No matter how much you prepare through out the year, hunting season always seems to sneak up on you. Between work and family, and the onset of winter, you just get busy. I do at least. For these reasons, I generally work up my loads far ahead of time and then do minor tweaking to my zero to accommodate the change in weather happening right before the season opens. It’s a pretty good system, but this year, time got away from me and my hunting partner, Dennis. Opening Sunday of the 2012 season had passed several days before we actually got to the range for that final zero adjustment. I was using my recently re barreled FN 6.5x55 and Dennis was using his time tested Ruger M-77 in 30-06. We pretty much had these loads pegged by season’s opener. In truth, I guess we could have made the extra effort to get out and put the guns on paper but we didn’t feel the need. The weather had been a little too warm and the forecast for opening day predicted the weather to be even warmer. We purposely delayed the hunt until the following weekend when the temperatures were predicted to be a little cooler.
We were pretty well heeled, license-wise. Dennis had a cow elk tag plus a General Deer tag and I had the General deer tag (also called the “A” tag) as well as a “B” tag for an additional mule deer doe. Between the two of us we could drop anything except a bull elk. The ground Dennis had to hunt elk on was limited to a patch of School District Land a few miles from his house but for deer hunting, we had invites all up and down the north valley to shoot deer. The farmers were fed up with the local mule deer feeding on their grain crops and were more than willing to let a couple responsible shooters onto their land to harvest a few of those four legged freeloaders.
At sun up on the second Saturday morning of the season we were settled on a ridge in the District land that overlooked a wide valley. We had made the two- mile, 4am hike in from the road in total darkness in hopes of finding a spot that would allow Dennis to intercept the elk as they made their way from the bottom fields to the hills they bedded in. We found the right spot, but too late. From the very beginning we could hear the elk bugling behind us on the private (and posted) ranch land that bordered the west end of the District property. We didn’t speak but both of us knew right then that the chances of a stray cow elk passing by were somewhere between slim and none. We stuck it out though and made the best of it, glassing the valley and the adjacent ridges; poking into some of the more wooded draws. No luck.
Once the sun was well up we hiked out. On our way out we ran across several groups of mule deer. One group had 19 fine animals in a line not 200 yards away with several being the large, fat does we like to shoot for meat. At that point, however, they were more of a pleasure for us to see than to shoot. It was still warm and forecast to get warmer as the day wore on: the unseasonable temperatures would make handling the carcass difficult. We could wait. We spent the rest of that day looking for a few of Dennis’ missing beef cows on the far side of the Big Horn River. In the process of locating his cattle we again saw deer aplenty but still had no inclination to shoot.
The following day was much the same routine on the School District land. It was much cooler but the elk had again moved back into the hills early. Disappointed, we decided that we would spend the rest of the day deer hunting.
It was still fairly early when we drove Dennis’ old Ford 3/4-ton up onto the flats 4 miles south of the District land. These flats bordered a small valley that generally ran west from the farm bottom country. We parked the truck at the top of a small ravine and geared up to walk the ridges in hopes of jumping some mule deer. We’d gone a half mile when we realized that we’d been ‘had’ by a group of mule deer coming out of a ravine across the small valley we were paralleling. They were 250-300 yards off so we hunkered down and watched as 80+ deer moved across the opposing hillside, down into a small ravine, and then proceeded single file back up and over the high ground opposite us. They were a sight to see. When the deer were out of sight we stood up but something in the corner of my eye caused me to duck, pulling Dennis down with me. There were three does just 50 yards away over the rise we were siding. They must have been moving up the ravine as we were counting the deer across the valley. When we peeked over the rise they were, as you might expect, gone. Avid whitetail hunters will tell you that a mule deer is dumb. Well, they aren’t dumb enough hang around two guys acting suspiciously! They’d figured us out and split! (In fact, mule deer aren’t dumb at all. They just put too much faith in distance from the threat, their natural camo, speed, and the surrounding open ground as a guarantee of escape.) We stood up and proceeded along the ridge as the three does bounced their way across the valley floor to join their friends on the opposite ridge. Always a pretty sight.
At the next ravine there was a flash of grey and white to our left. Two does jumped up 40 yards away, ran another thirty yards, and stopped to look at us. The smaller deer had her rump to us but the other was in the classic broadside stance. I put the cross hair of my Leupold on the rib cage of the doe standing broadside just as Dennis fired. To my great surprise he missed cleanly! The two does bolted as Dennis attempted follow up shots at the bigger of the two. I lowered my rifle just in time for a yet unseen third doe to jump out of the draw at a run and slam on the brakes about 80 yards away from me. I swung the crosshairs behind the shoulder and squeezed off a shot. I heard the bullet strike in the wake of the rifles’ report.
