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O’CONNOR WAS RIGHT ALL ALONG: THE .270 WIN
IS STILL THE PREMIER SHEEP CALIBER TO BE HAD.
By CRAIG BODDINGTON




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                                 CZ 550 AMERICAN


                 W
                             e were on a little ridge, glassing west. The sun
                             had just dropped below the tallest ridge, and
                             the remaining light was good. The cruel wind
                             that had plagued us had gone quiet, and sheep
                 were up and feeding. Guide Allen Funkhouser and I were
                 watching two different groups of desert bighorns, the near-
                 est just 600 yards away, where a nice young ram shadowed
                 a group of ewes. Enough light remained to get to them, so
                 we were hoping a grownup ram might come in and run off
                 the youngster.

                    Cameraman Conrad Evarts, with        desert sheep have shorter coats and
                 nothing to film at that moment,         are generally lighter in color than
                 was also using his binoculars.          the northern bighorns. They are also
                 It wasn’t his job to find sheep,        much smaller in the body, some-
                 so his voice held a note of shy-        times half the body weight. Yet on
                 ness. “What about that ram on           average, the horns of a mature ram
                 the skyline?” Huh? What ram? He         aren’t much more than 10 percent
                 quickly oriented us: Far above,         smaller—a lot of headgear on a
                 near the end of the farthest ridge, a   small-bodied sheep.
                 lone ram stood on a little pinnacle,       Through my career the desert
                 silhouetted against a fading sunset.    sheep has been the most difficult of
                 His curls were deep and came all        our four North American wild sheep.
                 the way around with a slight flare at   There is no easy solution for hunting
                 the tips—a full-curl ram. Both horns    one. Odds against drawing an
                 were similar, neither broken. It        American tag are astronomical, and
                 was a great spot, and also a lucky      although prices for Mexican permits
                 spot: The ram was in view for less      have fallen, they’re still pretty high.
                 than a minute, then he turned and       And yet a desert bighorn sheep
                 stepped off the back of his lofty       remains one of the most classic
                 perch, gone.                            American game animals. This is
                                                         partly because of the writings of
                 DESERT BIGHORN                          Jack O’Connor, an Arizona native
                 The desert bighorn is actually an       who, in the 1930s and ’40s, was able
                 amalgamation of five southwestern       to cross into Mexico and hunt desert
                 subspecies of Ovis canadensis, the      sheep readily and affordably, and
                 bighorns, adapted over millennia        partly because the desert sheep,
                 to the drier, warmer climate. The       with his outsize horns, is a fantastic


                 The combination of a classic .270, the grandeur of Arizona’s rugged landscape
                 and a spectacular desert bighorn sheep all salute Jack O’Connor’s legacy. The
                 CZ 550 reached out 250 yards, and Federal’s 140-grain AccuBond did its job.

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                                                                             CZ-USA.COM 77
 THE BEST OF THESE WAS A RAM THAT SEEMED TO HAVE VERY HEAVY
 BASES, WITH A DISTINCTIVE WIDE FLARE AND BROOMED HORNS.


