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Big Game Rifle
Rifle Magazine
March - April 2002
Volume 34, Number 2
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 200
On the cover...
The CZ Model 550 Prestige .30-06 with a Bushnell 3-9x scope. Photo by Stan Trzoniec.
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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 mule deer.

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 whitetail.

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 rifle.

Awesome Art
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