There’s little doubt, in my way of thinking and experience, that a backup rifle (or shotgun) might be a game changer on certain big-game hunts. I usually keep a second BG rifle in my vehicle on a bear hunt. That rifle (or 12ga shotgun) is my second choice for a particular bear hunt but may become my first choice for a bear hunt under somewhat different physical conditions.
For example: I may very well use my Ruger No.1H “Tropical” in .458 WM for a bear hunt from a ground blind. Range from blind to bait will not usually exceed 100 yards. But IF for some reason the bear is wounded (the bear may quickly move, or be spooked) and makes it into a thick tangle of bush, then in my followup search I want a quick handling repeater, that will likely be a short n’ handy 12ga pump shotgun loaded with Challenger (Brenneke type) slugs. In the past a Marlin lever-action in .45-70 was either the main firearm or the backup. However, today I don’t have a lever-action in .45-70, so a 12ga Savage pump, tactical type, was purchased for that express purpose. It’s short, light and very fast handling… and at close range is at least as effective as a Marlin Guide Gun with its short 18.5″ barrel.
<The 12ga Savage
On moose hunts to the “True North” (of our province), I’ve always taken a second rifle in case the main rifle developed a problem like the scope being knocked off its zero by a fall (that can easily happen in rugged conditions). Or, the second rifle may be sighted differently for longer ranges in more open country. When I did four moose hunts about 100 Km (60 miles) north of Thunder Bay, I always took a spare rifle already sighted with carefully crafted handloads. On the last trip, I took the CZ550 in .458 WM loaded with the 350gr TSX at 2700 fps. That was good enough to around 400 yards. But some of those clearcuts had moose crossings at 600+ yards! As a backup, my .300 Win Mag was loaded with the 190gr Hornady BT at 3050 fps, making hits easier at 500 yards. That would have been 2170 fps/1986 ft-lbs, and borderline for a 1000 lb moose.
The .458 load for 400 yards would be right at 1600 fps, but minimum expansion if any. At 500 yards any bullet expansion would be highly doubtful. Later on I switched powders from RL-7 to H4198 with an increase of 50 fps that proved to be much more stable under diverse temperatures. RL-7 lost about 100 fps from late summer tests at home (2700 fps) to late fall conditions (just over 2600 fps). So it’s very unlikely that I’d have gotten 1600 fps at 400 yards “up north” with much cooler temperatures than near home at our range much farther south in late summer. It turned out that neither rifle was used on that moose hunt, but the latter .458 load was used to shoot a bear at my primary site an hour from home.
On a previous moose hunt to the same location as described above, my backup to the .340 Wby Mag was my Marlin .45-70 loaded with 400s at over 2000 fps. The main reason for that was a bear tag in my pocket, and my son and I had a day of scouting prior to the actual moose hunt (in which I did shoot a bull moose with the .340).
Those are merely some examples, but scores of other conditions and examples could be cited by North American hunters and/or those going to Africa on safari… or Northern Canada and Alaska. Rifles and scopes (especially scopes) can be knocked out of action by a drop on rocks, a fall, or bouncing around in trucks or boats – if not by baggage handlers!
<I adjusted the Burris fixed 4x on my son’s .356 Winchester. I donated it to “the cause” after having owned it for thirty years. It had been on a hard kicking Ruger No.1 in .45-70 LT (equivalent to a light .458 Win Mag) and still holds its zero. The clicks were getting not too discernible, so I did that work while in New Brunswick last September. He later shot a nice buck with that rifle. In has a 5.5″ eye relief – always a good thing for a hard kicking rifle. The point, though, is putting a good scope on a hard-kicking rifle because the abuse – even over the short term – could be far worse than dropping it on a hard surface. A fixed power on a quality scope will outlast most variables on expensive scopes! You may never need a backup rifle if the scope’s innards are as durable as that Burris 4x. In fact, I mounted another 4x Burris on my CZ550 in .458 Win Mag that also proved to be “unbreakable”!
< The CZ550 with the 4x Burris
- Use thick padded soft cases or hard cases with adequately thick and not easily compressed foam padding.
- Pay careful attention to where we may rest an uncased rifle. If it’s resting against a tree, fence or other object, is there a danger of it slipping off and landing on a hard irregular surface such as a jagged rock?
- Consideration should be given to a backup scope already sighted with quick-detach rings.
- Iron sights are rare these days except on big-bore rifles, but they should be adjusted for at least 100 yards, or more, depending on the anticipated hunt. They also could be effective, in lieu of a second scope or rifle, for those who practice or hunt with irons, and with good vision.
