“To My Brother Vince: For all the trips I’ve been on and all those that are left to me; you truly were there with me”
In our last installment we talked about what to hunt, so now, let’s consider what we’re taking with us. Here is a classic example of what I used to tell my kids in my classroom (as well as my son): “do as I say, not as I do”! Usually, when I pack for a trip, I need to lift weights for about 2 months ahead of time so I can pick up my bag. These days, when airlines charge a premium for overweight baggage, it can become downright exorbitant to fly to your destination. While sometimes, it’s better to “have it and not need it as opposed to needing it and not having it”, we really need to think things out before we pack.
We’re fortunate to have specialty stores such as Cabelas, Bass Pro, Gander Mountain, Dick’s Sporting Goods and the like. With today’s modern fabrics we can purchase outdoor clothing that is efficient in keeping us warm and dry, without excess weight. As we can encounter temperatures anywhere from minus 6 degrees to 60 degrees, it’s important to layer our clothing, so as the day grows warmer or colder we can put on or take off as needed. Much of what we can buy today has a water repellant (resistant) capacity that can keep up with the weather that can change at a moment’s notice.
One of the most miserable experiences that I ever had was in Montana’s Cabinet Mountains. I had a pair of “broken in” boots that weren’t really broken in at all. By the end of the second day, I had blisters that rivaled silver dollars (for us old folks that remember what a silver dollar looked like). I brought a second pair of boots for use if it snowed, but were well broken in. For the rest of the trip, I wore those boots and had I not done that, my hunt could have been over by the second day. The idea here is to keep warm, dry and comfortable.
For us “do it yourselfers”, the more time spent in research will equate as to how successful your hunt can be. Remember, it’s hunting, and fair chase requires us to be ethical. In the west, millions of acres are available to us through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Forests. However, a good deal of this land is “checker boarded”, which means that portions of it is leased to private concerns such as ranchers or energy interests. Here, it’s wise to contact the Bureau of Land Management (that’s what we pay taxes for, after all) and arrange to get maps of those areas that we’re interested in hunting. These maps show those areas within the BLM that are open to hunting as well as those which are leased and possibly not available. In conjunction with the BLM, you should also contact the state game departments who can not only direct you to the state and county maps showing accessible areas, but can also direct you to the game biologist for that specific area. Here you can obtain valuable information as to how the game animals survived the previous winter (which in the west can be brutal) where water is located (important for their survival) herd concentrations, any evidence of CWD (Chronic Wasting Disease) in the areas and other vital information. It’s always a good idea to have a list of questions written down before you call the biologist and not after you hang up!
Are you traveling in an RV? Are any campgrounds nearby and do they offer full hook ups? Is there a town close by, with a grocery store? And if you are driving, does that town have decent hotels? Believe me, I’ve stayed in hotels where I’ve had the best of both worlds: I could climb into bed and sleep on the floor at the same time. Is a car/truck rental nearby if you are flying in? These and more questions require answers and planning before you take your first step from home and not after you arrive at Dead Deer Gulch and find out that you’re pretty much stranded!
What are we shooting? There have probably been more fist fights over rifles and calibers than having a Priest, a Minister and a Rabbi in a bar at the same time. Most outfitters will tell their clients to bring a rifle that they can shoot well. It’s far better to kill cleanly and humanely with a .30/06 that you shoot well than to wound one with a .300 Weatherby (that kicks like hell and causes you to flinch and pull your shot) because a store clerk told you it was the “ flattest shooting gun ever made for out west”. Which brings us to another point: regardless of what you shoot; shoot it!!! There is no substitute for the confidence that comes with a rifle that you know you can shoot well! Shoot at least 20 rounds before you leave, and shoot it again when you get to your destination before you begin your hunt. A lot can happen to a rifle between Virginia or West Virginia and Wyoming. So, when you arrive at your destination take time to find a safe range and shoot your rifle to check its zero. The time to make any necessary adjustments to your scope is before you enter the field, not when you are drawing down on a 30” Mulie and wondering where your shots went.
A lot of Easterners will tend to overestimate when it comes to the distances you encounter in the west. For us that hunt the hardwoods where a 50 yard shot tends to be the average, a 300 yard shot can be downright daunting! A rule of thumb to consider is to sight your rifle 2” high at 100 yards. For most cartridges useful for western hunting (.30/06, .270, 7MM Mag, etc) this will put a “no holdover” point of aim out to 300 yards. Also, remember that your game is usually smaller than you imagine it to be. A mature pronghorn buck may weigh around 125 lbs. and stand 30” high at the shoulder. This means that his small stature at 250 yards will seem to indicate that he’s 350 yards out when he’s really not. Here, it’s a good idea to hold “dead on” rather than compensate for distance that’s not really there and shoot over your target.
