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Propellant Profiles
Rifle Magazine
July - August 1999
Volume 31, Number 4
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 184
On the cover...
Ron Spomer's 6mm Remington Model 70 Winchester coy
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My first deer rifle wasn't homely; it was on the far side of ugly. The rifle wasn't mine. It was a Type 99 Arisaka I'd borrowed from my uncle. He'd liberated it from the Pacific Islands during World War II, along with a large supply of Japanese ammunition. The military-issue 7.7mm rounds were loaded with full-jacketed bullets. I filed the nose of the bullets to expose the lead core, hopefully giving them at least some chance of expanding.

The Arisaka was as strong as a bank vault but not nearly as lovely. A massive knob at the rear of the bolt served as the safety. Engaging this mechanism required pushing the knob in hard and rotating it. The bolt handle projected straight to the side, and the action cocked stiffly on closing. The rifle had a long, 26-inch barrel with a military stock and hand guard that went nearly to the muzzle. The scarred wood - of indeterminate origin - wore a nondescript brown finish.

RIGHT: A beauty and two beasts. Walnut-stocked Sako, left, is undeniably more attractive than the stainless-synthetic and full-camo Remington M700s.

With all its drawbacks, the Arisaka had one important redeeming feature - it was free, making it dear to my 14-year-old heart. In addition to loaning me the rifle, my Uncle Clair ("Big Clair" to other family members; I was known as "Little Clair") taught me to hunt mule deer.
We camped overnight on a small hill in Utah's desert country. A half hour before sunrise, he directed me to a spot 50 yards below the crest. "Get comfortable, then stay put," he said. "You'll be overlooking two heavily used deer trails. Be ready, and when you get a good shot, take it. Aim just behind the shoulder. Be sure to s-q-u-e-e-z-e the trigger." Clair left me lying belly-down in a sagebrush clearing. I had the rifle, a canteen of water and a Hershey bar to nibble on. The Arisaka had a wire monopod folded up against the stock. I pulled the monopod down, giving me a semisolid rest. Then I settled in to wait.

Twenty minutes later, I spotted five deer on the nearest trail. They were moving slowly in my direction. Pulse pounding, I palmed the safety off and got ready to shoot. When the animals were directly below me, I nestled the barleycorn front sight behind the shoulder of the biggest deer. I took a breath, let it half-way out and eased back the trigger.

At the shot, four deer pogo-sticked frantically down the trail. The fifth took a half-dozen halting paces, then slumped to the ground. By the time I ran to it, the big doe was dead.

I fell instantly in love with the homely rifle - but was to learn how fleeting adolescent love could be. The following weekend Uncle Clair again took me afield to fill my second tag.

I spotted several deer in the next two days, but none within shooting range. With time running out, my uncle stationed me below the end of a long ridge line. "Stay here," he said. "I'll work back and drive the ridge top. If I kick out any deer, they'll be running targets. Pick one - and be sure to lead it when you shoot."

After an interminable wait, I heard my uncle whistling in the distance. As the whistling grew louder, my heart sank. It was late afternoon, and I had to be back at school the following day. My hunt was nearly over.

Three deer burst from the tree line, headed straight toward me. The mid-dle one was a forkhorn buck. The animals swerved as I threw the Arisaka up. I fired the first shot as the buck bounced past 80 yards away. It was a clean miss.

During the next 60 seconds, events blurred together. I remember working the bolt, aiming and firing - and when the magazine ran dry, frantically stuffing it with fresh rounds. I also remember Big Clair's rollicking laughter as dust puffed above, below, then behind the fleeing buck. An early shot had found its mark, slowing the deer's flight. The animal was about to crest a low hillside 250 yards away when a second lucky bullet broke its back. The little buck was mine.

Clair walked to me, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. Fighting for breath, he pointed to the ground. Greatly embarrassed, I counted 18 fired cases at my feet. I'd killed my second deer in as many weeks, but my infatuation with the Arisaka had begun a downhill slide.

Whether it's guns or girls, you always remember your first love. I recall that ungainly rifle with certain fondness. In the space of a week, it had brought me both exultation and humility. It showed me the wisdom of using a solid rest and the folly of shooting wildly at running game. Equally important, it had made me a hunter - a successful one, at that. However briefly, I found the Arisaka beautiful.

With time and experience, beauty standards change. One advantage of adulthood was a gradually growing bank account. I became more discriminating when buying guns. Who doesn't covet high-grade rifles with gorgeously grained, oiled walnut stocks? I bought as many as I could afford - then kept an anxious eye open for anything that could gouge, dent or scar the rifles when I carried them afield. Even careful vigilance wasn't enough to spare rifles toted in saddle scabbards or packed up rocky mountain slopes.

I still own fancy firearms and show them proudly to appreciative visitors, but my tastes have slowly changed. While I prize my handful of handsome rifles, they don't see much use in the deer woods anymore. These faithful companions are basically retired.

When hunting season rolls around these days, I'll open the gun safe and select one of the several synthetic-stocked rifles stored inside. Most feature stainless steel barrels and black nylon slings. These are highly practical firearms but homely to a fault. If he were still alive, my father would shudder at their sight.

Stainless steel, fiberglass-handled rifles are becoming increasingly popular. Practical-minded hunters are learning to appreciate their rugged durability. The stocks don't swell or warp, and rust-resistant stainless requires only minor maintenance. Many sportsmen no longer even realize these guns are ugly!

Fiberglass stocks made their appearance a few decades ago, primarily to fill the needs of weight-conscious riflemen. Chet Fish and other custom gunmakers used these unlovely stocks to turn out flyweight rifles. These rifles horrified traditionalists but delighted shooters who wanted a bare minimum of heft.

The practical, plain-Jane stocks eventually caught the attention of major manufacturers. Light weight wasn't the only attraction. The new stocks were waterproof and extremely stable. Fiberglass was hard to work with, but other synthetics were tough and easily molded. Too, riflemakers didn't have to find increasingly scarce and costly supplies of stock-grade walnut. Handsomely grained wood was no longer a factor. All synthetic stocks were identically ugly - beauty was strictly in the eye of the beholder.

When synthetic-stocked factory rifles first appeared on dealers' shelves, my hunting friends were horrified. The new black-handled firearms were aesthetic failures entirely lacking in grace or charm.

"I wouldn't be caught dead showing up in deer camp with one of those things," Lee Peterson said several years ago. His favorite deer rifle had long been a custom-stocked Savage Model 99 with gorgeously burled woodwork.

Other friends and relatives shared this opinion. Synthetic stocks were an abomination, and the rifles that wore them, hideous.

I, too, was a fan of honest walnut, but was less horrified by the development. After all, I was no stranger to ugly rifles. After mourning too many dents and scratches inflicted on costly firearms, I saw value in the homely tools. The new rifles thrived on abuse. All rifles require some maintenance, but today's stainless steel, synthetic-stocked firearms shrug off rain and snow. If oxidation occurs, a few swipes of an emery cloth quickly erases the evidence. I vividly recall my first November hunt in Alaska. Exposed to driving sleet and snow, my blued steel Mauser quickly rusted in spite of lavish oiling. When I returned home, the entire rifle had to be refinished and reblued. Stainless rifles might not be gorgeous, but I find them better looking all the time.

All my serious hunting rifles now sport synthetic stocks, and most have stainless steel hardware. These firearms aren't stylish. They're durable, work-a-day guns that get the job done. To paraphrase Forest Gump, "handsome is as handsome does." Looking good isn't everything. After all, the ugly rifles in my safe all have great personalities.
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