Rifles for North America's Most Dangerous Hunts
February 04, 2011
Picking the right rifle for the dangers you're likely to encounter will minimize your risks.
When campfire talk turns to dangerous-game guns, most hunters automatically think of the big-bore bolt guns and double rifles used by African professional hunters to stop charging elephants and vengeful buffalo. But the Dark Continent isn't the only hunting destination where danger looms. In fact, many North American hunts are fraught with peril.
Though you aren't likely to get squished by an elephant on a high country elk hunt or bump an overprotective momma lion while prowling East Texas timber for feral boars, those all-American hunts are not without risk. From treacherous terrain to fearless grizzlies that have come to think of a gunshot as a dinner bell, there are more than enough risks in our own backyards to keep American hunters on their toes. Picking the right rifle for the dangers you're likely to encounter can help minimize those risks. Here are my thoughts on choosing a rifle for some of North America's most dangerous hunts.
Few hunters realize the danger we face simply walking the high country after deer or elk. Rough or uneven terrain and skinny cliff-side trails combined with rain or snow can make for dangerous footing. A slip isn't a big deal close to home, but a broken ankle when you're miles from your vehicle with no cell phone service can be fatal. So can a long fall off a sheer cliff or narrow mountain trail. A bit of caution goes a long way, but carrying a rifle that doesn't adversely affect your balance is also essential.
When hunting the mountains, I carry a trim, light rifle with a barrel of no more than 22 or 23 inches and a compact scope. Why? Balance. The last thing you need while negotiating a skinny trail on the edge of a cliff is a long, heavy-barreled gun swinging around and upsetting your balance while negotiating the edge of a cliff or scaling a sheer mountain face. If you're in great shape, you can probably handle a 10-pound rifle tugging on your sling while negotiating those tough trails, but you won't be near as strong at the end of a long climb on day five or 10, and even the mightiest can fall.
One of the author's favorite high country deer and sheep rifles is this carbon-barreled 6.5-284 by Jense Precision. It weighs just 6.5 pounds with three rounds
of ammo and a Zeiss 3-9X 40mm scope.
If you doubt the importance of rifle weight and balance in the high country or underestimate the toll the terrain takes on hunters, talk to some area outfitters or game wardens. They can tell you plenty of stories about hunters whose lives ended with one careless step. We'll never know if it was because their heavy-barreled sniper rig swung out at the wrong time or they simply lost their footing, but it really doesn't matter. Dead is dead. The right rifle can help spare you from such an end.
I rely on a pair of lightweight rifles for mountain hunting, one for bigger game and the other for deer and sheep. Unless I'm hot on the trail of a buck or bull, I carry my rifle strapped to my pack to keep it from swinging around as much as possible throughout the day and every time I negotiate a dangerous trail.
My big-game rifle is a custom .300 WSM built by Hill Country Rifles on a Model 70 action. It has a 23-inch, number three barrel and is bedded into a McMillan stock with lightweight Edge fill. It's topped with a Swarovski 3-9X 36mm scope with a TDS reticle in a set of Talley lightweight mounts. Scoped and loaded, the whole rig weighs about 7.5 pounds. It's no featherweight, but it's as light as I want a .300 WSM to be. It's also incredibly accurate, trim enough to pack all day, and doesn't affect my balance when negotiating slippery slopes.
My second rifle is an ultralight 6.5-284 by K.K. Jense of Jense Precision. It is built on a custom action by Defiance Machine, and it has a Lone Wolf stock and an ABS carbon-fiber barrel. With its 3-9X 40mm Zeiss Conquest and Talley lightweight mounts, the whole rig weighs just 6.5 pounds loaded and ready to roll. It is an absolute joy to carry and is flat-out lethal on deer and sheep out to the 600-yard line of my Rapid-Z reticle.
If you're in the market for a lightweight factory rifle that's ready for the high country, Browning's X-Bolt Micro Hunter; Ruger's trim, little Hawkeye Ultra Light; Remington's Model Seven or Model 700 Mountain LSS; and Winchester's Model 70 Stainless Featherweight are all worth a look. Consider cartridges that shoot fairly flat and hit hard without beating you up. I prefer short-action cartridges like the .260 Remington, 7mm-08, and .308, but the .270, .280, .30-06, and any of the magnum .30s will do the job with plenty of power to spare.
This BC goat hunt was fraught with peril. Grizzlies raided camp every day, and the terrain was treacherous. This prototype of Browning's then-new BLR-TD (Takedown) in .300 WSM was light enough to not be a liability and powerful enough to deal with grizzlies.
Big-Game Hunts In Grizzly Country
It seems that every year a deer, elk, or sheep hunter in southern BC or Alberta is harassed or killed by one of the many grizzlies that have come to think of a gunshot as a dinner bell. With the exploding grizzly population in western states like Montana and Wyoming, man-versus-grizzly encounters are also on the upswing. Though none of us wants to be forced to kill a grizzly in self-defense, my wife is of the opinion that it's better the bear than me. I tend to agree.
A few years ago I hunted Dall sheep in Alaska with my .257 Weatherby. I knew I might see grizzlies and stoked it with 115-grain Barnes X-Bullets just in case. I figured the X-Bullet would hammer my sheep (it did) and provide enough penetration to get the job done on an aggressive grizzly if I placed my shot well. After seeing how much bigger the fish-fattened fall grizzlies were in comparison to the spring bears I've hunted, I'm glad I never had to test my theory. I still use tough bullets like the X-Bullet, Swift A-Frame, or Tipped Trophy Bonded Bear Claw when hunting deer, elk, or sheep in grizzly country, but the bullets I use are more substantial t
han the 115-grain .257s I used in Alaska.