The doe buckled and, turning away from the shot, ran along the side hill of the draw she came out of. As she took her second stride, illuminated by the morning sun, I saw a fountain of blood spray from the exit wound and she had blood matted all down her right side. I didn’t even chamber a fresh round; I knew she’d be down within seconds. I followed the massive blood trail straight to her. Twenty yards beyond the crest of the hill -or at least close enough that I could still hear Dennis swearing- she was down and dead. She was about 3 years old and very fit. The Sierra had hit behind the left foreleg and exited with a two-inch hole directly across from the entrance. In between it pulped the lungs. I attached my “A” tag, dressed her, and slid her down the hill to a farm road. When Dennis (who was still in a state of shock after missing that deer) made it around with the truck we simply slid her off of the slope onto the back of the truck. We had her skinned and cooling within the hour.
This FN 6.5x55 is a good rifle. The action and stock came from a commercial FN 30-06 that had the barrel ruined when someone had fired off a handful of corrosive ammunition and then failed to clean it properly. The barrel is a Wilson Arms pre-threaded, pre chambered 6.5x55 barrel I purchased from a good friend of mine last spring. After wrestling the old FN barrel off the new one went on with a flip of the action wrench. The headspace was dead on. Fitting the extractor for the fatter x55 cartridge was a little tedious but when done it fed smoothly and extracted with authority. After giving the barrel a coat of Krylon olive-drab green paint I was ready to shoot.
My initial shooting was done with PPU 139 grain factory ammunition. In my area it is cheaper to buy loaded Prvi Partizan ammunition than it is to purchase domestic un-primed brass. I fired 60 rounds of the PPU ammo to generate brass for reloading. My groups ran from ¾” to about 1.2 inches at 100M and I was pleased with that; the rifle showed real potential. The velocities of the PPU loads, however, were a bit low for my liking; about 2540 fps as an average of ten randomly selected cartridges. It didn’t matter: Chronographing these factory loads was more an exercise in curiosity than anything else as I fully intended to handload for this rifle.
With the once fired brass in hand I set to working up loads. I full-length resized the empty cases in a Lee die. The brass was trimmed, the primer pockets made uniform with the Lyman Primer Pocket Uniformer, and the burrs from the flash hole removed with the Lyman tool made for that purpose. Finally, the case-mouths were flared with a Lee Universal Neck Expander die until the parallel sides of a PPU 120 grain BTHP would just slip into the case mouth.
For priming I used Federal Large Rifle primers and following that a charge of 45.0 grains of IMR 7828SSC was loaded into each. The bullet, as is my practice, was seated to minimal OAL which left just the boat-tail portion of the bullet below the neck for an OAL a little over 3 inches. The final operation was to crimp in a Lee Factory Crimp Die.
The range results were spectacular. From a bench these initial loads shot at or under ½ MOA for three shots. I knew I was onto something! Over the summer I continued to work with this rifle and bullet, working up to a comfortable personal maximum of 47.8 grains of the IMR 7828SSC for a speed of a little over 2800 fps and groups in the .3 -.5MOA range. I deemed this load accurate enough not only for deer, but for extreme long-range varminting as well. The 120 grain PRVI bullet’s performance on large game had yet to be experienced but sectioning a bullet in my milling machine showed a tough jacket equally as thick as the Hornady Interlock. I was willing to put it to the test.
However….As summer turned to fall I fell into a good buy on a few hundred Sierra 140 grain Game Kings so I began working on loads for these bullets in the FN. I kept the same powder and used the same seating depth, only adjusting the charge weight for the heavier bullet. It worked! I was treated to half-MOA groups right off the mark with a starting load of 44.0 grains of the SSC powder. I stopped at 45.6 grains with no detriment in accuracy and decent speed. While I haven’t chronographed these loads, they are consistently accurate and brisk. I’m guessing I’m in the 2700 fps neighborhood.
A distraction provided by my new Savage Long Range Hunter .308 left the load development for the FN 6.5 at a standstill until just a week before season. At that time, I made the final decision to use the FN /Sierra combination for my hunt and cut the stock down to a more appropriate length for use with winter apparel. The long FN factory stock was never truly comfortable with my stubby neck and if you add several inches of heavy winter garb, the problem gets worse! I took off two inches of wood and installed a 1” Pachmayer recoil pad. This made for a very comfortable rifle to shoulder and shoot off hand -and quick to come up! It proved itself to be a good fit on that first shot of the season.
The day after I filled my “A” tag, Dennis got his deer. We made a trip to the range the afternoon of my kill and found that his rifle was hitting inexplicably low at 100M. Waaay low; with no explanation for it other than the Gremlins of shooting working their evil. Dennis made the proper adjustments and the next evening he shot a fine doe with his Ruger at 200 yards while kneeling. His bullet was the PPU 165 grain BTSP over a moderately stiff charge of IMR 4895. In his Ruger it’s an accurate combination –under ¾ MOA- and the PPU soft point did the required damage. A shot through the lungs put her down within 15 yards of impact. “Good enough.”, as Dennis would say. With both our deer, the lung shots we made caused no major meat damage. We are meat hunters so that is important. We packed away many pounds of prime, grain fed venison with almost nothing wasted.
