When I think about Crimson Trace’s “Series” scopes I visualize in my mind some buyer at MidwayUSA.com screaming, “Sell! Sell!” as he collapses into a mosh pit of depressed stock traders, like Randolph Duke the end of the movie “Trading Places”. Crimson Trace came to market with $800-$2000 optics that sold like snow cones in the Arctic despite being at quality and feature parity with other scopes costing $800-$2000. The whims of precision rifle marketplace are sometimes hard to predict and are frequently arbitrary and vulnerable to fads and mania. I mean, Arken optics is still standing despite selling a product of questionable quality at best. I think this situation persists largely because people don’t read and they often don’t think either. People associate brands with quality rather than brand-models. This leads people to buying garbage based on faith, then losing faith because of bad judgement and then when they find real quality goods available, they look askance at it because they’ve been bitten before. Big sale discounts on expensive stuff just makes people nervous anymore. Enter my latest need for a long range capable optic and a budget limited to not far from $800.
My .223rem chambered Mossberg MVP has been without a decent optic for nigh on 2 years now and I promised my nephew that he could go to a match with me soon so I needed a very light recoiling rifle that’s not ultra loud or heavy and it has to have an optic on it that is simple enough (mils not MOA, not a tree reticle, big eye box) for a kid to shoot his first match (and his first time shooting a real powder burning rifle) with. I had been looking for another US Optics SN3 3.8-22x (I like this brand-model and prefer it to most others) before this particular need came up but there weren’t any USO’s being proffered on the secondhand market so I had to look then to other brand scopes and thought a Bushnell DMR or XRS or ERS or HDMR would do very nicely.
Then while browsing around MidwayUSA.com I happened upon the Crimson Trace scopes at 50% off and was made instantly curious. I know they’re made in Japan which is a VERY good sign and I know the original MSRP’s were pretty heart stopping like all top end scopes which is a good sign. So, they had to be at least decent and at 50% off, well now we’re talking real value. Topping all that, any of the Bushnell scopes would have ended up being just a little bit more expensive than I had bucks on-hand for and I didn’t want to overdraft my checking account or wait several days to get paid and risk not getting one because the sale ended or they’d sold out. So, I ponied up to the bar and got the CT Series 5 3-18×50 which I had all the dollars to cover. I’m glad I did. There was also a CT 3-24x but an 8x magnification range, to me, only means an unusable reticle at the low end or too heavy a reticle at the high end. It’s just too much range for me. That being the case, 3-18x is right where I needed. The .223 it’s going on will never need more than 18x anyway. It can’t reach far enough for that to be really helpful and 18x is enough to shoot a mile against a man size target anyway.
These things retailed for $1500-2000 depending on where you went and I can’t see that the marketplace really responded well. It’s a crowded market full of newly formed companies so just leveraging a storied name like Crimson Trace isn’t likely to get you much traction. You need to hit the features:price ratio that makes you barely profitable and you need someone popular to glom onto your stuff. CT had no such luck of getting a popular booster and they didn’t keep the price reasonable. Objectively, the full pop retail price they came out with was not quite highway robbery but they were overpriced. At the price I got them for they were massively under-priced.
Brownell’s sells a “Match Precision Optic” which is literally the exact same scope as the CT Series 5 3-18x50mm but it sells for $1000, not 50% more than that like the CT version’s original retail price. The only difference between the CT scope and the Brownell’s is the red ring of death that CT puts on the ocular to tell you if your eye relief is good which is also a pointless feature in all respects. So I guess the real question you want answered immediately is, “Is the scope worth $1000?” Yes. Totally. Really good glass quality yields clean images and very natural color rendition and a very consistently flat image. My unit passed a box (tracking repeatability) test perfectly and pulled the tall target (click value) test with no measurable error inside 10mils.
Now here’s where a lesson got learned. The Series 5 have 6x or greater magnification range and all sit on 34mm tubes. The Series 3 have a 5x magnification range and some sit on 34mm tubes while others are on 30mm tubes. The 3 Series 5-25x is every bit as optically good as the Series 5. The real difference between the two appears to be tube size and magnification range but not glass quality or tracking. The Series 2, which I haven’t tested yet at the time of this writing but which I will test soon, have 4x magnification range and vary between 30 and 34mm tubes but it’s important to note that they have, as far as I can tell, the same exact glass as in the Series 3 and Series 5 and use the same turret setups. These are quality long range scopes.
Reticles vary across the line and some are pretty busy while others are pretty plain. It’s pretty common for them to have open centers which helps by not obscuring the target. Illumination is really clean with no bloom and plenty of difference between the top and bottom brightness settings and useful differences between adjacent levels.
Magnification and reticle focus rings are firm but not excessively stiff to turn. The elevation turret has nicely distinct clicks but they’re not notchy like a Bushnell ET1040 that feels like you’re shifting gears in gated transmission. The illumination ring is quite stiff and very notchy which I guess one would really want. The parallax ring is firm but not stiff and goes down to 10yrds which is killer if you’re planning on using it on a .22lr. I had no trouble getting target focus on targets up to 1500yrds distant. One thing that CT did which you might find cool but which I do not is what I call their red ring of death (Yes Xbox, I’m making fun of you.). The purpose of the red ring; it’s in the occular lens, is to tell you when you’re at proper eye relief. I thought that would be handy for those match stages where I’m at a really awkward shooting position which is not behind the rifle. It ended up not being quite that handy but it is easily described and so handy for instructing new shooters about eye relief.
There is a zero stop on some models and it’s pretty darned easy to set up, 1 screw in the elevation turret. Another nice feature is the level lines on the sides of the tube. Really simplifies getting the thing level because you just index those to your scope ring’s cap splits and you’re pretty well golden.
What surprises are in store? Well, one big one was these seem to be intended to be used on seriously canted bases. I have a 20MOA rail on my .223 and I put 15 MOA more into the Burris Signature Series XTR rings that I used. That put me pretty much in the middle of the mechanical range for my zero. I like to set up my scopes to be zero’d anywhere from a little under middle of mechanical range to ~2-5mils off the bottom depending on how far I plan to actually use the thing. I set up my scopes so that my max range drops are not at the limits of the mechanical range so I’m still somewhere near the sweet spot of the optical quality when I’m reaching out farthest. That sacrifies some short range optical performance but you can’t tell because it’s at short range where defects have to be much bigger to be apparent.
With anything that’ll go farther than a .223 you’ll probably want to start at 30MOA of base/ring cant and maybe go as high as 40-50MOA. Putting 20, 30, 40MOA in Burris Signature Series XTR rings is trivially easy so you might consider using those rings. They can be a pain to set up as you have to slowly and evenly torque all 12 screws across both rings like you’re installing an aluminum cylinder head, so it’s tedious. It takes a while but it’s not hard to do and the Burris Signature rings don’t mar scope tubes up with ring marks and they have adjustable cant via little polymer eccentric inserts. I use Seekins rings on my US Optics scopes but I use Burris Signature Series XTR’s on anything else with a 34mm main tube (and Burris Signature Series Zee rings on 30mm tubes).