One item on my “bucket list” was being able to drive out west. Now that I’ve retired from teaching I have the time to do so, and before Thanksgiving I’ll be driving out to western Montana for a Deer/Elk/Bear hunt. One of the great joys in life for my wife is to be able to tell me “I told you so”! For my next blog I’ll report on my exploits and we’ll see if I’m able to follow my own advice.
To be honest, I’ve only been to Africa one time, and planning for that trip was an adventure in itself, not to mention the fulfillment of a lifetime dream that’s shared by many hunters. To say that the trip was successful would be an understatement; it was so successful that I was offered and accepted a position with the safari company for the next several years in which I assisted other “new” hunters plan their trips to the Dark Continent.
But Africa isn’t the subject of this article. For us, living in the greatest country in the World, other venues are readily available for our hunting pursuits. The western states offer a wide variety of opportunities for the sportsman; deer (Whitetail, Blacktail or Mulies), Elk, Bear, Pronghorn, Moose, not to mention less pursued species. We can fly there, drive there, take the train, take our RV’s and each offers its own rewards and challenges.
Our first question is where we want to go, and what do we want to hunt. For our purposes, let’s say the “western states” are anywhere west of the Mississippi, which takes in the Plains States such as Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Oklahoma and Texas, not to mention the Rocky Mountain States. Each offers any number of opportunities and this can become as daunting as Lindsay Lohan explaining a speeding violation in traffic court. Consider selecting a single species that really appeals to you. Perhaps you’re looking for that once-in-a-lifetime Whitetail; a real wallhanger! Here’s where the “homework” begins.
Many states offer quality whitetail hunting, but some are better than others. There are any number of organizations such as Safari Club, the Dallas Safari Club, the North American Hunting Club that can provide great insight as to what’s going on in the world of hunting. Their magazines provide a “where to go directory” at the back pages. In addition, the old standbys such as “Outdoor Life”, “Field and Stream”, “Sports Afield” are readily available and offer great information. Nothing beats meeting folks who have “been there and done that” and picking their brains. The outdoor sports shows which are held annually across the nation showcase great destinations, not to mention the outfitters who can put it all together; which brings us to the next point: do we want to “do it yourself” or book a hunt with an outfitter.
Unless you have a friend that lives in the area in which you want to hunt, I’d suggest using a registered guide for your first hunt. First of all, he knows the area, and how the game is moving. If he’s a member of that state’s Guide Association, he must meet and maintain professional standards. He should be able to assist you in obtaining the necessary non-resident hunting licenses which is invaluable. Non-resident licenses in western states can be terribly confusing and constantly change in accordance with State game biologists recommendations. Your outfitter should be well versed with the nuances in the Game Departments and should be able to assist you in correctly completing your license application. Your outfitter should be able to provide all the necessary equipment and accommodations to make your stay with him comfortable, whether it’s a fully equipped camp or a “town hunt” in which you stay in a hotel and are picked up each morning to begin your hunt. For those of us fortunate enough to have made many trips out west, it’s inevitable to hear “horror” stories about unscrupulous outfitters. If you do book with an outfitter, make sure he’s a member of the state’s association and is registered. He should provide a list of references that can tell you about the operation the outfitter runs, the terrain in which you plan to hunt and other useful information. Don’t be afraid to call references! And finally, try not to have pre-conceived notions about your hunt. Certainly you can have reasonable expectations and have every right to them. However if you “script” your hunt, you can leave yourself open to disappointment. Hunting is just that; sometimes it’s your day and at other times the quarry wins! Your outfitter should work to provide you every reasonable opportunity to obtain your trophy, but he must adhere to ethical hunting. Having been associated with several Outfitters over a number of years, I’ve been privy to “horror” stories on their end. Guides can’t be expected to perform miracles. They have no control over the weather which can drastically affect hunting in the west. They can’t magically produce a 180 inch whitetail or a 390 inch bull elk, although I’ve had first hand knowledge in which some clients expected just that, and complained bitterly when it didn’t happen. Again, the idea here is “fair chase” hunting.