The next weekend it was my turn again. I still had to fill my “B” tag for a mule deer doe. We chased cow elk in the wee hours, to no avail, and afterwards headed for some of the valleys that opened out onto the feed-corn acreage that still had corn on the standing stalk. The deer in this area were abundant and better fed than the local farmers would like. The area was close to Dennis’ house so we stopped in after elk hunting to get a quick bite before heading out for my deer.
It was just a very few minutes after we finished lunch that I found myself walking along the base of a ridge on the south side of the largest of these small valleys, heading back to the east; towards the mouth of the valley and the fields of corn beyond. I rounded a corner and was caught flat footed by thirteen mule deer standing directly in front of me at about 75 yards. They were bunched up and worse yet, were at an angle that made a safe shot impossible. I needed any deer I encountered to be (and had for some reason expected them to be?) across the flat of the valley floor with the opposite hillside behind them; not standing between me and the distant farm house. We all just looked at each other for a good 10 seconds before one small doe jumped the fence onto the flats. Then another, and then the rest followed. They moved off about 50 yards into the flats but still offered no shot. We were now about 90 yards apart.
Obeying my #1 rule for hunting mule deer I decided to act as if I wasn’t interested and resumed walking in the direction I was headed when I’d come upon them. I was dismayed when the whole group also began walking in the same direction as I was, heading back towards the fields in a tight bunch. After 20 yards they stopped so I kept walking, eventually drawing along side the group. By now, they were actually past the mouth of the valley and there was open expanse behind them instead of hill side. This offered me no shot and, too boot, they were getting nervous. I had to keep walking while feigning disinterest in the hopes they would eventually head the other way. It was crazy! The deer and I were seemingly within stones throw of each other. They held their ground until one little doe decided she’d had enough and started west, back up the valley. Soon the others followed but still in an over-lapping body of possible targets. As soon as one got in the clear, another would step into the line of sight. A few of the very small ones were giving me superb broadside shots at the edge of the herd but I had my eye on a big doe at the far side. Twice I had her in my sights only to have a smaller deer cross my line of fire. I stood with the 6.5 shouldered and the scope at 3X, waiting for my opportunity. Finally, the group –now far enough west of me to allow a shot- parted and my doe was standing in the clear and better yet, presenting my favorite shot; quartering forward through the ribs and out the front end. I placed the cross hair so as to aim at that imaginary ball between her front legs and squeezed. The distance was about 125 yards. At the shot, she jumped two feet into the air, landed, and ran in a desperate 30 yard semi circle in a direction opposite from the fleeing herd, soon plowing chest first into the ground and flipping onto her side. The other dozen deer vanished.
Again, the Game Kings did their job well. The entrance hole was mid left rib cage and the exit hole was to the front chest wall side of the right foreleg. Everything in between was mush. On skinning her out I found the jacket just inside the exit wound. Only the core had exited. Some would call that a “bullet failure” but I figure that the bullet had already done a lot of work by then. Again, very little meat was spoiled.
Now, in re-reading the account of this last shot, it seems like a drawn out event but in reality, it was -according to Dennis who was up on the ridge glassing the hills for elk- less than twenty minutes from the time we left his lane to the time I shot. From my vantage point it seemed like much longer! In any event, my Montana hunting season was now over though Dennis would still hold hope for a cow elk. All in all we saw over 350 deer in two weekends hunting: the last weekend alone we saw 200 in a mix of bucks and does. It was a memorable deer season, even by our standards.
With doe #2 in the freezer and many quarts of seasoned venison canned, you’d think I’d be content to lie up for the winter and eat well. I’m not! With the exception of an occasional chicken, venison is the only meat I eat throughout the year so the 6.5 and I are on our way to South Dakota for a holiday whitetail hunt with my kids, my brother, and his family. I expect good things…
Post Script, Four weeks later:
The South Dakota hunt went well. Everyone got at least one deer. The 6.5 and I harvested one of the many whitetail deer I saw that week. It was a plump doe that was being chased by a frisky 5x4 buck. She ran to the head of a draw I was hunting and stopped to survey her surroundings some 100 yards or so up the rise from where I stood in the timber. The Sierra took her behind the heart on her right side and exited half way up on the off side. She was thrown down in a heap, where she kicked once or twice, and was dead. With three deer in my freezer I was done for the season. I never filled my final doe tag.
Thanks to the incessant off hand practice I force myself to do all year long, and that superbly accurate FN Mauser, I have enough meat to keep me and my guests well fed on prime venison. I am happy about that and also really glad I chose the 6.5x55 as the chambering for this FN. As a deer cartridge, I just can’t find any fault in it.~Muir