- Should a backup rifle be identical to the one in service? Some maintain that strategy. Personally, I prefer something different that may be useful under diverse physical conditions, which may still be useful for the intended hunt. I’ve given a few examples above, and could share some others.
- What about a pistol or revolver as a stand-in for a defunct rifle (whatever the cause), where legal as in the USA? That could work very well as long as the range is somewhat shorter, and it’s ballistics are appropriate for the game being hunted. Many American hunters do carry a handgun in addition to their rifle or bow.
A few other matters…
A majority of hunters/shooters these days own several or many rifles, most of which do the same things. And perhaps a majority of that majority own the most common rifles chambered for the most popular cartridges that are used on WT deer and elk: .270 Win, .308 Win and .30-06 Springfield. Basically, what one will do so will the others. They are certainly a step up on the ubiquitous .30-30, but you might get an argument from “Ron”, my oldest son’s FIL, except Ron is now in heaven! But in his day, he shot “everything” with his .30-30… including bear and moose! But then Ron grew up living and hunting in the wilds of New Brunswick, and started hunting when he was about 9, along with some brothers. When older, they gave the local “authorities” some sleepless nights! But they lived among the moose, bears and “whatnots”! There was rarely, if ever, a 100 yard shot. Most were like 25 to 30 yards without optical aid (except maybe a pair of eye glasses) but often used some extra “light”, if you know what I mean…
But if one shot didn’t get the job done, they had time for 2, 3 or 5 more using those fast lever-action carbines! After all, a moose wasn’t going anywhere fast with the thick barrier of 15″ trees blocking a quick exit!
Today’s hunting is different. Generally it’s more open, and in some places (as mentioned re my moose hunts in the “Far North”) legit shooting of big game could well be in excess of 400 yards. In the case of elk, moose, big black bears or grizzly, and some other critters like bison, we need something with effective reach “way out there”. No harm is done if we then have “too much gun” for closer ranges, such as when I shot the moose at 165 yards with my .340 Wby rather than at 500 yards!
But there are other factors to consider when choosing the “main rifle” or its backup:
1- The angle of the shot. A quartering shot, or straight-on or away may challenge bullet penetration or the ballistic capability of the firearm!
2 – The possible distance of the shot. On a recent Sportsman TV program, I witnessed a sixty-something year old man shoot a 6-point elk at 564 yards… twice. At the first shot there was no response to the hit. The elk was with a couple of his buddies and drifting towards another property line that would soon put the elk off legal limits. So he fired a second shot with his wife watching through binoculars. She thought the elk was hit but it disappeared into a gully and behind some trees. They waited for some time, and didn’t see the bull again so assumed it went down to stay. This was private land of mostly hay fields, gullies and some timber. He was set up on a ridge with a “tricked-out” rifle and scope with all the bells and whistles, plus a range finder. He took a prone position with a bipod on his rifle and had plenty of time to evaluate the situation. In fact, he knew the physical conditions very well as he’d hunted there several times previously and taken a few mature elk. His cartridge was an unfamiliar (to me) 6.5 magnum firing one of those long-range bullets.
The only time, in 60+ years of hunting, have I personally had a shot at more than 300 yards using a 6.5 X 55, was in leaning over a fence post firing at a groundhog using 85gr HP Sierras. Nothing was “tricked-out”, except I had a “spotter” with binoculars. He said the first shot was too far (we didn’t even have a range finder), the second nailed a 15″ tall groundhog that fell back into it’s hole. I’d suggest that that shot was much more challenging than shooting a mature 6-point elk at 564 yards from a prone position, using a “tricked out rifle and scope” – that was dialed in once the range was determined. And he had done the same thing on a number of previous trips on the same private property.
At 300 + yards, I’d also killed a jack rabbit with my .300 Win Mag. The only thing between me and the rabbit was a foot of snow and one lonely maple tree that I leaned against. At first I thought it was a coyote… no special range finders or optics. The Bushnell scope served that purpose. Now a woodchuck and a rabbit ain’t elk, but being of sound mind I can easily estimate the huge difference between shooting a rabbit that covered an area of 20 inches by 6 inches versus a mature bull elk that’s at least seven feet by five!