creature living in harsh desert            of hunts being a “once in a lifetime”      SCOUTING RESULTS
mountains that are exceedingly             opportunity, but in Arizona the legal      This he did. A retired federal law
beautiful.                                 limit on desert bighorns is “one per       enforcement agent, he approached
                                           lifetime.”                                 our hunt like an investigation. He
THE TAG                                       When the drawings are made              obtained years’ worth of survey and
As with so many hunters, the desert        public, sheep outfitters go on a           harvest data, cross-checking maps
sheep was the last of my four North        feeding frenzy, contacting permit          of sightings of Class 4 (fully mature)
American wild sheep—but not for            holders. I spoke to several good           rams. He interviewed game wardens
lack of effort. I took my first ram,       guys, but I elected to stay with           and biologists, and hunters who had
a Stone sheep, in 1973 at a time           U.S. Outfitters. This was partly out       drawn tags in previous years. And
when the Stone sheep was the most          of loyalty; after all, it was the third    then he started scouting.
available and accessible of our            sheep tag they’d drawn for me. And             Unit 13B North is a big, rough
sheep. I started applying for desert       it was partly because I liked Allen        wilderness area of near vertical can-
sheep permits in 1978, long before I       Funkhouser. He knew the Strip,             yons and high mesas and plateaus.
took my first Dall sheep—or my first       and he had conducted a number of           Interstate 15 bisects the area as
bighorn.                                   sheep hunts. He was also honest:           it follows the Virgin River Canyon
   Time passed, and I kept apply-          “Craig, I’m not the best sheep             between Mesquite, Nevada, and St.
ing. At some point I turned over           hunter in Arizona, but I will give your    George, Utah. Research showed
my application process to United           permit 100 percent effort.”                there were something like 200 sheep
States Outfitters in Taos,                                                                       in the area—truly a needle
New Mexico (www.huntuso.                                                                         in a haystack, except that
com). This made me more                                                                          research also suggested
consistent, and it paid off.                                                                     the majority of the sheep
I drew a Montana bighorn                                                                         were concentrated in three
permit in 1994 and another                                                                       of four key areas. These,
in Wyoming in ’98. By then I                                                                     obviously, were where Allen
had a couple of Dall sheep,                                                                      concentrated his scouting.
but the desert bighorn still                                                                     I wish I’d known about the
eluded me. I lost faith that I                                                                   tag six months earlier so I
would ever draw a permit.                                                                        could have better cleared
   Six years ago, when I re-                                                                     my schedule and done
turned from a tour of duty in                                                                    more of this legwork, but in
the Persian Gulf, I put nearly                                                                   truth I could not. The best I
a full year’s worth of combat                                                                    could do was some glass-
pay into a desert sheep hunt                                                                     ing while passing through.
in Mexico. This was clearly                                                                      Independently, we both
a foolish thing to do, and I                                                                     concentrated on pretty
don’t recommend it, but I                                                                        much the same areas, and
have never regretted it.                                                                         in late September I actually
   Although I stayed in the                                                                      glassed the knob where I
drawings, it never actu-                                                                         eventually took my ram, but
ally crossed my mind that                                                                        I didn’t see any sheep there
I might someday take a                                                                           that day.
second desert ram. And                                                                              So all of the credit for
then, one day in July 2008                                                                       success goes to Allen
an Arizona desert sheep                                                                          Funkhouser and U.S. Outfit-
tag arrived in the mail. It                                                                      ters, and they “prepped the
was for Unit 13B North,                                                                          ground” (and me) as well
                                  One of the rarest government forms in existence:
in the western Arizona            the tag for a desert bighorn. It took the author 30           as was possible. Research
Strip. We talk about a lot        years of applying.                                            suggested that a long-term

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Arizona’s arid Unit 13 has high mesas broken with deep valleys—and mountains besides.

drought was reducing horn mass;
it had been years since a Boone &
Crockett ram had been taken in this
area. This gave me realistic expecta-
tions. In total, we located six or eight
Class 4 rams. The best of these
was a ram that seemed to have very
heavy bases, with a distinctive wide
flare and broomed horns. He became
our primary target.

OPENING MOVES
That is, until he went missing. He was
seen three different times, weeks
apart, on the same ridge, and then,
just before the season, he vanished.
We knew this before we started the
hunt, which, by mutual agreement,
was several days past the season
opener. We were in hopes that the
three resident tag holders would get       High-quality, high-powered optics are a must for desert bighorns. Conducting
in, get their rams and get out (two        an extended search through poor optics is asking for a headache.


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                                                                                                      CZ-USA.COM 79
 MY HEART WAS SUDDENLY POUNDING, AND I WAS SHORT OF BREATH AS I
 PUT THE WELL BALANCED CZ 550 OVER THE PACK AND LAY INTO THE STOCK.



