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Mule Deer Triad

Mule Deer Triad

When pushing your luck on a tough mule deer hunt, you'd better have the right combo of rifle, optic, and ammunition.

Hunkered down in central Wyoming, many minutes after the ragged edge of gray light that big bucks use to fade out of the meadows had brightened to full rosy morning light, I stared at a miracle buck 438 yards away across the sage-and-bunchgrass riverbottom. He stared back, and though I was rapidly mapping an approach through the slightly uneven sagebrush, mentally crawling through ancient prairie-dog mounds long grown over and at the same time attempting to judge the size of the buck, I was getting an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was very late in the morning for the buck to be out, and with a few steps in any direction he would disappear into the sage. Approaching closer might not be an option.

I hustled my daypack into position and rested my rifle across it, finding the big buck in the Leupold VX-3 scope atop my Kimber Model 84L. The uneasy feeling in my stomach solidified--it was now or never. Briefly but sternly, my conscience questioned if I was taking the shot in desperation. I was not--I felt I could make the shot. As the second stadia line of the B&C reticle steadied on the buck's vitals, I squeezed the trigger.

I racked the bolt hard as the rifle came out of the recoil and found deer in the scope again, shocked to find two big bucks trotting together. Before I could tell which I'd shot, they disappeared over a low rise into the sage. The solid "Whunk" of a bullet hitting hung in my memory. Behind me, 30 yards behind me and on a little rise, my guide Justin shouted in a whisper, "He's down! He just bedded."

As I raced forward, hunched, the Kimber dangling from one hand and my daypack from the other, warning bells rang in my mind. He'd said, "Bedded." Bucks killed cleanly don't bed; they topple. Justin was right behind me now, binocular in hand, skidding to a halt and stopping me with him. I have no idea how he spotted the antler tips on the run, but he did. I used to fancy myself as a mule deer guide, but this Colorado kid had better eyes than I'd ever had. I bellied into the sage atop an old mound, planted my elbows, and found the antler tips, 110 yards away, in the Leupold. Just a few inches showed above the sage, and suddenly I knew the buck was even better than I'd hoped. There were extra points, long ones.

"You sure this is the buck I hit?" I gasped. "There were two."

"Yes. The other's a clean four-point. He's standing off to the right."

The antler tips disappeared as the buck laid down his head, and I hoped that it was over. It wasn't. Long moments later they reappeared, turning to the right, then left. He was nervous. I flicked the safety "Off," knowing he was about to stand. The antler tips lurched, rose, and a patch of ribcage showed through the sage. I drove a Nosler through it and racked the bolt as the buck swapped ends hard, exposing his neck. As the rifle settled out of the next shot, there was nothing but dust hanging above the sage.

Note the full-length, nonrotating claw extractor; adjustable trigger group and the particularly slender lines of the Kimber 84L bolt action.

There are a lot of shredded emotions left from such an experience. Thankfully, frustration with either my rifle or chosen ammunition was not one of them; all three shots had connected, and the Norma ammunition had performed spectacularly. The first long-range shot had connected a bit far back, about 8 inches behind the shoulder, and the fact that the buck stopped and bedded almost immediately was a testament to the effectiveness of the Nosler Ballistic Tip bullet. I'm not a huge fan of "hard," controlled-expansion bullets on deer-size game. A projectile that opens violently and imparts tremendous shock anchors game well. The .30-caliber, 150-grain Nosler does that and still penetrates reasonably well.

I had chosen to hunt with the .30-06 cartridge for a couple of reasons. First, I like the cartridge. With it I've taken my biggest bucks, both mule deer and whitetail. It's one of those old calibers, glamorous only for its service record through two world wars, that is overshadowed by most of today's hot new cartridge designs, yet will be soldiering on in the field well after most of them have become only a memory. It may not shoot quite as flat as some cartridges, but if you know your rifle, it shoots flat enough. And though it recoils smartly in a lightweight rifle, it does not do so hard enough to affect the speed with which follow-up shots may be taken.

Second, I like light, handy rifles, and a slim-actioned rifle allows more weight to be left in the barrel, where it matters, than a rifle of like weight equipped with a magnum action does.

Engineered for efficiency and maximum effect with minimum bulk, the 84L's bolt is easily taken down to this point for maintenance. But it will rarely need it.

Lastly, I like Kimber rifles, and the particular model I was hunting with--the .30-06-chambered Model 84L--was a newly introduced long-action version of the company's popular Model 84M, and that fact alone was enough to make me want to try it out in the field. Its ancestor, the short-action Model 84M, is a lovely, light, handle-like-a-wand kind of rifle that uses a modified Mauser-type action incorporating improvements similar to those seen on Winchester's Model 70 classic action, only it is significantly lighter and smaller. Previously, only short-action cartridges, such as .308 Win., .243 Win., and 7mm-08 Rem., were available in the line because, as a Kimber spokesman said, "Frankly, we were concerned that the action was too slender to lengthen--that there would be too much flex and vibration in a version chambered for long-action cartridges to allow us to maintain the accuracy levels we demand. Our engineers argued that it would be stiff enough, and sure enough, our tests have proven them right."

