Gearing up for bird hunting!
After a pretty slow start to my archery season that included some unseasonably warm weather, I decided to take a few days in the third week of October and switch gears. Leaving my tree stand in late October isn’t easy and it takes a pretty attractive plan “B” to convince me to do so.
After hearing years of reports from good friend and fellow contributor to this publication, Chris Zimmerman, about the phenomenal bird hunting in North Dakota, I figured that it was worth a respite from Michigan’s bow season to go check it out. We’d be back before the rut after all and I had some new bird hunting gear to put through its paces, so it was settled. North Dakota ho!
Be careful what you wish for! Eschewing a warm Michigan October for a ND October can, and did mean drastically different weather. After a 19 hour drive which included thunderstorms and blizzards, we arrived in central ND to find temps in the teens and half a foot of snow. Instant winter if you will. Of the five days that we hunted, temps were in the single digits to start each morning. It did reach a balmy mid 20s most days and even broke into the 30s on our last day. Needless to say, I was more than a little concerned about the prospects.
For anyone than hasn’t experienced North Dakota, I will gladly give my endorsement. Often overlooked as the red-headed step child to neighbors, South Dakota, Montana and Minnesota, it’s a hunters dream. Vast open spaces, few people, tons of wildlife…..and a fair amount of anonymity as the aforementioned redhead, all make for a cornucopia of hunting opportunities. Gaining access to the primarily private land where we found ourselves, wasn’t a problem, thanks in large part to the work that my hunting partners Chris Zimmerman and Rick Kaatz, had put in, in years past to meet and build relationships with a few generous local ranchers. Plenty of public access opportunities were readily available too. While we were just there for pheasants, sharptails and the occasional Hungarian partridge, we saw jillions of snow geese, lots of coyotes, ducks and ample numbers of whitetail deer, including some with huge racks. Pheasants were everywhere. We filled our bag limits every day, before lunch. Really impressive upland hunting and scenery! As an avid deer hunter, the wheels are turning rapidly, for future trip ideas.
As it turned out the cold was a minor distraction. Following bird dogs has a way of keeping you warm. I had a few new bits of gear to tryout and even though I was expecting wet conditions as opposed to snowy, the gear couldn’t have performed better. Setting aside my tattered, threadbare and well loved waxed cotton chaps that I usually grab first for pushing through upland cover, I trialed two different upland pants for this trip, both from Orvis, always a trusted source for well thought-out bird hunting gear.
As the snow was heavier for the first two days of our hunt, I opted to wear Orvis’ Toughshell Waterproof Upland pants, hoping to stay dry. Any concerns that I might have had were quickly laid to rest. I’ve never been drier in a pair of upland pants. Check that, I’ve never been AS dry! With multi-layered material that seems to be of the same type as Orvis’ breathable waders, and well thought out zippered vents, and elastic ankle cuffs, there wasn’t one instant that any moisture or thorn made it through the pants. Sweat was never a problem either, unlike most upland pants, the material, as advertised, was very breathable. The fit was good, roomy where my legs needed room and contoured in the right places to avoid any bulk, very comfortable for all day walking. Zippered pockets kept billfold and cellphone safe and secure at all times. I wore long johns most days but I tried the pants on without longs and they were very comfortable on bare legs too, with a nice soft lining.
As nice as they were, based on the aforementioned features, I was most impressed with how tough they proved to be. After 3 days of pushing cover that averaged 9 miles of walking per day (usually before noon), the pants still looked brand new….seriously, out of the box new. Never have I owned a pair of upland pants that racked up 20-30 miles without a mark. Truly impressive!
For the last two days of our trip I switched to another pair of pants, not because I wanted anything different, but because I wanted to test the second pair. Another fine Orvis product was put through its paces. Orvis’ Upland Hunting Softshell Pants were up to bat. Softshell material has made its way into all manner of hunting and fishing, and everyday wear, a fact that in my opinion, happed about 20 years too late. The Soft shell upland pants proved to be another exceptional option. Feeling like a pair of comfy sweats, they too proved to be exceptionally dry, breathable and tough. While the majority of the pant was stretchy and extremely comfortable, the briar proof facing on the pant legs seemed to be bulletproof, without feeling stiff at all. In fact there was really no difference in feel on the area of the legs with the briar proof material. Track suit comfort is perhaps the best description. I would have to say that it’s a dead tie as to my favorite of the two pants tested. Remarkably, the soft shell pants also came through many miles of thick cattail sloughs, fencerows and undergrowth, without a mark……..IN FORTY YEARS of bird hunting, I’ve never hunted a full day with new pants that still looked new at days end. Both Orvis pants did. I’m impressed by that!
Orvis offers a matching softshell jacket which I trust would be just as impressive, but I opted to try out their ProLT Pullover. A light weight, stretchy, water resistant half-zip shell, it was the perfect complement to the pants for layering over fleece or wool sweaters. A large zippered chest pocket on the left side was great for sunglasses or cell phone….as a right handed shooter. It comes in three color options, camo, blaze orange/tan, and olive. I used both the blaze/tan version and the olive version during my hunt. The latter has become one of my favorite everyday, around town, wind breakers. Both showed zero wear after hard use, both kept me dry and very comfortable.
I’m very particular in my choice of guns, which partially dictates my equally particular choice in upland vests, gun mounting being at issue. No one has ever produced my “perfect” bird vest, but I have a couple of pretty good ones. One is a 30 year old game bag vest, also from Orvis that I wore over the pullover. The smooth stretchy material and fit of the ProLT pullover was just right under my game bag, strap style bird vests. The stock of my 100 year old AH Fox 16 ga SxS slid smoothly into position. The zipper on the pullover never left a mark on the old walnut stock. Important features on bird hunting gear!
Is this gear review an Orvis “commercial”? Absolutely not by design. Is it a glowing endorsement of the gear I tested? Absolutely. In 40 years of bird hunting, I’ve used, and worn out lots of gear. Some has stood the test of time. Some has been quickly discarded. Some is worthy of praise and deserves to be used to within the last threads of its life. Those items, when retired generally avoid the trash bin and instead hang on a hook in a place of honor, as a bit of memorabilia, providing a mind’s eye glimpse of hunts gone by. When I’m too old to hunt, I plan to sit in the midst of all this old gear and simply “remember”. This gear mentioned above will be in attendance. I’m hopeful that I will have worn it out and etched many memories into it by then.
Mathews Triax….a game changer!
When it comes to outdoors gear, bow-hunting gear in particular, I’m slow to change. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I’m also very picky about the gear I choose to start off with. Some might say that I obsess over all the fine details. I know that when it comes to the details, I do things differently than many people. I set my bows up differently than most people. At 6’ tall, with a 73” wingspan, I shoot a comparatively short 27.5” draw length bow. I have buddies, shorter than me, who shoot 30-32” draw length bows. I couldn’t do it, and don’t understand how they do it. Drawing a bow and aiming down from a tree stand, with winter hunting clothing on, I wouldn’t be able to comfortably shoot a long draw length. I anchor my draw in the same place whether shooting a long bow or a compound, right in the corner of my mouth. It’s always in the same spot. A longer draw length would have me at full wingspan, and anchoring behind my ear. Not conducive to hunting efficiency. I don’t like things attached to my bow either and I have a completely unique, trouble free way of setting a rear sight on my string. I have another unique way of carrying arrows. Everything has to be silent, scent free, compact and invisible. All of my many idiosyncrasies are borne of experience and in most cases, trial and error.
I’ve been bow hunting for 40 years, and I made my own way from the start. In the beginning there were lots of errors. My dad wasn’t a hunter, and in fact, when I started, I didn’t even know anyone else who bow hunted. As a little kid, my grandfather had given me a “lemonwood” longbow, which got me hooked. Compound bows were new, and still pretty crude when I was a teenager. My first compound bow was basically a heavy wood and fiberglass recurve, with the tips cut off and wheels attached where the “re-curved” tips had been. The cables were actual metal cables. I was 13 at the time, so didn’t really know much about making the right selections, and there weren’t many options anyway. I struggled with that bow for years as I learned my craft but it forced me to be good at everything that lead up to a shot, because it wasn’t easy to be accurate and consistent and I needed a deer to get really close. After many failed hunts, I actually took my first 4-5 deer with that bow. Because of the commitment that was required to be good with that bow, I was slow to change. It was only when my buddies, who had gotten into hunting and bought newer bows, started referring to my bow as the “Panda” that I was compelled to upgrade. Never mind that my bow had a considerable lead in terms of deer taken. Magic marker “check” marks on the belly of the bow told the tale and none of my buddies had as many. In terms of hasty changes, the story was similar with my second and third and fourth compound bows too. Bows got progressively better. I perfected my “process” and preferences and I took a lot of deer. With success, my reluctance to change was only reinforced.
With compound bows, technology and innovation drive the industry. I keep up with the innovations, I shoot new bows and I weigh the value proposition of each technological advance. Some ideas are disregarded, some have been adopted. Some ideas have proven to be worth their weight in gold. Finger shooting was still the norm when I bought my first compound. Releases, crude as they were at the time were a major advance. Then came fiber optic sights and plastic fletching and then carbon arrows. Then string loops and fall-away arrow rests and a whole number of design improvements that made bows better. Cams, light weight risers, composite limbs, parallel limbs etc. One major improvement was the Mathews Solo Cam technology, at the time it was a game changer.
For the last 10 years, I’ve been shooting the same bow and it has accounted for dozens of animals in that time. It has been, in my opinion, the perfect bow. The bow in question is my beloved Mathews Drenalin. It still uses a version of the Solo-Cam system that Mathews developed. It’s slim, it’s light, it’s fast and accurate. For the last 10 years you couldn’t convince me to change to another bow………until now.
I took delivery of a new 2018 Mathews Triax a short time ago and to put it mildly, I’m blow away! I didn’t think it was possible but the Triax is a huge improvement over any other bow that I’ve tried recently. There are a number of reasons why.
The Triax is remarkably smooth and quiet, while providing blistering speed and somewhat surprising accuracy. My Chrono read 341 FPS with my Carbon Express hunting arrows. That’s very fast! At 28”, axle to axle, the Triax is a full 6 “ shorter than my “old” Mathews bow. In the past, super-fast, short bows were to be held in suspicion due to their somewhat “twitchy” tendencies. With the Triax, nothing could be further from the truth. I’m not sure if I’m more impressed with the smoothness and speed, or the consistent accuracy. In all three categories there seems to be a paradigm shift.
Don’t shoot all your arrows at the same bullseye when practicing with the Triax. You’ll ruin arrows fast. On the other hand if you love to show off arrows that you’ve “Robin-Hooded”, have at it. Shoot 6 arrows to the same point of aim and you’ll likely have three “trophies” for the wall, and 6 destroyed arrows. It’s that easy to drive tacks with this bow.
