One of my hunting mentors claimed
successful hunting was 60 percent luck, 30 percent skill and 10 percent equipment. He paid
almost no attention to his own pair of big game rifles, a .270 Winchester he used on the
plains of eastern Montana and the .358 Winchester he carried up the timbered mountains
behind his cabin. He topped them both with cheap 4x scopes and shot whatever ammunition
was on sale, often mixing 130-grain Federals with 130-grain Remingtons in the magazine of
his .270. Yet he killed pronghorn, deer and elk consistently, because he only hunted
country he knew intimately.
In contrast, I was always a rifle
loony, obsessing over the smallest details of my own hunting arms and ammunition. I also
ended up hunting far more widely than my teacher, but eventually came to agree with his
statement - almost. I believe there are unlucky rifles, and an unlucky rifle can tip
hunting fate far more than cheap scopes, bad weather or decades of hunting experience.
Do not misunderstand me. I am the
offspring of two Ph.D.s, a university biology major who believes in rational thought and
concrete evidence. For the first two decades of my hunting life, I never felt mechanical
objects could possess any qualities except excellence or shoddiness.
Then one year I came into possession
of my first .280 Remington, a custom Remington 700. It shot almost every bullet well,
though I finally settled on the 150-grain Nosler Partition at just under 3,000 fps. With a
6x36 Leupold scope, a full magazine and Uncle Mike’s Mountain Sling the whole rifle
weighed exactly 7 pounds.
Its hunting career began in the fall
of 1992. That September it took my first two caribou, the second still the biggest bull I’ve
taken while hunting these beautiful, innocent deer from Quebec to Alaska. In November it
went on a pack trip along the Rocky Mountain Front. On opening day it reached 200 yards
across a limestone ridge and dropped the biggest mule deer buck I’ve ever seen, and a
few days later a black bear with a pelt so long and shiny it looked like silk waving in
the breeze. (It did not take a bull elk because of warm, dry weather. Lucky rifles cannot
totally neutralize unhelpful weather.) The next year my wife used it in the Missouri
Breaks, taking her widest mule deer, and I took it to Alberta and killed my second-largest
In those days I was searching for
the lightest big game rifle I could find. The next summer I acquired a 7x57mm Mauser from
Ultra Light Arms that weighed a full pound less than the .280. Thinking I’d found
heaven, I sold the .280 to a friend.
The 7x57 was as unlucky as the .280
was lucky. During its first fall it took three head of game, first a 13-inch New Mexico
pronghorn, then a doe whitetail and forkhorn mule deer, shot for meat at the tail end of
Montana’s rifle season. It hunted elk most of that November and, after hunting all or
part of 17 days, finally found a legal bull, a raghorn 5x5 standing 75 yards away in the
lodgepole timber. The 160-grain Partition nicked the bark of the pine in front of him,
then scratched him somewhere, leaving a microscopic blood trail that soon ended. I tracked
his hoof prints a mile before he left the Lewis and Clark National Forest for private
land, walking like an unscratched bull.
The next September the 7x57
accompanied a .338 Winchester on a caribou/moose hunt in Alaska and did not fire a shot.
Before the trip I rust-proofed the barreled action with miracle oil, and evidently my rag
caught the bolt-release spring and jerked it out, something I didn’t discover until I
went to check the scope in camp, 100 miles north of Dillingham. In November it traveled to
Manitoba in search of a giant whitetail, at the very peak of the rut, where it passed up a
medium-sized 4x5 buck the first day and then never saw anything bigger than a forkhorn.
All this, of course, may be
explained by the natural ups and downs of hunting, plus some right and wrong decisions on
my part. Maybe the Gentry .280 would have suffered through its next couple of years
exactly like the Ultra Light 7x57.
But I don’t think so, and here’s
the concrete evidence:
Confidence is at least half of
hunting. I lost confidence in the 7x57, so sent it back to Ultra Light and told Melvin
Forbes to rebarrel the rifle to .257 Roberts. Mel convinced me to try the .257 Ackley
instead. I said okay, and the resulting rifle went out that fall and, with one 115-grain
Nosler Partition, dropped the biggest whitetail buck I’ve ever seen. You may argue
with evidence like that, but I cannot.
Something has been learned from all
of this, however. The .338 that went to Alaska with the unlucky 7x57 has been a very lucky
rifle. It’s been all across northern North America, taking huge musk ox and Alaskan
moose, and two caribou when there were apparently no caribou to be found. It’s been
to Africa, where it found big gemsbok, wildebeest and eland, and made a long shot on a
good springbok. It’s taken several deer in Montana, including my third-largest
This rifle has been rusted, frozen
and stuffed full of sand. It’s bounced around the Arctic Ocean in an open outboard
boat, been soaked by Alaskan rivers, clanged around a safari car, ridden in more float
planes than pickup trucks, and been carried more than any other rifle I’ve owned. In
all it’s taken 10 different species of big game, though oddly enough never an elk,
despite having been up elk mountains more than a few times. It even hunted the elk’s
kissing cousin, the red stag, in Norway, and it did not see a red stag of any kind. But
neither did any of my companions’ rifles.
What I’m beginning to suspect
is that this very lucky rifle is waiting for a truly huge Cervus elaphus, something I’ve
not found while hunting a lifetime in Montana. Or maybe it’s simply not a lucky elk
rifle, despite numerous other triumphs over fate. Can that be? I do know that when I pack
a .30-06 up an elk mountain, elk tend to wander by - but in 15 years the closest this
.338's come to slaying an elk is witnessing my wife take a cow with her .270.
The mysteries of fate have always
perplexed humans, the reason we have Las Vegas and 1-900 fortune tellers, willing (for a
price) to foresee vast riches or true love. I’ve never much believed in gambling,
perhaps because my entire life has been a gamble, and even less in beaded women with a
deck of tarot cards.
But I have had some experience with lucky and
not-so-lucky rifles, the reason I’ll never sell this .338 and will definitely carry
it if I’m ever lucky enough to draw a trophy elk tag. You see, I’m unlucky at
game department lotteries, which are another big chunk of that 60 percent of hunting.
There’s nothing I can do about it except keep applying - and keep carrying a lucky