September 09, 2021
The hunter’s ideal is to always use a totally familiar rifle. But for whatever reason, a few of us sometimes end up hunting with borrowed rifles. A couple of years ago I wondered exactly how much of my big game had been taken with rifles not owned by me, so I looked through the detailed hunting notes kept since my teens. The total turned out to be 62 big game animals, from the Arctic to Africa.
Somehow my first deer, a muley doe, got left off the list, though it certainly qualified. And it broke Rule No. 1 of hunting with borrowed rifles: Shoot the dang thing beforehand to make certain it’s sighted-in for you. The rifle was my father’s Marlin 336 .30-30 Win., loaned near the end of my first hunting season after he’d taken a deer and I’d failed to get a shot with my open-sighted Mosin-Nagant 7.62x54R.
He apparently believed the .30-30’s 4X scope might help. It did not, because the doe fell at 40 feet, soon after it rose from its bed in ponderosa pine timber. The bullet broke the spine, and it’s still the biggest mule deer I’ve taken, about the size of a Cape buffalo.
I did not fire the Marlin until that moment because, like many hunters, my father and I assumed that once sighted-in by somebody, a rifle would be on for everybody. In reality, many rifles shoot to different places for different people, especially relatively light rifles of at least moderate recoil, because recoil begins when the bullet starts forward. Overall resistance to recoil—including both the shooter’s and the rifle’s weight—can definitely affect where the muzzle points when the bullet exits the muzzle.
My wife, Eileen, and I are good examples. I’m only an inch taller but weigh around 40 pounds more, much of it in my shoulders. As a result, a typical medium-powered big game rifle groups one to two inches higher for her and usually a little to the right.
Heavier rifles chambered for smaller rounds, such as her 11.5-pound .223 Rem., shoot to the same point of impact—or at least close enough to hit prairie dogs at 300 yards. She also once borrowed my first .257 Wby. Mag., a Vanguard Sporter with a heavy walnut stock and large scope, during a Wyoming pronghorn hunt. The scope on her rifle went bat-crazy, and the Vanguard shot close enough to the same place for Eileen to cleanly take a buck at 275 yards.
The biggest point-of-impact difference I’ve seen involved a typical eight-pound .270 Win.—and another husband and wife. She stood a very slim five feet tall and was not fond of recoil; he was over six feet and 200 pounds. The .270 belonged to her, and he decided to be a gentleman and sight it in. After he got it grouping two inches high at 100 yards, she tried a shot, which landed 18 inches high, and her second shot landed right next to the first.
This is why the professional hunter on my first African safari filed witness marks on the adjustment turrets of the old 4X Leupold on his equally old Sako .375 H&H, his primary backup rifle when guiding plains game hunters. He also sometimes loaned the .375 to hunters after Cape buffalo who didn’t want to buy a big rifle for just one safari, backing them up with his .458 Win. Mag.
The marks indicated where the scope needed to be set for the PH, because the rifle usually shot differently for clients. After a client used the .375, the PH turned the turrets back to the marks, and he said the scope never failed to return to his zero.
A personal .375 H&H experience took place in South Africa on my first cull safari with several companions. In this case I was the borrowee, not the borrower. Cull hunts are a good way to test big game bullets, which was one reason I brought two rifles: a Remington 700 in .30-06 and a Ruger No. 1 in .375 H&H. A bullet company had designed a new medium-weight .375 bullet for game smaller than Cape buffalo, and the cull hunt would provide plenty of field tests.
One other hunter also planned to bring two rifles, but they didn’t arrive in Johannesburg due to a missed airline change in the United States. His rifles were to be delivered to the huge ranch we hunted in the Karoo region, but three days later his guns still hadn’t arrived, and the .375 bullet had been thoroughly tested on game from pronghorn-size springbok to a pair of gemsbok bulls weighing well over 500 pounds. I loaned him the Ruger No. 1 in .375 H&H, but after a couple of missed springbok, he fired the rifle at a piece of paper stuck to a Karoo bush’s thorns, finding the bullets landed eight inches high at 100 yards.
The late hunting writer Finn Aagaard operated a Kenya safari firm for a number of years before moving to Texas in 1977. He often rented rifles at Nairobi gun stores for clients who didn’t bring any, and one favorite was a Brno ZKK .270 Win. Finn also sometimes rented the Brno partway through a plains game safari, when a client couldn’t handle the recoil of the brand-new magnum he’d purchased to slay supposedly super-tough African plains game. (Eventually, Finn became suspicious of any client who showed up with a shiny new .300 magnum, and he claimed only about a third could shoot .300s well enough to consistently kill big game.)
