S&W 686 Trail Gun: Accurate And Elegant.
By Sam Fadala
Blue Grouse, Huns, cottontails, squirrels and many other small high-protein edibles are “replacement species.” That is, game with very short life span and good reproduction. The term is unscientific, but it works. A two-year old rabbit is a grandpa. Exceptions? Sure. A squirrel with identifying bent-down ear visited my yard three winters running, juvenile when first seen, no-show by year four. Over time, a handgun at my side has been a passport to these prime edibles, especially — but not only — backpacking for big game where an evening campfire into far country is graced with good meat. Small fry pan, spill-proof cooking oil container, a little pot, and a few minor condiments equal feast.
Over time, the .22-rimfire handgun has been my mainstay for potting trail protein. Recently, however, a new plan spouted like a gushing oil well in Texas. With an accurate larger-caliber handgun, I could take small edibles along with a lot more pasta for anything larger I might want to say howdy to. The sidearm materialized as a Smith & Wesson Model 686 6-shot revolver with 6″ barrel in .357 Magnum/.38 Special.
Holsters are always paramount to handgun-handling, however, the 686 had to be extra secured for backcountry-wilderness carry — no need for rattlesnake-strike draw-speed. Mitch Rosen Extraordinary Gunleather of beautiful Manchester, New Hampshire, won the search with a special modified Rosen Sport model: straight-drop; belt position option (cross-draw for me); supported by both tunnel loop and rear stabilizing spot for rigid positioning — full flap for field/hunting conditions. Of perfect revolver fit, the interior of best quality cowhide was treated to Leather Lightning (available from Rosen’s shop), which escalated break-in time to “right now.” I had an ideal rig to pack the 686.
Mitch Rosen’s full-custom holster was designed with two important points:
Total security when in the field and protection for the revolver.
The rig rides body-close.
A cool method of steadying a handgun in the field is Sam’s “tree-hug” technique.
You can augment it with a stout hiking stick, or just use the stick.
S&W’s Model 686 .357 is a stout, full-caliber trail/defensive revolver also
able to be easily down-loaded with wadcutters for a great trail gun.
Field Survival For Fun
I cannot prove it, but I doubt that I have been busted by big game in the remoteness of my hunting grounds by adding fur or feather campfire food from a sidearm’s pop or two. Meat at my side on a big game hunt is a solid platform, but is delightful too prissy a word for the stalwart readers of this august publication? Maybe, but it fits the “survival hunts” my friend, the late Ted Walter, and I enjoyed several times a year. Live off the land or go hungry, with minimal cooking outfit to prepare game taken. That was the watchword. The longest of these adventures went three months in Mexico, most being a week or so. Find and secure game (rarely fish) — or stomach becomes acquainted with backbone.
We never starved, the biggest delay without meat being a couple days. That time we were going bows-only (traditional tackle). Afternoon found us seeking a camping spot near a fast-flowing stream. On the way — there they were. Blue grouse. We went from hungry to over-fed that evening. Today, the S&W 686 would be the meat-maker. I have planned a non-resident javelina HAM hunt (handgun-archery-muzzleloader). The 686 will carry four chambers of accurate Black Hills .38 Special 148-grain HBWC (Hollow Based Wad Cutter), the other two holes ready to fire hot loads pushing Sierra .357 diameter 158-grain JHC’s with typical Sierra accuracy. Small game: ease hammer back twice to align wadcutters to barrel; one/two ear-backs for double peccary-poke loads with Sierra JHC bullets.
All trail meat I have claimed over the past many years has been taken at very close range. I sighted the 686 for the classic 25 yards, but with careful attention to hold at 25 feet, especially for that king of high mountain fare, the meaty blue grouse, legal with bullets where I hunt. Align front sight along neck just below head and — field dress. Blue grouse are called fool hens because they offer perfect opportunities: Is this angle a little better for a shot? I took a liking to the Smith partly because of appearance-shouting quality. But that aspect was trumped by accuracy with the good sights. Targeting put bullets into stingy groups from a solid rest, while practice on fallen pine cones lent field confidence.
