Extreme rifles for extreme riffleman
It takes a serious rifle to survive serious conditions!
A few years back, my old friend Sherwin Scott and I embarked on our first bongo safari in the forests of the Central African Republic. I took my old .375 H&H Mag., a well-worn pre-1964 Winchester Model 70 converted to lefthand bolt. During three weeks of rain, wet underbrush and humidity the stock turned a ghastly white and, despite daily cleaning, I couldn’t stay ahead of the rust. That rifle is an old friend, and I hated to see it in such dire straits, but overall I had the right rifle for the job because, thanks to heavy sealing in the barrel channel, it didn’t shift zero. And, after all, that particular rifle isn’t worth anything to anyone except me, and all the extra wear and tear only served to give it a bit more character (of which it has plenty!).
Scotty, on the other hand, took his pet David Miller Classic. His rifle was also a .375, but it is (or, rather, was) a thing of beauty, with soft rust bluing, tasteful engraving, and a stock perfectly crafted of the finest French walnut. Like me, Scotty did his best to keep ahead of the rust, but it was almost impossible. I don’t know how he felt about it–I was afraid to ask-but I wanted to cry as I watched, day by day, that lovely wood turn gray!
Scotty got a bongo on that trip. I didn’t, so I tried again a year later with my buddy Joe Bishop.You might think I had learned something. My old .375 couldn’t be damaged much further, so it was the perfect gun to take. I didn’t take it. Instead I took a brand-new (and expensive) John Rigby .416, fresh from London, and a rifle I’d awaited anxiously for nearly three years. This was an easier hunt and I stayed ahead of the rust fairly well. I got my bongo about halfway through the hunt, and the rifle still looked pretty good. It was noon, and we had no sooner taken our pictures and started to skin the animal when the sky closed in and it started to rain. It rained buckets the rest of the day, and it was past 10 p.m. when, thoroughly drenched, we finally stumbled out of the dark forest. The next morning I had plenty of rust to work on, but that was nothing. The fine piece of Circassian walnut I had chosen for the stock was hopelessly split behind the tang.
My buddy Joe Bishop is a lot smarter than I. He owns a number of extremely fine guns made by some of the world’s best makers. Joe can afford such guns, and he can afford to hunt with them, but he chooses not to. He has done almost all of his hunting, all over the world, with a near-identical pair of synthetic-stocked over-thecounter Sako rifles, one in 7 nun Rem. Mag., the other in .375 H&H. On the mountain or in the forest, he worries about the country and the game. He doesn’t worry about his rifle.
What Is “Extreme?”
For some people, leaving the truck and walking 100 yds. constitutes an extreme hunt. When I think about “extreme,” I’m thinking about unusually difficult or challenging conditions-which can be caused by a wide variety of circumstances. In the hunting world, you can go from extreme heat, as in the Equatorial forests, to extreme cold, as in the high Arctic. Those conditions are hard on the hunter, but in themselves aren’t particularly hard on the hunter’s rifle. Add in rain (which you get plenty of in the rain forest), and things just got worse. Add a bunch of snow to law temperatures, and things just got more difficult for both the hunter and his gear. Extreme conditions, however, don’t have to be wet. I made a safari last February to the deserts of Chad. The heat wasn’t extreme-but the constantly blowing sand was tough on our rifles’ actions.
Weather isn’t the only extreme. The country makes a big difference-and so does how you are obligated to hunt it. If you’re cruising backcountry roads in a four-wheel drive, it doesn’t make much difference how tough the terrain is, or even how uncomfortable the weather-you aren’t experiencing an extreme hunt because you’re not out in it. If you have to tackle the same country on foot or on horseback the game just changed!
Foot hunts aren’t necessarily extreme. It depends on the distance covered, the terrain and the weather. For instance, I like to hunt pronghorn and plains deer on foot. I might cover a lot of ground in a day, but it falls somewhat short of extreme. The weather is usually good, and the topography is usually gentle. Another favorite hunt of mine is desert mule deer in Sonora, Mexico. This sounds exotic, and since it’s usually a tracking hunt, requires lots of walking. But the pace is slow, the desert floor is generally gentle (except for the thorns), and the weather is usually glorious. Mind you, things can change fast. An early blizzard on the northern plains can turn an easy pronghorn hunt into an ordeal-so can the necessity to belly-crawl through cactus for a halfmile in order to get a shot!
Steep country, on the other hand, is usually pretty extreme from the start. However, on average, I think serious hunting in the American and Canadian West is as physically difficult as any hunting in the world. This is because the gentle, easy-to-get-to places have people in them. To reach the best game you have to get into country that is uncomfortable for humans!
Just plain steep is hard enough. Usually that isn’t the whole story. I love to hunt Coues whitetail in the mountains of the Southwest. Those mountains aren’t usually high, but they’re steep and rocky: small, crumbling, slipping rocks underfoot and big sharpedged rocks at hand-and every plant has nasty thorns that must be avoided at all costs. Farther north, all the way from the Rockies to Alaska, you must fight your way through forest or underbrush on the lower slopes-and then you have talus slides and rocks up above. Later in the fall, you can throw in wet snow as well!
