For years, tales of Can-Am UTV sightings in top-secret testing locales across the nation have sparked viral Web discussions among the offroad community containing enough half-truths to rival a Charlie Sheen interview. In 2011, Can-Am puts those rumors to rest by finally pulling the trigger on its new UTV. The Commander 1000XT sports an 85-hp, 976cc Rotax V-twin engine that delivers class–leading fuel economy and a range of 186 miles, thanks to a 10-gallon fuel capacity. With an industry-first composite Dual Level cargo box, a standard 4,000-pound winch, and 27-inch Maxxis Bighorn tires mounted on 14-inch cast-aluminum wheels, the Commander 1000XT is ready for adventure, as I discovered when I took it onto some challenging trails deep in the Pennsylvania backwoods. The comfortable bucket seats are both adjustable and removable, with integrated bases that let them double as camp stools. Topping the list of ingenious safety features are a 2-inch rollover cage, quick-attach side nets, and a seat-belt sensor that limits engine speed to just a few mph with an unbuckled pilot. A drive-by-wire throttle system helps the tires stay hooked up by filtering out the unwanted throttle input created by gnarly trails. –Lance Schwartz Manufacturer: Can Am (Can-Am.BRP.com)
Price: $14,299 – $14,899
Back in 2002, Kawasaki unveiled the now legendary Prairie 650. Harnessing some of that original DNA, the Brute Force 750 4x4i EPS has evolved into the most advanced and capable big-bore ATV Team Green has ever produced. I logged hundreds of miles in steep backcountry terrain to see if the ATV was the brute Kawasaki claimed it to be. It is. The biggest enhancement is undoubtedly the EPS power-steering system, which greatly reduces steering effort. Another plus is the 90-degree fuel–injected 749cc engine that’s mated to the upgraded Automatic Powerdrive System. In all, this ATV turns tough going into smooth sailing. –L.S. Manufacturer: Kawasaki (Kawasaki.com)
Price: $9,999 – $10,349
Best New GPS: Bushnell Backtrack D-Tour
If you want basic navigation and cool route functions but don’t want to spend a fortune or read a manual, the BackTrack D-Tour GPS is the unit for you. It can mark up to five locations–camp, the trailhead, an elk wallow, a clearing, or a rendezvous point–and guide you back to any of them, pointing the direction and giving the distance left to go. Hit the Trip button as you begin your hunt, and the D-Tour will log up to 24 hours of data including distance, speed, elevation, and temperature. Plug it into your PC or Mac with a free downloadable app, and with a single button click, it will display your path on Google Maps while graphing speed, elevation, temperature, or distance. Just four buttons do everything on this -diminutive unit. –Jock Ellio
Manufacturer:** Bushnell (bushnell.com)
Best New Decoy: Carry-Lite Bob ‘N Tail Tom Turkey
Carry-Lite prints high-definition photographic reproductions of animal skin on cloth coverings slipped over soft-plastic bodies. The new Bob’n Tail Tom decoy adds a movable tail fan. Not only are the colors and feather reproduction amazingly realistic in both sunny and cloudy conditions, but the adjustable tail-fan assembly reproduces the movement of a gobbler as he fans back and forth in front of his hens. The Bob’n Tail does require some fine-tuning to properly adjust the counterweighted tail-fan system, and assembly is a bit tricky in the dark. However, the work is worth it because this deke draws a hot gobbler right into range. Once you’ve mastered its intricacies, you’ll find that the decoy easily disassembles for storage in a mesh carry sack. –Bruce Matthews
Manufacturer:** Carry-Lite (CarryLiteDecoys.com)
Best New Safety Harness: Tree Spider Speed Harness, Live Wire Descent System
As I get older, I find myself obsessing about stand safety, so anytime a new safety harness appears, I pay attention. But my former life as a safety scofflaw taught me that such gear has to be simple and comfortable, or it stays in the truck, where it never saves a life. This system is so good I consider it one of the top products to emerge from this year’s ATA Show. First, the harness. The Tree Spider is one of those rare harnesses comfy enough to make you forget you have it on. The three-point attachment system consists of metal clips that somehow aren’t noisy but give that satisfying little click that lets you know they’re locked. The Live Wire Descent System is also slick. As treestand veterans know, even if your safety system prevents a fall, you’ve got a new set of problems if you can’t reach your stand or a step. The Live Wire solves that lethal issue by gently lowering your quaking carcass to the ground on 30 feet of webbing. –S.B.
