April 26, 2023
Caribou season was almost over when Australians Pete and Josh Mayo, father and son, came into camp. They were staying on for the Peninsula bear season—Pete guiding and Josh packing for outfitter friend Dave Leonard. Our camp was all filled out, but Josh had a tag legal for caribou.
Little time remained, but we gave it a whirl. A couple of supposedly huge bulls had been seen, but they’d vanished into the tundra. I took a good bull the day Pete and Josh came in. Watching both the calendar and the fickle weather, I knew he was no giant, but he was good enough. It seemed like a sound decision.
Pete was carrying Dave Leonard’s battered .375. Like me, Pete and Josh are both left-handed, and so is Dave. It was one of few times in my life lefties and left-hand rifles dominated a camp. We lost most of the day to heavy rain, so it was late afternoon when they headed out. I offered Josh my left-handed rifle in 6.5-300 Wby., and he accepted. I’d taken my caribou past 300 yards and knew it was zeroed.
I doubt they’d been gone an hour when we heard a shot off to the north. A couple of guys from camp and I grabbed packs and headed that way. After a long delay, there was another shot, farther north. Then another, and more, each farther away. I lost count, and I wasn’t sure how many shells I’d handed off. We continued north, hoping they hadn’t run afoul of a bear.
Eventually, we found them standing over the most beautiful caribou I’ve ever seen. Long C-shaped beams, big double shovels, good bezes, great top points, easy Boone and Crockett. It wasn’t just Josh Mayo’s first Alaskan animal. It was his first hunting day in North America.
Now, about that running gun battle. The rifle wore a good scope, but it was an older model with a dial-up elevation turret with no zero stop. Josh hit the caribou with his first shot, but it wasn’t down, and he couldn’t hit it again.
Here’s what we think happened. After the first shot, they had to crawl through a dense willow patch. The elevation turret must have caught on a branch and spun, rendering the rifle hopelessly out of zero. Eventually, the bull lay down, and they were able to sneak close.
Losing zero on a scope is certainly not unheard of. Last fall I put a little 1-4X scope on a Uberti falling-block single shot in .303 British. Intended for an AR, the scope had a dial-up turret calibrated for 5.56 NATO. I intended to use the rifle on the range and on my Kansas deer stands, so the magnification was adequate for my thick woods, and I wouldn’t need to dial the range. The turrets had no zero stop, but the clicks seemed firm and positive—surely not a problem between house, range and deer stand.
On the fourth day of the season, I had a nice buck coming toward me through thick woods. At less than 50 yards, he stopped behind a tree and paused. When he stepped out he was quartering strongly to me. I put the crosshairs just inside the point of the on-shoulder, one-third up. His only reaction to the shot was to trot up the ridge. He was in sight for 60 yards, me expecting him to fall over. Almost out of view, he stopped in some thick stuff, but I had the impression he walked off to the left. Not good—and very confusing.
I waited a while and got a buddy to come help drag out the buck. But there was no blood, not a drop anywhere. Even the easiest shots can be missed, so I figured I’d somehow blown it. However, with inexplicable misses, I like to head to the range and check things out, just to make sure. At 50 yards, the rifle was 18 inches low!
Most people know about the 50-year war of words between gun writers Elmer Keith and Jack O’Connor. At a writer seminar when I was just getting started, Keith accused O’Connor of messing with his scope turret. I doubt that happened, just like I doubt that one of the hunters in our camp spun my turret. But other than sabotage, here’s the only explanation I can come up with. I had the rifle in a zipped soft case on a four-wheeler, and when I pulled the rifle out, the elevation turret must have caught and spun. Murphy’s Law in action.
Although the risk is always present, it’s no big deal on the range. I made a vow to myself that I will never again hunt with a scope lacking either turret caps or a firm, solid zero stop.
I’ve spent most of my career holding over for distance. Maybe for the past 25 years or so, I’ve relied heavily on reticles with hash marks or stadia lines for holdover. This is much better than estimating the elevation correction and holding the crosshair intersection somewhere up in the air.
Today, we have great scopes with precise, repeatable adjustments and various turret systems designed for dialing the range. I accept that dialing is the most precise method. I’m trying to train myself to rely on turret adjustment, but it’s still a work in progress. I practice dialing religiously on the range, but in the field I rarely do.
There are reasons for this, both good and bad. The good: On game, the vital zone is a generous target, and only rarely do I shoot far enough that taking the extra few seconds to dial makes sense. The bad: The only way to become good, fast, certain and confident at almost anything is to do it until it becomes second nature.
I’m not there with dialing the range, and when I revert to the old ways I’m not improving. However, dialing the range, if not exactly fraught with potential error, is not, as we said in the Marines, “trooper-proof.” It takes time, and the less familiar, the more time it takes. So at closer ranges, maybe we should be shooting rather than figuring numbers and fiddling with dials.
Every guide or professional hunter has had frustrating situations where opportunities were lost to messing with turrets when a slightly high hold on hair would have worked just fine. And there’s this: Almost anyone who dials the range has, at least once, forgotten to dial back to zero after shooting. It’s a terrible habit, but it’s fine if that first shot worked. However, it’s really bad if it didn’t and the game moves—almost as bad if that first shot isn’t fired and either the shooter or the game moves.
I don’t have a solution, because most of us have done this. It’s still a matter of practice and training, but human error is hard to eliminate.