I've carried the .325 WSM, .338 Winchester Magnum, and .375 H&H on moose and elk hunts in grizzly country. The cartridges are awesome, but the guns were a bit on the heavy side for me. Unless I'm actually hunting bears, I prefer to pack a lighter weight .300 Magnum these days. Whether your .300 is followed by H&H, RUM, Weatherby, Winchester, or WSM matters not, as long as it's stoked with premium bullets capable of reaching a big bear's vitals. I like 180-grain Barnes or Tipped Trophy Bonded bullets for such work, but the Hornady GMX, Nosler Partition or E-Tip, Swift A-Frame, and Winchester XP3 are all excellent choices.
Ghost-ring sights can provide a real advantage in the timber. This one is on a lever-action Marlin Guide Gun.
With the exception of some of the cartridges, the rifles and scopes I recommend for grizzly country aren't much different than those you might use on a high country deer or sheep hunt. However, you can get away with a bit more rifle weight if you aren't traversing overly dangerous terrain.
Regardless of which rifle you choose, always keep your scope turned to its lowest power and never strap your rifle to your pack unless you need your hands free to negotiate a treacherous trail. Once your animal is down, always keep your rifle handy and, whenever possible, make sure someone is keeping watch. You don't want to end up as hors d'oeuvres when Ursus horribilis decides to come to the party.
Bear And Hogs In The Timber
Pursuing bruins and boars in the deep woods of the Eastern U.S. is a fun and challenging pursuit, but a wounded boar or an angry, protective sow can make a weekend hunt more exciting than it needs to be. I've never been charged by a bear, but I have had a few angry hogs charge with great speed and determination. I've also had the pleasure of helping track a few clients' wounded bruins in the dark timber. Every one of those experiences was just as nerve-racking as pursuing a wounded Cape buffalo through Zimbabwe's thick jess.
Though a wounded black bear or boar can be every bit as dangerous as hunting African big game, hunting them isn't nearly as expensive. The rifle you use to pursue them needn't cost a fortune either.
I prefer short, lightweight, fast-handling guns for bears and hogs. They are easy to maneuver in the thick stuff and come up quick for charging or running shots. Because the shots are usually short and the terrain tight, short barrels are more of a help than a handicap. I usually pack a bolt-action scout rifle, my Blaser R-93, or my chopped Marlin Guide Gun for such work. Easy-packing pumps and semiautos from Benelli, Browning, or Remington also work really well.
The .338 Federal (left), .35 Whelen (center), and 9.3x62 (right) are three excellent cartridges for hunting bear and boars in the timber.
Because the ranges are short, a compact scope in the 1.5-6X or 2-7X range is ideal. On the low end of the power range, field of view is wide enough to pull off fast, running shots with ease. I am also fond of ghost-ring sights in timber. When paired with a bright front sight insert, they are faster and every bit as easy to shoot as a scope at deep woods ranges.
Cartridge selection is fairly simple. Anything from the .257 Roberts or .260 Rem. on up is just fine for black bears and hogs, but I prefer bigger cartridges because I like blood trails. My favorites are .338 Federal, .35 Whelen, and 9.3x62 because they fit in short- or standard-length actions and pack a tremendous punch with minimal recoil. In lever guns, the .45-70 is tough to beat. When paired with a good bullet, any of these cartridges will drive through to the vitals and leave nice exit wounds to make tracking easier.
Two of the author's favorite hog and black bear guns are the Ruger Model 77 International in .35 Whelen (top) and Hill Country Rifles custom .338 Federal (bottom). Both are short, lightweight, and fast handling--exactly what you need in the timber.
One way to ensure complete penetration and healthy blood trails is to use a good controlled-expansion bullet. Any of the premium projectiles mentioned earlier in this piece will get the job done, but my favorites are Federal's 200-grain Fusion load for the .338 Federal, the old-style 225-grain Trophy Bonded for the .35 Whelen, and the 286-grain Swift A-Frame for the 9.3x62. Hornady's new 286-grain Spirepoint and Norma's 285-grain Oryx bullets also work quite well in the 9.3x62. In .45-70, Remington's plain old 405-grain jacketed softpoint is tough to beat, but I've also had good luck with Hornady's 325-grain LEVERevolution load.
Deciding on the perfect rifle for a hunt should be easy. And if you only have a rifle or two, it's even easier. But the factors we most often consider, like milking the utmost velocity or accuracy out of a pet load, don't really make much of a difference when it gets right down to it. But when it comes to stopping a charging predator, protecting yourself from a gluttonous grizzly, or not compromising your balance so you don't plummet off some mountain trail, the right rifle and a little vigilance can minimize the inherent dangers of any hunt.
This custom .45-70 Guide Gun has seen lots of hog action, as evidenced by its scratched and beaten up exterior. It still hammers hogs, though.
I know the odds of any of those situations occurring aren't great, but I know my house probably won't catch fire either, yet I still pay my homeowner's insurance premiums. I like to think of the rifles I choose for my dangerous hunts as a more fun and exciting form of insurance.