A Perfect Hunt

By Chuck Hawks

This is a true story. Seldom does anything work out as planned, which is what makes this particular experience so unusual and perhaps worth relating. The emphasis of this article is really the preparation of the rifle rather than the hunt itself.

A number of years ago I became overwhelmed by the desire to own a Ruger M-77RSI International rifle. (See my review "The Ruger Model 77RSI International.) This is the bolt action Ruger with the 18.5 inch barrel and the full length Mannlicher stock. I had long admired the elegant style of Mannlicher-Schoenauer carbines, and the Ruger version was within my price range. I didn't approve of the ultra-short barrel, but sometimes you have to compromise.

The little Ruger M-77RSI is light enough for easy carrying and short enough to be handy in the woods. (Much of Western Oregon, where I do most of my hunting, is mountainous and heavily forested.) So one fine spring I took the plunge and purchased a brand new .308 caliber Ruger M-77RSI.

I bought my rifle in .308 Winchester caliber so that I could use it as an all-around big game rifle, a mountain rifle, and for Western Oregon deer hunting. Along with the rifle I purchased a Leupold Compact Vari-X 2-7x28mm scope (see my review "Leupold Compact Riflescopes") and a set of RCBS reloading dies. The latter would allow me to tailor loads to my new rifle for specific purposes, and maybe save some money in the long run.

Fall, winter, and spring in Western Oregon can be pretty rainy, and the amount of time I spend at the rifle range goes way down when it's raining, but summer is mostly dry. I had the entire summer ahead of me to develop loads and practice with my new rifle before deer hunting season opened in the fall.

After securely mounting and bore sighting the Leupold scope (see "How to Bore Sight a Rifle") I was ready to head to my local outdoor rifle range. The .308 Winchester does not have the world's largest case, so I decided that a good bullet weight for medium game hunting, given its capacity, would be 150 grains. I did a preliminary sighting-in job that would put a 150 grain bullet approximately in the center of the target at 100 yards. Now I was ready to do some load development, confident that my test groups would at least be on the paper.

I decided that my first goal would be to develop a deer load using a 150 grain bullet tailored specifically to local conditions. Which, basically, means Columbian blacktail deer at ranges no longer than 200 yards, and probably within 25-100 yards. Columbian blacktail deer are closely related to mule deer, but live in the heavily forested lands west of the summit of the Cascade/Sierra Mountains, rather than the more open country east of the summit. Arbitrarily, any Oregon deer shot west of the summit of the Cascades is considered to be a blacktail, and any deer shot east of the summit is a mule deer.

Rifles in the .30-30 to .300 Savage class are actually ideal for most blacktail hunting. (See my article "Ideal Deer Cartridges" for more on this.) I purchased a .308 to take advantage of its greater versatility, not because I needed more power or a flatter trajectory than a .30-30 or .300 Savage could provide for deer hunting.

The Ruger M-77RSI is a fairly lightweight rifle, handicapped by a short barrel, so maximum loads were unlikely to be the best choice. After some time spent poring over various reloading manuals, plus my own previous experience, I decided to try to essentially duplicate the ballistics of a typical .300 Savage load. That meant a 150 grain spitzer bullet at a MV of about 2600 fps.

I chose IMR 3031, IMR 4895, and W748 powders as likely candidates for my short barreled rifle. For testing purposes I hand weighed all powder charges, although when loading hunting ammunition I use an RCBS powder measure and weigh only about every tenth powder charge. As it turned out, IMR 3031 generally seemed to give good accuracy at the performance level I was seeking.

I wanted a quick opening bullet that would expend its energy deep inside of a good sized deer, not blast clear through the animal to plow up the hillside beyond. I chose the Speer Hot-Cor, Hornady Interlock, and Sierra GameKing bullets to experiment with first, plus one premium bullet in the form of the Nosler Partition. I had previously had good results with all of these bullets.

After numerous trips to the range and shooting dozens of groups it eventually became clear that this rifle favored the Sierra GameKing bullet in front of 42.0 grains of IMR 3031 powder. I used CCI large rifle primers and Winchester cases. The muzzle velocity according to the Sierra Reloading Handbook should have been about 2700 fps, but in my short barreled rifle that load chronographs 2588 fps 15 feet in front of the muzzle of the rifle. See why I don't favor very short barrels? However, that should translate to an actual MV of about 2603 fps (adding 1 fps for every foot of distance from the muzzle to the chronograph), which was just about perfect for my purposes.

