets – bullets that have, in the past, produced fantastic results – but the best performer by far was the 175-grain LRX. Delivering ½ minute-of-angle accuracy and velocities on par with the .300 Weatherby, I know this combination could easily handle everything in North America, and 90 percent of the African species. In the Heym SR30 HPPR – the straight pull, High Performance Precision Riﬂe – it easily prints ½ to ¾ MOA ﬁve-shot groups using handloaded Barnes 175-grain LRX bullets.
For the record, that reedbuck didn’t stand a chance; the shot went exactly where I intended it to, and the buck fell as if the very hand of God struck him. Two more of his kin did the same, at ranges from 125 to 250 yards, and I couldn’t recover any of the bullets; the LRX gave excellent penetration. The Barnes LRX and that Heym SR30 kept the Mozambican village of Peau well fed. If you appreciate the performance of the Barnes bullets – more than 90 percent weight retention and deep, deep penetration – combined with the best accuracy of the lot, try some LRXs and I’ll bet you’ll be happy. They’re available in 6.5mm, .270, 7mm, .30 and .338 calibers. ASJ
I ﬁrmly believed the ﬁrst three-shot group was a ﬂuke – my wiggles must’ve accounted for my waggles – as it printed just under a half inch, but when the second and third did the same thing, I was a convert. They gave good velocities out of my 24-inch barrel – 2,965 feet per second, to be precise – but would they perform as advertised in the ﬁeld?
You see, the Scirocco is a bonded-core boat-tail bullet, with a very thick jacket and a black polymer tip. It is designed to not only ﬂy accurately – which it proved to be true – but to give the consummate blend of expansion and penetration. Many cup-and-core boat tails have a tendency to have the copper jacket separate from the lead core upon impact at higher velocities, and that didn’t make me happy. The Scirocco’s thick jacket is chemically bonded to the lead core to hold things together should you strike bone, yet the jacket tapers down toward the nose, allowing for good expansion. That expansion creates a larger wound channel, which destroys more vital tissue and causes death sooner.
MY FIRST FIELD TEST was in Wyoming, where I would be hunting pronghorn antelope. Anyone who has hunted the Great Plains of the American West knows that the wind is always blowing, and sometimes it blows good and hard. I found the antelope I wanted after a couple of hours glassing the prairie, and it required a stalk of just over a mile. I lay prone over a small mound, with cactus everywhere it shouldn’t have been, and settled the crosshairs of my Winchester 70 on the buck’s shoulder 215 yards away. Even through the recoil, I could see that the antelope’s feet drew up to his body as he fell earthward, stone dead, and in that moment, this bullet captured my undivided attention.
I used it the next spring on a black bear hunt in Quebec. While I knew the shots were going to be inside of 75 yards, as it was a baited hunt, I wanted to see how the bullet would handle the tough shoulder bones of a bear. Canada’s ever-changing weather kept the action slow for the ﬁrst few days, but a warm-up later in the week drew the bears out like moths to a ﬂame. A 200-plus-pound boar decided to pay a visit to my bait, and I decided to ruin his day. I had loaded the 180-grain Scirocco in my .308 Winchester, to a muzzle velocity of 2,450 fps, and the bullet took him without issue, despite punching through both shoulders. I couldn’t recover either bullet, which was no problem with me, but I was highly impressed with the performance.
Since then, I’ve loaded this bullet in many different cartridges, from the 6.5×55 Swede and 6.5-284 Norma, to the 7mm Remington Ultra Magnum, to many of the .30s including the .308 Winchester and .30-06 Springﬁeld, the .300 Holland and Holland Magnum, and the huge cases like the .300 Remington Ultra Magnum and .30-378 Weatherby Magnum. I’ve even loaded the 210-grain Scirocco in the .338 Winchester Magnum with great results.
THE OUTCOME IS USUALLY THE SAME: almost all of the riﬂes (with the exception of one particularly evil .264 Winchester Magnum) gave subMOA accuracy and excellent ﬁeld performance. The few bullets we’ve been able to recover from game animals have retained between 80 and 95 percent of their weight, with expansion running right around 2 times to 2.5 times caliber dimension. My wife loves the 150-grain Scirocco II in her .308 Winchester, as it offers less recoil yet great terminal ballistics; her Savage Lady Hunter prints ½-inch groups with this load.
The Scirocco is available in calibers from .224 up to and including .338, and I wouldn’t hesitate to go hunting with this bullet in any situation shy of the truly large and dangerous game that requires a larger bore and heavier bullet. With the Scirocco, between my own hunts and those of friends and colleagues, we have taken animals ranging in size from deer and antelope to caribou to African plains game to elk and moose. Swift only makes two softpoints – the Scirocco and the A-Frame – and that’s one of the best combinations on the market. ASJ
But designing that “better mousetrap” was only the beginning for the young gunmaker. Unfortunately, Sharps had difficulty in selling or marketing his idea. Over the next three years, he had a number of different business partners, and the total output of riﬂes and carbines he produced was very low. At one point, Sharps sold his patents as well as his interests in the company, receiving a cash agreement plus $1 per riﬂe made. Then, very late in 1851, the Sharps Riﬂe Manufacturing Company was formed and that’s when things ﬁnally got rolling.
A number of the features of the Sharps riﬂes were redesigned, primarily to make various parts more adaptable to increased production. While the models of 1849, 1850, and 1851 were all basically hand-ﬁtted and hand-ﬁnished, beginning in 1852, models were built with a much greater dependability by using machines for ﬁtting and ﬁnishing. This is all related here in a highly summarized form, but it is generally accepted that the Model 1852 Sharps is the ﬁrst riﬂe to be in the form or proﬁle that we recognize as the famous Sharps riﬂe.
