The wind was howling out of the west and I settled my rifle onto a sturdy set of shooting sticks. I observed silently as my hunting partner rolled big rocks into the trees below, trying to unnerve the big mule buck we had spotted on the same ridge just half an hour earlier. We knew our tall-antlered quarry was close but didn’t know exactly where he had disappeared to. I glanced over at my partner, still bowling softball-sized rocks into the cover below, and I could feel the tension building in my shoulders as I anticipated an opportunity about to present itself. The wind was covering our noise on the mountain but the boulders weren’t making enough of a racket to cause concern. I almost relaxed, thinking that the buck had moved to a different location when a carefully released rock dislodged him from his bed below us. The brush went crashing as the animal broke his way through the tangle of branches in a desperate bid to scramble for safer ground.
I picked the buck up in my scope and was following his every move with the crosshair held steady on the vitals of his chest. He had managed to run through more than 80 metres of thick cover before I saw an opening in the tangle of dry limbs below. I gently tightened up on the trigger and felt the recoil of my rifle as the crosshair tracked the back edge of his shoulder blade. The shot felt good and I saw the deer jump. I quickly chambered a second round and moments later the buck tried to race through a small meadow further down the slope. Once again I found him with my crosshair and tightened up on the trigger until I felt the recoil of the shot. This time he dropped his head and disappeared into the brush as he rocketed down the ridge.
I waited several minutes to watch the open areas at the base of our mountain but nothing appeared. I slowly made my way down the ridge and found the last spot where the buck was running when I had sent a bullet in his direction. Crimson drops on the hard-packed snow left little doubt that my bullet had found its mark. I grabbed tree branches as I made my way down the steep slope, following the tracks, and found my deer piled up at the base of a small tree. Both of my bullets had found their marks and entered the buck’s chest just behind the front shoulder. The two bullet holes were less than an inch apart, and before I even got to the deer I was confident in my mind that he was down.
I was shooting a new Browning X-Bolt in .270 WSM, and although I hadn’t shot the rifle before I had visited the range two days earlier and familiarized myself with it. I loved it from the first time I settled the sights on my target and I knew I’d be successful with the firearm. The rifle just felt right. It was what I like to call “shootable”.
I get the opportunity to field test a number of new rifles and shootability is one of the main criteria I consider when determining a particular firearm’s value to me as a hunter. I’ve shot loads of rifles that simply feel awkward and uncomfortable. I’ve even tinkered with several to change the length of the stock. What I found is that it really didn’t matter whether I added a recoil pad or cut off the stock, if the rifle didn’t feel comfortable I inevitably found myself making compromises to make it work.
I was invited to a hunting camp last year where Thompson/Center sent out 12 of their new Venture bolt-action rifles for our party to use and test under hunting conditions. I was fortunate to get to camp well ahead of the others and was asked to sight in all the rifles, as they were all right out of the box, with bore-sighted optics.
I settled onto the shooting bench and started the task of shooting groups out of each rifle at 100 yards. I was amazed at how easy they were to shoot, and even though I was sighting in different calibres I found each rifle extremely trouble-free. They just fit right, allowing me to manage recoil and provide the accuracy to shoot sub one-inch MOA out of every rifle on the bench. I would have never guessed it possible, but having had time to reflect on why I was able to maintain accuracy out of so many different rifles I came to a simple conclusion: they were just plain easy to shoot.
The grip, fit and feel of a rifle is different for each shooter. I can’t stress enough how important it is to look at the fit factors when purchasing a new rifle. Shootability is one of my most important criteria; if it fits well I know I’ll be able to shoot it well.
Shooting that big mule buck on the run was like following it with an extension of my arm and finger – it felt simple, natural and comfortable. Handle a new rifle like you’d hold it and shoot it in the field. Try a set of shooting sticks or kneel down and try to hold the rifle steady on a target. Most shoppers grab a rifle, shoulder it, and point it up towards the lights. We may get a steep uphill shot in the mountains, but it really isn’t a good pose to determine how a rifle fits or feels. Think about realistic and repeated scenarios when finding your perfect fit.
When looking for a new rifle don’t be afraid to pick up different makes and models and shoulder them to see how they feel. If you get an opportunity to shoot different firearms at the range take advantage of it. The more diversity in firearms that you shoot the more you’ll know what you like and what you don’t. And when you find a sweet-shooting piece of iron you’ll know what I mean by shootability.