RIFLES: Fixed Power Only?

In Gear 101 by Wayne van Zwoll41 Comments

Fitz had seen no big bulls on his first wilderness elk hunt, above Idaho’s Salmon River. Years later he packed into a remote Wyoming camp. Over the next nine days he saw 84 bull elk—and botched a chance at the biggest. Then, on a steep, timbered face, a cow drifted through an opening. Another elk followed.

“The bull! Bust him!” shrieked Fitz’s guide. The animal staggered at the shot, then slid. Another hit, and the beast was dead—but not anchored. The men quickly lashed the bull to a tree to hold it on the slope. The 17-point rack would later tape over 65 inches beam to beam, the widest then on record.

Heinz and his pals made their Yukon River hunt for moose an annual event. For years the area around Stewart Island had faithfully delivered winter’s meat. One September yielded a windfall when Heinz spotted the paddles of a big bull. Creeping to within 35 yards, the Dawson City hunter felled the huge animal with one shot. It would top the Boone and Crockett charts.

Jack had climbed the Sierra Del Viejo, a Sonoran mountain, without success. But the desert peaks soon drew him back. On one ascent, he heard rocks roll and scrambled for a better view. The bighorn ram had almost cleared the ridgeline when “the rifle went off and I saw a big red spot …” Jack took the trail. Fifty yards down into the brush, he spied the curve of a horn through a torrote prieto tree. The ram was the first of many for a man who would introduce sheep hunting to millions of readers.

Those hunts span most of a century, in archetypal North American game fields. The country for each adventure had its own allure, as did the quarry. The rifles and cartridges differed, too. Grancel Fitz used a .30-06, a Griffin & Howe-stocked 30 Remington, to down that magnificent elk. Heinz Naef killed his moose with a .303 British, no doubt a Short Magazine Lee-Enfield. Jack O’Connor had just acquired a lightweight Mauser in 7×57 to replace a 10½-pound Springfield.

As interesting to me as these rifles were the sights. Fitz had a 2¾ x Hensoldt scope on that Model 30. (He would use the same outfit to take trophy-class specimens of all 25 species of North American big game over three decades of hunting, between the Great War and a 1957 book on his exploits.) O’Connor, hunting during the Depression, spoke well of a Lyman 1-A cocking-piece aperture. Oddly enough, Naef, who shot his world-record Alaska-Yukon moose in 2013, also relied on iron sights.



The trend these days, of course, is to more power, more complexity in optical sights. But trends have outliers. For some time, I’ve felt like one. An outlier, that is. My preference for low-power, fixed-power hunting scopes may not confirm senility, but riflemen at the range have begun to regard me warily. At a lectern not long ago, I recalled that my first scope was a 2½ x Bushnell Banner. This didn’t seem to alarm listeners, but when I surmised it would have accounted for as much game as all the scopes I’ve used in the 40 years since, they grew visibly restless. Deep furrows creased the brows of those in the room selling scopes to put shoes on their children.

Now, far be it from me to keep shoes from urchins, or deny anyone a ponderous riflescope with multiple dials and a battery box. The suggestion that simplicity is divine falls flat outside geriatric wards. But consider: A scope you can zoom, click, focus and illuminate while you peer through it cannot be in the middle of some adjustment when the trigger breaks. Those seductive dials, knobs, rings and switches must be set, at least for the moment. Fixed.

As in fixed-power scopes.

Such sights are more versatile than you might think. They’re all we had for some time before the birth of video games, the Kardashians, Obamacare and other cultural milestones. We enjoyed many good days afield with that primitive glass.

Here’s why, for most hunting, I still prefer a fixed-power scope: It’s less complex than a variable, so there’s less to go wrong. It’s lighter and, given its fewer lens elements, brighter. Absence of the power ring means there’s more free tube behind the turret, so you can mount the scope farther forward. The short ocular assembly helps in this regard, too, if you’re a stock-crawler tired of wiping blood from your noggin.

