The "problem" is that I think I need a new gun. As you can recall, last summer I settled on a Browning Xbolt in 308 for my "all around" all-weather hunting rifle. I really could not be more satisfied with this rifle. It handles well, has little recoil, is extremely weather resistant, and shoots as well as I can. It will work without fail after multiple days of wet Alaskan weather. I've carried it on a few trips now and have confidence in it. The short bolt lift is great for situations when fast follow up shots might be required.
I don't have a lot of confidence in the 308 for this hunt, though. Sure, brown bears have been killed with less. In fact, the 30-06 has been a caliber of choice for killing bears for decades, and I think a modern controlled expansion bullet in 308 probably stacks up pretty well against a 30-06 round from 1970, despite the difference in terminal energy. It will almost certainly kill a bear -- if everything goes right. If the range is too long, the field of fire too small, the shot not dead on, etc then the 308 does not give me much room for error.
Give that Heather will be my backup, and I think she'll have a 30-06 -- not a .338 win mag or .375 H&H guide gun like a professional guide might carry, I'm leery of just bringing a 308. I do not want to wound a bear and have to chase it into the alders, I don't want to wound and lose game (not ethical), and I certainly don't want to tickle it with a 308, piss it off, and have to stop a charge.
That said, I'm looking at a few options. The qualities I'm looking for are:
- Weather resistant. Has to tolerate a 10-day hunt in wet, cold, conditions.
- Reliable. Needs to work every time.
- Value. I don't want to drop more than a grand, all told. Even that I'm hesitant about.
- Future use options. I'm going to hunt one brown bear. I don't want to buy an expensive gun that gets used once. However, I don't necessarily want to sell the gun that I used to kill a brown bear with. That seems like a nice heirloom and conversation piece that I'll have a lot of pride of ownership in. So I want something that will have future use.
- Effective stopper. I want something that will put down a brown bear with more authority than the 308. At least a 30-06, minimum.
Last year when I was looking at rifles, I was actually quite impressed with the Marlin XL7 line. They are "entry level" rifles that are actually a pretty good value. For entry level guns they have a nice feature set and get the job done. A Marlin XL7S would run <$400, be chambered in 30-06, and is stainless. For an entry level rifle I think you're hard put to do much better. 30-06 is a versatile caliber, but it really is pretty close to the 308. It also doesn't offer quite the same stopping authority as some of the other cartridges. Honestly, I don't know when I'd prefer to use a 30-06 over a 308 except for big bears. But it would be a decent back up rifle in the safe I suppose.
WEATHERBY VANGUARD SYNTHETIC (300 or 338 win mag)
I was also impressed with the value of the Vanguard line. You get quite a bit of rifle for a fair price. The only downside is that they don't come in stainless. These also come in right around $400. This is the best way to get into a larger magnum cartridge for a good price, I think. I don't know what else I'd ever use a 338 win mag for, though. I cannot think of any other situations where I'd bring a 338 into the field over a 308. I can't even imagine plinking with it at the range.
MARLIN 1895 SSBL (45-70 gov't)
First off, even though this is advertised as a "guide gun" for the North country, Alaskan guides do not commonly use 45-70s. Guides need to be able to make follow up shots on game out to whatever range the client is shooting at, and they tend to favor 338 win mags and 375 H&Hs. That said, however, within its performance envelope (150 yards or so) the 45-70 certainly delivers excellent stopping power. I also like the features on the SBL; it basically adds most of the things that I would pay a smith to put on anyways (express sights, extended magazine, short barrel, big loop lever). I don't love the pistol grip stock (prefer straight stocks) but I can live with it.
I also really like lever guns. I have two Marlin levers now and really enjoy both of them. I have a lot of confidence handling them, which I think might be important on this kind of hunt. There would certainly also be pride of ownership, and at least it fills a different role in my gun safe than the 308. Plus, with Cowboy Action Shooting loads, it can actually be affordable and fun to shoot, unlike a big heavy recoiling magnum. The 45-70 would be my "go to" brush gun or defensive gun for bear country, and the 308 would remain the open country, longer shooting rifle.
The downside is price. These rifles cost about $700. I'd think about topping it with a 2.5X scout scope as well which will run another $200 on detachable Leupold rings. Bead blasting the stainless finish -- optional -- would run another hundred bucks. That means I'm running at a grand or so, which is almost twice as much what a Marlin XL7 or Vanguard will cost even with glass.
Another downside is range. The max effective range of a 45-70 will be around 150 yards due to loss of energy with that big bore bullet and the ballistic bullet drop. A 338 win mag will be effective out to 300 yards. A bear can cover 10 yards in a second. So that means that with a 45-70 I think you need to take shots at around 100 yards so that you can get in a follow up shot if he runs straight away from you. However, I don't think that means I'd be taking 250 yard shots with a 338 win mag. Most of the terrain in Kodiak doesn't allow that, first off, and second I'd want to get closer to get a good, high accuracy, high energy first shot. Most bears are shot around 100 yards anyways, and it is possible to do a good stalk that gets you in close.
Luckily, I have lots of time to decide! I still haven't totally written off the 308. It might be an option. But I am leaning towards the 45-70 right now.