What’s not awesome? They’re not winning any awards for total windage adjustment range. The total range of up is about 35mils (~120MOA) which is generous but the windage turret seems limited to adjustments that might actually be useful, not much more than 20Mil of total L-R range. The elevation turret also has a little tiny bit of lash in the clicks which annoys some people. The most annoying thing is that Brownells is selling the exact same thing for half of the original retail price of the CT’s so it seems that CT was being a little greedy and got their comeuppance. Now that their pee-pee got smacked though, we get the bargains as CT gets out of the business or at least abandons the line (one might assume that the Brownell’s MPO kind of outed CT’s overpricing move). They still make scopes but not this line. They’ve got a lifetime warranty, and lifetime battery replacement which is bizarre, as well so you can feel respectively protected and confused there.
These scopes do not come with a sunshade and there is not one available as far as I can tell. Bummer. What you can get are throw levers (20 bucks) from Crimson Trace. I don’t see a need for them for me but if you want one, they’re available. As far as accessories, that’s all folks.
So, if you were in the market for an optic in the $450-1000 range at the time, you got your butt over to MidwayUSA.com and ordered up one of these bad boys. Series 2, 3 or 5 you’re in for a great scope. The best bargains are on the Series 5’s and the Series 3’s but the Series 2’s are pretty darned nice and should not be overlooked as they’re superior in some respects. While you’re shopping, grab a set of Burris XTR Signature Series rings, a Fat Wrench and a 20MOA picatinny rail and you’ve got the whole kit.
After I got my scope and had done all my testing on it, I was looking for other reviews. Mostly this is to see if others had different experiences before I go writing any review articles. If there’s substantial inconsistency of quality/performance then I usually will not publish an article. This is why low and middle end Vortex stuff never appears in these pages. QC by RMA is easily forgiven by the masses if the warranty process is simple and if the warranty process is too simple and forgiving, like Vortex’s, then you get a lot of people that say, “Oh it works perfectly.” even though they’re on their 6th replacement unit and nobody complains that QC is crap. Whereas with a company that tries to make 6-sigma manufacturing quality a reality and which treats warranty claims as serious failures of the manufacturing operation will usually get pilloried for even a single trivial failure that gets publicized even if there’s a million other units that never had problem-1. While looking around I found the Dark Lord of Optics. He has his shit together and knows what he’s talking about. He actually did a little comparo of 50mm objective precision rifle scopes with a broad range of price points, from expensive to heart-stoppingly-expensive and he came up with (no surprise) essentially the same result.
You should expect that when you spend $400 on a scope promising features that are normally only found to be well executed on scopes costing 3-4 times as much that you’re going to get a pile of shit, and this is no exception. It’s a terrible scope in the extreme but only because of a single aspect. If it weren’t for that one aspect being so incredibly shitty, the thing would actually made some of the decent scores and doubling the price would not be out of the question. However, with that one aspect being what it is, the scope is just a 20-piece bucket of extra crispy fried failure.
First off, I ordered mine in the first week of September and there was a 8-12 week lead time. Fine. Covid plus hot new product equals long lead time. Come January I got a little annoyed at it being over a month beyond the 12 week line and dropped them a line. They couldn’t even find my order because they track based on the email address you use in the order. The email address I communicate with humans over is not the same one that I associate orders of stuff from the internet with. If you got 1500 emails a day of which a couple hundred were important, you’d use account-based filtering too. They also couldn’t find my order using any of the transaction numbers provided during the Paypal transaction as searchable keys. So, initially, they couldn’t even find my order at all. Whomever set up their ecommerce widgets should be downright ashamed. Up until right here customer service was basically a deadpan attitude with a veneer of gofuckyourselfness barely detectable under the superficial politeness and they didn’t seem to keen on finding out what the hell happened. I guess politeness only goes so far.
So, not getting anything with honey, I decided to change to vinegar and I rotated my attitude a bit in order to get a bit snippy with them. Now they decided to bother looking and promptly found my order. Here’s where my disappointment with Arken Optics reaches a boiling point. Once they did find my order they told me that the Post Office had decided to not deliver it, marking it undeliverable, which is odd considering I get something like 10 packages a day on average. In any event, the scope was returned to Arken and then Arken NEVER EVEN BOTHERED CONTACTING ME ABOUT THAT. Just took my $400 and looked the other direction. This is a kind of “He’ll contact us if he feels it’s important.” attitude and it is not the kind of attitude that is OK in this situation.
So we know that while the company isn’t totally shitty, there are definitely some smelly, wet, brown streaky things running up and down their customer focus and customer service britches. How about in the product itself? Is there, to use a bit of an aged corporate tag line, any evil lurking in their plumbing? Who knows? Adee do.
The scope wasn’t totally hopeless out of the gate. It has some nice bits. The turrets are huge and nicely tactile which very distinct clicks and an easy to read knob. Click values were repeatable and accurate for elevation and windage. The sunshade that’s included is of a useful length. The thing weighs like it should if it were high quality (that’s usually an indicator, not this time). The zero-stop was cleverly simple and super easy to deal with. The pinch screw type caps will never be on my list of good decisions but they worked just fine.
The bubble level is probably the cheapest unit they could find and mine came with it’s screw hole courteously pre-cross-threaded for me so just getting the screw out was a whore of a chore. The aluminum (or pot metal) that the body of the level was made of was so soft that I was able to just force the screw in and it seems to have re-cut the threads well enough to hold. Soft but not brittle I guess. Lucky me. Still, in the end it is a level and I was able to successfully install it and to use it from behind the rifle so, full points there.
The throw lever would be excellent on a scope that didn’t have the power ring doped down with 30ftlbs of minimum turning torque. Since the power ring does need a simple STUPID high amount of turning torque, the throw lever really needs to be about 10 inches longer. Seriously. Not joking. Even with the throw lever, trying to change magnification quickly like one might do in a PRS stage was simply not possible and trying to accomplish it with increasing force levels was seriously painful. I soon found out that there’s no amount of force you can apply to the power ring to make it turn much faster than super slow. It’s from here on out that things start going uniformly sideways.
What did they get so badly wrong that the tone of this piece has descended to the level of someone in Hell with bronchitis? Well, lots of places but the worst by far was the glass itself. On high magnification levels, anything above ~14x, it’s like looking through a potato chip. Focusing on something like a 2/3 IPSC target at 800yrds was simply not possible at any magnification and as the magnification crawled past 14x the thing became generally less and less usable at any distance. Every optical aspect was simply terrible. I thought I might be spoiled and had a friend who’s also a long range shooter take a peek. He was less generous in his assessment than I have been anywhere in this article.
Beyond the milkiness I got wicked amounts of color separation, meaning that they probably didn’t use apochromatically corrected lenses and if they did, the correction is not correct to say the least. In addition to that, the parallax knob that should focus the image simply would not do that to any distant target. Close and mid-range was not a problem to focus the target on but after about 800 yards I found it simply impossible to get focus that would allow me to resolve 3-inch wide bullet splash marks against the otherwise white painted steel. Pathetic! Utterly pathetic. I got radically better performance from an SWFA 16×42 looking at the same target on the same day and that scope is not exactly the kitties titties of resolution awesomeness. Even a Nikon P223 was dramatically superior in optical clarity. NOTE: I put a bullet through that Nikon the same day I wrung out the Arken so that should tell you about what I think of the Arken SH4. This Arken SH4 is basically what you get when you send $400 to China and ask them to provide you with a little surprise butt sex. Doing one or the other probably won’t have the same effect. You have to do both at the same time for the full effect.
