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The Original Silver Bullet
Rifle Magazine
January - February 2001
Volume 33, Number 1
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 193
On the cover...
This issue is only available on CD-ROM.The American Custom Gunmakers Guild rifle will be raffled off at the yearly Guild Exhibition in Reno Nevada. White-tailed deer photo by John R. Ford. Purchase the CD-ROM here
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Of all the statistics, measures, techniques, recipes and advice dispensed by gun writers, always remember grains. That is the most important item. You can forget feet per second, foot-pounds, 2 1/2-pound trigger pull and even neck concentricity, if you must, but never, ever forget grains. Not grains as in 56.7 grains of H-4831, but grains as in salt. Always take whatever a gun writer dishes up with a grain of salt.

This doesn’t mean everything we hallowed gun gurus expound is unadulterated bull refuse. Hardly. But it does mean we’re human, and like a few others of that species, we make mistakes. A major bullet manufacturer once confessed that much of the carefully compiled ballistic data in its reloading manual was in error due to a faulty chronometer and some inaccurate measurements on the firing range. If paid professional industry ballisticians can make such big boo-boos, imagine how monumentally a lowly, independent, underpaid free-lance writer can screw up. Plus we have our biases. And we’re lazy. These confessions should put readers on high alert. Like medical doctors and senators, we only pretend to have all the answers. Here are examples of how we just might, on rare occasions, blur reality.

This author himself has fallen into the gun writer trap of parroting conventional wisdom. This can lead to enduring myth. One of the most infamous outdoor writer myths involves antelope hunting. Sometime in the distant past a gun writer compared the visual acuity of pronghorns with that of a human looking through an 8x binocular. Seems what this gent saw through his binocular was a far-off pronghorn buck staring back, therefore . . . Well, every writer since has spread the conjecture that antelope have 8-power vision, and this bit of hyperbole has been so effective that I doubt there’s a pronghorn hunter who doesn’t believe it. I’ve had hunters ask me if pronghorns have difficulty focusing on close objects because, of course, 8x binoculars don’t focus down to 10 feet. “Is that why they can’t jump fences?” Oh dear.

In my case of laziness (one of them, anyway), I’ve repeated the common knowledge that cleaning a rifle from the muzzle will erode the rifling at the crown and destroy its accuracy. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? And it may be true. Well, an independent-thinking reader recently challenged me to prove it. How easily does a cleaning rod ding the crown? Does an aluminum rod really ruin crowns faster than a stainless steel or brass rod? How many passes does it take? Have you ever ruined a crown by cleaning?

Well, of course I haven’t because I’ve always believed the gun writers who warned me against such practices, and now I’m one of them warning you. I must confess to some doubt, however. I mean as a kid I knew dozens of rifles that had been cleaned slam-bam from the muzzle for years, and they still killed deer, still grouped sub-MOB (minute of box or bucket, depending on the sight-in target of convenience that year). What I felt like telling my questioning reader was this: I don’t know how many passes with a dirty aluminum rod are required to ruin a crown, and the reason is because I’d rather be safe than sorry. Why should I ruin the accuracy of my favorite rifle to test a theory when it’s simpler to clean from the breech and repeat what I’ve heard? I’m a gun writer, but I’m not nuts. [We have seen dozens of older pre-1900 Winchester and Marlin lever actions that are virtually devoid of rifling at the muzzle. They shoot okay with longer bullets but have lost their ability to shoot sub-MOA groups. - Ed.]

Of course, the reader is correct, and a good gun writer should test these things for himself from time to time, and maybe someday I will; but right now I like the way my rifles shoot, so I’m in no hurry. But if one of you gentle readers is up to the challenge, why don’t you slap a dirty cleaning rod down the muzzle of your pet rifle and test fire it for declining accuracy every 50 passes or so until it’s ruined. I’d like to know just how long it takes.