My point: Marksmanship is the main key to accuracy and success in most real life hunting situations. I’d rather have a 30-30 that does what I want within its effective range, than a 300 Super Magnum that I can’t accurately shoot… though I’m a big fan of the .300 Win Mag. It does no good to “love it” if you can’t use it’s inherent accuracy! That’s the point for the main rifle and it’s backup! The backup is not “there” because we can’t shoot the main rifle accurately! It’s there as a stand-in, not because I can shoot it more accurately. Or…. because it has less recoil!
< Three 250gr, 9.3mm AccuBonds made those two holes at 100 yards from the muzzle of my 9.3 x 62. MV was ~2700 fps. Recoil was 44 ft-lbs. Adjustments were made to center the load dead over center and 2″ high. A very nice bear was taken with that load at 85 yards. My backup was the Ruger No.1 in .45-70 LT firing the 300gr TSX at 2650 fps with a recoil factor of 45 ft-lbs.
3- What kind of hunter am I? That matters much more than just generic commentary in periodicals or podcasts! I’ve had correspondence with John Wootters, Finn Aagaard, Phil Shoemaker and others, and they’ve had their own experiences that don’t always correspond with mine! And I’ve chatted on the phone with ballistic engineers, whoever they might be, and who are limited by the parameters of their job… do THEY ever get to “the field” for an education in real hunting that details near infinite variables?
Do you like getting close and personal with big game… some of which might be hazardous to one’s health? Ah yes… there’s that matter of PH’s and guides who micro-manage clients… I’ve never experienced that in 60 years, though I did hire a bear outfitter whom I never saw in the field from the time he dropped me off until he picked me up in darkness several hours later!
Or, do you prefer setting up at long ranges and waiting…?
Or perhaps you’re more like I was for much of my hunting career: a “walk-about brush hunter”.
See, there are different requirements for each and every situation and individual!
That means a backup rifle (or firearm) should suite the situation and individual!
Opinions? Yes! Preferences? Yes! But no dogmatic rules apply!
But as a basic principle regarding safety and success, my ADVICE is: Take along a suitable backup firearm.
And keep a suitable firearm within arms reach at ALL times… both for safety and success!
UPDATE on the Traditions OUTFITTER G3 in .35 Whelen
The .35 Whelen was at the range again today (third trip) Friday, April 22. The Tasco 2 – 7 x 32 scope gave a lot of trouble for sighting-in the 225gr AccuBonds. It seemed like every click was a full inch movement on the target when it should have been 1/8″ at 50 yards! But I did manage to get one group that was nearly six inches right and one inch high. Two went basically into the same hole and a third about 3/4″ below. On the way home from the range I stopped at a favorite gun shop and bought a new scope which is now on the Traditions OUTFITTER G3 – it will need to be sighted.
All ten loaded cartridges were fired and MV recorded at 15′. Average corrected to muzzle was 2702 fps from the 22″ barrel. I’ll be loading those 10 cases again with the same components: 225gr AccuBond, Rem cases, 66 grains of CFE 223 and WLRM primers. A max load in Speer’s manual for their 220gr is 67 grains of CFE223 at 2788 fps from a 24″. A 24hr Camp Fire member got about 2680 from a 700 Remington (22″) with the same 66 grain load behind the 225 AccuBond that I used and very mild pressures of just over 47,000 psi. 62, 000 psi is MAP. My COL is 3.45″ with that bullet, and the primer was WLRM.
The stars of the show on the previous trip were the two 225gr Nosler Partitions over 65 grains of CFE223 that went into a ragged hole at 50 yards. Unfortunately, I only had eight of those left. So I picked up two boxes of the 225gr AccuBonds in .358″ in lieu of those Nosler Partitions which are not currently available in this part of the country. My intent is to settle on these 225 AccuBonds as a “go-to” load.
My Chrony setup was different than “normal” on that former occasion as the passage of bullets over the lights was not high enough, so I didn’t get any meaningful readings. That was corrected this time. I estimated the MV for the 225 NP to be ~2700 from 65 grains of CFE223 powder. I added one grain more for the 225 AccuBond which gave an actual 2702 fps (average corrected to MV). I’m quite sure I could use more of that powder behind the 225 AccuBond, but if the accuracy proves to be good when I get to the range again with my new scope, I’ll be content with that for now as I want to use it in scouting for bear sign and a good location for bait and blind by early May.
< The new scope is a 2 – 7 x 32 CROSSFIRE 11 by Vortex. It excels in a long eye relief and a no nonsense lifetime warranty.
This OUTFITTER G3 in .35 Whelen could serve as a good backup rifle, though my intent for it is as a “walk-about” brush gun.
Til the next…