Manufacturer:** Tree Spider (TreeSpiderSafety.com)
Price: $150, $190
A knife of sublime simplicity, the SK-5 will do nearly anything and stand up to nearly anything. Its 5-inch spear-point flat-ground blade is made of stain-resisting 154CM steel, tempered to Rockwell 58-60, which is on the hard side. It takes a razor edge and holds it forever. The tactical sheath is ballistic nylon with a hard liner. The generous handle is canvas Micarta, and it is an ergonomic masterpiece that will survive anything short of a nuclear blast. –David E. Petzal Manufacturer: Ontario Knife Company (blackbirdknives.com)
This two-blade folder (a sheepsfoot blade and a cutting hook) comes in several varieties. You can get it with an orange or black G-10 handle, with a plain or half-serrated blade, and with the blades coated or uncoated. Whatever you get, it rips and rends ferociously. The 31⁄2-inch main blade is a steel called N680; the cutting hook is 440C. Both are hardened in the Rockwell 58-60 range. And they are razor sharp. The hook will, for example, cut through eight thicknesses of parachute cord with one quick tug. The Triage is beautifully made and very handy. –D.E.P.
Manufacturer:** Benchmade (benchmade.com)
Price: $165 – $180
Best New Boots: Magnum USA Sidewinder HPi in MultiCam
I wore a pair of Sidewinders during the spring gobbler season in Montana, where you roost a tom in a misting twilight rain, set up for him in 2 inches of overnight snow, and hike out of ridges at noon under a merciless sun. These proved to be the toughest, lightest and, once broken in, most comfortable three–season hunting boots I’ve worn. Field-tested for over a year by the British Special Forces in Afghanistan, they sport a hard Vibram tread designed to stand up to the grinding of sand and sharp rocks, along with an innovative ion-mask coating that binds to the leather and nylon uppers, repelling moisture without affecting breathability. Other features include a removable, shock–absorbing memory-foam insole and a locking-lacing system that simplifies getting–and keeping–the right fit. –Keith McCafferty
Manufacturer: Magnum Boots (magnumbootsusa.com)
Best New Outerwear: Columbia Sportswear Omni-Heat Electric Wader Widgeon Interchange
Electrically heated clothing isn’t new, but electrically heated clothing that isn’t bulky, isn’t heavy, and doesn’t run out of juice after a couple of hours is, at least in my experience. The Omni-Heat Electric Wader Widgeon is two jackets, an inner zip-off reflective lining that contains the heating mechanism and a waterproof–breathable shell with a hood. The package comes with charging cables, electrical adapters, and an instruction manual that looks as complicated as Montana’s big-game regulations, but operation is as simple as pressing a button. Heat is adjustable, with up to six hours of continuous output at the lowest setting. Operate it intermittently and you can stay warm all day and recharge the battery packs overnight. –K.M.
Manufacturer: Columbia (columbia.com)
Best New Hunting Pack: Cabela’s Bow and Rifle Pack
The first thing that strikes you about this durable backpack is its weight. At less than 3 pounds, it felt like a feather compared with the other hunting packs we tested–a serious plus for hunters who tackle tough terrain where every ounce counts. After that, you begin to notice all the smart details that make the Bow and Rifle Pack so great–and worth your money. If you want to lighten your load for a simple day hunt, the front detaches to serve as a daypack. When you’re thirsty, you can take a sip from the included (and removable) 70-ounce reservoir. After you stuff all 2,200 cubic inches of the main compartment, the frame balances the load nicely while the ergonomic, mesh-lined back panel keeps you comfortable. Then there’s the pack’s slick namesake feature: adjustable straps and a foldout bow-cam or -rifle-butt support pouch that securely hold your compound bow, rifle, or crossbow. It comes in four camo patterns as well as a Scent-Lok version ($170). –Colin Kearns
Two very similar rifles, both offering superb quality for their respective prices, finished in a dead heat this year: Montana’s ASR and Winchester’s Model 70 Safari Express, below. Both are walnut and blued steel; both are heavy; both are very, very accurate. They also share excellent fit and finish. Heretofore, the Montana Rifle Co. produced only custom guns in the $3,000 to $5,000 bracket. The ASR, however, is only $999. The model we tested was a .308 (there are 17 other calibers); at 8 pounds 14 ounces with scope and mounts, it was heavy by today’s standards. It shot groups of 1 1⁄2 inches at its worst, under 1⁄2 inch at its best. It is a no-frills hunting rifle that looks as if it came out of a custom shop. And all for less than a grand. –D.E.P. Manufacturer: Montana Rifle Co. (montanarifleco.com)