Drawbacks? Well, you can’t change your mind about magnification after you buy the scope. You get to choose just once—as when you pick the color of your automobile or the size of your refrigerator. A fixed-power scope delivers the same perspective each time you look through it. Like your unaided eye.

But this limitation can actually help you shoot better. When you’re accustomed to seeing things at one level of magnification, accurate range estimates come quickly. Also, without that dial to tempt you, you’ll focus on the reticle and the target, properly forgetting your hardware to make the shot. The power-change option can be a distraction. Indeed, it can keep you from seeing game in the first place! I recall a fellow frantically twisting his power ring from low to high and back again as he swept a section of sage through which trotted a splendid mule deer buck. The hunter never saw the animal, though it was in plain view for some distance. I watched it go.

 

Versatility demands compromise. Despite the many improvements in variable sights, and their mechanical and optical excellence, they’re still heavier and more complex than fixed-powers. Eye relief commonly shrinks as you hike power. Variables in traditional ring mounts can’t be placed as far forward. They have more lenses, which steal light (though in all fairness, you probably won’t detect any difference in brightness or resolution between images in top-end variables and the best fixed-power scopes). Also, the popularity of variables has yielded economies of scale that bring some (especially 3-9×40 models) to market at absurdly low prices. Not long ago, I bought at retail an entry-level Leupold. The optics of this 3-9x seemed to me the equal of those in many more costly scopes. Adjustments tracked perfectly. The sight weighed just 12½ ounces and bellied obediently into low rings. It had plenty of eye relief. I’ve since been impressed by Nikon’s ProStaff 2-7×32 and 3-9×40, by the Burris E1 2-7×35, by bargain-priced scopes from Redfield and Alpen. A Bushnell Trophy 3-9x that cost less than a tank of diesel for a pickup went to Namibia with me last year. I used it to down three animals crippled by other hunters, one a kudu vaulting from cover at 18 steps, another a zebra almost beyond reach at 420 yards.

In truth, the affordability of good variables has erased the price advantage once claimed by fixed-power sights. On the other hand, the utility of a scope with fixed, low magnification is stubbornly ignored by many hunters bewitched by the power ring. In Africa, I never turned that Bushnell Trophy off 4x.

For some applications, a variable makes sense. If, for some inexplicable reason, you have just one rifle, such a scope suits it to many tasks. With a 2.5-10x, your .30-06 serves for elk jumped inside spitwad range, and for pronghorns so far off they melt into the mirage. With a 4-14x, your 6mm can help you tag a mule deer bounding clear of the aspens and, at midday, pick off prairie dogs three gridirons distant.

Still, for hunting a variety of big game under a wide range of conditions, I’ve found a 4x scope as useful as any. When a pal hawking a new variable twists my arm, I clamp one on a rifle and lug it up the mountain. I leave the ring at 3x or 4x. Perhaps because I’ve used scopes for 40 years, lower magnification than that adds no speed. Assuming good stock fit, my eye finds the target as quickly as if it were looking through an empty tube. At the same time, boosting the image size three or four times adds a level of detail I find useful—without putting too much bounce in the reticle.

One insidious vice of variable scopes is their ability to coax otherwise sane shooters to crank the ring to the highest number. So handicapped, countless lads have lost their only chance at game because the field of view was too small. Others have corralled the animal, only to watch helplessly as the reticle caroms from hock to horn and back again. Remember: magnification not only makes the target bigger, it shows you all the little jerks and jiggles your body imparts to the rifle. Some of that apparent movement can be reduced to manageable levels by adjusting your position to better use bone support. Some can be “timed” away—waiting for your pulse to subside, for example, or crushing the last ounce from the trigger just after exhaling. But some movement can’t be controlled. A reticle that dances to the coursing of blood in your arteries, the quiver of tiring muscles and the firing of nerve synapses can distract you and delay a shot. The longer you hold, the more likely the animal will move or conditions deteriorate, costing you the chance. Without artificial support, you become ever less steady as muscles fatigue.

