The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

A Classic Rifle, Back From the Dead

This article originally appeared in CARNIVORE Issue 2

THE DEER HUNTER

Despite growing up in England, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter was one of those movies seared into my teenage subconscious. While the Vietnamese jungle provided a backdrop for the movie’s most famous scenes, it was the earlier story, set in rustbelt Pennsylvania that I remember most. War movies you can find anywhere. Films that capture the relationships between working-class men, the kind who toil, sweat, raise families, fight, drink, and die for their country when called upon, are somewhat of a rare commodity, especially now.

These days, Hollywood prefers anyone possessing a Y chromosome to shower twice daily and be sensitive to the emotional needs of their womenfolk, who, naturally, are smarter, wittier, and better decision makers. Manufacturing jobs are immensely popular with politicians and screenwriters, so long as their own offspring don’t have to work them. Back then, even though the director’s upper west side, metrocentric leanings were fairly obvious, admiration for a life that was fast disappearing still shone through.

Remember the rifles toted by De Niro, Walken, and Savage? I do. Back then, blued steel and walnut were the order of the day; scopes weren’t to be trusted much, and .30-06 was about the minimum caliber that could be counted on to anchor 150-pound animals with a cup and core bullet. Or so contemporary campfire lore would have you believe. Now that the sons and widows of those actors’ real-life contemporaries are dumping old-school rifles in estate sales and online auctions, guns that are supremely capable of punching a tag are available for a song. You might have to put in a little work to get them presentable or to make them your own. But doesn’t that just add to the half-century of stories they can already tell? Here’s one of them.

Tired, neglected, and sent south for disposal from an Alaska State Police evidence room after being seized in an investigation, the rifle you see here was consigned to an auction 3,000 miles from its previous life. For the princely sum of 180 bucks, plus buyer’s premium and sales tax, it was unceremoniously tossed uncased into the trunk for the trip home. Like its new owner, it’s an unpolished immigrant, cobbled together from bits of the Old World — one that made a trip to the land of the free.

The brand of Foremost and their model 6600 doesn’t quite spring to mind in the same way that Remington 700 or Winchester Model 70 does when someone mentions the words “hunting rifle,” part of the attraction held by the old dog. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, bastions of the U.S. retail scene imported rifles by the thousands for sale in their department stores. Defunct and slowly dying household names like Montgomery Ward, Western Field, and Sears all carried their own brands of bolt guns, many of which wound up under a Christmas tree to the delight of fathers everywhere. This one was sold by JCPenney, around 1971.

Scuffed metal, crappy checkering and a bolt crusty with oxidized oil were taken care of with a thorough overhaul.

Scuffed metal, crappy checkering and a bolt crusty with oxidized oil were taken care of with a thorough overhaul.

It started life in Spain, emerging from the state arsenal at Santa Barbara as a completed Mauser 98 action. It was sent, in the white, to the long-established English firm of Parker-Hale. There, it was mated to one of their barrels, blued, set into a walnut stock, and shipped across the Atlantic. It carries Birmingham proof marks, indicating that it’s safe to fire .30-06 cartridges, loaded to a pressure of up to 18 tons per square inch. Were it to carry the maker’s own brand, it’d be labeled as one of their 1200 models.

Problems

The most obvious defect was also the one easiest to remedy, well within the skillset of a semi-competent DIYer. After years of hard labor, its stock was beat to hell and back. The finish originally selected to protect wood from water had failed long ago, peeling like a bad sunburn while dings and gouges decorated the cheekpiece like dueling scars. As it came from the factory, it was an unimpressive piece of hardwood but had straight grain through the wrist, probably why it resisted 45 years of hard labor and indifferent maintenance. Its hand-checkering looked as if done by an apprentice, or someone who just didn’t give a damn, as the lines were shallow, uneven, and ran into the panels’ borders, while its semi-beavertail fore-end screamed early ’70s fashion like bell-bottoms and nylon shirts.

