Precision at a Distance: Big Scopes for Big Game


I didn't see all of the bone at once. Rather, I pieced together the hull's antlers over the course of many minutes. The thick foliage enabled me to sneak within 30 yards or so, but the milling cows stopped me there. If one of them got suspicious, the herd would smoke, and I most urgently wanted it to stay. After peeking through several narrow, leafy alleys at the loafing elk, I felt the wind swing on its hinges. Puffy, but dangerous at this yard age. I already feared my scent pool would reach the old man. A prize, he was, if I'd added correctly.

I backed out. My client came in the next day. Though he had indeed seen many Januarys, he looked trim and moved with vigor. Capital. We had time this evening, I told him. Did he want to hunt?

"That's what I came for," he grinned. "Seen anything promising?"

"Mr. Main Beam," I said, helping him with his duffle. He told me on the trail that he'd just returned from the far North, where he'd worn grooves in tall mountains looking for a ram. The iron would still be in his legs.

'We can arrow in," I said. "But it's safer swinging wide. Down this ridge," I pointed, "then west off the face into the bottom, then along treeline up yonder fork. There's a cut with a wallow. We'll come in downwind, the sun to our left."

We got there half an hour before dark, going slow the last few rods because elk song was sifting out of the timber close by. We narrowly missed bumping a silent bull. I spotted the rump just as he swung around to have another go at a shredded aspen. The walking got noisy in thick second growth above the cut. We crunched forward in a kinked route that delayed progress. But on the rise where we shucked our packs, a red sun still stabbed through the quivering tops of the quakies.

The wallow had already opened for business, and a five-point bull, black halfway up his barrel, hooked at one of the few green hummocks remaining on its perimeter.

"You make an appointment?" Joe whispered.

I shook my head. "I've tried before. Cud-chewers never show up on time."

He grinned. It was the first day, a pleasant evening with a bull in our laps. I read Joe's thoughts:

''We'll find a keeper."

Optimistic clients made hunting fun. But I could tell this man also expected results. The bull I'd pieced together could stay bushed up in this heat. Every day would be a new coin toss.

Shadows purpled the dry grasses and sedges, and blackened the dirt

torn by elk hooves. The little bull moved off, alerting me. Then Sir Bone popped out of the boles behind him and stalked across the far edge of the cut. Maybe 250 yards off. I glassed him, saw lots of beam aft of the fifth and nodded. Joe pressed his Remington against a tree. It looked still. But the elk didn't stop. The rifle moved to track it. "Wait," I rasped. Moving targets, even slow ones, had an annoying habit of snagging bullets in the wrong places. Then the bull was gone. He bugled from the forest and it seemed to shake. His voice had lots of gravel but also a metallic twang that I remembered from my stakeout in the thicket. We sat until almost all the light leaked from the day. Two other bulls tempted us, but Joe had no mind to shoot either. The bugling faded away.

Then, just as we got ready to leave, it grew louder. My eyeballs strained against the binoculars. Something crawled in the black wainscoting across the cut. The animal slid out along the forest hem and stopped. Joe had a rest again. "Is it him?" The binocular dished up a big shouldered bull with long beams. "E-e-ya-u-uh!" Like a steel guitar in the middle. It had to be him. But this was the first night, and the bone fuzzed into the dark firs behind. It might, just might, not be him. And even if it was the bull we'd come for, I wanted to check yesterday's math. Sadly, the light would only get worse.

"He's big and he's 350 yards." "Is he the one you saw?"

One question at a time. "I think so. Yes." Then doubts. Antlers always shrank when they hit the ground, and in dim light they could shrink a lot. ''Your call." Joe didn't want the football. He wanted a decision. "Will we find a bigger one?" The Question.

"Dunno." Then, to be safe: "Better pass. We might get lucky and find... "

The bull moved across our front as Joe slung the rifle and turned to follow me out. I gave the elk one more look as it passed in front of a clump of yellow grass. The beam showed black against it, long and thick, hanging out far behind the fifth like irrigation pipe from a pickup bed. My throat felt dry; my heart quick-stepped. Binocular to my eye, I said, "Maybe we'd better... "

BLAM! "... reconsider," I finished meekly as the bull buckled and the harsh echoes died.

The elk looked as big up close as it had in the glass, as when I'd pieced it together in the brush. Joe's bullet had taken it cleanly through both shoulders - a great shot in poor light. He told me as we got out the knives that you just couldn't beat a bright, high-power variable scope and Weatherby shotgun shells. We finished dressing the bull in the dark, then climbed out of the basin by thin starlight. Joe's kill showed that sometimes high scope magnification makes sense.