I like my hunting bows to be pretty “clean” in terms of “bolt-ons”, as such I don’t typically use a bow mounted quiver, I use the smallest, lightest sights that meet my needs and if possible I prefer to not use a stabilizer. I do use a small stabilizer on my Drenalin because it helps in accuracy and smoothness, slightly. With the Triax, I’m impressed that an ancillary stabilizer seems unnecessary. The Triax features harmonic dampers that Mathews has made famous and used to great effect. A new spin on the idea is in the riser design of the Triax. The lower riser incorporates a bit of a “protuberance” that houses the largest damper, out in front of the bow. It’s really at the forward most point of the bow. It’s seems to replace any need for an additional stabilizer, at least for my rig. Why add weight if it’s not needed, I say. It’s a small thing but at 8,000+ ft. of elevation, mountain hunting, every ounce counts. Like other Mathews bows, additional, smaller harmonic dampers are placed throughout the assembly to good effect as well. Good use of carbon fiber ads to the bow’s performance too.
One of the best features of the Triax is its length, or more accurately its “shortness”. My old bow is short-ish, but the Triax is a big improvement. It’s a full 6” shorter. Practicing from a ladder stand lashed to tree next to my barn, the compact Triax felt more maneuverable and handy than any bow I’ve ever shot from an elevated position.
With a 6 year old that begs to go hunting with me, on an almost daily basis now, more hunting from a pop-up blind is in my future. I’ve never been seen a better design for hunting from a pop-up or box blind, than the Triax….period! Shooting from a seated or kneeling position is no problem. I could even comfortably shoot while sitting flat on the ground. The 28” axle to axle length compares to some crossbows. I can’t think of a better compact package for scrambling up and down mountains…or through thick North woods cedar swamps either.
With most choices, there are usually compromises to be considered. In the past, ultra-short, or ultra-fast bows meant a compromise somewhere. Maybe it was accuracy or consistency or tune-ability. Not anymore. The perfected dual “Crosscentric Cam” and 3-D Damping, 6” brace height and 85% let-off featured in the Triax made for the easiest bow tuning I’ve ever done, and as I’ve said the consistency and accuracy are unparalleled. I really just lined up the string to my sight pins and arrow, adjusted the fall-away rest, set a nock point to attach a string loop and I was done. I don’t really care about paper shooting a rig usually. I only care that my field points AND broadheads shoot to the same point of impact and are both accurate at all distances for my sight pins, typically 70 yards. An arrow that “kicks” one way or the other is pretty evident and won’t be accurate with broadheads, so you’ll recognize a problem right away. Having said all of that, for the hell of it, I paper shot the bow….nothing exciting, just little round holes each with three equal length slices from my fletching.
I must’ve muttered “wow” to myself a dozen times in the first couple of shooting sessions. Set at 70 lbs, the draw cycle seems effortless and especially ergonomic and the back wall is rock solid. The stability at full draw is notable too. At 4.4 lbs, the Triax, feels lighter, but motionless somehow. It doesn’t flitter about at full draw. At the release of the arrow the sensation is like a precision rifle shot, but without any recoil or sound. Kind of like shooting a suppressed match grade 22 LR.
Like other Mathews bows, the Triax is available with a number of custom options to allow you to personalize your bow. Various camos and colors are available for limbs and risers. A huge variety of colors can be picked for strings, cables and dampers too. A whole list can be created from the Mathews cool “Bow Builder” page. www.mathewsinc.com
My bows are tools for serious hunting duty, so I ordered my bow with comparatively “boring” basic black and olive dampers, cables and string, and with “subalpine” digital style camo, because I like to believe I’m invisible in the woods. A Mathews branded QAD fall away rest was included in the order, complete with a Mathews harmonic damper built in. The entire rig works like butter!! Like suppressed, precision butter, if that were a thing.
Mathews is the undisputed leader in archery and bow hunting because they innovate at a rate, and to a level far beyond any other bow company, in my humble opinion. They have been raising the bar, virtually every year since they arrived on the scene, going back to the early McPherson days. The build quality, fit and finish, and performance of Mathews bows never disappoints.
I truly can’t imagine that I’ll want, or find something better than the Triax, in the next ten years, but I’m sure Mathews will keep me tempted. Who knows what the next break-through will be.
I can’t wait to put the first check mark, in silver “Sharpie”, on the belly of a Triax limb, to signify the first “Big buck down”.
Review by Brandon Vaughan - Brandon@backcountrylife.net
Howa Mini-action 6.5 Grendel
By Brandon Vaughan
I recently took delivery of a new rifle that I've been very interested in for quite some time. Being a fan of 6.5mm chamberings, and light weight rifles, the Howa "Mini action" bolt gun in 6.5 Grendel has been on my wish list. The Howa Mini in 6.5 Grendel would fall into the affordable production rifle category priced roughly in the same range as Rem 700 SPS, mid range Savage, Winchester or Browning rifles. I was able to find this gun on Gunbroker for less than $500.00, NIB. I was pleasantly surprised when I opened the box and finally put my hands on my new rifle. The glass reinforced plastic stock was much better quality than expected with a nice ergonomic feel, aluminum pillars and a great recoil pad, the latter similar in feel to a Pachmyer decelerator, but without the harsh rubber smell. The stock was fairly stiff and offered plenty of "free float" space for the barrel, with at least an 1/8" of space all the way around the light weight, 20" barrel that I chose for this gun. The gun is available with 20 or 22" inch barrels, in light weight, standard or heavy contours. I wanted a very light rifle, so opted for the slim tube.The Howa action is very similiar to the Rem 700 action, and lower priced Weatherbys (Howa makes Weatherbys). The mini action is even smaller that a standard Rem 700 short action. The main difference and improvement is the extractor. While the Rem 700 uses only a machined in lip on the interior of the bolt face, along with a spring loaded extractor pin, the Howa uses the same spring loaded pin in conjunction with a spring loaded claw extractor. I would call this arrangement "semi-controlled feed", combining the standard push feed of Remington with a hint of controlled feed, or at least a hint of the "claw" ala Mauser/Pre 64 Winchester. Either way it works like a charm in the Howa platform. The machining and metal finish, along with the smooth operation is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Howa. It's the best I've seen in this price range...period.I mounted a Leupold MarkAR 3x9x40 scope in a really great, light weight Talley Aluminum rings/base combo. These are fantastic one piece mounts purpose built for the Howa Mini action, with nothing intruding over the ejection port, unlike most mounts made for standard short actions. The Medium height, 1" mounts, along with the rugged and light weight Leupold make for a very nice light mountain rifle set-up. I own many Leupold scopes, from their flagship Long range tactical scopes to these mark AR scopes. If you're looking for a compact, light scope, the AR series is hard to beat. They're very affordable, durable, made in the USA and like all Leupold scopes perform flawlessly. the AR series offer 1/10 Mil adjustment and they come with nice, tactile adjustment knobs. Most are pre-configured to dial to range with 55 grain 5.56 AR ammo, but the windage and elevation caps are easily swapped out for a custom dial from Leupold. Once I settled on a bullet and muzzle velocity, I quickly ordered a CDS dial with the bullet specs, the muzzle velocity my load produces, the expected elevation and temperature where I'll be hunting, with pre-set dial to range hash marks out to 800 yds. I can't wait to install it and try it out on long range steel targets.At the range this diminutive rifle performed like a champ. Once dialed in I was quickly producing sub MOA groups at 100 yds, the best being just under a half inch for 3 shots, making one raged clover leaf hole. My load, a 123 grain Hornady SST moving at 2,750 fps is actually a very capable round for deer sized, or even elk sized game. Out of a 20" bolt gun this load is still close to, or at super-sonic at 1,000 yds. Plenty of punch for whitetails, pronghorns, goats or bighorn sheep at 400 yds in this configuration if you need to stretch a shot. Higher power glass than I selected would make it deadly out to 1,000 yds. All of this is amazing to me since this little gun feels as light as a BB gun and kicks just slightly more. What a great little mountain rifle at an incredible price!!Is the Howa mini perfect? At the price I'd almost be inclined to say yes, BUT being a perfectionist when it comes to rifles, there are changes that I'd make, probably WILL make at some point. The only real complaint I have is with the magazine release latch just ahead of the 10 round polymer magazine. The latch sticks out about 1/2" to allow for easy release of the magazine. Unfortunately the spring that operates it, and allows it to engage a notch in the magazine, is too weak, and the notch on the magazine is not detented enough to allow good purchase. This results in the magazine dropping out every time even slight contact is made. The latch sits at the perfect balance point of the rifle so I was constantly brushing a finger against the latch causing the magazine to fall on the ground....not good! Since the latch lever is a small, easily replaceable part made of nylon, I decided to modify it. With a Dremel tool, I cut it off almost flush with the magazine well. Problem solved. It doesn't have that cool tactical look of a big release lever anymore but it doesn't drop magazines on the ground anymore either. At some point I may go with an aftermarket trigger and stock. The 2 stage factory trigger is adjustable, and I did adjust it down to about 3.5 lbs, and it works pretty well, but I might prefer a better single stage trigger. There are tactical chassis stock systems available for the Mini action but none suit my taste. I would love a carbon fiber stock with a bit more of a vertical grip, and perhaps a shorter and slimmer fore end than the Howa stock, but these mods will put the total cost into the custom range, price-wise. I think trigger and stock upgrades will improve accuracy (maybe), and will improve the aesthetic, at least for me. As is, the Howa Mini in 6.5 Grendel is a great rifle at a great price, and in a chambering that will handle everything from coyotes to caribou, and probably elk with judicious shot placement, bullet choice and restraint. I look forward to lots of fun carrying and shooting this great little gun. Brandon Vaughan
Howa Mini-action 6.5 Grendel
By Brandon Vaughan
A project completed!
I am happy to report that after what felt like forever, my “long range mountain rifle” is complete. It was really a pretty quick build but, like with a watched pot, anticipation always makes the wait seem much longer than it actually is.
In the last installment, the gun was near completion and we were making decisions about the optic. I call this a “long range mountain rifle” which is somewhat counter-intuitive. Long range guns tend to be pretty heavy and mountain rifles should be ultra-light. This gun was to be fairly light, but capable of consistently hitting targets well beyond hunting distances. With a long action magnum round and a 26” barrel, the tendency is for a heavy gun. I had to pay special attention to the details to make the gun fairly light, without compromising on accuracy. A Titanium action by Pierce Engineering in Lansing, MI., and a carbon fiber stock by AG Composites provided zero compromise light-weighting. The only place that I won’t go to extremes on weight savings is the barrel and while the long Stainless tube from Hart Barrels is fluted to minimize weight and for heat dissipation, the barrel started out at .050” larger diameter that a standard Remington sporter barrel, which is a hell of a lot heavier than a typical pencil thin mountain rifle barrel.
