Monday, June 3, 2013

Rifles and Shotguns for Backpack Hunting

When I first wrote that I will start discussing hunting on this blog, I promised that it will be in the context of what I have been doing so far in terms of backpacking and travel through the woods. More generally, I will try to keep the discussion within the concept of the Modern Woodsman that I outlined earlier, but more specifically within the way that I personally apply those principles. There are many different ways and reasons to hunt, and my approach certainly will not cover all of them.

The type of hunting which I will typically be discussing here is sometimes called backpack hunting, i.e. it involves going deep into the woods on foot, hunting in an area that has not been prepared in any way with equipment you can carry on your back, usually over a period of a day or more. After a successful hunt you have to process the game and carry it out under your own power. Therefore, the guns and shotguns I will discuss here will have to be suited for that type of hunt. That being said, even backpack hunting has numerous variations which will inform the particular choice of gun. This post is meant to simply give you an idea of my thinking on the subject and why I use what I use. It is not supposed to provide you with all the answers. This should just serve to outline how I use the terminology, and is not intended to be a universal guide to gun weights and use.

For me a hunting gun for backpack hunting always has to balance several criteria. The criteria are as follows:

1. Functionality: Does the gun do the job it is supposed to do? Will it effectively kill the game which you intend to hunt? Will it function reliably under the conditions you are likely to encounter on the hunt?

2. Weight: Is the gun one that you can effectively carry over long distances and over rough terrain? How much is it going to hinder your ability to carry out the game after a successful hunt? If the gun is very light, can you handle the recoil it produces?

3. Utility: Is the gun worth carrying from a practical stand point in terms of the game you are likely to get with it during the hunt?

The utility factor requires some further discussion because that is where you will get the most variation in terms of gun selection. The reason for that is that utility is determined by the reason why you are hunting.

For example, if you are going out for a hunt with your friends, with the express goal of hunting because you enjoy the activity, then the weight of the gun is not a large factor in terms of its utility. You don’t have to justify the weight of the gun in terms of how much game you will be able to get with it. Under such conditions, there is no problem in caring a 7 lb rifle in order to kill two squirrels. The weight of the gun is not justified by the amount of food you have obtained with it, but it doesn’t matter because that was not the purpose of the trip. The rifle or shotgun still has to be light enough to make it possible to carry over the terrain you are likely to encounter, but other factors weight heavily during the consideration process.

On the other hand, if you are carrying a rifle or shotgun in order to provide yourself with food, or supplement your food supply during a trip, then the utility calculus shifts. Now the weight indeed has to be justified by the game you will be able to get. Under such circumstances, it may very well be the case that for the weight of a rifle, you can carry more food than you will be able to gather in the woods with that rifle. Assuming the use of decent backpacking food, you can get 3,000 calories per day for about 1.5 lb in weight. So, for the weight of a 7 lb rifle, you can carry about 5 days of food. How many squirrels do you have to kill with that gun in order to supply yourself with 5 days of food at 3,000 calories per day? A lot! Now, what if the rifle only weighs 1 lb? The calculus obviously changes, just like it will change if you are hunting large game. Then a 7 lb shotgun certainly has utility when hunting a 20 lb turkey. 

So, in this post I will go over different categories of guns based on weight and tell you which guns I use from each category and why.

Heavy Rifles and Shotguns

Obviously the term is subjective, but I would classify a rifle or shotgun of more that 7lb as heavy (8lb with a scope). A few decades ago this was the only option. Most arms manufacturers still have variants of otherwise lighter rifles that fall within this weight category. They are typically target rifles where the gun does not have to be carried long distances such as the Savage Arms 12 F/TR, but there are plenty of hunting rifles in this category as well such as the Winchester Moder 70.


The above picture shows the Winchester Model 70 Alaska.

I do not own any rifles or shotguns in this category as they don’t fit any of my uses. I don’t consider them suitable for backpack hunting. While they can typically meet the functionality requirement well, the weight is excessive, and the utility is greatly diminished unless hunting very large game. In some instances however, if you are shooting a large cartridge like a .300 win mag, such a rifle might be the only way to go.