did, and the third took his ram the        us and was already
day after I took mine).                    running. We glassed
   By December 10th that big ram was       hard for him but never
still missing, so we were essentially      saw him again.
back to Square One, with the loca-            Up on the rims there
tions of some end-of-season rams           were plenty of fresh
known, but none of the kind of sheep       beds and droppings.
we had hoped for. Plagued by cold          But the wind was out
and high winds, we started in high         of the north, clearly
buttes accessed from the Utah side.        pushing the sheep
Unfortunately, that strong wind was        into cliffs on the south
dead wrong; when we went in, I got a       side. This made it,
quick glimpse of a dark, blocky ram        for me, a terrifying
in the gray dawn, but he had winded        place. I’m scared of
                                           heights, and the only
                                           way we could hunt
  THOUGHTS ON                              it was to prowl the
  DRAWING A TAG                            rims, glassing straight
  In order to draw, you must apply.        down to the bottom of
  Any North American sheep tag is a        300-foot cliffs. Even
  wonderful opportunity. Nowhere           so, in many areas it       As with many other big-game species, wily desert
  are the odds easy, but there are         was impossible to see bighorns like to bed where they can see approach-
  some important considerations.                                      ing predators while not being easily seen.
  First, in order to draw, you must
                                           the actual base of the
  apply. Few things tick me off more       cliffs, the most likely
  than people who have never applied       place for sheep to bed. Also, if we       literally, butt heads with the young
  telling me I was “lucky.” There was      were to locate a ram in that danger-      ram we’d been watching.
  more than luck involved in applying
  for 30 years, but it can happen the
                                           ous jumble I couldn’t imagine how we
  first time or any time. So, second,      might orchestrate a stalk—or safely       ASSAULT ON RAM RIDGE
  once you start applying you must         recover a ram.                            We were back on the same ridge
  keep at it and remain consistent.           It was OK with me when we gave         before dawn, all four of us, with a
     This is also part of the third
  point. There is some science to the
                                           it up and moved on to Plan C, which       two-part plan. First we’d glass the
  process. Consistency helps greatly,      was in the Virgin River Canyon itself.    ridges on our side, hoping the ram
  because most states have some type       Luke Guaraldi, assisting Allen, took      might have dropped down during the
  of “preference” or “bonus” point         the south side of the canyon, where       night. If that didn’t work, we’d climb
  system, so the longer you apply, the
  better your chances. Some areas
                                           he could glass both sides. Allen,         up to his ridge; this exposure seemed
  offer better odds than others, and       Conrad and I took the north side,         to offer a reasonable ascent. We
  this changes over time. You can do       hiking up onto a series of low ridges     were not yet committed to this ram.
  this research yourself, but the permit   that offered good views of the faces      A quick skyline view at two miles is a
  application services do it as a matter
  of course. Many years ago I told U.S.
                                           above us.                                 poor way to judge anything, and we
  Outfitters I wanted a desert sheep          Here we found sheep—multiple           had to have a better look.
  tag, not necessarily a permit in the     groups of ewes and a couple of               At dawn we found both groups
  best and thus most difficult-to-draw     young rams. And it was from here,         of ewes and youngsters that we’d
  unit. In 2008 they switched my
  application to Unit 13B North, with
                                           just before sundown, that we              seen the night before, but no joy in
  four tags available. The odds have       spotted what seemed to be a good          glassing up the ram. So just after
  been about 100 to one, but with all      ram up on the skyline. There was no       seven o’clock we started to climb. As
  of my bonus points my odds were          way we could reach him in the hour        is usually the case, it was far worse
  closer to 20 to one—still not great,
  but a whole lot better. My permit
                                           of light remaining, but it doesn’t        than it looked: steeper and rockier
  number was 1, the first tag drawn in     take sheep as long as it takes us to      the higher we got. This is OK with
  that unit.                               cover ground. We stayed until dark,       me, as I can handle any slope short
                                           hoping he might come down to,             of vertical. It’s looking over a cliff

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into nothingness that gets me. We         distant ridge: eight or nine ewes and         He agreed. So we saddled up and
climbed 4,000 vertical feet, glassing     a young ram—a big band of desert          started down the ridge. We were
as we went. Along the way we ran          sheep. Revived a bit, I studied the       moving slowly. Each little point took
into several sheep and had to lie low     situation. It was just after two. The     us briefly out of view of the final
and wait them out to avoid spooking       ram’s pinnacle was fully 500 yards        pinnacle, so we were being careful.
them over the top.                        down the ridge, with a lot of ground      At a bit over 300 yards we were in a
   It was one o’clock when we topped      hidden by little points as the hogback    good spot, but there was one more
out on “Ram Ridge.” We were con-          descended. Honest, I wasn’t reading       step below us. It hid an enticing cut
siderably above the ridge’s last pin-     a crystal ball; I was a lot less confi-   where I thought it possible, if not
nacle, where the ram had appeared         dent than Allen that we might see this    likely, for the ram to be bedded. So I
20 hours earlier. This time, lag wasn’t   ram again. But from the shooter’s         whispered, “Let’s go on down to that
a problem. Unless spooked, older          standpoint, I didn’t like the setup.      last point.”
rams are often fairly sedentary. He       We were too exposed up here on                How long does it take to cover 60
might have dropped down to bother         the crest, and we might not be able       yards downhill on an open ridge?
some ewes or to drink, but I figured      to make a stalk. I had no interest in     We were in dead ground for mere
he was bedded close to where we’d         banking this once-in-a-lifetime tag       seconds, and when we could see
last seen him and Allen fully ex-         on a 500-yard shot.                       over the lip of that final point there
pected him to appear somewhere on            So I said to Allen, “You know,         was a dark animal standing amid
this ridge in the late afternoon.         we’ve pretty much bet the day on          boulders on the pinnacle, probably
   It had been a tough climb, but         that ram showing up somewhere             not 20 yards from where we’d seen
today the wind was down and the           down there. While it’s early, why         the ram 21 hours before. Binoculars
skies were clear. I ate a granola         don’t we slip down to one of those        came up, and mine dropped instantly:
bar and stretched out in the sun for      lower points where we can shoot           If this was the same ram, he looked
a quick nap. When I awoke, Allen          him if we like him and just huddle up     a whole lot better at 250 yards. He
already had sheep moving on a             quietly until dark?”                      had the same conformation, full curl




