by Karen Mehall Philips - Wednesday, October 31, 2012
The Oklahoma wind slapped my face hard when I stepped from the light of the truck into darkness but it didn’t slow me down—I wanted to get to my stand. This was my first hunt with an AR-15, and I felt like a little bad@##.
“Remember, deer already will be in the trees on the field’s edge waiting for the feeder to go off,” said my guide, Clint Seaman. “Rack one into the chamber quietly.”
Clint was right. When the first pink streaks filtered across the sky, I saw does awaiting the breakfast bell. I like this spot, I thought. Eyes moving and brimming with tears, I hunkered down in the wind, swaying like a tumbleweed as I clutched my M&P-15.
I caught movement in the trees 30 yards to my left—a doe and a flash of antler. The doe entered the field, followed by the antlers—giant chocolate horns with thick, blunt, club-like tips. The doe stopped to feed while her sentry stood broadside at 70 yards. The deer had no idea I was there. I couldn’t believe the vision of the gift before me nor the ease with which I would receive it. I flipped the safety, put the crosshair on the buck and squeezed.
Where was the bang? My heart raced. The buck stared at me. How do I eject this cartridge—silently and without moving? The doe spooked then both deer ran across the field and disappeared.
The cartridge hadn’t fed properly during the gentle loading process moments earlier, so the round didn’t fire. Clearly, the AR-15 features a forward-assist button for good reason, but, wishing to be quiet before dawn, I hadn’t used it. I wished for an instant replay and a chance to slam that cartridge into the chamber. But there would be no do-over this morning—just as there are never any do-overs in hunting. I could have shed tears without help from the stinging wind as I frantically struggled to clear the action when the buck ran back across the field, grunting. Then he was gone. So much for any fantasy I had about an easy shot at a Booner buck. I was bad alright—so bad I let an opportunity-of-a-lifetime monster tease me twice then disappear for good.
Suddenly I felt the cold. It’s funny how much faster chilly temps register when no more bucks are in sight.
Over dinner at the Chain Ranch I shared my lesson. “We never even got that buck on the trail cams,” said Clint. “He must have been cruising through because of that hot doe.” My heads-up shiny penny was gone, but I asked to return to the same spot the next day. I guess I thought I deserved another chance.
The next morning I slammed that bolt carrier forward before daybreak ushered in a never-ending stream of deer. About 150 yards to my right I watched a buck approach. A look through the bino registered he was a 10-pointer. I snapped a quick photo and shouldered the gun. I watched him through the EOTech sight—so regal and elegant. Beautiful deer, I thought.
He ran 20 yards in the foot-high grass and dropped. My rifle and DRT (Dynamic Research Technologies) ammo sure did the job. I’d been blessed with seeing nice bucks twice in as many days.That evening I shot a doe then posed for a pic with my new friend Ned, the ranch’s pet steer. My buddy Paul Pluff was the only one in my group who hadn’t gotten a buck by the time I left camp, but when he scored he scored big, dropping a B&C buck the very next day. I marveled over the photo he texted, noting it was not the chocolate-horned Booner that gave me the slip.
That hunt occurred during the fall of 2010, though my first stint with an AR occurred 20 years earlier during my PR days while running the NRA National Matches press office at Camp Perry, Ohio. It was during the height of the semi-auto “ban-wagon,” when anti-gunners labeled ARs as so-called “assault rifles,” assuming that’s what “AR” stood for instead of ArmaLite, the company that designed the guns in 1957.Their assault was based solely on appearance, and ARs got a bad rap.
Public education was tricky for me. Most media had no clue what they were demonizing, and those who did lied—banking on public confusion over the difference between automatic and semi-automatic guns. I explained that military guns in general are designed to be easy to understand and shoot so soldiers can be trained with them quickly and efficiently. I explained that about the only difference between the military’s M16 and its civilian counterpart, the AR-15, is the capability of the former for automatic fire, but that the latter can fire only in semi-automatic mode. I also explained that sure, an AR-15 looked different than Grandpa’s old .30-30 or Dad’s Winchester Model 70, but ARs, too, only fired one shot per pull of the trigger. If cosmetics alone could pull off miracles, I said I’d buy a Thoroughbred, hire a jockey and win the Kentucky Derby. The fact is, when they leave military service, countless veterans opt for AR-15s because it’s a design they already understand. And then there are countless civilians who just enjoy shooting and hunting with an AR.
In the name of education, I organized a National Matches media shooting event. After taking my turn alongside reporters on the firing line, I understood how effective the guns were in long-range matches and why they’d gained such traction in the civilian market. The rifle is accurate, lightweight and fun to shoot. I was sure my dad and my brother, Joe, would have fun with one. As a late-comer to hunting, I hit the woods with them that year, but decades passed before I had the chance to hunt with an AR. Thanks to my friend Paul Pluff, head of marketing at Smith & Wesson, and my old PR friends Bill Booth, Gary Guidice and Matt Rice of Oklahoma’s Blue Heron Communications, my initiation occurred in 2010. I had so much fun hunting with Smith & Wesson’s M&P-15 that I became hooked. And once I became a “seasoned” AR hunter, they all agreed I’d have to return to the Sooner State and hunt the Chain Ranch again sometime.
