The Sheep Rifle
September 23, 2010
A long-overdue look at guns and loads for a special class of hunting
These two Kimber M8400s, shown with two Stone rams they accounted for, are examples of the ideal sheep rifle. Weight is less than 7 1/2 pounds with scope--just right--and chamberings are .270 and .300 WSM, both superb choices.
When I was a youngster it was pretty simple to figure out what a sheep rifle looked like, what cartridge it should be chambered to and even what bullet should be selected. All you had to do was read a bit of Jack O'Connor, and you knew everything you needed to know. O'Connor has been incorrectly labeled as "Mr. Sheep Hunter" and ".270 Jack." It is true that he loved his .270, but it's also true that he hunted wild sheep with a variety of other cartridges, including such an unlikely choice as the .348 Winchester. He loved sheep and sheep hunting above all else, but it's equally true that he hunted a tremendous variety of other game throughout the world, so he was properly qualified to make comparisons.
Today I am somewhat amused by the stories on sheep rifles and cartridges written by colleagues who have managed to make just a few (sometimes as few as one) sheep hunts in their entire careers. Their choice worked, so it was perfect, right? I suppose this follows the First Law of Gunwriting: If an editor will buy a story, then it should be written.
Come to think of it, I might well have succumbed to the temptation to write the definitive story on sheep rifles when I took my first ram back in 1973. But there were two problems. First, Jack O'Connor was still alive, still writing and still hunting sheep. No budding journalist--or editor--would have the temerity to step into that lion's den. Second, even if I could have talked an editor into running a "sheep-rifle story" by me (very unlikely), even back then I knew that the rifle I used, a .375 H&H, was wildly unsuitable. No story there.
Thirty-plus years have passed. Oddly, although I have written about most of my sheep hunts, and there are a couple of book chapters here and there, I do not believe I have ever written a feature-length magazine article on the subject of rifles and cartridges for sheep hunting. (Perhaps I still fear to tread in the shadow of Jack O'Connor.) But there should be no fear. I've tried this and that, and I believe O'Connor pretty much had it right, absent only some of today's innovations and trends. I think you will find I treat his legacy with heartfelt respect throughout.
IN O'CONNOR'S SHADOW
As to whether I have the right to address his favorite subject, only you can judge. O'Connor didn't like to bandy about numbers, so the actual number of sheep he took is unknown. His longtime friend Buck Buckner estimates that he may have taken close to 50 wild sheep--clearly a vast amount of experience. Hunting in a different time, he took many desert bighorns, and the majority of his total, whatever it might be, comprised North American sheep.
I will follow O'Connor's lead and not give a number, but at this stage of my career I have taken something over half as many sheep as he did. Given my age and income, it is unlikely I will ever approach his number (whatever it might actually be). I will certainly never equal his experience with desert bighorns; the ram that is probably my only desert sheep was strictly courtesy of Osama bin Laden, thanks to the year of combat pay he provided me. O'Connor also had the opportunity to hunt bighorns back in the '40s, before quotas and drawings. I have drawn two bighorn tags, so it's somewhat unlikely that I'll draw another.
Overall, however, I have hunted wild sheep in more places (all of his Dall sheep came from Yukon, all of his bighorns from Alberta, all of his Stone sheep from B.C., all of his Asian sheep from Iran). This is simply because in my time, the opportunities have been different. I have hunted Dall sheep in Alaska, Yukon and Northwest Territories; Stone sheep in both B.C. and Yukon. I would love to hunt in Alberta and in Iran, but I can't afford the former and am politically barred from the latter. So I hunted bighorns in Wyoming and Montana, and I have hunted Asian sheep in countries that in O'Connor's time were locked behind the Iron Curtain.
A nice Wyoming bighorn taken with the author's
Rifles Inc. .300 Weatherby Magnum. He chose the .300
because he thought he might need both the added range
and the extra confidence for a longer shot. Any fast cartridge from .270 up through the fast .30s works fine for sheep.
It should also be noted that while we are focusing on the more glamorous sheep, rifles and cartridges for wild goats are identical, excepting only that goats tend to be tougher physically and often live in tougher country. I have hunted several times for our Rocky Mountain goat and have also hunted Himalayan tahr and various races of chamois and ibex in several parts of the world.