Desert bighorns prize their burly horns as much as the hunters who dream of them.
Rams of O. c. nelsoni proudly display their headgear to awe other sheep.

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                                                                                                       CZ-USA.COM 81
 I TOOK A BULL ELK AT 400 YARDS WITH THE “LITTLE” .270. JACK WOULD
 HAVE APPROVED; ELMER WOULD HAVE ROLLED HIS EYES.


with slight flare, but now it was clear
that he had heavy bases and carried
good mass throughout, with just a bit
of brooming on the tips. I had seen
enough; more looking was not my job,
especially since this ram was looking      Peak
                                           Performer
up at us through his own binocular
eyes and the clock was ticking.
    I shed my pack and carried it
forward to the lip of the point, find-
ing a clear spot between two rocks.
My heart was suddenly pounding,           Thirty-five years ago pages in gun           above all, he never found the .270
and I was short of breath as I put the    lore were a battleground in a war            lacking. Like the prolific gunwriter
well-balanced CZ 550 over the pack        of words between Elmer Keith and             he was, he hunted sheep through
                                          Jack O’Connor. Both men worked for           a long career with an eclectic array
and lay into the stock. Allen, doing
                                          Petersen Publishing Company, but since       of cartridges ranging from the .257
his job perfectly, whispered, “He’s       it was unacceptable for their work to ap-    Roberts to the .348 Winchester and
a great ram, 256 yards.” Conrad           pear in the same publication, Keith was      including fast 7mms and .30 calibers.
had done both our jobs by spotting        the brightest star of Guns & Ammo.           At the end of his career, in a posi-
                                              O’Connor, who had recently retired       tion guys like me someday hope to
this ram the night before; he was
                                          from Outdoor Life, was the headliner         be in, he was able to use whatever
now doing his own, rolling the TV         for the fledgling Petersen’s Hunting         he chose, so his last sheep hunts
camera. It was my turn.                   magazine.                                    were conducted with pet rifles in
    Somehow I got my breath under             Elmer believed in larger calibers and,   .270 Winchester. He had no qualms
                                          especially, heavy-for-caliber bullets. For   about using the cartridge for elk and
control, if not my heart, and I got the
                                          North American big game, his thing           African plains game and for grizzlies
rifle steady. The ram dropped to the      was a fast .33 caliber with heavy bullets.   and moose (usually taken incidental
shot, then tried to rise. Somehow         O’Connor is best known as the champi-        to northern sheep hunts).
I managed to hit him again—we             on of the .270 Winchester. He fell in love       In fairness to O’Connor, however, it
                                          with the cartridge when it was brand         must be pointed out that on specific
wanted him on that point, not at the
                                          new in 1925 and remained its cham-           hunts for game like Alaskan brown
bottom of the canyon below us. And        pion until his death in 1977. Honestly,      bear, tiger and thick-skinned African
except for a lot of work, this once-in-   it’s not so clear to me that Elmer Keith     game, he chose much larger cartridg-
a-lifetime hunt was over. It was 2:35     really hated the .270, but rather that he    es, including the .375 H&H, .416 Rigby
                                          despised “.270 Jack.” It isn’t as apparent   and the wildcat .450 Watts.
p.m. on a beautiful afternoon.
                                          that O’Connor felt the same enmity for          Elmer Keith had great experience
    He was truly a gorgeous ram—          Keith. Both men knew what they were          with elk and bears and made several
perfectly shaped and about 10 years       talking about, but they approached the       African safaris. He did some sheep and
old, with a scarred face and deeply       problem from different viewpoints.           goat hunting as both guide and hunter,
                                              O’Connor’s favorite game was wild        but this was not a passion. If you exclude
chipped horns. Not a “book” ram,
                                          sheep, and for the game he preferred         sheep, Keith and O’Connor weren’t
he was still top-end for the area
and well worth 30 years of rejected
applications. We had glassed his
pinnacle from various angles, so we
assumed he’d been bedded and we
just didn’t see him until he stood.
No. There were beds nearby, but
none was today-fresh. When we saw
him he had apparently just stepped
up to that point, perhaps changing
his bed.
    I have to wonder what might have
happened, or would not have hap-
pened, if we hadn’t strolled down the
ridge at that exact time.

