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Rebuilding a Hunter

In the year 1960, the WinchesterRepeating Arms company was busy building guns. Of the many firearms they manufactured that year, one was a Model 70 Westerner in .264 Winchester Magnum. As luck would have it, a short time later, after returning from Korea, my maternal Grandfather purchased the rifle. Of the many guns Grandpa owned through his years, he always spoke fondly of his old .264 “manglem”.

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Grandpa had promised the rifle to my father many years ago, and as anyone would, Dad looked forward to owning such a fine piece of equipment. What my Grandpa couldn’t have known, is how that same rifle would bring the family together in the Utah mountains more than 50 years later.
Dad was a dedicated father and hunter, as far back as I can remember, I have the fondest memories of Dad bringing home deer. And as I grew up, he would take me on as many adventures as life would allow. These trips into the Utah wilderness helped shape my love of the outdoors, and have become a source of deep appreciation and joy for my son and daughter, as well as our whole family.

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The .264WM is a hot rod for sure, and Grandpa loved to shoot it. This combination was unhealthy for a cartridge with an appetite for barrels. So as you can imagine, after all these years, the throat had been thoroughly eroded, and the barrel was no good. The rifle sat in Grandpa’s gun safe for years, collecting dust.
My Dad lives with diabetes and has so since he was a child, as time has passed, his illness has taken its toll on his body. And the last decade or so, his health has limited his ability to hunt as he would like. And unfortunately he is not getting any younger.
In December 2010, Dad found himself on the kidney transplant waiting list. His energy was gone, and his kidney failure was showing more and more in his everyday life. We watched painfully as he seemed to get worse and worse. The man I had always looked up to was dying slowly before my eyes. So when I was approached with the possibility of donating a kidney, I literally leapt at the chance. Risking one’s own life to save a loved one is an easy decision to make, but when the time comes to follow through such a choice, I can tell you it is scary.
Luckily, I was a match, and was able to donate one of my kidneys to my father. It was my first encounter with a surgeon, and my opinion of surgeons remains the same after the fact, that is to say, I don’t look forward to their company. A long and very painful recovery on my part was aided by the brightened eyes, and happy face of my father. Who seemed to be recovering faster than I. After a few hiccups, Dad seemed to be on the road back to health.
After ten months of healing for the both of us, Dad came along with the rest of the family on the hunts (elk,deer). Unfortunately we had a bad hunting year and didn’t have much to show for it. And as life would play out, almost a year to the day after Dad and I hobbled out of surgery, Grandpa passed away. Dad inherited the .264 Winchester not long after.
Several months later, Dad and I looked into the old Winchester. It wasn’t a good prognosis, the many years of packing around the mountains and riding in a horse scabbard had left the old rifle looking pretty haggard. And it didn’t get any better on the inside, the bore was scorched, and no amount of cleaning or lapping was going to make this gun shoot. Somewhat frustrated and depressed about the project he’d waited to have all those years, Dad kind-of gave up on it.
I asked him if I could play with it for a while to see if I could get it to shoot. I wasted no time, and had a  Douglas  blank  shipped out. A 5A contour eight-and-a-half twist, 6.5 barrel was just what the timeless Winchester needed. I had a friend cut it at 24 inches, and had the muzzle threaded and a fine brake installed. While he worked on that, I went to town on the old piece of walnut that had lost most of it’s finish.

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Dad continued to keep up on his regimen of healthy living, with a healthy balance of trips to the gun club mixed in. He had his stability under pretty good control by this point, and as I had done for the last two years, I put him in for the Utah hunts we would go on that year. My Dad was of the old school, not a trophy hunter exactly, but not the kind of guy who would shoot little bucks.

He liked to let them get bigger, although I never knew what ‘big enough’ was.
My brothers and I hunt the same mountain Dad did, and Grandpa did, and Great Grandpa did, but times have changed and its not as easy to find those big deer anymore. But we knew they were there, and that’s all the motivation a guy needs.

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Though old school is one way to describe my Father, he also has a thing for high performance and advanced technology. So I decided to improve on Winchester’s original design. The old walnut needed a modern touch, so I started carving. A more vertical pistol grip was needed, the stock was shortened, and a soft recoil pad replaced the original butt plate. A beaver tail-ish front end was added to the stock, and the channel was opened up to receive the new, heavier barrel. All this plus a glass bedding job, texturing of the grip areas, and some Duracoat in a desert camo pattern brought this relic into a more modern age. I topped it off with one of Dad’s scopes mounted in some  Weaver  Tactical rings, added a bi-pod, and off to the range I went with a handful of different test loads.