Another reader nailed me for my sheep-like re-bleating of the one-in-12-inch twist rate in a .30-06 barrel being insufficient to stabilize 220-grain bullets. Of course, I hadn’t tested this. Everything I’d ever read on the subject supported the destabilization point of view, and I don’t shoot 220-grain slugs in .30-06s anyway, so what’s the point? Heck, I’ve never even had a one-in-12-inch twist .30-06, so I just take the other gun writers’ word for it. Then this reader sends me his targets. If those .308-inch holes were indeed punched by the 220-grain slugs as he claims, I pronounce a one-in-12-inch twist ideal for stabilizing a 220-grain bullet when fired from that rifle. Grain of salt, friends, grain of salt.

Of course, we can’t talk rifling twist without discussing the infamous .244/6mm Remington. Here was a superb .243 cartridge reportedly doomed because the one-in-12-inch twist barrel that Remington mated to the .244 was too slow to stabilize long 100-grain bullets deer hunters wanted to use. Gun writers quickly loaded the band wagon. The .244 Remington wouldn’t stabilize 100-grain bullets. Long live the .243 Winchester (one-in-10-inch twist).

Only years later, after the .244 had all but expired and Remington had reintroduced it as the 6mm Remington with a one-in-9-inch twist (there, that’ll show ‘em), a few gun writers experimented with older .244s and sheepishly announced they would indeed stabilize certain brands of 100-grain pills, particularly roundnose bullets. A few guns with one-in-12-inch twists were found to shoot even 100-grain Spire Points accurately.

Here I can offer some hands-on experience because I have a custom 6mm with a one-in-12-inch twist barrel, and it not only fails to stabilize 100-grain Spire Points but also has trouble with some 85-grain and 95-grain pointed bullets. It had been awhile since I’d seen egg-holes in a paper target, so I was quite surprised. Push a 70-grain Hornady V-Max down that Shilen tube, how- ever, and you stack ‘em right beside one another. And that accuracy holds right down to some of the abbreviated 55-grain bullets.

The opposite of this problem, overstabilized bullets from too fast a twist, is another confusing gun writer myth. I haven’t done exhaustive research on this one, but I’ve always had difficulty understanding how a bullet can be too stable, and I haven’t gotten a definitive explanation from any gunsmith or ballistician. In fact, most seem to agree you can’t really overstabilize a bullet, but you can compromise its integrity by spinning it too quickly. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that thin-skinned slugs literally spin apart when launched and spun too fast. Imagine one’s surprise upon seeing a target untouched or spattered by several tiny pieces of shrapnel. Pressures can also rise dramatically when a too-fast rifling acts more like a wall holding back bullets.

Another well-known gun writer axiom is that you need a controlled-round feed action for hunting dangerous game. Only this Mauser design can ensure against jamming should you short-stroke the action. Only controlled-round feeding locks a cartridge against the bolt as soon as it is pushed from the clip magazine. You can turn the rifle upside down, and it will still load reliably. (You may never have operated your rifle upside down, but gun writers do this a lot.) And that big Mauser claw extractor (all genuflect, please), well, that’s the only sure way to pull a tight case from a chamber. You simply must have a claw extractor or your premature epitaph will read, “Here lies a foolish man who didn’t listen to the gun writers.”

A big part of the reason the Winchester Model 70 lost favor after 1964 was its abandonment of controlled-round feeding. But that doesn’t explain why the Weatherby Mark V became such a hot African rifle or how the Remington Model 700 got so popular. Last time I checked, neither of those bolt actions were controlling any rounds until they were locked into the chamber, and their extractors are way too narrow to be trusted. Yet I’ve heard of hunters killing lions and Cape buffalo with Mark Vs and Model 700s. Shouldn’t they have been mauled? When was the last time your Model 700 failed to push home a round? When was the last time it ripped its way through a rim and left the case in the chamber? Well, you’ve just been lucky. Buy a Mauser before it’s too late. Any gun writer worth his ink can tell you that.

