On gun shopping

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I bought a rifle.

I bought a rifle because Kevin and I have been hunting deer in states that, unlike Massachusetts, allow it, and a rifle is a much better tool for deer-hunting than a 20-gauge shotgun with a rifled barrel, the only other gun I own.

I should say at the outset that I don’t enjoy killing deer. I do it because I think culling animals that have overrun their environment – feral hogs, Canada geese, whitetail deer – is the most responsible way to eat meat. Last year, Kevin and I brought home over 100 pounds of venison, and I don’t think we’ve bought any beef since (although we do buy the occasional lamb leg). There is immense satisfaction in making a meal from an overpopulated animal we took ourselves.

And, while I don’t enjoy the killing, I take satisfaction, also, in doing it well. That job begins with choosing a gun. Going in, I had no idea how to buy a rifle. Coming out, I have a limited idea. There is a great deal to know about rifles, the vast majority of which I will never know. But it’s possible to know enough to make a choice.

Those of you who know guns will laugh when I tell you just how long it took me to cotton on to the fact that there are models of rifles, and then there are calibers, and they are not to be confused. So, for example, the Remington 700 is a model. .270 Winchester is a caliber. You can buy a Remington 700 that is chambered for .270 Winchester, but you can also buy one chambered for other calibers.

The caliber is the diameter of the bullet, and you’d think it would be straightforward: the larger the number, the larger the ammunition. And sometimes that’s quite clear. A .270 is larger than, say, a .243, and smaller than a .338. But then someone, somewhere, decided to make it harder by throwing in calibers like .30-30 (smaller than a .270) and .30-06 (larger than a .270). Oh, and where, exactly, does 7mm fit in?

This makes it very easy to look like an idiot when you’re gun-shopping. I tried to limit my look-like-an-idiot opportunities by deciding ahead of time which caliber I wanted.

Last fall, when we went to Virginia to hunt on the farm of our friends Gene and Polly, Gene let me try out his rifle – that Remington 700, chambered for .270. I felt comfortable with it, and shot a very nice doe with it.  A .270 is large enough for deer, or even elk, but not large enough for animals like grizzly bears or moose, which I have no plans to hunt. I figured that was the caliber for me.

My doe from last year

My doe from last year

All that was left was to pick among the gazillions of .270 rifles on the market. New ones range from a few hundred dollars to thousands, and there’s also a huge selection of used ones.

A gun is a fine thing to buy used, as it’s a very simple machine that, ordinarily, doesn’t break or even wear very much. If you look online, you’ll find hundreds and hundreds of rifles for sale, all across the country.

But a gun has to feel right, and I wanted to be able to hold it, to bring it up to my shoulder, to look through the scope, before I bought it. This is particularly important to me because I’m a little hard to fit. I have a long neck, and the space between my shoulder and cheek is, consequently, large. A gun with a raised stock (called, as I was to learn, a Monte Carlo stock) is often the best fit, although some standard stocks fit pretty well too. I limited my search to guns I could physically handle, and whose fit I could assess.

There are a couple of small gun shops on Cape Cod, but they have a very limited selection, and few rifles (to be expected, since hunting with them isn’t allowed in our state). So Kevin and I took advantage of a road trip to DC to stop in at a Cabela’s, which had a pretty good range of both used and new rifles.

The main thing I learned, rifle shopping, was that every single .270 rifle out there on the market will do the job I need it to do. I want to shoot a deer, and I want to do it inside 200 yards. The rock-bottom cheapest rifle will do that reliably. So will the top-drawer most expensive. Given that, is seemed to make sense to find a low-end version that fits me well, and buy it. Well, OK then.

Several makers have a low-end version with a good reputation (like the Ruger American), and one Massachusetts company, Savage Arms, is in the business of making lower-priced guns that are of very good quality for the money. The better-known makers, like Remington and Browning, also have a wide range of price points. I picked up a lot of guns, but didn’t find the right one.

When we got home, we took a trip up to Maine to visit the Kittery Trading Post, which has one of the biggest selections of rifles, new and used, that I’ve seen. I went through their inventory, gun by gun, and handled every .270 in my price range.

And I discovered something. It’s not sufficient for the gun to fit. You have to like the gun.

The best fit for me was a Remington 700. It was a demo model, on sale for about $700. It had a Monte Carlo stock, and felt good every time I lifted it to my shoulder. It had a synthetic stock, green and smooth, with patches of black slightly tacky material where you hold it. It was very comfortable to grip, and the synthetic stock and stainless steel barrel made it a practical gun for the dampness that is endemic to Cape Cod.

But I just didn’t like it.