THE 1852 MODEL WAS THE FIRST of the highly recognizable “slant breech” Sharps, with the breech block at a back slant instead of being vertical. It was also the ﬁrst Sharps to be produced in the thousands of riﬂes rather than just in the hundreds. The very distinctive slant-breech Sharps were made as military-style riﬂes and carbines, plus sporting riﬂes and even a few shotguns. The slant breeches included the models of 1852, 1853, and the very rare tall-hammered Model 1855.
Incidentally, it was carbines of the slant-breech Sharps that were smuggled to John Brown and his followers, hidden in cases that were marked as “Bibles.” A preacher, Henry W. Beecher, was an abolitionist who supported Brown. That’s where the slang expression referring to a Sharps riﬂe as a “Beecher’s Bible” came from.
With the model of 1859 another notable change was seen – the beginning of the vertical-block actions. The reason for going to the vertical breech block was for operation of a more effective gas seal. This is the model of the Sharps that really went to war, our Civil War, and some of these riﬂes that went to Berdan’s Sharpshooters were equipped with double set triggers.
Further updates and slight improvements were made in the New Models of 1863 and 1865, and the reputation of Sharps riﬂes for accuracy, particularly for long-range shooting, got began to build during that War Between the States. Afterwards, when self-contained cartridges were being considered much more seriously, the late models of the Sharps riﬂes with the vertical breech block were updated and converted to chamber those cartridges, primarily the new government cartridge of 1866, the famous .50-70.
THIS IS THE ERA OF THE SHARPS riﬂe history that I ﬁnd the most interesting. It was the cartridge-ﬁring Sharps riﬂes that “went West” in search of the buffalo herds, and in the hands of hunters and frontiersmen who needed a riﬂe that would perform at long range. These were the Sharps riﬂes that proved to be legendary.
The Model 1969 was the ﬁrst sporting model of the Sharps riﬂes that was made for use with centerﬁre metallic cartridges. It was chambered for the .50-70 Government and it also introduced a new Sharps cartridge that was designated as the .44-2¼-inch, with .44 for the caliber and 2¼ inches for the length of the case, as guns for it were marked on their barrels. That .44 fairly quickly became known as the .44-77, which was the UMC (Union Metallic Cartridge Company) loading for it, and it became the most common and popular cartridge in the Sharps riﬂes until the .45-70 edged it out in popularity beginning in 1876.
Despite their heavy usage and good reputation, the Model 1869 riﬂes were made for only two years. In 1871, the Model 1874, the Sharps riﬂe that many people remember the very most, was introduced. And yes, you read that correctly. Although the Model 1874 was ﬁrst manufactured in 1871, it went unnamed for three years. It was ﬁnally given recognition when the Sharps Riﬂe Manufacturing Company was reformed as the Sharps Riﬂe Company in 1874. It is also a fact that Christian Sharps died in 1874 and the designation for the riﬂe might stand as a monument to him although I doubt if that was really intended.
But no matter why the naming delay occurred, there is no doubt that the 1871 debut of the Model 1874 was timed perfectly. The great buffalo hunts were just beginning, and the Sharps – with its powerful long-range cartridges – were just what the buffalo hunters wanted. Both the .44-77 and the .50-70 made names for themselves, and the .44-77 was the most produced Sharps chambering during the Hartford era. But the buffalo hunters kept asking for longer-range cartridges, so in 1872 both the .44-90 and the “Big .50,” (what we today refer to as the .50-90) were introduced. Those cartridges, particularly the .44-90, made more long-range shots possible, and good shots out to 1,000 yards were not unknown.
It was during that time when the “buffalo wars” were fought, including the 1874 Battle of Adobe Walls. That’s the legendary battle where 28 buffalo hunters withstood the attack of several hundred Indians from a collection of tribes. The hunters’ success is generally attributed to the long-range Sharps riﬂes which most of them were using. One hunter, Billy Dixon, is credited with the long shot that truly became a legend, shooting an Indian off of his horse at a very long range. The actual distance for that shot is lost to time, but various claims put it at more than 1,000 yards to over 1,500 yards.
IN EARLY 1876, the Sharps Riﬂe Company moved their factory from Hartford to Bridgeport, Conn. Some changes were made in the riﬂes, so a Bridgeport Sharps is generally recognizable to the trained eye when compared to a Hartford model. For instance, the silver-colored pewter nose cap on the forearm was generally no longer used. More important than that, the famous Sharps .44- and .50-caliber cartridges were no longer chambered except for special orders. That’s when the .45-70 became the most popular cartridge in the Sharps sporting riﬂes lineup, and what we call the .45-110 (Quigley’s cartridge) became the leader in long-range shooting.
In 1878, Sharps introduced their hammerless model, the SharpsBorchardt. While the Model 1878 had certain advantages, it was not particularly popular in the West. The big buffalo hunts were rapidly coming to an end, and with them the demand for a riﬂe with the “personality” of the big Sharps was also diminishing. The Sharps Riﬂe Company closed their doors for good in 1881.
