Many decades ago, a terrible forest fire ravaged thousands of mountainous acres in the Pisgah National Forest of North Carolina. What was once thick forest became country with an openness the likes of which many deer hunters living east of the Mississippi had never seen except in pictures. As a growth of new vegetation took hold and rapidly spread over the rich soil, the country eventually became better whitetail habitat than it had ever been before.
The result was a deer population that grew in leaps and bounds. And as each new generation of deer came along, they had more of a tendency to abandon deep forests and feed in vast open areas where they could be observed from a distance. During the rut, it was quite common to sit in one spot with a good binocular and watch several bucks race to and fro.
As hunting seasons came and went, it dawned on increasing numbers of hunters that the lever-action .30-30s that had served them so well in the past were about as useful as a pocket full of flat river rocks. Whereas most shots in many of the areas hunted had been inside 100 yards, they were now several times that distance, and extremely steep and rugged terrain ruled out sneaking closer before pulling the trigger.
At first, rifles in .270 Winchester were in great demand, and that cartridge continued to be quite popular, but many hunters eventually graduated to even more power, with the .264 Winchester Magnum and the .300 Weatherby Magnum probably seen in the gun racks of more pickup trucks than anything else.
By the time I was old enough to venture north from my home state to hunt in that area, the forest had reclaimed much of the country, but it was still intermixed with open areas that allowed deer to be spotted from great distances. Not as many as hunters saw deer on a typical day in the heyday of the area, but enough were seen to attract hunters like me who had never before experienced shooting deer in open country.
At first I thought about using my Marlin 336 in .35 Remington, but I changed my mind after a ballistics chart told me how far off course a mild sidewind would blow its 200-grain roundnose bullet–not to mention how high over a buck‚Äôs back I would have to hold at long range. I had to have something that shot flatter, hit harder, and did a better job slicing through wind.
My First .25-06
My first invitation to hunt in that country came during the early 1960s from my friend Dave Talley, who had been hunting there for several years and who just happened to live in the same city as me. Dave has since made his fortune manufacturing scope mounts, but at that time, he had about four jobs, one of which was building custom bolt-action rifles.
At the time, I had about one less job than Dave, so paychecks had to be stretched mighty thin in order to buy food and cover payments on a new house, a new wife, a well-used 1955 Chevy pickup, and a new rifle. So I did what any desperate deer hunter would do: I leaned on a friend who just happened to be a builder of custom bolt-action rifles.
I do not remember whose idea it was to chamber my new long-range rifle to .25-06, but I do recall being intrigued by the idea of hunting with a rifle chambered for a cartridge that no other hunter in camp would have. The fact that it was still a wildcat in those days presented no problem for me because I was already well into handloading.
Coming up with an action was one of the easier parts of the project. In those days, Mauser Model 98 actions were available for a mere pittance from Ye Olde Hunter and several other mail-order companies that peddled military-surplus firearms. The large-ring action I ended up buying was manufactured at the Erfurn Arsenal sometime during the 1920s.
After receiving the action, we smoothed and polished it, and we forged its bolt handle downward in a graceful sweep so it would clear a scope. The Buehler trigger we installed had a side safety, so the original Mauser bolt shroud with its swing-over safety was replaced by a shroud made for the commercial FN Mauser action. Custom trigger guard/floorplate assemblies such as those from Pete Grisel and Sunny Hill were not available back then, and even if they had been, I could not have afforded one. So we installed a gracefully shaped unit from a 1903 Springfield action.
The barrel presented no problem either. In those days, Herter‚Äôs of Waseca, Minnesota, was to hunters and shooters what Cabela‚Äôs, MidwayUSA, Sinclair International, and all the others combined are today. If it could not be found in the pages of Herter‚Äôs giant wish book, you probably did not genuinely need it anyhow. A few of the items I purchased from Herter‚Äôs were of questionable quality, but the German-made barrels the outfit sold were as good as you could get back then. Just as important to a young deer hunter on a tight budget, those barrels sold for a mere $12 each. Rifling twist rate of the barrel I bought was 1:10 inches, which was plenty quick for stabilizing pointed bullets as heavy as 120 grains.
The American walnut came from Roberts Wood Products of Portland, Oregon, in semi-inletted and rough-shaped form. Talley whittled, chiseled, and sanded until nothing was left but a very attractive riflestock in the classical styling. He did a perfect job of fitting it to the barreled action.
He then finished the stock with numerous hand-rubbed coats of Birchwood Casey Tru-Oil, and he did it the old-fashioned way by allowing each coat to dry and then sanding it back down to bare wood. This was repeated until all pores in the wood were completely filled. Several more light coats without the sanding completed the finish. The stock has an ebony fore-end tip and a Niedner-style buttplate of checkered steel. The grip cap is also a copy of Adolph Niedner‚Äôs original design.
I have always preferred trim dimensions in a riflestock, so we ended up with a circumference of 41‚ĀĄ4 inches at the wrist. The forearm, which is pear-shaped in profile, measures a bit less than 11‚ĀĄ2 inches wide at its midpoint.
The project was complete, and what
a thing of beauty it was to someone who had never owned a custom rifle before. The only thing needed to complete my long-range dream rifle was a scope. The problem was, not a single penny remained in my coffer. And then fate intervened.
While driving along and minding my business, another driver lightly sideswiped my Chevy pickup. Soon thereafter a check from the driver‚Äôs insurance company arrived while I was away. Upon my return, my wife, Phyllis, casually mentioned that since the new dents on my old jalopy blended in rather nicely with the old ones, I should use the money to buy a scope for my new rifle. I already knew I had chosen the right mate for life, and that only served to confirm.