Good 686 bullet placement was promoted by a steady rest against what I call my Moses Stick — so named with regard to Biblical traveler’s staffs. There was no doubt the steady-holding Smith would perform the essential head shot on rabbit or squirrel with high probability of snipping the pate from mountain grouse with the stick-rest. I also did some pretty good shooting from the sitting position. And there is never anything wrong with “hugging a tree,” if there is one small enough to wrap arms around.
All states have generous limits on small edibles. There’s a TV show where the host travels about dining on all sorts of foods that some folks might consider downright unappetizing. But then … food is like the worn-out cliché about beauty being in the eye of the beholder.
True story: my friend Ted (above) and I were preparing for one of our many survival hunts — game taken on trail or go hungry. We’d start out with sandwiches for the road before trekking on foot. Ted suggested beef tongue from his local butcher. When pressure-cooked to perfection and sliced thin, tongue makes mighty good “eats” (personal opinion) with scant mayo, salt, pepper, leaf of iceberg lettuce. As the butcher handed over the tongue (today a high-priced gourmet meat) a lady said, “How could you eat something that came out of an animal’s mouth?” Ted leaned over, put a finger on the egg carton in her basket and asked, “And how could you eat these?” She was silent.
The point is, possum for one person is a pest, while to another the toothy little animal represents good “eats.” The only critter I have not been able to fix to suit my taste buds is porcupine, although others seem to manage. The cottontail rabbit, especially the white meat tasties where I hunt in Wyoming, is a great treat, weighing around two pounds on the paws, field-dressed to about a pound. Bag limits are high, but two are sufficient for two hunters. Separate to six pieces — two fronts, two hinds, one backstrap bisected. One rabbit makes supper for two, the other cold lunch next day. Blue grouse yield breast cut in half and two tiny drumsticks, the later hardly a bite, but no sense wasting.
The cottontail rabbit is first among trail food in many areas and it’s a
widespread species with a high rate of reproduction. Cooked just right,
it “eats good!”
While full-power .357’s are possible, the super-accurate .38 Special full wadcutters —
like these from Black Hills — turn the 686 into a laser-like small game killer!
The S&W 686 offers a fully adjustable rear sight and all the 21st. Century safety
features you’d need. The adjustable sights means you can tune it to the exact point
of impact for your chosen load.
The bright colored insert on the front sight makes field shots easy. Accuracy
at 25 yards hovered around the magical one-inch mark with the Black Hills
hollow base wadcutter load tested.
Some Cooking Thoughts
Cook rabbit and mountain birds the same — simply. Fry in oil to medium-done, then drop in two beef bouillon cubes with a little water. Simmer tender. Hard to beat and so easy to prepare. Place the cooked pieces of rabbit or grouse, with juices from pan, over rice. Minute Rice can be made on the trail with boiling water in the small pot: drop in rice, stir, cover and wait for grains to fluff. Three rabbit pieces each is normally enough per hunter, while consuming a whole grouse is not sinfully gluttonous. Even when alone, I’ll cook two rabbits or two grouse — supper tonight, trail food tomorrow.
I have added good meat on outings I take just for the sake of hiking, with sidewalks and pavement left far behind. I also like to explore on foot, having run across many interesting finds, my favorite being long-abandoned hopes and dreams of adventurous souls a hundred and more years ago. Their homestead, what is left of it, reveals best laid plans of mice and men that failed. I take nothing from these cabins. I do slip a surgical mask over nose and mouth to prevent breathing dust that may rise from board plank or dirt floor. Mice droppings, urine and saliva can cause hantavirus when airborne. And hantavirus is a life-threatening disease: HPS — Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome.
Hikes into fishing and camping sites also yield wonderful small game opportunities. The sidearm is very much at home here because it is out of the way until put into action. I also like that the Smith & Wesson is capable of firing the most powerful .357 ammo of the day when the sun goes down and creatures of the night prowl forth to investigate the tent.
Odd though, while my handgun is always handy, in all of these years I have yet to fire a shot at a single beast trying to get into bed with me, although as I slept on open ground one time a rattler did crawl into the bottom of my sleeping bag. I carefully slipped out of the sack and put Mr. Crotalus back out into the night. A gun can be insurance, and like all insurance, best never required for protection of self or others. But there is the “if” factor — if the coyote prowling by my mountain bivy is rabid. Bang!
