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Wapiti of the plains: hunting Nebraska elk with Winchester's 1886 extra light.

I hardly expected to see a 5x5 bull elk staring at me from 90 yards away as I climbed to the top of a small rise among the rolling undulations of the Nebraska plains. But there he was, in full majestic glory, his tree-branch-like rack silhouetted against the clear blue Midwestern sky. Instinctively, I raised the Winchester 1886 Extra Light lever action I had been cradling in the crook of my arm for most of the day. Then I stopped. Turned out it was the right more to make.

"Don't shoot," whispered Gary Koyen, my guide and conservationist/owner of Comstock Lodge. "He's not big enough. Besides, he's not the one we want."

Gary was right on both counts. We had spent the past two days tracking a massive 6x7 elk we had christened "Bad Boy" because for the last few years he had been jumping fences alfalfa farms for miles around. In Nebraska it is illegal to let elk roam free, as they can do extensive crop damage. But Bad Boy didn't care about that. He was only doing what came naturally.

It is sometimes difficult to realize that elk were originally a plains animal. It has only been since the latter half of the 19th century, when settlers began encroaching upon their regular feeding grounds, that elk, instinctively wary, took to the more inaccessible high mountain ranges. But Gary owns or leases 45,000 acres of interconnecting ranches and farms and has devoted the past 11 years to restoring the habitat to tall grass prairie conditions. Expansive rolling hills and pocket canyons here are covered with cedar, hackberry, oak, green ash, box elder, elm and cottonwood trees, all native to the area, with many having been reintroduced over the past few years by Gary and his crew.

"In my opinion," says Gary, "the government, especially in Nebraska, has neither the manpower nor the resources to do an adequate job of game management. The only hope, as I see it, is for private enterprise to step in and lend a hand. There's no reason why we can't have the same kind of game-rich lands and [native species] hunting experiences in America as we do in Africa."

By restocking it with native species, Gary has gradually been bringing both the land and the elk back to where they were more than 100 years ago.

Like Gary's restored Nebraska elk hunting environment, my rifle was a return to the 19th century with a 21st century spin. I was carrying one of the new Winchester 1886 Extra Light .45-70 lever actions, a modern embodiment of one of the most popular hunting rifles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I was no stranger to the Model 86, having hunted with an original Winchester 1886 rifle in .45-70 for decades and having used it to take numerous deer and wild boar. The smooth yet rugged action of the Model 86 is ideally suited as a hunting gun, especially when a fast, jam-proof repeat shot is needed. On one Texas hunt, while trying to rapidly walk my bullets up a hill at a disappearing whitetail, I had two empty .45-70 hulls still tumbling in the air as I levered off a third shot, which dropped the buck.

The Model 1886 was the first lever-action repeater that firearms genius John Browning created for Winchester. As such, it replaced the weaker, toggle-linked Model 1876 and Model 1873 and finally gave Winchester a rifle that could handle a number of popular big game cartridges of the day, including the still-potent .45-70.

To combine fluid action with strength, Browning incorporated Winchester's trademark lever to interact with two flat steel locking bolts that slid into matching grooves cut into the interior receiver walls. When closed, the twin bolts locked up into the closed breech bolt.

Like all of Browning's designs, it was simple but effective and quickly won the admiration of hunters, especially in the American West, where thick-bodied game often required knockdown power with the added advantage of a fast follow-up shot.

The only drawback to the 1886 was its weight, with the rifle tipping the scales at 9 1/2 pounds and the carbine coming in at only one pound less. Moreover, 10 .45-70 cartridges--the capacity of a fully loaded rifle--added another pound to the gun.

To satisfy the requests of hunters, in 1897 Winchester developed an Extra Lightweight variation and kept it in production until 1931, when the rifle was finally dropped due to escalating manufacturing costs in the face of the Great Depression. But for 34 years, the ruggedly trim, businesslike Winchester 1886 Extra Lightweight forged a link between the hunters of the closing years of the 19th century and the modern day sportsmen of the 20th. It was chambered only for two cartridges, .33 Win. and the ever-popular .45-70.

The same hard hitting, fast shooting attributes that made the original 1886 Extra Lightweight so renowned in the last century still hold true today. Only now, thanks to stronger steels and closer tolerances, the newly christened Extra Light (a name that makes it sound more like a low-calorie beer than the fine hunting rifle it is) can handle substantially more powerful loadings of the old .45-70 cartridge. Consequently, the new Winchester Extra Light, stoked with the proper ammunition, is capable of taking any big game animal in North America

Although initially announced in 2000-01. many of these rifles have only recently been making their way to dealers' racks. Like Winchester's original Lightweight, the Extra Light sports a straight grip stock, 22 inch tapered round barrel and checks in at 7 1/2 pounds. The three-quarter magazine holds four 45-70 rounds.

For collectors, there are 1,000 High Grade models with fancy checkered wood and gold inlaid elk and deer engravings on the receiver. The suggested retail is $1,440.

But for hunters, the real gems are the 3,500 Grade 1 rifles, with a suggested retail price of $1,152. These guns feature plain walnut stocks, deeply blued steel and an easy-to-see semi-buckhorn rear sight with a post and bead up front.