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82 CZ-USA.COM
THE .270 WINCHESTER
really all that far apart. In print, Keith de-   the higher velocity, increased energy and     stratosphere. The next morning it took
scribed the .270 as a “damned adequate           shorter action of the WSM. I agree with       us six tough hours to climb to his ridge.
coyote rifle,” but in a private letter he        O’Connor that there is no appreciable dif-    We hoped he might appear somewhere
acknowledged in writing that the .270,           ference between the .270s (bullet diam-       nearby at sundown. He nearly beat us to
coupled with the best bullet of his day,         eter .277) and the 7mms (bullet diameter      the punch, rising from his bed at 2:30 in
the Nosler Partition, would be just fine         .284). A difference of seven thousandths?     the afternoon. The shot was simple—250
for elk. Also in a private letter, O’Connor      C’mon! This is especially true for mountain   yards over my pack—but I’d be a liar if I
admitted that the .30-’06, with its greater      hunting, where the heavier 7mm bullets        didn’t admit to 30 years of accumulated
frontal area and heavier bullets, was actu-      will not be employed. The fast .30s work,     pressure bearing down on that shot. No
ally more versatile than his beloved .270.       but they also produce a lot more recoil.      problem. Somehow I controlled the jit-
    In general, I have followed more closely     From the perspective of an awful lot of       ters, and the CZ 550 dropped him cleanly.
the Keith doctrine of larger calibers and        mountain hunting on five continents,          For big stuff I suppose I will always lean
heavy-for-caliber bullets, but there is          today I’m convinced Jack O’Connor had it      toward the Keith school, but for mountain
no Keith doctrine for sheep, only the            right all along: For sheep and goat hunt-     game Professor O’Connor had it right.
O’Connor mantra of the .270. When I was          ing, worldwide, it’s pretty hard to
a young writer it didn’t seem to make            beat the .270.
sense to use “his” cartridge, so I have also        In 2008, after 30 years of
employed an array of rounds for my own           rejected applications, I drew a
mountain hunting. I’ve used 7mms from            desert sheep tag in Arizona; it
7x57 upward, .30s from .30-’06 upward            was clearly going to be a very
and even a few larger cartridges, includ-        special hunt. I settled on a .270
ing the 8mm Remington Magnum and                 Winchester in a CZ 550, a good
the .375 H&H. I’ve also used the full run of     Mauser action that O’Connor
.270s: .270 Winchester, .270 WSM and .270        would approve of, and his
Weatherby Magnum.                                favorite cartridge.
    My first ram with the .270 was a great          O’Connor started sheep hunt-
Montana bighorn, taken in 1994. Early in         ing with aperture sights and
the hunt we got pinned down at dusk at           transitioned to 2.5X scopes, then
400 yards. I passed on the shot because          fixed 4X, but at the time of his
I lacked confidence in the .270 at that          death variable scopes were still
range. It took several days to relocate the      considered unreliable. Today we
ram, so for the next few years I did most        can trust well-made variables,
of my mountain hunting with fast .30s.           and for longer shots I like the
Yep, they work, and I have confidence in         confidence instilled by a larger
them. I suppose I was in the waning years        image. So O’Connor might or
of my “magniac” phase, but, perhaps              might not have approved of the
more significantly, I hadn’t used the .270       Leupold 4.5-14X that I selected.
much in the previous 15 years. So it was            My best groups were ob-
really a combination of confidence and           tained with Federal Premium
familiarity. I proved this to myself a few       140-grain Nosler AccuBond
years later when I took a bull elk at 400        bullets, a great bullet and load.
yards with the “little” .270. Jack would         Then, under the competent
have approved; Elmer would have rolled           guidance of U.S. Outfitters’ Allen
his eyes.                                        Funkhouser, we started hunting.
    In recent years I’ve done a lot more            We glassed my ram late one
mountain hunting with .270s, both .270           evening, standing on a pin-
Winchester and .270 WSM. I tend to like          nacle somewhere up in the



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