High Plains Antelope With A 6.8 SPC
|Viewing Antelope through the ACOG TA33|
After drawing a special tag in a remote portion of Montana's great plains near the Missouri River, one of the leading contributors and content providers for the Denny Ducet Channel, was thrust into a position where he needed to choose a platform that would work in the application of taking one of North Americas fastest and keen eyed animals; the Pronghorn Antelope.
We discussed several rifles and calibers debating which ones to bring on the trip. The two of us zeroed a .270 Ruger M77 with hand loaded ammunition and mounted with a Burris fixed 6x, fine cross hair dot scope. On the day of departure we threw some K31 Swiss rifles in the truck for Coyotes, packed up a M4 Carbine with an ACOG TA01NSN, and "the shooter" packed a build he had put together a few years back, that had yet taken a game animal. The build was chambered in 6.8 SPC (special purpose cartridge).
When setting out on this particular build several years ago, our "shooter" knew he wanted an accurate rifle capable of delivering enough energy at distance to take game animals in various regions and hunting conditions as well as maintain the common fire controls and ergonomics of the AR-15 platform family. To summarize the general findings regarding 6.8 SPC, it was learned the caliber had a similar trajectory to the famed MK262 Round of the 5.56x45 (77 grain OTM), yet delivered twice the energy on impact, as well as having slightly better velocity and less drop at distances of 200-400 meters. I would encourage readers to set out on discovering more about the caliber and consider it as a candidate for future build projects that revolve around this venerable platform we all hold dear.
After the caliber decision was made, procuring parts to complete the build was the next step. Our "shooter" already had the necessary gunsmith tools to execute a quality and properly assembled AR. Here is a breakdown of the high quality parts put into this unique and custom rifle:
It is with considerable time and experience with the AR and M4 rifle/carbine design that the contributors of this channel have come to the conclusion that using the finest quality parts available, properly assembled, will produce highly accurate and reliable firearms every time. This rifle maintained that expectation immediately after issuing its first test fires. Lightweight, precision, and reliable are the three words I would choose to describe this rifle. Every range trip resulted in sub MOA groups, steel hits on 10"plates at 437 yards (400 Meters) and consistent feeding, extraction and reliability. The Geissele trigger (the only trigger we put in ARs) was crisp and clean as usual. The recoil impulse felt in using the A5 system was comfortable and made follow up shots quick and easy. I will not even mention the 295 yard test group he fired while out at the farm the day before the opening of Antelope season 2015 (Hornady 110gr V-MAX), mainly because too many readers and pajama ninjas would fail to believe the group he fired with a TA33R-8.
October brought with it crisp, autumn days, clear skies with the occasional cold and wind whipped clouds, golden leaves and the long awaited open for Antelope rifle season on the vacant, expansive plains of Montana. The truck was loaded and we set out to a close childhood friend of mines 38,000 acre farm.
Opening day started with moving some cattle for my friend and separating the cows and calves before the sun could even throw some pink and gold rays over the horizon. Here in Montana, we like to earn the right to hunt on someone's place.
As the sun rose, the light hit the grasses of the plains, illuminating the diverse terrain of tilled earth, green winter wheat sprouts, arid native grasses, breaks, canyons, buttes and sage. The crisp air began to warm. Our eyes fixed upon our binoculars, painfully scanned for the distant dots that could be Antelope. The hunt had begun.
The first group of Antelope we located strategically placed themselves high on the brim of a freshly sprouted wheat field that backed up to the alien landscape of the Missouri breaks - a steep and treacherous terrain, broken by a millennia of torrential rains and snow melt falling off the Great plains towards the Missouri River, and carving a labyrinth of canyons and coulees.