Still, the Sharps riﬂes deserve a fair amount of credit for opening the West up for other brands of riﬂes. What had been the “wild” West was pretty well tamed by the time the Winchester ’73 appeared on the scene. There were a few .44 rimﬁres shooting the Henry cartridge at the Battle of Adobe Walls, but odds are those were mainly ﬁred from revolvers. The .44-40 simply hadn’t made it out West at that time, and it is a simple fact that the Winchester repeaters had neither the range nor the punch of the big Sharps.
Today, however, we can still enjoy some “Sharps shooting” because excellent modern copies of the old riﬂes continue to be made, and remain in high demand. These include those manufactured by the C. Sharps Arms Company (csharpsarms.com) of Big Timber, Mont., which made each of the guns you see pictured in this article.
And so, whether your target is a live buffalo bull on ranches where they can still be hunted, or a paper target posted at 1,000 yards, ﬁring a big Sharps with lead bullets and black powder loads remains a long-range thrill. And while shooting one of the newly made Sharps riﬂes, you can’t help but have the feeling that you’re holding history in your hands. ASJ
But that’s not entirely true. We all have our favorites. For some, it may be a beat-up riﬂe that’s been handed down from generation to generation. It may be one with high-grade wood and fancy engraving. Many prefer turnbolt-action guns. Some swoon over a ﬁne double gun, while others may shoot only an AR platform riﬂe. A favorite may be a riﬂe that shoots tiny little groups, or one that’s light enough to pack up steep mountains. For some, it might be the only riﬂe they own – or one that literally saved their life.
In truth, I have several favorite riﬂes for several speciﬁc jobs. For deer-sized game, however, one riﬂe in my collection has accounted for more animals than all of the others combined. It’s not the fanciest riﬂe in the safe, nor is it the most expensive. It’s the one I’ve made more great memories with than any other.
THAT RIFLE BEGAN ITS LONG RUN with me many years ago as an original Weatherby Vanguard riﬂe, chambered in .257 Wby. Mag. It had a Tupperware stock and creepy trigger, so it did not long stay in its original conﬁguration. I installed a ﬁne Timney trigger and swapped the stock out for a pillarbedded Fiberguard stock, in an attractive tan color with black spider web ﬁnish.
I long ago lost count of the number of deer and hogs I shot with this riﬂe in the coastal mountains of central California before I left that state for more gun-friendly environs. It was with me when I shot my ﬁrst pronghorn antelope in Wyoming, and it was the riﬂe I used to bag a record-book pronghorn in New Mexico. There’s a nice axis deer on my wall, thanks to that riﬂe, and a snarling javelina. The riﬂe has taken mule deer in several Western states, and was the one I used to take my best whitetail buck, a barrel-chested 11-pointer nudging the 160 Boone and Crockett mark.
It was also the riﬂe I held when I made a running shot on a whitetail in the state of my birth, Kentucky, a number of years ago. He was an old buck, with thin, broken-up antlers,
and wasn’t much to look at. But it was a hunt I’ll never forget. It was the ﬁrst time I had seen many of my relatives in nearly two decades, and I was able to share a venison dinner with them from that homecoming hunt, surrounded by the warmth, laughter and happiness I remembered so well from my childhood. Sadly, many of those relatives are no longer with us, and I think of them every time I pick up the .257.
And that, as Forest Gump would say, is all I have to say about that.
LAST YEAR, I REALIZED THAT the riﬂe had become something of a safe queen. I was spending so much time testing and hunting with new riﬂe models that I had little time left to shoot or hunt with my own guns. Determined to remedy that, I carved a day out of my schedule last December and visited my friend, Bryan Wilson, of Frio County Hunts. Bryan runs a great hunting operation on his family’s lowfence, high-quality hunting ranch in south Texas.
He had been keeping an eye on a big-bodied, 5½-year-old, eight-point buck that made regular appearances on game cameras. His antlers weren’t going to get any better, and he was bossing around some younger bucks with greater trophy potential, so that made him a prime candidate for my freezer.
Sitting in a blind with Bryan in the predawn darkness that December morning, we watched deer ﬁlter out of the thick south Texas brush and into an open ﬁeld in front of us. It took some time before we had enough light to make out antlers, and bit more time before we could count points. There were a couple of younger, promising bucks in the ﬁeld, and far down a sendero to our left, we spotted a truly spectacular young buck. But none of them were on the menu. We were after the boss eight-pointer.
And then he appeared, walking slowly and conﬁdently down a long path to our front before entering the ﬁeld. The younger bucks watched him nervously, and it was clear that this old fellow ruled the roost. I watched the buck feed for a while, and then reached for my old friend with the words “.257 WBY MAG” stamped on the barrel. I centered the crosshairs of the Leupold scope on the buck’s vitals, and touched off the Timney trigger, which is set to break crisply at a trigger pull of a hair over 2 pounds.
AS IT HAD SO MANY TIMES BEFORE, a 120-grain Nosler Partition bullet found its mark. The buck ran about 20 yards, staggered for another 10 yards, and fell over. That bullet, in factory loading, is all I’ve ever fed the riﬂe, and it will shoot sub-MOA groups with the load all day long. Launching the 120-grain Partition at .257 Wby. Mag. velocity, the riﬂe has proven to be nothing less than a death ray. The vast majority of animals I’ve shot with that riﬂe and load simply dropped in their tracks. A few made it 30 yards or so, as this big buck did, but none have ever required any tracking to recover.
I’ve been on several hunts where people, after watching the riﬂe perform, have offered to buy it from me on the spot. Needless to say, it’s not for sale.