The next step was to zero the rifle for deer hunting. (See "How to Sight-in a Hunting Rifle.") I chose to zero dead on at 200 yards with my blacktail deer load. This does not take full advantage of the potential maximum point blank range of my load, but it is sufficient to my needs. And it is convenient because my local rifle range has 25, 50, 100, and 200 yard firing positions. I am nothing if not lazy.

After carefully zeroing my new rifle, I spent the rest of the summer familiarizing myself with it. I became highly confident of both the rifle and my ability to hit deer size targets out to at least 200 yards. I also continued to play around with alternative loads, eventually determining that for a full power load the Remington Express factory load using the 150 grain Core-Lokt bullet was hard to beat. This would become my general purpose and default factory load. But for local deer hunting I would stick with my special "blacktail deer" handload.

By the time deer season rolled around I was ready. A week or so after opening day, which I always avoid as a matter of personal policy, a couple of hunting buddies from Eugene and I headed up Highway 58 into the Cascade Mountains for a day hunt. We were planning on hunting within several miles of the small town of Oakridge, well up in the mountains.

We used Forrest Service roads to get away from all traces of civilization, then parked the car and began still hunting. My two buddies followed the contour line of the slope to my right while I followed a trail up the slope. There was almost no wind, but I was facing what little breeze there was.

I have learned to move really slowly, stepping very carefully and stopping to scan for game after every other step. I don't exactly sneak, I just move very slowly, trying to look as innocent as possible in case a buck catches sight of me before I spot him. An additional benefit is that my breathing and heart beat remain pretty much as they would be at rest, making an accurate shoot (should I get the chance) relatively easy. If I feel myself starting to breathe hard, I am moving too fast, and I stop until my breathing returns to normal.

I had probably covered no more that 200 yards uphill when I spied a large fork-horn buck in a small clearing about 60 yards to my right and slightly downhill from my position. He was standing broadside to me, but his head was turned away from me and his attention was focused downhill. We later decided that he had probably heard my buddies moving laterally across the slope, and was trying to spot them visually.

I always keep my scope set at the minimum magnification for maximum field of view, in case I jump game at close range. As I brought the rifle to my shoulder, the crosshairs lined-up sharp and clear. It would have been an easy offhand shot. But, since the buck was completely unaware of my presence, I had time to take a couple of very cautious steps to a nearby tree, which served as an impromptu rest. I even had time to increase the scope's magnification to about 6x, at which magnification I could see the texture of the fur in his coat. The crosshairs settled just behind his foreleg half way up his body, my breathing was steady, and as I gently applied pressure to the trigger the rifle seemed to fire itself.

Naturally, I momentarily lost sight of the buck when my rifle recoiled. I barely glimpsed an explosive dash into the nearby cover, where he was lost to sight. I worked the bolt to chamber a fresh cartridge, pocketed the ejected case, and walked over to where the buck had been standing. I had mentally called a perfect shot, but I was still reassured when I found blood spots on the ground cover. I entered the woods where I had last glimpsed the buck, and immediately spotted him. His short blind dash of maybe 50 feet had ended when he piled into a tree trunk, already dead on his feet.

My buddies had heard my shot, and in a few minutes they arrived to help me with the less enjoyable part of deer hunting. Which was just as well, as he was a very large deer, probably about 200 pounds on the hoof. When we field dressed him I found that the 150 grain Sierra GameKing bullet had performed perfectly. It had punched through a rib on the way in, expanded violently, shredding and collapsing both lungs. His lungs looked like they had been put through a blender. The bullet's jacket had separated from the core deep inside the buck's chest, creating secondary missiles and increasing the area of destruction. The remainder of the bullet shattered a rib exiting the chest cavity, and was recovered just under the hide on the far side. His chest cavity was full of blood, as he had almost entirely bled out internally. I don't see how any bullet could have done a better job.

Fortunately, I had killed him close to the road. Even field dressed it took all of us to get him into the vehicle. We drove back to Oakridge for lunch, concluding what was a nearly perfect hunting experience. From the purchase of my Ruger M-77RSI to the conclusion of the hunt, everything had gone just as planned.

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Copyright 2003 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.