Sunday, February 25, 2007


Far from alone in human pursuits, outdoor activities and the blood sports revel in gear.
When you can not get out in the field to hunt or fish, you can always mess with gear; or think about new gear. Or, now, with the internet, shop.
The pursuit of gear takes so many interesting paths. That archery hunter carrying a self bow probably spent hundreds of hours searching out the right osage orange or yew blank, shaping his bow stave, deciding on a string material (nylon, gut, silk, cotton?) and getting familiar with his tool. The mountain man recreationist, getting ready for a rendevous or a primitive hunt, probably has even more time invested in his buckskins, possibles pouch and every little accoutrement. As for his weapon, go to Track of the Wolf sometime and check out the beautiful examples of period type rifles and smoothbores they offer.
In one form, pursuit of gear can replace pursuit of game. Thousands of dollars spent of rifles, optics, trucks, tents, trailers, stoves, chairs, cots, sleeping pads, rods, reels, lures, and footwear replace money better spent on getting those boots out on the ground, learning about the animals or fish. Only through experience actually in the woods can you form useful opinions as to superior gear. However, while you are getting that experience you will be adapting yourself to your gear, learning its virtues and shortcomings, you find yourself becoming perhaps a little resistant to change.
One classic example of gear problems comes with the big game rifle. Some folks switch so often they never really shoot the rifle they are currently carrying enough to realize their potential with it. On the other hand, stick with that first rifle and you might be passing up something that suits you a little better or that improves your capability and reduces your chance of loosing an animal. Three years ago, I switched rifles. For years I carried a Remington Model 700 ADL in 7mm Remington Magnum. The rifle has a wood stock, a 6x Redfield scope, and a 26 inch barrel. It was first intended for the South Texas senderos, where long shots from a rest are not uncommon and it is a good rifle for that. As an elk rifle, it leaves a little to be desired. The ballistics with heavier bullets, especially the 175 grain bullets, are not great. Not horrible, but not all that impressive given the amount of powder requried to fling the bullet. I grew up in a family full of guys shooting the 30'06, almost always with 180 grain bullets, so the 175 seems a natural choice in the 7mm, especially to achieve more penetration on elk. The recoil from the round is substantial, especially when sighting in on the bench. That magnum case requires more powder which means recoil. Further, the trigger on this particular rifle is very bad, gravelly, long, and with a fair bit of creep. As to virtues, the long barrel hangs perfectly from offhand, just as it hangs up in brush or thick timber. More importantly, the rifle will group three shots into an inch or so at 200 yards using the Hornady spire point 175 grain bullets. Perhaps most importantly, I took my first half dozen or so elk with it, confident that the bullets would go exactly where I pointed the gun. Not only that, but Hornady's sturdy spire point performed wonderfully every time, lending further confidance. Nonetheless, I changed. My rationale was that, after fifteen or sixteen years with the 7mm, I wasn't that happy with the rifle. It worked, and well enough..... however; as elk hunting is, with any luck, going to be a large part of the remainder of my life, I felt I should do it with something that came closer to my ideal. Consequently, I purchased a Savage Model 116 in stainless with a synthetic stock, chambered for 30'06. Now, I shoot the same caliber and cartridge as the rest of the camp. Further, the new rifle has a 22 inch barrel, much easier to stalk with. I would have gotten it with a laminate wood stock, but those were discontinued shortly before my purchase, more's the pity. The new rifle features Savage's "Accutrigger", which breaks smoothly and crisply at three pounds, feeling like much less. I haven't really played with loads for the new rifle, it will shoot three inches at 200 yards with the family favorite 180 grain '06 load, good enough for practical purposes if not bragging material.
Three elk have fallen to this new rifle and my shooting has not been as good with it as with the old one. Part of that is just the circumstances of the last couple of years, part of it is, no doubt, familiarity with the 7mm. Part of it is the lighter weight and lighter barrel of the new rifle, which does not hold as well. I will say that I do not love the plastic stock. It is noisy and the forend is badly shaped (so squared are the edges, and flat the bottom, that it is unnecessarily fatiguing to carry). Perhaps I will change it for a laminated wood stock once I find one for a reasonable price which comes with the pillar bedding which Savage uses now. Of course, every change lengthens time to familiarity. I'll check back in five years or so.

I think that the best thing in gear is not found in a large item, though. Some of the advances in clothing and packs and other peripheral equipment really is amazing in terms of improving comfort. Here's a tip for all cold weather hunters out there- save up and buy a pair of Gore-tex lined pants. For years we hunted in jeans, first over cotton waffle-weave long underwear, then over polypropylene and thermax. Nobody died, no one became frostbitten. Thermax made things much better. Still, we did get wet and spent a lot of time cold. However, in the waterproof pants, many of which are more quiet in brush than jeans, you never have to worry about where you sit, your butt is always dry. Two years ago I crawled for over one hundred yards through knee deep snow to shorten the range to a bull, then sat in the snow against a pine for twenty minutes while waiting out my shot. My butt was cold, but dry, as were my knees. This year, the crawl was seventy-five yards through a fair bit of mud. While I have in the past and would have then made the same stalks in my Levis, the aftermath is much more pleasant without your trousers stuck to your butt and chafing your knees. As thermax and polypro is to the old waffle-weave longhandles, so are the new waterproof pants to jeans or even wool. Life is better with the good stuff.

The other day I asked a friend of mine who has been a competitive bicycle racer for decades what his favorite piece of gear was. What thing, introduced since he started riding, made the biggest difference. His answer was first, perfected spandex bike shorts, which are both more comfortable than the old wool and chamois models and much easier to care for. Next, Underarmor poly tops, which wick moisture and stop wind better than even merino wool, making chilly rides much more comfortable.

Much as I love gear and hope to write a bit more about it, I think that the real progress has been made in the little things. New cartridges, wonder blends of graphite in fly rods, those things may add a little edge here and there. Better clothing and easier care have made time in the field much more comfortable, allowing us to concentrate on enjoying those all too fleeting days.

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