The photo below is the portion of the breaks the first group of "Speed Goats" fled into, after spotting our group of hunters approaching from nearly a thousand yards away. We pursued the herd, containing a nice buck, by descending into the coulees. Often times at a sprint, we attempted to predict which ridge or plateau the Antelope would appear on next. Running through the maze of steep, dry, clay walls, peppered with cactus and ancient stones, three of us hurried as if the Antelope had the ability to deal a lethal shot at us should they see us first. Crouched and coming upon a rise, we scanned the distance, finding the herd at around 700 yards away. We moved closer by weaving through the terrain in a low squat and as often times occurs during the pursuit of Antelope, at a full belly to the cactus crawl.
Closing in to a distance of 450 yards with little wind to consider, a shot was almost taken, however the herd was on the move and quickly disappeared after only briefly halting on a distant rise between coulees. The sprint, the run, the crawl had all been for naught. Turning back, this party of hunters began the slow and arduous climb out of this fictitious looking sci-fi landscape.
The theme of spotting Antelope, moving in slowly, patiently crawling towards a distant dot of tan and white, only to have them sprint off miles away disappearing into the vastness of the sea of grass played out several times each day. Two in the hunting party soon filled tags however our shooter had yet to see a buck worthy of a shot. Sun burned, wind beaten and disappointed in our lack of success the crew pressed on.
Each close encounter or missed opportunity, instilled a hope that the next situation would be different and success could be had. Onward.
Again, we crawled to the top of a distant rise of grain, this time after taking nearly an hour to navigate a coulee and crawl on broken stubble into the concealment of dried grain we found that the buck had moved off to a distance of over 800-900 yards, leaving the remaining herd within 200 yards of our position. The theme frustratingly played out yet again with the final sneak approach revealing that a herd we had crawled up to had no buck in its midst at all.
Day one closed with no opportunity of harvesting a decent buck. Day two brought with it winds that would be reported on CNN as a state of emergency disaster, had it occurred in any other portion of the country. During the night we awoke to howling gusts, and the screens of the old farm house rattling within the window frames.
Hunting in these new wind conditions proved a challenge. The wind itself seemed to be a foe we had no ability to meet. The air in ones lungs felt as if it was being sucked out through some Venturi like effect as the wind screamed passed the mouth. Our hats would be torn from our heads, and the soil picked up by the maelstrom would sting the skin and eyes, depositing itself in the ears and nasal passages. It was in these hurricane force gusts of 65 mph wind we first spotted a descent buck, alone and working his way towards a distant herd.
With no cover, no coulee to walk up, we lay against the fresh sprouts of winter wheat and began to crawl towards him. He was over 1000 yards away.
The two of us stopped occasionally for a needed rest and I would scan the distant rise of dry land with my binoculars to find where the buck had bedded and try to read his behavior to see if he had spotted our movement yet. The wind beat our bodies, broke our speech and tortured us. The range finder showed the buck was still at over 700 yards. We continued the crawl.
Our nerves were on edge. The closer we got to the buck, the likelier it would be he would spot our movement, our obvious discoloration to the sea of green in which we lay, and blow up, sprinting at highway speeds into the distance. Blowing the accumulation of wind swept dust from my lenses, I scanned the distant bluff again. The buck sat now at a distance of 450-515 yards. The Leica 1600 range finder (or the user) was having a heck of a time generating an accurate reading in this wind swept plain. The buck was now staring directly at us. His body showed he knew something was up. He went from laying down to rising from his bed slightly, peering directly at us.
We clutched the earth, pushing our bodies into the wheat chutes. We debated taking a shot at this distance, especially in this punishing wind. Soon it was evident. The buck knew we were here, and was getting ready to move out. I handed the "shooter" my Ruger M77 .270 loaded with 140 grain ballistic tip hand loads (0.43" MOA 5 shot group fired a week earlier). The 6.8 was likely just not enough for this situation. The buck stood up, the trigger was slowly pressed and a shot rang out, the sound of which disappeared in the wind, faster than it came. "Low left!", I shouted. "About 6 feet low, 3 feet left!", I clarified. The "shooter" quickly made a correction with his holdover as I lay in the wheat, eyes fixed on the buck who stood still looking at us with little idea why dirt just exploded only 6 feet away. Another shot rang out, and again the sound was taken from us by the punching gusts of air ripping upon the plains. "RIGHT OVER HIS BACK! You were 6 inches over his back into the dirt!", I screamed over the wind. The small rise of dry range grasses immediately behind the Pronghorn had exploded into the air, with the wind carrying the dust eastward.