My tests at the range have proven them right, too. Though not a tackdriver with all ammo, when fed loads it likes, the Model 84L I tested maintains accuracy that shades minute of angle, which is sufficient

from a lightweight rifle for hunting, even when long shots must be taken.

Most impressive to me is the way the rifle handles. At 7 pounds, 3 ounces, including a 3.5-10X 40mm Leupold VX-3 scope, it carries, shoulders, and balances like a dream--and I'm not gushing here. It is honestly one of the liveliest handling rifles I've ever used.

Function is just as impressive as the handling characteristics. The bolt slides smoothly in its raceways, cams open and shut like butter, and picks up cartridges and chambers them without a catch. The three-position safety engages firmly and easily--and quietly for a shroud-mounted safety. The bolt release is discreet yet accessible and only needs to be depressed to remove the bolt; when replacing the bolt, simply press said bolt forward in its raceways and the release will glide over the left bolt lug and engage.

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Kimber 84L Accuracy

Factory LoadVelocity (fps)Standard Deviation (fps)Extreme Spread (fps)100 Yard Accuracy (in.)
.30-06 Springfield
Norma 150-gr. Ballistic Tip 2846 13 29 1.19
Hornady 150-gr. GMX 2900 6 17 2.50
Winchester 150-gr. Power Max Bonded 2815 14 37 1.36
Federal 165-gr. Partition N/A N/A N/A 1.85
Black Hills 180-gr. AccuBond 2635 34 84 2.25
Federal 180-gr. Trophy Bonded Tip 2703 23 51 1.82
Notes: Accuracy is the average of five, three-shot groups fired Sinclair benchrest. Velocity is the average of five rounds measured 15 feet from the gun's muzzle with a Shooting Chrony chronograph.

The 84L's slender action houses a bolt equipped with the legendary nonrotating, full-length Mauser-type claw extractor, which provides the controlled-round feed so touted by many riflemen.

Most impressive, though, was the trigger. I've found that almost all Kimber rifles have very nice triggers, and this was no exception. It was perfect. It broke like the proverbial icicle at exactly 1 pound, 15 ounces every time by my Lyman digital trigger scale, had zero creep, no more overtravel than absolutely necessary, and sported a lovely curve that welcomed my finger like the handle of a cocoa mug on Christmas Eve.

Wood-to-metal finish was likewise excellent: No unsightly gaps showed around the upper action or barrel, and though the wood was slightly proud aft of the trigger guard and fore of the magazine box, it was fitted so nicely around the floorplate (an area frequently demonstrating poor fit in many of today's rifles) that the proud wood didn't bother me in the least.

A metal cap graces the grip, setting its classic slender curve off nicely; an ebony fore-end cap contrasts well with the walnut stock; and a generous black buttpad matches it on the far end. Grip and fore-end are checkered in a well-laid-out, well-executed pattern. The furniture is nice enough that the standard screw-in sling swivel studs look slightly out of place; the stock seems to beg for classy inlet-base swivel studs.

No iron sights are present, which of course is typical of today's bolt-action hunting rifle, and the 84L comes drilled and tapped. I'd recommend Kimber's own bases that accept twist-in front and side-screw windage-adjustable rear rings.

Sleek, light, and particularly fine-handling, the new Kimber 84L gains its grace virtue of a slender action, light-contour barrel, and the excellent lines of its walnut stock.

If I was to nit-pick, the only thing I could find to bellyache about would be the fact that the prototype rifle is quite particular in its ammo tastes. Out of the factory ammo I tested the 84L with for accuracy, about 33 percent of the loads provided what I consider good enough performance for long-range deer hunting.

That said, Kimber has assured me that accuracy is much more consistent with Model 84L rifles now in current production.

No great rifle can amount to its full potential without equally great ammunition with which to feed it, and the Kimber's preference ran to an old respected name in ammo that's as classy as the rifle itself: Norma. The company's 150-grain load featuring a Nosler Ballistic Tip bullet out-shot the other factory loads I tested through the rifle, some of them by a significant margin. The results of the loads tested can be found in the chart on page 46.

As accounted, the load bore its reputation out with style, providing top-notch performance in less-than-ideal conditions on my hunt.

As I wrap up this article, I'm also wrapping up the Kimber 84L for shipment back to the company.

Unfortunately, as the rifle is an early-production sample, Kimber won't sell it. But rest assured, I'll be looking to buy one down the road when production models are available. The 84L is a fantastic mountain-type rifle--light, lively, and dependable. Pair it with a good optic and quality ammo, such as the Norma load I used, and the combination will take on whatever you can throw at it--and do so with style.

The new Kimber 84L is a direct descendant of the short-action Model 84 (top). Lengthening out the action provided a very sleek platform that handles standard-length cartridges — such as the .30-06 — with aplomb, including carrying a full five rounds in the magazine.

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