Of course, under a low-power scope or iron sights, your rifle still hops around. But you don’t see those high-frequency vibrations, those uncontrollable jigs that unnerve you. Instead, the reticle bumps at a measured pace in and out of that imaginary coffee-saucer-size bull’s-eye on the ribs. You nudge the trigger when it’s in, hold pressure when it’s out. Eventually, Bang! Because the reticle spends more time inside the saucer than outside when you’re squeezing, you’re more likely to hit than to miss. A simple task, but not easy to accomplish—and made hugely more difficult by an over-caffeinated crosswire!

I’ve killed both deer and elk at 300 yards with 3x scopes and didn’t want for more power. Here’s a useful rule of thumb, if you’re hunting deer-size game: The power is adequate up to the target distance in hundreds of yards. That is, a 2½ x scope works just fine up to 250 yards; a 4x scope suffices at 400. Of course, if you can see only a sliver of the animal, you may want more scope power at long range. But you can easily quarter a deer’s chest at any distance as long as you have magnification to match that yardage. The washtub vitals of an elk give you even more margin around the middle.

Ask yourself this question: Would I fire at a deer or an elk at 100 yards with iron sights?

Some years back, I traveled to Alaska to hunt moose and Dall’s sheep. From many rifles in my rack I chose a re-stocked 1903 Springfield with a Lyman receiver sight. Some shooters wedded to glass might say I was taking a big chance, hanging an expensive hunt on irons. It didn’t strike me that way, as most big game is killed inside 200 yards, and even in Alaska’s relatively open expanses, I intended to get close. The Dall’s ram fell at about 80 yards. I hit the moose fatally at 170. Quick, sure kills both.

Not long after that I came into a hunting knife of special significance. It had belonged to Colonel Townsend Whelen, a firearms authority of the early 20th century. Whelen had teethed on rifles in military service, much of it in Panama, during construction of the Canal. I admired the Colonel, because then and on later hunts into the Canadian north, he probed jungle and forest with a rudimentary camp and barely adequate provisions, but a great zest for wilderness. He wrote about rifles and shooting in periodicals of his day, and later authored the book, Mister Rifleman.

One expedition put the Colonel in British Columbia. He was hunting mule deer when he jumped a fine buck that scrambled up the mountain. The animal paused just long enough to die. Other deer, plus two moose and a caribou, fell to the same rifle on that trip—the caribou at 360 yards. Whelen’s rifle? A Model 54 Winchester in .270, with a Zeiss Zeilklein 2½-power scope. That outfit resembled closely the Model 30 Remington favored by Grancel Fitz, a contemporary. The scopes were of essentially the same design and magnification.

Since then, we shooters have been blessed with sights either man would have envied. Constantly centered reticles and precise, repeatable adjustments, plus lens coatings that yield brighter, sharper images and nitrogen or argon fog-proofing make modern scopes optically superior. Alloy tubes reduce weight at no cost in durability. But were they alive today, I doubt Fitz or Whelen would swoon over variable power. Both found modest magnification adequate for big game to ranges exceeding 300 yards.

Decades after these men had distinguished themselves afield, Anton Purkat slipped out for a last-morning hunt in Chaffee County, Colorado. Shortly he and his brother picked up the track of a small herd of elk winding through Lost Canyon. Just 20 minutes later, he could tell they were getting close. When a bull jumped, Anton fired right away. Two shots later, the elk nosed into the snow. Anton was back home in time for church. The antlers of that Sunday-morning bull scored over 380 inches! I can’t say what sight Purkat had on his rifle in 1972, but most hunters of the day favored scopes—and while the likes of my 3x Lyman and the Weaver K4 still accounted for lots of game, variable power was fast gaining market share.

Purkat owed some of his good fortune to, well, good fortune; but persistence had much to do with his success. So did quick, accurate shooting. Your next elk may appear after many tough days of hunting, then afford you little more than a couple of heartbeats for a shot. At that instant, you’ll want a clear image of the bull in a broad, bright, forgiving field, behind a sharp, obedient reticle. At that instant, you cannot change the power setting. For that instant, it’s fixed.

As mine is, always.