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Handloading Beyond The Basics
Rifle Magazine
May - June 2004
Volume 36, Number 3
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 213
On the cover...
The custom Weatherby Vanguard is chambered for a variety of popular hunting cartridges and features a hand laminated stock. The Cooper Model 57 LVT .22 rimfire is outfitted with a Bushnell Elite Model 4200 2.5-10x Scope in Leupold rings. Pronghorn photo b
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At the moment I knew a few things. That there was a very big buck out there and at very best the shot was going to be almost impossible were at the head of the list. On the positive side, I had a rifle I would not have to think about. It had a silky, less-than-3-pound trigger and plenty of power. Too, it was zeroed for the occasion, and its trajectory was as flat as any rifleman could utilize. I suppose one could put almost all that into one big thing I knew: It was going to come down to the guy behind the trigger. If he could make that sear break with the crosshairs somewhere on the upper edges of the buck’s shoulder, this big boy, of the wee-deer world, was mine. Of course, I also knew I wished for a bigger target and someone with real talent to do the shooting.

Many of you will be surprised to see me writing about a very modern rifle. While I am probably best known in these pages for classics, I have another “rifle” side. My first centerfire experience was not particularly a good one. I began trying to hit coyotes and later a buck with a “loaner” Savage lever-action .243. A combination of things - terrible trigger, iron sights and a lack of knowledge - made hitting out of the question. But there was another way. The concept of a Weatherby loomed larger than life. New ones were very expensive, but I found a previously owned model.

It came from a cowboy on the western slope of Colorado. I do not remember the price, but oh my, I do remember the rifle. It was an early one, an FN Mauser. The caliber was .257 Weatherby. Now I had a great rifle and, more often than not, when I pulled the trigger something died. While the rifle did not have a “Weatherby” action, that being the familiar Mark V, every inch of it was a Weatherby. It had that rakish style: the angular forend and a cheekpiece and comb that sloped forward - sloped forward so it can back away from your face under recoil.

Another very Weatherby feature was the rifle would shoot. It would shoot with 100- or 117-grain hunting bullets, and it would even shoot with 60-grain Winchester hollowpoints made for the .25-20. These were my first really radical attempts at handloading, and they would make a jackrabbit go poof. I suppose we can sum up this prologue by saying I have always liked Weatherby rifles and certainly liked its wonderful cartridges. And, I believe that is the case with many riflemen. The catch, if you will, has been price. A Weatherby, by normal rifle standards, has been expensive. Enter the Vanguard, a Weatherby that can actually cost less than most other brands.

Yes, now you can have a Weatherby rifle, chambered for a Weatherby cartridge, with the guarantee that it will shoot into 1 1/2 inches (or less) with factory ammunition, and the price is only $476! With that we must stop and see just what and how Weatherby is offering us so much for so little.

The foundation is a Vanguard action. Externally it is almost identical to the Mark V, being one-piece forged and with the round front ring and “flat-top” rear bridge. The bottom metal has a floorplate you can open (none of this blind magazine nonsense). Where the Vanguard action differs most from the standard Mark V is in and around the bolt assembly. The Mark V has the nine locking lugs, and when they are combined with their recess in the receiver ring, this locking system becomes a very complex and expensive piece of engineering. The Vanguard has a conventional two-lug bolt, that is the bolt locks just like almost every other time-proven design. This bolt is still one-piece, with the handle being an integral part of the forging. The safety system is also different. Where the Mark V uses a safety on the bolt shroud, the Vanguard safety is part of the trigger assembly. While one certainly cannot decry the Mark V system, it is in a way, overkill. Said another way, more than a century and millions of rifles have proven that two lugs are just fine.

The Vanguard is fully intended to put a Weatherby in the hands of almost any rifleman who chooses to afford a fine rifle. Within that concept is a selection of cartridges to suit virtually anyone, ranging from the most common .223 and .22-250 Remingtons, .270 and .308 Winchesters and .30-06 class through the higher performance non-Weatherby calibers: 7mm Magnum, .300 Winchester Magnum, .300 Winchester Short Magnum and .338. Of course, for my money the extraordinary Weatherby calibers are always at the top of my list. The Vanguard is chambered in two Weatherby rounds - my favorite “lightning bolt,” the .257, and perhaps the finest all-round cartridge in existence, the .300 Weatherby.


Vanguards come in a few flavors. The base model is blue steel with an injection-molded stock. This is the one with the $476 retail price. Next in line is the same rifle with stainless metal. Both have 24-inch midweight barrels and weigh 73Ú4 pounds. Beyond we find the “custom” Vanguards with hand-laminated synthetic, camo colored stocks with special bedding options, Teflon finishes and Talley mounts. With most of the options in place we are just under $1,000.

It was this flavor of “custom” Vanguard I had pointed across the wide cactus, mesquite and oak valley, pointed it across, hoping the buck would stop in an open place. I met this rifle two days earlier and was driving it without really knowing it well. That it was extremely shootable made up for any lack of familiarity. The first thing I did with this rifle, as is the first thing I do with any firearm, was to try the trigger. I had requested the gunsmith to make it just a sniff under 3 pounds and, yes, there it was. This little detail, by the way, is one that is far more important than any nonsense load development, ridiculous price or .25-inch group. The fine trigger pull would allow me to shoot the rifle. Oh, yes, it was a .300 Weatherby.

