A Custom Model 1895 Browning
Return to the Last Frontier
It had been five years since my brother and I had hunted Alaska. In the meanwhile we had been to Namibia and Newfoundland together and to Colorado on separate (and unsuccessful) hunts. We both had a yearning for that vast emptiness of the north. For me particularly, it was a yearning not only for the untrammeled character of the last frontier, but for the purity of the hunt itself. Our experience in Newfoundland left a noxious taint that lingered still, faint but persistent, and my frustrating hunt in November 2002 in Colorado, in which I came achingly close to success had been spoiled by, not the failure, but the exploitation of an unscrupulous outfitter who overbooked the camp in the last week of the season (we had seventeen hunters instead of the advertised six). Both of these outfitters asked a lot of money for almost nothing in return and the surprisingly unpleasant personality of each proved the most unwelcome of camp mates on those hunts. I worked very hard on both hunts, hopelessly in Newfoundland and with slim, but real hope in Colorado and of this I have no regrets. But the hunt experiences had been spoiled by lousy outfitting and worse company. My brother and I were ready to restore purity to the experience; hunting in unquestioned fair chase, with deep respect for the game and love of the chase, in conditions that might be primitive, but were well provided, and where we knew beyond any doubt that there would be game.
We made arrangements with Mark Lang of Lake Clark Air, the same outfit that we hunted with in October of 1999. Once again we would be hunting the Mulchatna herd in the Alaskan peninsula, but this time in an alpine setting and a month earlier in the season. We didn't know exactly what these differences would imply, but we wanted to try a change of environment for the sake of variety. Finally, my brother announced that he intended to hunt in as traditional a manner as practicable (and sound - after all, we would be utterly isolated for several days).
A Traditional Rifle
A traditional hunt suited me well. Modern hunting exploits generally leave me cold and while I appreciate the advance of technology, it lacks the allure of old fashioned blue steel and walnut wood. The same can be said for the current crop of ultra magnums. I find nothing in any of the overbore monstrosities worth acquiring. The magnums of forty and fifty years ago are all that anyone ever need ask for, unless they are asking for less (yes, I do like the short action magnums and if I ever replace my beloved .340 Weatherby it will likely be with a .338 WSM, when it finally emerges from the USRAC-Winchester shop).
So, what rifle for this hunt? At first I settled on a very Selous influenced choice: a Ruger No. 1 Medium Sporter with an elegant 26-inch barrel and chambered for the 7 mm Remington Magnum. Not too traditional you say? Well, if loaded like a .275 Holland and Holland or .280 Jeffery circa 1911, using a 160 grain bullet at 2700 fps, it is quite traditional, if a bit newfangled. I bought a New England Custom Guns aperture rear sight that fitted to the Ruger dovetail mount and I also had a Leupold Vari-X III scope in 1.5-5X that would be appropriate if kept on a suitably low power setting. [This was the rifle that I later used on a mule deer hunt in Nebraska in 2005.]
I had resolved my choice of rifle when I was bitten by the Mannlicher-Schoenauer bug. This is a rifle of which I had read much over the years, but I don't think I had ever actually handled one. When I finally began to investigate the weapon I was obsessed with owning one. Contrary to popular thought, the term Mannlicher does not refer to a full length stock, a feature found on some carbines produced by the Austrian gun making firm of Steyr-Diamler-Puch AG (only some of the carbines had that full length stock and I far prefer the rifles); rather, it is the name of the Austrian answer to Peter Paul Mauser and John Browning, one Ritter Ferdinand Mannlicher. There are several Mannlicher rifles dating from the late 1880s, and all Steyr brand hunting rifles to this day carry the name Mannlicher even though there is no remnant of the old boy's touch left in them. Mannlicher was a genius, who took the best atttributes of the Mauser-derived 1888 Commission Rifle and other designs to create what is arguably the most elegant and sophisticated bolt action rifle design ever produced, beginning in 1900. The name Schoenauer is that of the man who designed its unique and amazingly compact rotary spool magazine. Mannlicher-Schoenauer rifles were originally produced in 6.5 x 54 mm (1900 & 1903 Models), 9 x 56 mm calibers (1905 Model), 8 x 56 mm (1908 Model) and 9.5 x 56 mm (1910 Model), but in 1924 there was a High Velocity Rifle (aka Sequoia) produced in .30`06 Springfield. Post-World War I arms limitations put a real crimp on rifle production, even for sporting use, else this rifle would doubtless have been even more famous. Numerous notable hunters used the Mannlicher-Schoenauer with great success, typically in 6.5 x 54 mm caliber, although the 9.5 x 56 mm was quite popular with the British, who called it the .375 Rimless Nitro Express. Production of the 1903 action resumed in 1950 and it was imported into this country in American chamberings in the 1950s and 1960s, with several slight design changes over the years.
I managed to get a pretty decent 1950 Model rifle in .30`06 Springfield caliber (since restocked by my brother in a very nice piece of Bastogne walnut). The vintage Leupold 3-9X scope that came with it ruined the lines and the traditional sensibilities, but I replaced that with a Leupold VX-II 1-4X. I had a great load for 200 grain North Fork bullets at 2550 fps. Once again, I thought my choice was made.