Interestingly, both Federal and Winchester 300-grain hollow-points grouped the same in the Extra Light as they did in my original 1886--1 1/2, inches at 100 yards. Then I switched to the 350-grain flat-point big game cartridges produced by Cor Bon Custom Bullets. This powerful .45-70 loading sends a semi-jacketed slug thundering out of the barrel at 1,850 fps with a crushing muzzle energy of 2,519 ft.-lbs.

My groups opened up to 2 1/2 inches at 100 yards, still perfect for elk. Besides, with open sights, I would not be taking shots much farther out. Unlike the mild-mannered 300-grain hollowpoints, the Cor Bon bullets definitely shoved the buttstock into my shoulder, but with these heftier loads, I doubted I would be needing more than one shot.

Unfortunately, when it came time for my hunt, Cor Bon was back ordered on their 350-grainers; all they had in flat-nosed fodder (a requirement for my tubular magazine) were 460-grain lead HC (Hard Cast) cartridges, which produce 1,650 fps with 2,780 ft.-lbs. of muzzle energy.

The rifle still printed 2 1/2-inch groups, but I had to raise the rear sight from the first to the fourth notch, as the rainbow trajectory was dramatically more pronounced with the heavier bullet. But I certainly had enough bullet to do the job. Now all I had to do was to get close enough to an elk.

Even though it snowed, making tracking easier, the big bull eluded us for days, although I did spot him once just after daybreak. But he was more than 200 yards out, too far for an open-sighted Winchester that lobbed bullets like boulders. Now, near the end of my hunt and with most of the snow melted, I was running out of time--and elk.

The sun was hovering low in the sky, leaving only an hour's worth of daylight on my last day, when we spotted four bulls about 350 yards out, slowly angling around a shallow saddle. Two were five-pointers, one of them with a broken tine. I couldn't make out the third elk, but the fourth was a perfectly symmetrical 6x6, increasing his distance with every step.

"Boy, I'd like to bag that 6x6 beauty," I said to Gary.

"Let's see if we can get around and ambush him," was his ready reply.

We started circling the far side of a shallow hill that formed part of the saddle, keeping the wind in our faces. That 6x6 must have had a death wish, because he did a stupid thing. His curiosity aroused, he circled back the way he had come to get a look at whatever was following him. Taking us completely by surprise, he suddenly crested the hill, not more than 30 yards away.

As he topped the steep rise, the bull swiveled his massive rack in my direction. I knew he was going to bolt any second. Only his head, neck, and the topmost portion of his back were in view. I snapped the Winchester to my shoulder, nestled the gold bead of the front sight into the rear notch and placed it as far down on the bull's back as I could without plowing up dirt on the hilltop between us.

The Winchester roared; at that close range, I never heard the bullet hit as the bull violently tossed his head backwards, arched his body and crashed down on the opposite side of the hill, stone dead. The 460-grain slug had smashed the spinal column, practically lifting the elk off its feet in the process.

Back in 1897, the Winchester Lightweight was developed to get an old warhorse back into fighting trim for the new century. Today, the new Winchester Extra Light--a 118-year-old rifle coupled with a beefed-up 131-year-old cartridge--has again been updated for hunting in the new millennium. Personally, I'm glad that history repeats itself.

1886 Retrofit

Some traditionalists object to the lawyer-induced tang safety on the new Winchester 1886 Extra Light, although when originally testing the rifle, I simply left the button set on "fire" and practiced safe gun handling procedures. But a minor distraction of the Extra Light; for me at least, was the "soft" rebounding hammer. After years of hunting with my original, I simply could not get used to not having a half-cock notch on the hammer.

Consequently, before I took it hunting, I sent the Extra Light to gunsmith Kenny Howell of R&D Gunshop (608/676-5628), who crafts vintage-looking firearms for the motion picture industry. I asked Kenny to work a little of his 19th century magic on my 21st century Winchester.

First, he completely obliterated that non-prototypical tang safety, stamping a properly serifed "Winchester 1886" in its place, just like the originals. Then, he rounded the hammer spur to give it a correct turn-of-the-century contour, and rebuilt the hammer with a completely functional half-cock. (I promised the Winchester folks I would mention that these alterations will void the warranty But then, I've never had to send any new Winchester back for repairs.)

This half-cock is the exact type that was used on original 1886 Winchesters. It keeps the hammer from coming in contact with the firing pin and prevents the hammer from being tripped by the trigger as long as the hammer is in the half-cock position.

Remember that any safe--whether it is a rebounding hammer or a half-cock notch--is a mechanical device and should not take the place of safe gun handling.

While he was at it, Kenny restamped the barrel with 19th century Winchester markings and bone charcoal case-hardened the hammer and lever, as Winchester often did with its early Lightweights. However, Kenny didn't case-harden the receiver as was done on the earliest of '86s, as that would have made the steel too brittle for some of today's powerhouse loads.--RH

For more information on elk hunting in Nebraska, contact Comstock Lodge at 866/486-8631, WWW.NEBRASKAWILDLIFE RANCH.COM.
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Author:Hacker, Rick
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Date:May 1, 2004
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