Generally, PH and rental rifles work well, because they’ve been field-tested for years. The rifles used by writers on industry-sponsored hunts, on the other hand, usually haven’t been, because they’re new models or chambered in a new cartridge. Normally, we get a chance to shoot them at the range before hunting, sometimes even at distances beyond 100 yards. Sometimes they simply haven’t been accurate enough for longer-range shooting, occasionally at least partly due to the ammo.
When the 7mm STW became a factory cartridge in the late 1990s, several writers were invited to hunt pronghorns in New Mexico with new 7mm STW rifles made by a major company. We were given the option of having a rifle sent directly to us before the hunt, which I tend to prefer rather than getting to the shoot the rifle only briefly after arriving. They also sent three boxes of new “factory” ammunition, which grouped around three inches for three-shot groups at 100 yards.
The rifle’s stock bedding seemed fine, so I tested the rounds on a run-out gauge. Most bullets were seated really crooked, so I phoned the firm’s PR guy. It turned out they hadn’t produced any factory ammo yet, so somebody put together handloads. Sorting out the rounds with the least amount of run-out resulted in groups averaging about two inches, and I killed a buck at about 200 yards.
Afterward, I purchased the rifle, but even with bullets seated straight I never found a handload that grouped much better than two inches, not ideal for a long-range rifle. Rebarreling solved the problem.
There have been several similar experiences involving rifles and/or ammo, usually when the rifles and scopes haven’t been tested at the range prior to the hunt. This may seem odd, but often there’s simply not enough time. In fact, the evening before one hunt I helped the industry folks mount new scopes on new rifles, because the scopes and rifles arrived separately at the hunt site.
I try not to put brand-new scopes on brand-new rifles. If the rifle doesn’t shoot well, is the problem with the rifle or the scope? But often that’s exactly the combination on such hunts, one reason I’ve had several scopes fail after the initial sight-in, most often on varmint hunts involving dozens or even hundreds of rounds.
This once occurred on a prairie dog shoot sponsored by an optics company. They’d sent me a scope beforehand, and I mounted it on my first .204 Ruger, a very accurate Savage. The scope quit before noon on the first day, but the optics company folks had some extras on hand, so I switched the scope out during the lunch break. (Another lesson learned long ago from plenty of travel hunts: Bring tools for the scope mounts—and a spare scope, preferably already in rings.)
While scopes normally fail due to recoil heavier than the .204 Ruger’s, I’ve also had them fail on mild-kicking big game rifles. A few years ago I took part in a Texas cull where writers could take four whitetails: a cull and a trophy buck, two does, plus any wild boars we encountered.
The assigned rifle turned out to be a recently introduced bolt action in .243 Win., with a brand-new 3-9X scope. After sighting-in on a 100-yard range, both worked fine on two bucks and a doe, but apparently either the stout recoil of the .243 or riding in stiff-suspension pickups around on ranch roads affected the scope. The second doe stood facing me at 120 yards, and from a good rest I aimed at the “dimple” at the base of the neck, a placement that normally drops deer right there. Instead the doe turned and ran into the brush, innards hanging below the belly.
Luckily, the guide’s tracking dog found the deer quickly. Apparently, the bullet had landed at least six inches low, unzipping the belly skin. We shot the rifle at a cardboard box and the bullet holes scattered wildly, so we started driving back to the ranch house to hang the doe in the walk-in cooler and then rescope the rifle.
But as we passed the junction of another road, the guide suddenly said, “Pigs!” He kept driving for a half-mile before pulling over, explaining he’d seen two eating-size pigs maybe 200 yards down the side road. I wanted to take some wild pork home, partly because hunting Texas and not killing a pig seems somehow un-American.
He offered me his rifle, an open-sighted Model 94 Winchester carbine, chambered in (duh!) .30-30. I said, “How’s it sighted-in?”
“At what range?”
“At any range.” I then noticed the elevation ladder under the rear sight had gone missing.
“Okay,” I said, taking the carbine while mentally preparing to once again break Rule No. 1 of hunting with borrowed hunting rifles—with another lever-action .30-30. After levering a round into the chamber and lowering the hammer to the half-cock position, I hiked back to the side road, then slowed and cautiously peeked around the brush-bordered bend.
I could see the pair of pigs, one black-and-white and one red, grubbing in the vegetation between the tracks of the road, half-obscured by the legs of two crossbred cows. I slowly stalked through the roadside brush, partly using the cows as cover.
The cows eventually moseyed off the road, but by then both pigs were feeding with their butts toward me, so I eased closer. When the black-and-white pig turned sideways I put the front bead on its spine, knowing the shot would land lower. At the shot both pigs ran into the brush, and I followed a short blood trail to my tender little porker. The bullet had landed just above the brisket, centering the heart.
Rule No. 2 of hunting with rifles you’ve never fired is also Rule No. 1 of hunting dangerous game: Get as close you can, then get closer.