In keeping with the light weight, zero compromise theme, our optic had to be up to the task of hitting long range targets, without being an unwieldy boat anchor. For a pure long distance gun I would probably have gone with something in 5-25 power range. I have another long range 7mm mag with a Leupold MKIV-LRT – 5-25 and it’s an awesome and accurate set-up, but it’s not light and for a hunting rifle it’s a bit overkill. 5 power as the lowest setting can be too much if a close shot presents itself. We compared many scopes for this project but based on past performance, durability, weight, value and features we chose another Leupold.
The Leupold VX-6 3-18x44 CDS ZL2 ILL TMOA side focus, made the cut. Now that’s a lot of numbers and letters so let’s break it down. VX-6 for a multiplier of 6 in the magnification range, thus 3-18. 44mm for the diameter of the objective lens housing, which is lighter and more compact than a larger 50mm objective version. At just 19oz., this scope is a lot lighter than most “high power” scopes in the 25 power range. CDSdenotes that this scope includes a custom drop-compensating elevation turret which you can order, for free, matched to your exact load, to include muzzle velocity, bullet weight and drag coefficient, temperature where you’ll be hunting and the average altitude of your shooting location, all of which are very important in long range shooting. CDS dials are one of the best innovations since sliced bread. Leupold has led the industry with a huge array of extremely high quality scopes, at various price points, that can be easily acquired with CDS dials. Making long shots has never been easier, thanks in large part to Leupold’s innovations. ZL2 denotes a “zero-lock” on the turret, and 2 turns of elevation adjustment, which is a ton that should easily provide for more than 1,000 yards of “dial-to-range” capability in most hunting rounds. The push button “return to zero” feature is ideal so that you’ll never take a shot with a scope dial that was accidentally “bumped” or mis-adjusted. If a long shot presents itself, a quick push of a button allows you to dial the exact range required. After the shot, a quick return to zero puts you right back to your known zero, which you choose and set based on your preferences. I set mine at 200 yds. ILL TMOA stands for “illuminated, tactical minute of angle”. Why did I choose this reticle? Well of the huge variety of reticles that Leupold offers this one provides versatility and redundancy, …and I’ve never tried it before, and wanted to. I have many Leupold scopes, with many different reticles but this one is new to me. Illuminated reticles sometimes get a bad rap and sometimes deservedly so, but I’ve never had a bad experience with any illuminated reticles from Leupold. One of the rubs with some lit reticles is that battery life isn’t good, and when a battery dies, your scope doesn’t work. With Leupold, the reticle still works just fine if a battery dies, which isn’t likely to happen unexpectedly because the reticle turns itself off if the gun is motionless for a few minutes, and turns itself back on when you pick the gun up or move it, and the reticle indicates a low battery with a blink, well before the battery actually dies. There are 10 brightness settings which is extremely useful to accommodate anything from ultra-bright mid-day sunlight, to last 10 minutes of shooting light. The illuminated reticle and high quality glass allow you to acquire your target right up to the last minute of legal shooting light.
In terms of redundancy, which is one of my favorite features in any piece of hunting gear, the VX-6 reticle has the TMOA hash marks, which allows for very accurate ranging and targeting when using a range finder, wind indicator and ballistic calculator. For this scope I didn’t need a first focal plane scope which is more important when you’re using the actual reticle as a range finder, especially with a Mil-dot reticle. This scope sub-tends minute of angle at max magnification and can thus be used to range with the right formula, but it works very well with a ballistic calculator set for MOA adjustment. Used alone or as a cross reference to the CDS dial, it provides great redundancy and utility. Since this scope only features a CDS dial in the elevation range, MOA adjustments are required for windage and the scope features ¼ MOA adjustments, but the MOA reticle hash-marks are also very useful to quickly adjust for wind, based on what your calculator spits out. Bear in mind that most of what I’ve just stated is for long range target shooting, and probably doesn’t matter much for most hunting, but knowing your gun and practicing so that you can make quick adjustments and calculations, can only help your hunting experience. Another feature is the “in-reticle level”, which is redundant to the scope-ring level from Hawkins Precision that holds the scope in place. The reticle level feature lets you know if your gun is tilted to the right or left, by flashing the illuminated reticle until you bring the gun back into a level position. This is another important feature, especially in the mountains when aiming at extreme up or down angles, which makes it hard to tell if anything is level.
With a 3 power starting point and side focus adjustment, this scope can perform at almost any range. If a big buck, or sheep steps out at 25 yards, you won’t be over-scoped, yet if a 500 yard shot is required, dialing to 18 power and twisting the CDS dial to the 500 yd mark to make the shot, should be fairly simple.
At the range, the gun and scope didn’t disappoint. The image in the scope was sharp from edge to edge. Not surprisingly, there was no hint of optical distortion at any magnification, and focus was crystal clear. Eye relief was generous which is always nice, especially for hard kicking magnums. (As, I shot until closing time at the range, I also noted supurb light gathering in what replicated a "last light" hunting scenario). On the bench I was occupied first by establishing a zero. First at 25 yds to make sure my bore-sighted gun was on paper, than 100 yds and out to 200yds. I shot a variety of loads and kept myself busy recording muzzle velocities and group sizes. I own and have shot many custom rifles, built as tack drivers, but still I was astonished at how accurate this gun is. It didn’t seem to matter what load I fed it. Everything grouped ½ MOA or less. That is unusual. Most guns will prefer one load over another, but so far, of the 5 different loads, ranging from 162 grains to 180 grains, and from 2900 to 3100 fps, everything punched tight clover-leaf groups with no flyers. My CDS dial is built for Hornady ELD-X 162 grain bullets moving out at 3,050 fps and that is what I intend to hunt with, but it’s nice to know that I can move up to a heavier bullet if I chose to. I will probably order another CDS dial for a 175 grain bonded bullet, moving at 2,900fps, that I would chose for moose or brown bear. The overall build quality of the rifle and the incredibly good Leupold scope and TriggerTech trigger set at 2 lbs. made tight groups pretty easy.
Building custom guns is interesting and fun for me, and having a tool that is so confidence inspiring as the final outcome is icing on the cake. I look forward to putting in many miles with this gun slung over my shoulder.
Knowing that at crunch time, it’ll do its job, just inspires me to walk further and explore new vistas. Perhaps the next time I mention this gun here, it’ll be resting next to a large buck, elk, goat, bear or sheep. Check out the Leupold VX-6 at Leupold.com, Pierce Engineering Rifles at pierceengineeringltd.com, AGcomposites.com, TriggerTech triggers, Hart Rifle barrels and Hawkins Precision.
By Brandon Vaughan - Brandon@backcountrylife.net
Custom rifle build, part 2 -Pierce Engineering titanium actions-
In my first installment on building a custom rifle, I had sourced a donor Remington 700 in 7mm RM, a Hart SS barrel and an AG Composites carbon fiber stock. My initial intent was to use the SS action from the donor gun for the custom project, as I have done so many times before. It has always worked well. Remington makes good actions, but for my builds, I have always sought to improve the donor actions to be lighter, more precise and better looking. I typically flute the bolt, skeletonize the bolt handle, add an aluminum bolt shroud which will house an aluminum shaft firing pin, for faster lock speed. Of course, a better trigger is incorporated and the action is blue-printed and squared for chambering and barrel installation. Much of this work is for light-weighting. I don’t like pencil thin barrels, but I do like light rifles, so I aim to take weight out where it can add to the performance, or at least not detract from it, like thin barrels almost always do.
Round about the time when my project was about to kick off, I happened to be talking to Jack Sutton, owner of Hart Rifle Barrels, the supplier of the barrel for this project. Jack said to me, “You know, you really ought to talk to the guys at Pierce Engineering. They make some really high-end rifles on titanium actions, and they’re not too far from you”. After checking out their web-site (pierceengineeringltd.com), I put a call in to talk about the project I had in mind. Not too long after, I decided to put the donor model 700 back in the rack for another day and planned a visit to the Pierce facility.
Pierce engineering is owned by John Pierce. John is a competition shooter with many NRA National Records. John shot on the USA FTR Rifle team for their gold medal winning 2017 match. Team Pierce Engineering was also the 2018 National FTR Champions. Impressive pedigrees notwithstanding, these guys know accuracy and how to build competition winning guns and well thought out hunting guns. Specializing in guns based on their own Titanium actions, they can produce exactly what you’ll need for hunting, lightweight hunting, competition, F class or tactical rifles.
After a couple of phone calls, a meeting date was set, and I made the 2 hour trip to their shop. Pierce Engineering General Manager, Jim Nordof, took me on a tour of their manufacturing facility, located in Lansing, MI., the state capital. CNC machines were busy producing high tech and high precision titanium receivers, bolts and components. Workers were hard at work assembling projects based on customer specifications. Expensive materials filled racks, waiting to be turned into tack-drivers. Dozens of partially finished “custom” rifles filled well organized work benches, in varying stages of completion. F-class rifles, mountain rifles, long-range hunting and tactical rifles with every conceivable combination of stock and barrel choice, in every possible caliber.
Jim stated, “We’ve been making custom actions for 15 years now. We produce the lightest custom hunting receiver on the market at 15.2 OZ for a complete titanium action”. I can attest to the quality and amazingly light weight of the actions. Many “projects” on their benches are comprised of carbon fiber stocks and carbon fiber wrapped barrels. Let me tell you what a joy it would be to carry one of these feathers up and down a mountain. They weigh nothing.
Pierce also offers standard gunsmith services such as, High precision chambering, Muzzle-break installations, suppressor threading, Pillar bedding, Cera-coat and metal refinish services, and they only use the best quality components, and techniques, in their custom builds. There may be bigger names in the custom, precision rifle business but you won’t find better gun builders, and Pierce is a name that you’ll likely be hearing a lot more about in the future.
Our 7mm Rem Mag project is being built by Pierce using one of their titanium actions with a fluted bolt and light weight bolt knob, mated to a fluted Stainless Hart rifle barrel, bored to .284 with 1:8” twist, and blueprinted and chambered for 7mm before being finished in a subtle grey Cera-coat finish. The trigger is by TriggerTech, one of, if not THE best trigger on the market right now. I’ve tried em all and I haven’t found a better trigger. Once complete, everything will be glass bedded to my AG Composites carbon-fiber stock. Like the trigger, this may be the best stock on the market at present. AG stocks are super light and bullet-proof with great designs and build quality.
