Inside the Outdoors: The latest may be greatest...maybe

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I saw a picture of a proud deer hunter in a newspaper last weekend. Nothing unusual about that at this time of year, as the main firearms deer season was winding down and we were entering Minnesota's late muzzleloader deer hunt.

What struck me about the picture was the firearm the young man held as he posed with a nice adult buck, which he had harvested near the Iron Range town of Tower in St. Louis County. Having owned several deer rifles of one kind or another over a period of nearly a half century, the image immediately said "vintage." The cutline under the photo identified it as a Remington Model 81. This was one of the first successful semi-automatic rifles, which — for those who don't shoot — means a firearm that reloads itself and will fire each time the trigger is pulled. It was appropriately named the Woodsmaster by the people who back then were making the marketing decisions for one of the country's oldest firearms makers.

"Back then" was in 1936, but the rifle was actually based on a patent dating to 1900, granted to America's most famous firearms inventor, John M. Browning. The caption also identified the caliber of the rifle as ".35 Remington," which will not mean much to those who do not hunt deer, or even to deer hunters of Generation X; much less to hunters of the Millennial generation.

Like so many products of technological development, this gun and its caliber are out-of-step with modern firearms. The old 81 may be to deer rifles what the Model T Ford is to the Jeep or Ranger parked in your driveway. The fact that something works does not keep us from trying to make it better, which I suppose is why my generation found a way to go to the moon, while some earlier generations looked at the moon and wondered if it really might be made of green cheese.

The fact is, I shot my first deer with a bullet of the very same .35 Remington caliber. It was fired from a vintage rifle that I wish I still owned today. The truth is, as a late teen I was just as vulnerable to the allure of "modern" and "powerful" as the next hunter. A year or so later I had sold the vintage rifle and bought a brand-new semi-automatic in a caliber that would stop a moose or an elk, let alone a whitetail deer. I proved that the newer and more powerful weapon would kill a deer. But I certainly could not prove that the latest trophy was any more dead than the deer I harvested with the old throwback I had hunted with before.

Something else about the picture of the young man with the deer caught my attention. The old Remington 81 did not have a telescopic sight — or 'scope — mounted on it. This being the case, that young hunter had to align two sighting points on the barrel and the gun's action with his naked eye, with no light-gathering lens or magnification to make the deer's image clearer or larger.

This, too, harked back to my first buck. My Marlin 36 had no 'scope, but required that my unaided eye center a tiny bead at the end of the barrel within a small opening in a round disc just ahead of where my cheek snugged down on the rifle stock. It was called a "peep" sight because you squinted through that small hole, centered the front bead within it and held it on the part of a deer that you hoped to hit. That I managed to pull it off, in the waning light of dusk in a long-shadowed North Shore forest, still amazes me.

Like the progress that replaced my old .35 caliber rifle soon after I killed that first buck, the semi-automatic rifle I owned next had a modern telescopic sight. Like a good camera or binocular lens, it was capable of gathering light and brightening a deer's image under dim conditions, and could make that deer seem twice as large at its lowest setting or seven times as large at its most powerful. As I said before, the latest-and-greatest killed deer, but no more dead than the simpler rifle it replaced.

The deer hunt I remember most fondly came not long after. A friend and I backpacked and bushwhacked to a remote spot along the Baptism River inland from Lake Superior's North Shore. We slept in a tent and cooked over a wood fire, and over a long weekend managed to kill two bucks. I was shooting my latest-and-greatest, and with it harvested what would be called a "spike," a male whitetail with enough antlers to prove its gender, but not a whole lot more.

My friend Al toted his father's lever-action Model 94 Winchester; a rifle that — owing to its short barrels — was more properly called a "carbine." To reload it you worked a lever on its underside that ejected the empty cartridge and chambered a live round. If you've watched The Rifleman TV western series on reruns, or are old enough to have seen it before reruns, you saw Chuck Conners operate a rifle not too much different from the Model 94.

Al's rifle was chambered for the 30-30 Winchester caliber, which dates to 1895, about a decade older than the .35 Remington cartridge fired by the first deer rifle I owned. That said, the 30-30 Winchester is still being used today, and it's a safe bet that more whitetail deer have fallen to the 30-30 than to any other caliber. As if proof were needed, on our backcountry deer hunt my friend shot an 8-point buck that felt as big as a steer as we dragged it across that rugged ground to the jumping-off point where we'd parked our vehicle. So much for antiquated calibers.

Today, someone shopping for a deer rifle would not buy one in either 30-30 or .35 caliber unless he was on a budget and purchasing a firearm second-hand. Furthermore, few deer hunters would consider a rifle not equipped with a 'scope. Even those who hunt deer during Minnesota's late muzzleloader season, which originated as a primitive weapons hunt, can now this year use telescopic sights. If not immediately, history tells me that most soon will.

When it comes to deer hunting it would not be accurate to say that "the more things change, the more they stay the same." But it would be fair to say that "tried-and-true" has more than a grain of truth in it.