September 23, 2010
A tried-and-true rifle can be your best ally when things get hairy. The author used his favorite .300 WSM rifle to stop this leopard's unprovoked charge.
We'd seen the mule deer buck the night before. He didn't stand still long enough for my client to get a shot, but outfitter Troy Calaway and I got a long enough look at the buck before it melted into the brush to know it was an absolute monster. We hadn't spooked it, so we eased back into the area the next morning and set up to call. Though I'd never even heard of calling mule deer before, Calaway had proved so adept at it the first few days of our Sonora, Mexico, hunt that I felt confident when he began imitating a fawn in distress.
About 15 minutes into our calling session, we saw a buck running towards us. As it cleared the ocotillos, we could see its massive rack swaying back and forth as it strode into view, head down and panting heavily. My client was on the sticks and ready, so when the buck stopped at 124 yards and locked onto us, he sent a round from his .340 Weatherby on its way. Unfortunately, the shot went just under the buck's chest as it stood quartering towards us and took out its rear leg.
I heard my friend work the bolt as the buck took off from right to left across a wide opening. I silently willed the shot to break and the buck to fold, but it was not to be. The magnificent buck, a mid-190-class deer, was lost forever in the endless tangle of thorny brush and cholla cacti. When I asked my client what happened, he explained that he had worked the bolt, but he never pushed the handle back down to lock it into battery.
Later, we figured out that switching guns was to blame. He usually hunts with a straight-pull Blaser rifle similar to the one I reviewed elsewhere in this issue of the magazine. Under stress, his muscle memory took over, and he never thought to push down the bolt. I've hunted with him enough to know that had he stuck with his tried-and-true R-93, he probably would have smoked that buck.
The year before, another client had a similar problem with an unfamiliar rifle. We had spotted a bedded buck at midday and snuck up to within 40 yards. He found a rest, took careful aim, and squeezed the trigger. Unfortunately, he failed to completely close the action on his Ruger No. 1. The click of dry-firing the Ruger sent the buck running and my client home empty-handed. Had he been shooting the Winchester Model 70 he usually hunts with, there's no doubt in my mind that the heavy-horned buck would be on his wall today.
Neither of those rifle-related snafus was the first time I'd seen a rifle switch cause problems. In fact, I can recall several recent instances where a cartridge or an optic change led to a missed opportunity or a wounded and lost animal. Shooting a bunch of new guns is fun, but hunting with just one or two rifle-and-cartridge combinations has its advantages.
The main advantage to hunting with one gun and cartridge is that making difficult shots is a whole lot easier when you know your cartridge's trajectory. You can study the ballistics charts or even print out a table and tape it to your stock, but under stress, you won't have time to read it. The intimate knowledge that comes from putting hundreds of rounds on target at the range and many seasons afield make those tough shots almost automatic.
This Sonoran mulie didn't give Greg much of a shot, but because he was comfortable with his favorite .300 WSM rifle, he made the most of it and dropped the buck with a chest-on shot.
Being unfamiliar with a certain cartridge made me look pretty bad in Africa last season. I was hunting the diminutive Cape grysbok and klipspringer, so I toted my favorite .243 Winchester. The custom rig is extremely accurate out to 500 yards with its Swarovski 3-9X scope and TDS reticle. Though I've shot the gun a fair amount, I missed a 300-yard shot from the kneeling position and got flustered enough that I mentally reverted back to the ballistics of my .300 WSM. After accumulating quite the pile of brass beside me, I caught myself holding on the wrong line, adjusted, and dropped the hapless klipspringer at 478 yards. Sadly, it wasn't soon enough for the poor pygmy antelope.
Though a different cartridge was the main culprit in my case, the reticle was also a problem. I'd come to rely so much on the TDS reticle that those lines are etched into my mind with .300 WSM values. But those lines mean different things for different cartridges, and with the jackrabbit-sized klipspringer, that difference was too great for me to get away with my mistake.
A different reticle was part of my friend's problem with his mule deer, too. His bolt issue would not have popped up had he been hunting with a standard duplex reticle. However, he had recently switched to a bigger scope with more magnification and a very fine reticle. His aging eyes did okay with it at the range, but under hunting conditions, he didn't even see the reticle. He simply stuck the deer in the middle of the scope's field of view and squeezed the trigger. Had he been using the heavier reticle that he was used to, he probably would have dropped the buck cleanly. I've seen him do it time and again on hunts past.
Though we've all nodded knowingly every time some sage deer-camp elder or gun store guru reminds us to "beware of the one-gun man," the fact is it's hard for gun guys to get excited about the concept of hunting with just one gun. Well, as fun as it is to set up a new rig and find the perfect load for it, I've started leaving my new guns at home more and more.
Today, I do the majority of my hunting with a few tried-and-true rifles chambered for familiar cartridges such as .260 Remington, .308 Winchester, .300 WSM, and .375 H&H. All are built on Model 70 actions and are topped with excellent glass. They shoot great, are zeroed with proper hunting bullets, and fit me like a glove. Not surprisingly, I rarely miss with any of them.
Flirting with the latest steel and walnut beauties to come down the pike is hard to resist, but when it's time to go hunting, I've learned that success is a whole lot easier when you ignore temptation. If you really must hunt with a new gun, optic, or both next season, spend the time to learn them intimately. Like the song says, "Love the one you're with."