WE GATH­ERED AROUND

Outdoor Life - - RUNNING GAME -

a square of turf in the dark with a cold firepit in the cen­ter and small open-faced huts on two sides, their open­ings fac­ing the mid­dle. The other side of the square was a patch of dirt.

This was where the trucks and vans that had fer­ried us to this spot in the Pol­ish coun­try­side were parked. The large field sur­round­ing us had trees along its edge that showed ink-black against the out­line of the still-dark sky. The hint of dawn in the east was muted by clouds. We were a poly­glot band of hun­ters. English was the lan­guage most of us had in com­mon, though it was de­liv­ered in thick ac­cents that orig­i­nated in Italy, France, Poland, Nor­way, Ger­many, Ire­land, New York, and Texas. As far as I could tell, the beat­ers and dog han­dlers, with their fierce-eyed ter­ri­ers and hounds of mixed parent­age, didn’t speak any English. We com­mu­ni­cated with nods and friendly ges­tures. Cig­a­rettes were of­fered, and in my case de­clined, smok­ing be­ing one of the few vices I have not em­braced. This was the first day of a tra­di­tional Euro­pean driven hunt, and to kick it off, we were ush­ered into two lines fac­ing each other—hun­ters in one, beat­ers in the other. A man stood to the side, raised a large cir­cu­lar brass horn to his lips, and played a song that com­bined short, sharp blasts and longer, soul­ful notes that car­ried eas­ily in the air and res­onated in my chest. Though we were in Poland, that song, both melodic and mar­tial, would be in­stantly fa­mil­iar to hun­ters in France, Ger­many, and other parts of Europe. It sig­naled the start of the hunt. Be­fore we loaded up in the boxy Honker trucks to head to the first drive, the hunt mas­ter gave us a lec­ture on the rules—the very ex­ten­sive rules—of the hunt, which drove home the com­plex­ity and dan­ger of what we were about to do.

READY, AIMÉ

π You’ve heard jokes about cir­cu­lar fir­ing squads, no doubt. Change the shape from a cir­cle to a rec­tan­gle with shoot­ers along three sides, and beat­ers start­ing at the open end and then travers­ing the length of the rec­tan­gle, and you have a pretty good idea of what th­ese driven hunts look like. In­side the drive—mean­ing the area con­tained within the rec­tan­gle—we were al­lowed to shoot at “ground” game, which in­cluded boar, foxes, bad­gers, and other short-legged an­i­mals, pro­vided they were within 40 me­ters of our po­si­tions and within the shoot­ing an­gles that the guides in­di­cated when we were dropped off in the woods. “Ca­ma­rade,” my guide would say in pid­gin French, point­ing through the woods to where the hunter on my left would be stand­ing. “Ca­ma­rade,” he re­peated, point­ing to­ward the hunter on my right, giv­ing me my bound­aries for shoot­ing in­side the drive. Then he’d turn and face the woods be­hind us and spread his arms wide. “Do­bry. Okay.” Out­side the drive we could shoot every­thing, in­clud­ing deer. Well, not ex­actly every­thing. Dur­ing the hunt mas­ter’s lec­ture, he enu­mer­ated the re­stric­tions on game. No sow boar lead­ing lit­tle ones. No red deer stags with crowned points or spike antlers. Shoot all

the red deer and roe deer hinds (fe­males) you want. But ab­so­lutely no roe deer bucks. This last one was tricky, as the roe deer, which rut in June and July, were drop­ping their antlers, so a lack of bone on the head wasn’t suf­fi­cient to tell the boys from the girls. Each deer would re­quire a closer look. Got it? And don’t for­get—every­thing will be run­ning like hell.

ON THE MOVE

π Shoot­ing at run­ning game used to be a stan­dard part of the Amer­i­can hunter’s skill set. The guns they car­ried—lever ac­tions, old semi-au­tos like the Rem­ing­ton Model 8, and sporter­ized mil­i­tary turn­bolts—ex­celled at this task. We live in a dif­fer­ent world to­day. The mere men­tion of shoot­ing at run­ning game dur­ing a hunter’s ed class would in­duce chest-grip­ping seizures among the gray-haired corps of in­struc­tors. I get why this is, but those old skills, like many other tra­di­tional ex­er­cises in woods­man­ship, have at­ro­phied and our hunting cul­ture is the poorer for it. We had to take a shoot­ing test the day be­fore our hunt in or­der to be al­lowed to par­tic­i­pate. We shot a run­ning boar tar­get at 100 me­ters, go­ing left to right and right to left, and had to go five for five in the vi­tals to pass and get a hunting li­cense. The shoot­ing isn’t dif­fi­cult with the right tech­nique. Your mom would be happy to know the key is good pos­ture and stand­ing up straight. The goal is to have a smooth, even swing so you can track the tar­get, es­tab­lish the cor­rect lead, and pull the trig­ger. Stand­ing straight min­i­mizes the ver­ti­cal wob­ble of the bar­rel and lets you focus on the hor­i­zon­tal mo­tion of the ri­fle. If you hunch over in a quasi-tac­ti­cal stance, you’ll have less con­trol over your muz­zle. Do some dry-fire prac­tice and see for your­self. Learn­ing the right lead is a mat­ter of time in the field. A good rule of thumb is to put your ver­ti­cal crosshair in line with the boar’s ear, but, as with wing­shoot­ing, there are too many vari­ables to give a sin­gle cor­rect an­swer. No mat­ter what, good trig­ger con­trol and fol­low-through are crit­i­cal. Keep that bar­rel mov­ing after the shot.

