Alaska offers the outdoorsman an incredible opportunity to explore a wilderness no longer found in the Lower 48. It’s a land of duality. In the Alaskan bush, there is feast and famine. Sunlight can be almost an all-day phenomenon, or there might be none at all. There are also hunters and hunted, or predators and prey.
Recently, I traveled to Alaska with a few others for a week of salmon and trout fishing. But I also went prepared for any worst-case scenario and carried a big-bore rifle, as well as a small-bore pistol. This combination, in my eyes, could sustain an outdoorsman in the wild with both food for the pot and plenty of protection against dangerous game.
The Big Bore Takedown Rifle
Before we could entertain any ideas of filling our stomachs with grilled salmon, we needed to remember whose backyard we were in. Alaska is home to black, brown, grizzly and polar bears, and any one of those could inflict serious bodily harm on an unwary outdoorsman.
I have traveled in bear country countless times before without issue, and I followed all the cardinal safety rules. That said, anything can happen, and when I was were there, I heard gripping stories of outdoorsmen mauled by female bears protecting cubs on the Russian River. There is always a chance of accidentally walking up on a protective mother, for example, but traveling into a potentially dangerous area without protection isn’t an accident—it’s negligence.
Wild West Guns Co-Pilot
When it comes dangerous game, penetration with hard-cast rounds is key. I decided to keep things local and use the Wild West Guns (WWG) Co-Pilot with a chamber that allows you to run powerful .457 WWG rounds, as well as .45-70 Government cartridges and .410 shotshells. This is the kind of versatility required for a survival rifle.
Essentially a heavily modified Marlin 1895 Guide Gun, this rifle can be taken down easily for portability while still offering serious ballistic performance. The 18.5-inch barrel is ported to reduce recoil, and WWG includes a solid blade front sight as well as a ghost-ring rear sight. More features include an aluminum follower, WWG’s “Bear Proof” ejector and a big-loop lever. The trigger is tuned for a crisp 3-pound pull.
My test rifle was equipped with an optional Leupold 2.5x28mm FX-II Scout IER scope, and I kept it loaded with Buffalo Bore’s 405- and 430-grain LBT-LFN ammunition. On the advice of Tim Sundles from Buffalo Bore, I kept a 405-grain round in the chamber followed up by 430-grain rounds in the magazine tube, since we would be in areas with 1,000-plus-pound bears. Both of these rounds had the same point of impact at 50 yards.
A standard carry sling from Wilderness Tactical Products was all that was needed to shoulder the rifle through the backcountry. I also tested two different buttstock ammo holders from Hill People Gear and Rick Lowe Leather. When I stopped by the WWG shop in Anchorage, the Co-Pilot was upgraded with a weapon light adapter that mounted directly to the magazine tube. Even though we had sunlight almost 24 hours a day, each day there was a brief period of darkness when bears became very active searching for fish carcasses and other easy meals.
In terms of recoil, I’d say it’s similar to that of a 12-gauge shotgun with slugs thanks to the barrel porting and Pachmayr Decelerator pad. Running the butt of the rifle closer to the centerline of your pectoral instead of the shoulder helps mitigate recoil, as does leaning into it.
The Small Bore .22 Pistol
The last time I traveled to Alaska, I carried a .22 rifle around in the Brooks Range while hunting ptarmigan. Many of the birds we encountered were well within 25 yards and could have been taken with a rock or slingshot. Many ptarmigan will instinctively stand still, using their natural camouflage to blend in, which makes headshots possible. At the time, I vowed to carry a .22 pistol the next time I traveled to Alaska; it saves weight and pack space while being equally capable at close range. Pressed into a survival situation, a .22 pistol could be used to gather any of the abundant small game found in Alaska, from rabbits to grouse.
Browning Buck Mark
For this trip, I decided to bring the ultra-reliable Browning Buck Mark. It started off as a standard Camper model. However, after a call to my friends at Tactical Solutions, the Buck Mark became anything but standard.
The rubberized grip panels were replaced with those made from textured G10. Meanwhile, the all-steel barrel was replaced by a lighter fluted aluminum bull barrel with a steel insert. Last but not least, I added a Picatinny rail to the top of the gun; this complemented the front and rear sights, in case I decided to mount a miniature reflex sight.
Given the unique size and shape of this pistol, I needed a holster to accommodate it. Sticky Holsters created a custom rig that would hold the pistol securely in my waistband along with a spare magazine. When I carried it in my pack, the smooth backside of the holster, where the belt loop is usually found, slid right into chamber pockets without much added bulk.
