.35 Whelen project: the conclusion.

After getting the rifle all together (which you can read about here), all that was left to do was develop a load that would work for hunting…at least that’s what I thought. Unfortunately it didn’t work out like that.

It seemed like no matter what I tried I couldn’t get the groups to shrink. I found early success with velocity: using Accurate 2520 I had a Speer 180 grain flat point bullet going almost 3000fps, but the group wasn’t very impressive. Admittedly, I have high standards. Some of the 100 yard groups were edging below two inches, which for deer at under 200 yards is probably adequate. But since I come from a target shooting background where a one inch group is considered a good start, I wasn’t about to settle for adequate. Another reason I pursue small groups in a hunting rifle is that there are already enough things going on in a hunting situation to prevent a perfect shot (like awkward shooting positions, numb fingers, bad light, not to mention “buck fever”) that I’m not going to add questionable accuracy to the pile if I can possible avoid it.

I initially identified two areas that might have been affecting accuracy: rifle bedding, and barrel fouling. Although the stock looked good, the pillar bedding for the rear action screw had some odd cut-outs that left only three small stubs of metal in contact with the action, and they appeared to be getting slightly crushed when the screws were tightened down. I remedied this with my first ever attempt at action bedding. The finished job certainly wasn’t professional, but apart from one medium sized void, I think it came out quite well. The slideshow below shows some images of the process, including shots of the bedding before I tidied it up, and the rear tang area of the stock which I relieved a little bit to reduce contact with the action:

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The barrel fouling I addressed with more aggressive cleaning at shorter intervals.

The first bullets I experimented with were 200gr Hornady round nose, and Speer 180gr flat points. I soon added 225gr Sierra Game Kings to that selection which began to show more promise. The first powders I experimented with were Accurate 2520, and 2230C, but after doing some research I added IMR 4064 to that list. After doing more load tests with the 225gr Sierra Game king with IMR 4064, I was finally getting groups I could live with, but the development showed up another wrinkle. Despite starting out with 55.5 grains of powder and working up to 58 grains, the velocity only increased by about 60 fps. The best groups occurred at both ends of the development ladder, so I decided to just go with the lower charge since the extra powder didn’t appear to bring anything extra to the table. The velocity of the final load was just over 2500 fps.

Early on in the rifle build I was concerned about a potential headspace issue that revealed itself through protruding primers. After rechecking the headspace, I narrowed the problem down to the case dimensions, and determined to limit how much the case shoulders got pushed back the next time I resized. But the undersized brass also resulted in consistently flattened primers throughout the load development irrespective of powder charge, probably caused by the case stretching to fit the chamber and reseating the primer as it went. This denied me an important pressure indicator, and left me reluctant to try chasing any more velocity. So I went hunting with what I had, and never fired a shot. So it goes.

After hunting season, and after cleaning the rifle thoroughly, I took it back to the range to use up the few rounds I had left. I first fired a single shot to check the point of impact from a clean barrel, and then I fired three shots from a kneeling position, braced against a shooting bench. The results were very satisfying:

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In hindsight I think the barrel fouling might have slowed down the barrel break in, and it wasn’t until I put plenty of rounds through the barrel, and thoroughly cleaned it a bunch of times as well, before everything came together to my satisfaction.

And that’s where things stand for now, but not where I intend to leave them for long. I have in my cupboard a box of Barnes 200gr TTSX, a solid copper hunting bullet that is popular with other .35 whelen shooters. And a pound of IMR 8208 XBR, which is a relatively new powder that is claimed to be very temperature stable (useful in Minnesota). These two components were used with great success in an article I read recently, so I plan to try it for myself.

 

 

 

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Getting back into the habit

Since the end of the 2016 hunting season I have been making an effort to shoot more regularly. Fortunately there is a winter high-power league, and a regular small bore practice events happening on alternate weekends, so I have been taking advantage. When I first moved to the USA I bought a “brick” of 500 rounds of .22LR match ammunition, and to my shame it took me until the end of last year to use up. When I was regularly shooting in Scotland I would probably go through at least that much in a couple of months, so I have some catching up to do. Last year however I bought two new bricks of SK match, and with all the shooting I have been doing I have already got though one: things are looking up. My scores have also been improving, and although I am shooting on the NRA 50m target, not the international (which is somewhat more challenging), I have been pleased with my groups and scores.

Here are a few examples of recent targets. They are not my best targets, but they are representative.

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On the high-power side of things, I have also seen some improvements. My offhand (standing) scores have steadily improved, and the last few weekends I have managed to get all my 10 shots onto the scoring area (5 ring or better), and occasionally even into the 10. My best score was an 88/100 a few weeks ago.

