By Mark Kayser
I certainly knew better. But after a long flight with delays backing up arrival at hunting camp until just a couple hours before the scheduled alarm wakeup, I decided to hit the woods without checking the zero of my rifle. Still in zombie mode, I donned my Mossy Oak and stumbled blearily to a stand pointed out to me by my buddy as he drove off.
An hour later, a mature buck walked across a shooting lane in the creek bottom I was overseeing. I lined up the reticle, flipped off the safety and . . . wait for it . . . missed!
How could I have? The rifle’s forend had been resting on the rail of the stand, and I’d pressed my back into the tree trunk for further stabilization. That’s when reality jarred me fully awake: I’d just traveled via the friendly skies, and they hadn’t been so friendly. Perhaps a rambunctious baggage handler had decided to use my rifle case as a practice weight as he prepared for the hammer throw in his hometown Olympics.
THINGS CAN GO WRONG
If you plan on traveling with your firearm this deer season, it makes sense to have a plan to re-check the zero once you reach your destination. Even after you get there and confirm the zero, you should still be mindful of further in-hunt travel that could jar, jostle or jerk your gun into veering a projectile off course.
Over my decades of big-game hunting, my firearms have been transported by nearly everything except camel. Pickup trucks, ATVs, ATV trailers, floatplanes, boats, horses, mules, river-crossing cable carts and a host of other means have ferried my firearms from Point A to Point B. That means the baggage handler at JFK might not be the only potential culprit for a jostled rifle during your 5-day whitetail hunt to South Texas.
I recall a horrible nighttime Argo rollover in the wilds of Canada that jeopardized not only my rifle, but also human lives. A horse broke free on another hunt, banging my scabbard-clad rifle on multiple trees in the forest. I’ve lost count of the number of times outfitters have tossed my rifles into the beds of their trucks, gestured for me to get in and then bounced 20 miles along two-track “roads.”
As a result, about the only time I don’t recheck the zero of my rifle anymore is if I’ve packed and cared for it the entire trip — and have traveled by land. Even then I’ll often ask friends or hosts if they have a range where I can send a threesome of bullets downrange to verify the green-flag start of a hunt. Recheck your firearm to have confidence it’s ready when a whitetail steps from the woods.
THE RIGHT CASE MAKES A DIFFERENCE
All travel, wheeled or winged, requires a firearm case designed for abuse. But before you run out and purchase one, you should assess all its duties. If you never plan on traveling via the airlines, especially international travel, you might get by with a more economical hard case. But if your future includes travel across the country/globe, research for the best case you can afford.
While the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) doesn’t list criteria for firearms cases suitable for air travel, it’s still wise to visit the agency’s website (tsa.gov) for helpful insights. The agency lists lock requirements, information on traveling with firearm parts and especially ammunition. Ignoring any of the rules or advice could delay you more than a thunderstorm would. Then, after a quick review of TSA requirements, check airline information, plus state and international laws, depending on your itinerary.
Consider purchasing a case crafted from high-impact polymer, or perhaps even higher grades of strength arriving from combinations of polypropylene and composite resins. A few companies still utilize aluminum or steel in construction, but the majority of the industry has shifted to molded cases.
Other aspects to research include quality hinge construction, gasket sealing and, of course, rugged wheels to aid your transportation throughout the journey. Baggage handlers can discover the weak points of case design quickly, forcing you to be a handyman on the go.
Some companies, such as SKB, even adhere to military specifications in certain models that include waterproof and submersible construction, plus the impact resistance needed for rugged theaters of operation. Check for that designation if you want the highest in quality. Pelican, Plano and such retailers as Cabela’s also offer models to fit various budget and design requirements.
If you prefer to fly with your gun under the public’s radar, research cases that are configured in a cylindrical shape. Golfers, skiers, construction employees and others often use large cylinders for gear transportation, and several companies offer these designs for firearms.
Every quality hard gun case comes with foam inserts to cushion travel bumps. Some give you the option to custom cut and fit, while others are lined with “eggshell” foam to conform to the outline of your firearm. As weight and space are always at a premium while traveling, you can remove some of the factory foam and replace it with clothing. Puffy jackets, down vests and even raingear can double as padding in addition to hunt layering once you land at your hunting destination. This helps you get the most from your case investment and save overweight fees from the airlines simultaneously.
CONFIRMING UPON ARRIVAL
The real dilemma begins when you land or the ATV trail ends at hunting camp. It’s the tick-tock of time. Whether you’re on a 3-day or 5-day hunt, every minute counts. The reason time becomes a dilemma is because most deer hunters have squirreled away vacation days or pennies to save for the trip. Who wants to waste time on re-sighting when you could be hunting?