This is the position the author used to take a desert sheep. The rifle is a Remington Model 700 rebarreled to .300 H&H by Geoff Miller. Many rifles would have been suitable, but look at the cramped position: If you have too much recoil you're going to get a scope cut.
I have made no "bad" choices in rifles and cartridges since the rifles I have carried have never prevented me from getting a ram or goat (other things have). On the other hand, some choices have been better than others, and I have learned a lot in my three decades of sheep hunting. I have especially learned a lot during the last 10 years, when I have been doing a lot more of this type of hunting and, as the years advance, when the mountains have been getting steeper.
Whether this is of interest to you is worth discussing. There is actually more sheep hunting going on today than there was in O'Connor's time. Permits are more limited in both Canada and Alaska, but more U.S. states offer permits. With the Iron Curtain down, there is much more opportunity in Asia. Even so, sheep hunting is limited, so this is a limited subject. Potential interest is broadened by the fact that sheep hunting is a very high-profile adventure, traditionally sparking more armchair interest than other equally limited pursuits.
The other aspect is that, while we are focusing on rifles and cartridges for wild sheep because of the (perhaps inflated) value we hunters place on wild rams, it is important to note that the "perfec
t sheep rifle" is good for quite a few other things besides sheep and goats. A good sheep rifle is also a good rifle for high-country mule deer--and, most likely, an equally good rifle for any deer hunted in relatively open country. A good sheep rifle is probably not ideal for moose and grizzly, but it can certainly be pressed into service for elk and will most likely be ideal for caribou.
So, while we're talking about sheep rifles, it's important to keep in mind that the sheep rifle is not a specialized tool. It will do just fine for hunting any medium-size big game in open country, with emphasis on country that is steep and tough to get around in. With this in mind, let's talk about sheep rifles and cartridges.
I could keep this extremely simple and just say O'Connor had it right. He is best known as the champion of the .270 Winchester and certainly believed it was the ideal choice for mountain hunting.
This conclusion was not arrived upon in a vacuum. He also hunted sheep with the .30-06, 7x57, .257 Roberts and almost certainly a couple of belted magnums. He also used at least one wildly unsuitable cartridge, taking a desert ram with a .348 Winchester (hard to believe, but it seems likely that even O'Connor, once in awhile, had obligations to do stories about particular rifles and/or cartridges).
As stated, my own most wildly unsuitable choice was the .375 H&H. I have also taken sheep and goats with the .25 WSSM, .257 Weatherby, .270 Winchester, .270 WSM, .270 Weatherby Magnum, 7x57, .280 Remington, 7mm Remington Magnum, .30-06, .300 Winchester Magnum, .300 H&H, .300 Weatherby Magnum, 7.82 (.308) Warbird and 8mm Remington Magnum. Maybe some others.
Left to right: .270 Winchester, .280 Remington, .270 Weatherby Magnum, 7mm Remington Magnum, 7mm Remington Ultra Mag, .300 Winchester Magnum, .300 Weatherby Magnum. These are just a few of the standard cartridges and standard, long, belted and unbelted magnums that provide all the power and reach needed in sheep hunting. Cartridges over .30 are never called for, and the most important thing is that your choice gives you confidence when it counts.
In years gone by I have written that .30-caliber magnums are the best overall choices. This was based on a situation that occurred during my first bighorn hunt, in Montana in 1994. We got pinned down at sunset by a band of rams at almost exactly 400 yards, and I lacked the confidence to take the shot with the .270 Winchester I was carrying. We eventually got the same ram at little more than 100 yards, but it took several days to find him again.
I swore that if I ever drew another bighorn tag, I'd carry a .300 magnum. I did, and I did, taking my second ram with a .300 Weatherby Magnum. As noted, I've used other fast .30s as well, including a .300 H&H with hot handloads on my (probably) once-in-a-lifetime desert sheep and a Lazzeroni Warbird on a Yukon Dall sheep hunt and blue sheep hunt in China.
Although I love my 8mm Remington Magnum and have used it on sheep in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Chad, there is no justification for hunting sheep with any caliber above .30. Even the largest Asian sheep simply aren't that big, and regardless of race, sheep aren't all that tough. Goats are very tough, but they're also narrow through the body; the answer for anchoring them isn't a larger caliber but bullets that will open up fairly quickly.