The .257 Wby. Mag. was reportedly Roy Weatherby’s favorite caliber, and it’s easy to understand why when you take a close look at the ballistics. The 120-grain Partition load I favor steps out at a bit more than 3,300 feet per second from the muzzle. Using the old-timer’s trick of zeroing the riﬂe to place bullets 3 inches high at 100 yards, it is dead on at 300 yards, and a bit less than 4 inches low at 350 yards.
This means that, for the vast majority of hunters and the majority of hunting situations, you need only hold steady on the vitals to make a clean kill out to 350 yards.
Notably, that .257 isn’t the only Vanguard in my safe. I also have a Vanguard sub-MOA model chambered in .300 WSM. It has the same Timney trigger installed and the same stock, albeit in a different color. I also have this riﬂe zeroed at 300 yards, with a 150-grain Winchester XP3 load grouping 3 inches high at 100 yards. The trajectory is nearly identical to that of my .257 zeroed at the same distance. Picking up that riﬂe is, for all practical purposes, the same as picking up the .257. It, too, has accounted for its fair share of game, including a scimitar-horned oryx in Texas. These are large animals, weighing up to 460 pounds, and the Weatherby handled the job nicely.
You may, by now, not be surprised to learn that I have yet another Vanguard riﬂe in my safe. This one is the newer Vanguard S2 Back Country riﬂe, a featherweight riﬂe weighing just 6 pounds, 12 ounces. Chambered in .30-06 Springﬁeld, it’s a real tack driver, especially with Federal’s VitalShok 165-grain Trophy Copper load. I also have this riﬂe zeroed to group bullets 3 inches high at 100 yards. They’ll impact less than 4 inches low at 300 yards, allowing for a dead-on hold at that distance, and I’m looking forward to putting the riﬂe to good use.
All of this, I suppose, lends a lot of truth to the old adage, “Beware the man with one riﬂe.” Or, in my case, two or three. ASJ
Idyllic as this landscape may appear, however, the green hills and old-growth oaks mask a powerful secret. Just below the surface of the earth, two enormous tectonic plates, the North American and Paciﬁc, are pressing against one another with incredible force in a zone known as the San Andreas Fault. In Parkﬁeld, there’s an earthquake every single day, a fact that makes this tiny town the self-proclaimed “Earthquake Capital of the World.” Most shakes are small and unnoticeable. But many of the local residents I spoke with assured me that when a big one hits, I would have no trouble noticing.
On this visit, though, I was out to create some seismic tremors of my own. I was testing Weatherby’s new Vanguard in .375 H&H Magnum, a big bore for the brand’s budget riﬂe line. Parkﬁeld is just down the road from Weatherby’s headquarters in Paso Robles, and the Central Coast ranch country around these towns has, like many other places in the country, been overrun with feral swine. In the region’s steep canyons and dense forests, the pigs enjoy reprieve from area hunters and reach impressive proportions on a steady diet of acorns, barley crops, and tubers. As you no doubt know, they’re a big nuisance to farmers and detrimental to native species, and their numbers are increasing rapidly.
THE WILD HOG’S ABILITY TO SURVIVE in California and elsewhere is due in large part to the species’ ability to adapt to human habitation and avoid detection. Though they’re myopic and relatively easy to approach when the wind is right, hogs are anything but stupid. On the ﬁrst night of the hunt we were stalking a sounder of perhaps 30 adult pigs and shoats. The sounder was scattered across a ﬁeld of short-cropped green barley 100 yards from an oak forest. It was evening, and the sun had disappeared below the low hills behind us. Long shadows stretched across the ﬂat valley below, and we were busy looking over the sounder when one of the pigs spooked and ran for the forest. The remaining hogs followed suit immediately, rushing full-tilt for the trees en masse. The last two shoats, not much bigger than a football, disappeared less than 10 seconds after the ﬁrst pig broke for cover. The swirling winds had betrayed our position, and that was all that was required to spread panic amongst the hogs and send them straight to cover.
Most Central Coast hog hunting consists of driving backroads or glassing hillsides in search of pigs. So, with our group of hogs gone from that particular ﬁeld, guide Jim Martinez, Weatherby’s Brad Dykhouse and I started scanning the hills with our binoculars in search of our next target. There was a particular cleft on a hillside opposite our location that caught my attention. It was a dirty white, jagged ribbon that ran along the top of the face of slope, not a road or a cattle path but similar in appearance. I leaned toward Jim.
“What’s that mark on the hill over there?” I pointed at the scar that ran along the mountain.
“That’s a fault line.”
Seeing a fault line, the same type of geological rift that lifted the Rockies and the Himalayas far above the earth’s surface was unnerving, for sure, but there wasn’t much I could do about it, so I shrugged and started glassing the hillside once more.
The mountains of the Central Coast are often referred to as “rolling” hills, but that characterization was not devised by anyone who has had to climb them in search of pigs. After a few hours of following Jim up and down those slopes on a quest to ﬁnd our prey we were looking for, I ceased to refer to them as anything but mountains. Fortunately, the peaks provided a perfect vantage point from which to scout the next draw (and then the next) for pig activity.
It was early April, and the weather was perfect. The all-day sunshine warmed the hills, and as evening approached the cool thermal winds started rushing over the face of the mountain, bringing relief from the afternoon heat. It felt far more like mule deer or elk hunting than pig hunting, the three of us sitting back against the hillside watching the valley below and the opposite slope for any sign of hogs. Brad managed to catch up with his hog in just this fashion, positioning himself on a steep ridge when a sounder crossed the face of the opposite slope on their way to lower ground and hidden pools of water in the oak forests below. Brad’s chosen pig, a buttermilk-colored sow, stepped clear of the trees at 180 yards and a single shot from his Vanguard .308 did the job.