An important consideration when hunting outside of your state is your physical condition. If you should travel to the Rockies remember that you have altitude to contend with. The terrain is mostly steep and physical exertion is the rule of the day. This means you can’t just jump in a plane, or an RV, arrive there and run up and down those mountains! Simply walking is a great way to try and get ready for your hunt. If you live in a mountainous region, walking up and down hills is a good idea. Try and take a loaded pack. Be sure that your equipment is broken in. On one trip to the Cabinet Mountains in Montana, I brought what I “thought” to be a pair of broken in boots. They weren’t, and I spent many miserable days and lots of bandaids over blistered feet which left a lasting impression. And while we are on the subject of blisters, I have several scars on a tender part of my anatomy because I didn’t take the time to ride a horse a couple of times before I went on a Rocky Mountain pack trip. The moral of the story is to “plan ahead”.
If you have any medical considerations, it’s vital that you let your outfitter know about them so he can arrange accordingly. This applies to any dietary considerations, so it’s important to let your outfitter know well before you get there, not when you arrive! One of my outfitter buddies told me of a sad story of a client having a massive heart attack on a mountain. Unfortunately the client died before any advanced medical help could arrive. A pre-hunt physical with your family physician is never a bad idea.
C.J. MacElroy, the founding father of Safari Club International, was once asked to recall his most memorable hunt. His response was his first hunt. It was full of anticipation and excitement, and he envied the first time (out of state) hunter for those reasons. Not a bad legacy!
On our next installment, we’ll talk about a “do-it-yourself” hunt and what to take.
What do you mean that my rifle has “headspace”? Is it catching??
The “Good Old Days”
In a far simpler time, all we needed to do was pour some powder down the barrel, seat a lead bullet, put a percussion cap on the nipple and pull the trigger. Most of the time, at least, the gun would go bang and hopefully, we would achieve some desired result.
Ah, but now with smart bombs, space shots and Lady Gaga, we’re in the “modern age” and we’ve brought our firearms with us.
Shortly before our Civil War, two Yankee entrepreneurs, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson (recognize the names?) developed the idea of a fully self contained cartridge which was housed in their “Volcanic” pistol. With the help of a mechanical genius by the name of B. Tyler Henry (who later went to work for a Connecticut shirt maker by the name of Oliver Winchester; again, recognize the name?) the Volcanic was marketed, but had limited success, It did inspire the creation of the Winchester Model 1860, that “Damned Yankee Rifle that you loaded on Sunday and fired all week”. The idea of a fully contained metallic cartridge took off and the rest, as they say, was history.
As smokeless powder developed in the late nineteenth century, increased chamber pressure resulted from within the cartridge case which held the primer, powder and the bullet. The problem was that metallurgy hadn’t quite caught up with the pressure and cartridge cases would fail, sometimes with disastrous results. We soon learned that some material holds pressures much better than others. The coiled copper cases and soft brass of the earlier days couldn’t withstand the pressure and would often separate inside the rifle chamber. In addition, the primers of the day often utilized a fulminate of mercury to ignite the powder within the case. The problem there was that the fulminate was very corrosive, both to the case and the rifle’s barrel.
Fast Forward Sixty Years
Fortunately, today’s rifles and ammunition have benefited from modern metallurgy as well as precise production techniques. Brass is much more ductile(the ability to expand within the rifle’s chamber) than ever before and with today’s CNC (computer numeric control) methods of manufacturing, rifle, barrel and chamber tolerances are more precise than ever before possible. With the possible exception of those of us who are hand loaders, the terms “incipient head separation, headspace, datum lines, primer pocket expansion” as well as other terms are largely unknown. Still, certain parameters exist, and must be adhered to.
First of all, all firearms and ammunition manufactured in the United States, at least, adhere to SAAMI (Small Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute) specifications. This establishes minimum and maximum tolerances within the rifle’s chamber and barrel dimensions. The ammunition designed for a specific caliber must conform to these minimum and maximum dimensions. Even with CNC manufacturing, no two rifles manufactured in the identical caliber are exactly the same. Therefore a little “wiggle room” is built in. For example, this means that any .30/06 ammunition made by any manufacturer will fit into any .30/06 rifle made by any other manufacturer. Since the brass case has to expand, these SAAMI tolerances allow it to do so and fit that specific chamber. When the tolerances are too great, however, we start to encounter problems. Here is where we may hear the term “excessive headspace”.