Many paper targets adorn the walls of the Pierce workshop and each has extremely small groups punched through. I’m talking tiny, barely clover-leafed groups, almost one hole groups!! I can’t wait to get this gun to the range and put it through its paces. Finding the perfect combo of bullet, velocity, scope, and now, ballistic calculator is when the fun begins. Knowing that you’re venturing afield with a rifle that will hit exactly where you want the bullet to impact, is so confidence inspiring. Carrying a light-weight rifle that has zero compromise in terms of accuracy and performance is a joy. Knowing your gun inside and out is a least half the fun in hunting, for me at least. Appreciating the mechanics and build quality of a fine firearm is a huge part of why I love shooting and hunting. For me, this applies to rifles, pistols or shotguns. When you hold a custom gun built by Pierce, there’s nothing but satisfaction.
With a completed rifle, the next phase will be picking the right optic. Like the rifle, there can be zero compromise in performance. I’ll never take a shot on game at 1,000 yds., but I want this gun to be capable of hitting targets out to 1,000 and beyond, and the scope will have to be up to the task with excellent glass, AND be tough, durable, relatively light and have modern features like a drop compensating dial, an illuminated tactical reticle, tons of MOA adjustment, maybe a built in level or range-finder. I’ve got dozens of high quality LR scopes in the safe and they all have their merits but I’ll still be doing some serious research into this next scope, and I’ll present my rationale for choosing whichever one I end up with for this project. Stay tuned for the next installment when the “project gun” gets its eyes and goes to the range and the field.
Pierce Engineering Ltd. 5122 North Grand River Ave. Lansing, MI. 48906 Ph 517-321-5051 pierceengineeringltd.com
Check out our YouTube channel to see a tour of the Pierce Engineering shop. Search BackcountryLife Magazine Pierce Engineering
Custom Rifle part 1
When I last wrote about rifles, I was contemplating buying a finished custom rifle from one of the small boutique builders that seem to be popping up everywhere. I shopped around. I considered the advantages, limitations and pricing of many, and while there were a couple of standouts, Barrett, Gunwerks and Kenny Jarrett being the three that I considered the most, I ultimately decided to roll my own….again.
I know exactly what I want, down to the fine details so with a plan in hand, I got to work pulling the components together. First I sourced a Remington 700 action. Actually it was a complete stainless steel Remington 700 SPS in 7mm rem mag as a donor. There are a number of great action options to start a custom build, but I tend to go with Remington 700s. It’s the choice of many custom builders, or it’s the basis for many custom builders that make their own actions. Most are modified versions of the 700, at least the precision, long range platforms. Mausers and Model 70s and the custom shop variants are usually the choice for high grade, engraved customs with exhibition wood and if I were going that route, I’d opt for a Pre 64 Winchester 70, or a Mauser 98 action too, but tactical, long range, precision and foul weather customs are often built on Rem 700 actions. The fact that the US military and most law enforcement snipers use the Remington action lends credence to the choice for a precision custom. It’s always been my choice, and I’ll stick with it. The price for a new SPS is usually less than buying an action and bottom metal (hinged floorplate and trigger guard, with action bolts), so that was the reason I went that route. The new build will also be in 7mm RM so buying a long action with a bolt face ready to accept it would save some work. The donor’s barrel and cheap synthetic stock will be removed and might make back a bit of money, sold on an auction site, to offset the initial cost, though that’s always a crap shoot.
While I will modify the action to lighten it and it will be blueprinted to optimize accuracy, and an aftermarket trigger will be installed, that part of the build will come later and I’ll cover that in the next episode. With the action on the way, I sourced two of the most important parts of a precision rifle, the barrel and the stock.
The Stock: AG Composites
There are many options for aftermarket precision stocks. Everything from aluminum chassis systems, heavy benchrest stocks, fully adjustable tactical stocks, and hybrids of the aforementioned, all intended to provide a more stable platform than the typical factory stock. Cheap synthetic stocks bend and flex and are usually a bit heavy, and well,....cheap. Factory wood stocks can be nice to look at but most don’t offer enough free float space, are not bedded and as such move around quite a bit with temperature and humidity changes, making for inconsistent accuracy. They can also tend to be on the heavy side and for rough use in foul weather and or mountains, it’s just a shame to risk marring a nice wood stock. I love beautiful wood on a gun, but not for this project. For my current project there were a few prerequisites. The stock needed to be very rigid, very light but with aluminum pillars molded in. I want the stock to have a vertical grip with a bit of palm swell, and a slightly higher than usual cheek weld too, but I didn’t want a heavy adjustable tactical stock. This rifle is intended for hunting and simplicity. Maneuverability and weight savings is important. I didn’t want a heavy, fat fore end, as is common on most tactical stocks.
There are a lot of options that come close to this check list but my number one choice for my last three builds, and for this one is a carbon fiber stock from AG Composites. www.agcomposites.com
AG doesn’t have the most recognizable name in the aftermarket stock world, but in my opinion they should. With 100% carbon fiber construction, AG makes an incredibly strong, lightweight stock. Their stocks can be as much as a half-pound lighter than comparable precision fiberglass stocks from other aftermarket stock makers. In the mountains, ounces count. A half-pound of weight savings is monumental.
You may have used an AG stock without knowing it. They manufacture the carbon fiber stock for the Barrett Fieldcraft rifle, which was the 2017 Guns & Ammo rifle of the year.
They also supply the Carbon fiber stocks for the Kimber Open Country Rifle, BULA Defense products and all the Bergara Premier Series rifles, (Stalker, Mountain Hunter & Long Range Hunter). For rifle manufacturers like Kimber, Barrett and Bergara, they ship weekly, and can usually ship product to private customers in less than 4 weeks for custom projects like mine. My AG Composite “Alpine Hunter” model, in “Sagebrush”, paint scheme, showed up in about 6 days. That’s fast for a premium product like this! The “Alpine Hunter” model is a very light 30 oz. on my scale, with the largest barrel channel, to accept a full bull profile, or a large profile barrel such as those offered in carbon fiber from Proof Research. Barrel and action channels are precisely CNC machined in to provide a drop-in fit. With a slim profile it still sports a tactical style vertical grip, a slightly higher than standard cheek weld and two swivel studs on the slim-ish fore end, and one on the butt, to allow for a bi-pod and sling. All AG Composite stocks are available in a variety of cool color schemes, with designs in high grade, durable paint finishes that are rock solid and provide a bit of texture for a very sure grip, ensuring durable, practical, long lasting finishes.
In addition to the Alpine Hunter model, AG offers the “Prairie Varmint” model and the “Carbon-All Terrain”, or CAT model. My custom mountain rifle in .260 Rem sports a CAT stock and it has performed flawlessly!!
AG Composites Co-owner Matt Tandy noted that “AG cures our stocks to 250 degrees F to ensure thermal stability. End users don't have to worry about post curing Cera-kote at 180 degrees, or leaving an AG stock in a hot car in the middle of the summer. There will be no stock warping or cracking due to heat”. I can attest, their monolithic stocks are rigid, lightweight and extremely durable.
Look for several new designs from AG Composites when they launch their newly expanded website in the very near future. You’ll still be able to find them at www.agcomposites.com , on Facebook, and we’ll also keep you posted on their new site here at BackcountryLife Magazine.
Based in the city of New Hope, in Northern Alabama, AG is owned and operated by two former Marines and a former Army Ranger. AG Composites combines military service, aerospace engineering experience and an unwavering dedication to quality to produce a premium product with short lead times and very competitive pricing. In addition to manufacturing aftermarket and private label stocks for retail customers and gunsmiths, AG can take a design from the drawing board all the way to production. They have the capabilities to make molds as well as other tooling, in-house, giving them the ability to be responsive to their customer’s needs.
For feather weight, bullet-proof, all-weather stocks, AG Composites is the only choice for me. I’ve used most of the other high-end after-market stocks out there and while a few are also very good, the incredibly light weight 100% carbon fiber construction provides rigidity and durability in a class by itself and puts AG Composites at the top of the list for me. This custom gun build is intended for mountain hunting and weight savings, durability and all weather performance is critical. AG has the lightest, most rigid stocks, period!
Hart Stainless steel custom barrels.
Perhaps the most important aspect of a custom build, once all the other important factors are accounted for, is the barrel. A gun will only shoot as well as the barrel that guides the bullet. A factory rifle can usually be improved a bit with a good aftermarket stock and trigger but only to a point. A better barrel, blueprinted to the action will take your project to the next level and if you want to shoot high performance projectiles that will provide the utmost in long range accuracy and terminal performance, a custom barrel is the final piece of the puzzle.
For the last 4 custom rifles that I’ve conceived of and pieced together, and for this current 7mm RM project, I’ve picked a custom barrel from Hart Rifles Barrels of LaFayette, NY. www.Hartbarrels.com
Hart custom barrels are still handcrafted one at a time, to customer's specifications. Their commitment to extreme rifle accuracy and quality remains the same. They make one grade of barrel…the best!
Custom rifles bearing HART barrels are widely used in benchrest, silhouette, Olympic events, high-power, small-bore and military shooting events, as well as for every type of hunting. HART barrels hold several World Shooting Records in the various shooting disciplines. Their performance in the shooting sports is as good as it gets.
Hart barrels are button rifled with six grooves. All barrels are made to the customer’s specifications as to caliber, twist, and contour. Each barrel is contoured on a CNC lathe, then rifled and hand lapped to ensure the best possible interior finish. Co-owner Jack Sutton commented that “Every barrel leaving our shop is individually inspected several times to make sure it meets our high quality standards”. I have no doubt as to the quality of Hart barrels. Every one I’ve used in a custom build, and every one I’ve ever shot was an absolute tack-driver!
For my project I asked Jack to provide a barrel at .050” over the standard Remington sporter contour, which equates to about a Remington Sendero barrel profile. I asked for straight flutes for weight savings and to help dissipate heat. I specified a 26” finished barrel length. (Hart offers a wide array of fluting styles, including twisted, intermittent and other creative designs, and barrels typically arrive un-cut for length and un-threaded for your action for a custom build such as mine… though they can provide a fully finished barrel and can blue-print it to your action if you send it to them). For my 7mm RM project, an un-chambered, un-cut .284 bore dia., 6 groove, 1:8” twist rifling (best for heavier bullets) spec was ordered. I’ve used this exact barrel, unfluted, for an earlier 7mm project with excellent results. For my purposes the bullet of choice will be at least 162 grains, and I want to be able to fling bullets up to 180 grains, so the relatively fast twist, (at least compared to factory barrels which for some reason rarely go faster than 1:9.25” twist), of my barrel is ideal. In fact the “fast” 1:8” has proven to be ideal for any bullet weight I’ve used in 7MM rifles. I’ve also found this to be true with previous Hart barrels I’ve ordered in .270 win, with 130-140 grain bullets, in .260 Rem with 120-140 grain bullets, in .243 with 100 grain bullets and in .223 with 55-70 grain bullets. I don’t know why factory rifles tend to err on the side of slow twist. Slower tends to make a given rifle, less versatile. In the old days, I think there was a concern of spinning copper jackets off of bullets, but with modern ammo, that shouldn’t ever be an issue.