Some hunts are extreme just by definition, forget what the terrain and weather are like. Backpack hunts are always extreme, simply because you must carry everything on your back and your rifle will be exposed to whatever the elements are 24 hours a day. Horseback hunts are a good deal easier on the hunter, but are extremely hard on rifles. A full scabbard with a hood offers pretty good protection, but if it gets damp that means your rifle will be breeding rust every second it’s in there. Too, horses have a way of banging a rifle against every tree they go by. Even if rifles are kept in full, well-padded scabbards, horseback hunting is tough on them.
I’m a gun guy. I don’t have a lot of nice rifles, but I’m very fond of the few that I have and I like to take them hunting, so much that I’ve made some terrible choices. Taking that brandnew Rigby on a bongo hunt was one of the worst, but far from the only, bad decision. Another favorite is my own David Miller Classic in 7 mr Rem. Mag. It shoots wonderfully, never changes zero, and fits me perfectly. It begs to be taken out of the gun safe.
So I’ve taken it … to places a rifle like that should never be allowed to see! I’ve taken it Coues deer hunting, and I’ve taken it sheep and goat hunting. Those have been mistakes. I have dented, scratched and dinged its fine French walnut and marred its perfect bluing. Okay, maybe this has just added some character to the rifle. However, there’s another issue, one of safety. In steep country you simply cannot waste any time worrying about your rifle. Sure, you want to protect it from as much abuse as possible-and you certainly don’t want to drop it or fall on it because you probably aren’t carrying a spare rifle with you! But in bad country you need to concentrate your full attention on keeping your footing and your balance and getting where you need to go one step at a time. If you’re worrying about dinging your rifle, you are much more likely to take a bad fall.
The third really good rifle that I’ve taken into some very bad country is my Rogue River Rifleworks 8 mm Rem. Mag., built by Geoff Miller (now the proprietor of John Rigby as well). Again, a beautiful rifle stocked in English walnut that shoots like gangbusters. I’ve taken it sheep hunting in Asia a couple of times, and it’s been to Africa several times. It has also gone on several elk hunts, and just once on a Coues deer hunt. In Asia, we hunted at very high altitudes, but despite the thin air, the tops weren’t all that steep or rocky and, although there was snow, the air was dry. I’ve only taken it elk hunting in the Southwest, where heavy snows were unlikely. In Africa it’s been in Ethiopia, Chad, Zambia and Namibia. The first two were tough hunts-but not necessarily tough on guns. That rifle now shows a bit of wear, which it certainly deserves to show, but overall I think I’ve been pretty careful. The only real mistake was the one time I took it on a Coues deer hunt. I have no idea why I took it; I know what the country is like, and the country is tough on guns. And I sure didn’t need an 8 mm magnum! I’ve had that rifle in the field for at least six months in the six years I’ve had it-and I think it got most of its dings on that one six-day Coues deer hunt.
In other words, you can take nice rifles hunting and not destroy them. But the answer is not to try to baby the rifle. Normal care is good, but if you’re paying too much attention to the rifle you’re either not hunting effectively or you’re effectively endangering yourself. The secret to taking good guns hunting is to choose your ground and be careful where you take them. I’m not sure I’ve fully learned that lesson, but I’m getting better at it!
Synthetic & Laminate
Overall, I’m pretty sure Joe Bishop has it right: He has good guns, but he doesn’t take them hunting-ever! The first problem and most fragile part of a wood-stocked rifle is the stock. It’s not only the most easily scratched and dinged, but also the most susceptible to weather. The best cure is a synthetic stock. Period.
A well-made synthetic stock is stronger than wood. Also period. Synthetics are also absolutely impervious to the elements. They cannot warp and swell when it gets wet, and they cannot shrink when it gets dry. They are not scratch-proof or abrasion-proof, not at all-but they are usually finished in a paint that is easily touched up.
It is an absolute myth that synthetic stocks are lighter than wood. Some are, some aren’t; that depends entirely on the construction and also on the style. The easiest way to take weight off a rifle is to use a thinner barrel, since steel weighs more than wood or fiberglass. However, thin barrels are more finicky. So I think the best way to take weight off a rifle is to use a lightweight synthetic stock, meaning a foam-filled shell reinforced (usually with Kevlar) in the critical areas of the wrist and action. This article is really more about durability than weight, but when “extreme” means physical exertion, taking away a couple pounds of gun weight makes a huge difference.
If synthetic stocks give you the creeps, the next best option is laminated wood. Laminated stocks are, in my view, the strongest of all rifle stocks-stronger than plain wood and stronger than any synthetic. They’re a bit more resistant to scratching and abrading as well-but nearly as easy as synthetics to repair. They are almost as weatherproof as synthetics as well, but the finish will wear away and allow individual sections to swell; so in extended damp weather a laminated stock will turn gray and nasty, and it will have sort of a crinkled feel as some sections of laminate swell more than others. Depending on how the rifle is bedded and how well the barrel channel is sealed, this could cause problems.
