Standing miles upon miles from the nearest road, I stared in awe at Taj Shoemaker’s rifle as he shot to check its zero prior to heading afield with a brown bear client. It was so magnificently ugly that it was beautiful and, of course, it was dead nuts on target. Taj is a registered Alaskan guide, owner of Kodiak Island-based Island Air flight service, and son of brown bear legend Phil Shoemaker. In the photo above, you see his rifle, dwarfed by the jaws of a Boone and Crockett brown bear skull.
A few days later (after some awesome bush flying, bear stalking and bear-hide packing), I had a chance to quiz Taj about why. WHY do that stuff to your rifle? To a gun aficionado it seemed like criminal abuse. After hearing Taj out though, I was ready to grab some tape, inner tube and J-B Weld. Here’s how (and why) to make your own brown-bear-guiding, cold-weather-thwarting, river-wading, keep-you-alive-in-one-of-the-harshest-environments-on-earth, beautifully ugly rifle.
List of Necessary Parts and Equipment:
• Stainless Ruger Model 77 Hawkeye rifle in .375 caliber
• Leupold or similar fixed 2X riflescope
• Flip-Up Scope caps
• Short Weaver-type rail
• Chunk of inner tube rubber
• Tube of J-B Weld putty
• Roll of electrical tape
• Some camo duct tape
• Assorted spray paints
• One of your wife’s flip-flops (preferably purple colored)
• Wood hand plane or farrier’s rasp
• Hack saw
• “Bear Aware” sticker
Ruger M77 Hawkeye Rifle
Ruger firearms are known for rugged reliability, and a controlled-round-feed action like the M77 is a must when hunting dangerous game, especially if you might have to protect a hunting client or buddy from a 1,600-pound mess of charging teeth and claws. Bears can cover an inordinate amount of territory with astonishing rapidity when they’re upset, and a cartridge miss-feed could mean the end of, well, everything, for you and your companions. Get a synthetic-stocked, stainless steel Hawkeye in .375 Ruger or .375 H&H. This will be the foundation for your very own “Old Ugly.”
Fixed 2X Scope
Sure, you could use a variable-power scope, but if your goal is to eliminate every possible weak link, however remote, a fixed-power scope has a tiny edge in reliability. I don’t remember what power Taj’s scope was, but a magnification of 2X will work well. Mask the lenses with tape, then camouflage the scope with whatever muted earth-color spray paints you have on hand. Then mount it in sturdy steel rings, and add a set of good see-through scope covers. It rains more than it shines in brown bear country, and the caps will keep most of the moisture off your lenses, while still allowing you to shoot through them should you get surprised at close quarters with no time to flip the covers up. (I know, I know, Taj’s rear scope cover isn’t see-through. In my opinion it should be, though.)
Shape the Stock
Taj wanted to reduce unnecessary weight and slenderize the stock—so he grabbed a tool (I don’t remember what he said he used, but a hand plane would work nicely) and whittled the fore-stock down to suit his taste. It’s not pretty, but I must confess, it felt good in the hand. Use a plane and/or farrier’s rasp to shape your rifle to your hearts content. Just remember to keep it ugly.
Re-Align the Recoil Pad
This was my favorite modification of all. Here’s how you do it: First, shoulder your rifle repeatedly, and in several different field positions. A couple small adjustments to length-of-pull and buttpad alignment should make the rifle smoother and easier to shoulder. Figure out what those adjustments are and then remove the recoil pad. Next, commandeer one of your wife’s flip-flops (it’s best if she doesn’t know about this until it’s too late). Grind the sole to the appropriate angle and thickness and then sandwich it between buttstock and recoil pad so it makes the necessary adjustments. Trim away the excess flip-flop. Nice work.
Attach a Rail
Coming face-to-face with a brown bear while hiking back to camp in the dark seems to be one of the Shoemaker crew’s least favorite experiences. To make the experience slightly more comfortable, add a rail to your fore-stock so you can mount a bright flashlight to point bear-ward. Just hacksaw the end off your fore-stock and re-build it with J-B Weld putty. Incorporate a Weaver-type rail. You can mount the rail directly under the barrel, or at a bit of an angle to port or starboard—your preference. Just make sure it’s set to point your light directly toward the rifle’s 20-yard point of impact. Awesome. Now you can point light and rifle together at bears that go bump in the night.