With my “donor” Stainless, long action model 700 in hand, and the AG Composites stock and Hart barrel ready to go, this build will be heading to my gunsmith’s shop for chambering and “blueprinting”. A new trigger and some customization of the bolt and bolt handle will be detailed in part 2 of this article. Check back in to see our progress. This one will be a keeper! If this project inspires you to embark on a custom build, you can’t go wrong with a Hart barrel and an AG Composites stock as a starting platform.
By Brandon Vaughan
Custom rifles 9-1-2018
– By Brandon Vaughan
As a kid, I lusted after a Winchester model 94 lever gun in 30-30. It was the gun that almost every other deer hunter in the Michigan woods carried. It was standard in every old black and white photo from deer camps gone by. It was good enough for Grandad, it would be good enough for me, and besides there was no better way to feel like a real cowboy. It was a gun I’d be proud to own.
Well when it came time to buy my first hunting rifle, with my own money, I went to the best source that I knew of, my uncle John. Uncle John was a real gun collector and the only real hunter in the family. He lived in Houghton, in Michigan’s upper peninsula. which was 12 hours from our home in suburban Detroit. As far as I was concerned, he was a hunting and shooting sage who lived in a wilderness paradise that might as well have been Alaska. He would surely be able to find the gun I was looking for.
I wrote a letter describing what I wanted. This was pre-internet or cell phone days, and a land line call to the U.P. would set my dad off on a rant about the high cost of “long distance” calls and as a 15 year old, my options were limited but I detailed my thoughts and needs and mailed them off to the UP. About three weeks later I received a return letter from Uncle John with 3 Polaroid photos and a letter detailing each gun and John’s rational for suggesting them.
To my slight dismay there wasn’t a 94 lever gun in the group. All three were bolt guns. All three were modified Mauser style Enfields. Sporter-ized WW1 “leftovers”. Being ignorant, I was not impressed. After a bit more correspondence with Uncle John, it was clear that he A: didn’t want to part with one of his model 94s, and B: strongly suggested that I go with one of the bolt guns for a number of pertinent reasons.
Perhaps Uncle John knew that I was passionate about hunting and guns and would need a more capable gun, or maybe he had a glut of sporter-ized Enfields. I think it was the former, but in any event I did end up going with one of the bolt actions. It was a model 1917 marked “Winchester”. The other two were also model 1917s but were marked Remington and Enfield respectively, in that the design was manufactured by all three companies to serve the war effort. Ironically the “modified” Mauser action had been adopted from the German Mauser just a few years before we started shooting them at each other in WW1. The three guns were almost identical guns but the Winchester had a very nice walnut stock from Bishop and an adjustable rear peep sight. It was chambered in 30-06, like the other two. The action was buttery smooth and vault-like. It was deadly accurate with its peep sight and it was a really beautiful gun that I came to be very proud of. In my motley crew of high school hunting buddies, who carried an assortment of worn lever guns, shotguns and cheap single shot rifles, my 30-06 was coveted and I enjoyed the status of being considered a real rifleman who could make the long shots, beyond the range of a smooth bore slug gun. We tended to hunt in groups as kids and more than once, sitting in a brush blind, with two or even three buddies, someone would spot a fat doe at 200-300 yds. knowing that only the bolt gun would work. It rarely let me down and we usually enjoyed “camp meat” with our illicit beers after sunset. An important factor since we rarely had enough money to buy hunting licenses, drive North, buy beer AND food. Food was usually a lower priority from memory and besides we were hunters after all, we'd live off the land. We were all pretty thankful whenever someone's mother packed "rations" for us.
Maybe it was inevitable, maybe it was Uncle John’s intervention or maybe I just liked being acknowledged as a marksman by my peers, but I became enthralled with fine guns. With rifles, bolt guns held sway and over the years I’ve owned many. The more I shot and hunted and the more varied my pursuits became, the more specialized I wanted my rifles to be. Before too long, factory guns, however good they were, didn’t fit my needs. I wanted better triggers, better stocks, better butt pads, faster rifling, lighter actions, better bedding and more specific modifications to suit an exact application. Consistent tack-driving accuracy was always the first criteria, but some guns, in specific calibers needed to handle long range shots with heavy bullets, from box blinds, others needed to be ultra-light weight for mountain hunts, but without compromising accuracy in the unlikely event that a shot had to be taken with a “hot” barrel. Other guns were conceived of, and built just to be drop dead gorgeous, others for hunting dangerous game in harsh weather. Of course different critters require different calibers. My old 30-06 could do a lot, but it was really too much for groundhogs and impractical for coyotes. It was heavy for mountains and its wood stock wasn’t good for rain and snow, if a really long shot was necessary. Options from 22 Magnum to 45-70 became necessary.
Putting together “custom” guns is interesting to me in and of itself. Like tying my own flies or building my own bows and arrows or knives and sheathes, there is a real satisfaction in using “home made” gear. Anyone that has delved into the custom gun world can tell you that it can be expensive. I’m not a gunsmith so I have to farm out some of the machining that is required. I take my time and buy the bits and pieces that I need for my projects, usually putting in a fair effort to find the best deals and parts guns, but no matter how you figure the costs, custom guns cost a lot, and don’t usually provide for a good return on investment in the event that one needs to sell a gun to make way for a new project, or just to pay an unexpected bill. Building your dream gun can be very satisfying but tread lightly, it can also put you in the poor house.
I don’t know if I’ll ever lose interest in making my own gun ideas come to life, but it is now very possible to find exactly what I’m looking for, “off the shelf”. The “semi-custom” gun market has boomed in recent years. Driven by ever more sophisticated hunters and shooters, and the long-range shooting craze, boutique rifle builders are popping up everywhere. Started by fellow “gun-nuts” who know the particulars of how to build insanely accurate rifles, these gun building companies now offer just about anything you could hope for in a custom rifle, now for a pretty competitive price. Chamber choices may be limited but you can be sure to find something suitable for your purposes, IF you don’t have something extremely specific and slightly rare in mind. Rest assured, if you are bent on joining the 6.5 Creedmore club, you won’t be disappointed. If, on the other hand, you’d like to be in the arguably better 260 Remington club, you might be, though most of these smaller builders can accommodate your choice of chamberings if not too obscure.
At last check there were about a dozen fairly well known providers in the category, and more seem to be gaining ground every year. Hopefully competition won’t drive a trend to compromise on build quality to meet price points, like it did with the big brands over the last few decades.
My last custom build was built for the mountains. A stainless Remington 700 short action was sourced. A Jewel trigger set at 2.5 lbs replaced the factory trigger. The bolt assembly was fluted and skeletonized. The firing pin and shroud were replaced with light weight versions. My gunsmith installed a 1:8” twist barrel, cut and crowned to 23" long, .030" over standard diameter, which was then fluted and chambered for 260 Rem. An ultralight carbon fiber stock with aluminum pillars was bolted on. A one piece, light weight Nightforce 20MOA mount/base was affixed and a Leupold 4x12x44 VX-R installed, the latter picked for weight savings and optical performance. A custom drop compensating elevation dial, custom built for my load and bullet completed the project. Weight was saved everywhere, except the barrel, which while fluted and cut to 23”, started off as a heavy barrel. The length and fluting make it lighter, and combined with every other weight saving choice it makes for a very light rifle, with a barrel that will resist point of impact shift as it heats up. A feature that matters most at the range when trying to sight in and work up loads. When hunting, a single, cold bore shot is what matters, and even if something goes wrong, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll shoot enough to heat a barrel. Pencil thin barrels are a joy to carry in the mountains but they’re a bitch to get dialed in for consistent accuracy. I rarely go ultra thin on barrels.
There’s always a new project in mind. I tend to not go with “trendy” options when it comes to guns. I like tried and true calibers and I like to be able to find ammo in far flung locales if necessary, airlines being the consistent “losers of luggage” that they are.
I’m a fan of 7mm Rem Mag, I’ve built and owned and sold a few, but another one is on my wish list right now. When I was a high school kid, Remington’s 7mm Mag was still discussed as somewhat “trendy” and new, though it was already 20 years old at the time. Now it’s well over 50 and as firmly entrenched as any chamber. You can find ammo for it anywhere, even at Walmart. It’s awesome for long range shooting and can handle any North American, and probably even any African game species, with the right bullet choice. I know most African PHs require a 375 H&H as a minimum but the 7mmRM can dispatch anything realistically. I’ve seen the smaller 6.5 x 284 effectively take almost every big African animal except Cape Buffalo, and of course Elephant. I recently saw a well placed shot from 6.5x284 take an Eland which is about the size of an Alaskan/Yukon Moose. It dropped in its tracks. I know other 7mm options, like the new 280 Nosler, or the 7mm RUM can do “this or that” better, but I’ll stick with the “old timer”.
I think I’ll seriously consider an “off-the shelf” boutique builder for my next 7mm. They seem to have what I require, and I’m curious about the process and product, which may be reason enough. Picking the right company may be the toughest decision. I’m certain it’ll be quicker, and probably a more relaxed process than building my own. If the performance equals my projects, I’ll be a happy and willing customer.
I never did get that 94 lever action, though I still keep my eye open for just the right one. I own a beautiful single shot stalking rifle in 30-30 and it is a great whitetail round, and when hunting thick Upper Peninsula cedar swamps where shots are close and nostalgia plays a role in my gun of choice, I’ll usually grab that gun first. My 6 year old asks me to take her hunting on an almost daily basis now. I can’t think of a better rifle than a model 94, to start hunting with, an opinion I’ve held since I was a beginner. She’s a couple of years away but maybe she’ll start off with a 94, like I intended to. Funny how one’s path can be redirected, and then often comes back full circle. I’ll probably be thinking about a custom 94 project now. Figured walnut, case colored receiver, cold rust bluing etc. Doug Turnbull, if you’re reading this, give me a call!
The 350 Legend.
A cartridge with a lot of buzz in the industry that seems to fit my needs for a medium sized, light and compact carbine. Match Grade Machine in Utah has been my go to supplier for Custom barrels for my T/C Encore rifles (and pistols), for some time now, (Matchgrademachine.com). Their quality and consistency is unsurpassed, so when I decided it was time to test the new .350 Legend cartridge, MGM got the call.
