JD's Kniktuk Outfitters - Hunting Alaska's Bristol Bay for Brown Bear
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The following article is from Smith & Wesson Hanguns

Hunting Alaska Moose ~ S & W Style
by Layne Simpson

The mountain we were sitting on had its feet planted close on the banks of the Nushagak River and its head in the clouds. Below us the flat and treeless tundra stretched for miles to the far horizon. I shivered a bit as rainwater began to soak through my raincoat, one of those space-age numbers that won't leak until you're a thousand miles from nowhere.

But getting a bit wet didn't matter because my eyes were glued to binoculars gazing in silence at an amazing sight, one few hunters are fortunate enough to witness. As far as the eye could see, bands of caribou numbering in the hundreds were migrating to greener pastures. Some of the herds were made up of no more than a couple dozen animals: others contained several hundred.

It was as if I was on an island surrounded by a sea of antlers as the animals flowed by in their ground-eating gait. I spotted some good bulls, but I was after bigger game on that particular day. And besides, there would be plenty of time for hunting caribou later.

"How close do you need to get to kill a bull moose with that thing?" asked my guide as he broke the silence while reaching into his daypack for a sandwich. "I won't pull the trigger if the animal is farther away than 100 yards, even if it means going home empty handed." I replied. I went on to emphasize that the closer the moose was, the better; I would actually prefer to be within 50 short paces or less before taking a shot. With that short conversation, the ground rules for my attempt to bag the giant moose of Alaska were firmly established in my guide's mind. The "thing" he had referred to was hanging from my belt, a 6 1/2-inch Smith & Wesson Model 629 Classic DX.

My guide on that hunt was Brett Wener. His father, Bob, owns and operates Kniktuk Outfitters (Box 882, Dept. S&W, Delta Junction, AK 99737). The fact that Brett seemed a bit apprehensive about my shooting a moose with a handgun was understandable since he had never seen one taken with anything but rifles of various calibers. He preferred to see moose hunters arrive in camp with rifles chambered for nothing less powerful than the 7mm Remington Magnum. But the guide's uneasiness had no effect on my confidence in the big Smith & Wesson - I knew I was, as Robert Ruark wrote in his classic book of hunting tales, using enough gun for the job.

I bought my first .44 Magnum, a Model 29, in 1960, only five years after the cartridge was introduced. Through the years I have taken a number of big-game animals ranging in size from whitetail deer and wild hogs to black bear and elk with the big cartridge. Years ago, I became convinced that when a properly constructed bullet of the correct weight is placed into a vital area and the range does not greatly exceed 100 paces, the cartridge can handle jobs far bigger than its paper ballistics would seem to indicate. I'll have to admit, though, I was excited about hunting moose with a revolver.

The Alaska-Yukon moose is the largest free-roaming hooved big-game trophy in North America; few animals anywhere in the world are larger (a mature bull can exceed 1200 pounds in weight). A bull I had taken with a rifle several years back on the Alaska peninsula probably would have pegged the scale at 1500 pounds or so while on its feet. Having the opportunity to stalk within close range of such a magnificent animal and bringing him to bag with a handgun is enough to quicken the pulse of any big-game hunter.

Choosing a Handgun

Prior to the hunt I knew my choice in handguns would be a Smith & Wesson, but it took me awhile to decide among the four available variations. There's the blued-steel Model 29 with six and 8 3/8-inch barrel-length options. The same gun in stainless steel is called the Model 629; it's also available with a four-inch barrel. Then there's the stainless Model 629 Classic in its five-, 6 1/2-, and 8 3/8-inch variations. The Model 629 Classic DX is the same with a few exceptions. It is handpicked for accuracy, a set of interchangeable front sight blades of various colors is included in the package, it comes with Hogue rubber grips as well as hardwood grip panels with finger grooves, and it is available only with a 6 1/2- or 8 3/8-inch barrel.

