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American Rifle
Rifle Magazine
March - April 2005
Volume 37, Number 2
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 218
On the cover...
The Remington Model 504 is chambered in 17 Mach 2 and topped off with a Kahles scope. The Weatherby Vanguard Outfitter Custom rifle features Teflon coatings and special order stocks. Photo by Stan Trzoniec.
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Over the years I have had the opportunity to meet and become friends with a variety of unique and interesting people who make their living within the firearms and hunting industry. Ed Stevenson is certainly one of the last of the old-time mountain men, and because of his extensive experience in the Alaskan bush guiding and hunting brown/grizzly bears (not to mention moose, Dall sheep, mountain goat and black bears), hunters and riflemen may find his choice of guns, cartridges and loads for bears interesting. Before we take a close look at these items however, let’s take a better look at the man and some of his experiences, which somewhat explain why he has settled on certain guns.

After growing up on a ranch in Wyoming where skills were polished with horses, trapping, then guiding big game hunters, in 1960 Ed packed his guns and gear and headed to Alaska, never looking back. With his previous experience and outdoor savvy, it didn’t take long for him to become a licensed guide and outfitter, which he has continued non-stop for 44 years, operating Sheep River Hunting Camps (PO Box 87-5149, Wasilla AK 99687; or

Alaska is a beautiful state with a variety of scenery, but Ed’s “camps” are located in particularly spectacular areas. Two of his camps, “Camp No. 3” and “Camp No. 5,” both log cabins of Ed’s construction and spaced 18 miles apart, are located on a glacier river nestled deep in the Alaskan wilderness. Being remote, access is generally by bush plane, but if one has plenty of time and is in good physical condition and willing to put in the effort, access by foot is possible. If you climb the mountains just above either cabin, Mount McKinley, at over 20,000 feet elevation and the highest point in North America, can be seen in the distance. From these camps Ed guides for moose, Dall sheep, black bear and grizzly.

To help understand Ed’s day-to-day lifestyle, following a tough sheep hunt, I spent a couple of days with him at Camp No. 3. Naturally conversations turned toward guns, cartridges and hunting stories. Far too many events were related to share here, but Ed recounted close encounters with bears that occurred in that camp. Some were around the cabin, and at least two were in the cabin! Bears managed to break in while Ed was out accomplishing daily chores or hunting. Upon returning he was confronted by a bear on the kitchen counter, and on another occasion a bear was in his bedroom. Ed summed it up best by stating, “They just seem to show up when you least expect them.”

Moving south to the Prince William Sound region near the coast along a remote salmon stream, Ed operates a brown bear and mountain goat hunting camp that is surrounded by an incredible number of bears. Besides seeing bears throughout the day along the river, we had bears in camp every night.

On one occasion we hiked upriver a few miles and settled for the night on a steep hillside overlooking the river. There were still a couple of hours of daylight left, so I sat down and began glassing. Bears seemed to be coming from everywhere, and it was clear that some had been bedded within a few feet of the trails we had just hiked. Within the next hour or two, eight bears were observed. After night fell and we settled in our sleeping bags, more bears could be heard as they waded the river fishing just 140 yards from our open camp. Ed’s coastal bear camp is picture-perfect country with snow-capped granite mountains, timber, crystal clear streams loaded with salmon and mountain goats feeding just below snow line.

Ed stays in his wilderness camps practically year around and considers Camp No. 5 his home. After the fall hunting season ends, he may spend a week or two in town to get caught up on the business end of things but then heads back to where he is at ease and most comfortable in what he refers to as “his beloved mountains.” During the bitter cold Alaskan winter months (where temperatures plummet to -50 degrees and colder), besides accomplishing the daily work required for wilderness living, Ed runs a trap line and enjoys hunting wolves. We might say he is the last of the old sourdoughs.

The Sourdough’s Rifles

When Ed first traveled to Alaska, he carried one of the first Weatherby Mark V rifles ever built, a .300 Weatherby Magnum. While this might be a great long-range stalking cartridge for sheep and goats, Ed quickly discovered it lacked caliber and bullet weight for the big bears, especially when dealing with an irritated or wounded critter at close range. The most common rifle/cartridge combination for Alaskan bear guides during this era (still popular today) was a Winchester Model 70 (obviously of pre-64 manufacture) .375 H&H Magnum. Often the original 25-inch barrel was cut to 20 inches (causing collectors to cringe), making them noticeably less cumbersome in the thick alders and willows, where bears commonly live.

The Model 70 .375 H&H was Ed’s next bear rifle, a combination he used for a couple of decades. He liked the power of the cartridge and considered the Model 70’s action ultrareliable with its claw extractor, controlled-round feeding, simple trigger mechanism and solid steel construction. It always functioned even when dirty, wet or in extreme cold.

