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The Hunt for a First Hunting Rifle at Cabela's

The Hunt for a First Hunting Rifle

Author: Jon Little

I'd lived in Alaska 17 years before I ventured out on a moose hunt, and that was a one-day outing with a buddy who packed a .338 "Alaskan Special", while I carried only binoculars.

My opinion is that the weapon should fit the target species, sure, but more importantly, they should match the size, weight, skill and temperament of the person pulling the trigger.
I sat, listened, watched, learned and made it my goal to bag my own moose by the following season. That was September 2004, and by the spring of 2005, I launched my quest the only way I know how. I annoyed people with questions. I peppered just about every hunter I met - most of my friends and neighbors - about firearms, bullets, ballistics, moose behavior and so on.

My wife and I had our goals firmly in mind: By October, our freezer was to be filled with home-grown peas and carrots, hand-picked blueberries and cranberries, fresh halibut steaks and moose meat, while the cupboard was to be lined with canned red salmon. Homegrown spuds were to be dried and stocked in our home's cool, dark crawl space. As we crossed off one goal after the other, I kept my sights on the biggest challenge - bagging a moose. I was enrolled in my own, one-man, unofficial hunter education course. My diploma would have antlers.

The first thing I tried to zero in on was caliber, and I quickly found that if every hunter has his own opinion on that meaty subject. Actually, most of them seem to be right, since it seems to be largely a matter of preference once you're in the ballpark for the type of game you're going after. I asked this question: "If you were to have just one all-around game hunting rifle, what would it be?" After talking with hunters and reading good advice from Cabela's Outdoors and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, I came away with the opinion that weapons should fit the target species, sure, but more importantly, they should match the size, weight, skill and temperament of the person pulling the trigger.

I don't know where I read this advice, but someone noted that hunters who are new to the sport tend to buy more gun than they need, and they compound the problem by making the big purchase right before a trip. These hunters wind up with a big gun with lots of recoil and minimal practice. I'm interested in eating moose, not wounding it, so that thought stuck with me as I began my search.

Most resident Alaska hunters advised me to buy everything from a .375 H&H, hefty enough to kill a rhino in Africa, down to a .25-06, which has little more recoil than a BB gun. Most opinion fell into the higher caliber range, .300 Magnum and up. Their reasoning was that, yes, that's more than enough power to drop a moose, but a hunter in Alaska should consider a gun that's big enough to kill a brown bear in self defense. That makes sense. Grizzlies are fairly common where I hunt and live. On the other hand, those who promoted the lighter end of the spectrum were willing to take their chances on a brush with a bruin. It is a remarkably rare occurrence, and bears typically run the other way unless you stumble onto a kill. I also observed that these proponents of smaller caliber were generally smaller and wirier men. And one of those candidly told me he just didn't want to deal with the recoil of a heavier rifle.

Since I'm 5-foot-11 and 155 pounds (I'm a sled dog jockey, after all), I listened hard to all the opinions, but listened especially carefully to my right shoulder and my accuracy as I tried out various rifles.

One gun enthusiast was generous with his time, taking an afternoon off from work to lay out a few rifles for me to test at a firing range. I started out with a .223, then moved on to a .30-06, shot a few rounds with .338 and then pulled the trigger on his favorite, a .375 H&H. Being a novice, I leaned too close to the scope on that big game gun and it taught me a quick lesson, with only minimal loss of blood. I had to wipe a little eyebrow skin from the eyepiece.

I live near the edge of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, nearly 2 million acres of wilderness, I began patrolling trails near the refuge.
One bit of advice that I took to heart was that a gun can sometimes present itself to you, once you pick a few up and get the feel for them. I went from store to store, visited a gun show and had friends let me examine their firearms and scopes. It was a slow process, and it took a measure of self-control to walk out of gun shops without a perfectly good rifle, but I was slowly getting a feel for stocks, scopes and bolt actions with the different brands, as well as the differences between lightweight and heavy rifles. I had to realistically think about my needs as a hunter. First of all, I was a beginner. As pleasant as those high-end rifles were to handle, they were more than I needed. It would be like giving a Ferrari to a student driver. And as much as a stainless/synthetic rifle makes sense in rainy Southcentral Alaska, I was told you could get along fine with a blued gunmetal/wood configuration if you take care of it. And I'd seen enough of those traditional old guns around here to figure that has to be true.

I had all but set my sights on a used Czech-made .300 Winchester Magnum on sale at a nearby store, but when I arrived to buy it, there was a new consignment piece on the counter: A no-frills but well-cared-for rifle with a wood stock and blued metal barrel. A customer had just traded in this 20-year old Weatherby Vanguard .30-06. It wasn't the caliber I wanted, but I picked it up anyway and peered through the Leupold 2x7 Rifleman scope. My first reaction was to marvel at how clear and bright the view was, and how easily the stock nestled against my chin. I tested the bolt and it slid easily and smoothly, even as I kept my eye in the sights. Uh oh, my body was telling me this gun was a good fit, even though my mind was convinced I wanted a higher caliber.

Everything I'd read so far told me that a .30-06 is plenty of gun to drop an Alaska bull moose, which can weigh 800 to 1,600 pounds, depending on his age. But there was a part of me - the gear-head part - that wanted something bigger and better. After all, the .30-06 has been around for nearly a century. There are plenty of newer calibers on the market that can fire farther, faster with more force and, apparently, less recoil. But the decision came down to what I needed, what I could afford and what felt right in my hands. Thankfully, I bought that simple, used rifle and spent the next couple of months getting acquainted with it and sighting it in.

I have since had the opportunity to test out a more elegant rifle, a friend's brand new Sako .300 Winchester Short Magnum. His rifle is a full two pounds lighter than mine, but has such a gentle kick, which may be due to the cartridge, spongy recoil pad and the addition of a muzzle break. I can easily see why a hunter would pay three times the amount I did for such a rifle; that gun is a pleasure. It comes down to a matter of personal preference, and, fortunately, there's a ton of choices out there.

By Aug. 20, moose hunting season was underway on the Kenai Peninsula, where I live. I was ready. Since I live near the edge of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, nearly 2 million acres of wilderness, I began patrolling trails near the refuge.

Soon I spotted a legal bull, a youngster with two forked antlers, moving through the area. Since this was a freezer mission, he would be more than enough. I kept watch for a few days, and that moose returned to where I'd last seen him. I raised my rifle and placed a shot through his lungs at roughly 100 yards.

Now my wife and I are stocked for the long, cool season in Alaska. Snow should fly by Halloween and it won't be gone again till Easter. If you stop by this winter, let us know in advance, and we'll fire up the crock-pot with moose roast, some garden-grown potatoes, peas and carrots. When our bellies are full, we can talk about the merits of the .30-06.