I got a call from fellow Sporting Rifle writer, Jason Doyle. “Well lad, how’s things?”
“All good J; what’s the craic?”
“Just wondering if you’d give me a hand to film a piece for Highland Outdoors. We’ll do a hunt on the hill, do a two-day test on the new Ridgeline clothing, camp out overnight…”
“Well, that sounds good.”
“…and we’ll be using their rifles and optics.”
“Oh, erm, okay.” Silently I was thinking that I didn’t really want to use any rifle other than my own. I have total confidence in it and know it so well, it’s like an extension of myself. But my reaction to using a rifle other than my own rig gave
me a chance for some reflective thought. I decided to turn my emotions of uncertainty around and use it as an opportunity to get back to basics and actively focus my skills, getting to grips with an unfamiliar setup.
The rifle supplied was a Howa 1500. I had a choice in calibre between .270 and .308; I chose the .270 Win, as it is a favoured calibre of mine. The scope was a Nikko Stirling Diamond 3-12×42 – no ballistic turret, no fancy reticle, just a simple cross and a dot, all mated together with a set of the Nikko Stirling Steel-Lok quick- release rings.
Before we struck off on the hunt, I took the opportunity to visit the range and get the rifle set up for myself. As usual, this involved taking everything apart, checking it and reassembling. I have a handy little rifle toolkit with the fairly unusual name of ‘fix it sticks’. It’s basically a T bar with a range of heads and a number of little attachments that are torque limiters. So I reassembled the rifle, checking that the action screws were torqued and the bases and rings were torqued and mounted correctly. I found the eye relief a little long for me on the long action, and had the scope mounted as far back as possible. I took the check riser off my own rifle and mounted it on the Howa, using some foam tape to build it up to the correct height. This really improved my eye relationship with the scope, and the earlier eye relief issue became far less noticeable.
I threaded on the Aim Sport moderator, which was a .30 cal spec. I noted that the dome design at the end would be good to reduce the ingress of rain. The last things to fit to the rifle were a Redkettle sling, the simplicity of which really appealed to me, and my Spartan 300 bipod. I fitted the bipod using the universal guide adaptor, and we were ready to zero.
Jason had already zeroed the rifle and broken in the barrel, so I set up on the bench to fire a sighting shot. A few clicks down and right, and I was an inch and a half high at 100 yards. My first instinct on firing the rifle was how nice it was to shoot; the rubber textured stock was a little too flexible for my liking on the forend, but it seemed to handle the recoil nicely.
Next, I got into the prone position to fire a few groups at 150 and 200 yards. The rifle behaved similarly off the bipod, and I experienced a nice follow-through that allowed me to see my strike and remain on target for subsequent shots. The groups at 150 yards were in around 1MOA, but a little larger than I had hoped for. I took a break before settling down to fire my last group. This time I settled at 200 yards and really focused on my body position, a neutral load on the bipod and my trigger control. The trigger, incidentally, was a two-stage unit that I did not adjust and thought was very usable as standard. I was pleasantly surprised as I walked up to the target to see a tidy group of just over half an inch. Luck? Maybe, but I was satisfied. The placement was pretty good too, just an inch off my aiming point.
So I was happy that the little budget package was up to the task, and I was looking forward to getting out on the mountain for a few days of adventure. Day one started with a stiff climb. I had the rifle strapped to the side of my Kifaru pack, and was glad of its lightweight and tidy dimensions (10lb including scope, moderator and bipod). The weight of your rifle becomes really important when you have a pack full of camping gear, food, water, camera gear and potentially lots of meat, and you have a big slog up a mountain ahead of you.
Animals came into view as we ascended, and despite a chancy wind, I opted to get an early stalk in on a hybrid pricket. I dumped the pack and slung the rifle across my back. As I crawled downhill through the mountain heather, I realised how stable the rifle was on my back. I think this was a combination of the rubberised stock, overall light weight and the Red Kettle sling.
During the stalk I let good avenues of cover drag me too far right and ended up about 60 yards from the deer before I could see them. By then they knew something was up – maybe a rogue gust of wind, maybe noise from the frosty ground, but either way I had no shot. On reflection I should have taken it slower and kept to the higher ground on the left, as I had originally planned – lesson learned.
Back to Jason on the camera, I got my kit together again. I reattached my rifle to the side of my Kifaru pack using a couple of buckled straps, and we were off again with the summit in our sights. The temperatures were plummeting past the zero point, and the cutting wind seemed to be forever at odds with our hunting intentions. I had a Ridgeline Igloo windproof fleece top on that was doing a good job of keeping me at a comfortable temperature as we put in the hard work uphill, and I was glad of the waterproof trousers as I went to my waist in a bog hole, much to Jason’s amusement.
We were covering good ground, seeing some animals, but the lack of cover and evil winds seemed to quash any chances of a stalk. As darkness approached I had to remind myself to stay in the process, searching methodically. I think when you are hunting with close to 50lb of gear on your back you can be inclined to rush things.
My reminder to stay process-focused was in full effect as we rounded the mountainside to where we had spied animals earlier at long range. I glassed with each step, knowing they had to be there. As I glanced to my right I saw movement and heard a “psst” from Jason. I could see a group at about 350 yards below us. They were static but apprehensive, and had that look that they were just waiting for any excuse to head for further hills.
We dropped down into a little gully and made 30 yards or so. Dumping the packs, we edged forward and ranged the deer at 320 yards. Jason opted to stay put and keep the camera rolling while I crept forward to close the distance. I found a good position about 20 yards forward, but the distance was still too far. The deer seemed settled now, so I took my chances and edged forward, sliding down the grassy gully, the steepness making it all the easier.
A few minutes later I arrived at the perfect little soft mound. I edged the rifle forward and perched it on top. It was like a set of range bags! I still had the bipod deployed, but the most of the rifle was supported in the centre of the stock by the shooting support that Mother Nature had supplied.
The animals spooked for a second, and were starting to move; it was time to shoot. I was aware of the fading light as I picked out a sika pricket that was broadside. As the range was a little more than 200 yards, I held high to allow for the drop. I allowed for a 10-mile-per-hour wind, holding on the back of the vitals, and focused only on the trigger.
I saw the pricket leap to the shot and dash forward. I managed to reload (on auto-pilot) and track him the 30 yards to where he fell. I watched the distinct yellow patch of grass where he had fallen. Jason appeared, smiling, but then aired his disappointment that he didn’t get the shot on film. No bother – I was delighted that the Howa had performed well, and it was rewarding for me to revert to basics and refine my marksmanship and riflecraft.
We gathered our gear and found the sika pricket where I had marked. The light was fading, and we had yet to find a place to camp – anywhere flat would do; a water source would be a bonus. I quickly gralloched, and noted that the bullet had taken the top of the pricket’s heart.
A quick look at my map app suggested that a good campsite might lie a few hundred metres to our north, and so it was. We pitched our Spartan tents and got the gas cooker going for a well-earned meal of couscous and venison. As I lay there in the tent, listening to the driving rain and wind, I reflected on the experience. It felt rewarding to be handed a budget rifle and scope, be told, “use this”, and make a success of it. It made me aware of how focused on precision and choice I had become, on how a simple basic setup can do the job, and how good it was to get back to basics and make it work.