Gun writers know lots of other things. Lever actions, for instance, are inaccurate by design, if not perverse nature. The fact that a 1 1/2-inch or even a 2-inch grouping Model 94 will hit within the kill zone of a whitetail at .30-30 Winchester range every time doesn’t matter. If you have one of these rifles, find a sucker and sell it. And if you hear from someone like custom gunsmith Stephen Dodd Hughes who claims his personal lever action has been known to group three shots inside an inch at 100 yards, open sights, just smile and move on because you know better than that. The gun writers told you.

Here’s another good one: Center-fire .22s are too puny to kill deer. They barely carry enough energy to dump a coyote at 300 yards let alone a burly mule deer buck. Just don’t try convincing Brad Deffenbaugh of South Dakota. Even though I offered the perfectly plausible possibility that his big non-typical muley died of a cerebral hemorrhage at 250 yards the instant he fired his puny Ruger Model 77 .22-250 Remington, he kept pointing to the little red hole in its hide. This is a subject I have researched by interviewing numerous .22 centerfire big game hunters and by conducting a few tests of my own, and I can state unequivocally the .22-250 Remington, at least, can be death on deer and antelope. You want to keep your shots inside 300 yards, preferably 200 yards, and place them carefully.

There’s a lot of explosive energy in a 55-grain bullet flitting along at 3,300 fps, but this falls off rapidly downrange. You also want stout bullets like the new Nosler 60-grain Partition, 53-grain Barnes X-Bullet and Trophy Bonded Bear Claw 55 grain. Be forewarned (and take it with a grain of salt, because this is a gun writer talking) that one-in-14-inch twist barrels standard on .22-250s may not stabilize the 60-grain Nosler or even the Barnes X-Bullet, which is a pretty long bullet for its weight. My old Ruger Model 77 had a one-in-14-inch barrel, and it threw 60-grain Noslers all over the target, making funny-shaped holes.

As long as we’re exposing gun writer myths about killing power, we might as well tackle the one about the .30-06 being minimum for elk. This myth is a perennial money maker as you can sell at least one story a year about it. I suppose Elmer Keith gets credit for fueling, if not starting, the minimalist .30-06 line. He reportedly felt effeminate if the hole in his barrel couldn’t accommodate a bowling ball. We apologize, Elmer, but just last year someone killed an elk with a .30-06. And someone probably wounded and lost one with a .375 H&H. You know how it happens. He who aims accurately in the right place kills his elk; he who hits around the edges perpetuates myths.

Look, as an unrepentant gun writer, this is about the best, unadulterated advice I can give you on elk cartridges: the bigger the better so long as you can: 1) carry the rifle chambered for said cartridge and 2) aim and fire it accurately without flinching. If I could carry a .416 Rigby that recoiled and roared like a .243 Winchester, you can bet I’d take it elk hunting instead of the .280 Improved Strata Stainless I’ve been using. As a compromise, however, I stick with light rifles in the .30-06 category (because I really do carry them a whole heck of a lot more than I shoot them, and when I do shoot them they are reliably and wonderfully accurate).

I realize I’m limiting myself to shots inside 400 yards at most, but to date I’ve only had one chance at an elk more than 100 yards away, and I shot under him. Turns out that even if I’d been using a .30-378 Weatherby, I’d have still missed because I misjudged the range badly. In deference to the muscle and bone inside a big bull’s hide, I stick with controlled expansion, premium bullets for maximum penetration. That’s really all there is to this. As many, many hunters have proven, a 100-grain .243 bullet through the lungs will kill elk, but you don’t want to stake your hunt on it. Strike a compromise.

Barrel length is another popular topic among gun writers, this one included. Someone in the misty past decided a 24-inch barrel, while fine on the Plains, was not so fine in the woods. Wear it over your shoulder and it was constantly knocking overhead branches. Swing it at a running deer and the muzzle would fetch up against the nearest twig. No, the only solution was to hack 2 inches off. And today’s standard barrel length in all but carbines and magnums is 22 inches.