My all-time favorite Smith & Wesson .44 is the Model 29. I personally prefer the 29 because it is much like the one I started with back in 1960, not to mention the fact that a blued-steel gun is more pleasing to my eye. But I decided to let practicality rather than nostalgia rule and chose stainless steel for the moose hunt. You can expect to get rained on a lot in Alaska, and the rust-resistant quality of a stainless-steel gun makes it far more practical for hunting there. I initially decided on the Model 629 and consider it to be, dollar for dollar, the ideal .44-caliber carrying gun for wet-weather use. The six-inch model weighs five ounces less than the 6 1/2-inch Model 629 Classic with full-length ejector rod housing, making it a bit more desirable when walking many miles in rough hunting country. But as luck would have it, I was unable to round up a Model 629 in time for the hunt.

I eventually chose a Model 629 Classic DX for the moose hunt, and in retrospect I'm glad it worked out that way. The accuracy of the gun is simply outstanding. With a variety of jacketed-bullet and cast-bullet loads, the Classic DX averaged just under four inches at 100 yards, and some individual five-shot groups measured as small as 1 1/2 inches. As it turned out, its heavier weight over the Model 629 went practically unnoticed during my hunt due to the manner in which I carried it. I used a Hunter Scoped Revolver belt holster, one designed for use with revolvers equipped with telescopic sights, and supported the weight on my waist with wide suspenders.

I picked the 6 1/2-inch gun simply because anything shorter reduces velocity and anything much longer is too long to carry in the field. In fact, a barrel ranging from six to no more than 7 1/2 inches represents the optimum length on a hunting revolver. A gun with a 6 1/2-inch barrel is ideal as it produces higher velocities and is easier to shoot accurately under field conditions than one with a shorter barrel while being much more comfortable to carry for long distances than a heavier gun with its longer barrel.

Any good hunter and marksman armed with a revolver as accurate as any of the four .44 Magnum variations offered by Smith & Wesson has no alibi for being unable to place a bullet into the extremely large vital area of a moose out to distances as far away as they should be shot with such a handgun, even when using open sights. Even so, I personally am far more accurate in the field with an optical sight. Or perhaps I should say, I'm more accurate quicker with an optical sight. Given plenty of time, I can shoot almost as accurately with open sights out to 100 yards, but when it comes down to shooting quickly and accurately, a requirement not at all unusual to big-game hunting, I am much better with the glass sight.

While in the process of developing a moose load for the Classic DX, I equipped it with a Burris 1/5-4X LER scope and almost headed to Alaska with that setup. But I decided to use a lighter and more compact Weaver Qwik-Point sight with a 30mm tube and 12-minute dot. I have used that type of sight in IPSC competition for a number of years, but I had never subjected one to wet-weather hunting. I'm happy to report that the Quik-Point shed raindrops like a mallard, and even though I took along a spare battery, the one that came with it is still going strong. Fully loaded and wearing the Weaver sight, the gun weighed exactly 64 ounces on my postal scale.

Developing the Load

Traditional bullet weight for the .44 Magnum is 240 grains. That's plenty of medicine for deer-sized game, and if properly constructed, it will penetrate deeply enough for broadside lung shots on animals as large as moose and elk. But bullets weighing 240 grains and less leave a bit to be desired for smashing through heavy bone or for adequate penetration when a quartering shot must be taken on the larger game. They're simply too light and their sectional density is too low. The ideal moose bullet should expand just enough for maximum damage to the boiler room on a broadside lung shot and be tough enough to hold together and penetrate deeply on quartering shots, even when penetrating relatively heavy bone. That's an extremely tough order for any bulletmaker to fill.

I believe the best bet for moose is a relatively tough bullet with a sectional density of .230 or higher. Among readily available jacketed bullets that may qualify, we have those weighing 300 grains from Hornady, Nosler, Speer, and Sierra. Another possible candidate is the 300-grain bonded-core bullet from Gonic Bullet Works. For smashing heavy bone, a good cast bullet such as the 300-grain truncated-cone flatnose from Bull-X should be an excellent moose masher. If you cast your own, the RCBS 300-grain No. 82079 and the Lyman No. 429650 of the same weight are excellent choices.

