[su_dropcap style=”light”]P[/su_dropcap]rogress and the march of time can be very hard on the wallet, especially when it comes to hunting riﬂes. Consider, if you will, the classic Big Three of American hunting riﬂes. According to a 2004 gun-value reference in my collection, you could at that time buy a new Remington 700 BDL riﬂe for about $500, and the ADL model went for even less. A new Ruger Model 77 All-Weather riﬂe could also be found for less than $500, and the same could be said for a Winchester Model 70 Black Shadow.
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
[su_dropcap style=”flat”]M[/su_dropcap]any of us started out shooting a BB or pellet gun at a target and graduated to small game like rabbits and squirrels. Some of us did the other way around. But it seems that in these times of shrinking hunter numbers fewer and fewer of our young people are going down that path. Four years ago Jackie Bushman of Buckmasters fame decided to do something about that and created the Squirrel Master Classic. The event is held every year at the Southern Sportsman Hunting Lodge west of Montgomery in Alabama’s legendarily rich-soiled “Black Belt” region.
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
[su_dropcap style=”flat”]“H[/su_dropcap]ow far?”
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
[su_dropcap style=”flat”]I[/su_dropcap] had been frustrated with the terminal performance of my .300 Winchester Magnum, as the cup-and-core bullets – which ﬂew very well when punching paper – were giving too much expansion when used in the New York deer woods. I needed a stiffer bullet, yet wanted to take full advantage of the ﬂat trajectories and wind deﬂection characteristics of the spitzer boat-tail bullets. I did a bit of research, and found an advertisement for the Swift Scirocco II. The ad copy touted a newly engineered jacket, which would improve the accuracy of the bullet. I ordered a box of 100 .308-caliber 180-grain Scirocco IIs, and headed to the bench. I had developed a load for this particular riﬂe that gave just under minute-of-angle accuracy, so decided to start there (it was well below maximum), and see what the new bullets would do.
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
[su_dropcap style=”light”]C[/su_dropcap]hristian Sharps already had some limited experience with breechloaders when he patented his fallingblock action in 1848. He’d worked at Harpers Ferry where the Hall breechloaders were made, and many people have assumed that that was where the seed was planted in his head to design a better breechloader.
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
[su_dropcap style=”light”]A[/su_dropcap]s an outdoor writer, I’m often asked what my favorite riﬂe is. My standard answer, especially when I’m in the ﬁeld, is whatever riﬂe I happen to be holding in my hands at any given moment.
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
[su_dropcap style=”flat”]H[/su_dropcap]alfway between California’s Bay Area and the sprawling urban megalopolis of Los Angeles lies the Central Coast, a range of green hills and oak forests. It’s home to a good portion of the Golden State’s remaining agricultural land, and in hamlets such as Parkﬁeld (population 18 or 34, depending on whether you believe the city limit sign or the abandoned railway car in the center of town) you’re more likely to see ﬂatbed pickups and cowboy hats than sports cars and hipster garb. The Central Coast is so far removed from the hustle of Hollywood that it’s hard to remember that Parkﬁeld and L.A. are only a few hours’ drive apart. At Santa Lucia Outﬁtters’ hunting camp outside of town there are no lights visible at night except the ﬁeld of stars stretching from one horizon to the next. There’s no road sound, just the hum of wind through the pines.
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