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Rifle Magazine
January - February 2000
Volume 32, Number 1
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 187
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Rifles & Woodsmoke

Ladies’ Rifles

We were sitting around the kitchen after an unsuccessful day of elk hunting up Camp Ridge. Our friend Dave had come out again from Back East and brought yet another magnum rifle. If I remember correctly the sequence went about like this: .340 Weatherby, .300 Winchester, .338 Winchester. One year in there he brought a .270 Winchester because he’d failed to draw an elk tag and would hunt only pronghorns.

After the steaks from Eileen’s elk - taken two weeks earlier with a .270 - the talk turned, as it often does, to rifles. It was then that she asked: “Why do men need bigger rifles than women?”

This was not an ingenuous question. At the beginning of her 15-year hunting career she started off with a “ladies’ rifle,” a .257 Roberts, but soon graduated to a .270 Winchester. With this she took 10 consecutive big game animals with one shot, including bull elk and moose, big whitetail and mule deer and a pronghorn buck at over 400 yards. All the while she watched bemusedly while I “tried” several larger calibers.

Dave was not amused by Eileen’s comment, and said something about traveling long distances, quicker kills from bad angles, etc. Most women, he said, can’t handle hard kickers.

We’d heard these arguments before, but living in Montana gave us a little more experience with women hunters. Here over 10 percent of the adult females hunt, and mostly big game, and that percentage is likely to rise. Lately most hunter-education classes (required to obtain a Montana license) run about half female. We know a lot of women who are quite serious about hunting, and they don’t shoot traditional “ladies’ rifles” such as the 6mms or .25s. Usually they carry .270s, though a few choose nonmagnum 7mm’s or even .30-06s.

I must also point out there aren’t nearly as many big magnums in the hands of male Montana hunters as the sporting press would have you believe. Oh, there are a lot of 7mm Remingtons (not really a big magnum, despite what their owners think), some .300 Winchesters and the odd .338. Every year a few hunters (usually young males) rush to buy a .30-378 Weatherby or .300 Remington Ultra Mag, because suddenly their 7mm STW isn’t leading the pack.

Most of the guys in my circle carry standard calibers. Tom killed his bull elk last year with a 7x57mm Mauser, using one 175-grain Nosler Partition. Jay gets about half his elk with a bow, half with a .270 Winchester or .280 Remington. Jim uses a .257 Roberts on deer and antelope and a .30-06 on elk. Me? I’ve used everything from the .243 to the .338 and still experiment a little each year, though I’d be exceedingly happy with Jim’s pair.

We’re all at least in our mid-40s, and most of us have done the heavy magnums and Long-Range Wonders. Our attitude might best be expressed by Jerry Fisher, the famous stockmaker who lives in the Flathead Valley. When I stopped by his shop one day, Jerry showed me his personal big game rifle. This did not, as you might expect, wear an exquisite piece of finely checkered walnut. Instead it was a battered and almost completely factory pre-64 Model 70 Winchester chambered for the 7mm Remington Magnum.

“I bought it a hell of a long time ago,” Jerry said. “It was a 7x57, but when the 7mm Magnum came out I converted it. Biggest mistake I ever made. All it does is kick harder, and doesn’t kill any better!”

The big difference in women who hunt is not recoil tolerance but how they hunt, the chances they refuse to take and the magnum fantasies they don’t have. Most of the real hunters among the women I know (as opposed to the “walk-behinds,” as Eileen and her friends call them, who only semi-willingly trudge after their boyfriends and husbands) hunt very carefully. They know how to glass, how to sit really still and move very slowly, and they refuse any shot that’s not absolutely certain. As some men grow older they learn the same things, but careful hunting and shooting seem to be innate in most women who really like to hunt.

So out here there are two kinds of ladies’ rifles. There are those owned by avid hunters, and the ones purchased for the reluctant wife. Often the husband really wants a new coyote rifle (say a .243 Winchester) or to try the latest fad. We were in a local store one day while picking up some Noslers, back when the .280 Remington was the “in caliber.” A couple around 40 were ahead of us, and he was buying a rifle for his wife. He wanted a .280, and the clerk had a whole pile, all full-size hunting rifles with 24-inch barrels. The husband stood maybe 6 feet, 1 inch and looked like he worked out some, but his wife barely broke 5 feet. To raise the rifle she had to lean back like Muhammad Ali dodging a left hook and stick her arms out almost straight. She could barely reach the trigger and the muzzle wandered around like Picasso’s paintbrush - and this was before the thing had a scope and sling.

Finally Eileen couldn’t take it. “Excuse me,” she said, stepping forward toward the clerk. “How much does that rifle weigh?”

Half puzzled and half ticked off, he shrugged.

“This woman needs a rifle weighing maybe seven pounds. Otherwise it’ll hurt her shoulder just carrying it with a sling all day.”

In the meantime I disappeared back in the fly rod aisle. Pretty soon Eileen had all three folks at the counter staring at her malignantly, whereupon she went to find me, and we bought our Noslers elsewhere. That was a long time ago and she hasn’t butted in since, though we’ve both witnessed the same scene more than once.

Guys, if you really want her to hunt with you, find a rifle she can carry and aim, in a caliber for deer, not coyotes. One of the short rounds from .260 Remington to .308 WCF works fine, but if she’s shot some she can probably handle a .270 Winchester, .280 Remington or .30-06. If she’s 5 feet, 8 inches or over, she can shoot a standard rifle, but make it fairly light. If she’s shorter, buy a shorter rifle, or get the stock cut off, about 1/8 inch for each inch of her height under 5 feet 10 inches. Fit a soft recoil pad, because she probably doesn’t have as much shoulder muscle as you do. I made the mistake of starting Eileen with my grandmother’s old steel-butted .257. She yelped at the first shot. Even ladies’ rifles hurt if the back end is hard. Mount a 4x or low-powered variable, because she won’t take those 600-yard shots men brag about, and make sure the trigger’s adjusted so she can pull it, which might be a trifle lighter than you’re used to.

Both women and men need rifles we can shoot accurately, in calibers that do the job. With the bullets we have these days that’s often less rifle than we think. Not long after Dave’s visit he shot a bull elk in Wyoming at something over 300 yards with a .270 Winchester and found that men can do just fine with ladies’ rifles. Sometimes better.

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