Still, I like laminated stocks for their toughness and durability. One important point: Laminated stocks are generally heavier than either plain wood or even the heaviest synthetics. So if you want light weight as well as durability, synthetic is still the way to go.
Rustproofing & Stainless Steel
There are a whole bunch of really good rustproof finishes and coatings out there. Good old military Parkerizing is still pretty good, but Parkerized finishes will rust. Better are some of the new Teflon and similar coatings. Unfortunately, all of those finishes are external only. Remember, we’re talking extreme hunting conditions, and if you aren’t protecting the inside of the barrel then you aren’t protecting the most important part. Mind you, there are a whole lot of finishes that are both tougher and do a better job of protecting the exterior metal than bluing, but in my opinion none are quite as attractive as good rust bluing.
So for looks I’ll take bluing. For extreme conditions, give me stainless. We’ve had good stainless steel barrels for many years, but just in the last decade the manufacturers have finally broken the code on machining stainless steel into actions. Most major manufacturers now offer stainless steel models. If you want a rifle you don’t have to worry about, folks, stainless and synthetic is the way to go.
Okay, that’s an overstatement. Stainless steel is corrosion resistant, but it can and will rust if you work at it hard enough. It takes a lot of fresh water to rust it, but salt water or salt air will do the trick nicely. So even stainless requires maintenance-and on a stainless steel rifle not all the action parts (such as the bolt body) are necessarily stainless. So maintenance is still required, but you don’t have to worry about rust nearly as much as you do with carbon steel.
The next step is titanium. Remington now leads the way among the major manufacturers, but custom makers have been using it for some time. I have a titanium-actioned rifle from Prairie Gun Works in Canada, and it’s wonderful. Titanium is not only much lighter, and tougher, than steel, but also extremely corrosion-resistant. At this point it’s still much more difficult and expensive to machine titanium, but I suspect that will change in time.
Scopes & Mounts
Most scope tubes today are aluminum alloy, so they are also rustproof. Mounts are a different story. One of the first places rust collects is in the little nooks and crannies of carbon steel scope mounts, places that are extremely hard to get to. I have never particularly cared if the color of a scope matches the color of a rifle. In fact, I sort of like a black matte scope on a stainless action-but for heaven’s sake use stainless mounts.
And since we’re talking about extreme rifles for extreme conditions, use really good, really tough mounts, and make very certain they’re installed correctly. Recoil is the single greatest enemy of riflescopes and scope mounts, so as recoil levels go up you need tougher scopes and better mounts. And remember that gun weight is as big a factor in recoil as the cartridge itself! That said, one of the primary culprits in scope mount failure is improper mounting. The screws should be tight-not so tight that they break, but plenty tight with hand tools (not a torque wrench), and held with Loctite or a similar screw-holding compound.
The single most common scope mount, I think, is the Redfield type with dual opposing screws on the rear base. Several manufacturers offer that type of mount, one of its great advantages being that it offers windage adjustment on the base. Despite its popularity it is not one of the strongest mounts-but it does very well if installed absolutely correctly. I wouldn’t put this mount on a .416, or on any very light rifle from .300 magnum upwards. But I used it for many years on a 9-lb., .375-cal. rifle, and that’s the mount I have now on an 81/-lb., .300 Wby. Mag. It’s just fine, because recoil is moderated by adequate gun weight. If you’re in doubt, consider a tougher mount like the old Weaver crossbolt system, Leupold’s dual-dovetail, or one of Dave Talley’s wonderful detachables.
Obviously it’s important to match the cartridge to the game, and it’s just as important to choose a cartridge that gives you supreme confidence-whatever that means to you. The salient point is that, under extreme hunting conditions, chances are you’re going to be either extremely miserable or extremely tired-perhaps for days-before you finally get a shot. Whatever rifle you’re carrying, and whatever cartridge it’s chambered to, you don’t want to be second-guessing your capabilities when it’s time to squeeze the trigger.
Generally speaking, you probably want a bit more power than you really need. When I expect conditions to be really tough I will often carry a .300 Win. Mag.-stainless steel and synthetic stock-even though I know a .270 Win. or .30-’06 Sprg. is plenty of gun. My buddy Mike Satran, on the other hand, is like legions of other hunters: He has absolute and total faith in his .270. His is a Model 70 in stainless steel and synthetic stock, so that’s his “extreme rifle” and it has never failed him.
Joe Bishop has similar faith in his battered old Sako 7 mm Rem. Mag. Two years ago we went ibex hunting in Turkey-a cold, difficult, extreme early December hunt in the steepest mountains I have ever seen. I used a Browning A-Bolt Stainless Stalker in .270 Win. and took my ibex on about the third day. On the last day of the hunt Joe didn’t yet have one, but we spotted a real monster far, far up on an impossible mountain. Hours later, totally spent, we finally reached the top and our outfitter, Khan Karagiya, found the billy bedded on a little shelf. They crept a bit closer, and Joe lay down in the rocks and took the largest Persian ibex ever to come out of Turkey. That’s when an extreme rifleman needs an extreme rifle! IRP
by Brig. Gen. Craig Boddington, U.S.M.C.
Copyright National Rifle Association of America Nov 2002
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