While hunting Dall sheep with Ed at Camp No. 3, he related a story of a bear attack that took place in the mountains a few miles from the coast in 1968. Ed doesn’t always go into great detail, and while I understood the basics, the story didn’t become completely clear until I had the opportunity to hunt brown bear with him (at a later date) in the Prince William Sound region.

It was May when Ed and a client, whom he had guided several times previously, had taken a large brown bear and were headed back down the river toward camp (about 6 miles inland). It was late in the evening with just enough light to see reasonably well. As they hung close to the edges of the river where walking was easiest, a huge bear suddenly broke from the nearby timber/brush in full charge, only a dozen steps away. Ed instinctively raised the Model 70      .375 H&H, aimed for the chest and fired (a shot he no longer uses).

There was only time for one shot, and seeing the flash from the muzzle of Ed’s rifle, the bear focused his anger on Ed rather than the hunter. The bear’s momentum carried Ed into the river, where the bruin held him under water, then proceeded to tromp him with all four feet and began biting him on the leg. Being underwater with a bear tromping and biting, Ed couldn’t hear the shots and wondered why the hunter was taking so long at getting more bullets into the bear. Just when he was about to run out of air, the bear whirled and charged the hunter, who landed the last shot from his .375 Weatherby Magnum into the bear’s head killing him at 6 feet.

The bear measured 10 1/2 feet and had considerable cuts on his head and neck from fighting, the same as the 10-foot bear Ed’s hunter had killed shortly before. Giving the attack some thought, Ed commented casually, “It took me a little while to get over that one.” Knowing Ed’s constitution, both mentally and physically, “a little while” probably meant a couple weeks at most!

Ed experimented with many other rifles and cartridges ranging from wildcat 6.5s to various big bores. In the 1970s, at the recommendation of Elmer Keith, he began using a .338 Winchester Magnum. His experience with this round was with mixed results, and he returned to the .375. With the .338’s popularity among Alaska-bound hunters, Ed has also seen it used in the field continually and worries about hunters when they show up with one to be used on the big bears. Having used the .338 on countless elk, not to mention moose, brown bear, caribou, black bear, antelope and deer, and having great respect for it, I was particularly interested as to why Ed wasn’t especially wild about it. It seems that many hunters show up with 200- to 225-grain bullets, which expand too much and fail to provide sufficient penetration, particularly if heavy bone is hit.

When we were skinning the brown bear I had taken on this particular hunt, pointing to the shoulder joint, Ed commented he has seen those unusually stout bones stop many bullets cold, even when hit on the near side. In discussing the matter, it seems that failures have been observed with various .30-caliber magnums, .338s and even .375s when using bullets of soft, rapid expansion construction. He admits that with the right bullets, such as the Barnes 225-grain X-Bullet or Winchester Fail Safe, the .338 is a fine cartridge. One of Ed’s sons has literally worn out a .338 Magnum built on a custom Mauser ’98 in the Alaskan bush, having taken considerable game. The point is, regardless of the    caliber chosen, using bullets of appropriate construction is of paramount importance.

Ed doesn’t have a great deal of respect for the .30-caliber magnums on the big bears. (Remember he started guiding with a .300 Weatherby Magnum in 1960 and has seen them used in the field many times since.) If one uses a tough bullet and circumstances are good, such as a broadside lung shot, they will work, but if a guide has to trail up a wounded bear, he has a different perspective than a hunter taking a shot at a bruin that is unaware of his or her presence. If a guide has to finish a fight, something larger than a .30-caliber magnum is preferable.

Ed has used and is fond of the .350 Remington Magnum and .35 Whelen but emphasizes the importance of using heavyweight bullets of proper construction. Additionally, Ed has used the .348 Winchester (in the Model 71 Winchester) with 250-grain Barnes Original bullets with good results but warns that it will fail when stoked with common 200-grain “deer” bullets.

Today, Ed has settled on some interesting rifles and cartridges for big bear and everyday living (as he never leaves the cabin without a gun). While visiting him at Camp No. 3, I noticed an ancient-looking Winchester Model 1895 levergun over the doorway. Upon a closer look, it was clearly a Browning Model 1895 (which was produced in 1984). Much of the blueing was gone, particularly around the receiver and barrel, where it tends to balance in the hand. The wood finish had long since worn off from many days afield, giving the rifle much character. The stock had been cracked in the grip area, but had been repaired.

Naturally I inquired about the rifle, and Ed promptly pulled it down from the wall, stating that it had originally been a .30-06 but was now rechambered and bored to .375 Scovill. And he added, with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, that the rifle belonged to Editor Dave Scovill, who had hunted bears with him and just “happened” to leave it behind. (I would bet that the rifle was in good condition when taken to Alaska, so am sorry to bear the news to Dave of the current condition of his rifle!)