The eye box on the Arken SH4 is very tight even at low magnifications. Tight eye boxes make a scope harder than necessary to use when things aren’t otherwise perfect. It wasn’t brutally tight like I’ve seen on some scopes and it didn’t feel ‘weird’ in the eye like Athlon Ares ETR’s did. It’s just really tight. Tight enough to be irritating but not to make it unusable, unlike the glass itself.
Ring torque limits are helpfully printed on the scope body. It said 18inlbs so I did not exceed that. The tree reticle they offer is great at high magnification but it is essentially invisible at low magnification. The idea behind very fine reticle lines is one that says the user might bias toward high magnification use cases and that’d be fine if the scope was at all usable at high magnifications. However, in the middle range where it was possible to get ok focus, the reticle was so thin that it was easily lost against the background and doing holdover and holdoff with a reticle like that was much more difficult than it should have been.
Now then, that 34mm tube. The 34mm tube seems utterly pointless in this application. The whole reason for using one is to either make larger, easier and cheaper to manufacture lens elements so you get good optical quality for less money, or to provide for greater turret adjustment range. It seems that they didn’t go with the range option as this scope sports a pretty large but not atypical 35mils (120MOA) of up (I have seen variables with up to 70MILS of up). Windage capacity wasn’t nearly so generous either, about 1/2 of the elevation range in practice so you’d think that the lens elements were where they spent the money. It’s not. What you end up with from the 34mm tube is not a quality image. What you really get out of it is having to buy rings that cost 2-5x as much as a 30mm ring and that’s about it. Think about it. You can’t use the extra up if you can’t use enough magnification to see a small target far enough to need the extra up.
All in all, this was the single worst use of $400 I have ever managed to execute. I didn’t even feel right about selling the thing on without heavily discounting the price and telling the buyer exactly what they were in for. I would imagine that the EP4 line is substantially better and I would be willing to bet a crispy $1 bill that’ll work in any machine that they’re going to have to jack the price on the EP4 into the damned stratosphere so they can afford to sell more of them. If not, then Arken Optics will, in my prediction, end up as the next Barska or NCStar or Centerpoint… making some of the shittiest scopes in the world for some of the most gullible motherfuckers ever born.
A 75mm platform, 34mm main tubes made from 10 layers of CF and almost a direct copy of a Really Right Stuff tripod plus additional features, the ST344c is fully capable, economical and well made.
In the past decade or so a disturbing trend has arisen in the shooting sports world. It’s like there’s a competition involving everybody versus everybody else to see who can be the biggest spendthrift and to do it for no reason at all. Supplied by makers of excellently made and ridiculously overpriced shooting accessories abounding in the world, this trend is being fueled by both innovation and keeping up with the Jones’. Innovation is good. Keeping up with the Jones’ is horrible and ruins sports.
When you throw up huge cost penalties for people wanting to compete at a reasonably high level all you do is look at potential customers and tell them, “Fuck off! This game isn’t for you, Poor.” Never mind the fact that the prices are made artificially high in nearly every case and that the poors (I’m using the term “poors” tongue in cheek. I myself was a poor for most of my life until hard work finally caught up with me and paid off.) are the people you want to get buying your stuff because there’s so many of them and they’re frequently prone to following fads. It’s not like I’m saying that people on tight budgets are stupid but stupidity is necessarily represented more thoroughly among their number than among Richie Rich types. It’s hard to get rich or stay rich if you’re a fool with your money. I guess an argument could be made for this being the exact reason for the current state of affairs but, I’m sticking with my assertion for now that the poors are being cynically and willfully disenfranchised by product makers to the detriment of the rest of us. The thing that the poors teach you, how to do things with limited resources, should be valued by manufacturers and by consumers with large and small budgets.
I’m not the kind of guy that keeps up with anyone. I, personally, could give 2 cold squirts of democrat piss about what Mr. and Mrs. Jones own and use. Nor am I an early adopter. Or a late adopter. I’m what you might call a “damned-near-never-adopter”. Never will I hemorrhage tall stacks of cash on any new whizbang gizmo or toy that just erupted uninvited into my universe for the simple fact that it’s new. In short, I do not suffer from the incurable state of permanent want that appears to have stricken nearly everyone in the shooting sports world, and the greater society at large. Ads for particularly expensive Mercedes-Benz models do not get my coveting sub-routines activated. It’s no use trying to engage my enthusiasm to purchase anything because I haven’t got an enthusiasm to engage… it was never installed at the factory. Part of this attitude comes from a pervasive natural skepticism, part of it is an ascetic streak in my character born of growing up exceedingly poor and part of it is a genuine desire to discover what stuff out there really works so I avoid buying what doesn’t work. Eventually I will acquire a desire to buy some of the things that really work. I will, though, still wait to buy them until after their fad status has waned and their true value or lack thereof has been exposed.
Seriously… Go on and keep that bandwagon space just for you. I ain’t riding it. When super fancy scopes that made the once legendary Leupold Mk4 look sad and aged came out, I didn’t jump on them. I stayed with the old Weaver T-series and Sightron target scopes for nearly 10 more years before I slow-walked across the street into the world of Vortex Razor 2’s, Steiner M’s and US Optics TPAL series scopes. When everyone else had already abandoned McMillan A5 stocks in favor of all aluminum chassis stocks, I stuck with my hand laid fibreglass until MDT admitted to the world that a quality chassis for under 1000 bucks was doable. When Masterpiece Arms later went and made the be-all-end-all PRS chassis stock, I stayed with my MDT LSS. I do not waste money and I certainly don’t spend it twice if there’s not a genuine need. When I do spend money, I’m spending on something that had better last because I am only going to buy it once. Sure an MPA chassis might do me marginally better but, I don’t need it. I have an MDT chassis that suits me quite well and does good work for me. This will keep me out of many winners circles but it doesn’t materially diminish my enjoyment of the sport or my ability to excel at it.
Occasionally in the global marketplace that we all exist inside of there will come to be more than one brand/model of catchmefuckme which appear to be competitive with each other but which have a price difference that normally suggests 1 unit is good and the other is a dumpster-fire. On very rare occasions; almost so rarely as to not actually happen, both units will be totally acceptable, even directly comparable in fit/finish/quality/capacity/etc… and the only real difference between the two will be price. You might be thinking that because this article has been written and because the beginning of it has been phrased the way that it has that we’ve found one of those unicorns and, you’d be right. Normally the stuff I review is not bargain model stuff because usually that stuff is made out of shit. Not this time.
So, it’s time yet again to look at toys for the rest of us, the poors. This rest of us I speak of includes specifically the part of the population that, like me, doesn’t need a particular brand label to give away how much I paid for my toy in order for it to have any value to me. Nor do I gain self-worth from the cost of my toys. Everyone with a bent similar to mine, stick around because there’s good stuff here. Everyone else, you’re excused if you want to be but you’re encouraged to stay a bit as you will definitely have the most to gain from the brain dump being performed herein.
