…as we aging members of the Over the Hill Gang know, circumstances change.
The .44 Magnum caper
Blame it on a change in deer hunting regulations. And a fat little doe that came out of the woods on the wrong trail at last light. And, sure, my stupidity in running myself over with a two-ton boom-lift trailer a few years ago.
The Department of Natural Resources, a yearling whitetail deer, and an incompetent amateur heavy equipment operator: those are the culprits in the .44 Magnum caper. Those are the reasons I traded a couple shotguns for a Marlin Model 1894 lever-action rifle in .44 Remington Magnum caliber. Not that I needed a lot of motivation.
Two years ago the DNR changed the regulations governing the types of firearms that could be used during the gun season for deer hunting in the North Country. Formerly, hunters were restricted to shotguns, handguns that fired certain cartridges, and muzzle-loading rifles. (The DNR’s definition of a “shotgun” has always been ambiguous. I question whether a firearm with fully rifled barrel that fires a single conical projectile can be considered a “shot” gun – see The 12-gauge .45-70 rifle). Recently, the gun season regulations were broadened to allow deer hunting with rifles that fire certain pistol cartridges, including .44 Remington Magnum.
Although I did not object to that change in the rules, the option to hunt with a rifle was of little interest to me initially because the rifle-barreled, scope-equipped shotgun I toted into the woods each deer season was sufficient to the task. That pump-action gun was heavy and cumbersome, but it was accurate out to 75 yards, which is a long shot in the thickets of trees and scrub in my part of the North Country woodlands, and the sabot slug cartridges I hand-loaded for it were lethal. But as we aging members of the Over the Hill Gang know, circumstances change.
Painting the upper story of our garage a few summers ago, I decided to move the boom-lift trailer, just a few feet, and released the hand brake. Since our driveway is steep, the trailer broke free and rolled wildly downhill, and my attempt to reset the brake put me in its path. The result was a dislocated left shoulder and elbow, stretched and crushed tendons, and a lot of bruising. I healed, but rehab and stretch-and-flex exercises can only do so much to repair bodies of a certain age. My left elbow no longer fully extends, and the former strength in my left shoulder and arm is much diminished.
As a result, I can no longer work the action of a pump gun while it is mounted to my shoulder, and the eight and one-half pound weight of my slug gun made aiming difficult. For two seasons these handicaps were not an issue because I took a deer with one shot, from a sitting position, concealed in make-shift blinds that overlooked game trails where the deer appeared from the expected direction. That run of good fortune came to an end last fall.
Deer populations have declined on our farm, and the only opportunity I had to take a doe for the year’s venison came on the second-to-last day of the season in the dim light of early evening. I was sitting at the top edge of our wooded bluff, set up to shoot a deer that would emerge from the brush on either of the two trails on my upwind side. A movement downwind caught my eye, and I turned my head to see a yearling doe looking at me through the branches of a blown-down elm tree. She was about 40 yards away, had obviously caught a trace of my scent, and was about to slink back deeper into the woods.
My only hope was to shoot her in the neck, a shot I almost never attempt, but by the time I squirmed around and put the scope on target, she had ducked her head. I waited, waited, waited – and bearing the weight of the heavy slug gun my unreliable left arm began to tremble. When she raised her head, I bounced the crosshairs up and down the back of her neck and fired. Of course I missed, and although she hesitated a few seconds before running there was no chance that I could pump the slide and get on target for a second shot.
At that moment, a pistol-caliber rifle became much more relevant.
A bitter, ironic twist to the story is that I owned a good lever-action carbine for many years, a wonderful little Ruger Model 96 chambered for .44 Remington Magnum. Not content with it in factory form, I sent it to a gunsmith to have the barrel lapped and the trigger pull lightened and smoothed. With a 1-4 power compact scope it was the perfect North Country woods rifle. Except that, in those years, regulations did not permit its use. I had a bolt-action rifle in .30-06 caliber for my western deer hunts and another lever-action carbine in .35 Remington caliber for north Minnesota deer hunts, so the Ruger 96 came to be regarded as a surplus rifle. I sold it. We live to regret foolish decisions.
Ruger no longer manufactures the Model 96, a foolish decision on their part, but Marlin Firearms does produce some of its Model 1894 lever-action carbines in .44 Remington Magnum. I found one at a gun shop in Wisconsin and acquired in it trade for my slug gun and another pump gun. I won’t say I got the best of the bargain – the slug gun had two smooth-bore barrels in addition to the rifled barrel, and the other pump was a Browning BPS in like-new condition with a pair of barrels. But I got a gun that I could and would use in exchange for two guns I could no longer use, so the swap met the criteria of the “good deal”: both parties were happy.
After taking the Model 1894 apart, inspecting, cleaning, and reassembling it, I was satisfied with its quality and workmanship — although the barrel band screw, the two forend cap screws, and three of the screws in the receiver were not tightened to the correct torque. (Marlin Firearms company customer service people: are you reading this?) With factory ammo it shoots a three-inch group on paper targets at 75 yards. That’s probably as good as I can shoot at this stage of life.
More viscerally satisfying was the new rifle’s performance in the Old Coot Ballistic Test: I filled a half-gallon plastic jug with water, set it up at 75 yards, and shooting from sitting position hit it dead center. It exploded into three pieces and water sprayed everywhere, so the ’94 must be a good deer rifle.
For the next several months I’ll have a new toy to experiment with. I’m sure I can tighten the target groups with custom loads using 265 grain flat nose bullets. The trigger pull weight and smoothness needs improvement, and maybe I should change out the 2.5X scope for a 1.5-4.5X. This could require several gunsmithing, cartridge loading, and shooting sessions. Somehow, I’ll suffer through.
More stories about hunting, bird dogs, bird guns, and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays and two novels, all available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page