The second-best fit was a Tikka T3. Tikka is the lower-end brand of the Finnish maker Sako, owned by Beretta, and this particular one (which was new) was marked down significantly, to $600. It had a walnut stock, simple lines, and was lighter than the Remington. And I liked it.

Do I get the best fit that I don’t like, or the second-best fit, that I do like?

For me, going out in the woods to kill a deer is a serious and important job. The reason I was buying a rifle in the first place was that I wanted to have the right tool for that job. I want to have a gun I have perfect confidence in. I want it to be adjusted just for me, and I want to practice with it so that I know exactly what to do at 75, 100, or 150 yards. I want the shot that counts, the one taken at a live animal, to be as close to perfect as I can make it.

It’s hard to explain, although I’m betting any hunter reading this understands. I have a feeling that a gun that you like makes a better partner. The aesthetics of the rifle won’t make any difference to how smoothly it loads or how accurately it shoots. But it makes a difference to how you feel when you hold it. When I shoot an animal, I want everything to go right, and I can’t help thinking that liking your gun can help with that.

I bought the Tikka.

My Tikka T3 Lite

My Tikka T3 Lite

It is, to my eyes, a beautiful gun. I haven’t shot it yet, but I’ve looked at it a lot. I’ve picked it up, and run the bolt in and out. I’ve looked through the scope, over and over, to get comfortable with exactly where on my shoulder it nestles and where on the stock my cheek rests.

I like the gun. I like the gun a lot.

Wish me deer.

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  1. Marcia Gohman says:

    That is a beautiful rifle! Good hunting!

  2. Chris Fronk says:

    I do wish you venison, and consequently-deer. That’s a fine rifle. I once put a picture of one of my guns on Fb, and you “liked” it. It’s a beautiful gun, and my caption was “Life’s too short to hunt with an ugly rifle.” You end up carrying and looking at your hunting guns way more than you shoot them. Might as well enjoy that part if you can.

  3. So glad you wrote this. But I think you’re onto a greater truth here. If you need something to do the job, ie. rifle, clothing, wine, house, car, husband; it will be better if it also makes your heart sing.

  4. You know, I’ve never fired a gun. I love venison, though. Fortunately my brother her is a good hunter so I get to have it a couple of times a year. As rifles go I nothing, but I would choose walnut over synthetic too. I wish you deer.

  5. Ah, you got a deer last year? The last I remember reading was that you were trying to get a deer; you wrote about long times in the cold waiting for one to show up. I don’t remember reading about you getting a deer, which would have been a big deal. Maybe I missed it? In any case, CONGRATULATIONS! YOU GOT A DEER!

    And now you have a gun. Congratulations on that, too.

    And please, if you ever get an elk, please be sure to write all about that because they are 1), hard to get and 2), delicious!

    I would be properly excited for you.

    • Paula, I did get a deer! The last two years, in fact. I haven’t written about it because I’m doing the story of my first deer for the Washington Post — it should run soon.

      Thanks for the moral support!

  6. Tamar,
    Great retelling of your thought process on selecting an excellent tool. Life is too short not to have good tools.
    Now…to practice so your Tikka will become an effective tool for venison production.

    I realize you have harvested deer before- but with any new firearm I recommend practicing while wearing the same clothing you will wear when hunting. (Scarf, gloves, everything)
    Learn your effective range both offhand (unsupported and not recommended for anything but short range) and from shooting sticks or a blind window (recommended). Some rifles group better with different brands/weights of ammo. If your group is not to your liking with the 130 gr. , change to a different brand or heavier weight bullet.

    If possible practice from the same setting, i.e. if from a ground blind, practice with shooting sticks or from the same type rest you will have when hunting. I don’t recommend tree stands for many reasons- but if you intend to use one- practice from one. I agree that venison is satisfying on many levels, and am always looking forward to your next post.


    • Accidental Mick says:

      Two stipulations.
      1; I should not reply because I have spent a relaxed evening drinking single malt whiskey.
      2; I have no experience of hunting.

      However I really approve of the care you make over decisions and (being border line OCD myself) really approve of what LOU A says above. Practice makes perfect (hopefully).

      Good hunting.

    • Lou, thanks for the sensible and important advice. Where I’ve been lucky enough to hunt, in Virginia, I have the luxury of a proper gun rest on a stable surface. So that is, indeed, what I will practice with.

      Unfortunately, there is no public gun range near us, so we have to go pretty far afield to practice. Which we will most certainly do, but I wish there were someplace I could go several times a week leading up to the season.

      And, Mick, I won’t cite you with a CUI (commenting under the influence) this time, but you better be careful.

  7. Laura Beck says:

    I wish you success in bagging your deer this season.

  8. My daughter and her husband live in MT and only eat the meat/fish they hunt. Getting an elk is a great celebration indeed. Enjoyed reading your post.

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