For those not familiar with the .375 Hawk/Scovill (invented by Bob Fulton and Dave Scovill), it is basically a .30-06 necked up to .375 inch with the Brown-Whelen shoulder configuration. Dave has put it to work in the field on a variety of game including Alaskan brown bears. It is capable of driving a  250-grain Barnes X-Bullet 2,700  fps or a 270 grainer 2,500 fps (from a 24-inch barrel). Inquiring of Ed how well the Scovill worked on bears, he gave a hearty approval and tends to favor the 270-grain Barnes bullet.

Another interesting cartridge Ed uses in the Browning Model 1895 levergun is the .411 Hawk, which is basically a modern version of the .400 Whelen. Both are created by necking up the .30-06 to accept bullets of .411 inch, but the Hawk has a more significant (or abrupt) shoulder to headspace on, while the Whelen had a much more tapered shoulder (depending on source). The .411 Hawk is about the largest diameter the .30-06 case can be necked up to and maintain correct headspace on the shoulder.

Ed reports that once cases have been fireformed and the shoulder established, he has experienced no reliability issues or misfires. Ed’s handloads drive a 360-grain North Fork bullet around 2,200 to 2,350 fps and the 350-grain Barnes X-Bullets to about the same velocity. In discussing various cartridges, Ed is particularly thrilled with the .411 and probably uses it more than any other, at least on big bears, and has yet to experience a failure.

Ed also uses the Winchester Model 71 lever action converted   to .450 Alaskan by the late Harold Johnson of Copper’s Landing, Alaska, the cartridge’s creator. The .450 Alaskan is based on the .348 Winchester case, straightened up some, or “Improved,” then necked up to .458 inch. While he has used a variety of bullets, lately he has been happy with the results obtained using the 405-grain Kodiak bonded softpoint driven in excess of 2,100 fps.

Another big-bore levergun that Ed frequently uses is a Browning Model 1886 .45-70, produced in 1992/93. These were first-rate, well-made rifles that are accurate and reliable. The factory rear sight was removed and an Ashley (now XS Sight Systems, Inc., 2401 Ludelle Street, Fort Worth TX 76105; toll-free: 1-888-744-4880; or rear peep installed, while the front sight was replaced with a HiViz green fiber optic for improved visibility in low-light conditions.

Like most folks who carry a rifle in the Alaskan bush, for years Ed kept a piece of electrical tape on the muzzle to prevent rain from  entering the bore. Nonetheless, somehow water made its way into the .45-70 barrel and, upon firing, the last inch or so of the barrel split. (Ed suspected that water came in from the breech, then ran to the muzzle where tape held it in place, then froze.) Ed had the barrel (and magazine tube) cut to 201?2 inches, removing the damaged area, and the front sight reinstalled.

Ed’s standard .45-70 handload consists of a heavy dose of Hodgdon H-322 behind the 405-grain  Kodiak bonded softpoint at 1,900 to 2,000 fps. This combination has proven to be a real hammer on cranky bears. Ed related a too-close-for-comfort story of a hunter who had wounded a 10-foot brown bear using a .375 H&H Magnum. The bear was situated on a small rise and at the shot instantly dropped out of sight and into the brush on the other side. Judging by the generous blood trail, they didn’t figure he would go far and immediately began trailing him (which Ed later realized was a mistake, as they should have given him at least 20 minutes or so to bleed out and stiffen up).

The bear went several hundred feet straight up an extremely steep hill that was nearly impossible to climb. As Ed approached the top, the bear charged full-speed from cover just a few yards away. The fast handling Browning Model 1886 carbine .45-70 stopped the bear cold with a head shot, and he fell dead within a couple of feet from Ed. It sure is nice to have confidence in one’s gun, cartridge and loads!

In looking over the leverguns and cartridges Ed uses daily, one may wonder if he is stuck in tradition. Be certain that he is not. His leverguns get used considerably and  are constantly exposed to the elements, giving a rifle that is only a few years old the appearance of being nearly a century old. None­theless, they have proven worthy, giving reliable service with virtually no failures. Ed is also fond of a good bolt-action rifle, and during the bitter cold winter months he usually carries one, typically a Winchester Model 70 with claw extractor and chambered for a flat-shooting cartridge like the 7mm Remington Magnum. While he likes how a levergun carries easily, he states that their receivers are “too cold” for comfort during subzero temperatures. And he likes the option of using a flat-shooting, long-range cartridge in a scoped rifle in the event he gets an opportunity at a wolf several hundred yards out.

Regardless of whether we agree with Ed’s choices of cartridges or not, the fact remains they have been chosen based on 44 years of continual experience in the Alaskan bush, which is hard to argue with.

Big Game Rifle
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