Apr 20, 2008

Big Game Rifle - North American Hunting Club

Book Review: “The Game Rifle
by Bob Hagel

The Game Rifle, published by the North American Hunting Club, is author Bob Hagel's 1992 attempt to describe the selection and use of rifled arms in the big game hunting fields, with a few notes on varminting.

The book begins strong, with an introduction detailing the doctrine of every seasoned hunter-shooter and guide: Make the first shot count (hunt as if carrying a single shot), always use a rest when available, practice real field shooting positions, thoroughly understand and acknowledge your actual shooting abilities under various conditions, and be willing to pass up shots and game to avoid wounding and/or missing animals.

After this strong eight page introduction discussing the real cause of both good and bad field marksmanship (the hunter and his personal shooting skill, not equipment), Hagel retrogrades and copies every other writer pretending to discuss field marksmanship by wasting most of the entire book blathering on about what things you should buy and use, offering almost no solution to the problems he puts forth in his introduction.

The chapters blend together, with "Favorite Guns Past and Present", "Western Rifles and Cartridges", "Selecting the Right Elk Cartridge", "All-Around Cartridges and Rifles", "The Magnums", "Big Game Bullets", and, well, you get the idea.

The only real discussion on marksmanship at all is attempted in one chapter "Shooting Big-Game Rifles." At 22 pages (less than 10 percent of the book), including three full-page photographs (two of animals, and one guy with binoculars) Hagel makes a strong point for the need of better marksmanship training for hunters:

"It's a safe bet that 50 percent of the big-game rifles that go into hunting country each fall are not correctly sighted in. It is also a safe bet that half of the 50 percent that are at least roughly sighted in, are not sighted to give the hunter the full advantage of the cartridge used in the rifle. ... Few hunters who would go into big-game country without sighting in their rifles are good shots - despite their opinions to the contrary. If we fail to educate and encourage them to sight in their rifles, we can be sure that they are more likely to would game than to kill cleanly. Anyway, hunters who go into the field unprepared give the rest of us a bad name"

Of course, this book isn't going to offer any solutions for this problem. While the chapter offers good advice some of his conclusions are suspect. For example, Hagel recommends sighting in no less than three inches high at 100, allowing a point blank zero all the way out to at least 350 yards.

"If you hold on the center of a buck's ribs anywhere from the muzzle out to 350 yards, which is as far as most prudent men will attempt, the bullet will land in a vital area."

Hagel implies that a 200 yard zero is unsavvy and that this high zero is better because "Few of us... are very good at estimating range in unfamiliar terrain."

Right, sure. Two pages prior the author points out that approximately 75% of hunters don't even know how to properly zero their rifles, but now, with this "innovative" point blank zero, we can zap 'em out to 350 yards plus. Amazing!

On the page facing, Hagel has a picture of a target shot with his rifle at 100, 200, 300 and 350 yards. His groups at each distance are tight (likely bench-rested and not fired from a field position), with the dispersion falling perfectly vertically.

Even with this antiseptically-clean target fired with a rifle chambered in a fast magnum, we have up to 10 inches of error (5 inches high and low) built into a given shot. Add five inches of error to a hunter, with typically poor marksmanship skills (because nobody, including Hagel, bothered to actually teach him how), firing from a wobbling field position (we don't take our bench rest to the field!), who is holding a bit high on that critter at 196 yards because, due to his poor range estimation skills, he is sure it is "at least 300 yards away", and we likely get the same result as if he just stayed with the other 75% who hadn't bothered to zero in the first damn place.

The rest of this one shooting chapter discusses the ballistics needed to make long range shots, and slope angle. Not how to dope conditions or slope, but only that it might be an issue that you will have to figure out for yourself.

That concludes the only chapter of the book attempting to discus marksmanship. Nothing about field shooting, save two pictures, the last one captioned "After sighting a rifle in from a bench, check the point of impact when the rifle is fired from positions you will most likely use, such as this improvised field rest."

This is the total knowledge on field shooting you will gain by reading this book. Chapter 14 "The Best Shots" suggests a lung-heart shot is better for most hunters than a head-neck shot, but nothing is discussed nor are there any illustrations about shot placement, target angle, etc.

So why am I such a harsh critic of authors like this? In the foreword, Steven Burke, NAHC's president, describes Hagel as a "tell it like it is" writer, first published in 1936 (!), who worked as a professional guide for 12 years. Burke goes on to describe the text as a "jeweled masterpiece", saying,

"All of our efforts at NAHC are directed to provide the best, most accurate and most complete hunting information..." and "... we found that few up-to-date, thorough resources existed to guide the serious hunter through the selection and field use [emphasis added] of what is generically known as the 'game rifle.' ... Based on Bob Hagel's dedication and career in guns and hunting, I'm confident you'll enjoy this volume and come to cherish it as a first-class rifleman's resource."

Ask some amateur puke like me to pick the "ideal" game rifle and I'll tell you this:

"Go to S-mart or a local gun store, buy whatever basic bolt action or single shot rifle they have, along with a small, low-powered scope (2-4 power.) Don't pick either the cheapest or most expensive. Go with .308 Winchester if you want to shoot big game, .223 Remington for varmints, only because you can get a case of 1000 rounds of surplus ammo cheaper than you can reload it. Find a local range/club sponsoring HunterShooter events (or something similar) and go as often as you can, putting in sufficient dry and live practice in between events to steadily increase your scores. By the time you're finishing up your second case, you'll have sufficient experience to make your own choices, and sufficient skill to benefit from that choice."

You ask a professional like Hagel for advice on picking the "ideal" game rifle and he spews forth 249 pages, including the index.

Let's say our intrepid hunter works his way through this tome and manages to pick the "perfect" game rifle. What positive effect could it have? By author Hagel's own estimation, 75% of hunters can't (or just don't) even set their equipment up properly by establishing, or even fully understanding, a good zero. We haven't even begun to discuss actually employing the equipment in the field. Sort of like arguing which carburetor we should put in our race car when we haven't yet learned how to drive.

This sort of book functions only as a strumpet for the gun industry. It provides little benefit to the reader beyond the titillation of armchair hunters looking to buy a new toy who don't want to be distracted by actually learning to use it.

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