Funny thing is muzzleloader hunters from Dan’l Boone to today’s retro mountain men somehow managed to weave through a variety of impossible habitats with pipes stretching up to 3 feet. This ability has intrigued physiologists, who are now analyzing DNA for clues. Until they discover the answer, you are advised to insist on a 22-inch barrel on your next deer rifle, unless its a 7mm Remington Magnum or bigger. Then you can live with 24 inches, although 26 inches is preferable. Warning: Do not try this with a .270 Winchester. Neither this author, editor nor publisher accepts responsibility for your injuries.

The other side of the barrel length story is that you cannot cut off an inch without fear of major velocity loss. I’ll confess to a weakness to this fantasy. I mean, if we’re nit picking over a grain of powder and boat-tail bullets to gain maximum velocity and downrange performance, it seems silly to squander it on a barrel too short to accommodate the highest possible velocity from a given charge of powder. Realistically, however, the 50 to 100 fps you lose going from a 24- to a 22-inch tube in a .280 Remington is less than the shot-to-shot variation in most ammunition. Heck, atmospheric temperature change can do more to reduce velocity. Here one cannot help but think of all those shooters who, infatuated with their new laser magnums that have been killing deer and elk to 400 yards like lightning (thanks to the hyper-velocity they generate), finally fire them over a chronograph and discover the true velocity is 300 fps less than they’d imagined. Time to buy a new rifle.

Well, here’s another tempered bit of gun writer advice: pick whatever barrel length you like for a given purpose. If you’re building a sniping rifle, by all means go with a 26-inch barrel to milk the most velocity. It can’t hurt and might help. You’re not going to be climbing cliffs and negotiating woods with that rifle anyway. But if you’re in need of something to drag through dog-hair timber in elk country, why not try a 20-inch barrel? Your shots aren’t likely to be over 100 yards anyway. Match the tool to its job and to heck with gun writer opinions.

You are, of course, familiar with the importance of good bedding? My colleagues and I have been harping on this for at least 20 years, agreeing long ago that a tight fit in walnut is insufficient. You must at least glass bed around the lug. Better yet set aluminum pillars under the action and glass bed everything. No wait. Get one of those aluminum bedding blocks that runs through three-fourths of the stock. That’s the ticket. I’ve been writing this stuff for years, only rarely admitting that the most accurate .270 Winchester I ever shot was a circa 1976 Ruger Model 77 with so much play around the lug and action that I cut little slabs of an aluminum Coke can and inserted them into the appropriate recesses. That rifle would shoot darn near any combination of brass, powder, primer and bullet under one MOA.

We can’t leave this topic without touching upon the ideal hunting rifle weight. Sometime ago it was entered as 8 pounds, and by golly, that’s what it is. Eight well-rounded, perfectly balanced pounds guaranteed to make you the accuracy champ of your county. This is the weight you can carry all day, whip into action like your arm and stabilize like the Rock of Gibraltar. And you know why? Well, um, it’s because, um, because some gun writer said so. No, really. A 9-pound gun is simply too much mass to lug around all day and a 7 pounder, well, forget it. That wand will fly around like a BB gun. You won’t be able to stabilize it in a breeze, let alone a good mountain zephyr, and the recoil! Oh, Lordy, the recoil. You’ll come home black and blue on the verge of a concussion. Seven pounds is simply too light. Much, much too light for either accuracy or safety. Don’t even go there.

I could go on and on, but I see our hour is up. If in the course of this therapy (confession?) I have burst your bubbles or tainted your heroes, I apologize. The truth sometimes hurts, but no pain, no gain. Trust me, you’ll be the stronger for this after the initial shock wears off. The glorious human potential cannot be realized by those in denial. Wake up and smell the coffee. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. God helps those who help themselves; etc., etc.

In conclusion, gentle reader, you must ask yourself this: Can you trust anything a gun writer writes? My answer is yes, absolutely. A gun writer told me so. Please pass the salt.

Montana X-treme
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