Enter Innorel. Yeah, you’ve never probably heard of them probably because I seriously doubt that it’s a company so much as a brand. I also know that Innorel isn’t the only brand with CF tripods at reasonable prices. They’re starting to pop up all over but, the only brand I’ve been able to validate as living up to their promises or not is Innorel. The guys over at SnipersHide.com went over the RT90c which has 40mm primary tubes and a couple other minor features not found on the ST344c. The RT-90c is $100 more expensive than the ST344c and for that you get a quick release bowl, slightly beefier legs, 20lbs more capacity and it weighs 2lbs more than the ST344c. For the average competitive shooter, the difference between the two is essentially zero so dropping to 34mm primaries, dropping 2lbs of mass and keeping 100 bucks in the wallet is probably a pretty damned good trade. The ST-80c starts at 32mm legs and 44lbs of capacity with only 8 layers of CF. While it might be ok for a 10lbs hunting rifle, the ST-80c is a little light on capacity for my taste for a PRS type rifle that weights nigh on 20lbs or more despite it being $60 cheaper. That $60 is probably an important $60 to spend.
If your use case can tolerate a 77lbs capacity instead of an 88lbs capacity, 2lbs less shit to drag around and having basically every other capability and feature at parity then the ST344c is probably worth a look even by professional shooters. 40mm primaries aren’t going to do that much better than 34’s unless you’re shooting a boomer like a .338LM/.375CT/.50BMG.
Where does this fall down against the RRS? The only thing I can see so far is the little leg locks aren’t spring loaded on the Innorel. That’s about it. Short of testing to destruction it’s been impossible to find anything else and I’d like to use it in another few matches before breaking it. I did test abusively by hanging my 170lbs of lazy-ass bastard from the ball-head platform with the tripod fully extended to maximum height. It took that without a creak. It’s been holding up my 18lbs rifle for 3 days now and the ball head hasn’t moved.
On to the ball-head. I’ve not found a lot of these that I like. If they’re easy to disengage the lock on then they’re so easy to adjust that it becomes impossible to actually get on target. I popped for the Innorel N52 ball head which is the biggest one I could find. It is quite nice but the knob on the ARCA clamp is entirely too small for my comfort especially with my arthritic hands.
What would be cool on them is little throw levers… I might try to fab some up. We’ll see. Anyway, the N52 ball head has little relief notches in it that allow the ball head to offer a truly vertical view up or down. It’s easy enough to get a good friction setting on the panning knob and the main knob is big enough to get a decent grip on though I keep scraping my fingers on the platform when I use it. With a 52mm ball diameter there’s a ton of surface area to get a good grip on so it’ll hold some pretty heavy rifles pretty far from their center of mass and it should hold up nearly any camera you can find that’s not making major motion pictures.
The ST-344c tripod itself is $229 which is about 1/5th the cost of a comparable RRS unit. The N52 ball head is $89 meaning you can be participating in positional stages with your own kit for less than a new barrel costs, instead of for as much as a new RPR costs. So far testing hasn’t shown any surprises. A Wiebad Fortune Cookie sits well enough on top for those times when that’s needed. Any ol’ ARCA rail fits just fine in the ball head and the whole unit seems durable, well made, light and inexpensive. Gear queers that love keeping up with the Jones family may not be happy at the low low low price but shooters on a budget certainly will.
Were you starting to think PRS/NRL type competitive shooting was financially out of reach because every single accessory you need is 1000 bucks a pop? Well, this is one shot well timed and aimed in the price war. Is RRS’s kit better, yes. That’s no reason to ignore the elephant in the room though, which is that the amount better the RRS units are to a comparably sized Innorel is infinitesimal.
Where you might just find some value/utility in spending more or at least shopping around a bit more is in the ball head. While it’s totally usable and even really nice in some ways, you want the ball head to be perfect for you. That may be different to it being perfect for others and since preference will play such a big role, it’s advisable to go to matches and try what others are using and see what you like and what you don’t. You can’t tell how you’ll like it until you put a rifle on it and try to aim at some distant target. If the target isn’t far away then you won’t see where the unit in question is going to fall flat on its face. You can’t judge stability against targets that are close.
Cool Bits & Features: 77lbs capacity, comes with aluminum spike feet so you don’t have to buy them separately, one of the legs can be spun off and used as a walking stick or monopod to which the ball head mount attaches, there is a circular level in the ball-head mounting base, it can lay darned near flat or be nearly 6ft tall, it comes with a very nice bag and tools, the ball-head also comes with its own case and 2 mounting plates for cameras/binos/etc…, 3 leg positions, huge rubber feet.
If you thought you couldn’t afford a nice one, I know this one will do nicely for you. The next model down (ST-80C or ST-324C) will probably also do nicely for you but the capacity drops substantially so, watch the weight limits. Based on the testing I’ve been able to do, you want the capacity to be at least double the weight of your gun plus the recoil impulse in pounds so you’ve always got more capacity to spare to be able to load pressure onto the rifle and deal with forces being applied you might not be fully aware of in a competition setting.
So if you have a 20lbs rifle that makes 6lbs of free recoil (this is typical of 6.5CM or 6CM level power) then you want 52lbs capacity from both your tripod and your ball head. If you’re running a 20lbs rile in a big magnum chambering like 300WM that makes closer to 20lbs of free recoil then you’ll be looking for 80lbs of capacity. You cannot have too much ball-head weight capacity and that could be said of tripod capacity but in my experience you can punish a tripod a lot more than a ball head.
Now, let’s turn to what else you can do with this thing. Start with a spare 34mm QD picatinny ring. Then add one of these https://www.amazon.com/Hygoo-Adapter-Picatinny-Tactical-Barrel/dp/B07WDDXRL5 and a little bit of creativity. Mount both rings to the removable leg on the tripod, one at each end of the first (fat) section. Now you mount your bipod to the Hygoo adapter and the 34mm QD ring to the Pic rail on your rifle’s fore end (or grab an ARCA adapter from Wiser precision if you’re running ARCA https://www.wiserprecision.com/products/arca-swiss-picatinny-adapter). You’ve now got a bipod mount extension with the ability to move your bipod out in front of your muzzle which will provide massive stability gains. Just a thought. It should be mentioned that a BipodeXt is a better solution to this need but it also costs a few hundred bucks more and is one more thing to carry around. I really like the BipodeXt myself but when I want to reduce the amount of stuff I carry I can leave it out.
The speed with which the unit arrived is exemplary of my experiences with MDT. Every single time they surprise me by getting my order to my door several days ahead of when I might expect. It was ordered on the 10th and arrived on the 13th. I got order and ship notices via email with all the information I needed.
Installation was trivially easy and fast. It took only 2 minutes to uninstall the XLR unit and install the MDT unit. Getting it timed into position was not as easy as the XLR because the MDT uses a single screw to snug up the receiver block to the FSA and the act of snugging it up can easily cause the FSA to rotate a bit. It was not the unending bitch to get clocked right that the UTG/Leapers unit was. The XLR system uses 2 screws which avoids the whole issue and I think MDT might make a few friends by adopting that design element. Getting the butt stock installed was trivial and the castle nut locked it up just fine.
The single center screw that snugs up the chassis end made clocking the MDT unit a very little bit frustrating. It’s lugged on the other side but the lug has a lot of play in it so it’s not helpful.
Now came the biggest surprise so far. The lockup of the MDT unit was FLAWLESS out of the box and there was no way (or need) to tweak it. It’s just tight as a nun’s cunt right out of the box. That being the case, it occasionally was a little less willing to unlock than the XLR unit. You might notice I’m comparing the XLR and MDT directly a lot. Well, that’s because so far they’re really close and it’s the only comparison that seemed remotely fair.