This hefty, dead accurate .375 is so far superior to previous Model 70s that the only thing they share is the name. It has had the kind of care lavished on it that you only see in custom rifles, little touches that no one but a gunsmith would notice. If a rifle is good enough to have two critics with something like 90 years combined experience examine it in every detail and not be able to think of a single way to improve it, it’s a pretty good gun. -D.E.P. Manufacturer: Winchester (winchesterguns.com)
Best New Shotgun: Remington Versa Max
Remington’s Versa Max won Best of the Best by making a weak impression–on the shoulders of the test team, who rated it the softest-kicking semiautomatic of all. Add reliability and versatility to the soft recoil and you have a winner. The Versa Max handily digested every test load we fed it, from 3 1⁄2-inch high-velocity steel down to 7⁄8-ounce reloads. The 12-gauge is able to function with such a wide range of loads through a simple, unique system: In place of a valve that bleeds off excess gases, there are seven gas ports in the gun’s chamber. The length of the shell determines how many ports are closed off by the hull and therefore how much gas bleeds off to run the action, which consists of a gas block and two short pistons. Cleaning is easy. –Phil Bourjaily Manufacturer: Remington (remington.com)
Price: $1,399 – $1,599
As constitutionally suspicious as I am of the whole concept of one-size-fits-all, I must say that Minox’s effort at building a scope for use on a shotgun, mountain rifle, or big-bore dangerous-game stopper is remarkably successful. The 1-inch-tube matte-black scope is light and compact. The Versa-Plex combines a circle reticle, like that on a turkey scope, with the duplex crosshairs used for big game. Windage and elevation each have 90 minutes of travel in finger–adjustable positive 1⁄4 MOA clicks. More notable is the range of magnification from 1.5X to 8X, which gives the scope its true versatility. –Thomas McIntyre Manufacturer: Minox
Swarovski’s brand-new CL Companion is anything but dull. Light and compact without falling into the shirt-pocket category, this is a binocular to use all day in the African bush or tote up a sheep mountain with comfort–as was noted independently by both optics testers, Geoff Clothier and Leroy Van Buggenum. I can see it for treestand sitting in the whitetail woods. The testers’ comments included “very, very clear,” “field of view seems greater than 8×30,” “hardly know they are around your neck.” More important, to my eye anyway, is the technical quality of the binocular with its light-transmitting and -scratch–resisting lens coatings, turn-out eyecups, tight diopter adjustment, generous -center–focus ring, solid bridge, and grippy -ergonomic feel. –T.M.
Manufacturer:** Swarovski (swarovskioptik.com)
At a penny under $1,300, this spotter is around a third the cost of Zeiss’s DiaScope and weighs in at two-thirds of what the bigger scopes tip the scales at. For hunting, the Dialyt could be one of the purest, most rugged spotting scopes in quite some time. Tester Van Buggenum certainly believed so, writing in his evaluation that “this is what I think a spotting scope should be!” Clearly, the scope says retro with its straight metal body armored in ribbed black rubber and its built-in variable eyepiece, but without the dust or moisture issues of traditional drawtube scopes. There are large, snug-fitting rubber covers for the ocular and objective lenses, and the focus is at the objective (in technical terms the “big end”). The scope is designed for rigging with a shoulder strap through the covers so that both can be removed easily (as a single attached unit) when you want to mount the scope to a tripod. –T.M. Manufacturer: Zeiss (www.zeiss.com/sports)
Shots on big game at extreme distances, from 300 to beyond 800 yards, can with modern rifles, bullets, and scopes be not only feasible but ethical if a shooter really knows what the hell he’s doing and if he has a truly reliable laser rangefinder. Leica’s Rangemaster CRF 1600 is small, compact, and easy to use. The weight was a good compromise between lightness and the heft needed to hold steady. In an unscientific durability test, I dropped it 10 times from shoulder height onto a carpeted floor with no problem. The CRF provided repeated consistent readings out to 1,300 yards. Lenses are fully multicoated and treated with moisture-resistant AquaDura. Essential for long-range shooting is the unit’s added ability to read temperature, angle, and absolute air pressure, data needed to calculate -holdover–for when to shoot and, more important, when not. –T.M. Manufacturer: Leica Cameras (us.leica-camera.com/sport_optics)