Standard Hunting Rifles and Shotguns

In this category are the most common and widely used hunting rifles and shotguns. They have started to come to the market more recently and have weights that vary anywhere from 4.5 to 7 lb depending on the caliber or gauge. Typically, smaller caliber rifles and smaller gauge shotguns are lighter, but not always. These are the types of guns one would ordinarily take on a dedicated hunt. By that I mean that you have specifically gone into the woods for the primary purpose of hunting a particular game animal. If you are hunting small game, the weight of the gun will rarely be justified by the amount of game you are able to kill, and if you are hunting big game, you understand that you are out specifically for the hunt and at the point where you get an animal, the trip stops and the game has to be carried out. I would not use a gun in this category for opportunistic, or occasional hunting during a trip where the goal is not specifically hunting. They are just too heavy. However, if I am specifically going deer or turkey hunting, and sometimes if I am serious about it, even on a dedicated small game hunt, it is a gun from this category that comes with me.

Such guns typically have great functionality. Most models can be obtained in synthetic stocks, which in most cases will reduce the weight, and will allow for rougher handling of the gun when backpacking with it. The weight is still high, and while worth it on most dedicated hunts, I certainly wouldn’t strap a rifle from this category to my pack on the off chance I see a rabbit while backpacking. The utility of the gun will depend on the game being hunted. Some game may indeed justify the weight of the gun in terms of food being procured. In most cases however, if going after small game, this type of gun will not do too well in the utility factor unless you are planning a very long trip. As we calculated above, for the weight of a 7 lb rifle, you can bring 5 days of high calorie food. If you are out in the woods longer than that, and are sure of your ability to secure 3000 calories per day in game, then the gun will be worth carrying and have high utility value.


The above picture shows the Savage Arms 93R17 F.

In terms of small caliber rifles a few good examples on the lower end of the scale are the Ruger 10/22 Takedown at 4.67 lb (semiautomatic in .22LR); the Savage 93R17 F at 5 lb (bolt action in .17HMR); the Browning T-Bolt at 5.5 lb (bolt action in .22LR and .17HMR); and the Savage Mark II GY at 5 lb (bolt action in .22LR). 

For larger caliber rifles, good examples are the Kimber Mountain Ascent at 4.8 lb (bolt action in .308); the Kimber Montana at 5.5 lb (bolt action, chambers up to .308); the Savage 16/116 FSS at 6.5 lb (bolt action, chambers up to 30-06); the Savage 11/111 BTH at 6.75 lb (bolt action, chambers up to 30-06); and the Reminton 700 at 6.5 lb (bolt action). 

As far as shotguns, the Benelli Ultralight comes in at 6 lb for the 12 gauge and 5.2 lb for the 20 gauge (semiautomatic); the H&R Topper Deluxe at 6 lb for the 12 Gauge (single shot); the CZ Upland Ultralight comes in at 6 lb for the 12 gauge (O/U); and the Citori Superlight Feather comes in at 6.25 lb for the 12 gauge and 5.7 lb for the 20 gauge (over/under). For me a dedicated hunting shotgun should have adjustable chokes. There are some single shot versions out there that are slightly lighter, but they have fixed chokes, so they wouldn’t be my gun of choice.  

From this category of guns I have a Savage 93R17 F (bolt action in .17HMR). It weighs 5 lb, and 5.75 lb with a Nikon Prostaff 3-9x40 scope. I have a Savage 11/111 (bolt action in 308). It weighs 6.75 and 7.5 lb with a Nikon Prostaff 3-9x40 scope. I also have a Mossberg 500 20 gauge (pump). It weighs 6.7 lb, and a CZ Upland Sterling 12 gauge (O/U), which weighs 7.5 lb. The reason why I have these guns is not because they are the lightest in the category but rather because they are cheap. When I am going through brush, through mud, and sliding down slopes, the guns are going to get banged up. It is a lot less painful with a gun that costs $200 rather than one that costs $1200.

