Death and the Model 71
The moose is the most dangerous animal in Alaska. More people are injured or killed by moose than by bears. Adult moose have put hooves completely through the ribcages of attacking bears, killing them on the spot. No predator in Alaska will take on a healthy bull moose except in times of hunger.
This story has its beginnings in a rifle that my father carried constantly when I was very young. When I was a toddler I often ran to meet my father as he paused in the doorway of our Alaskan homestead to unload his old Winchester Model 71 while I scrambled to pick up the fat, tapered .348 Winchester cartridges. As I handed the cartridges to him, he explained that he always unloaded his rifle before bringing it into the house. With that rifle my father taught me firearm safety both in the way he handled it and by casual repetition of safety rules. With that rifle my father also fed our family year after year in a location where fresh food could not be purchased. For a while .348 ammunition became very scarce – the only shot I ever fired from that rifle took a deer.
Many years later, having recently returned from a deployment, I stopped by Great Northern Guns in Anchorage. Great Northern Guns always has a nice assortment of historic firearms, and I quickly noticed an old 1886 Winchester in .33 WCF. I had been looking for an affordable Model 71 for some time; one I would not be afraid to use. Alaska is hard on rifles. I thought perhaps this ‘86 Winchester would be as close as I would be able to get to a Model 71.
Finances were tight after the deployment, but my wife insisted that I return and purchase the old ‘86 Winchester. Upon entering the store, we were disappointed to see an empty spot on the rack where the ‘86 had been. I had turned around to speak with a salesman when my wife said “Here’s a model 71 for seven seventy-five.” I’m pretty sure I got whiplash. Turns out they had two Model 71s, but not for long. The prettier of the two is a 1958 short tang with a nice finish on both stock and metal, but the stock had been cut short for the installation of a rubber recoil pad and the muzzle had a professional re-crown. It also has a unique forend cap that is also a barrel band. I have heard that Harold Johnson used to install something like this on his .450 Alaskan conversions back in the ‘50s, but I have never seen one for comparison.
The other is a 1936 long tang with a checkered hammer and bolt-mounted peep sight. This rifle also had a buttpad installed and someone, in an obvious fit of insanity, bead-blasted and re-blued all of the metal. This was the perfect rifle for the kind of hard use I planned to put it through. Eventually I plan replace both cut down stocks.
Both rifles found their way into Great Northern Guns as the result of Gunbroker deals gone bad. Both were sold as all original, and for quite a bit more than I paid for them. One was sold by someone in Alaska who dropped it off on consignment after it the buyer shipped it back. The other was purchased by someone in Alaska, tricked by the seller’s careful photography, who never got his money back.
The Model 71 just seems to point and hit naturally. I believe the combination of this rifle and the .348 Winchester cartridge resulted in the best all-around lever-action ever built. The Model 71 is very well known in Alaska as a bear rifle that is good for hunting deer, and a deer rifle that is great for hunting bear country. Recoil is comfortable and followup shots are quick.
I have great confidence in the reliability of these rifles. There is never a feeling that the cartridge is being forced to align with and enter the chamber. Unless the rifle is pointing up, I can throw the lever open and look down to see the cartridge already in the chamber. It is almost like those fat, tapered cartridges just waddle into the chamber and wait for the bolt to close.
One particular season I was hunting with a Swiss K31. I had some great 7.5×55 Swiss loads manufactured for me by Scalisi Shootin’ Specialties and I was anxious to try them out on a moose.
A friend from our church wanted his young son to get a shot at a moose. I agreed to go along, planning to let his boy shoot any legal moose we saw. As I walked out the door, I made a split second decision to put down the K31 and grabbed the 1936 model 71 Winchester instead. The bears were thick that year and I wasn’t planning to shoot a moose anyway.
My friend’s son and I went out that evening and and he and a younger son were to meet us in the morning. Up on the side of a mountain, we crossed a small stream at a very muddy crossing, found a spot to drop the four-wheeler, and hunted a bit before setting up camp. That night a big rain storm blew in, and by morning the creek was swollen and the crossing became a huge mud pit. We were already out hunting when my friend with his other son came out and buried his four wheeler in the mud trying to cross. I had to try to cross back over to pull him out and got stuck as well.
About an hour into walking out to get another machine, I heard a moose in the thick trees moving directly away from the trail. I left the trail and went about 50 meters into the woods parallel to the course the moose was taking. I was very close to the moose but could not see it. I could hear it and knew it was a moose by the way it walked.
I stepped around a small spruce tree and found myself facing a narrow brushy clearing about 20 meters long, ending in thick brush. Suddenly, something huge burst from that brush at a dead charge. I saw a huge black shape rushing toward me and I knew that I was done. Time slowed and my entire world was condensed into that small brushy clearing in the woods. The moose covered the distance between us in a split second and then, somehow, a rifle’s sights appeared between us. A flash, a glimpse of hooves against the sky, my ears were ringing, and I was looking through my sights at an empty, silent forest. I had never before seen a moose vanish into thin air. One moment it was ten feet from me at a dead run; now it was gone!
Bewildered, I quickly checked my rifle; the hammer was back and another round was chambered, so I eased the hammer to half-cock and slid another cartridge into the magazine. I looked around, peering through trees for the moose, expecting another charge, and then I looked down. The moose lay with its tail at my feet and its head pointing away.
The 200 grain Silvertip had entered its head just above the right eye, and exited behind the right ear. Because the head was lowered and tilted to the right, it then entered the chest by the right shoulder, traveled high through the right lung and ended up in the rear hip joint. Had the bullet struck one inch to the right (my left) it would have missed the head completely. The bullet did not actually strike the brain or the skull. There was massive damage to the side of the skull and the upper joint of the jaw (all the teeth were knocked loose), and large bone fragments from the upper jaw were projected through the side of the skull and struck the brain. Every crevice in the skull was full of brain tissue, including the nose and eye sockets.
My guess is that when the brain was disrupted, it caused an involuntary spasm that was strong enough to stop the forward momentum by either causing the moose to kick itself over backwards or spin itself around. It went down so fast that all I saw of it was a glimpse of hooves in the air.
Had the moose simply gone limp from the head shot, it would have landed on top of me and I would still be in the woods under a moose. A killing shot to heart or lungs would have resulted in the moose overrunning me and at least trampling me as it passed even if it did not manage to get in a few good kicks. Almost any way this could have worked out would have ended with myself being the one turned into hamburger. (For comparison, another friend shot a moose with a .338 Winchester Magnum that same night. His first shot went through both lungs and the heart, and the second shot smashed both shoulders. His moose then ran 300 yards.)
Had I carried a different rifle that evening, I likely would not have fired the shot in time – the old Winchester Model 71 is fast to the shoulder and points naturally. The big .348 at point blank range really hit the moose hard. That rifle probably has a lot more experience at killing moose than I do. I am tempted to believe that it recognized a familiar situation and just calmly took over. I did not have time to think.
Before I left to walk out, my friend’s son insisted we stop and pray for my safety and prayed that we would get a moose. The Lord answered both prayers in an obvious way.
I thought that the moose was a cow when it was charging me, but after I killed it I was pleased to see that it was a small bull. As I butchered the moose I was puzzled by some small wound channels that seemed to be from bullet fragments, but didn’t look quite right. Then I found one that entered from the side and stopped in a rib that splintered toward the inside but was not fully penetrated. Someone had been shooting this moose with a .22. Apparently he was hurting and had had enough by the time I started flanking him through the trees. Someone’s cruelty and irresponsibility almost resulted in my death.
A split second decision to carry an old, well used lever-action rifle made all the difference.
© 2008 7.62 Precision