Up top, one of its scope bases was missing, along with the spring steel hood that once covered its ramp front sight. Fortunately, the trigger broke at a crisp 4.5 pounds, its three-position side-mounted safety worked, and, once the bore had been punched to remove four decades worth of grime, the rifling was crisp and shiny. Clearly, this had been a rifle that had a couple of rounds shot though it at the beginning of each hunting season to make sure it still printed somewhere in the vicinity of the target, and had then been thrown in a pickup rack or boat until an opportunity presented itself. This was further borne out by marks on the aluminum floorplate, right at the balance point where someone’s wedding band had rubbed a wear spot in the soft anodizing.

Original finish was peeling, flaky and altogether shabby. Opposite side of stock was even worse.

Its massive, Mauser bolt with the classic long extractor was coated in brown, sticky residue from oxidized oil, but apart from a few minor rust speckles on the shroud and a browned bolt knob was in good shape. No gas cutting on the bolt face, no galling on the lugs, and nothing to indicate that headspace was out of whack. We had ourselves a project.

Solutions

The first task at hand was to completely strip the gun, down to its individual screws and pins. That done, its stock was coated in paint stripper in order to assess what damage lay under the decayed or missing finish. Slowly, a serviceable piece of lumber emerged.

Parker Hale barrels were noted for their accuracy, so in order to realize its potential, the action was to be glass bedded. We’d normally choose Brownells Acra Glass gel for the job, but our supply was exhausted. Anybody who’s ever earned a paycheck with their hands has a couple of tubes of JB Weld in their toolbox, and the old standby was pressed into service. Teamed with a set of aluminum pillar bedding tubes, the gray goop takes up space and isolates the stock’s inevitable movement as it slowly absorbs and then releases ambient moisture. Walnut is a traditional and handsome material, but in comparison to synthetic materials, it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to performance. By adding an inert cradle with epoxy and aluminum, we minimize the effects of swelling on the action and maintain consistent groups, no matter what the weather throws our way.

Our stock’s original exterior appeared to be spray coated in some type of polyurethane, which has the benefits of being fast and easy to apply in a production environment, while providing adequate protection to the wood beneath. Film finishes like this almost always fail, however; it’s just a matter of time before UV rays, scratches, and general use take their toll — and once scarred, they’re almost impossible to touch up effectively. Traditional oil finishes are expensive due to the amount of labor involved and cure time needed between multiple coats. As home gunsmiths, this is hardly a drawback, so if you’re attempting a restoration project, why not produce something future generations will be proud to carry? We selected Chem Pak Pro Custom Oil to bring life back to our chunk of wood and applied eight coats, cutting each one back with steel wool and letting each cure for a day between applications.

With the penultimate layer of oil hardened, it was time to recut our stock’s poorly executed checkering and add some improved sling swivels. A glass was filled, tunes selected, and a few relaxing hours of repetitive manual labor allowed us to step away from workweek banalities and into the theater of the mind, where scenes from previous hunting trips played out. Each line was deepened with a 90-degree cutter until the diamonds between them were sharp, then finish reapplied. This left only the recoil pad. Our original was both rock-hard and slippery, neither of which are desirable attributes, and a touch long for easy use in late fall clothing. A solid, half-inch-thick Pachmayer Decellerator replacement was sourced, marked, ground on a belt sander and installed without fuss, bringing the length of pull to 13.5 inches.

A few pitted areas on the barrel’s exterior contributed to the overall appearance of neglect, while small surface rust patches underlined just how vulnerable blued steel is to a marine climate. Finishes have improved since the Johnson administration, so rather than repeat the blueing process and expect a different result, the barreled action and stripped bolt went to H&M Metal Finishing for their BlackNitride treatment. This not only produces a surface practically impervious to corrosion, it also produces a bore resistant to throat erosion. With this level of protection, our .30-06 should last well into the 22nd century.

Black nitride only works on ferrous materials, however, so our Mauser’s aluminum bottom metal required a different approach. Dropped off at our local applicator, We Plead the Second in Phoenix, Arizona, took a couple of days to bead blast, apply, and cure Cerakote Elite over the entire assembly, bringing it back to an even, low gloss that matched the barrel and receiver perfectly. After that, it was simply a matter of reinstalling the sight bases and reassembling everything in the box o’ parts, hopefully without leaving any spares…

Range Time

A proud, working-class hunting rifle deserves a scope worthy of its heritage. We considered a Lyman All-American and a Bushnell Sportview, but FleaBay delivered a Lisenfeld to our inbox that was too good to pass up. At one time, this little-known German manufacturer was considered to be in the same league as the big names, but went out of business in the tail end of the 20th century. Like our rifle, this one needed some work, as one of its O-rings was flopping around in the ocular bell like a prolapsed intestine, probably why we were able to snag it for the bargain price of $35. Shipped to the good folks at Iron Sight, it came back resealed, cleaned, and purged with nitrogen for just north of a Benjamin.