Upsize the Safety
I don’t know about you, but when parting bear-infested brush with the end of my nose I want a torpedo in the tube. Better keep the safety on, though. Taj added a thumb-sized J-B Weld paddle to the wing of his safety release, making it much easier to locate and disengage in moments of extreme duress. You can do the same. Just rough up the surface of your safety wing with a coarse file or sandpaper, keeping the surface grease-and-oil-free so the putty will stick. Now shape a nice paddle onto the wing with J-B Weld putty. Operate the safety through all its positions to make sure your addition doesn’t contact anything it shouldn’t.
Make It a Trekking Pole
Lots of hazards exist in brown bear territory such as steep, slippery slopes, alder-choked creek bottoms and rushing river currents. I was appalled the first time I watched Phil use his rifle to stabilize himself while crossing a creek. My friend Jordan Voigt was equally flabbergasted to see Taj use his rifle the same way when crossing a river; the action, scope and all completely underwater. But when you consider the alternative of getting leg-swept by the current and taking an unwanted and potentially fatal trip downstream, giving your rifle a bath suddenly seems like an okay idea. Getting modern enough to carry trekking poles is boring, so here’s what to do: Tape a good, non-slip piece of used inner tube just shy of your rifle’s muzzle. It’ll give you a good grip when the time comes to climb a steep mountain or cross a rushing river. Just remember to shake the water out of the rifle’s action afterward.
Wrap Up the Balance-Point
Now that you’ve got the big mods completed, it’s time to put the finishing touches on. It’s gets chilly in brown bear country, and carrying your rifle around can make your hands dangerously cold. Circumvent that by wrapping your rifle’s forearm and barrel with duct tape right at the balance point where your hand spends most of its time. Any muted color of tape will work, but as you can see, camo is coolest.
Mask the Muzzle
Any mountain hunter can tell you it’s important to fasten tape or a small balloon over your muzzle to keep water out of the bore. That’s even more true on the Alaskan Peninsula. Just use regular electrical tape across the muzzle, with a wrap around the barrel to help keep it in place. When you shoot, the tape will get blown off and you’ll need to replace it. Don’t worry; having it there won’t hurt accuracy.
Shut Off the Shine
Your final task to turn your rifle into the perfect brown bear gun is to remove any reflective or shiny areas. You don’t want to catch a bear’s attention by packing a bright, reflective rifle around. Just use electrical tape or camo duct tape for this. Personalize your rifle with a “Bear Aware” sticker to satisfy your sense of humor, and, of course, remember to keep it ugly.
Any discussion involving manipulation between the sexes—however harmless—must be approached with fear and trembling. Creating a humorous piece on the same subject is even more dangerous, so if you never see my name in print again, it will be apparent that someone significant took exception to these lines. Please bow your head and observe a moment of silence, should that become the case.
Wives and Firearms
One of life’s greatest tragedies comes to light when a person utters the words “I’d love to buy that new (insert firearm of your choice), but my wife doesn’t think I should. She thinks (insert any number between two and 2,000) guns is enough.” (Hold on, I need to grab my hankie… Okay, I can see the keyboard again. Thanks for waiting.)
So, here’s the thing: the aforementioned tragedy is completely avoidable. It need not happen at all, to you or any of your buddies. Here’s how to prevent a firearm famine from bleeding your soul dry of the sweet scent of gun oil.
Step 1: You must establish the fact that “X” new firearm is not for you, it is for her (or for him, if you happen to be one of those incredible women who finds firearms fascinating, scintillating and therapeutic, but has a husband who is a cold fish). Here’s a simple example of how this might sound: “Honey, I’ve been thinking… Hey! You’ve done something different with… your hair looks awesome! Anyway, I was thinking we should get you a shotgun. What? Oh, something simple, like a Winchester SX4.”
Step 2: Now that you’ve planted the seed that this new toy–I mean—tool, is for her, you should introduce a need for it: “Yeah, that shotgun could work pretty well as a home-defense firearm, especially if we get it in 12-gauge. And it could double as a duck gun for me, if necessary.” (You’re appealing to her superior multi-tasking prowess here, as well as planting another seed—one that will establish the idea it’s okay for you to use it, too).