Why the 350 Legend? Well, I asked the same question at first, in part because there seemed to be so many detractors on social media platforms. The comments ranged from “it’s a pointless cartridge, other options already exist”, to “the .30-.30 is a better option”, to “the .450 Bushmaster is better”. As with every new cartridge introduction, the naysayers came out in force.
Being guilty of questioning the release of some new cartridges myself, I had to consider all the comments. I am, after all, famous for being critical of the 6.5 Creedmoor, which is a great cartridge, but which has led to the “all but abandonment” of the better .260 Remington, of which I could go on and on about…..but I won’t…again…I digress.
Here’s the logical case for the .350 L, and why I think it’s here to stay…and why I hope it does.
Firstly, one day before writing this, I was hunting a soybean field with a doe permit in my pocket….with access permission from a farmer who was very hopeful that I would help mitigate his crop damage issues. For this hunt I used my TC Encore, with the new MGM .350 Legend barrel, to flatten a huge whitetail doe at about 80 yards.. I was a little hesitant about the energy carrying capability of the 350 prior to the hunt, but no more. A heart shot, hitting no major bones, knocked the big doe off her feet and dispatched her in seconds. I’ve made the same shot with a .30-06 and had to track deer for over a hundred yards. I’m aware that a .30-06 has more energy, but there’s something about larger diameter bullets that seems to provide an extra oomph on game. Nevertheless, energy transfer, check. If anything, there was more energy than needed. The bullet passed clean through and plowed a furrow about 40 feet long in the freshly plowed, and snow dusted field. I looked, but couldn’t find the slug. The exit hole in the deer was impressive and suggested significant expansion.
Recoil at the shot, and while sighting-in at the range, was hardly noticeable. This is one of those guns that is fun to shoot. A big reason for going to the 350 is because for the last two seasons, I’ve hunted the restricted rifle zone of Southern Michigan (restricted to straight wall cartridges, not more the 1.8” in case length), with a .450 Bushmaster. Last year I hunted with a Ruger American Ranch rifle in .450. It has a 16” barrel and while it fit the bill for a compact carbine, designed for hunting at close range in woodlot habitat common to Southern MI., It was NOT fun to shoot, especially from a tree stand…or without hearing protection! It’s a great gun for the money, but overkill for this type of hunting where shots will be under 200 yards, and more often than not, inside of 50 yds. Ruger now offers the Ranch rifle in .350, so apparently there was demand for the lighter recoil of this round. I also have an Encore barrel in 450 that I hunted in 2017, and being that it’s 22” in length, It’s a bit more pleasant to shoot…. And it does flatten deer. I used it 2 years ago to drop a large bodied 10 point at 40 yards…..but my ears were ringing afterwards. The .350 is a no compromise, yet more pleasant to shoot option that seems to do the trick for deer.
After trying most of the available factory ammo that I could find, from 145 grain to 180 grain, I settled on the Hornady 170 grain American Whitetail load. I wanted a heavy for caliber bullet and while the 170 isn’t the heaviest that I found, it seemed to be the most consistent in velocity and accuracy, and it’s heavy enough. The nicely rounded and pointed “Interlock” softpoint design provided very good expansion and fairly flat shooting at 2280 FPS muzzle velocity, from my 20” Match Grade Machine barrel, which turned out to be higher velocity than that stated in Hornady’s literature. Bonus. It’s hard to beat Hornady factory ammo. I pick it over hand loads for many of my guns. It’s just that consistent and the components and powders are as good as it gets. Those who do prefer to hand-load will find the same to be true from Hornady products.
At the range I sighted in dead on at 25 yards to get on paper. This resulted in a 50 yd impact at 2” high, a 100 yard impact 3” high, dead on again at 150 yds., and a 200 yard impact 5.5” low, which I left unchanged aside for fine tuning for windage, knowing that a center mass aim on a whitetail is good anywhere from 25 to 200 yards. I had to check and double check these impacts, and later watched a lot of YouTube videos that showed similar results. This is a pretty flat shooter. I noted the impacts right on the 1-4X Leupold scope, in white pencil, so that I can make slight adjustments for hold depending on the situation while hunting. In the future I may order a CDS scope dial from Leupold, after further range testing, which could make the gun 300 yard capable. I trust that it would carry enough energy for deer at that range, but just. At just over 600 ft lbs., this is about as low as I would choose to go on game. In reality, as intended, being a capable 100 yd gun is what I want and what it is.
Wanting a versatile carbine, I ordered the barrel from MGM with iron sights and a scope base. MGM now can deliver iron sights on orders, which is a new and welcome offering from them. While they offer a couple of options, I opted for a set of very high quality, adjustable fiber-optic sights which MGM sources from Williams Gun Sight in Michigan. These are great iron sights, the rear, an adjustable “ghost ring” peep style with two green fiber optic dots at the 3-o’clock and 9-o’clock position. The front is a vivid red dot. With a Leupold scope set in a pair of Warne quick detach scope rings, on the MGM scope rail, this is a very versatile gun. Being able to quickly switch to iron sights in thick brush, or in the event of a damaged scope is the kind of redundancy that I like. I have had great luck with QD scope rings from Warne set up this way. While pleasant to shoot, the 350 Legend does pack a punch. Certainly enough for black bears and I think it would even be ok as a grizzly protection gun too, though as a single shot, you’d better accurate, and a fast re-loader if you use it for bear. An AR platform might be a better choice for that duty. I would be confident in the bullet and power delivery in bear country. I’ve carried a number of guns as bear protection in Alaskan brown bear habitat, as a guide. I’d have no hesitation choosing the 350 Legend for this role.
Before settling on the 350, I considered many options. One of the common comments from YouTube “experts” is that the 357 Maximum already exists, so the .350L is redundant. I almost went with a 357 Max, before the 350 was introduced. I’m glad I didn’t. There is no comparison. The 357 max is a good cartridge, BUT, ammo is rare and it’s expensive, it’s not as powerful, it isn’t loaded with heavy streamlined bullets, and it doesn’t lend itself to hand loading those bullets. It doesn’t work in factory AR platforms or bolt guns like the .350 and long before the .350 arrived, it was already on its last legs in terms of factory offerings. Other common complaints were in comparing the .350 to a .30-.30. Admittedly most of those complainers seemed to be from parts of the country that don’t have cartridge restrictions and were/are unaware as to the evolution of the .350. In Michigan and in many other neighboring states there are restricted areas where center-fire rifles with bottle-neck cartridges like the .30-.30 aren’t allowed. In Southern MI., we called it the “shotgun zone”, though in addition to shotguns, muzzle-loaders and some pistols were and are still legal. Pistols were restricted to straight wall cartridges…and still are. The cartridge case length rule change, (to 1.8” case length, straight walled), is what opened the doors to new more powerful loads intended for rifle platforms, and the .450 Bushmaster and the .350 Legend resulted. There are still plenty of shot gunners hunting these areas and with powerful handgun rounds like the brutal .460 S&W, 454 Casull, 44 mag and even .357 magnum, many handguns and rifles are still out there using those options. For years I used a scoped, rifled 20 gauge barrel on my Encore, that’s a tack driver at 200 yards, flinging 250 grain slugs. So the .350 isn’t going to take over completely, but you can bet it’s here to stay. I think I’d choose it over a .30-.30, based on bullet weight and frontal area, and energy, regardless of restriction zones. Certainly on versatility of platform availability, and ammo cost too. A box of 20 rounds of .350L can be found for as little as $10.00 for light FMJ target ammo.
My performance impressions are based on initial trials but at the distances that I’ll use it to hunt, and on deer sized game, I’ve only had good results. I’m sure this would be perfect for hogs and coyotes too. I wanted a compact, light carbine that I still considered to be a “thumper”. I know the limitations of this gun and if I’m hunting an area where long range shots are called for, I’ll use a gun intended for those conditions. For Southern Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, or anywhere else with firearm hunting restrictions, I’ll grab my .350 Legend. I have all the faith in the world for shots on deer, out to 200 yards….and you can take that to the bank. If you own a TC Encore or Contender, call Match Grade Machine in Hilldale, Utah for a .350 Legend barrel. (Ph 435-628-0071). They can make just about any custom barrel you’ll want. Fluted, threaded, various lengths, materials and calibers, let your imagination run wild. You will be impressed! I own many MGM barrels for my Encores, so needless to say, I am!
I’ve got a couple more weeks left to find a mature whitetail buck before our rifle season ends, and I go back to bow hunting for the remainder of the season. I’m looking forward to seeing how the .350 Legend performs on a big tough Southern Michigan buck. I’ll let you know the results, if I’m so fortunate.
Give it a rest!
The Primos “Trigger Stick” tripod.
Long ago, I figured out that shooting from a rest was a better option than shooting off-hand, and for years I’ve carried some type of shooting stick when venturing afield to hunt with a rifle or pistol. They’ve run the gamut from sticks cut while in the woods to jerry rigged dowels or bamboo poles to nicely crafted wooded bi-pods like what is typically used for hunting in Africa. For the last 5-6 years I’ve used the Primos Trigger Stick and can attest to it’s utility.
Anyone familiar with hunting in Africa will know that it’s almost unheard of to ever take a shot from any position other than resting on “the sticks”. At crunch time, your PH will be hissing at you in that abbreviated Afrikans accent to “get on the sticks man, quickly, get on the sticks”, as you prepare to settle your crosshairs on an Eland, Kudu or gnarly old Dugga boy. Shooting from shooting sticks provides a very stable platform and is orders of magnitude better than shooting off-hand.
Primos, a company with no shortage of quality, innovative hunting products, has one-upped themselves with the new “Trigger Stick tripod, Generation 3”. One upped because the new Gen 3 tripod is a decided improvement over their already impressive Gen 2 Trigger stick tripod.
For those unfamiliar, the Primos trigger stick, available in mono-pod, bi-pod and Tri-pod, allows for one handed operation and height adjustment by simply squeezing a trigger that lock and un-locks the height adjustable legs. At a max height of 66” the Tri-pod model makes for a rock solid platform for shooting while standing, for even the tallest of hunters, and can adjust down to as low as 22”, with its legs splayed, which makes it great for seated shooting as well. That kind of range just isn’t possible with improvised sticks.
The two big improvements over the Gen 2 stick are the quick detach optics mount that is included, and the available scabbard. The scabbard is triangular in cross section and has a plethora of Molle straps, which can be used to attach things to the scabbard, or to attach the scabbard to things like backpacks. The collapsed Trigger Stick fits neatly within the scabbard.