My pig hunt occurred in lower country, along a winding creek bed lined with oaks. There were still plenty of vantage points from which to glass pigs, but it didn’t require quite the climb that Brad’s hunt demanded. With Jim in the lead we crested a rounded hilltop and sat three abreast on the grassy rise glassing the shadowed agriculture ﬁelds below. Between our vantage point and the creek was a narrow ﬁeld, and as the sun sank down below the tops of the hills the pigs started appearing out in the open country at the edge of the forest. A brace of sows came ﬁrst, a red and black with so many fast-moving shoats underfoot that it was impossible to get an accurate count. More pigs came, more sows with young as well as dry sows that hadn’t been bred. There was a boar among them, a young male with short teeth and a sleek black coat. Jimmy dismissed him. We were looking for something larger.
As the sun set and the air cooled, a form appeared in the trees. It was lighter in color than the other pigs but considerably larger and heavier. The big boar slipped out of the trees at the tail of the sounder, easily identiﬁable because of his impressive size and a large black patch of skin on his hind leg. Jim looked him over in the glasses, but the long snout and tail, impressive bulk and visible tusks left little question that this was a shootable pig.
Jim ranged the boar at 200 yards, a long shot for the area but still manageable with the .375 H&H Magnum. The problem was that the ridge, with its uneven ground surface, didn’t offer us a very good shooting position. We could make it work, but I wanted to be sure that I had a solid rest.
Before I could get in position the lead sows turned 90 degrees along the creek and one by one they disappeared into the oaks and down into the drainage below, vanishing from sight one by one. The boar followed, appearing as a shadow passing through the wide oak trees before ﬁnally slipping over the hillside and out of sight.
“Just wait,” Jim said as he watched the pigs through the grey trunks of the pines and oaks. “I think they’ll come back up.” He lowered the glasses and looked up and down the creek. “They have to come back out eventually.”
I turned around and looked at the valley behind us, and less than 100 yards away I saw the form of a big, mahogany-coated boar standing alone in the ﬁeld. “Jim!” I said. “Jim!” He looked at me and I gestured in the direction of the boar. It turned out that Jim had known that pig was there all along, and while his proximity to our position and lack of sows with which to compare convinced me that he dwarfed the white pig on the opposite side of the ﬁeld, Jim knew better. Pigs are notoriously hard to judge if you don’t know what to look for, and I’d been fooled by the pig’s position. Jim said he believed the pig opposite our position in the creek was about 100 pounds heavier.
Humbled and happy that I hadn’t screwed up and shot a much younger boar, I decided to make a move. If we could slip down the slope, we could cut the range by about 50 yards and I could get in position to take a shot from a more solid rest. When the trees swallowed up the last of the shoeboxsized piglets across the ﬁeld, we crawled down through the green oats and set up where we could wait for the big white pig to give us another chance. One by one, the pigs started to reappear in the barley, the haggard sows and their demanding broods. Jim, Brad and I counted the pigs and watched for the white boar. One by one they appeared, black and reds and a couple very large brown pigs, but no white one. Where had the boar gone? How had we lost him in the shallow swale? We glassed the sounder from the leading sow to the last pig, watching as they moved across the ﬁeld away from us.
“There he is,” Jim said. The boar had found one of the few remaining patches of surface water in the creek bed and had rolled in it, covering the length of his side in brown mud and camouﬂaging him in the sounder. When he doubled back to check a sow, he revealed himself as the white boar we’d initially seen.
“You think you can make the shot?”
It was just over 150 yards, no problem for the .375 H&H from a steady rest. I settled down behind the Leupold VX-6 1-6x illuminated scope and centered the bouncing red dot on the point of the boar’s shoulder. I held ﬁrmly to the riﬂe and slipped the safety forward into the ﬁre position.
“When he stops,” Jim said. I waited until the pig paused in the center of the ﬁeld, well away from the sows and the swarming shoats. I pressed the trigger, taking up the slack in the Vanguard’s two-stage trigger until it came taut. Then, with one light press, ﬁred the shot.
The .375 roared and the earth seemed to tremble as I rose up in recoil, but by the time I came back down into the scope the pig lay motionless in the short-cropped barley ﬁeld. A cloud of dried mud and dust hung in the air above the dead boar.
By the time we’d ﬁnished dressing the pig and had him skinned and hanging in the meat locker it was well after dark. The last purple light of day was vanishing over the hills and the ﬁrst bright stars were appearing in the sky. There was just time to return to the lodge, wash up, and eat dinner. The next morning we were scheduled to start hunting turkey.
Two days later when I left the Central Coast we pulled up to the same stop sign on Route 46 where James Dean had been killed decades before. On our right, far out across an agricultural ﬁeld, there was a herd of tule elk visible through the waves of heat. It seemed the perfect end to the hunt, the sharp fault line between two very different worlds. To the south was L.A., its glowing lights visible for miles. Behind us, the interior of the Central Coast was much the same as it had been for millennia. As badly as I would like to have spent more time in this secret piece of wilderness, I had to return home, and that meant heading south. The car turned and we headed off. ASJ
Savage Arms’ new line of next-generation semiautos comes to the marketplace with an attitude – the company has cleverly co-opted the MSR acronym for branding the guns, using the tagline “MSR now stands for Modern Savage Riﬂe” – but the guns are poised to deliver in the ﬁeld and on the range as well, with everything from expanded caliber choices and badass designs to a full suite of custom upgrades packaged as standard features.