Left to right: .270 WSM, 7mm WSM, .300 WSM, 7mm RSAUM, .300 RSAUM. The new short magnums are wonderful mountain cartridges. Not only are they flat-shooting, the short actions they're housed in reduce gun weight.
If a fast .30 gives you the confidence you need to make a difficult shot that might be your one and only chance, then that's what you should carry. On the other hand, lighter calibers kick less, can be built into lighter rifles, have plenty of power for any sheep or goat and (if the right choice is made in cartridge, bullet and load) shoot flat enough for any sensible shot.
In other words, again, O'Connor had it right: The good old .270 Winchester is just fine if it gives you the confidence you need. It is also far from the only choice and may not be the very best choice. Although some hunters (including, on occasion, both O'Connor and me) prefer .25s, I think the caliber is a bit light for the larger sheep and goats. A fast, accurate .25 probably is ideal for small sheep like mouflon, and just last week I used a borrowed .257 Weatherby to take a chamois in Spain's Pyrenees. But for the full run of mountain game, I think the right choices start with fast 6.5mms.
All are rare in North America today, but I'm thinking of cartridges like the .264 Winchester Magnum, the wildcat 6.5-06 and the European 6.5x68. Then come the .270s: .270 Winchester, .270 Weatherby, .270 WSM. Then come the fast 7s. I love the 7x57 and 7mm-08 in proper applications, but here I'm thinking about the .280 Remington as the baseline and then all the 7mm magnums--short, long, belted or unbelted. Then come the .30s. Although the .30-06 is probably my all-time-favorite cartridge, I'd leave that out and start with the short magnums and go all the way up.
Within this range all of these cartridges will do the job, and all aerodynamic bullets of at least medium weight for caliber will buck the wind well enough. Many shots at both sheep and goats are surprisingly close and easy; it's really a stalking game, which is why it's so much fun. On the other hand, some mountain ranges are very open, and often good trophies are very hard to locate. It can come down to just one chance, and it won't always be easy. So it's really a matter of what gives you the most confidence.
I have gone through phases with a number of .270s, 7mms and .30s and probably will go through some more. So if the knees and lungs hold for another 20 years, please don't hold me to this, but right now I think the .270 WSM may just be the most ideal mountain cartridge to come down the pike. Maybe O'Connor would approve; maybe he wouldn't. The difference in trajectory between it and his beloved .270 Winchester really isn't dramatic. What I like about it is that it delivers considerably more energy--which you don't necessarily need on sheep or goats but you might need on larger game encountered in the same mountains--and I like very much the short actions it can be packaged in. I used the .270 WSM on my second Marco Polo sheep hunt in 2003, and I have also used it for Himalayan tahr in New Zealand and Stone sheep in Yukon. These experiences have given me tremendous confidence in the cartridge, and I expect I will use it on future mountain hunts.
I've harped on this before, but an unintended consequence of the great bullets we have today is that many hunters
are using bullets that are too tough for the game at hand. Sheep are generally built blockier than goats, but most are not all that large in the body, and even the big-bodied Asian argalis are very slab-sided. Optimally, you want a bullet that will open up fairly quickly.
The kind of hunt you're going on should have some influence on your choice. On a tough backpack hunt you simply must carry a fairly light rifle, and since you can't always get out of the elements, you want a synthetic stock and rustproof metal finish.
Accuracy, of course, is critical, so it depends on what shoots best in your rifle. I like Hornady Interlocks and SSTs, Nosler Ballistic Tips, Sierra Pro Hunters and Game Kings, and I have no problem with tipped, bonded bullets like Hornady's InterBond, Nosler's AccuBond and Swift's Scirocco.
Ideally, this last group should be the toughest bullet considered for use on sheep and goats. However, this depends somewhat on what else might be on the menu. In August 2004 I carried a sweet little Kimber M8400 in .270 WSM on a Stone sheep hunt in the Yukon's Pelly Mountains. The cartridge was perfect for the ram, the main object of the trip. I also carried a grizzly tag, for which any .277-caliber cartridge is less than ideal.