Once sighted in, there was only one thing left to do — complete it’s blue-collar journey to the northeastern hardwoods, treading in the footsteps of my childhood heroes. While researching a suitable corner of Pennsylvania for a place to complete our deer hunter odyssey, an old friend resurfaced, out of the blue. Back in the day, we’d been pretty much inseparable, serving as volunteer firefighters together, getting drunk in dive bars, and hunting every weekend of deer and turkey seasons — definitely a “move a body” kind of friend. Then, his career took off, and we lost touch. Some 13 years later, he was tired, jaded, and sick of the rat race. He’d been paid well, but stress and constant travel had taken its toll, so he was looking to take a step back into the woods for a slower pace of life.

Sometimes, events seem like they’re set into motion for a purpose, despite the rational side of our brains insisting they’re just coincidences. The place my buddy had selected for his escape from corporate America was 40 miles north of the Pennsylvania border, and was a home I’d had a hand in building, back when I made a living in an honorable trade. Being familiar with the property, he asked if I’d go take a look at it and, figuring that a hardwood forest on one side of an arbitrary line was pretty much the same as on the other, booked flights for opening day.

While vehicles and electronics have changed since the 1970s, rituals surrounding the hunt are still the same. Gathered in a cabin bereft of running water or electricity, men huddled around the fire, joked, laughed, busted balls, scratched themselves, and discussed where each would head to in the darkness of the following morning, in a scene that would be familiar to our stone-age ancestors.

Punching Tags

New York’s southern deer season opened under leaden skies that dumped their contents about 10 minutes before legal shooting light. I remember previous years being greeted with an opening fusillade reminiscent of the battle of the Somme, but 2017 was distinctly muted by comparison. As the predawn gray turned into just-slightly-less-indistinct, post-dawn gray, an orphan fawn meandered past my position, oblivious to the predator watching her. Despite having two antlerless tags in my pocket, I let her walk, just like the fork horn that passed heading the opposite direction.

Another fruitless wait ensued, before the draw of a fresh pot of coffee and a comfortable chair proved irresistible. Isn’t it strange how, despite consuming large quantities of a mild stimulant with diuretic properties, napping is so damn easy in deer camp? The afternoon hunt proved just as fruitless as far as dropping deer was concerned, but I got to see the resident rodent population freak out over the appearance of a fisher cat who loped through the woods, just before the rain put its serious face on and what was previously a playful sprinkle transformed in to an eff-you downpour.

Rain turned to snow overnight, accompanied by howling winds that buffeted the cabin like the big bad wolf. The decision to make a late start was an easy one, and by the time gusts had decreased to around 25 mph, the sun would have been over the treetops, were it not completely obscured by a thick layer of ominous clouds. Still hunting my way to the stand I used previously, I was busted by a couple of does, neither of which hung around long enough for a shot. Slinging my deer hunter, I slowly crept up the ladder to the platform, giving a good vantage point at the base of a hill to peer through downed vegetation littering the side slope.

30-06 foremost 6600

It was then, perhaps alerted to some strange upward movement on a tree trunk, he stood up. A scrappy eight-point raised himself out of his bed behind a logged-off treetop and checked his surroundings. Taking a step forward, he kept his head behind a bush and his vitals covered by a tree, leaving a thin slice of neck exposed between two saplings — just enough space to thread the needle. The rifle barked, and a new chapter in its checkered existence closed.

In this disposable world with meticulously mapped, planned obsolescence, it’s good to know that some products can span several generations. My deer hunter rifle might have humble origins, but like the rough hands it passed through in the last half century, it works.


Resources
H&M Metal Processing – ferrous metal finishing: blacknitride.com
We Plead the Second – custom Cerakote: wepleadthesecond.com
Brownells – all things gunsmithing: www.brownells.com
Iron Sight Inc – scope repair: www.ironsightinc.com


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