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What To Do When Your Rifle Breaks While On a Hunt

Learn some basic firearm first aid and make sure you don't end your hunt early.

What To Do When Your Rifle Breaks While On a Hunt

Knowing how to work on your rifle while in the field is a valuable skill to master. (Photo courtesy of Steve Opat)

From the Pages of Backcountry Hunter

I’m “that guy” with the horror story about why a lifetime warranty doesn’t matter while you are in the field. I'm a statistic. The “less than 0.3% defect rate” advertised on a high-end product required a guy like me to have a real bad day afield. Those tough life experiences, combined with Eagle Scout wisdom, taught me not to bet success on my gear. Instead, I regard my brain and my body as my most capable and reliable tools, and I spend ample time developing back-up plans for every situation I may be in. As I built my comfort with hunting the Alaskan bush, this became even more important. Since cold, wet, and miserable is the norm up here, I had to learn how to comfortably stay in the backcountry for the duration of my approved PTO requests. Basic bushcraft skills like knot-tying, fire-starting, and shelter-building became crucial to my success. There’s no leaving early to get something I forgot, fix something I broke, or leave someplace I despise. I learned to get what I need by using what I have. I also learned that everything should have multiple purposes to make it worth carrying up a mountain.

After any trip, I assess my setup and cull items to ensure I am both lean and prepared for any bad situation. But, through every conceivable scenario over the last decade of big Alaskan adventures, my rifle continues to have just one single purpose: Kill the animal I aim it at—and hard lessons have generated the caveat, “so make certain it can always do that.”

What To Do When Your Rifle Breaks While On a Hunt
Adjusting your sights requires tools such as a flathead screwdriver. In case of a rifle emergency, be sure to carry a do-all tool such as a Leatherman. (Photo courtesy of Steve Opat)

Rifle First Aid

Perhaps the worst thing that could happen—especially if you’ve only worked on extending your range—is a catastrophic scope problem. A broken reticle is how I became “that guy,” but there’s a myriad of ways it could happen: A slip and tumble under the weight of your pack that causes you to knock your rifle on a rock, cheap crap that fails, getting so goddamn mad after missing a shot that you javelin your gun off the mountainside in a fit of rage, or maybe—as it happened to me…twice—you bought quality gear that happened to be defective. Regardless of the situation, this sort of gear failure should never end your hunt.

So, what do you do if you break your scope in the backcountry?

What To Do When Your Rifle Breaks While On a Hunt
Before hitting the field, practice with your backup iron sights and work through numerous shooting positions and scenarios. (Photo courtesy of Steve Opat)

First aid starts with being prepared. Remember, you can only rely on the things you always carry with you. As a scout, I earned merit badges by splinting fractured arms with rolled-up magazines, bandaging wounds with cut-up t-shirts, and fashioning stretchers out of rowboat oars and blankets. For fixing a scope, you will need the same thriftiness. Your camping gear can make sandbags and a bench, and your multi-tool should help you navigate all the parts and pieces—but only if you ensure you have the right bits for all your screws. Make sure you have the right tools before going afield.

Once your gun is stabilized, take out the bolt and look down the barrel to boresight your target. Then, peer through the scope to see if the crosshairs are also centered on it. Now, give some gentle taps atop the scope to see if your crosshairs move/jiggle. If your reticle is stable, try recentering the crosshairs and then fire a few spare shells to re-zero. If it’s accurate, you’re back to hunting. This was not the case for me. After we sprayed lead all over the tundra and did not hit one of the six huge caribou bulls in front of us, we did this trick and discovered our reticle was dancing to the tune of our taps—our trip was over.

I came home vowing I would never be in that situation again. Considering that season’s array of misfortunes, I got rid of that rifle. There was no sense carrying around bad luck or setting myself up for the “shame on me” situation the next season. Though I did buy a higher quality gun, I did not seek to solve my problem with money. I chose a Sako because it has the best solution for keeping out of that predicament again: backup iron sights. A local gun shop had a rear aperture, and I had the gunsmith press on a front site and thread on a muzzle break. When I tested my backup plan at the rifle range, I was delighted by the accuracy and knew I was close to having my problem solved.

Buttstock Survival Kit

What To Do When Your Rifle Breaks While On a Hunt
A little creativity can help you find room for a few more essential items needed on a backcountry hunt. (Photo courtesy of Steve Opat)

The final component was to find a way to always keep this backup plan with me. It took a sub-zero winter night organizing my gear and cleaning my guns to figure out how to do that: keep it in my butt! All joking aside, by carving out the foam inside my stock, I was able to fit my backup sight and extra survival gear.

Sharing my idea with you meant proving it was effective. That meant I’d have to take off the scope and reveal the outcome of my first three shots with iron sights. But I knew I needed that practice. I’m just two months away from expending a year’s worth of mental energy, financial savings, and physical training for a full season of hunting. Furthermore, friends and clients are depending on me to stay afield, execute a kill, and fill the freezer. So, I did the task, and once again was delighted by the results.

What To Do When Your Rifle Breaks While On a Hunt
Notice the difference between the broken scope and the iron sights; while not perfect, iron sights will keep you in the backcountry. (Photo courtesy of Steve Opat)

I’ve now eliminated a huge “what if” from my system and ensured my success out to 200 yards. The final key to preparation is to ensure that I can get that close to animals. Therefore, I am insistent that hunt preparation goes far beyond rucking and ringing steel, and why I will forever be an avid bowhunter. I am confident I can get myself into that range because I train hard to become a physically capable and mentally competent ambush predator. I am confident my firearm can deliver because I work hard to afford—and practice with—gear I can depend on. And I am confident I can keep my head in the game for the duration of my hunts because I work hard to ensure I am prepared for anything the backcountry can throw at me. If I’m ever going to be “that guy” again, I’m going to be the guy who had a catastrophic event happen and yet still managed to punch his tag.

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