After installation and some snap-open and snap close work, it was outside to bash against a barricade. The MDT unit simply excelled. Pushing, pulling, plopping hard on the ground, high angle where I’m putting my fully body weight down through the stock and into the bipod… all were easily tolerated and no evidence of strain on the unit was evident.
It’s a little longer than the XLR unit, just enough that I had to reset my XLR Tactical butt stock LOP from where it was with the XLR unit. Interestingly, not one has been 100% interchangeable with any other so far, though the UTG and XLR units were the closest so far.
The large pin in the lower left side seems to be what provides for a lot of the insanely perfect lockup that the MDT unit delivers. If only they’d price it right.
The MDT has no mechanism for adding drag to the open/close and if you want it double locking then it’s another $50. Getting to $200 for what is really nothing but a toy for most civilian uses is starting to get excessive especially when UTG manages two-way locking for $15. If MDT would have included that lock-open at the $149 price point, they’d have OWNED this comparison on value for features, and performance.
Given the testing criteria some points were deducted. The steel locking mechanism added .25pts it might not have otherwise gotten but it lost .5pts because it didn’t come with instructions (you have to go online to get them). The choice for steel lockup parts and aluminum body parts, that’s good material selection. That the lockup was SO tight right out of the box actually got me curious as to how they did it because it’s non-obvious. It’s very difficult to have 2 pieces of anything that don’t actually screw together that lock up that tightly. MDT’s engineering team outdid themselves on that feature. After all was said and done, the MDT unit pulled in 16.75 out of 19 points. That reflects my own personal feelings on the matter pretty well so there’s good inter-observer correlation between my subjective analysis and the objective points-based analysis. There’s a bit about the MDT that’s more admirable from an engineering point of view than with the XLR but, I like the XLR a little more overall right now, not least of which because it comes in 30 bucks cheaper and doesn’t really sacrifice anything over the MDT unit but the XLR does have the ability to add friction to the fold to act as a hold-open which the MDT does not unless you pop the extra $50 for 2-way locking.
Additional Notes on XLR and UTG/Leapers Units
Continuing our testing and evaluation of these folding stock adapters, while we waited for the MDT unit to arrive and almost every other unit to come off back order, the fiddling picked up. So what new do we have to report? Not a lot of news but some refinement of earlier points. It’s surprising really how much you get right on a surface examination and a couple quick function tests. The long testing procedure that’s being done is actually almost unnecessary. Important differences jump out at you and unimportant ones don’t.
The XLR unit is really fantastic and after stopping worrying about breaking the allen key in my hand, I got a little more twist on the drag screw… which didn’t really help at all. I’ve gotten the lockup tuned to perfectly snug. This XLR unit is fast becoming a favorite. It’s just elegant and smooth in all its design and operation. So far this is looking like the one that I’ll use on all of my buffer-tube equipped bolt action rifles long term but it’s still a bit early to say. The SB Tactical is so small and light that it might have to win… if we could ever get hold of one.
The UTG/Leapers unit continues to not be my favorite but it also continues to impress me with its strength and surprise me with how good it manages to be for fifteen measly bucks. Then again, thinking back to that install and the fact that it’s actually quite difficult to unlock from either the open or closed position it’s certainly not in first place even if it was free. The question is ,will it be second to last or not? The jury is still out but I suspect that it will be higher up the ladder than 2nd to last. One thing we can pronounce right here and now: If your budget is insanely tight and you need to fold your rifle stock and it accepts AR-15 buffer tubes, then you could do a shitload worse than the UTG. It is not sexy and sophisticated but it is 100% workable. If you’ve got a little more scratch then the XLR or MDT offerings would be a heck of a first stop on the train to happiness.
This is the least expensive unit by FAR. 5x cheaper than the next cheapest and ~10x cheaper than the average. Definitely made of aluminum and lacking in pretty much any kind of sophistication. That’s ok. Keeps prices down. It also is not capable of being what it advertises itself to be because AK’s don’t come with buffer tubes. It’s unclear how much we should expect from this thing. The unit was ordered on October 24th and is arrived on November 9th. A single shipping notice was sent when it was shipped. If someone were really smart they’d take this design and make it out of steel with very snug tolerances and burn off some of the pointy parts while they’re at it. I betcha that would be a heck of a unit.
You can see the U-shaped notch at the bottom where the huge locking block locks in. The tapered locking block should make for a no-wiggle lockup but requires a few pieces of tape to get there.
Installation is a bitch. It’s not hard to thread the thing in, and it comes with its own especially slender castle nut but that castle nut is still a little fucker to get cinched down. Pro-tip: Start at the back and snug forward. Seems to be the only way. If you don’t have a standard AR armorers tool or a specialized castle nut tool for AR’s then don’t even try to start the installation. While installing, pre-clock the stock about 20 degrees short of where you want it to come out and then when you’re snugging the castle nut the stock will end up rotating into position. Yeah, shitty but it was the only way I could get it to work.
Once you do manage to get it installed and everything lined up you’ll go to open it and find that it will either be very easy or very much a little pain in the dick. Whilst being a pain in the dick it will bite the absolute hell out of your hand. It’ll do this a number of times before you work out a technique that allows you to open and close the thing and not get bit. For me it’s not easy to have the muzzle resting anywhere but on my toes and the scope pressed against my belly to fold/unfold it. The upside of that is, when it’s closed it’s staying closed and there’s a lot of material involved in the lock-up so it’s looking like that’ll be pretty hard to bust.
Honestly, if some enterprising individual were to look at it and make a couple tiny design improvements like: unlocking cams (so you don’t have to muscle it to unlock it), rounding off all the places that are in line with bolt operation, making the engagement angles wider, making the whole damned thing out of carbon steel… but I digress, they would make an affordable as heck to produce and thence own FSA that would probably own a large part of the bolt action rifle market just on price.
It’s hard to stress how weird the thing is. It’s cheeeeeeeeeeap and it sweats cheap out of every pore but it’s not the typical kind of cheap that has it breaking on installation. It’s the kind of cheap that says, “I’m ok with the occasional blood blister if it makes the total cost under $20.” Lockup isn’t super solid but it’s not a wiggle-bitch either. 8 strips of masking tape strategically applied to oppose the lockup surfaces took 100% of the wiggle out.
I have to say that for under $20 and 8 little strips of masking tape, it’s pretty darned surprisingly ok. It really is something that I think MOST guys with rifles in chassis stocks that use AR buffer tubes could probably get by with. I certainly would personally and at minimum upgrade to the XLR unit because I have a limited supply of patience and knuckle skin. That said, if $115 is hard for your budget to justify, under $20 sure as shit isn’t so hard, especially when they made the thing pretty robustly and all the features do, in fact, work. Probably they made it robustly because they care about their name so they went cheap-ish on the materials but not so cheap that they have to violate PayPal and Facebook ToU’s to sell any of them.
Instead of stealing a design that really necessitates steel, they went with aluminum and a design that could deal with being made from aluminum. UTG is one of those outfits I give TONS of well deserved shit to because they aim at the low end of the market and their quality of execution is nearly always below my expectation. The suitability of the stuff they make to at least minimally function isn’t the problem. It’s that it only minimally functions on average and often will not have a long life expectancy. This FSA functions. It functions well in the open and closed positions and it accomplishes the transition with, if not no bloodletting at all, at least a minimum of it and I think guys on an extremely snug budget would be decently served by it. That said, save the money and get the XLR or a Doublestar. The amount better that they are over the cheapest options is pretty worth it, if for no other reason than the reduction in blood blisters they will give you.
