Originally published October 2012
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
Dad with his two oldest grandsons.