THE BENCH REST CAN bring out the best and the worst in a rifle.
The best, of course, is the shooter’s ability to confirm the performance of a particular combination of rifle and cartridge. This is done from a secure rest at a fixed target, usually from a distance of 100 yards.
The worst is the enhanced sensation of recoil. You are well aware the sharp “kick” is coming and there are no gleaming antlers to defuse the moment. The veteran bench shooter does not live who has not been bitten by the dreaded flinch.
During the past 60 years, I have owned numerous rifles of various calibers and I’m confident that at one time or another I have flinched with every one of them. The worst was a .416 Remington Magnum purchased about a dozen years ago for a Cape buffalo safari in Zimbabwe.
It was a fine rifle, a Winchester Model 70 with a heavy barrel, and fitted with a low-profile 2 1/2- 8X Leupold scope. Tricked and loaded, the rig weighed about 11 pounds—and you want every ounce of that mass to help absorb the violent recoil.
About two months out, I made a point to go once a week to the Carter’s Country rifle range in Houston. The first session was, to say the least, intimidating.
I settled behind the sandbag-stable stock and racked a long, fat cartridge into the chamber. I took a deep breath, released about half, and slowly began pressing the crisp trigger.
I had the distinct impression that the 400-grain Trophy Bonded Sledgehammer solid remained stationary while the rifle and I flew backwards at 2,400 feet per second.
Thanks to the repeated range sessions, both from the bench and offhand, I came to grips (literally) with the big boomer. I am nothing more than a decent rifle shot but the training was rewarded. I fired twice inside 50 yards at my buffalo; the first bullet got the lungs and the second broke the shoulders. It’s true what say: You don’t feel a thing over big game.
The .416 was an extreme example, and the white-tailed deer hunter uses far less horsepower. The effective options for deer are many, from light choices such as the .243 Winchester to the realm of the.300 magnums.
The .270 Winchester and the .30-06 Springfield are the classic standards, very manageable in most adult hands. Still, Mr. Flinch can fester somewhere within a 20-round box of cartridges.
For the newcomer outfitting for a deer hunt, I suggest you be cautious about selecting a belted magnum. In skilled hands, these powerful, flat-shooting rifles are thunder and lightning out to extreme ranges—but they can be hard to shoot with accuracy for the shaky beginner. Also, the glowing downrange statistics might encourage a long poke that the excitable rookie has no business attempting.
On numerous occasions, I have used a 7mm Remington Magnum or a .300 Weatherby Magnum. I must admit that, like many hunters, I like the idea of a powerful gun—especially for Rocky Mountain mule deer and elk, or for the physically larger bucks of Deep South Texas.
But under most circumstances the venerable .270 or .30-06 loaded with a proper bullet does just fine. To repeat, unless you are dedicated to serious range training, a robust magnum can be hard to handle. Sadly, I’ve jerked some big belted rounds on important chances at deer. I’m just being honest.
Regardless of caliber, a recoil pad can soften the punch, as can a strap-on shoulder pad of similar material. So do toned-down cartridges, if you don’t mind forfeiting some performance.
Muzzle brakes and suppressors also tame kick but I’m addressing simple fixes for an out-of-the-box rifle.
My second advice is to avoid one of the short, featherweight rifles intended for hard-core mountain hunting. Such rifles look trim and racy but they encourage wobbling and bobbling. Even in standard calibers they can really pop you.
Remember, you are not concerned with hiking to those hazy peaks “way over yonder.” Typically, you are strolling a short distance to a box blind or tripod and sitting and waiting. Frankly, under such conditions, a heavy rifle with a standard 24-inch barrel is an ally, not a hindrance.
A scoped deer rifle weighing about 8 or 8 1/2 pounds helps smooth things out, and you won’t hear me barking if it scales closer to nine.
Select a scope with superior “eye relief.” That’s the effective full-field distance between the rear lens and your predatory face as you lean hungrily into the stock. Short eye relief encourages the recoil to smack the top edge of the steel frame into your eyebrow, splitting the skin and probably resulting in more blood loss behind the muzzle than in front of it.
Most of us tend to remember a beating like that, which doesn’t do much for the next few attempts at an aimed shot. One reason I favor Leupold is that the models I’ve used have superior eye relief. Of course, other fine brands are available.
Before toting the new rifle/scope to the range, check all screws for tightness. The scope mounted by a competent gunsmith probably was bore-sighted with a collimator, but this is a rough adjustment intended to get “on paper.” Don’t automatically assume that the zero is where you want it (with many popular deer cartridges about an inch or so high at 100 yards, proving hold-on capability out to about 250 yards).
Cable hunting shows and outdoor magazines make a big deal of minute-of-angle accuracy (basically, a three-shot group inside one inch at 100 yards), and that’s an excellent foundation for long range performance. But, in the real world of Texas tower blinds and game feeders, most shots at whitetails are inside 200 yards. Probably well inside.
Consistent two-inch groups are fine. Compared to the bull’s-eye on a 100-yard target, the realistic kill zone on a broadside buck is generous, about the size of a basketball. Just be confident through a pre-hunt range session or two that the rifle is tuned and zeroed with the chosen hunting bullet.
And try not to flinch when it really matters.
Email Joe Doggett at [email protected]