The ancillary optics mounting plate is great for cameras, spotting scopes or Binos and can be left attached to those devices. By simply pressing a spring loaded button you can instantly change between the “Y” shaped shooting cradle, and whichever optic you’ve affixed the optics mounting plate to. Shooters as well as cameramen will love the speed and simplicity of the Gen 3 trigger stick. I’ve even opted to mount the “optics” attachment plate to the bottom of a quick adjustment photography mount that allows for quick angle adjustment with the squeeze of its handle. My cameras, scopes and Binos have additional QD plates for this system so now with a camera or other optic, I can adjust the tri-pod height with one trigger and the angle and orientation of the lens by squeezing another similar trigger, and change between many different platforms, on the fly, quick as lightning.
No light-weight, the Gen 3 Trigger Stick can handle the load of anything that I’ve thrown at it including some pretty beefy spotting scopes and camera rigs. The literature that’s included says not to use the Trigger Sticks as a “trekking” pole, but I do often and I think everyone else does too. They’re durable and have stood up to all the punishment I’ve dished out. With my older Gen 2 Tripod, I was inspired by my 6 year old daughter, who loves to commandeer it to build forts in the living room, using blankets draped over the tri-pod to make a very nice teepee. I too have found the trigger sticks to be very useful, if caught out in the rain, or for an overnight camp site when traveling light, used with a tarp or two to keep the frost or dew off a sleeping bag and ground cloth. Talking to Jake Edson of Vista Outdoors, the parent company of Primos, I suggested that perhaps an ultra-light, pack-able but roomy, bivouac shelter, purpose built for the Trigger-Stick, could be added to the Primos line-up. I could conceive of a nice two or three man shelter that used the Trigger Stick tri-pod as its support frame, with the corners staked out, that I’d like to tuck into my backcountry hunting pack. Jake seemed to like the idea and mentioned that he’d share it with the products group. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it sees the light of day! If it’s camo colored and packs to about the size of half a loaf of bread, and attaches to my pack, or Trigger Stick scabbard via Molle straps, all the better! (What can I say, my dream job has always been to invent hunting and fishing gear….I’ve got a million of em).
The Primos Gen 3 Trigger Stick is a very useful, handy and well-built piece of equipment that is worth its weight when it comes to ensuring a rock solid platform for shooting, filming or glassing. I carry mine whenever I carry a gun, scope or camera afield. Find it at primos.com or major sporting goods outlets like BassPro.com and Cabelas.com
LOWA boots from Zappos.com
A new pair of boots from an unusual source.
An ex-girlfriend once cracked wise at the fairly large number of shoes and boots that I own. Never mind that her closet was, in Imelda Marcos like fashion, literally overflowing with pointless and frivolous footwear that numbered in the hundreds, none of which were suitable for hiking or hunting…or really anything outside. There were a few shiny and feathery models that I could’ve repurposed into Muskie lures, but it’s no wonder she’s an “ex”-girlfriend. She just didn’t get it. She did however, educate me on her great resource for finding footwear. Zappos.com . More on that later.
I will admit that I own a lot of footwear, but I will also maintain that my footwear is vitally necessary to my way of life, and is in no way frivolous.
Every type of shoe or boot that I own has a specific purpose. Where possible, any given pair serves more than one purpose, but some are very purpose specific. For the sake of argument, and the constraints of editorial space, I’ll avoid dress shoes, running and gym shoes, ice skates, ski boots, waders, slippers and sandals and stick to the topic of hunting boots here.
I bird hunt the Great Lakes and north east regions, and the western prairies. I hunt deer in the mid-west. I hunt the foot hills of the west and I hunt the mountains of the west, as far west as Alaska, and I hunt ducks and geese. For these varied pursuits I have 5-6 different pairs of boots, not counting back-ups or boots being rotated into the mix as older pairs are wearing out.
In the mid-west I wear knee-high rubber boots to hunt deer, because scent control and water-proofing is critical when hunting swamps, agricultural fields and small woodlots. These also work well for duck hunting when waders are too much, but these are totally unsuitable for deer hunting the western prairies and foot hills where spot and stalk, and long distance walking and packing out your game is the norm. For spot and stalk hunting, a good pair of bird hunting boots can usually serve double duty. Something durable and supportive, lightweight and water-proof will fit the bill. This is the type of boot that I can wear out in one season of hunting, not because of any quality deficiencies but because of the many hard miles that they endure. This type of boot is the running shoe of the hunting boot world. Good ones even share some running shoe features. When I was younger and bird hunted a lot more than I do now, I could wear out two pairs of this type of boot in a season. Consequently, top quality bird hunting or spot and stalk boots, as good as they may be, are not suitable for mountain hunting, or more pointedly, mountaineering, and mountaineering boots aren't great for long distance marches over prairie land or through northern grouse cover either.
Hunting in the mountains, regardless of what part of the world your hunt has taken you, is mountaineering. Your gear, especially your boots, should be purpose built. Your expensive trip, your comfort and maybe your life could be in jeopardy if your gear isn’t up to the task.
Mountain boots, must have the following qualities and features to get my attention. In construction and fit they should have equal amounts of stiffness and cushion, much like a high quality pair of hockey skates or ski boots. They should be about 10” high to provide good ankle support and protection. Gore-tex and light-weight insulation, inside thick leather or “Nu-buck” uppers is typical. A thick rubberized “rand” surrounding the lower part of the boot where it meets the sole is important to protect your feet from rocks. A thick, aggressive and durable sole with goat-like grip that will accept ice crampons and gaiter straps is important too. In general, everything should be built with extreme duty and durability in mind. The best quality boots will mold and “break-in” to fit your feet like slippers while maintaining a firm, stiff, yet comfortable fit. My newest pair of boots has all the features mentioned above.
There are 4 or 5 really great brands available for top quality mountaineering/hunting boots and if possible, one should try on a few. Various brands fit differently and it's important to find a model or brand that works well with your feet. For my feet and my purposes, Lowa makes the best boot. I've had great luck with them in the past and there's no reason to change. My new Lowa boots are the Tibet GTX HI model. The GTX denotes a Gore-Tex liner and at 10” tall, the “HI” is the taller version of the standard, hiking height Tibet GTX model.
Great mountaineering boots all seem to originate near the Alps. The Germans, Italians and to a lesser degree in terms of commonality, the Swiss, all make incredibly good mountaineering boots. Serious thought and attention to detail goes into the design and construction of boots from these "Alpine" countries. Not surprising given their long history of living and surviving in the mountains. Outsourced, off-shore manufacturing, would never happen. Many brands are still made by hand in small villages in the Alps.
I own an older pair of Lowa hiking boots that were made in Italy, but the new Tibet GTX HI model comes from Germany. Separating the hunting specific models from all the great mountaineering boot brands, the Germans seem to have the edge.
Mountaineering boots tend to be a bit harder to find, and are usually pricier than the run of the mill boots that you’ll find in big-box hunting and fishing stores, most of which are made off shore in places that are rich in jungles and are pretty unfamiliar with alpine environments. With high end boutique hunting and fishing shops, where experts and top quality gear reside, becoming pretty rare, you’ll have to search to find the good stuff.
One of the best places to look for “unusual” footwear is Zappos.com
Zappos is an “E”-retailer that has thousands of shoe and boot, (and even clothing) options, including high end mountaineering boots. Finding, buying, and if necessary, returning items is so easy and trouble free that shopping at Zappos may be better than a brick and mortar experience. I don’t normally feel this way about on-line shopping, but Zappos has mastered the process. They even provide free return labels to ease the process if an exchange or return is necessary. Virtually every product on their site has a video review, and a long list of very useful customer reviews that allow for very good decision making regarding fit and quality. The Zappos staff is very helpful and customer service doesn’t get any better. Pricing and regular promotional discounts also make Zappos one of the best places to get your items at the lowest rates. Probably best known as a source for fashion and "street" clothes and footwear, Zappos has a surprising amount of serious hunting, hiking and mountaineering boots. Good quality stuff!
High-end boots sometimes require a fair amount of break-in time and effort, prior to a big outing, to avoid agonizing blisters. I’ve always been OK with this because I know that the “break-in” will provide for a custom, perfect fit once accomplished. This has always been the norm, but with newer materials, ergonomics and engineering in the design process and advancements, borne of ever better, real world trial and error, by extreme-sports experts, difficult break-ins are less common nowadays. My Lowa Tibet GTX HI boots felt great from the moment I laced them up. Expecting some break-in period, I wore them around the house, the yard and for the half mile round trip, down my drive way, to my mail box and back. I climbed stairs, boulders and embankments. I wore different thickness and types of socks, and I even wore them with no socks and while I would say that the Lowas were comfortable from the beginning, and wouldn’t have ever caused blisters, they did get better and better with time. Now they are a perfect combination of slipper-like comfort and rigid, protective armor that will handle all the mountain hunting I will throw at them.
In mountain hunting, there are no flat, level strolls. Everything is steep up, down or side-sloping, usually while carrying a heavy load on your back and while trying your best to avoid the certain death that will result should you decide to "take the fast way down". Ascending in rock jumbles, ice and scree requires ski boot type rigidity and durability. Down-hilling, (the intentional type), likewise requires a perfect "locked in" fit to keep your toes from jamming into the tip of your boots, a situation that’ll be agonizing if your boots don’t cut the mustard. Stiff support is also crucial in side-sloping to avoid ankle destroying bend and flex. A thick, hard but grippy sole is vital and the Vibram sole on the Tibet GTX HI is like the offspring of some un-holy mating of a high performance race car tire and a mountain goat hoof.
The Lowas fit the bill in every respect. They’re built to last and I expect they’ll provide many years of service. If I can ever wear them out, I will have lived large….and at altitude, with many memorable experiences to show for the effort. For my money and for my feet the Lowa Tibet GTS HI can’t be beat!
If you’re going to hunt in the mountains, heed this advice! Prepare! Pay close attention to the details. Get in shape, buy the right socks, clothes and back pack, get in shape, get in shape and get in shape….and forget about general purpose hunting boots and investigate, and invest in high-end mountaineering/hunting boots. Your feet will thank you and your chance for success won’t be compromised by a footwear failure that could side-line you and ruin your expensive trip.
Check out the Lowa Tibet GTX HI from Zappos.com
Review by Brandon Vaughan
Sage Method "switch" rod
I recently had the opportunity to try out the state of the art Method series “Switch” rod from Sage. Being a died in the wool Steelhead fly fisherman, I’m always interested in the latest and greatest gear. Every time I open a package with a slick new product, I feel like a kid on Christmas morning. The most recent package was no exception. The shiny red rod tube looked like it was crafted by Santa himself, as did the beautiful red “Method switch rod” contained within. Labeling confirmed that the rod originated in Sage’s Bainbridge Island, WA. plant, and not the North Pole.
Sage calls their Method series of fly rods, “Ultra fast action”. This was the number one reason I picked the Method series out of the equally wonderful rods from the other Sage series. I prefer FAST action fly rods… Always have, always will.