I hedged my bet by using tough Barnes Triple-Shock bullets. Performance on the ram was predictable. The shot was quartering away; the bullet entered behind the off-shoulder, zipped through the heart and broke the off-shoulder before exiting. The ram took a few steps before piling up. It is possible that a bullet with more expansion might have been more dramatic (and might have done more pelt damage). However, the point is that, while I didn't get a shot at a bear, with that deep-penetrating bullet I was as ready as a .270 could make me. If I'd chosen the kind of quick-opening bullet I prefer on sheep, I might have been very slightly better off for the ram, but I'd have been poorly prepared if I got a crack at a good grizzly.
A bolt-action rifle was O'Connor's preference and is definitely the standard choice for sheep hunting. It is not mandatory. There are really just two considerations for mountain hunting. First is accuracy. Long shots aren't always, or even often, required, but you must be prepared for them. That means a rifle that will shoot tight groups of no more than one MOA, and tighter is better. In most models the bolt action has the edge, but all action types can be chambered to suitable cartridges, and at least some individual rifles in all action types are capable of adequate accuracy.
The second consideration narrows the choice a bit, at least in my mind. It is extremely important that you be able to chamber a round quietly. This is because mountain hunting often requires climbing and scrambling, and it's unwise to keep a round in the chamber while you're negotiating obstacles. When you reach the top of the ridge or pitch up behind the last boulder, you may be in close proximity to the game, and you need to be able to load your chamber almost silently. If the shot doesn't materialize and you have to move again--or crawl--you want to be able to unload the chamber just as quietly. I have taken a number of sheep at less than 100 yards and a couple within easy bow range, so this is an important consideration.
In my mind this lets out actions that must be worked vigorously to ensure seating and lockup, like semiautos and slide actions. Remaining are bolt actions, single-shots and perhaps the few lever actions chambered to suitable flat-shooting cartridges. I do prefer a bolt action for its accuracy and simplicity, but I have used single-shots and have no issue with them.
The whole concept to mountain hunting is to make a good stalk and take one well-placed shot. Sometimes it doesn't work out that way, but if there's time for more than one shot at all, there is usually time to reload a single-shot. I have never personally used a lever action, but my buddy at Rigby, Geoff Miller, loves the old Winchester M88 action (as do I). He has figured out how to make it feed the WSM cartridges, so there might be a real lever-action sheep rifle right around the corner.
Sheep are not particularly tough animals, so any good hunting bullet will do the job. The author recommends making the choice based on accuracy and aerodynamic shape, but, all things equal, you're better off with a bullet that opens up fairly quickly.
STOCKS AND METAL FINISHES
Jack O'Connor was a good wood man, period. This makes sense because synthetic sporter stocks only started to show up in the mid-1970s, and he passed away in 1977. Similarly, he was a traditional blued-steel guy, period. We had stainless steels barrels then, but stainless steel actions and true rustproof finishes didn't come along until more recently. Still, O'Connor was a bit of a traditionalist, and I doubt he would have embraced stainless steel and synthetic.
Come to think of it, I'm not sure that I have. I got my first synthetic stock back in 1979, and I have a couple of stainless steel rifles and one titanium-actioned 7mm magnum from Prairie Gun Works up in Saskatchewan, but most of my rifles have walnut stocks and blued steel. Aesthetically, this is my strong preference, and most of my sheep and goats have been taken with traditional walnut and blued-steel rifles. I cannot say that this has ever been a handicap.
On the other hand, despite my personal preferences, I have to say that synthetic stocks and rustproof finishes are better. Mountain hunting is tough, and I've gouged many a fine piece of walnut up in the rocks. Every time, I've sworn I'd never again take a nice rifle into such country, but for some reason I keep doing the same darned thing.
Elevation here is about 16,000 feet in Tajikistan's Pamirs. It's November and very cold and snowy. The author's rifle is wooden-stocked with blued steel, but under conditions like these, synthetic and stainless would make more sense.
Synthetic stocks can be repainted (if you care). Most of my wood-stocked rifles carry gouges that can be disguised but are too deep to repair. Synthetic stocks are also definitely more stable while weather in high country is anything but stable. In late summer and early fall, rainstorms and snow squalls are common, and on later hunts snow is almost a certainty. Walnut stocks can get totally ruined and may swell and change zero. Synthetic stocks shrug off the weather, and for the same reason stainless steel or at least rustproof metal finishing is also better than blue. One
of these days I'll start following my own advice on a more consistent basis.