The handload I settled on for my Alaskan adventure consisted of the Winchester case, Winchester WLP primer, and Nosler's 300-grain jacketed hollowpoint seated atop a maximum charge of W296. Muzzle velocity averaged just over 1200 fps in the 6 1/2-inch barrel of the Classic DX. Average five-shot group size at 100 yards was 3.68 inches. That was over sandbags at the benchrest with a 4X scope mounted on the revolver. When practicing offhand I used a regulation IPSC target. From the offhand position I could keep all my shots well inside the six-inch "A" zone of the IPSC target at 50 yards. When shooting from the same position but resting the side of my arm against the trunk of a tree (as I do in the field-if one is handy), I could keep all shots inside the 11 3/4-inch "C" zone at 100 yards with most bullets clustering inside 10 inches. It's nothing to brag about, but it's good enough for government work, as they say, and good enough for moose hunting.

In a way, hunting moose with a Smith & Wesson chambered for a magnum cartridge has a traditional air about it. During the mid-1930's, back when the brand-new .357 Magnum was being touted as the world's most powerful handgun cartridge, Colonel D.B. Wesson used it to bag a number of big-game animals, including moose. These days the power of the .357 Magnum is often considered marginal, even for whitetail-size game, but Colonel Wesson proved back then what hunters of today continue to prove with the more powerful .44 Magnum; if you get close enough and put the right bulled in the right place, a magnum revolver will take very large game cleanly and humanely.

Bringing the Game to Bag

I saw lots of moose during those 10 days in Alaska wilderness country. Many were cows looking for love, but a fair number were bulls who were basically interested in the same thing. Two animals got me really excited. During the second day out, I spotted a 65-incher about a mile away in the middle of a dense swamp. Two frustratingly noisy stalks through almost impenetrable alter thickets that reached a dozen feet into the sky proved fruitless. On a couple of occasions, I was so close to the rutting bull I could smell him, but I could never spot him through the thick brush. On thing is certain - had I gotten a shot, it would have been well within handgun range. But it never happened.

My second opportunity at a good bull came the day before moose season ended. I first spotted him from about 200 yards. If not for the two sharp-eyed cows he was courting, it would have been an easy stalk. At about 60 yards, I ran out of cover and knew it was then or never. Keeping one eye on the bull and another on his two companions, I eased back the hammer on the Classic DX, plastered the big red dot high up just behind his shoulder, and squeezed one off. As always seems to happen with moose, it took the bull about 15 1/2 seconds to discover that he was dead. The spot where he stood when I shot to the spot where he collapsed in a mighty heap was separated by no more than a dozen of his giant steps.

The .44 had performed its task with aplomb. The 300-grain Nosler landed high behind the bull's shoulder, entered between two ribs, ripped through both lungs, exited a rib dead center, and came to rest under the hide. The exit wound through the offside ribcage measured over two inches in diameter. I managed to recover the bullet. It expanded beautifully to .70 caliber, and even through it had smashed through a heavy rib, it ended up weighing 271 grains for an impressive 90 percent weight retention. Just as important, length retention was an equally impressive 82 percent. That's excellent performance, to say the least.

"That big Smith & Wesson is plenty of gun for moose." quipped my guide as he tied one of the bull's huge quarters to his packframe.

"Yep," I replied, "even Robert Ruark would probably agree. And wouldn't it be nice if Colonel Wesson could see us now?"

JD's Kniktuk Outfitters, LLC
PO Box 1403, Riggins, ID 83549
Darwin Vander Esch - Booking Agent
208-628-3256 • Cell: 907-843-1715
Fax: 208-628-3256 • Email: darwinve@frontier.com