By Ralph M. Lermayer
A heart shot from the 6.8 SPC, which uses .277-diameter bullets, dropped this tundra bull. If the 6.8 can cleanly dispatch caribou, it should be more than adequate for whitetails.
Fall heralds an odd double-reverse migration in the far North Country. The caribou herds begin to form up and head south, while simultaneously, thousands of orange-clad hunters bunch up on the Canadian border for the trek north to meet them. When looking at the number of hunters stacking up in the hotels and motels, eager to make the multi-leg float trip to the northern camps, I can’t help but wonder which herds are bigger. Scores of hunters have discovered the lure of hunting tundra bulls.
It’s the kind of hunt you can’t do just once. The magnificence of the caribou bull, the total wilderness experience of the Far North, the spell of the aurora-filled night sky and the magic of the tundra are narcotic. Any and all of these make my annual caribou hunt a must, but this year there was an added bonus. I’d be field-testing a brand-new cartridge.
The 6.8 SPC is the latest offering from Remington. It’s a product of the current military conflict. It seems that simply disabling combatants is not enough. As long as they are mobile, they can still pull a ripcord and set off an explosive. They need to be immobilized quickly, and that calls for more bullet weight than the 55-grainer found in the 5.56mm (.223) currently used by our guys. To further complicate things, the new round had to fit and function in existing AR rifles. With millions currently in use and the military fully trained in their operation, simply swapping upper assemblies to a more potent round made the most sense.
The 6.8’s parent case is the vintage .30 Remington. This long-discontinued case is very similar dimensionally to the .223. By simply necking it down to .270, loading it with 115-grain bullets and fitting new upper assemblies on existing ARs, they had the solution. Enter the 6.8 Remington SPC. It’s essentially a mild .270.
An obvious question was, how would it do as a sporting round? Ballistics are not voodoo. On paper, a well-constructed .277 115-grain bullet leaving the muzzle at about 2,700 fps parallels much of what is in use today. Energy is far better than the .30-30, .260 Rem, 7-30 Waters and such, all considered more than adequate whitetail medicine. So why wouldn’t the 6.8 Rem be effective on deer-size game? Caribou are big deer, hence, I was off to the tundra packing a prototype rifle chambered in 6.8 and a few boxes of prototype sporting loads.
Remington Custom Shop Model Seven AWR in Rem 6.8 SPC.
Our hunt was booked through Ungava Adventures. Having a reliable outfitter is a must, as the logistics of getting you and your gear in, as well as your trophies back out, is no easy task in the Far North. All access is by plane, and it usually takes three plane trips to get there. The first, from home to a border town (in this case, Montreal), the second on a cargo plane from the border city to a remote field, and the last, a pontoon float plane to get to camp. On the last two, weather is often a factor, sometimes necessitating a long layover in a remote village waiting for the weather to break. Ours was no exception.
The flight from Quebec to the remote Inuit village of Kuujuak was in inclement weather, but not bad enough to stop the multi-engine vintage cargo plane. Once in town, we were forced to overnight there and spend a lot of time drinking gallons of coffee in the only local cafe, waiting for the weather to break and let us make the last leg. Sammy Cantafio and his staff kept us warm, informed and entertained during the delay, and stayed on top of the weather, getting us out during the first brief opportunity.
Chris Lalik with the first caribou bull he’d ever seen. It turned out to be the best taken in camp.
A good outfitter will make or break a northern hunt. We were lucky. We were able to get out after only a 30-hour delay. Others, whose camps were farther north, spent several days waiting before even the gutsy bush pilots would venture a flight. So goes hunting in the Arctic, and the need for the preparation and contacts of a reliable outfitter.
The flight to camp was a low-altitude nail-biter, rarely going higher than 300 feet above the soggy tundra in order to stay “under” the weather.
We finally arrived, touched down, peeled our white knuckles from the seats, and were welcomed to a warm cook cabin complete with hot coffee and homemade buns. Brief conversations with the outgoing party and a look at their collection of trophies told an all-too-common caribou tale. They shot too soon. All saw far bigger bulls after their tags were filled - pretty common with first-time caribou hunters. Most caribou look huge. It takes a trained eye to pick out the real trophies.
One of my hunting partners on this trip was a first-time caribou hunter who paid particular heed to the warning. Bushnell’s Chris Lalik and I were partnered, and his constant plea of “Don’t let me shoot it if it’s not big enough” and “Don’t let me shoot the first one I see” echoed repeatedly until we finally managed to get some sleep in preparation for the next day’s hunt. The pleas began again as we boarded the boat at daybreak for the 20-minute trip to a cove on the opposite shore. I assured him I would not let him blunder, but he kept up the tirade.
The 6.8 Rem SPC shown next to a standard .223 Rem cartridge. Overall case length is nearly identical, but the 6.8 reaches farther and hits harder.