Since this is a survival pistol, I didn’t feel the need to carry more than two magazines. The space and weight additional magazines require could be put to better use carrying loose ammunition. A survival pistol isn’t the same as one meant for gunfighting.
Takedown Rifle, Pistol in the Field
I carried the big-bore/small-bore combination throughout the Kenai River area. We stopped at a spot the locals use for testing their firearms and sighting in. While it’s not an official “range,” we were able to safely ensure the rifle’s optic was sighted in and obtain some velocity data using a MagnetoSpeed chronograph. Every group member tried the guns out, too.
One particular drill we practiced was fully loading our lever gun with a full magazine tube and one round in the chamber, with the rifle placed on “safe” and decocked. All it would take to bring the rifle into action is cocking the hammer and disengaging the safety. This procedure can be done very quickly, and we knew that in the dangerous game of human versus bear, split-second actions and decisions determine who wins and who ends up on or in the ground.
We also tried our hand at popping 12-gauge hulls left on the ground with the .22. The lightweight Buck Mark proved very accurate, and even the most novice shooters in our group could manage hitting hulls at 10 yards.
At our cabin, we kept the lever action at the ready in case we received an unwanted visitor. It’s a good practice to clean any fish and game far from camp and limit the amount of scent left behind.
When we walked through the woods on trails frequented by unarmed tourists, one of us carried the Co-Pilot assembled and loaded in a carrying bag for a folding chair. We didn’t want to trigger anyone offended by the sight of a slung rifle, though this seemed unlikely. When we were on the water, we shouldered the rifle to make it one step closer to being ready while fishing.
Switching It Up
The big-bore/small-bore combination can also work the other way around. Outside of Alaska, a better option might be carrying a .22 LR rifle and a .357 Magnum, 10mm or .44 Magnum handgun. This is especially true when traveling in the backwoods where a .45-70 is overkill for personal protection against typically skittish creatures, or when animals are not in the rut.
Of course, centerfire handguns will never best centerfire rifles in terms of performance. But that doesn’t mean handguns should be dismissed as ineffective against big game. Plenty of hunters will defend their handguns’ capabilities. That’s why we brought multiple pistols on this Alaskan trip; those included a 10mm SIG P220 Hunter and a Ruger Redhawk in .44 Mag, both of which were finished by Robar.
The big-bore/small-bore combo could also be satisfied with a junior hunter carrying a .22 LR rifle and their supervising adult packing a heavier handgun. In any case, one gun in an emergency won’t be as good as two.
Plenty of Signs
Alaska is a state with seemingly endless wilderness. Sightings of large animals are common. However, not all sightings are going to offer a survivor a shot in range, in time or at their convenience.
Smaller animals are definitely more common. “Parky” ground squirrels (so called because their pelts can be used to make parkas), ptarmigan and porcupines are seen frequently. Visitors have remarked about not seeing much while “driving around,” while those who have stayed motionless in the woods have commented on animals starting to appear when their environment is undisturbed.
While harvesting large animals is ideal for families and villages, smaller game makes sense for the woodsman who only needs to fill one pot. On our trip, we came across a few large moose and luckily no bears, although we found plenty of tracks and signs. With all the fish we caught, we didn’t need to draw either firearm. But we all liked having the rifle and pistol handy. This combination served us well, and I believe it can serve you well, too.
For even more info, please visit the following websites:
- Browning: Browning.com
- Tactical Solutions: TacticalSol.com
- Wild West Guns: WildWestGuns.com
Wild West Guns Co-Pilot Takedown Rifle Specs
- Caliber: .457 WWG
- Barrel: 18.5 inches
- Weight: 6.5 pounds (empty)
- Stock: Laminate
- Sights: Blade front, ghost-ring rear
- Action: Lever
- Finish: Stainless
- Capacity: 6+1
- MSRP: $4,065 (as tested)
Tactical Solutions Buck Mark Specs
- Caliber: .22 LR
- Barrel: 5.5 inches
- OA Length: 9.63 inches
- Weight: 24.5 ounces (empty)
- Grips: G10
- Sights: Blade front, adjustable rear
- Action: SA
- Finish: Matte black
- Capacity: 10+1
- MSRP: N/A
This article is from the October/November 2019 issue of Ballistic Magazine. Physical and digital copies are available at OutdoorGroupStore.com.