KING FOR A DAY

π We drew cards to de­ter­mine our stands, and that first day I shot a cou­ple of boars as they charged through the for­est. The sounds of dogs bark­ing, beat­ers yelling, and gun­fire echoed through the woods as other hun­ters saw game. Dur­ing the evening’s cer­e­mony, the an­i­mals were laid out on pine boughs with the sprigs of leaves that had been placed in their mouths in the field, a sym­bolic of­fer­ing of a last meal. The horn player’s an­them sig­naled the end of the hunt and asked for the bless­ing of the for­est. The quaint­est el­e­ment of this rit­ual was the crown­ing of the King of the Hunt—an honor that this day was be­stowed upon me be­cause I hap­pened to shoot a mangut, an un­usual furbearer also called a racoon dog. While not rare, it is a se­cre-

THE STAG STIFFENED, LOW­ERED ITS HAUNCHES, AND ROCK­ETED THROUGH THE WOODS BE­HIND ME, OUT­SIDE THE DRIVE. THAT REGAL HEAD WAS BE­YOND MY MEANS.

tive an­i­mal, and my shoot­ing one caused quite a stir among the guides and beat­ers. That night back at the house where our group was stay­ing, we filled shot glasses with icy vodka and toasted each other and the an­i­mals once again. The next morn­ing, I was posted up on a log­ging road for the first drive of the day. Some small boars were run­ning in front of me through the brush but were too quick for a shot. I saw move­ment to my left and spotted a set of wide ivory-tipped antlers com­ing to­ward me, bob­bing up and down above the leaves. The stag stepped clear of the brush about 20 yards away, its multi-pointed rack a thing of glory. I willed my­self to keep still, and it came closer and then made eye con­tact. The stag stiffened, low­ered its haunches, and rock­eted through the woods be­hind me, out­side the drive. I kept the muz­zle of my ri­fle pointed to­ward the ground. The cost of that regal head was be­yond my means. That af­ter­noon, a roe deer hind ran by me. A look through my binoc­u­lar con­firmed her sex and I mounted the gun, swung the red dot in front of her out­stretched head and rolled her with a sin­gle shot. I used a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent ri­fles on the hunt, one a .308 from the Austrian com­pany Roessler called the Ti­tan 6, the other a Heym SR21 in 9.3x62 topped with an Aim­point Hunter red-dot. Both bolt guns were fine choices for this driven hunt, though I felt the Heym, cham­bered in the heav­ier car­tridge with the non-mag­ni­fy­ing op­tic, was ideal, par­tic­u­larly for the larger boars. My fel­low hun­ters and I were shoot­ing some of Norma’s new­est ammo—the Tip­strike and Ecostrike se­ries. The Tip­strike bul­let is a poly­mer­tipped pro­jec­tile, de­signed for rapid ex­pan­sion on big game. The Ecostrike, is an all-cop­per bul­let con­structed to re­tain nearly all its weight while pen­e­trat­ing deeply and of­fer­ing re­li­able ex­pan­sion at var­i­ous im­pact ve­loc­i­ties. I was par­tic­u­larly im­pressed by the Ecostrike, which has a boat­tail and a re­cessed waist in the mid­dle—to re­duce the amount of bear­ing sur­face on the ri­fling—both of which con­trib­ute to bet­ter ac­cu­racy. Norma is an in­ter­est­ing study in contrasts. On the one hand, it makes out­stand­ing am­mu­ni­tion that ri­vals any of our best do­mes­tic makes. On the other, the com­pany is mod­est to a fault, em­body­ing a Scan­dana­vian hu­mil­ity that seems to pre­vent it from crow­ing about its prod­ucts. It is safe to say that Norma makes the best am­mu­ni­tion Amer­i­can hun­ters have never heard of. True to form, the am­mu­ni­tion per­formed su­perbly. I was able to make some long shots— be­tween 100 and 200 yards, on roe deer hinds and

boars, in­clud­ing one mas­sive 300-pound male—that tum­bled them with au­thor­ity.

LAST HURRAH

π Not all the shots were at such dis­tances. On the last drive of the last day, a boar es­caped the drive with a string of dogs in tow. The dogs bayed the boar in an open field, and once the horn sounded to in­di­cate that the drive was con­cluded and we could move from our posts, I walked be­hind the hunter next to me to watch him fin­ish off the an­i­mal. I slung my ri­fle over my shoul­der so I could video the end of the hunt on my phone. It proved to be a fool­ish move. As my friend walked to­ward the boar, it spun and charged, and he lost his foot­ing, fell over, and was un­able to take a shot. The dogs drove the an­i­mal right to­ward me, and once the hog spotted me, I be­came the focus of its wrath. It charged me three times in a mat­ter of sec­onds, and each time I jumped to the side, avoid­ing its tusks. Dur­ing this cir­cus of snarling dogs and irate pig, I man­aged to put away my phone and un­sling my ri­fle. It charged once more and I cir­cled to the side and put a bul­let through its ear, nearly part­ing its stiff hair with my muz­zle. We had a lot to cel­e­brate that last night. Toasts to the an­i­mals. Toasts to the friend­ships made. Toasts to the end of a great hunt. And from me, a toast to that last boar, and to the hunting gods, for an ex­pe­ri­ence I’ll never for­get.

Clock­wise from far left: Shoot­ing at a run­ning boar tar­get; the au­thor with a roe deer hind; Krol Polowa­nia (King of the Hunt) medals awarded to the au­thor; the ter­rier Max ready to find an­other boar; play­ing a song for the dead an­i­mals.

From top left: A large boar shot in the woods; a closeup of its tusks; Norma’s new Tip­strike ammo in .308; a Heym SR 21 cham­bered in the out­stand­ing 9.3x62 Mauser.

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