Preparing for a Bison Hunt

By Chuck Hawks


Embarking on a bison hunt can be a pretty big deal. Not too many hunters have taken one of these massive beasts in the last 100 years, so a bison hunt is a unique experience for most hunters. At least that is the way Guns and Shooting Online Technical Consultant Jack Seeling and I (Chuck Hawks) felt as we prepared for our winter 2005 bison hunt on the Bar-Y ranch east of Oregon's Cascade Mountains. Fortunately, the anticipation and preparation are half of the fun.

North American bison are large bovines that are similar in size to wild Asian/Australian water buffalo. Bison are larger than, but not as aggressive as, African Cape buffalo. Mature male bison average around 1600 pounds and mature females around 930 pounds. Like most bovines they are herd animals, and in fact the herd is a matriarchy. But the climate over most North American bison range requires radically different preparation that the hot climates where African, Asian, and Australian buffalo are usually hunted.

Instead of the burning African plains or the steaming tropics, the North American buffalo hunter is more likely to be dealing with freezing temperatures. Bison are usually hunted during the winter when their heavy coat is at its best. And they are mostly hunted in locations where winter typically means low temperatures, and often snow. At least poisonous snakes are unlikely to be a problem in such conditions!

Clothing

From the inside out, this is what I wore for bison hunting: next to my skin were the usual Jockey shorts and a Tee shirt. My socks were thermal socks with wicking action, a yarn loop interior, and a flat toe seam. (Socks are important!) Over my conventional underwear I wore polypropylene long underwear, top and bottom. Over the long john bottoms I wore heavy blue jeans. Over the long john top I wore a pullover sweatshirt. Over the thermal socks I wore waterproofed, lined hunting boots. For a jacket I wore my lined and insulated leather flight jacket. And, to keep dry in the deep snow, I brought along my two-piece, waterproof motorcycle rain suit. On my head I wore my red and black plaid Jones cap (with earflaps). Oh, and just in case, I also bought along a soft wool muffler. To protect my hands en route I had ski gloves. And, to protect my hands during the final stalk and for shooting I had a pair of Morris Feel Gloves.

Jack was similarly equipped, but wore a water repellant parka instead of a heavy leather jacket (which allowed him to dispense with an outer waterproof jacket) and a wool watch cap instead of a Jones cap. He used waterproof ski over-pants to protect his jeans. I don't think he had a muffler. Dress as you would for a cross-country skiing expedition (only quieter) and you will be on the right track.

The motorcycle rain suit, although waterproof and large enough to fit over all of my other clothes, was nylon and very noisy for stalking. (So are most ski suits.) It was a last minute inclusion due to the unexpectedly heavy snow, which was a couple of weeks early this year. We had booked our hunt for the early part of the buffalo season to avoid heavy snow. So much for the best laid plans . . ..

If I did very much hunting in heavy snow I would purchase a water/snow proof insulated hunting suit along the lines of the Browning Hydro-Fleece Pro Series outerwear for big game hunters. Such garments keep you warm, dry, and they are quiet.

Rifles

Bison are less dangerous than Cape buffalo, but should not be taken lightly. If a bison does decide to charge, it will need to be "stopped." A reasonable choice in rifles would be a model suitable for hunting dangerous game. That means that power and reliability are at a premium. The chances are that the hunter's safety will not be an issue, but it could be, so why take unnecessary chances? Choose a powerful rifle with which you are familiar, you can shoot accurately, and that is dead reliable.

Examples of rifles with various types of suitable actions include the autoloading Browning BAR Mk. II Safari Grade in .338 Win. Mag., lever action Marlin Model 1895M or Browning BLR in .450 Marlin, and any of the popular bolt action rifles in calibers from .338 on up.

Of course, the popular buffalo rifles on the American frontier during the last quarter of the 19th Century were mostly single shot models. If you have a hunting partner with a repeating rifle that you trust to back you up (and I did), a powerful single shot rifle is still a viable option. .45-70 Government is the traditional caliber, and with full power loads it will still do the job.

I chose to use my single shot .45-70 Browning 1885 High Wall falling block rifle to take my buffalo, and planned to carry my .338 Mag. BAR Mk. II to back-up Jack and as a spare rifle. Jack chose to use his Remington Model 673 Guide Rifle in .350 Rem. Mag. So between the two of us, we took three rifles on our buffalo hunt.

Sights

I prefer a low power scope mounted low and overbore for fast, short to medium range shooting. Since bison are very large animals and will likely be taken between 50 and 150 yards, a lot of magnification is not necessary, while a wide field of view and a low sight line for fast target acquisition are. My Browning .45-70 wears a Redfield Widefield 2 3/4x fixed power scope, while my Browning BAR Mk. II wears a Simmons Whitetail Expedition 1.5-6x variable power scope, which I normally carry set at about 2x.

Some hunters (with good eyes) feel more comfortable using iron sights at such ranges. A shallow "V" notch combined with a large white bead is the traditional set-up for dangerous African game, and works fine in North America, too. Perhaps the fastest and most accurate type of iron sight is the receiver mounted aperture (or "ghost ring") sight. Lyman and Williams models are still available for many rifle models.

Jack is one of those gifted shooters who is comfortable with iron sights at buffalo hunting ranges. His Remington Model 673 Guide Rifle was supplied with good open sights, which is what he elected to use. These include a screw adjustable open rear sight and a ramp front sight with a flat-faced gold bead. These are mounted on a steel ventilated rib for fast alignment.

