|March - April 2005
Volume 37, Number
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.
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, lets 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 didnt 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 www.sheepriver-hunting.com).
Alaska is a beautiful state with a variety of
scenery, but Eds camps are located in particularly spectacular areas.
Two of his camps, Camp No. 3 and Camp No. 5, both log cabins of
Eds 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 Eds 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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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. Eds 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 Coppers Landing, Alaska, the
cartridges 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.
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 www.xssights.com) rear peep installed, while
the front sight was replaced with a HiViz green fiber optic for improved visibility in
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
.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 didnt 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
ones 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 Eds
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.