Decades ago, I killed my first buck and I remember the details vividly. The season before that success was an experience I’d like to forget. Hunting alone, I was proudly carrying my own rifle that included a brand new scope. Prior to that hunt, I had used a couple of older guns with open sights; first was an old model 94 Winchester equipped with a peep sight, then an altered .303 British rifle with pretty crude original sights.
It was bucks only hunting and I was instructed many times to “make sure it has horns before you shoot.” I had seen lots of deer in the previous seasons, but couldn’t be absolutely sure of antlers, so I hadn’t fired a shot. Now, I was armed with a rifle with a state of the art scope, and would have no such issues.
Within an hour of entering the woods, I spotted a group of deer walking steadily along a side hill above me. I could see with my naked eye that the last one in line was a buck. I raised my rifle and looked into the scope - and saw nothing! I frantically grabbed my handkerchief and wiped the front and rear lenses. Looking again as the buck passed through the trees, and again I saw nothing but a blur. The scope, so wonderful on the target range, was hopelessly fogged up on the inside. This was a well-known brand, kind of the industry standard at the time.
I won’t attempt to tell you the unkind thoughts in my mind regarding the manufacturer of this sight. Trudging out of the woods, I headed for home to find another rifle to resume my hunting, while the deer continued to walk slowly away. The next day, I packaged up the scope with a semi-polite letter indicating I wanted the thing replaced or repaired immediately. I never trusted that brand again and traded it off as soon as it was returned.
Another sight-related flop occurred several years ago not far from my home. I was determined to take a newly acquired rifle with me on the first day of deer season. I had a good scope to put on the gun, but no rings of the correct height. Only having a couple days before the season opener, I had to check the local shops for the needed rings. After three stops, I finally found an inexpensive set of imported rings, a brand I wasn’t familiar with, but the right height.
I got the rifle sighted in the next day and all was well. Two days later, on my day off, I was right where I wanted to be at sunrise. I climbed a hill and went to a spot where I had seen a lot of deer sign. Sitting down with my back against a tree, I heard a slight but distinct metallic “clunk.” I checked my gear; sling swivels, pocket contents, binoculars – nothing was rattling. When I shifted position, I heard it again. Now I thought to check the scope, rocking it side to side - “clunk.” One of the new rings had somehow come loose.
By then I had mounted a couple dozen scopes on all kinds of rifles, so I had a clue on how to do it correctly. Wondering how it came loose, I tried to tighten it, but no luck. Apparently after the last sighting-in shot, the flimsy metal of the through-bolt on the clamp device at the bottom of the rear ring pulled loose and would never be tight again. Back to the house for another rifle. I ordered new rings that night, solving the problem, but it was a morning hunt wasted.
Most of the failures are just temporary aggravations. Some could have serious consequences. On a moose/bear hunt in northern Ontario quite a while ago, I saw a malfunction that could have been real serious. My dad and I were in a hunting camp with three nice guys from Florida. On the second or third day of the hunt, we were posted at likely spots; either at known river crossings or partial clearings along old logging roads. Unfortunately, a hard rain fell all morning and we were all soaked. Our outfitter came along about noon in his pickup truck to rescue us from the elements.
Later that day, one of our friends from Florida became concerned about his new 30.06 rifle that had been drenched by the rain. He removed the barreled action from the stock and thoroughly dried everything. One of his pals then suggested that he should spray all the metal parts with a then-new type of silicone based protectant. He liberally applied the stuff to all the action and trigger parts and wiped down the external surfaces as well.
The next day, the temperature dropped dramatically. When the outfitter came around to pick him up, our friend (luckily) had his rifle pointed at the ground, then took the safety off, preparing to unload the weapon. Several of us heard the shot, thinking he had got a shot at a moose. Instead, there was a large divot in the soft ground about five feet from the truck where his bullet hit.
We later found that the sub-freezing temperatures had caused the heavy coating of the silicone spray to turn to gel all around the trigger assembly. Being very safety conscious, the hunter always loaded his gun in the morning, applied the safety, then tested the safety by pressing the trigger. Loading and unloading were always done with the muzzle pointed safely at the ground. (This was when a lot of bolt action rifles had to be taken off “safe” to unlock the bolt.) The theory of a local gunsmith was that the congealed spray had apparently held the trigger back in the fire position, the trigger return spring was gummed up and could not push the trigger forward to the safe-ready position. After learning this, the guys who had used the spray disassembled their guns and removed all traces of the stuff.
There were no further mechanical issues and we went on to have a successful hunt, taking a nice bear and a moose.
Some time ago, I developed a real love-hate relationship with battery powered devices. A lighted bow sight was just right for dawn and dusk, until it stopped working when I really needed it. The same goes for a nice range finder, compact camera and a headlamp. I’ve tried to keep fresh batteries in these things, but invariably, the gadgets would run out of juice. Carrying spare batteries didn’t help, because the need for the device had usually passed anyway. This is why I advise folks to go ahead and buy a laser sight for your self defense weapon, but don’t forget to practice with your open sights, just in case.
(Roger Sager, an Era Outdoors Columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).