That was it. The buck had seen enough and began to trot south towards another green crop of wheat and the edge of some small hills and a break coulee about a mile or so south. After failing, the two of us disappointingly pursued the nearby herd of which the buck was originally headed, only to watch them explode like Formula 1 cars into the Prairie.
A member of our hunting party back at the truck suggested we find where that buck had ventured off to. Creeping over the plains, through the wheat in my buddy's old farm truck, a 2005 Ford 7.3 liter diesel with 280,000 non highway miles on the odometer we slowly made our way to where the buck had disappeared. Coming to the edge of the coulee below the expanse of wheat above, and far south of where we saw the buck last, we spotted him, again bedded, this time just below a rise of wheat, at the top of a coulee just out of the wind.
A plan was quickly hatched and its execution initiated. The "shooter" knowing this situation required us to move quickly with a shot taking place under 300 yards grabbed his 6.8 SPC rifle. With the buck looking down the coulee, we planned on using the terrain and sage brush as our concealment slowing creeping our way towards the coulee, descending into it and then skirting the eastern walls of the coulee making an approach towards the buck laying at the head of the draw above us.
Several times a rock or discoloration at the top of the coulee would trick our eyes into thinking we had been busted by the buck Antelope.
Continuing slowly up the coulee, we hugged the eastern slopes, striving to remain out of sight from where the buck was seen earlier. Cresting the top of the draw and growing closer to the wheat fields above brought a rush of adrenalin and uncertainty. The buck had to be close. This was the last fold of earth where we saw him bedded and he had not come down the coulee. As we rose out of the draw, the wind increased, adding to the tense situation. Where was he?! We were crouched and crawling again. The last thing we wanted to do was silhouette ourselves against the bright blue sky of the prairie and give this "speed goat" something to sprint from. Each slice of new terrain had the chance of holding this buck. I slowly rose to my knees, peering intently into the fold of earth below our position. HORNS....BLACK FACE....BUCK. I slammed my body into the wheat. The buck was no more than 80-90 yards away bedded right where we had seen him from almost 1500 yards ago. I got the "shooters" attention. "He's RIGHT THERE!" I loudly whispered and pointed. "He is right below us! We gotta move, now, fast!". The "shooter" crawled forward, belly in the wheat, and then paused. Taking a breath he brought his rifle to a point where he could quickly acquire the ACOGs red chevron. Thumb on the selector, finger straight and laying prone, he quickly snapped up onto his knees with me directly to his rear right. It was fluid. Precision movement and execution. Instinctual almost. He rose up, locked into a position on his knees and a shot cracked over the coulee walls. The buck, standing at this point, collapsed into his bed without so much as a twitch. It was instantly obvious. This was a clean shot. Success! Excitement began to wash over us as well as relief. It was then, the wind even seemed to grant us mercy and let up. A calm descended upon the plain. It was over.
Signaling the others in our party, we made our way over to the buck, some 80 yards away below us in the draw.
Using his ESEE-5 the "shooter" made quick work of field dressing the beautiful Pronghorn Antelope buck, finalizing the hunt with a quick lesson in anatomy.
That night, we processed the meat in the ranch shop, cutting and wrapping it, separating into steaks, roasts and trimmings for sausage or burger. The meat was placed in the freezer, after which we ate a quick meal and retired to our bunks for the night.
We are confident the rifle which helped make this hunt a success will prove itself again this season, as we pursue the wary Whitetail or high mountain Mule Deer. Without going into too much detail, just know that the wound cavity was plenty sufficient to down the game we will be pursuing come general rifle season here in Montana.
Perhaps we can have a part two article titled: Trophy Whitetail and the 6.8 SPC. Until next time, thanks for reading and being part of the Denny Ducet Channel and blog!