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My goal for this gun was to be a deer and elk hammer on anything inside half a mile, and to do so, I needed to shoot high BC bullets at .264WM speeds. I tried both the   Berger140VLD and the Barnes Match burner. Both gave good results at 3100fps, but the Barnes a little better, and the price point was a plus. So I loaded up a couple boxes of what shot best (easily sub MOA) . On the first trip into the field, using a chart I’d calculated, I made easy first round hits at 500 and 850 yards. I knew I had a winner in my hands, and couldn’t wait to hand it back to Dad, who had no idea what had transpired since he turned it over to me. A man of reserved speech, his reaction was priceless. Wide eyes and smiles and he kept repeating all day: “what a sharp looking rifle!”

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As the deer hunt started that cold October morning, I had very high hopes. We had spotted several bucks in our little canyon last night, and here it was just moments before shooting light. Dad had worked his way down a ridge line with us, and we sat atop some large rocks, overlooking a spectacular view of the high Rockies.
The deer were moving, and we spotted several, but none of them had impressed me as a shooter for Dad. And they didn’t give us a shot anyway, so we kept glassing.
After several shots were heard nearby, and hunters moving about, my hopes were waning. But fate had plans for us that morning.
As the light crept over the top of the mountain peaks, my brother suddenly spotted a deer right below us. The steep angle of the mountain made it feel as though were directly above him. I looked through my rangefinder and all I saw was the antlers, at 264 yards it was surely the biggest deer we’d seen that morning. Dad quickly moved into a position on the rock’s edge, and steadied his new rifle over his pack. We all stood there, silently waiting for the shot. I watched through my spotter as the sharp crack of the rifle went off, the intense silence broken by the sound of the bullet ripping through the cold and thin mountain air. As we all watched in suspense, the bullet struck the deer just behind the left shoulder and exited behind the right. The downward force knocked the deer right to the ground, and with punctured lungs, his life ended right there on the brushy hillside.

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Overcome with excitement and joy for what had been a long time coming, we exchanged high fives and shoulder punches. I knew the stars had to align for my dream to come true that day, but I’d had been feeling our luck building as the pieces fell into place. It was the first deer Dad had killed in 21 years, it may not have been the biggest deer, but for us it was the most memorable. Sharing the excitement with three generations of family that morning, we will never forget that rebuilt hunter and his rebuilt gun. We’ll be putting in for this year’s hunt soon.
-CBM

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Dad with his two oldest grandsons.1C1B3C7C-2AD5-46A6-B248-7E0C8391A628

2016 Cow Elk Hunt

The snow has finally come here to the Wasatch Mountains, the last few storms have left our mountains and valleys white. For those of us that love to hunt, this is a special time of year. Several members of my family had drawn some late season cow elk tags, and the lure of an adventure and putting hands on elk was upon us. The nature of these late season hunts is very dependent on the weather, and the animals reaction to it. We run the odds of timing it just right, when there is enough snow to push the animals into a location where we can get them, but before there is too much snow to be able to get in there ourselves. The last few years have been pretty poor snowfall, so we run right down to the wire as far as season limits. This past weekend was the last few days for my cousin, his tag expired yesterday. Luckily we finally got into them, as they made their way towards wintering grounds.
The start of our hunt Saturday morning was a bitter one, the thermometer was showing six below zero as the pale early morning light made its way over the windswept mountain tops. It was hard to tell yet if it was clouds accumulating at the peaks, or if it was just dusty dry snow being blown into the sky. We found our way to the end of civilization, or at least to where the roads were impassable. It was there that we left the warmth of the truck, and traded it for the speed and mobility of the snowmobiles. We made our way up the snow covered trail, stopping every now and then to do some glassing, and knock the ice from our face masks. On one of those stops, we lucked out, and stopped just over a rise. As we sat there looking around the valleys and canyons that surrounded us, talking quietly about the next planned move, my eyes caught a glimpse of brown. I quickly brought up my Swarovski rangefinder for a closer look, and to get a solid range. It came back 408yds. Had we gone even fifty or so yards further, we’d probably of spooked them. But there they were, a spike and a few cows, some standing, some sitting. My cousin steadied my SRS over his backpack, and located the best looking target. A young cow, laying in the snow. With the sharp crack of the shot muffled by the cold dense air, and surrounding snow, the shot went over without much attention. Except for the one elk who felt it, the bullet found its mark perfectly, hitting the snowline just in front of the bedded animals shoulder. It pulverized her lungs, and she rolled her head back, and expired.
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We made the quick little ride up the trail towards her, as the remaining elk slowly scattered. It was a quick and easy drag downhill to get her to the trail, where we gutted her, and put her into the sled. The below zero temperatures froze the blood so quickly that it turned pink as soon as it dripped. All said and done, we were back having steak and eggs by 11:00AM, some days are good like that. Anyone who hunts elk with any frequency knows, there are good days, and then there are “other” days.