Although the four-gun family includes two MSR-15 models in 5.56mm (the Recon and Blackhawk), our focus here will be on a dynamic duo of aptly named, hard-hitting MSR-10s, the Hunter and the Long Range. And while the company’s slick new AR-15 riﬂes are already gaining a reputation as straight shooters, the chance to zero in on building a better AR-10 was a perfect ﬁt for Savage – oﬀering opportunities to play to the brand’s strengths, including longrange accuracy and innovation.
SAVAGE MAY BE BEST KNOWN for its extensive collection of bolt-actions for hunting, competitive shooting and plain old plinking, but the company has also been in the AR business, oﬀ and on, for years, quietly creating custom barrels for other manufacturers.
Simply put, the AR-10 platform oﬀered Savage engineers a chance to innovate. According to Al Caspar, president of Savage Arms, “One of the stumbling blocks to unbridled creativity with the AR15 platform is the nagging need for conformity – in other words, keeping the riﬂe compatible with a variety of accessories. With AR-10s, there are far fewer such constraints. Savage engineers were able to think outside the box to bring gamechanging features to both the MSR Hunter and MSR Long Range.”
While developing its modern, precision AR-10s, Savage also addressed other longstanding shortcomings of MSRs designed for larger cartridges.
“For example,” Caspar added, “AR10s have traditionally been heavy, bulky and unwieldy. We tackled these issues head-on, shaving oﬀ unnecessary weight and trimming size with a smaller, lighter chassis that strikes a perfect balance between performance, ﬁt and function. As a result, both the MSR-10 Hunter and MSR-10 Long Range feature a compact AR-10 design that feels and handles more like an AR-15.”
“Savage’s new AR-10s also feature custom-forged uppers and lowers for a look unlike anything aﬁeld or on the range, plus a free-ﬂoating forend that locks down so tight you can bridge a scope mount from forend to receiver with no loss of accuracy. Tactical Blackhawk! grips, buttstock and ﬂip up sights are also standard.”
Professional 3-gun competitor Patrick Kelley knows a thing or ﬁve about the needs of long-range shooters, and he knows the Long Range model well, having been involved in early testing of the gun.
“It’s got all the cool features that a free gunner would want in one package,” said Kelley at the recent SHOT Show in Las Vegas. “A longer gas system, 5R-riﬂed barrel, Melonite coating, 22-inch barrel length for 6.5 Creedmoor, 20-inch in .308 Win. An M-Lok hand guard.”
“The upper and lower are both proprietary,” Kelley added, “and shorter in length, which allows us to make the gun more compact, bring the center of balance back closer to the center line of the shooter, which makes for better handling. The bolt carrier group is also lighter than a standard bolt carrier group. Again, less reciprocating mass means a lower recall impulse.”
“It’s got every feature in it it should have,” Kelley concluded, “at a price point that will make you smile and make you want it all the more. (This) riﬂe has all the cool features that little boutique gun makers can do, but in one riﬂe from a large manufacturer: Savage Arms.”
BOTH MSR-10S ARE AVAILABLE in .308 Win. and 6.5 Creedmoor chamberings, each of which oﬀers applications in hunting and long-range shooting. The .308 Win. is a ﬁne all-around choice for big game, not to mention a top traditional pick of snipers and other long-range shooters. A relative newcomer, the 6.5 Creedmoor is a long-range performer developed for target shooting but perfectly capable in hunting applications as well.
Savage tailored barrel length to caliber and purpose. The .308 Win. version of the MSR-10 Hunter sports a 16-inch barrel (and weighs just 7.5 pounds), while the 6.5 Creedmoor Hunter carries an 18-inch barrel. MSR10 Long Range barrel lengths are 20 inches for the .308 Win. and 22 inches with 6.5 Creedmoor.
Regardless of length, all barrels are button-riﬂed and paired to their particular action with Savage’s obsessive attention to precise headspace control. To further enhance accuracy while reducing fouling, the bore features innovative 5R riﬂing. And to extend barrel life, Savage applies an ultradurable, Melonite QPQ surface hardening treatment inside and out.
With roughly 10 million modern sporting riﬂes already in the hands of American gun owners, there’s no denying the platform’s appeal for a variety of uses. And, after talking to thousands of shooters online and in person at ranges across the continent, Savage knew exactly where to aim with their new line. The company is convinced that both new MSR-10s will quickly ﬁnd a place in the hands and hearts of discerning shooters, and with early results trending so favorably, it would be hard to argue otherwise. ASJ
There are many turkey choke tubes on the market, and folks often ask me which one is best. I always tell them to pick a choke designed for your gun and the load you plan to shoot. But whatever you do, choose something, because you shouldn’t head into the woods without a turkey choke. Trust me, you are not doing yourself any favors by not having one.
Choke tubes come in four standard sizes, commonly known as cylinder choke (C), improved cylinder choke (IC), modiﬁed choke (M), and full choke (F). Essentially, turkey chokes are extra full. Once upon a time, the standard for shotgun patterns was the 30-inch circle and what percentage of the pellets in a shotgun shell was delivered inside that area. The idea was to have an evenly distributed pattern inside the circle, but modern turkey hunters want something tighter than that.
TURKEY CHOKES ARE DESIGNED speciﬁcally to keep your pattern tight at various distances. Turkey shells have more of a powder charge than a typical shotgun load, and this is where this distinctive choke will pay dividends. The general rule of thumb is that it takes three pellets to break a clay target and six pellets to take down a small game bird.