With all that going for it, the initial score for the UTG unit was 11.5 out of 20. That’s pretty darned good, especially since it lost a high proprotion of the points that it did lose from there being a little wiggle, the installation being a major bitch and there being no instructions or tools included.
Folding stocks are great. They let us collapse the overall length of our rifles for easier transport or carrying. Folding stocks started on guns that were commonly carried by troops like tankers and truck drivers and, most notably, paratroopers. Airplanes and vehicles are confining places. If you’re stuck with a 4ft long gun all the time, you’re going to be bumping into shit and flagging everyone else that happens to live through being around you. Shortening the weapon system made it safer to have a number of armed men all packed like sardines in a can.
Solution? Folding that butt stock over the side/top/bottom of the rifle is a heck of a good start. It’s an easy way to cut a full foot off of the average rifle or carbine. Of course as soon as you solve any one problem with technology, you end up creating new ones. With folding stocks, the act of folding them over can interfere with the operation of the weapon. When deciding on a weapon and a folding stock mechanism, one should know if they’re going to want to fire while folded and select accordingly.
Some time back in history Law Tactical came out with what is considered by many to be kind of the gold standard of folding stock adapters for AR-15’s. Their system is clever, durable and functional. There’s only 1 way they could have made it any better which would be being able to shoot with the stock folded. Doing that is impossible with the normal operational mechanism of the AR-15 platform. So, it’s a pretty big win for Law Tactical to hit all the other nails so squarely on their heads.
Since Law Tactical came out with their unit criminals in China and the USA have copied the design and produced thousands of poor quality units from inferior materials. At the same time additional players have entered the market with their own, occasionally original, designs. Law Tactical doesn’t go out and whine though. They know that if you want the best, you’ll get their unit and if you don’t, you won’t and there’s nothing they can do to change your mind.
What nobody has done so far is try to break every single one of them and compare and contrast them for appropriateness on bolt action rifles. So here at BallisticXLR, that’s exactly what we’re going to do. We’re looking at the available designs with an eye to how well they’ll work on a bolt action rifle that gets used roughly. We’re looking for function, materials selection, ergonomics, lockup when closed, lockup when open, engagement surface wear-in, accumulated dings/dents, and then if they work on gas guns, we’ll check that all out on a gas gun too.
To look at each of those areas we have formalized a testing regime. Each test is worth 1 point and fractional points are allowed. Beyond those functional points we’ll be looking subjectively at the lot and taking a critical eye to each design. Hopefully at the end we can find a set of criteria that make selecting an adapter easy and we might just inspire someone to make the next coolest thing.
Materials – Steel 1pt, 7075 Al .75pt, 6061 AL .5pt, pot metal .25pt, glass 0pt.
Lock-open / Open Detent – Locks/holds in the open position as well as the closed position.
Surface Pre-test- Inspect surface finish of all surfaces. No wear 1pt, light scratches .75pt, dents .5pt, galling .25pt, breakage 0pt.
Installation – comes with all tools/parts/etc… needed for installation.
Installation – comes with instructions for installation.
Installation – instructions are easily followed and include useful pictures or pictographic representations which are easily identified.
Tuning – Methods exist to close buffer tube interface tolerances to zero. both ends 1pt, 1 end .5pt, none at all 0pt.
Snap Close – 10 snap closures with no dents/dings/breakage/failure to lock
Snap Open – 10 snap opening with no dents/dings/breakage/failure to lock/unlock
Barricade Bash – run to prone, prone to 3-step barricade, prone from barricade exercise 5x
Wiggle Check – Prone w/ bipod loaded
Wiggle Check – Prone w/ bipod unloaded
Wiggle Check – Prone w/ bipod reverse loaded
Wiggle Check – Torque load
Wiggle Check – Bending load
Wiggle Check – Shear load
Ergonomics – does not invade grip space on bolt gun 1pt, gas gun 1pt
Ergonomics – sharp edges, pinchy parts, etc…
Surface Post-test – Inspect surface finish of all surfaces. No dents/galling 1pt, dents .5pt, galling .25pt, breakage 0pt.
Compactness – Measured by water displacement. Rank order based on number of units in test total. Divide 10 by that number to get the rank order point total. Top gets 1 point. Bottom gets 0 points.
Law Tactical Folding Stock Adapter – $239-269 retail vs. Facebook Knock-off: $58 retail
So far we’ve tested a knock-off of the Law Tactical unit as well as the real thing. The real deal Law Tactical FSA is stupid strong and really works well at everything it does. Guns with really touchy gas systems or that are a bit undergassed may experience cycling issues but that’s easily treated with a change to buffer, spring or gas port. The Law tactical unit is so good that I’m really surprised that they don’t get factory equipped on TONS of AR’s. In fact, the Law Tactical unit is so good that it is the benchmark against which all others will be measured (with the exception of the water displacement test which we won’t know the results of for a while). That being the case, the Law Tactical comes out with an near perfect benchmark score of 19. I have good reason to believe that it will not scrape up the extra point for a perfect 20 because I know some of the other units are a bit smaller.
The first new unit tested was pretty obvious about how it was going to turn out as it was advertised on Facebook at a price point that simply couldn’t be done with good materials. It was purchased just to see how bad something could be and still have thousands of units sold. Well, how bad was it? It broke during installation so it couldn’t have possibly done much worse. Even if it hadn’t broken so early, given where it broke it would have broken very early in the more physical of the remaining tests and would not have scored any of those points. That’s pretty pathetic.
The Chinese unit was found on Facebook. It was ordered on September 5th and arrived on October 24th (~50 days to deliver), mailed from New York City in an envelope littered with Chinese characters. An obvious re-ship despite the ad saying “Made in the USA”. I’d actually stopped expecting it to show up at all and just counted that $58 as a loss. In addition to all the other shady shit going on with this thing, the PayPal transaction showed that the seller was involved in selling “Clothing” which was a lie as their actual market space is a violation of the PayPal ToS.
The locking hasp for the Chinese unit showing deep dings in the ramp and the nose busted clean off.
The unit was made of partly what seems to be very light/low density aluminum alloy but all the little parts that go inside it are made of what appears to be pot metal or an even lower grade of aluminum alloy that has all the strength of egg shells. If you tried to do something this badly, I don’t think that you could. It takes a special talent for being shitty to punch that low. Since it’s the same size as the Law unit, we’ll assume it won’t do very well on the displacement test either. Both the Law and the fake Law do invade the area behind the web of your thumb when put on a pure carbine tube interface on bolt action rifles like that on my gen 1 MDT LSS chassis but, it does not do that on AR-15’s or bolt action chassis that were meant to take the taller, teardrop shaped fixed stock interface.
Our unit broke at the locking pin that keeps it closed. The nose of that locking pin just snapped off the first time it was given a snap close. Prior to snap closing a couple tries at more slowly closing it didn’t work. That failure to close gently was the reason for trying to snap it closed. You can see on the picture above that each of the gentle attempts to close it actually damaged this part. When I followed that up with a snap closing, the poor quality material made its opinion heard and it gave up the ghost. So the Facebook / Chinese Law clone graduates with 2.4 points earnedso farout of a possble 19. Way to wow us.
