Go Lightweight Out West

Elk are great movers, and during the rut, bulls will cover massive amounts of terrain in search of love. Be ready to traverse terrain and make a quick shot if you want to head home with horns for the wall and backstraps for the grill.

When roaming the West in search of big-game nirvana, toting a lightweight rifle that will throw down quickly and travel well is worth its weight in gold.

The long-range rifle game is all the rave, and I get it, to a point. Last January, I leaned into Browning’s 28 Nosler, twisted the elevation dial on a Leupold scope, and pounded a beautiful aoudad ram. The terrain was open and rugged. My hunting partner and I had all the time in the world to situate a pair of Primos TriggerSticks — one on the rifle’s forearm and one on the stock — to get a dead rest. 

As incredible as this hunt was, though, I like getting close to animals — toting a lightweight rifle across mountainous terrain — getting prone on a backpack or using a single set of shooting sticks to make an under-300-yard shot. 

That was the goal on a recent Texas hunt. The mission was to drop a mature, free-range Rocky Mountain Elk. Yes, Texas has elk, and the Glass Mountains in the western part of the state make a remarkable backdrop for chasing them. This is the area of the state where the Texas Department of Parks & Wildlife first introduced Desert Bighorn in the 1960s and 70s. My hunt dates were September 16 – 21, which is the prime rut, and the broken, cedar-dotted landscape was sure to be perfect for making a move on a big bull. 

Elk are great travelers, and when the rut hits, a bull will roam miles and miles and miles in search of a ready-to-breed cow.

Knowing how much rutting bull elk move — how rapid they roam from one canyon to another in search of an estrous cow — I opted for a lightweight rifle rig. My rifle of choice was Kimber’s Mountain Ascent (5.6 pounds) chambered in .280 Ackley Improved. I topped the rifle with Leupold’s VX-3i 3.5-10x40MM scope. Of course, I could have gone with uber-lightweight Talley mounts, but this is splitting hairs, and I opted to go with a Leupold Picatinny rail-style base and rings. Total rifle weight with an attached Claw sling and a full three-round magazine was 6.64 pounds. The landscape and the need to traverse terrain quickly were also a big part of my lightweight rifle equation. I wanted a system that would travel well, and if needed, throw down quickly off-hand.

While uber-light rings and bases are always an option, the weight saving isn’t always worth the price, and a standard base and rings will work just fine.

On the hunt’s second evening, I spied the bull I wanted. He was coming out of a wallow — covered in sticky, dark mud and screaming at the top of his lungs. He was moving quickly toward a group of cows tended by a lesser bull. He was on a mission, and I needed to move. With my 6.64-pound rifle strapped to my ALPS Hybrid-X pack, I circled a small canyon — keeping the wind right and the sun at my back — and got in front of the bull. Or, so I thought. The old warrior was faster than me (they always are), and by the time I reached my planned destination, he was 400-plus yards in front of me. The bull would stop and answer my best challenge bugles but wasn’t about to head my way. The pungent smell of estrous was burning his nostrils, and his desire to pass on his genetics was too strong. 

In seconds, the rifle was strapped to my pack, and I took off on a trot with chamber clear. Easing up over a slight rise, I caught a glimpse of a horn. Instantly, I gripped my TriggerSticks and extended the legs to their full length. The range was 236 yards, and though I was huffing and puffing, the build of the rifle married perfectly with the cradle of the sticks, and I was able to squeeze off a perfect shot. Federal’s 168-grain Berger Hybrid Hunter crashed into the bull’s heart, and his death spring was a short one. I’m convinced, had I been toting a heavier, longer and less-maneuverable rifle built to kill super long ranges, it would have cost me my opportunity. 

The author’s Texas bull was a mature 6×6 aged at 9 years old.

I had no time to get prone, kneel or catch my breath. This was a now-or-never shot, and the rifle’s airy build blended with the 24-inch barrel proved perfect. This is the ultimate run-and-gun rifle, and I would recommend it for any elk, mule deer, or bighorn adventure. 

Tagged out with a heavy 312-inch bull, it was time to switch gears. The ranch I was hunting was rich with feral hogs, and the landowner wanted all hogs disposed of. Perfect. This was just another chance to test my rifle, scope, and ammo combo. 

The group of eight hogs boiled out of a gnarly creek bottom right in front of the UTV. By the time I could exit the side-by-side, grab my rifle, and chamber a round, the group was moving across a brushy hillside. Like the elk shot, this shot needed to be immediate. This time, I didn’t grab my sticks. The lead hog opted to stop in some heavy brush right before the group made the hill’s crest. The range was 256 yards, and the off-hand shot dropped the large sow in her tracks. The balance and feel of this rifle are undeniable, and while it wouldn’t be my long-range go-to, it is ideal for run-and-gun hunting. 

A lightweight, maneuverable rifle boosts target acquisition speed and is perfect for off-hand shots.

Please understand, this rifle, scope, and ammo blend made me look a lot better than I am. I don’t tell you about the standing with sticks, huffing and puffing elk shot, or off-hand pig shot to boast. Instead, I want to point out that you need to match your rifle setup to the animal, terrain, and time of year you’re hunting. 

I loved everything about this setup, from the reinforced carbon-fiber stock to the fluted barrel to the right-hand 1:9 twist rate. Add the durability and clarity of Leupold’s VX-3i and a Federal Premium round that the rifle loved, and it was an excellent recipe for success. 

If your upcoming western adventure sounds like it’s going to be similar to this hunt, or if you went west and discovered toting a tank-like rifle across the mountains wasn’t your cup of tea, go with a lightweight setup that promises accuracy from any shooting position. 

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