Lightweight Backpacking Rifles and Shotguns

The standard rifles and shotguns we looked at above are a good option if your trip will be a dedicated hunt; you are going out specifically with the intent to hunt and are willing to sacrifice other aspects of the trip for that goal. However, what if it is not a dedicated hunting trip. What if your main goal is to do some backpacking, climbing, fishing, or canoeing. It may indeed happen that you have some free time during the trip to do some small game hunting, but it can not be guaranteed. Or perhaps, you plan on supplementing your food supply with some small game hunting along the way. The above standard guns would hardly fit in this role. It is hard to justify carrying a 7 lb rifle or shotgun for hunting squirrel when the opportunity presents itself. Lightweight backpacking rifles and shotguns are better suited for this role.

Unfortunately, it is not a very large market, so there are few options available. You also have to understand that these guns are designed for small game hunting. That is not simply done to reduce weight, but also because large game hunting is not a great option under such conditions. The days of Nessmuk where you could kill a deer for dinner and then leave the carcass to rot are long gone. What if you are on a five day trip, and on day two you manage to kill a deer? Your trip has to immediately stop, so you can process and carry out the meat. Large game hunting is not something that can or should be done as a side activity to a trip through the woods.

In terms of functionality, rifles and shotguns in this category do not do as well as standard rifles. The biggest disadvantage is that there are no larger caliber or gauge alternatives. That means that hunting turkey or deer with such guns is out of the picture. They can be just as accurate as some of their heavier counterparts, but at the high precision end of the spectrum, they fall short, in part because of the caliber or gauge of the guns. The weight of guns in this category is very reasonable. While you will know that it is strapped to your pack, the weight can be justified on most trips for opportunistic or occasional hunting. Utility is also high. With some good technique, and dedication, the weight of a 3lb rifle can well be justified by the game one could get on a trip lasting several days.


The above picture shows the Marlin 70PSS Papoose.

For rifles, take a look at the Marlin 70PSS Papoose at 3.25 lb (semiautomatic in .22LR); and the Henry Arms AR-7 at 3.5 lb (semiautomatic in .22LR). Both rifles can be disassembled for easier carrying in a backpack. Some people like to include the Ruger 10/22 Takedown in this category because it is easy to transport, but for me its weight of nearly 5lb puts it in the standard rifle category.

For shotguns check out the Rossi Model S411280BS .410 bore at 4 lb (single shot); and the Rossi Tuffy .410 bore at 3 lb (single shot). Unfortunately neither of these shotguns has adjustable chokes, but their ability is restricted to small game anyway by most state regulations due to the .410 bore.

I do not own any gun in this category mostly because I have not been able to find one that is available and that I like. I have searched for the Marlin 70PSS for some time now without luck.

Ultralight Backpacking Rifles

For utility driven hunting during backpacking trips, the ultimate logical conclusion is to go as light as possible while still maintaining the basic functionality of the gun. The more you can reduce the weight the less game you have to successfully get in order to justify it. An ultralight gun allows you to do opportunistic hunting when the time allows without much worry about being weighed down. While the functionality of such guns is far from ideal, in part because of the minimalistic designs, and in part because of the small caliber used, they are still functional guns. Here functionality has been brought to its minimum in favor of weight and utility.

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The above picture shows my personal, modified Pack Rifle Kit (PRK) .22LR rifle.

Unfortunately, the market here is even smaller than for lightweight guns. In fact, there are no shotguns that fit in this group. There are however two rifles that I think are worth mentioning.

One of them is aptly named the Pack Rifle from Mountain View Arms. It is a single shot .22LR rifle that weighs just 1 lb. The other option is not exactly a rifle, but rather a rifle conversion kit. The company Ruta Locura produces two such kits called the Pack Rifle Kit (PRK) that are designed to reduce the weight of a standard Keystone Arms Crickett kids’ rifle. One of their kits with a tube stock reduces the weight to 15 oz, while the one with the skeletonized stock reduces the weight to 19 oz. Both versions chamber in .22LR.

I own a skeletonized PRK gun (above picture). I have done some modifications to it, and together with a 4x20 scope, it comes in at exactly 1.5 lb.

So this is just a summary of my views on available backpacking rifles and shotguns in terms of their weight categories and applicability to backpack hunting. It shouldn’t be taken as a general guide to backpacking guns, it is just my thinking on the subject. Take it for what it’s worth.

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