A great thing about rifles is that you never stop learning, and if you pay attention, you learn something new every season.
I thought I knew all the perfectly good reasons to detest fibreglass stocks, but last year I was presented with a new one. In cold weather, you might as well be carrying ice cubes in your hands, and a trigger finger that is numb with cold is nigh useless.
Sitting in a stand, even when the temperature seems pretty moderate, can become very cold, and if there is already frost when you get there, you know that keeping the circulation going is likely to become a major problem.
Hunting in Germany in December, we were provided with some of the new Sauer 404 rifles for the occasion, all of them fitted with a stock that is modern and stylish to some, bizarre to others. They were made from some unpronounceable but definitely high tech composite material with a surface that was almost holographic. It shimmered black, silver, and shades of metallic blue as you moved your eye, and would have been mesmerizing in a ball gown or disco drapes. Its thumbhole configuration was right out of Star Wars.
I immediately discovered two problems with it. One was that I was wearing a pair of light woolen gloves, and that stock was as slippery as glass and slithered around like a snake. Switching to leather gloves helped, but they were not as well insulated. This aggravated the second problem. Whatever the high-tech material is, it never warmed up, whereas a walnut stock, held in your hands in cold weather, will. This composite stock acted like a heat sink, sucking the warmth out of my hands.
In hunting driven big game, the primary and most important rule is that you must be alert and ready to shoot at all times. I was given this advice in Poland a couple of years ago by a Norwegian hunting writer who is one of the best driven-game shooters around. In a stand, this means holding your rifle in your hands, ready to shoot in front, behind, or to either side, depending on what appears and where it is running.
This means holding your rifle in both hands, like a bird gun, waiting for a flush. Because of the smooth surface, I had to grip the rifle tightly to keep it from slipping, and holding it tightly, combined with the perpetually cold surface, caused the warmth to drain from my hands. It became so bad I alternated relaxing one hand, then the other, and flexing them to warm up. The whole situation was aggravated by the thumbhole configuration, which forced me to hold the rifle in an awkward position.
All of this may seem like a small problem. It isn’t. Maybe the rifle works quite well when you hunt in warm weather, or hold it in your bare hands. I don’t know, I didn’t try it. What I do know is that most of my big-game hunting takes place in cold weather.
Unfortunately, when you walk into a shop to buy a rifle, or handle one at the well-heated booths at SCI, you are not seeing the rifle in real-life conditions.
As a Canadian, I have developed a habit, when I see a lovely piece of country in May, asking myself, “Yeah. But what’s it like in February?”
It’s wise to do the same with a hunting rifle. What works under ideal, comfortable conditions may exhibit all kinds of undesirable traits when the temperature drops, the wind picks up, and it starts to rain.
It’s also a good idea to keep in the back of your mind that what is the height of style today will probably look pretty dated tomorrow. Remember the outlandish Winslow rifles of the 1960s? As tasteless as the fins on a ’59 Caddy.
Nice walnut, on the other hand, properly shaped and carefully checkered, looks in style today, regardless of age, because it is superbly functional in its role as a rifle stock. And, when it gets cold in your stand and the action dries up, you can always sit there and admire it.--Terry Wieland