Best New Muzzleloader: Traditions Performance Firearms Pursuit Ultralight
This .50-caliber break-action muzzleloader has new and time-tested features that will help hunters load quickly, obtain better accuracy, and save significant time when it comes to cleaning. The breech plug can be removed in seconds without a tool, making the rifle easy to maintain. A CeraKote finish on the barrel and receiver provides significantly more corrosion resistance than stainless steel. The rifle tested had a crisp, factory-set trigger with a pull of 31⁄4 pounds and a 26-inch fluted barrel. Its groups would rival those of many higher-priced centerfire rifles. Loading was a breeze, and bullets could be seated with little effort. The 5.15-pound Ultralight handles well and is easy to shoot, even with 150-grain magnum loads. –Brad Fenson
Manufacturer: Traditions Firearms (traditionsfirearms.com)
Price: $295 – $435
Best New Crossbow: TenPoint Carbon Fusion CLS
Great companies never stop innovating, and TenPoint’s Carbon Fusion CLS is proof. The venerable Ohio maker brought its A game to bear on this crossbow. The wow factor started with the frame, which at 381⁄2 inches shouldn’t weigh only 7.3 pounds but does, thanks to a woven–carbon–fiber barrel. The Acudraw draw–assist mechanism (which cranks the string back to load the bow) was easy to understand and whisper quiet. Other standout new features were the dual–safety system and user–friendly GripGuard shield that prevents fingers from creeping up on the rail. Price is for a package that includes a scope, a monopod, six bolts, a four-arrow quiver, and an airline-approved case. –S.B.
Manufacturer:** TenPoint (tenpointcrossbows.com)
In the early 1900s jungle warfare in the Philippines exposed the inadequacies of the .38 revolver and sent the U.S. Army on a search for an official large-caliber semiautomatic service sidearm. After a famed government test in 1910 when it fired 6,000 rounds in two days without a malfunction, the single test gun being dunked in a water bucket when it overheated, John Moses Browning’s “Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911” became that sidearm. Now, in honor of the 100th anniversary of a great firearm, Browning has come out with a new scaled-down version in .22 Long Rifle, the 1911-22 A1. We used Remington 40-grain .22 Target rounds to test-fire the gun, albeit somewhat less than 6,000 times in a row. The best performance was a 21⁄2-inch five-shot group fired from a rest at 25 yards. Though it has a heavy factory trigger, for plinking or for teaching a kid to shoot, the 1911-22 A1 has a lot of potential. –T.M. Manufacturer: Browning
Best New Shotshells: Winchester Blind Side
By making hexa-hedral (dice-shaped) pellets that stack in a hull more efficiently, Winchester has been able to increase steel pellet counts for improved performance in the field. There is even enough room left in the hull to load a compressible hinged wad, which softens felt recoil -somewhat. To counteract the inclination of Hex Shot to pattern openly, Winchester developed a Diamond-Cut shot cup to hold the shot charge together a few feet out of the muzzle. The result is a load that gives broad patterns with Improved Cylinder and tightens to yield good 45-yard patterns with Full. Blind Side may not be the final answer to the question of how to make steel more lethal, but it is a fascinating step in the right direction. –P.B.
Manufacturer: Winchester Ammunition (winchester.com)
Price: $24 for 25
Best New Muzzleloader Bullet: Powerbelt Aerolite
The new AeroLite muzzleloader bullet is longer than other PowerBelt bullets; the design improves the aerodynamics so it shoots flatter and faster for improved accuracy at longer ranges. But the real difference is that it has a much larger hollow-point cavity, which maximizes expansion capability while reducing weight from the bullet’s core. The polycarbonate tip is vital to getting proper expansion, and this uniquely tapered projectile will provide velocities of 1800 fps with a standard 100-grain charge. It can be used with magnum loads of up to 150 grains. The test team shot dozens of rounds, and accuracy was consistent and impressive with a variety of muzzleloaders. –B.F.
