As the Luke Combs song goes, “It’s a mystery, I suppose…Just how long this thing goes!” Very few of us are doing much (any?) hunting right now. I’m tired of lamenting about plans gone awry, which are not very important in the grand scheme of things. At least we can still shoot. Or, at least I can and I hope that you can! That depends on your situation, but shooting is primarily an outdoor pastime, where proper social distancing is pretty normal anyway, even on public ranges.
Many years have passed since I’ve been a competitive shooter in any discipline, but in the normal course of things I spend a lot of time on the range. Practically, it’s part of my job (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). I like to shoot and figure I’ll never be so old that I don’t need to practice. I spend a lot of time shooting for magazine articles and checking ammo for accuracy (that’s my story).
Historically, most range sessions are spent getting a certain rifle and load dialed in for a specific hunt. The perfect rifle and load for a three-toed gazork (or whatever). I’m kind of silly about that stuff. This probably doesn’t apply to the many “one-rifle/one-load” hunters. Truth is, you’re probably at least as successful as I am, because you rely upon an old friend and known formula. Me, I’m always trying this and that. The old adage, “Beware the one-gun man!” does not apply to me. But remember, this is my job (and still my story!).
In these strange times, I haven’t been able to rationalize that I was getting a rifle ready for a specific hunt. Like all of us, most of my hunts have been cancelled/postponed/rescheduled. There’s been little point in wasting valuable trigger time getting ready for a hunt that may not happen for a year or two. Knowing me, I might change my mind two or three times.
On the other hand, I love my range time and in this pandemic year I’ve had more of it than usual. Not so bad. In fact, I almost got lucky. Before the lockdown was imaginable, a New Year’s Resolution was to build and set up a new reloading room. Talk about timing. God help those of us who didn’t have some project put off for too long. So, the last couple of months, I’ve been loading 10 of this and 10 of that, and then dashing to the range, trying to find the perfect load for favorite or cool rifles that I haven’t had much time to shoot.
Projects have included an ancient .250 Savage and a (more ancient) .50-90 Sharps, along with 7mm-08 and 7×57, but I haven’t even gotten around to working up loads for cartridges I’m most likely to go hunting with. I’m not saying that I hope the pandemic continues, far from it, but I’ve still got a lot of work to do and when this is over (hopefully soon), I’m not sure I’ll have time to do all the shooting I intended to do.
However, being an eternal optimist, I have spent some range time getting a couple of rifles ready for hunts that just might happen. My tastes in cartridges are sometimes weird. I love the mild 7mms (7mm-08 and 7×57) but, although I’ve used it a lot, the 7mm Remington Magnum has never been a favorite. That latter is my next reloading project because I’ve got a good one, but I was always intrigued by the .280 Ackley Improved, almost 7mm Rem Mag performance, but in a smaller and more efficient case. So, I’ve been messing with a Ruger No. One in .280 AI.
Also, I can’t ignore the sudden and amazing popularity of the 6.5mm. I’ve been working with an Axial Precision rifle in 6.5mm SST, a propriety short magnum pushing a 140-grain bullet at about 3,000 fps, much the same as my old .264 or the new 6.5mm PRC, but in a more efficient case. Hopefully, it will go on an upcoming hunt that might come to pass.
I’m in Kansas now, mowing trails, working food plots and moving stands for a deer season that might (and hopefully will) come to pass. In between tractor time, neighbor Mark Woods and I (socially distanced, of course) have been trying to find the perfect load for a new Browning X-Bolt (Hells Canyon “Speed”). I make no bones that I’m not a 6.5 Creedmoor fan. It’s just too slow in so many applications. However, here in our Southeast Kansas timbered ridges, long shots are unlikely. The Creedmoor is plenty of gun for any deer we have and almost any potential shot and it sure is pleasant to sit at the bench and not get kicked into next week.
That is not the case with the .50-90 Sharps I’ve been playing with. It kicks, especially with the vintage crescent butt plate. As do a lot of older rifles. Maybe shooters were tougher back then (or just didn’t know any better). A new project is a Winchester Model 71 in .348 Winchester. The last iteration of John Browning’s 1886 Winchester, the M71 was only chambered to .348 and the .348 was never chambered to any other rifle besides the M71. Although successful, the M71 was discontinued 60 years ago. It’s an archaic rifle and oddball cartridge (God bless Hornady for a modern load). Even so, the M71 and its .348 cartridge are personal pets and I’ve had a sequence of them for decades. I just got another, not as good as one I have. The bluing is worn silver, but the action is tight and this new one wears a 1950s scope in a Pachmayr side mount. I couldn’t resist. It came with 18 boxes of vintage ammo!
That rifle was part of today’s range session. It shoots well and the 75-year-old ammo went bang. Big difference in recoil between the 200-grain load and the 250-grain heavyweight, neither aided by the steel buttplate. I don’t actually have a hunt in mind for this lovely old rifle, or anything else I was shooting today. But hope springs eternal and I like to have my rifles zeroed and ready with a good load, just in case.
Likewise, I like to be ready! There’s nothing wrong with staying in practice, because things are going to open up and hunters must, inevitably, go hunting. I recognize that I’m lucky. On the Central Coast I use a range on a friend’s ranch, no restrictions in Kansas, I can shoot on my property, or the neighbor’s with no masks required. In these crazy times many are not so fortunate. Makes me envy bowhunters who practice regularly in their backyards, as I once did. But in these pandemic times, getting rusty is not a good idea and there will be “light after dark.” We need to be ready. If you’re really stuck, consider a BB or pellet gun in your basement or garage. Shooting is shooting, and it’s all to the good.–Craig Boddington