Admittedly I had plenty of power, for the target was a Coues’ deer, the little whitetail that on a grown-up day will weigh about 100 pounds. In truth, given all the options, my choice would have been a .257, but they were still in the oven. But, when “Plan B” is the best all-around cartridge in the world, it is not a bad choice. The .300 Weatherby is a very fine thing. It has lots of punch, shoots as flat as any rifleman can prove with a rifle in the field, and it lives in an easy recoil-realm. That is, a .300 can still be shot with minimal muscle tension - can be held very gently without getting out of hand (literally) when it goes off. Beyond, with larger-cased .30s, or the .338s and above, one has to have an ever increasing grip on the rifle. This increased muscle tension just plain makes precision more difficult. Of course, a .257 Weatherby is even more gentle as are other cartridges with less recoil than the .300. But, with the .300, I was not going to think about holding it. All I had to do was point and release it correctly. Just to fit into the wee-deer situation a little better, I brought the factory load with 165-grain Hornady Spire Point (not boat-tail) bullets. These are wonderfully accurate bullets, with the InterLock holding the core in place, just in case I needed some raking penetration.

Because everything I knew about this hunt said it would be a case of extreme luck to get within 200 yards - and because I wanted to push this rifle and not make a close shot, I zeroed it at about 300 yards. Yes, this is very far, too far for any normal hunt. With this thinking the bullet could get as much as 3 inches above the point of aim and would be about 8 inches down at 400 yards. Too, I would need to hammer into my head that just in case the good, normal 150-yard shot happened, I would have to aim at the very bottom edge of the deer. Let me reiterate, this kind of zero is a very bad idea. It will cost you game. Do not zero your rifle like this - except under very extreme and unusual circumstances! If I were going back hunting there again, without the desire to stretch a rifle, I would zero my rifle, regardless of caliber, at 200 yards - and yes, I certainly could and probably would shoot at 200 yards or less.

I shot the rifle sitting over cross sticks and made a nice group at the 90 yards we had available. But, it was just about zero at that range. When I clicked the scope up, the scope threw one of those fits that scopes often have, when you move them. It sort of bounced around in a random way. After half a box of shells, I had the barrel very hot, and I thought about the right height for my 300 yards. Needless to say the guide and local trackers were not impressed with the gringo’s shooting, and it is relatively futile to make excuses.


I felt the scope had at last found itself, and I was very sure the rifle would shoot. I somehow needed to know this rifle would hit for me when it mattered. When the others had finished with their rifles and my barrel was cool, I asked the guide to find me a “300-yard rock” with his rangefinder. “Okay, the white one, under the left edge of the mesquite on that red hill.” This was becoming habit. When the concept began, to test-drive this rifle, I asked if they didn’t have something big enough for me to hit, that is, how about a moose instead of these jackrabbit-sized deer. Now he found a fist-sized rock and everybody was watching. I settled the rifle on the sticks and snuggled the cross hair onto the spot. It exploded. The next shot blew up the largest surviving piece - and the wily tracker smiled a very knowing smile that said, “Maybe the gringo could hit a deer.” I said to myself, “This thing will shoot, and it will hit a deer - if I do my part.”

And now it was all about to come together - or fall apart. Five bucks had winded and seen us. There was no stampeding, but they were leaving. They had moved out of a thickly wooded ravine below us and were rounding the shoulder across the valley and climbing. I jogged 50 yards up the trail to a point that gave me the best vantage, quickly sat and put the rifle on the sticks. It was all clear air from me to the deer, but they were in relatively thick brush and cacti, moving, changing places and generally looking quite impossible.

One among them was, by their miniature standards, all grown up. The butt was on my shoulder and the safety off, but there was no target; and perhaps worst of all, there is very little difference between a huge Coues’ deer and a small one. My eyes bounded from deer to deer as they picked their way around the shoulder. Because they were so far, and so busy, I had more or less tipped my hat to them, when Martin, who had followed me up the hill, said, “left - down.” The big fellow was slipping out the side door. My eyes found a deer below and left of the others, and the scope confirmed huge head gear. Now that he was in the scope, it was easy to keep track of him, because he was indeed a large enough 8 point to really show up. But once again it seemed futile, for there were only glints of horn and patches of hide slipping through the brush. I was, however, very ready, just in case.

And suddenly there it was, about half of his shoulder in a perfectly open hole. It is at this kind of moment when a rifle, a good rifle, and a good cartridge earn their keep. They do so with pure simplicity, by not asking you to think. I did not have to think about: trajectory, recoil, load development, tugging the trigger, accuracy, neck turned cases, spun bullets, wind or anything else. All I had to do was make that sear let go with the crosshairs right on top of that shoulder and follow through.

It was right there as the recoil began, and the buck pitched off to the left into a very dense jungle. I thought I heard the bullet hit, but it might have only been brush or dirt. Actually, the shot was so fast and so extreme that the greatest surprise of all came from my tracker/ friend from the rock shooting. “Morta, morta!” (Dead, dead!) Actually I secretly thought Ramon was simply too confident because of the rock, but he soon ran up to me and repeated himself, this time with, “He is down.” I continued to watch. The big buck did not come out again. Maybe this wily fellow did indeed know something I did not.

We wound around the track far above where I had last seen the deer, and then with the uncanny skill of one of the finest spotter-trackers I have ever known - anywhere in the world - Ramon led me down. It was very steep, very rocky and very “stickery.” Somehow, across 400 yards, after climbing and making a circuit 600 yards above the place, somehow Ramon knew within inches of where the bullet had found the buck. Then I saw the bright splash on the rock. Ten yards later Ramon pointed to the grand, little fellow.

It all fits well in the memory box: great hunters, wild beautiful country, wonderful little deer and the first time in quite awhile I unleashed a Weatherby. They were, and are, very fine things!

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