Of course, as the size of the game bird increases, so does the number of pellets that are needed for a successful shot. In other words, it takes more pellets to kill a turkey than it does to bag a quail! Shot size is also important, as a larger shot will be needed to take down a turkey. In order to choose your chokes, you want to predict how far away your shot is going to be.
Hunters go after spring turkeys using a variety of methods; so one load won’t be perfect for everybody. But everyone can pick the perfect load to match his or her style of hunting. First, determine which size shot you like best – 2¾-, 3- or 3½-inch shells loaded with size 3, 4, 5 or 6 shot? Again, you need to shoot several through your gun and see which one patterns best on paper. There are even pelleted blends with specially designed wads for greater distance. Last year I hunted with Federal 3rd Degree Turkey Loads, copper-plated lead pellets in size 4, 5 and 6 shot. I was impressed with the effectiveness through my gun prior to season, especially at intermediate ranges.
There are old ﬁxed-choke guns that will shoot certain loads better regardless of other factors. I like to start out with standard No. 6s and see what the pattern looks like before trying something different. My father has an old Remington 870 ﬁxed full choke, and he seems to shoot size 6 loads through it best. Newer 20-gauge shotguns will shoot size 7s at 1,100 feet per second, and these are great for a young hunter or beginning sportsmen or -women.
FOR HUNTERS ON THE MOVE, lighter guns with good loads chambered in 3- and 3½-inch size 4 or 5 shot with velocity over 1,100 fps are more desirable. Regardless, a hunter needs to practice with several loads and determine which one works best. I like to ﬁnd at least two that pattern well, choose one that I prefer and have another on standby. Why have two, you may ask? Well, I have found that not all loads are readily available especially during season, so this way I don’t ﬁnd myself running out of shells halfway through the month of May and have to scramble to ﬁnd another type that I’m comfortable with. Does that sound like planning ahead? It sure does.
The bottom line is, you want the largest possible percentage of pellets in the vitals as possible. Pattern your gun according to the type of terrain you’ve chosen to hunt. For example, if you are hunting thick brushy country, make sure to pattern for 30 yards or less, and in a more open environment pattern out to 40 yards. Counting your pellets at each range and ﬁguring out your kill percentage provides valuable information.
You will be very surprised at the different performance of various loads at the similar ranges. The ideal pattern for a turkey gun is 100 pellets within a 10-inch circle at 40 yards. Achieving this density essentially means that there should be a large enough percentage of pellets in the vitals to ethically harvest your turkey.
WHEN PATTERNING YOUR GUN, remember to always shoot from a stable rest,
bench or sled. I like to use my Bullseye camera system (bullseyecamera.com) or other digital range ﬁnder to help simplify the process. This also helps save time running up and down range and changing targets. No matter what shot size you choose, the pattern should equate to 25 to 35 percent (on average) of pellets in the vitals or 10-inch diameter. Density is the key ingredient in determining which load you prefer and works best.
You can make your own targets out of butcher paper or print out your own. Several outdoor companies sell high-quality shoot-n-see style targets that can be found at Cabela’s, Gander Mountain and other sporting goods retailers. A general rule and helpful reminder is that most turkey guns are patterned for 40 yards or less, since this distance is universally considered “ethical” to shoot and harvest a bird.
But spring is nearly upon us, so now is the time to quit reading about turkeys and get out there to burn some powder in preparation for a great season. ASJ
I’m not talking hard-core hunts in foul weather for trophy class animals, where freezing temperatures and extreme terrain prevail. I’m referring to fun hunts to share where game abounds, the weather is mild, the action fast-paced, the terrain is easily managed and the days aﬁeld not overly long. Of course, you need to set aside time for some relaxed sightseeing and romantic dinners, which may come over a campﬁre, but if you’re together, it’s just that much more special.
Throughout our 26 years of marriage, living in Alaska and overseas, my wife, Tiffany, and I have been fortunate to hunt many places together. Here’s a list of some of the most memorable hunting experiences we have enjoyed together. I believe you will enjoy them as well.
1. BEAR BOUND
Spring is one of the most productive times to hunt black bear in North America. Be it over bait in the states that allow it, or spot-and-stalk-style hunting in the lush, grassy meadows of the Paciﬁc Northwest, there’s no shortage of great bear hunting opportunities.
Idaho allows bear hunting over bait, and color phase bears run high in some areas. Sleeping in and hunting the evening hours will make it feel more like a vacation than a hunt. Spotand-stalk hunts can be had in multiple Canadian provinces, too, where bear densities are mind boggling and the terrain is easy to negotiate. Just be sure to bring mosquito repellent.
Bear meat is some of the best eating wild game out there. Get the hide off fast; remove the fat from the muscle and get the meat quickly cooling, and you’ll be enjoying it for months to come.
2. TURKEY TIME
There’s nothing quite like being in the spring turkey woods: warm days, wild ﬂowers blooming, birds singing and lovesick toms gobbling like crazy. Turkeys can be hunted in every state but Alaska.
One epic turkey hunt for you and your sweetheart is in Hawaii, where the birds thrive. Florida is another wonderful option for a couples hunt. Texas, South Dakota and western Oregon are also great places to hunt turkeys, and see some beautiful sights along the way.
Wherever you go, make sure to hit the state or states where multiple tags are available. If you have the time, driving to and hunting different states can be easy to do, and may offer great side attractions in the form of museums, historical points of interest and, of course, restaurants. Don’t overlook fall turkey hunting, which can be exciting, especially with a dog!