This was only the third unit to arrive for testing and, boy, we could not have had a better counterpoint to the garbage from China. Nicely made, clearly aluminum but good strong aluminum. I’ve bashed this thing around really hard trying to get it to break but it just won’t. I’ve done the barricade bashing and live fire range testing and all the other tests. The designer should feel really good about their work. It’s a small unit full of very clever ways to deal with inevitable issues native to folding stocks being put where they maybe weren’t originally intended to go.
XLR’s adapter. The top & bottom screws snug up the adapter to chassis fit. The center screw adjusts the wiggle out of the joint.
There’s just the tiniest amount of audible jiggle in there out of the box but I can’t tell where from. You can only get an idea that it’s not a single piece by shaking it roughly. The lockup is really tight and is adjustable through a very clever and dead simple adjustment screw. Once adjusted, there’s no wiggle at all. A standard castle nut on the rear holds that side firm. The chassis to adapter interface is made rock solid via 2 snugging-up screws that are, like the rest of it, clever in how they work. Cinching up the adapter to the chassis side and getting it clocked properly is the easiest of any unit tested.
The method to add drag to the folding mechanism is simple and easy to use but I wish it’d let me add a little more drag. The system is basically to squeeze the hinge, directly adding friction. At some point the screw you snug up for that just doesn’t turn anymore but there’s still not that much drag on the mechanism. The drag helps to keep the thing in the open position when folded but it’s not quite enough to deal with the weight of my XLR Tactical stock and full length buffer tube if I shake the thing vigorously while holding the whole contraption horizontal. It did just fine for a vigorous hike while stowed on a pack frame, in that it didn’t come loose and bang me in the back of the head. On the other side of the coin, it can hold itself open on a hike and still take a flick to make it snap closed, which is neat. This is only possible because there is no need to unlock from the open position. Because this isn’t a detent or a real lock-open but rather a friction fit that will in time inevitably lose some friction, it lost half a point.
From a compactness standpoint it’s looking like it should end up as the #2 or #3 smallest. Where it really wins is on price for quality. It’s quite a bit cheaper than all but the Ebay/Facebook/ripoff or the UTG (both of whose prices should ring alarm bells) and it’s right on par with the DoubleStar unit. $115 is not a lot to spend on such a well made gizmo and against the $150 average buy-in for most of the others, it’s a pretty decently low cost option.
From order to delivery took 6 days and notifications came via email the entire time. All in all it got 18.5 of the 19 points it could have and it’s fast becoming a personal favorite (UPDATE: It is still on my match rifle as of 2022). Since it doesn’t work with gas guns we’ll ignore gas gun performance. Because it doesn’t work with gas guns the designers were able to use area previously carved out for bolt carriers to cycle through and put it to use doing something useful for a bolt action rifle, the tight lockup. I’m glad they only pursued the right mission.
Well, this is the least expensive unit by FAR. 5x cheaper than the next cheapest and ~10x cheaper than the average. Definitely made of aluminum and lacking in pretty much any kind of sophistication. That’s ok. It keeps prices down. It also is not capable of being what it advertises itself to be because it is obviously for AR-15 pattern interfaces, not AK-47 interfaces as the product name indicates. It’s unclear how much we should expect from this thing but we’ll keep an open mind and report back next week. The unit was ordered on October 24th and is set to arrive on November 9th. A single shipping notice was sent when it was shipped. If someone were really smart they’d take this design and make it out of steel with very snug tolerances. I betcha that would be a heck of a unit.
This article is all about recipes. Not just for food but for fun and for fellowship. It’s about the search for ingredients in a world of unsure availability. It’s about doing what you love with those you care about. It’s also about how even though no plan ever goes as planned, we still insist on making plans and will occasionally create a plan to make a plan. We even make plans for what to do when the initial plan fails. That’s like making a New Year’s resolution to make a certain-to-fail New Year’s resolution. For 2021 I took another trip to South Africa. I explicitly did not plan it all out. I had a good (and tried and true) plan of what I wanted to do over 5 specific days where I would be expected to have a carefully timed plan ready but the plan I made also wasn’t inflexible so nearly any part of it could be pushed aside if needed without spoiling the whole thing. Plans and trying to stick rigidly to them are bad for just about anyone that might use one. Plans must be durable against reality in the way that crunchy tacos are not.
Having friends in South Africa gives one enough reason to go there. Having friends who like to hunt and shoot as much as you do who also reside in South Africa and constantly harass you to visit them means that it pulls on you somewhat vigorously. The pull is not just a little fond perusing of memories that distracts your attention from your day job now and then. It’s more like a soul frying, ripping, tearing, shredding of your attention span that you might expect if sensations of nostalgia were induced by being alone, naked, wearing a meat dress and really really close to a hungry lion of unknown temperament while trying to do your taxes. It’s quite distracting.
I went back for another trip last summer and this past winter and had more amazing experiences full of friends old and new, hunting, shooting, grilling meat over flame and enjoying a general sense of fellowship that I don’t get in the states much. It is also where the night sky is at its absolute best. It’s not that the ingredients for any of those kinds of good times aren’t available here but it seems that here they’re mixed in the proper proportions much more rarely and when they are it often requires reservations. Where in Africa you just turn on the bush TV (braai), crack open a cold one of whatever you like and enjoy as side conversations flow in and out of a main direction of discussion while that main discussion ebbs and flows in volume and participation to its own more complex rhythm.
My prior trip occupied the bulk of August which is late winter in SA. I left on a Saturday and arrived on a Monday whilst spending 23 hours in the air and enduring a 7 hour layover in Zurich (Zurich airport is insanely clean, insanely boring and full of the least helpful and least friendly staff I have encountered anywhere outside of France). You should know that I cannot sleep on airplanes or in cars to save my life. So, when I landed it was extremely late Sunday night by my own body clock and I had woken up very early Saturday morning and then had not a single a wink of sleep since.
Day 1 I arrived at O.R. Tambo airport in Johannesburg around 10am. Joburg isn’t very pretty from the air. Parts of it are quite interesting from the ground and other parts are places you simply do not go lest you find your day get overly interesting in a way you probably do not want it to. The freeway exits that get you to either option do not have the courtesy to tell you which option they’re taking you to. So it’s really best to have a guide. My guide (a friend actually) was/is a firearms and self-defense instructor who’d previously attended one of my long range rifle classes. A nicer and more welcoming or generous soul would be hard to find. He’s also a farmer and since he was spending a week with me in a different part of the country he decided to send his family to stay somewhere else other than the farm.
The situation on the ground being what it is this is a sensible move. Farm attacks are commonplace, with the attackers resorting to torture, rape, murder and all of the worst stuff humans can do to each other pretty much right out of the gate. Not even the courtesy to ramp things up or just kill people. Nope, they have to torture them too because, Africa. In any event, it’s a lot more stable there than you might pick up in the media or even in my writings. It’s so stable that you can find a bag of chips like those below at any gas and sip and it doesn’t matter who you are when you buy them, they’ll still sell them to you. Nobody riots over the chips. In the USA (P)Antifa would have the building that sold them burned down in minutes and the owners sent off to concentration camps.
A side note about the situation on the ground: In post-apartheid South Africa there’s a new racism which, if possible, is even stupider than you might think and vastly less helpful than the last version. Racism goes the normal way now with the majority black population taking on tones and rhetoric that even the most venomous KKK rally speakers don’t have the stones to approach.