Chris drew the first shot. As the engine slowed and we eased into the cove, one of the best caribou bulls I have ever seen stood up about 90 yards on the opposite shore. The guide yelled “Bull!” I yelled “Shoot!” and Chris yelled “But it’s the first one I’ve seen!” Amid his continued protest, we jumped to shore. I had to physically shove him to the ground, jam my shooting sticks in the mud in front of him, and yell “Shoot!” followed by a string of expletives. The bull was now headed over a ridge on the far side, about 140 yards distant. Chris settled down, settled in and settled the matter.
A 165-grain bullet from his .30-06 ended further discussion. That bull turned out to be the best taken in camp. It sported lots of mass, deep bez points and great tops. Truly a magnificent trophy, but against all caribou logic, it was the first one he ever saw. Go figure. After photos, cutting, packing and getting Chris’ bull to the boat, the balance of the day yielded no mature targets on which to test the new 6.8.
Things got progressively worse over the next two days. The weather turned bad, and the caribou seemed to disappear. Such is the way with the tundra ghosts. There was time for a little fishing, a few bouts with local ptarmigan, and even a close encounter with a cantankerous musk ox bull, but the chances of testing the new 6.8 on caribou were not promising. The frigid north winds were out with a vengeance.
On day four, we decided to hunker down on a knoll overlooking a known caribou trail. Sitting in the shelter of some rocks on that knoll would at least afford us some shelter from the vicious 40-mph winds that were now ravaging the country. The winds were so severe that you could not stand upright without rocking. We hooded up and spent most of the day peering through binoculars through the small openings of our hoods. Next to me, Remington’s Eddie Stevenson shared my misery, hoping for the opportunity to see what the 6.8 would do. We were nearly at the end of our tolerance, ready to chuck it and head for the boat when I saw a set of antler tips about a quarter of a mile away. A bull was apparently feeding behind a small outcropping of rocks similar to our windy perch.
We decided to go for it. Grabbing our scattered gear, we bailed off the knoll. We stayed low and hustled to get to that second rock pile, climb it and try to ambush the bull.
Things don’t always go according to plan. Eddie’s younger legs got him to the knoll about 100 yards ahead of me. He climbed it, topping out while I was only a quarter of the way up the shallow rise. He stood to locate the bull on the back side, and about that time, the bull located him and responded by bailing out of the bottom, heading to our left at full tilt. I made it to the top, saw the running bull and dropped to a handy flat rock for a rifle rest. Eddie stood behind me watching through binoculars. The bull was quartering to our left at a steady lope, directly into that vicious wind.
Fortunately, caribou run on a fairly level plane. They don’t bounce up and down like a mule deer. I placed the vertical crosshair on the tip of his nose, the horizontal crosshair center body and squeezed, trying for a lung shot - the biggest and easiest to hit target under these conditions. The bull piled up. Any forward motion was purely due to momentum from running. I cranked in another round, fully expecting to need it. I didn’t. He could not have gone down any quicker had he been hit with a .458 at point-blank range. We were both dumbfounded.
The 115-grain bullet punched through the ribs and pulverized his heart. The distance on the range-finder was a skosh over 200 yards. The lung shot I was hoping for would have done the job, but probably not nearly as decisively. I’ll be the first to admit that connecting with the heart under those conditions was far more luck than skill, but when it comes to hunting, I’ll take all the luck I can get. Two chilly and sleet-filled hours later, the bull was loaded in the boat, and with the last moments of daylight, we were back in camp.
Now, to deal with ethics! I had a rock-steady rest. The RainGuard coating on the Bushnell scope delivered a clear picture. I had shot the rifle plenty and knew its ability. But, in retrospect, it was a bonehead thing to do. I was caught up in the “last day syndrome” and overly eager to put the new rifle to the test. The wind was severe, and the animal was moving. I flat got lucky, as there was no way to predict what the gusting wind would do to that bullet. On a relatively calm day off that rest, I would have no qualms taking a shot to 200 yards with that set-up, but in looking back, it was chancy in that wind. No reason is a good excuse. I would chastise someone for taking such a shot, and will humbly accept with a bowed head the criticism you will no doubt heap upon me.
It is an inherently accurate cartridge, this 6.8, and delightfully pleasant on the shoulder. The experimental handloads I was shooting on that day have undergone five levels of modification, constantly improving, to the load now offered by Remington — a 115-grain bullet designed to shoot straight and deliver good terminal performance at the velocities the 6.8 delivers. Will the 6.8 go down in history as a good whitetail option? I believe it will. Inside 200 yards, it is as good as many others out there. Much of its future will also hinge on what kind of a performer it is on varmints when loaded with the lightweight bullets like the great Sierra 90 grain. I suspect this one will cause the demise of many a yellow dog, as well as pile up the venison!
For more information on Ungava Adventures, call (514) 694-4424 or visit www.ungava-adventures.com.
This article was printed in the August 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.