March 20, 2012
What do you do with a beautiful brand new Winchester 1886 lever action .45-70 you finally bought after raiding your piggy bank? If you're a gun freak, you send it straight to Doug Turnbull, so he can chop it to pieces and throw most of it in the spare parts bin.
I was first mesmerized by the work of Turnbull Manufacturing at SHOT a few years back, when Mike Schoby of Petersen's Hunting introduced me to a lean, bearded fellow wearing a black bowler hat. Turnbull showed us around his display, a modest one by SHOT standards. It didn't need dressing up. The wall dripped with colored case-hardened big lever guns, Ruger No. 1s, better-than-new 1911s, and custom refurbished L.C. Smith side-by-side shotguns.
Schoby assigned me a bear hunt with the Turnbull crew, which led to talk of having a gun built. Doug said he'd work his magic on a .475 for the hunt, but first I had to beg, borrow, or steal an 1886 action. Even a used 1886 is a big chunk of change for someone on a magazine salary, so I was unsure. Fortunately, the world's most knowledgeable hunter is also a great gun writer, so I called the Man. Craig Boddington had penned a feature about blasting large holes in Africa's toughest customer, the Cape buffalo, with a .475 Turnbull. He had written fondly of the gun's performance, after dropping big bulls with the huge Barnes bullets.
Boddington answered my is-this-smart questions with his trademark candor: "I have too many guns, and anymore I just hate it when one comes along that I have to buy, but that .475 Turnbull was one I couldn't let go," he advised. There it was, from the man himself. And the biggest gun crush of my life ensued.
After failing miserably in my quest to find an affordable vintage 1886, I soon realized that the terms "affordable" and "vintage 1886" simply do not go together. I gave up and bought a brand new gun from a limited run of 1886s from Winchester in June -- a beautiful dream rifle in its own right, in the sensible .45-70. I sent it off to Turnbull to have it turned into a one-of-a-kind supergun.
Curious friends had questions.
"Why would you buy a big bore .48-caliber lever action?"
"Because Turnbull doesn't make anything bigger...yet."
What are you going to shoot with a gun that big?
The Summer of Lust began. The talented Tracy Halpin is Marketing & Sales manager for Turnbull and a tremendous photographer to boot. She started leaking tantalizing photos of the building of Big Medicine as it proceeded. Each week, the editors from Guns & Ammo, Shooting Times and Petersen's Hunting, along with Eric Poole of SIP fame, were dragged into my office to see the latest gun-porn photos of the barrel being bored, firing pin being welded, wooden stock being turned on the lathe and hand checkered, and so on. In the end, nothing remained of the original gun but the action, which was now case-hardened, hand-polished, fitted with a new hammer and completely overhauled inside and out.
The Summer of Lust was followed by the Fall of Big Love. Boxes of the enormous cartridges were stockpiled from Grizzly and Corbon. The entire editorial shooting staff in Peoria, Ill., was atwitter, waiting on the big gun to arrive. Pulling it from its case was the most excited I've been about a gun since the .22-caliber Benjamin pellet rifle I got for Christmas at age 5. For days, the rifle rarely left my desk, and Big Medicine was put away and pulled out again every day.
A supergun in an old school costume, Turnbull's "new Big Medicine" was built off the .50-110 case-shortened .200 and necked down to .474. It pushes a 400-grain Barnes TSX at 2,150 fps, for a whopping 4,104-foot pounds of energy. And that's really all you need to say about that.
On a windy first day at the range, with a box of Turnbull's loads, the new Big Medicine put three shots in a group of just over one inch at 50 yards. That's about as good as I can shoot open sights. The gun is built to kill large animals at ranges no further than 150 yards, 200 tops, and that is plenty accurate for that.
Boddington calls the recoil "a nothing" in his write-up of the gun, but Mr. Elephant Slayer is a lot tougher than most of us. After 10 shots I decided we were "running out of shooting light" (It was about 4 p.m€¦ahem). Hey, dental fillings are expensive. The trigger is not light and neither is the recoil, so I was pleased with my 1.25-inch opening volley on a windy day. I shot 3 and 4-inch groups at a 100 yards and, joking aside, would describe the recoil as not bad, comparable to shooting slugs through a 12-gauge pump.
And for what it is, a true monster big bore rifle, and one of the most powerful lever guns ever, it's downright mild. The brass insert bead on the front sight did come loose, so I'll probably slap a ghost ring peep on it and a longer front blade.
Our bear hunt fell through, but the new Big Medicine will be featured in Guns & Ammo in an upcoming nilgai hunt in Texas with Turnbull himself, followed by a feature in Petersen's Hunting after a Colorado elk hunt next fall with iconic wapiti-slayer Dick Dodds. I toted it around the family farm in Arkansas this year, hoping to get a crack at a big river bottom whitetail, but never got a shot. Probably because I was too busy staring at my gun to hunt properly. Just carrying such a gun afield was a neat experience. Look for more adventures with Big Medicine soon, a lot more, along with more details of the gun's specifications.
A finished rifle like mine costs about $3,700, and basic .475 conversions for '86s start at $800. Money aside, Big Medicine is much more than a normal gun to me, and my love for the thing is completely irrational. Eventually, my then-pregnant wife got tired of sharing the bed with the .475, so I had to lock it away, but I feel better whenever I'm holding the gun and would carry it everywhere, all the time if I could. I suspect a lot of owners end up feeling that way about Turnbull's guns. Take a look at his "before" and "after" gallery here.
Have you ever felt that way about firearm?