In the Thick of Things
By: Bruce Ranta
When you hunt in heavy woods, "brush guns" excel.
In hunt camps across Ontario, a lot of discussions have taken place on the topic of brush guns. While no manufacturer I'm aware of sells or markets firearms specifically called brush guns, everyone has an idea of what constitutes a great one. The subject certainly warrants inspection.
Most Ontario hunters agree that a brush gun is most commonly used when dogging in thick woods, usually in pursuit of the wily whitetail. A good brush gun should also be suitable for certain moose-hunting situations. If tracking a wounded bear, many hunters might also turn to a brush gun to dispatch the bruin and also for defence, should the animal turn aggressive at close quarters.
In thick bush, there's not much time to make a positive identification, raise the gun, find the target, and fire a shot. This is a game of seconds, not minutes. Often, it means shooting at running animals, with trees and brush obscuring at least part of the target. As such, a brush gun should be capable of quick follow-up shots.
This pretty much eliminates single shots and firearms with thumbhole or rectangular stocks tailored for use with rests and when taking a fine bead. Also, there's no need for a brush gun to have a muzzle brake. Recoil is seldom felt with quick-aiming off-hand shooting, so who really needs more muzzle blast?
A Working Combo
A good brush-gun setup, as with any firearm, is a combination of gun, cartridge, and sighting mechanism suited to the shooter. All three have to work together.
Hunters who are fit and strong probably don't mind heavy guns. For Hulk Hogan types, a double-barrelled or other heavy-action firearm might be a fine brush gun, but for the average hunter, lightness is an important factor. Dogging can be tough work. It's no fun when your arms and shoulders start to ache. Opportunities can be squandered.
I've listened to lots of hunters and read stacks of articles pontificating on the appropriate calibres and bullets for use in heavy brush. There is a lot to choose from, and much comes down to personal choice.
I've not heard much to convince me that, within limits, a slow, heavy bullet is better than a fast, light load. Both can be effective. Neither is immune to being deflected by brush. The reality is, at close range deflection is seldom an issue.
While virtually any centre-fire cartridge is deadly at short range, there's no denying bigbore guns like the 30.06 have more stopping power than small-bore rifles like the .243 or a .250. But, really bigbore guns like the .338 aren't an ideal choice for Ontario brush-gun hunters. We aren't dealing with grizzlies in our woods. Plus, big-gun bullets often don't perform well at close ranges.
On the other end of the spectrum, small-calibre guns like the .223 might be fine for sniping deer from a tree stand or ground blind, but aren't really ideal brush guns.
When choosing ammo, always read the information provided by the manufacturer and be sure your pick is suitable to the situation you plan on hunting. Boat-tails, for example, aren't designed for hunting in the brush. But, as a general rule, round- and soft-point bullets are.
Within reason, I don't think bullet weight is as crucial as bullet placement. For deer, any centre-fire rifle with a bullet weight of 90 grains or more will likely be more than adequate. Bigger bullets can certainly do the job, and depending on the calibre and the game, one might choose to go with a 180-, 200-grain, or heavier bullet.
At least as important as bullet weight is bullet design. A good brush gun should be loaded with cartridges designed for maximum weight retention when hitting targets at close range (that's why you don't need a boattailed bullet). A favourite deer gun for many has been the .44 Rem Mag, loaded with 240-grain soft points.
Years ago, almost every Ontario deer hunter had a favourite brush gun, because they suited the hunting styles of the time. Iron sights were a feature of the typical old-time Ontario brush gun. Iron sights weigh next to nothing and work equally well come rain or shine. To become proficient with them, though, you need to do a lot of practise shooting, something many hunters don't do, for a number of reasons. Scopes allow you to quickly become proficient.
Scopes suitable for a brush gun should be low power, have moderately wide objective and exit-pupil diameters, and have relatively long eye relief. These days, some of the variablepower scopes are equally at home in thick brush or the open prairie.
Shotguns also make great brush guns, especially for hunters who are proficient at shooting sporting clays, trap, or real birds. A good shotgunner can quickly get the gun up and on target, and many can do this almost by reflex. Loaded with slugs or buckshot, a shotgun is deadly, although range is definitely limited. When meat- and party hunting with ample tags and seals, and in the right hands, a short-barrelled pump, bolt, or auto-loading shotgun is tough to beat as a brush gun. Even with shotguns, though, scopes can be an option.
Finally, an important feature of any good brush gun is the safety. One of my favourite firearms is a .280 Winchester Model 70 Featherlight. It's nice and light, has good stopping power at both short and long range, and has a 3x9 scope. But, it has a wing-type safety, fairly common on many bolt actions, which is unsuitable for heavy bush.
More than once, while trudging through "slaplings," I've had the safety knocked off by twigs. This is enough to disqualify it as a brush gun. A tang or cross-bolt safety are both suitable for brush guns. The bottom line is, fitted with the right sight, loaded with the right cartridge, and in the right hands, myriad firearms can make the grade and be great brush guns.