Having had an easy hunt on Saturday, with time to get home, and quarter up the elk, I was quite rested come Sunday morning. I woke up lazily, and after making breakfast for my kids I decided I’d go into town to get a little shopping done. But, as I mentioned previously, timing is everything with these hunts. And I couldn’t let the perfect window of time go bye, so I decided that before my shopping trip I had better stop bye my spotting position, and make sure that the elk hadn’t already moved into their winter grounds. The smooth hills that lay some 3000ft above my home happens to be the chosen winter grounds for a habitual herd of elk. Every year, I can narrow them down to one ridge. So I threw my spotting scope, and tripod into my grocery getter, and drove to my spot. After spotting a good mess of deer, including some great bucks, the H32 reticle in my spotter landed right on the herd. I counted 14 of them, three or four bulls, and the rest were cows or calves. In a moments time, my shopping plans had been shot, and I was making one call after another trying to scramble the team.
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Two and a half hours later, my brother in law, myself, and my cousin, wearing our still bloody snow gear from the day before, were making our way up into the blinding white canyon that held our prize.
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We got to the spot I had formerly planned to start our stalk. We stopped for a moment, to check for the elk. And as I’d hoped, there they were. Not fifty yards from where I had spotted them three hours and two and a half miles ago. We left the snowmobiles, and launched into an uphill battle that would claim most of my days calories. Our design was to skirt the opposing ridge line as we climbed parallel to the elk harboring flat. Point being to get a better angle, allowing for a better shot and selection. The waist deep snow made for a miserable hike, but a fantastic solid and comfortable rest. We maneuvered into a shooting position that gave us a good view through the gaps in the trees. We had closed the distance to five hundred and seventy-eight yards. And it was time to put practice into action. My brother in law setup on top of our packs, and laid motionless in the snow. As he went over his firing scenario, my cousin setup behind him to spot. And I got into position with my video camera. Once we had accounted for just about everything, he gave the ready signal, and we hunkered down behind our respective optics. He was shooting a Remington 700 custom chambered in the Rocky Mountain favorite 300Winchester. He had already dialed the appropriate 4.0mils into his Super Sniper5-20HD scope, and with everything but the trigger pull done we waited…
Being accustomed to overwhelming noise that typically barks from the brake end of that Remington, I was expecting my ears to ring. But again, the viscous atmosphere, and the fluffy snow took all the edge off of the magnum. The bullet found a delightful path through the trees, across the canyon, and I watched it impact right into the left brisket of one of the mature cows. She jumped a bit, took a few steps in our direction, and went facedown into the deep snow. She never moved again. The remainder of the herd looked on, as if confused. But after a second or two, their instinctive distrust of loud noises followed by dropping companions got them turned around. They slowly made their way opposite us, never showing much excitement. We exchanged high fives, and reenlisted to the uphill fight.18076893_1902711516639007_2181376753771605962_o

My Brother in law’s cow elk, after digging her face from the snow
Several hours later, we stood over her. As always, I took a moment of reverence for these beautiful animals that I love and respect. We made short work of the cleaning, the hot blood felt good on my frozen hands. The bright red stain on the snow was a stark contrast in a world of white and black.18193153_1902711863305639_7853852839463593922_o
The early setting winter sun threatened to leave us, shadows were already growing into the east as we finished. My frozen gloves gave no purchase on her slippery legs, but down the steep mountain slope we went. It didn’t take long to get a system going, we sat in the deep snow behind her, and leg pressed. A few yards at a time, we’d slide down behind her and push again. Hours later, we arrived back to the road. Frozen, exhausted, but as alive as ever a man can feel. The cold silence that surrounded us in the endless expanse of a dark and starry sky was beautiful. But with frostbite nipping at my fingertips, the silence was quickly cut short by the roar of a two stroke motor.
We made our way back down the canyon, and to the truck. What an adventure I thought, as I peeled my frozen socks away from my thermals. We’d made it out, pushed our limits, and we won. From the safety of my warm bath, I sat and recounted the days events. Later I called my father and shared the whole experience with him, he loves hearing the stories as much as we love living them. It is in these adventures, and the memories we make therein, that defines me, and brings us together as blood brothers. Love and passion for the hunt, may they never dim.
-CBM