Make Mine a Light

Happy hunting goes to those who lug few pounds.

Field & Stream Online Editors

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the mark of a superior intellect is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one's head and still be able to function. With that in mind, I am about to embark on the other side of a column I did in the June 2005 issue entitled "Why Weight?" in which I argued the merits of heft in firearms. This one is all about why light weight is great.

My introduction to the problems of a heavy rifle came in 1973, in a particularly rugged part of Montana. I went there to hunt elk with a custom-stocked .340 Weatherby Magnum of which I was immensely proud. It was about 101/2 pounds with scope aboard. Every day I would do about 10 miles, climbing from 5,000 feet to 7,500 feet, straight up, straight down, sideways at a 45-degree angle, hip-deep in snow, maneuvering through blowdowns, and ducking under limbs.

Under conditions like that, a heavy rifle becomes a malignant force that you have to fight every step of the way. The next year I showed up with a .270 that tipped the scales at 8 pounds-a hell of a lot less onerous.

For hunters who don't sit in a stand all day, a heavy rifle can be a major drag. No matter how tough you are physically, all you are doing by carrying one is handicapping yourself.

I said in "Why Weight?" that it's harder to hold a lightweight rifle steady than a heavier gun. Lack of poundage magnifies errors in shooting technique, and if you are not a good shot, you will shoot worse with a lightweight.

But the rifles themselves are as accurate as models packing a lot more pounds and ounces. I've had experience with lightweights from at least half a dozen makers, and I can tell you that the worst of them shot far better than any big-game hunter will ever need.

That is because the barrel is the last place to be trimmed by smart rifle designers. An extremely light barrel means an extremely twitchy rifle, and one that will shift its point of impact after only a few rounds are fired through it. (And if you should encounter a firearm with a true soda-straw barrel, leave immediately.) The weight savings with a good synthetic stock is so great that you can use a barrel with some heft to it and still produce a very light gun.

Clever gunmakers can save an ounce here and an ounce there, and it adds up. Look at the bolt from a New Ultra Light Arms rifle, for example. It appears almost toylike because everything is so much slimmer than a standard bolt. But examine the locking lugs next and you'll see that they are the same size as those on a standard bolt. My Mark Bansner .270 WSM has a fluted barrel; the flutes save weight but leave the barrel just as stiff as it was before they were cut.

"Sure," you say, "but as you yourself pointed out, a lightweight magnum rifle will knock your head off." To which I reply, "True, but there are very few cases where you actually need a magnum rifle."

A month ago, I listened to an African PH rhapsodizing about, of all calibers, the .30/06. "Man," he said, "it's absolutely deadly. You get a good heavy bullet for it and you can kill anything. Anything."

These days, I am using cartridges like the 6.5x55 and 7x57 and 7mm/08 and .270 for just about everything, and the animals drop just as fast as they did when I used magnums. "It is not logical, Captain," as Mr. Spock might say, "but it is true."