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Three for the Road

Text & Photography By Russell Thornberry 

The fastest way to start an argument among deer hunters is to offer an opinion, any opinion, about the “perfect” deer rifle. The truth is that a given rifle might be perfect in one hunter’s hands and not so perfect in another’s. Any perfect deer rifle is the result of a combination of critical elements, which may include (but are not restricted to) caliber, accuracy of a specific cartridge-bullet combination, length of pull, trigger weight, recoil, action, stock design, hunting terrain, and of course, shooter ability. Suffice to say there is no perfect deer rifle unless, above all, it is accurate.

Even in the most inherently accurate rifles, there will be one, or maybe two, load combinations that really perform. For example, a particular .30-06 may shoot great groups with 150-grain factory ammo. But don’t assume that it will do the same with 180s. It probably won’t. In fact, when you find a particular load that performs for you, don’t even assume that the same bullet weight in another brand will perform the same. Odds are that it won’t. When I find that “perfect” cartridge-bullet combination in a particular brand, I’ll buy several boxes, but only if they are of the same lot number. It can be that critical. No rifle will shoot every bullet designed in its caliber well — period!

Photo: Russell Thornberry took this Saskatchewan buck in a thick understory of rose briar with his favorite brush caliber: the .35 Whelen.

How can a rifle be deadly accurate in the hands of one hunter and all but useless in the hands of another? Let’s consider three critical factors: length of pull, trigger weight and eye relief (on scoped rifles). I am reminded of an elk hunt in the Alberta Rockies, years ago. A wealthy veteran Texas elk hunter brought his wife along on her first elk hunt. Their guide was legendary elk and bighorn sheep outfitter, Nayda Hallet, of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. Nayda is a woman, and trust me when I tell you that she was one great guide — tough, too. On the first day of the hunt, Nayda called a huge 6x6 bull into rock-throwing range of her lady hunter. “Take him,” Nayda ordered when the bull stepped into the clear, bugling at the top of his lungs. The lady hunter aimed eternally but never fired a shot, and finally the bull retreated and the opportunity was lost.
“Why didn’t you shoot?” asked a very upset Nayda.

“I couldn’t see him through my scope,” the perplexed lady explained.

Photo: The length of pull is the distance from the trigger to the butt. In this rifle, the pull is 13 1/4 inches.

Nayda quickly figured out that the woman was using her husband’s rifle, and that the stock was a full 2 inches too long for her, making it impossible for her to see through the scope. Nayda and the lady hunter rode swiftly back to base camp. Upon arrival, Nayda jumped off her horse and ordered the woman to hand her the rifle. Nayda snatched out her Swede saw and cut two inches off the butt of the shiny new Weatherby butt stock, right before the eyes of its horrified owner. Wisely he kept his mouth shut — probably saving himself some unwanted dental work. The next day Nayda called another bull into range and the lady hunter made a perfect shot. The lesson? One gun doesn’t fit everybody. The factors are very user-specific. In this case the stock was too long for the shooter and that extended the eye relief of the scope too far from her eye. The general rule of thumb is that a proper fit for a rifle stock, from trigger to butt (length of pull), should be the same distance as measured from the crook of your arm to the crook of your trigger finger. Longer or shorter stocks will either cause eye relief problems as already described, or too little eye relief, which can result in what we refer to as “Weatherby kisses” — cuts over your eye caused from recoil when a scope is too close.

Photo: A rule of thumb for determining your length of pull is the distance from the crook of your arm to the crook of your trigger finger. In this case the length of pull is about an inch too short, as the stock does not fully reach the crook of the arm.

For me, trigger pull is one of the most critical factors. If I have to pull a hard, creeping trigger, I’d be better off throwing rocks. I am deadly with a light, crisp trigger, with no creep. That’s just me. The next guy might require an entirely different trigger pull. Make sure you have exactly what you need.

When I was outfitting for whitetails in Alberta during the 1980s, I was commonly asked what type of rifle a hunter should bring to hunt those big, bull-shouldered bucks. It was not unusual for American hunters to buy new rifles for their Alberta hunt. And since the Alberta bucks were generally bigger than the deer they hunted at home, they would purchase magnums of some stripe. Unfortunately, some of the hunters were very recoil sensitive and terrified of their shiny new cannons. I made them shoot their rifles from a benchrest near my camp before they went hunting, to be certain they were still zeroed after their flights. It was easy to tell which ones were afraid of their rifles. They squirmed and aimed and fidgeted endlessly before firing a shot, and their shots were generally off the map. Within certain logical parameters, I would much rather have seen those over-gunned hunters shooting lighter calibers that they didn’t fear. A .270 in the hands of a confident shooter is far deadlier than a rocking Magnum in the hands of one who’s afraid of it.

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