Step 3: Ask her how she would like the gun configured. It’s always flattering for a wife to be asked such a question, especially when she knows the biggest rival for her husband’s affection is his infatuation with firearms. Many of our better halves don’t know much about Winchester SX4s, so this is your chance to come gallantly to the rescue, explaining the various attributes and features, detailing why she should order her new gun configured just how you want it, and why pink is a terrible color for firearms. If you play your cards just right, there will soon be a shiny new shotgun resting in the corner. Best of all, for some unfathomable reason, most ladies seem to have about the same memory for guns as I do for designer handbags. Roughly ninety days later, the shotgun will be forgotten, and can be safely transferred to join your other treasures in the gun safe.
Yup, it’s time.
“Honey, I was thinking; a woman as good a shot as you are should have a good self-defense handgun around…”
Better Halves and Hunting
The best hunters I know have wives who send them off with a smile and a kiss for good luck anytime they want to go hunting (if they aren’t hunters themselves). No stern reprimands, withering accusations or invitations to sleep on the couch for these lucky blokes. Nope, their wives actually like their man going hunting. Did they love his hunting addiction from the beginning? Not likely. Usually it’s a learned behavior. For women, it’s a simple matter of logistics.
If you’re the kinda guy who leaves the grass uncut to go hunting, spends money you don’t have on new gear and leaves your dirty camo lying on the floor, you probably have a wife who is more deadly with her glances than you are with your bow or rifle. On the flip side, if you make sure your sweetheart’s “honey-do” list is taken care of, work a little overtime to cover hunting costs, and make a practice of leaving a rose on her pillow, sending love notes to her on the back of a Topo map or taking her out for a romantic date upon your return from a hunting trip, she probably has grown to appreciate your habit. Try it for a season. You might even tell her, “Darlin’, I’m gonna spend some money on this hunt I’ve been dreaming about—why don’t you take a little money, too, and go spend it on yourself.”
She’ll be begging you to go hunting more often.
How to Protect Your Cave Man
A list of sage advice would be remiss if it didn’t include some recommendations for the wives. Here’s the thing, ladies; we guys may be all bluff and manliness on the exterior, but deep down we’re just a bunch of little boys. Things that go bump in the night can make us accidentally swallow our chew of Levi Garrett. In fact, it’s not uncommon for us to hang around the campfire late into the night, simply because there might be a monster hiding under our sleeping bag.
Now, if you’re one of those most awesome creatures on Earth (a girl who likes to hunt), but by some unfortunate twist of fate you fell in love with a man (Can I even call him that?) who doesn’t like to hunt or camp, don’t despair. Here’s what to do to convince your non-hunting husband that you can keep him safe in the woods.
First, demonstrate you can shoot better than him. Many guys are insecure about their ability to make a good shot on a monster, especially when it’s dark. If you prove to him that you can bust more clays, outshoot him with pistols on a dueling tree, and beat the socks off him in a friendly 3-gun match, he’ll feel a lot safer going camping and hunting with you. Especially if you draw little stick-figure monsters on the clays before you load them into the target launcher. Witnessing you blow monsters to bits (even stick figure ones) will calm his nerves considerably.
Second, demonstrate your mastery of the wilderness. As soon as you arrive in the woods, build a fire, start a pot of coffee and set up a tarp shelter for extra gear. Whip out a comfortable camp and get your hunting stuff ready. Be cognizant of the need to demonstrate to your guy that you’re more capable in all things bushcraft than he is, or he won’t feel safe and protected.
Lastly, let him hold your hand when you’re hiking, and cuddle up while you’re sitting around the campfire. He’ll try to make you believe this desire has roots in romanticism, and likely there’s some truth to that. But his primary, primal reasons for holding onto you are safety and protection. I know it’s inconvenient when you’d much rather polish your rifle with a clean, oiled cloth or put a tape on that big buck you just killed, but humor him. He needs you.
I hope you will benefit from the words of wisdom contained herein. It’s been hard-won on the front lines of feminine wiles and manly maneuvers. I’m one of those lucky guys whose wife wishes him good luck when he goes hunting. I’m also the fortunate fellow with a wife who can occasionally outshoot or out-hike him. Best of all, I’m that blessed man with a wife who buys him more new guns than he buys himself.
She even holds my hand and snuggles when we go camping.