3. HOG HEAVEN
Ask my wife what her most memorable hunt was, and she’ll likely reply hunting hogs in Florida. Our whole family was along on this unforgettable trip, and atop a monster truck-like swamp buggy, we pounded bacon with ARs, shotguns and riﬂes. It was a thrilling way to hunt, and an effective way to put a dent in the overpopulation of pigs on the land we hunted. It also yielded a couple coolers full of some of our favorite wild game to eat.
Texas has high pig populations, and baiting and spot-and-stalk approaches can be employed there. Sitting in a blind over bait offers a level of addicting anticipation that needs to be experienced to be appreciated.
California has great, year-round hunting for wild hogs. Spring and fall are favorite times, as the pigs are actively feeding and the weather is very comfortable. Of course, California swine often resides near vineyards, making it easy to ﬁnd something to do in the evening together as well.
4. QUACK ATTACK
Be it an early-season teal hunt, a midseason outing for local birds or a late-season adventure for migratory fowl, spending time in the duck blind together is relaxing. Of course, the earlier it is in the season, the more comfortable the weather will be. Then again, late-season, high-volume hunts in the cold can offer unmatched shooting action that can keep you warm.
With a dozen decoys, a call and some basic gear, getting equipped for hunting waterfowl is easy.
If you don’t have access to good public lands, gaining permission to hunt on private property is much easier than getting the green light to hunt deer or elk. Don’t overlook your goose hunting options either, for these can offer great action around the country, be it for Canadas or snows.
5. PRONGHORN HITS
The perfect couples hunt for big game has to be pronghorn. The weather is nice, animals are plentiful, you don’t have to get up in the middle of the night to start the day, and if you blow an opportunity on a buck, you’ll soon be commencing a stalk on another.
While some states only offer pronghorn tags through a lottery system, others have over-the-counter options. Parts of Wyoming offer overthe-counter tags for nonresidents, for both buck and doe, making it the top state for such a hunt. Consider putting a bipod on the riﬂe, or at the very least, use shooting sticks, and practice out to 300 yards, as shots can be long in this open country of the West. These hunts are big hits among couples and families.
6. VARMINT MASTER
Varmint hunting offers high-volume, fast-paced shooting action to couples eager to head aﬁeld. Be it prairie dogs in the spring, summer, early fall, or ground squirrels farther West, there is a lot of great shooting to be had.
Prairie dogs occupy many of the Rocky Mountain states and open plains, and the fact they do so much property damage means ﬁnding a place to hunt isn’t that difficult. The last prairie dog town my wife and I hunted in Montana, stretched for more than 7 miles and was over a mile wide. Needless to say, we experienced a lot of shooting.
In eastern Oregon and northern California, Belding’s ground squirrels abound, and ﬁring more than a thousand rounds per person, per day, is common in some of the alfalfa ﬁelds overrun by these varmints.
7. PLEASANT PHEASANT
While the season for wild pheasants has come to a close, there are numerous bird preserves that offer outstanding hunting opportunities around the country, even in Alaska. In most states, preserves are open through March, and reopen again in August or September.
Not only are these high-percentage hunts, but the accommodations can be as fancy as you want to get, which can be appealing to couples. Then again, you can ﬁnd affordable operations, allowing more bangs for your bucks in the form of pheasant, chukar, quail and occasionally more exotic species.
8. DOVE LOVE
My wife and I gone dove hunting together for nearly two decades. Early in the September season, when the weather is hot, we enjoy ﬂoating rivers and hunting birds off gravel bars. Later in the season, we move to ﬁelds and travel routes connecting feeding and roosting areas.
While early-season hunts are warm and comfortable, many states have extended their seasons into October, and the shooting for migratory doves in large ﬂocks can be exceptional. These are some of the best eating birds out there.
9. WHITETAIL QUEST
One of the country’s best deer hunts to experience with your sweetheart is for whitetails. Blacktail deer hunting is physically demanding, often taking place in wet, brushy country. Mule deer habitat can be rugged and the weather less than hospitable. But when it comes to whitetails, North America’s most hunted big game animal, the options are many.
Since whitetails occupy so much river bottom and farmland habitats, the terrain is easy to negotiate. They can be hunted from late summer into winter, and with high densities, seeing deer is almost guaranteed and the chances of punching a tag are high. Whitetails can often be hunted from ground blinds, making it comfortable for both of you when temperatures drop. If looking to put meat in the freezer, there are some good over-the-counter options, and easy-to-draw tags in many states.
10. ADVENTURES ABROAD
Don’t overlook the joy of traveling abroad to hunt with your loved one. This is also a great opportunity to combine a hunt with a vacation.
New Zealand is tops when it comes to hunting prized red stag, and more, and the people and the country are simply wonderful. Australia also offers some good deer hunting in its southern and western states.
Africa is a place that offers a lot, both in terms of species to hunt and sites to see. Plains game hunts are affordable, with kudu and gemsbok topping the wish list of many hunters.
This Valentine’s Day, consider giving your spouse a hunt as a way to say “I love you!” With this gift you’ll both be able to spend time in the ﬁeld together, and travel through some great parts of North America, even the world. ASJ
Editor’s note: Scott Haugen is a fulltime freelance writer of 20 years. He recently began a booking service geared to help others enjoy hunting and ﬁshing adventures around the world. Learn more at scotthaugen.com.