My 1950 Model Mannlicher Schoenauer Rifle in .30`06 Springfield
|.375-250 gr North Fork||Winchester W-748||COL 3.210 in|
|57 gr||2497 fps|
|58 gr||2580 fps|
|59 gr||2603 fps||Accurate|
|.375-270 gr North Fork||Winchester W-748||COL 3.210 in|
|56 gr||2459 fps||Pressure signs in warm weather|
|57 gr||2493 fps||Pressure signs in warm weather|
|Hodgdon H-414||COL 3.210 in|
|56 gr||2250 fps|
|57 gr||2277 fps|
|59 gr||2347 fps||Accurate|
|60 gr||2348 fps||Accurate|
|IMR-4320||COL 3.210 in|
|54 gr||2347 fps|
|55 gr||2389 fps|
|56 gr||2426 fps|
|57 gr||2464 fps|
|58 gr||2525 fps||Accurate; Maximum|
My best grouping so far has been 1.5 inches at 200 yards with two bullet holes touching on the centerline of the sighting target; typically I get 3 inch groups at that range, which is not bad at all. The 200 yard shooting was important because the bullets did not group quite where I predicted they would based on the 100 yard group. Word to the wise: if you haven't shot a target at long range, you don't know where the bullet is going. It turns out that (probably due to the forward mounting) the adjustments were not what you would normally expect.
We arrived in Anchorage on 10 September 2004. Next morning we went to the Lake Clark Air hangar at Merrill Field where our bush pilot Willie from five years before remembered us and my brother's handmade oak pack frame. Willie flew us in the Navajo Chieftain to Port Alsworth on Lake Clark. We noticed that the glaciers had shrunk almost to nothingness in the intervening five years. Believe what you will about global warming, but our climate is changing dramatically.
Mark Lang also remembered us and flew us into camp in his Blackhawk (a bush plane, not the MH-60). It was very windy most of the time, which was a blessing in disguise because this was early September and the bugs were still about. It was also the driest anyone could remember; the tundra was bone dry and it had not rained in weeks. That made movement a pleasant experience, notably in contrast to our previous hunt, but it also apparently affected the migratory behavior of the caribou and (I believe) the antler growth.
We were in an ideal location from the standpoint of surveying the surrounding terrain for miles in most directions. Lang had actually landed the Blackhawk on a promontory and we pitched out camp in the lee of that hillock. Hiking to the broad flat top of this structure we glassed all about before setting out on our stalks. I averaged about nine miles a day in wide looping stalks, out and back.
However, although we saw quite a number of caribou we were not seeing mature bulls. After three days we took the radical step of requesting a relocation. This is a risky decision because the move takes time and you cannot hunt on any day that you have flown in Alaska.
I won't belabor the details, but the short version of the story is that neither of us took a caribou that week. I never saw an animal that was as good as the ones we collected five years before and, partly owing to my eternal optimism and the fact that I had only one tag, I passed up the opportunity to shoot a lesser animal simply to get something. Honestly, though, I never passed up a bull that was mature. I am not that finicky and have taken my trophy on the first day of a hunt in several instances.
I did manage several protracted stalks on promising herds, eventually closing to within 75 to 150 yards of several hundred caribou over the course of the week, but always the great trophy that I sought was simply not among them. The antlers were either of adolescents or possibly stunted by the dry weather. I leave that to a wildlife biologist to conclude. I also think that the Mulchatna herd may be overhunted. I worried about that five years ago and this time it really makes me wonder. Some folks contended that the main body of the herd was still many miles to the south, but I was surprised that we saw no mature bulls in so many animals over a number of days. We never saw any impressive racks taken by other hunters either, though I did see one that was nice and not too small. (Update: In 2007 the Alaska Department of Fish & Game banned the hunting of caribou in the Alaskan Peninsula area of the state due to sudden steep declines in the caribou population.)
On the last morning I could have walked a hundred yards and killed a cow for meat, but I decided that would be pointless. In my mind I had been successful as a hunter. I had spotted game, worked around to use the wind and terrain and approached to within easy killing range. I had done all the hunting - what I hadn't done was merely to pull the trigger. I enjoyed myself immensely, despite the disappointment of not collecting a trophy head.
That said, the one thing that I had not done was to make a kill with the new rifle, so on my return I set about rectifying that shortfall. I hunt in the Bankhead National Forest, about an hour's drive from my home, where the state also manages the Black Warrior Wildlife Management Area (WMA). It has relatively few deer, but an unusually high proportion of big bodied deer, by Southern standards. I tallied the statistics collected by the rangers a few years back and the average live weight of bucks with eight points or more was 180 pounds. That is much larger than the typical mature buck elsewhere in this region and routinely this WMA produces bucks that weigh 200 to 240 pounds, which is downright shocking. [Since that time the WMA has attracted more popular attention and the average body weight has gone down precipitously] Most hunters wildly overestimate the weight of deer, just as they underestimate the weight of their rifles. Hunting in the WMA is very restricted, but its good country and I enjoy it. There are miles of undisturbed forest where no one ever penetrates because of the difficult terrain and the fact that most hunters want to hunt over a grassy opening by sitting in a stand. I hate that kind of hunting. I want to move through the woods and find my deer. If you kill a deer here you are either very lucky or you have earned it by hard work (or a bit of both).
Just before Christmas I killed a small buck (around 135 to 145 lbs) right at dusk. I nearly passed, but the freezer was bare and he kept walking right toward me, so I finally shot him at about twenty yards in the lower thorax, across the heart. In typical response, he took off in a crunched run, but that 1895 lever rifle with the low power scope was reloaded and came back on line faster than any rifle I have ever handled and I got another shot at about 125 yards that went through the boiler room from the opposite side as the first shot and ended the game. Either wound would have been sufficient, but I always take finishing shots at wounded game. I was as pleased with that young deer as with any other I have taken for the alacrity of its dispatch and the sense of pride I developed in dragging the carcass 1.5+ miles back to the road. A little luck and a lot of hard work.
Someday I will return to the north country with this rifle and hopefully encounter a fine caribou or perhaps a moose...