If there’s sufficient time to hunt on arrival day, hurried unpacking typically is followed by donning hunting attire and heading out. But pump the brakes and put your enthusiasm in “park” for 30 extra minutes. That’s typically the time it takes to prepare a target, drive to a safe shooting range and send a 3-shot group downrange to check your firearm.
An outfitter typically has a shooting range onsite or within a short drive. The same might not be true of the farmer you contacted via Craigslist for hunting access. Diligently confirm whether a range tryout is available nearby. And be sure it includes terrain or improvements to offer a safe backstop.
Should your friend or outfitter lack sufficient range gear, such as a shooting table with sandbags, you can get by with rolling up a jacket, resting across a backpack and lying prone as you shoot from the back of a truck bed (tailgate down, of course). In combination, these supports can offer a reasonably stable platform to confirm your shot. Pre-stow a handful of adhesive bull’s-eye targets to adhere to a cardboard box for precise aiming and you’re range ready.
If possible, recheck the zero at the same distance you zeroed before the trip. Don’t forget this tidbit of information. Many of you now have DOPE (Data On Previous Engagements) cards taped to your rifles. After the cartridge and ammunition data entries, the next listing should be the range at which the rifle was zeroed. It’s more common than ever for whitetail hunters to zero at 200 yards, as opposed to the traditional 100, due to the ballistic efficiency of new cartridges such as the 6.5 PRC.
Also, be sure you check your zero with the same ammunition you’ll use hunting. That’s another important reason to shoot a common cartridge and use a readily available ammunition product. Ammo weight adds up quickly on a flight. You want to travel light, but in the off chance you land with a rifle shooting more erratically than a Walmart squirt gun, you might need more than 20 cartridges to get realigned. A stop at a nearby sporting-goods outlet might be cheaper than paying for the overcharge on overweight luggage. Plus, several airlines limit the amount of ammunition allowed in baggage.
Finally, fire more than one round — but cool the barrel between groups. A cold/clean barrel lands a bullet differently than one that’s warmed/fouled. That’s why it is always important to foul or fire a bullet through your rifle after cleaning. It removes traces of oil and other cleaning solvents, plus pads the rifling with copper and powder residue.
After you fire a 3-shot group, let the barrel cool before shooting another one. Make sure the first bullet out of the cold barrel lands where you intended it to land. Always adjust the zero from a cold barrel, never one that’s sizzling hot.
WHAT ABOUT LOST LUGGAGE?
There are two issues to be mindful of regarding airline travel with a deer gun. First, note that your flight could be delayed. Second, be prepared for lost luggage. Have a backup plan for either situation, if possible.
As I found out on that earlier misadventure, arriving late doesn’t always give you the advantage of sunlight to check a rifle. The headlights from a truck can illuminate most 100-yard targets on bright beam, but you’ll need a tactical flashlight in the 500- to 1,000-lumen range to broadcast out to 200 yards or more. Some spotlights can also be effective. depending on their lumen output.
Lost luggage is another matter. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, you stand a 3-in-1,000 chance of having baggage lost or misplaced. Most of these articles are found in under two days, but that’s small consolation. If you’re one of the unlucky fliers whose lost baggage includes a firearm, you could miss two days of hunting, if not more. That’s obviously a problem.
Your backup plan should include a discussion with a friend or the outfitter on the possibility of having a loaner firearm available. Most hunt hosts have several rifles on hand, but the key is to ensure the loaner has been cleaned, fouled, sighted in and is overall whitetail-ready. You don’t want to arrive without a rifle and discover their answer is digging Grandpa’s pump-action .30-06 out of the closet to dust off for you. An onsite, properly zeroed rifle prepared for the field is the answer to lost luggage.
ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
Fortunately, the story I began at the opening took a turn for the better. After my friend and I patronized the owner of the donut shop and revived my senses with coffee exhibiting a tar-like nature, we revisited the rifle situation. He had access to an inactive gravel pit. Shooting a target taped to a cardboard box with that gravel pit for a backstop told the story: My rifle was hitting 15 inches high at 100 yards! With a few rotations of the turret and another volley of confirmation shots, I restored hope in the hunt.
Three evenings later, I saw a good buck bolt from the brushy banks of a creek to chase a doe across a field. Both the buck and I felt lucky. His luck was hopeful love, whereas I was adrenalized by the opportunity on another mature buck after that opening-day miss.
Still, one obstacle hampered my hopes: The buck was in high gear, and his field chase appeared to be picking up steam. There was no way I was taking a running shot, and as they neared the far side, I felt my opportunity was about to leap into the brush.
Then a young buck bolted from cover to join the fray, causing the big buck to brake hard. Seeing the “pause” button had been hit, I resettled my aim and sent a Hornady round across the field. As the mature buck stumbled and then tumbled, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was a great ending to what had seemed destined to be a road trip from hell.