SCOPES AND SIGHTS
O'Connor believed a fixed 4X was all the scope needed. Such a scope saves gun weight and is indeed adequate for most shots. Also, O'Connor hunted in a time when variable scopes were considered (with some justification) unreliable.
Here I must disagree with the master. Modern variables are extremely reliable, and I want the added confidence I get from plenty of magnification for those occasions when it's necessary to stretch out a shot. On the other hand, I don't want to saddle myself with a really heavy scope. So I tend to strike a happy medium by using variables between about 2.5-8X and 4.5-14X. In this kind of hunting the added weight and bulk of a 30mm tube really isn't essential since little sheep hunting is done in poor light. In the early morning you're usually still climbing, and when the light gets dim it's time to get off the mountain.
Obviously, scopes for mountain hunting must be rugged and reliable. If you take a fall, chances are the scope will get bumped. A good scope can actually take a tremendous knock without coming out of zero, but that supposes equally rugged and reliable rings--and for darn sure it can happen. In Wyoming in '98 we finally spotted a bighorn ram after 11 days of very hard hunting. The ram was far enough away that I actually fired a shot at a stump to check zero before beginning the stalk. This is not always possible, but if I've been hunting hard for a few days without a shot, or if I've taken a spill, I like to at least check boresight (a laser boresighter is a great idea). None of what I think of as my "mountain rifles" has auxiliary iron sights, so I do trust good scopes and mounts, but if there isn't a spare rifle in camp, it's a good idea to bring a spare scope set in rings just in case.
I have struggled up sheep and goat mountains with extremely heavy rifles. My 28-inch-barreled 8mm Remington Magnum weighs at least 11 pounds, likewise a 7.82 (.308) Lazzeroni. There have been times when the capabilities of both rifles were welcome, but that's just too much gun weight on a mountain. At the other extreme, it is quite possible to get accurate and adequately powerful rifles down to little more than five pounds. Lightweights in this class are OK for the deliberate, supported shot that's the norm, but I find them whippy and hard to control for the occasional "take it or leave it" unsupported shot. This is especially true when you're breathing hard, and in the mountains, you always are.
So I think Jack O'Connor had it exactly right. He wanted an accurate, flat-shooting rifle that weighed--scoped and all set to go--somewhere in the neighborhood of seven to 7 1/2 pounds. You bet!
On horseback hunts you can sometimes get away with a bit more gun weight; just don't forget that, sooner or later, you're going to have to tie up the horses and climb.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The .270 WSM I took to Tajikistan and New Zealand in the past year was a Winchester M70 Featherweight; with 3.5-10X Nikon scope it weighed just a bit more than 7 1/2 pounds. The Kimber M8400 I carried in the Yukon last August weighed a bit less than 7 1/2 pounds with a 2.5-8X Leupold. Both were wonderful to carry, both had all the capabilities I need in a sheep rifle, and neither kick me into next week (or cut my forehead) when I have to shoot from a cramped position.
Both of these rifles, by the way, are walnut stocked. This is proof positive that stock design is almost as important as material when it comes to weight. All things equal, a trim, classic-styled wooden stock sans cheekpiece weighs just a few ounces more than most synthetic stocks. Kimber's Montana rifle in stainless and synthetic does weigh a full pound less than its walnut-stocked rifles in identical calibers, but the Montana also has a blind magazine, so a fair amount of the weight reduction comes from less steel.
After 30 years of at least occasional sheep hunting in a lot of different places, I find the mountains seem to be getting steeper and higher. I won't carry heavy rifles anymore, but to my thinking, a few ounces aren't worth quibbling over. I want a sheep rifle light enough to carry all day but heavy enough to hold steady. It needs to be in an accurate, flat-shooting caliber between .270 and .30. Optimally, it will shoot an accurate bullet that opens fairly quickly, wears a good variable scope with an upper range of 8X or better, and if it has all these things, I also won't argue over stock material or metal finish. I don't think Jack O'Connor would disagree too much.