Manufacturer: Powerbelt Bullets (powerbeltbullets.com)
Price: $30-$32 for 15
Although you can debate the ecological need for all–copper big-game bullets, there is no doubt that the great yowl sent up about condors dying from ingesting secondhand lead has led to some terrific bullets, including the Winchester Power Core 95/5. These bullets don’t have cores. (Why the name? Search me.) The 95/5 refers to the composition of the alloy, which is 95 percent copper, 5 percent zinc. The cartridges are very accurate, just a shade over a minute of angle. But the critical detail is how they expanded and held together. The two bullets I tested expanded into perfect mushrooms; moreover, each lost only one grain in weight. Astounding is the only word for it. –D.E.P. Manufacturer: Winchester Ammunition (winchester.com)
Price: $25-$28 for 20
At a shade under 12 pounds, this is the lightest climber I’ve laid hands on. Better yet, it’s a model of simplicity, as if designer Tony Overbaugh had lined up a fleet of climbers, looked at all their gewgaws and danglies, and said “I can get rid of that, and that, and…” The X-1’s platform is generous at 31×21 inches, but because it (and the hand-climber portion) is made from aircraft aluminum it’s very light. More ounces are shaved by a pair of fiberglass upright arms on each section that serve as cable guides; these uprights are very strong, yet flex as you climb, resulting in a better fit to the tree. The X-1 also scores major points for the elegance of its adjustable cable, which slides easily around the tree, locks in a neat groove, and is secured by a spring pin that stays attached at all times. No dropping pins or searching for holes in the dark. A few practice runs with the X‑1 and you can practically run it with your eyes closed. –S.B. Manufacturer: XStand (xstand.com)
Best New Trail Cam: Primos Super Model Game Camera and Photo Viewer
Primos sets the standard for ease of setup and use with the Super Model trail cam. Strap it to a tree and it will take infrared night photos or color videos of game. Slip it out of its tree-mounted bracket, and it becomes an in-the-field handheld viewer for instantly reviewing shots on a 21⁄2-inch color screen. Full-color onscreen switches, waterproof buttons, and a waterproof display on the camera back make setup fast and intuitive, so much so that you don’t have to take the manual into the field with you. A 0.3-second “instant” trigger captures fast-moving game that other cameras miss. Photos, which record moon phase, time, date, and temperature, can be captured at 7, 5, or 3 megapixels, and videos at 640×480 or 320×240 pixels. Four or eight AA alkaline, lithium, or rechargeable batteries will provide up to a year of service. –J.E.
Manufacturer: Primos (primos.com)
Best New Blind: L.L. Bean Stowaway Hunter’s Blind
Turkey hunters, especially those who practice run-and-gun tactics where they may need to move several times in a morning’s hunt, need a blind that’s lightweight, quiet, and quick to set up. Bean’s Stowaway Hunter’s Blind hits the 10-ring in all three categories. And the blind can be transported fully assembled over short distances, which is really handy when a gobbler decides to head in another direction and you need to reposition in a jiffy. –B.M.
Manufacturer: L.L. Bean (llbean.com)
From a dead accurate factory rifle and hunting boots inspired by the demands of mountain warfare on the far side of the world to futuristic self-warming clothing and an ingenious treestand safety harness, this year’s winners will help any hunter improve his game.
The Gear Tests
Before a product earns recognition as Best of the Best, it must undergo field testing by our experts. In all, 150 products were tested, and 26 were deemed fit enough to earn Best of the Best honors. Here are some of the testing procedures we used:
Rifles and Shotguns
• Guns were inspected for overall fit and finish, and trigger pull weights were verified. Barreled actions were removed and inspected with a borescope. Rifles were shot from a benchrest, three shots at 100 yards, with three different types of ammo, to determine accuracy. Shotguns were fired from a low-gun start on the trap and skeet field with a variety of hunting and target ammo to assess responsiveness and function.
• Penetration and weight retention of big-game bullets were examined using the Ballistic Buffalo, an ingenious instrument created by Rifles editor David E. Petzal ( fieldandstream.com/ballisticbuffalo).
• Knives were tested for edge holding, initial sharpness, and ease of resharpening. Special-purpose knives were tested by cutting wood, parachute cord, and seat belts.
ATVs and UTVs
• ATVs and UTVs were loaded with gear and driven hundreds of miles through narrow wooded trails, rock fields, and mud pits.
• Optics were submerged (riflescopes had turret caps removed) in 1 foot of warm water for a full minute, then placed overnight in a chest freezer at 10 degrees to test fogproofing. Then they were left out for another night and again checked for any signs of internal moisture. In addition to examining optical quality in varying light conditions, our experts tested the riflescopes with live-fire exercises.