A counter argument is that it can encourage shooting at unconscionable ranges. Hunters who would not shoot at distant game with a 4x scope might try if they could get a 12x picture. Powerful glass can give the illusion of an easy chance when in fact the shot is very difficult. Last fall, I met a couple of young men on a snowy mountain. They were hunting elk, and I'd heard shots. "Naw, we didn't git any," one said in answer to my question. "We shot a couple o' times, but they were four, maybe five hunnerd yards. We didn't knock any down." It turned out that they hadn't walked into the canyon to check the track, either. Magnification and potent cartridges can prompt dolts like this to flail away at extreme range. But misuse (of scopes, station wagons, handguns, kitchen matches or sleeping pills) builds a mighty thin indictment against the product. As rifle scopes have evolved, the definition of high power has changed. A 3-9x variable no longer qualifies as a powerful sight. It and the 3.5-10x have replaced the 4x as standard fare on bolt-action big game rifles. Most hunters I've seen in the field leave the dial at or near the top most of the time. Variables that used to be hawked primarily to rodent-shooters - the 4-12x and 6-18x- have become popular with deer hunters. Hardly any new fixed-power scopes have come off the drawing boards in the past few years and only a few low-power variables. But the number of hunting style variables with high magnification continues to grow.

For example, Nikon's line now includes a 6.5-20x Monarch UCC Varmint scope. While its name reflects its purpose, I'm certain a lot of big game hunters will use it- as they use Leupold's 6.5-20x. Friends of mine in the Desert Southwest think this a perfect choice for Coues deer, and the dial rarely gets turned down. I borrowed a rifle so equipped one morning in Arizona and clobbered a buck at 410 paces. The rangefinding reticle, a bipod and 20 x magnifications made the shot not only possible but perfect. The bullet hit exactly where I was aiming, despite my rush to shoot before the buck stepped through a small opening. Unlike the 20x Lyman Super Targetspot scopes of yesteryear, the Nikon and Leupold mount on the receiver. Less than 15 inches long and weighing just 20 ounces, the Nikon is more compatible with a trim hunting rifle than many fixed-power scopes used to be. Some 6.5-20xs have 50mm objectives, which can brighten a sight picture at high magnification when light is poor. But I prefer the Nikon's 44mm front end. It's big enough to yield a 5mm exit pupil at 9x but will allow the use of low rings on most rifles.

I also like the UCC's matte black finish. As is warranted on a long-range sight, this scope wears a parallax adjustment sleeve on the objective bell. Leupold recently pioneered a turret dial for parallax adjustment, which allows you to allow for a sudden change in yardage from a shooting position. These two scopes are hardly anomalies. Swarovski and Pentax both list 6-24x scopes, as does Bushnell, which also markets an 8x32. There's an 8x32 at Burris as well - and a 6-24x and a 6.5-20x. In fact, most firms that field enough scopes to interest hunters have sights with more magnification than was thought useful for long-range target shooting in my youth. For years, I've maintained that 4x is all the magnification needed to shoot big game.

I've killed several animals at around 400 yards with both 4x and 6x scopes. At that range (which seems to me long indeed- a practical limit for even accomplished marksmen), I naturally prefer the 6x, but the 4x seems adequate. After all, most hunters would consider iron sights acceptable for shots at big game to 100 yards, and through 4x glass at 400, the target appears the same size. The reticle also has an advantage over a bead, which is less distinct and must be aligned with the rear sight. I still like 4x and 6x scopes, but am compelled to admit that the best variables these days are built to such close tolerances and so sturdily that impact point stays constant through power changes and nothing short of a bomb will cause mechanical failure. And I'll admit that as my eyes age, high magnification is becoming more attractive. A deliberate shooter by training, I'm not going to gun down many bounding bucks. Most of the shots that come my way are at undisturbed game, and I take them from a tight sling. I seldom shoot at moving animals. The average magnification of scopes in my rifle rack is creeping up. The current market success of high-power variables- the 4-12x, 4.5-14x, 6-18x, 6.5-20x- indicates that most shooters like to see their target big, and that they expect to shoot at long range. Rifles and cartridges that make headlines are those that can deliver accuracy and punch far from the muzzle. Bipods, once exclusively the tool of prairie dog enthusiasts, are showing up more and more on big game rifles. David Miller's super-accurate (but hunting-weight) Marksman rifle comes with a Harris bipod. Unless you specify otherwise, it also wears a 6.5-20x scope. Most variables are still designed in accordance with the "three times" rule.

That is, the top-end magnification is no greater than three times the bottom-end magnification. You can have a "four times" scope if you make certain mechanical or optical concessions that until recently did not make sense. Scope designers plodded the same path for a long time, improving the 3-9x but not supplanting it with scopes of higher power or wider power range. Now the 3-12x, 4-16x and 6-24x give hunters a low end that's useful in a wide range of hunting situations, with a top end that picks the eye of a ground squirrel from a grass tuft a quarter mile across a cow pasture. Leupold's new 30mm LPS scopes include a 3.5-14x50 model that's not only a much better scope than the first LPSs; it has a turret-mounted focus (parallax correction) dial and looks good on rifles built for long shooting at big game.

Two other new LPS scopes offer slimmer profiles and lighter weight. I've come to accept high magnification as a useful feature in big game hunting scopes. But when someone brags about shooting long, I'm still tempted to ask him if he's out to see what his rifle can do or to test his hunting skills. I'm tempted, when he claims a kill at great distance, to put a consoling arm around his shoulder and say, "That's all right; you'll get closer next time."

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