Game laws vary state to state and very often within a state, and must be reviewed before potting small edibles with a handgun. Also required — check ammo laws to be sure yours is legal. When I lived in Alaska, my partner and I hunted snowshoes early in the season when it was a balmy 20 degrees below zero during the day. Even though white-on-white, telltale marks gave away sedentary hares — easy shots for the handgun. Just one more opportunity to enjoy “meat at your side.” As the season progressed, these hares, not that easy to prepare toothsome to begin with, ate bitter bark and such, giving us an excuse to linger by the fire as the mercury was frightened to the bottom of the tube, coldest day being 65 below in my tenure. But our harvest was in the “freezer,” meaning carefully wrapped and placed in a shed outside, the reward of packing a meat-taking sidearm.
Rosen offers their “Leather Lightning” to help break in your new holster.
Once applied and dried, it offers an easy draw even from tightly fitted
The Rosen rig didn’t just fit well, or even excellently … it fit perfectly,
as if it had magically grown around the revolver!
Browning’s Billy 1500 Lumbar Pack served Sam well during his day trips. Lots of
versatility to handle a hiker or hunter’s tools and survival stuff.
The Essential Backpack
Browning’s Billy 1500 Lumbar Pack
The ultimate handgun meat-making trek is going like the joyful tortoise with “home” on your back, bedding where sundown finds you rather than heading for camp or home. A pack is the key to venturing into territory offering prime edibles sidearm-collected. But even the one-day outing is exponentially better when the hunter has “good stuff” in a pack. My first was homemade, a terrible framework of laced rope. But being young and pliable, I didn’t mind. It was replaced first with US Army and British Army packs. Both should have been sent to the enemy as defeating secret weapons of war. Today, the outdoors lover has the finest packs in the history of mankind, made to “fit’ the human body rather than torture it.
Take my new Browning Billy 1500 lumbar. Honoring the trend and even pushing the envelope to a higher plateau on the comfort scale, the Billy has fully padded back with “center of gravity” design distributing weight amidships so neither shoulders nor waist take all the strain. Shoulder straps are deep-padded, as is the fully adjustable waist strap. I love the “mini-pack” attached to the back, ideal for carrying the more delicate trail items such as that sandwich and banana which used to get squashed. I also found the easily-accessible frontal pouch perfect for my rangefinder, GPS, calls — every tool and toy I want to get to right now.
Four compartments inside the mini-pack are ideal for small stuff, and inside the cargo area there are pockets called “main organizers” for cutlery, gloves, first aid kit, game bag, extra clothing and such. The cargo area retains gear and good stuff that need not be readily accessible. Capacity of the 1500 is ideal for day runs; however, with a few tie-ons, staying over a night, even two, is not a challenge. Radio and cell phone ride perfectly in a deep open-top pouch right side, secure but easy to get to. Left side similar pouch, but zippered. This pocket has a “cool” feature — it’s Velcro-secured to snap out, creating a tight cavity to stuff sweater, extra shirt, whatever, and nothing will fall out.
It’s been raining up here at 8,000 feet above sea level, and so I took a stroll in the wet to verify the water resistant claim for the Billy. I got wet but the “goods’ did not. I did, however, remove the cell phone and radio from the open top compartment beforehand. In a true deluge, which my hike was not, a simple plastic over-cover would double ensure water tightness. The zippers definitely do not leak.
The Billy is built of a fabric called Baumshell. Durable. Lightweight. Quiet. The wrap-on-the-body design means no squeal or squawk when stalking. Mossy Oak is the design. Mostly, I like the fact the Billy and my body are “one” due to full adjustability. The essential breast strap and main buckler are easy to operate. And the top strap running from center of shoulder harness is slip-adjustable. There are at least a dozen extra features the hiker-hunter will appreciate, such as the arrangement of a top loop so jacket, coat, rain tarp — even bivy — can be latched on.
While I have fond memories of youthful meanderings with homemade and military frames and packs, today’s outfits truly escalate a hiker’s range and comfort and even safety, with room for sheltering gear, fire starter and other essentials. And while the Billy was featured here as a prime example of the modern pack, the hunter going for meat at his or her side will find myriad modern examples to choose from.