The 11’-9” 7 weight model that I picked for Steelheading felt light and agile, at least for what amounts to a “light” Spey rod. Switch rods are really just that, light Spey rods. Traditional Spey rods can run to 14’ in length and pitch 10 or 11 weight lines. They tend to be slow in action, and a bit ponderous to cast. Great tools for fishing large salmon flies in big broad rivers, and for fighting large salmon in a sort of refined, stately manner that wouldn’t unduly crease your $600.00 waxed cotton fishing jacket.
Switch rods on the other hand were conceived to be versatile pugilistic tools ideal whether punching long double hauls or Spey casts on Western rivers or chuck-n-duck type and roll casts into deep drop-offs in narrow Great Lakes tributaries.
My home waters of Michigan include just about every type of steelhead water so having a versatile rig is a bonus.
Most old-time fly fishermen prefer a touch of tradition in their fishing and I’m no exception. Where practical I like to make traditional casts with real fly-line and traditionally rigged flies, and I use these methods when I can but in many of the prime Steelhead and Salmon water around the great lakes, the lies are too narrow, brushy and technical to effectively use traditional methods.
Almost 40 years ago, Michigan Steelhead fly-fishermen adopted the “chuck and duck” method of presenting flies to steelhead and salmon. Fishing in tight brushy streams, in the dead of winter, in rivers that transition from ankle deep to 10’ deep around every bend, and with steelhead hugging the bottom of the deep, abrupt pools which often form under log jams and brush piles, it can be a challenge. It can be impossible to present a fly anywhere near an immobile, lethargic fish using traditional floating or sink-tip lines. Chuck and duck uses a running line, (which is typically used behind a shooting head), alone, without the shooting head. The small diameter running line gives an angler a fair chance of getting deep into a hole before the swift current rips it out. To the running line, a stout butt section of leader material is tied…6 feet or so of 15lb test, which gets tied to a small swivel. A sliding weight of varying styles, and sufficient heft to dive-bomb into the deep holding pools, runs between the swivel and the knot adjoining running line to butt section, sliding freely from running line to butt section knot at the swivel. On the other end of the swivel, 4-5 feet of tippet is tied, then a fly. Typically a 2-3 foot dropper is tied into the eye of the first fly, and another fly is attached, where legal. A long sensitive, fast action rod is ideal for this method. Switch rods provide the perfect traits to allow an angler to use either method with equal aplomb. Chuck n duck is oft maligned by purists as crude, but it is undeniably effective. It employs fly line, flies, fly reels and fly rods. The cast is different and it sometimes uses a big chunk of weight, but so what? I’ve used it side by side with traditionalists all through the Great Lakes, the Rockies, the Pacific Northwest and Alaska…and out-fished the traditionalists 10 to 1 in most cases. Most prefer to call it light-line nymphing, which is actually very accurate. The method can be varied to suit your desired level of “tradition”, but it’s effective and it’s not going anywhere.
Having said all of that….I try to go traditional where possible….to wit, I headed out to a couple of my favorite steelhead rivers to put the Sage “Method” Switch rod through its paces…to stack the deck in my favor, I also grabbed my late model Sage 3400D reel and packed two spools. One with a DT 7 F Spey line…..and one with just a thin diameter running line.
First stop was the Pere Marquette river Near Baldwin, Michigan. The upper river, downstream from Baldwin is flies only and is hallowed ground for Steelhead, salmon and trout fishermen. I guided the river, on and off for many years and have had clients from as far as New Zealand, Sweden, France and Russia. It’s a world class fishery….when the fish are biting. The Pere Marquette offers a mix of wide, roomy water, and tight technical water so I started off traditional with the floating line and a long tapered leader. Even with traditional line and leader, there are a huge variety of effective rigs. Many use some type of strike indicator….or even balsa “corks”. I opted for a small yarn indicator and a 12’ leader with a small black stonefly nymph with a 2’ foot dropper ending with a small green caddis larva….a common and effective combo on the PM.
The Method switch was a dream. Roll casts were effortless. Spey casts leapt off the rod tip at the mere thought of casting. Mending line in the relatively narrow and fast runs was a breeze. Switch rods being hybrids, can be false cast, cast one handed, and double hauled and the Method from Sage performed all of these tasks perfectly.
10 minutes into the second pool that I plied, my drift was rudely interrupted. The sensitivity of the Method proved to be exceptional and I swear I could feel the chunky, bright steelhead chewing my fly to death as I lifted gently to set the hook. Great feel and great backbone made the Method the perfect tool to battle the fish in tight log choked confines, while protecting the 4lb tippet. The length was ideal for managing my drift into, around and back out of the numerous brush choked holes.
I switched between light-line and traditional methods, and between wide and narrow rivers in the three days that I put the Sage Method through its paces. It handled every challenge without any effort. I lost count of hooked fished, but landed 13 Steelhead and a handful of brown trout on two distinctly different river systems using the Method. I never got tired of casting it ….or playing fish on it. It seemed to cast itself while telepathically keeping me posted on every movement at the end of my tippet.
Sage offers premium rods and the price of the Method is indicative of that, but it’s true, you do get what you pay for…and I’ve always been of the opinion that you should buy the best tools that you can afford, then try your best to wear them out. It applies to guns, chisels, guitars, frying pans and fly rods. The Method Switch rod from Sage is a tool that you can grow old with. In the process of trying to wear it out, you’ll make some great memories. The Sage "Method" 10ft. 7 weight is next on my wish list....I guess I'll be forced to get back to the river to make a few memories of my own....I'll be saving my pennies in the mean time. It's dirty work, but someone has to do it.
Review by Brandon Vaughan
.450 Bushmaster from Match Grade
By Brandon Vaughan
Anyone who has paid any attention to firearms deer hunting regulations in the Midwest will know that many traditional “shotgun only” zones have been opened up to allow hunters to use center fire rifles, albeit with limitations. In my home state of Michigan, the lower half of the lower peninsula, formerly shotgun only, now allows for “straight walled, center fire rifle and pistol cartridges, up to 1.8” in case length”. This really opens the door to many very capable medium range rounds. These include, among others, .357 mag. .357 max. 44 Mag, 454 casull, 460S&W and .450 Bushmaster. Except for the 460 and 450, most of these have been legal for a while. The .450 Bushmaster is the one standout that wasn’t available in a pistol configuration, and wasn’t legal for hunting as a center fire rifle formerly. It’s also the one round that has gotten the most attention, because it’s a real deer killer with knock down power and accuracy out to 300 yds or more, offering much better performance than the old pistol standbys, 44 mag or 357 mag. I’ve taken deer with 357 and 44 mags, and the 450BM, and I can tell you, there’s no comparison. The Bushmaster flattens deer at ranges that I’d never even attempt with a 44 mag! The Bushmaster is undoubtedly the most common new offering that’s available in rifle platforms, being originally chambered in AR-15 platforms. Now it can be found chambered in affordable factory bolt actions and the very successful Thompson Center Encore single shot rifle, IF you get an aftermarket barrel from a company like Match Grade Machine, who specializes in barrels for TC Encores and Contenders. Thompson Center doesn’t offer .450 BM as a factory option. I’ve been a fan of the Encore for a long time, and have amassed a few, which is counter intuitive because the beauty of the Encore is that with one receiver, many different barrels, with many different chamberings can be used. This includes rifle and pistol options. So I now have 6 frames and probably 14 or 15 barrel/scope combos, including a few really rare case colored frames and exhibition wood stocks…. What can I say, if you’re reading this you’re familiar with the gun nut disease. For years I have relied on a scoped, rifled 20 ga. Slug barrel for general firearms season in Southern MI., and a .50 cal. scoped Muzzle-loader barrel for blackpowder season. Both are great, accurate options, but both have 28” barrels, are weighty and in the case of the 20 ga. Slug gun, doesn’t have back-up iron sights. I have wanted a short, light, large caliber carbine for my “Southern” hunting for a while. Well my wish finally came true. I made a call to Match Grade Machine in Hurricane, UT. Their very helpful staff, quickly got me sorted out with all the specifics I was looking for, and an order was placed and in no time my new barrel was on its way. I own 4 Match Grade Machine barrels for TC Encores now and I can say without hesitation that they make a great product. Fit and finish is flawless. Accuracy is unparalleled and you can order just about any reasonable option in just about any caliber/chambering. For my new Encore barrel, in .450 Bushmaster, I wanted it to be short, 20” tops, and as light as is practical, but without punishing recoil. The specs were as follows, 20” fluted Stainless barrel, screw-on muzzle brake, iron sights, mounted ahead of a MGM 6 screw Picatinny rail, the latter being very useful for keeping a scope in place with heavy recoiling rounds, though as it turned out the muzzle brake reduced felt recoil so much that it’s not an issue. Upon delivery of my new carbine, I quickly mounted a Leupold Mark AR 1.5x4 power scope with Leupold quick detach rings. Everything dropped into place on the MGM rail and I packed up my range bag with ammo and gear and headed off to the range to sight in. Unfortunately, my preferred range was unexpectedly closed and I had to opt for another range that was limited to 100 yd targets. No worries. I quickly zeroed my previously bore-sighted barrel/scope set-up in three shots at 25 yds, and moved out to 100 yds. A few more minor adjustments and tight 1” groups were printing consistently. I zeroed the crosshairs just under 2” high at 100 yds with the intention of zeroing at 200 yds., as soon as possible. I also plan on installing a custom dial on my Leupold scope with hash marks out to 300 yds, after verifying muzzle velocity and other ballistic data in the future. 2” high at 100 should equate to dead on at 200. I fired a few more rounds back at 50 and 25 yds to memorize and record impacts at those ranges, as this gun was designed with a few local hunting spots in mind that offer mostly close range shots on deer. Removing the scope, I checked the iron sights and after a couple of tweaks, I re-attached the quick detach mounted scope, and re-verified the zero, which didn’t shift through the detach/re-attach process. At every range the MGM barrel performed flawlessly, sending big Hornady SST 250 grain slugs into very tight groups, with manageable recoil and no fuss. The .450 Bushmaster barrel from Match Grade Machine is a gem and will be my “go to” choice for Southern MI. from now on. Deer don’t stand a chance, and new year-round opportunities abound in my area with feral hogs gaining ground, and loads of coyotes ever present. This is a bona fide 300 yd gun with plenty of stout knock down power at that range! I’ll post a long term update…some time down the road, though I’m sure the results will be the same. I also own MGM barrels in .243 Win. .357 Mag. and .223. All are still performing great, and now with the “Thumper” .450 Bushmaster, MGM has me covered for everything….up to, and including bear.
Review and photos By Brandon Vaughan