My sitting rapid is going well, mostly because I can now get into position without feeling like I will break, and this last weekend I shot a decent group. It would also have been a decent score if it was centered on the bull. It wasn’t though, but I take what victories I can.

Prone rapid is going okay, and although I haven’t managed to recreate my early successes (several 100/100) I came pretty close this weekend with a 99/100. Here is a picture of the group.

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There were actually 12 shots recorded rather than 10, since I forgot to switch the system into match mode after my two sighters. The high 9 was one of the sighters (honest).

In an effort to get better at offhand, easily my worst position, I have built a small 10 meter air rifle range in my basement. In truth is it probably only 9 meters, because that’s the furthest I can go between the foundations, but for practicing my technique it works great. I am borrowing a junior CO2 powered air rifle for that, and I built a target box with a steel back plate to keep the ricochets down.

Here’s me in action:

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The air rifle weighs considerably less than my high-power rifle, which I will try to correct at some point, but I hope the practice will be worthwhile anyway. The state championship is happening at the end of the month, and since I plan to enter the 3P event I will try to spend as much time in the basement as I can before then.

 

Happy New Year

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This is my favourite photo from the few days I spent deer hunting in Wisconsin last November, and although it looks like it could have been edited, it wasn’t. The weather was cold, but not desperately so. There was snow on the ground, but not too much. And it was fairly overcast for much of the week we were there, as you can see.

Although I went to Wisconsin with the plan of hunting from my climbing tree stand, that actually never happened. On the first morning, before Jason arrived from Minnesota, I elected to head out to one of the locations we had scouted a few months earlier. But when I got there, there was obvious evidence of previous hunter activity on the trail and I wasn’t particularly surprised when I was disturbed by hunters making their own way down the path. It was also apparent that these guys perceived this path as just an access route, so that was the end of that plan.

Jason arrived at lunch time, and since it was clear that we didn’t have a clue what to do, we decided to head out, find new areas, and hope for the best.

The area we headed for first was a place we had tried, and failed, to access on our scouting trip. However this time we approached it from a different direction, and hiked in from the main road. One of the interesting things about this area is that there is a small population of Elk (American Elk that is, not European Elk which Americans call Moose) that is part of a repopulation program. Which meant we frequently encountered very large tracks, and impressive piles of droppings that could only come from Elk, but very few tracks and dropping from animals we could legally hunt.

On that first day we decided to spend our time hiking around looking for likely hunting spots. This made a lot of sense, but I was wearing clothing intended to keep me warm while sitting still for hours on end, so after not very long at all I was a hot mess (as you can see below).

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The following day we decided to use Jason’s truck to drive back into the area, but we came in via a track that must have been intended for snowmobiles, because the truck barely fitted through, and we were very glad to have 4 wheel drive more than once. We made it to the spot, parked, and hiked our way in, but what had looked promising on a satellite photo turned out to be very far from that in reality. What we had interpreted as a grassy meadow with a gentle ridge running along one side, was in fact a bog, and the ridge was covered in such dense foliage that I couldn’t find a single spot that offered a view longer than about 20 yards. When I stepped off the ridge into the open bog I was immediately at risk of sinking into an icy sludge, meaning even if I saw a deer in the open and shot it, I would most likely be unable to retrieve it safely. That morning was probably the closest I came to seeing deer that week, because as I was stumbling through the dense brush, I heard a number of them running away.

After wasting a couple of hours on that fruitless exercise, we made our way back to the truck and decided to just drive around, stopping every now and again to explore the area beside the track. It was on one such exploration that I took the picture at the top of the page.

The most memorable moment of the week came as I was making my way slowly through a recently clear cut area. I was carefully stepping through the branches and debris that covered the ground, when I heard a noise and looked up and came face to face with some local wildlife. Crossing my path less than 20 yards away was a family of Bobcats. They didn’t seem to notice me at first, which was odd because I was standing out in the open and wearing bright orange, but when they did they froze, hissed at me, and then ran away. I have never seen a large cat in the wild, nor really expected to, so that was pretty amazing. And despite my otherwise lack of deer success, on the basis of wildlife encounters in general, I count that week a success.

We continued to hunt like that until Wednesday night, the day before thanksgiving, then Jason had to head home. That night the rest of my wife’s family arrived and so I switched from hunting mode to family holiday mode, and with the exception of a rifle propped in the corner of the cabin in case a deer walked past outside, that was the end of my 2016 hunting season.