We generally sight-in our hunting rifles to take advantage of their cartridges' maximum point blank range (+/- 3"), which generally means 2.5" to 3" high at 100 yards. And there is no harm to doing the same thing with a dedicated bison rifle. However, since we voluntarily limited ourselves to ranges not exceeding 150 yards for shooting a bison, we zeroed all three of our rifles to hit only 1" high at 100 yards.

Cartridges

Since I have written an entire article about Bison Cartridges, and touched on the subject in several other articles, I will only hit the high points here. These are large animals, very tough, classed as thick-skinned (CXP4) game. They deserve to be hunted with serious caliber rifles.

While they can (and have) been taken with rifles in the .270/.30-06 class, the sport hunter would do well to bring a powerful medium or big bore rifle. Common suitable calibers include numbers such as the .338 Win. Mag., .340 Wby. Mag., .35 Whelen, .350 Rem. Mag., .375 H&H Mag., .405 Win., .416 Rem. Mag., .45-70, .450 Marlin, .458 Win. Mag. and other cartridges of similar caliber and power.

As mentioned above, Jack and I chose the .338 Win. Mag., .350 Rem. Mag. and .45-70 as our buffalo cartridges. Our guide carried a Weatherby Vanguard bolt action rifle in 7mm Remington Magnum. He told me that he had found this completely reliable for the close range brain shots that he preferred. Shades of WDM Bell!

Ammunition

Stars and Stripes Custom Ammunition, the Guns and Shooting Online source for specialty ammunition, supplied Jack with .350 Rem. Mag. factory loads using the 250 grain Nosler Partition bullet at a MV of approximately 2475 fps. At the range prior to the hunt we verified that this ammunition was well suited to Jack's Model 673 rifle, which delivered fine groups. The sectional density (SD) of a 250 grain .358" bullet is .279.

I handloaded the 500 grain Hornady Interlock RN bullet to a MV of 1750 fps from the 28" barrel of my .45-70 Browning High Wall . The pressure of this load is such that it is safe for use ONLY in strong, modern single shot rifles such as the Browning High Wall, Ruger No. 1, and Dakota 10. My Browning delivered excellent 100 yard groups with this load, and the big 500 grain .458" bullet has an exceptional SD of .341, so I wasn't worried about adequate penetration!

For the .338 Win. Mag. BAR I chose to use Remington Premier factory loads, a couple of boxes of which I happened to have on hand. These are advertised to drive a 225 grain Swift A-Frame bullet at a MV of 2785 fps. Frankly, I would have preferred to use 250 grain bullets in the .338 (SD .313) for bison hunting. However, this particular rifle has always shot very well with Remington Express 225 grain Core-Lokt factory loads and also with handloaded 225 grain Hornady Interlock bullets, so I expected (correctly, as we proved at the range) that it would also shoot the 225 grain A-Frame bullet well. And I had been looking for a reason to use these Premier factory loads. The SD of a 225 grain .338" bullet is .281, very similar to that of a 250 grain .358" bullet.

Note that all of the loads chosen fired bullets with a SD of .279 or better. Note also that the .458" Hornady 500 grain Interlock, .358" 250 grain Nosler Partition, and .338" 225 grain Swift A-Frame are all bullets noted for deep penetration. We considered them reasonable choices for buffalo hunting.

Accessories

Among the potentially useful accessories we brought along were stout hunting knives, a laser rangefinder, compact roof prism binoculars, shooting sticks, and a small survival kit. We were also advised to bring 4 large tarps with which to wrap the meat after the animal had been skinned and quartered.

Since our little party consisted of two hunters and a guide and was staged out of a ranch house, I carried only a minimal kit in my hunting fanny pack. Included was a Pelican waterproof MityLite flashlight, a length of thin nylon cord, a square of plastic sheeting (handy to sit on in the snow, among other things), emergency Thermos space blanket, pocket pack of Kleenex, compass, matches, tweezers, knife sharpening stone, pocket size first aid kit, Norton Sonic II earplugs (for shooting as required), and a pen and some paper.

On the belt of my fanny pack I carried an Uncle Mike's Cordura cartridge holder with five rounds of spare ammunition, the cased Leupold 9x binoculars, and my folding Stony Point shooting sticks. Jack carried our Nikon laser rangefinder and his own fanny pack.

The Hunting Vehicle

Four wheel drive (4WD) will likely be a convenience, and may be required just to get to the property you plan to hunt. Mud and snow tires in good condition are recommended. And don't forget a set of tire chains.

In this case we used Jack's 4WD Chevy 1/2 ton pickup, which worked out just fine. We crossed the Cascade mountains heading east on the heels of a blizzard, and the 4WD plus chains was in continual use from about 3000' altitude on the Western slope onward. The Bar-Y ranch, where we were to hunt, was inundated with about 18" of snow the night before our hunt was to begin, and the snow drifts were much deeper. Without 4WD and chains we probably would not have made it to the Bar-Y. As it turned out, when we did get there we found that our preparation had paid off; we were reasonably well equipped for our bison hunt.

Read "Wyoming Buffalo Safari" on the Hunting Stories and Articles Page for an account of a bison hunt.




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Copyright 2005 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.

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