Headspace refers to the distance from the face of the closed bolt (either in a bolt action, lever action, semi-auto, etc) to some point within the chamber. The cartridge case has to fit within this distance. If the distance is too great, the case is too loose in the chamber and can expand too much and could separate. With a typical .30/06 for example, we’re dealing with over 50,000 lbs per sq. inch! That pressure, if not contained within the brass case supported by the rifle’s chamber, will go somewhere. If the worst case scenario happens, it usually wrecks the rifle and could injure (or worse) the shooter. Normally, we find this in older rifles, some military surplus rifles or those that are “custom” made and not necessarily to SAAMI specs. Today, it’s practically unheard of in production firearms or ammunition.
Enter the Handloader
Handloaders have the advantage of using their equipment to produce cartridges that fit a specific rifle. If you are in doubt as to whether you rifle may have excessive headspace, your can take a trip to your local gunsmith. Most gunsmiths use “headspace” gauges” that are produced in acceptable (“GO Gauges) and non-acceptable (NO-GO Gauges) tolerances. Using these simple gauges, a gunsmith can check your particular rifle, especially if it happens to be a military surplus rifle, which sometimes were purposely made with loose tolerances so they could function reliably in adverse conditions.
Handloaders can use resizing dies in their presses to bring fired cartridge cases back into SAAMI dimensions. If your rifle’s chamber happens to be somewhat “loose” the handloader can adjust his resizing die so it doesn’t “squeeze” the fired case as much, so it can fit the chamber somewhat better. This procedure is usually much more critical with rimless bottle necked cartridges than with other types of cases, and allows a better fit for the case in that particular rifle’s chamber. A bottle necked rimless cartridge headspaces (fits the chamber) based on a particular point on its shoulder called the datum line. This controls the fore and aft movement of the case in the chamber. Squeeze the cartridge case in the sizing die too much and you push that shoulder (and the datum line) back too far which allows too much “wiggle room” and too much expansion in the case.
Hand loading is a rewarding hobby, but it does require a “learning curve”. I’ve only scratched the surface in this short blog. Learning to hand load is the fun part, especially if you happen to have a friend who has had some experience and is willing to share that experience to get you started. The National Rifle Association offers a program to teach individuals in hand loading and is well worth the time and effort.
Oh happy days!
For those of us that do not hand load, factory ammunition is widely available especially for our more common calibers. Today’s ammunition is infinitely superior to that loaded by the major companies even ten years ago. It actually rivals and in some cases, even is superior to our best hand loaded ammunition. In today’s market a wide variety of “custom” loaded factory ammunition will utilize premium bullets and carefully constructed brass cases. The powder used is often customized to produce superior velocity and accuracy in the given caliber, and in many cases is not even available to the hand loader in component form. Issues involving “headspace” are practically non-existent.
In the past, those of us using lever action rifles with tubular magazines were limited to blunt noses bullets to prevent one bullet from detonating the primer of the cartridge in front of it in the rifle’s tubular magazine. For “woods” hunting, blunt nosed bullets were perfectly fine because our shots were normally not longer than 100 yards and their arch like trajectory was not a big deal. In recent years Hornady Manufacturing has introduced their “LeveRevolution” ammunition which employs a flexible tipped bullet that will not detonate the cartridge in front of it in a tubular magazine. The result is now the good “ole 30/30 (as well as other lever action calibers) can reach out to distances that before were out of reach with blunt nosed bullets. Now, we can take a crack at that deer that’s 200 yards across the bean field!
Use the Experts!
Being the typical male, when all else fails read the directions! Usually when we’re traveling, I trust my “instincts”. I never ask for directions! Over the years, I’ve managed to tell my wife that we’re not lost, we’re just taking a different route. It normally doesn’t work, and I usually get the “silent treatment”. But with arms and ammunition, it never hurts to ask directions. That’s how we learn!
“It’s too good to be true”:
When it comes to buying a previously owned firearm, the old adage “it’s too good to be true” is usually closed to reality than one might think. Firearms, like beautiful women come in all sizes, shapes, and conditions. As with any married couple, I’m usually in trouble for something, being the male species. When my wife threatens to trade me in on a newer model, I’m quick to point out that with her years of investment in me, I’ve become a classic (especially if I’m loosing the argument, which is 99% of the time). Much the same can be said of a used gun.