As luck goes, opportunity knocked the very next year. The 2011 trip was a deer/hog combo hunt with the party expanded to include AH contributor Brian McCombie and outdoor writer John Woods. We hunted with the M&P-15 again, but we also were among the first to spend time on the range with the new-for-2012 addition to the M&P line: the .300 Whisper, a cool chambering that offers sub-sonic and supersonic capabilities and lessens perceived recoil. The M&P Whisper model features aluminum upper/lower receivers coated with Realtree APG, a 10-round magazine and a six-position, collapsible stock. I already knew the S&W M&P-15 line in general attained sub-MOA accuracy out of the box and that their accuracy rivals that of some custom target rifles. But as Paul explained, the Whisper model also features a 16-inch Melonite barrel threaded for a suppressor with a 1:71/2-inch rate of twist to stabilize heavy bullets used for subsonic work but won’t hinder accuracy if using lighter hunting bullets.
I’d never used a suppressor, let alone one on an AR. So I was on the verge of feeling like a bad@## again—until I remembered where that got me in 2010.
The next morning Clint said we’d hunt in stands not far from where I’d sat the previous year so I anticipated sunrise to get a lay of the land. From the bottomlands of the South Canadian River to the rugged gypsum cliffs of the Cheyenne Valley, I knew from experience the Chain Ranch was a deer-hunting paradise with ample treestands, tripod stands, ground blinds and tower stands cleverly situated along travel corridors, around feeders and in green fields. I sat there enjoying the last few minutes before dawn. The rest of the world was still sleeping. We hunters had nature all to ourselves.
Then Mother Nature said, “Let there be light,” and I was filled with the energy of a butterfly breaking free from its cocoon.
I was in the trees maybe 30 yards off a shallow stretch of river and I’d watched deer all morning, just no mature bucks. By 10 a.m., thankful for the sun’s warmth, I wondered whether the Booner that gave me the slip the year before would appear. I saw a small buck approach from behind on my left, snapped his photo then glanced across the river. Standing motionless in the water 150 yards away was a tall-antlered buck surveying his domain. Where did he come from? I wondered as I snapped his photo, too. He was bigger than I thought, so I swapped my camera for my bino then my bino for the EOTech riflescope. He only had seven points, but the left half of his rack sported a double beam.
I was shooting this cool-racked buck.
Suddenly another buck ran across the creek toward him, spooking “Double-beam” back into the brush. An hour later when Clint picked us up, I swear I glimpsed that 7-pointer standing under a patch of trees half a mile from my stand just before he turned and ran. By day’s end, we remained a buck-less lot, but with the temps expected to drop maybe we’d all be hunting hogs by the next afternoon.
The next morning was the polar opposite both in temperature and deer activity. Nonstop action occurred 100 yards to my right in the trees and thick brush near the river. They were busy bees, those bucks. But when you’re fighting the wind near open water, a whitetail parade wards off the cold only for so long. A gunshot took my mind off the weather for a minute. But an hour later I was shaking in my boots, praying for a nice deer to show—not another glimpse of brown hide or antler, not another white-beamed apparition that flashed in and out of view, but a buck, a nice buck.
Fortunately, prayers and positive thinking work in Oklahoma. Not a minute later another buck moved in the trees. Again it was off to my right, again it was heading for the same river passageway—and it was a nice, mature whitetail. I took my shot and he ran 40 yards and dropped.
In the distance I saw Clint driving toward my stand. More than a few points were sticking up and out of the truck bed, meaning both Paul and John had scored. We were three for three—and all within the past hour. As we pulled away from my hunt area, there was ol’ Double-beam standing under that same patch of trees. I snapped his photo just before he split.
Back in camp, Brian said he still hadn’t gotten his buck so he returned to the stand after lunch while the rest of us warmed up on the range with S&W handguns then headed for ground blinds to hunt hogs. From North America to Africa, Paul, Bill and Gary had quite a few critters under their belts with big-bored S&W revolvers like the Model 500 in .460 and .500 S&W Mag. I silently wished I were in their league and again started to feel like a bad@## as I fired the big and heavy S&W .460. But I remembered to zip it.
In my ground blind I watched birds and squirrels, but no hogs—until it was too dark to shoot at the noisy black blobs squealing and grunting around the feeder 50 yards in front of me. Considering their exploding populations (thanks to a sow’s ability to have hundreds of hogs in its 6-to 8-year life span) and the amount of damage they cause, I yearned to pull the trigger but struggled to make heads or tails, literally. Maybe it was a good thing the headlights in the distance meant my ride was coming.
As it turns out, the hog hunters got skunked—but the deer hunter got a hog. Brian dropped a whopper—his first hog—a huge, jet-black sow. He never did get a deer. But he had one heck of a time with an M&P 15. Come to think of it, we all did. I think I’m beginning to like hunting with an AR. Maybe I’m not bad, but I now know where the new “bang for the buck” comes from these days—it’s in hunting with an AR.
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