So off the two of us went to a big gunshop in Asheville, North Carolina, called Finklestein‚Äôs. At the time, Redfield was at the top rung in quality, and since that company had only recently introduced its first 3-9X scope, I bought one with the equally new Accu-Range reticle. Many years later I replaced it with a lighter scope, and I also replaced its original scope mount with one of George Miller‚Äôs two-piece Conetrol mounts.
The story does not quite end there. While Talley was an excellent crafter of riflestocks, he absolutely hated to checker them. So as both Phyllis and I used the rifle to bump off various and sundry game for about the next 15 years, its stock wore no checkering.
Then without my knowledge, she sent the rifle to Tennessee stockmaker Bob Cassidy who refinished the stock and hand-checkered it 24 lines to the inch in a nice fleur-de-lis pattern. Imagine my surprise when I opened the package to find my old .25-06 looking like new. Did I already mention that I have the most wonderful wife in the world?
A final note of possible interest is the fact that my first rifle in .25-06 is no longer chambered for that cartridge. For several years, we lived in the great state of Tennessee at a time when the groundhog population was absolutely unbelievable. In some of the huge pastures there, we could practically sit in one spot and shoot all day long. All the shooting eventually burned out the barrel of my rifle, but rather than having it replaced, I sent it to P.O. Ackley who rebored and rechambered it to .280 Remington. It is still the most accurate .280 I have ever fired.
As you can see in the photos, my custom Mauser is showing its age; it is covered with wear spots, dings, and scratches from many years of hard use. I have big soft spots in my heart for a few other rifles–some old and some new–but as you might imagine, not a single one means more to me than that first .25-06.
My Last .25-06
After shooting out the barrel of my custom Mauser, I tried several other rifles in .25-06, and while some were quite accurate, not a single one excited me. Then sometime during 2005, Dan Cooper told me about the then-upcoming Model 52 rifle–his first centerfire repeater. Along about the same time, I began to itch all over for another rifle in .25-06, so that‚Äôs the caliber I ordered. The rifle arrived late last year, and believe me when I say I have not been disappointed.
Centerfire rifles built by Cooper are guaranteed to shoot three bullets into half an inch at 100 yards. My Model 52 in .25-06 came with test targets of two groups fired at the factory; one measured an incredible 0.1 minute of angle, and the other one was an even more incredible 0.014 MOA (basically three bullets in the same hole). I have yet to match those groups, but my rifle will consistently shoot three bullets inside half MOA, and occasional groups measure smaller than 0.250 MOA. It will do that not only with a variety of handloads but with several factory loads from Federal and Nosler as well.
The new Cooper Model 52 is basically a magazine-fed version of the company‚Äôs Model 22. It has three locking lugs at the front of its bolt because, as Cooper put it to me, ‚ÄúThe three-lug bolt is the Cooper signature, and after having built over 30,000 rifles with a half-inch accuracy guarantee, I am convinced it is more accurate than a two-lug bolt.‚ÄĚ Machined from solid bar stock, the receiver measures 1.30 inches in diameter and 8.50 inches long. Bolt rotation is 60 degrees. The ejector is a spring-loaded blade resting in a slot in the floor of the receiver, basically the same as on the Pre-‚Äô64 Winchester Model 70.
A metal tab replete with a red dot is in view beneath the bolt shroud when the firing pin is cocked. The slots of the four screws holding the Model 70 Super Grade sling-swivel posts in place are perfectly indexed north to south, as are the guard screws and the screws used to attach the steel grip cap and buttplate–just another example of class in all the right places.
The trigger can be adjusted down to 16 ounces with no detectable creep or overtravel and a pull-to-pull weight variation of less than 2 ounces. A two-position safety located at the right-hand side of the receiver tang does not block bolt rotation, allowing a round to be removed from the chamber while the safety is engaged.
The body and follower of the single-stack detachable magazine are machined from blocks of stainless steel, whereas everything else is carbon steel. The one-piece trigger guard/magazine housing is an absolute marvel of precision machining with its flush fit between the magazine floorplate and the bottom metal, making the rifle comfortable to carry with one hand.
My new .25-06 is the Western Classic grade, and it has AAA-grade claro walnut with an ebony fore-end tip, a 24-inch barrel, a steel grip cap, and case-coloring of its receiver and trigger guard by Doug Turnbull. A short section of the barrel near the receiver is round, and from there, it transitions to tapered octagon. Rifling twist rate is 1:10 inches. Wrist and forearm of the stock have 22-lpi hand-cut checkering in a borderless pattern with a narrow ribbon of uncheckered wood running across the pattern. The shadow-line border around the cheekrest of the classical-style buttstock is also nicely done, as is the hand-rubbed oil finish on the stock.
Other variations of the new Model 52 include the Classic, Custom Classic, Jackson Game, and Jackson Hunter–the latter weighing in at less than 7 pounds due to its synthetic stock. Wood-stocked models weigh more depending on the stock style and the barrel weight. Available calibers are .240 Weatherby Magnum, .25-06, .270 Winchester, .280 Remington, .30-06, .338-06 A-Square, .35 Whelen, and 9.3x62mm Mauser.
These days, I seldom shoot varmints with anything bigger than the .220 Swift, so my new Cooper Model 52 will be used mostly for hunting deer, pronghorn antelope, and possibly the occasional caribou. I will never shoot out its barrel on deer, so I expect it to be the last .25-06 I will ever own.