“It pays to do your homework”:
One of the very first considerations in purchasing a used firearm is who made it, and when was it made. Was the gun made by a well known manufacturer? A 12 gaugeWinchesteror Remington shotgun may command a far higher price than say, a shotgun manufactured inBraziland imported into theUS. Even with US manufacturers, a wide range exists between current and discontinued production models. For example, a Winchester Model 12 shotgun (no longer made) will fetch a higher price than a Remington Model 870 (still in production). Values depend on rarity, availability, condition of the firearm and even the “mystique” of the maker. A “Pre-64” (made prior to 1964) Winchester Model 70 earned the nickname “The Rifleman’s Rifle”. It was machined from solid bar stock, and all parts were hand fitted, and the action was housed in walnut stocks. As production costs increased, shortcuts in manufacture and assembly were made. Finally in 1964, a new version of the same model appeared, much to the disgust of rifle “loonies”. Sales plummeted and it literally took years and changes in manufacturing forWinchesterto recover its lost revenue. The old “Pre-64’s” commanded collectors prices and sold for 2 to 3 times the cost of a brand new Model 70. The irony is that the newer Model 70’s were held to tighter tolerances, had better stock designs and an overall better finish than the pre-64”s, and yet it was the older model that brought the money.
The point of this is that research goes a long way before making your purchase, whether from a dealer or an individual. Just because the gun is old and your grandpa owned it won’t necessarily mean that it’s a “classic”. Sentimental value is one thing, but the hard, cruel facts are sometimes another. With today’s internet and all of the blogs, research engines, twitters, tweets and what have you, research is at your fingertips. There are always the good old fashioned reference manuals; publications like the Gun Digest, Shotgun News, and similar periodicals which will provide an idea of current market prices as well.
“Condition is everything”:
Once we have located the buy of our dreams we need to determine in just what condition it is in. Honest wear is one thing. A firearm that has been honestly used, but properly maintained will last for generations. Is the bore bright, or is it dark and has noticeable pits? How about the exterior? Is the stock in good condition? Scratches are signs of “honor” and tell the story of years of hunts, but poor repairs, gouges, poorly installed recoil pads, tell yet another, sadder story. Is the gun in its original condition, still showing the original blueing and varnish or finish on its stock?
Years ago, I noticed an ad from a fellow selling a “pre-64” Model 94 Winchester in .32 Winchester Special caliber. Now, the fact that it was a “pre-64” and in a somewhat less produced chambering that the traditional .30/30, my interest was aroused. I met the guy who told me that the gun came from the great State ofMaine where it was used to hunt deer and bear. The exterior showed some signs of minor pitting, but the interior was well cared for, with the bore bright and shiny. I negotiated what I felt to be a fair price and voila, it was mine!
When I returned home I noticed some “kitchen table” gunsmithing on the rear sight. No big deal, as I frequent many gun shows (I guess you could call me a “groupie”). At the next show I paid a premium for an original rear sight for that Model 94’s vintage and went home to install it. When I tapped the old rear sight out of its dovetail, the front sight fell off of the barrel! As those sights were silver soldered (again, research pays off) on the barrel and not screwed on, my only recourse was to take it to my local gunsmith, since I’m well aware of my limitations. While I was there, and since he had to do some soldering anyway, my next “brainstorm” was to have him remove those ugly minor pits and reblue the rifle. The end result was that I became the proud owner of a re-blued, re-sighted, re-stocked (oh yes, I bought a new stock and fore end) original Pre-“64 Model 94Winchester. The problem was I now had invested twice the cost of what an original condition Model 94 would bring.
It always helps to know with whom you are dealing! After my Model 94 fiasco, I began dealing with a reputable dealer that specialized in vintage Winchesters, Remingtons, as well as other makers. This dealer stood behind what he advertised and sold. After this, not only did I begin showing some value with my investments, I learned quite a bit along the way. Don’t be afraid to ask questions!
Finally, buying a used gun can be an enjoyable experience or it can be a nightmare! It’s always good to remember why you wanted to buy that firearm. Is it for hunting, plinking or for fun? Are you buying it for an investment? What do comparable models sell for? Is the demand for that particular gun climbing or is it steady? What is the condition of the firearm? Normal wear is to be expected, but that’s far from signs of abuse or neglect. Who are you dealing with? Is it an individual or a dealer?
Remember the old Latin warning: “Caveat Emptor”; let the buyer beware! Mainly, do your homework and have fun.