Actually, I suspect that black on white racism is how it’s always been there and certain widely hated policies like apartheid may have been logical seeming responses (at the time) to a bizarre reality. Certainly most people there do not seem to want their lives to improve. In fact, if you look at the behavior of the majority in South Africa you could be excused for starting to think that they want their lives to become more difficult if you base your assessment strictly on their actions. If you think that sounds racist, go there and take an honest look around without making excuses for people’s behavior and instead simply observe it and then tell me what you think. Walk around any small town a bit and you’ll see. What you might expect of the country is what Google images shows:
What you actually get is something that actually resembles San Diego a great deal in weather, topography and flora, and which closely resembles Baltimore in almost every other way right down to the failed liberal policies that precipitate massive humanitarian catastrophes and economic collapses whilst never learning from past mistakes. South Africa is a microcosm of all of worst that a democratically elected representative government is capable of. It also shows that the government you have is usually a good approximation of the government that the people electing it might want, at least on a statistical level. So congratulations South Africa, you got what you wanted. I hope it hurts so that we can all say, “Stupidity hurts doesn’t it?”.
An extremist, other-izing and overtly racist government which forces bad policies on the people. These bad policies are simple gimme-gimme socialism and are supported by liberals worldwide who have no idea what the reality of South Africa is. Those policies have brought internal discord to new levels of rancor while contributing greatly to corruption with resultant infrastructure decay and social disharmony. All of this has lead to murders of white farmers being celebrated by popular politicians in public speeches and encouraged. It’s not like the place is on fire or that everyone is attacking everyone else. It’s more like a growing internal level of stupidity having predictable cumulative effects. As long as you stay to the areas that don’t look like they were built by syphilitic idiots you’ll probably be ok. Also stay out of places that are crammed full of people. People are bad in large groups which is why I don’t like crowds anywhere.
Farms in South Africa are almost entirely white owned for a host of reasons. The dominant (and entirely black populated) political parties blame white farmers for every reality the South African society and government (as well as foreign powers sticking their noses in for their own reasons) has brought upon itself and they vocally encourage militant aggressive action and they do it with vile and hate filled rhetoric for which they never seem to take a rebuking. That’s just not good for a society, especially a mixed society. It’s mixed in a weird way too. ~4% of the population is white and by-in-large the minority are the ones paying taxes and obeying laws. The minority doesn’t have a choice but to play by the rules. It’s very bad for a white person to go to jail there. Like the worst kind of bad you could think of. It’s also bad to have an encounter of any kind with the police. The great majority are certainly not on anyone’s side but their own and corruption is standard practice. The racial majority of the population more or less appears to have the option to do things legally but not the desire. They seem to ignore the laws entirely and do whatever the hell they want when they want. The authorities almost totally ignore them because even if they didn’t ignore them, the arrest would merely cost money from the state and only pauses the committing of crimes by 1 person. Anyway since no fines, much less bribes, would ever be paid anyway by the poor the powers that be seem to think, “Why bother?”. If you do have an encounter with the police there it’s more likely than not that the “fine” you may be asked to pay is actually a “bribe”. They even have a cute word for such things, a “spot fine”. Law and order has little meaning in South Africa unless you’re in the minority, then it means everything but only to you.
Back to the main story… So, we met up with another friend whom I’d hunted with in a prior year who I’ll call Jack since it’s easier to spell than his actual name. Anyway, he and I hanged around the airport chugging cappuccinos and scarfing down iffy burgers for a few hours while my farmer friend dealt with the hassles of getting 3 small children and a wife onto an airplane. That took 3 hours thanks to inane and recent policy changes by an individual airline. Those matters dealt with my farmer friend and I made off for a little drive to a local gun shop and then a grocery store where I expected to be able to find things like chili powder, tortillas and the like. I wanted those things because I live in California where we make the best tacos in the world which are minted by the millions daily. I wanted therefore to make tacos for my friends in SA and maybe teach them how to make them properly. One fast food joint I never saw was a Taco Bell. I was so so so wrong about ingredient availability and while it’s a very funny story, it’ll take a bit to explain so we’ll come to the taco story in a bit.
After the grocery and gun shop tour it was several hours of driving to the farm and where we mixed bourbon, beer and cigarettes in injudicious proportions before a quick dinner of meat with a side dish of some more meat and I think some kind of potato topped with meat and a desert of some more meat. After the bourbon bottle got satisfyingly low we finally we made it to our respective rooms somewhere around 11pm. I woke in the morning pretty well adjusted to the sleep schedule by virtue of not having slept at all in something around 50 hours and thus having slept very soundly except for the epic nightmares that plague me whenever I travel and the headache when I came to. I was only slightly hung over which was good practice because that’s kind of how the next couple days went in general. Busy bees during daylight and busy boozers during the night time hours. So, day 2-4 are necessarily something of a blur except that for at least one of those days and possibly 2 we hunted pretty hard. It was also partly a blur because I was still unsure of what day it actually was and partly because I didn’t care what day it was and fully planned not to for at least 17 more days. My heart just wasn’t in “tracking time mode”.
Upon setting out on the hunt it was expected that my friend the farmer would be able to find the desired zebra herd quickly and we’d take one of those within an hour and then spend all day tromping around looking for an eland and then finish out the day if there was any of it left with an easy to find warthog. HA! Surely no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy and this was no exception. In short: zebra were almost impossible to find, eland were standing right there waiting for us and despite warthog presenting themselves at 100m distance all day long while we were walking, we passed on every opportunity up until the last minute because, well we’re prone to that sort of decision making.
We had walked literally less than 5 minutes out of the main house and come around a corner where there’s a very large eland standing there looking delicious not even 50 yards from me. My farmer friend was looking another way and I was the first to see the eland. I said, “Eland!” and hurriedly pointed. As my friend turned to see it I quietly deployed the bipod on the .375 Ruger chambered Howa 1500 and got very quietly prone while dialing back to minimum magnification and as quietly as I could jacked a round in. The eland didn’t seem to mind any of those things to any great degree but was clearly starting to get nervous. Just as it moved one front hoof a few inches off the ground I put a 250 grain monometal bullet made in SA into its left shoulder. That shattered the shoulder and blew a large hole in the lungs and some vitally important large blood vessels. The bullet went through to the other side and broke the off-side shoulder before halting in some shoulder meat below the skin. The eland took two collapsing steps into the bush and fell on its face. It didn’t seem very conscious as we approached. It was definitely going to be all the way dead any minute but we; being merciful humans, elected to put a .308 in the head to bring about a quick end to any suffering that might ensue. That eland was meat for a neighbor and so went meat, horns and hide to them directly but, I got a picture. I’m used to boy critters having horns/antlers and the girls not having them. Eland don’t play that game. This is a female eland. The horns of the female tend to be longer and more slender compared to a bull’s horns. Still it was a beast weighing something around 1000lbs on the hoof. It took 6 men to get it onto the tractor’s platform.
We then walked all bloody day looking for the zebra herd but it was nowhere to be found. Gone like a fart in the wind. We headed back for lunch and cold fluids before going out again to another herd of zebra that was less difficult to find but challenging to stalk into. There were only 3 of those monometal 250gr pills left and they were loaded in ammo that had for some reason been set aside. We quickly found out why they were set aside. The first shot on the eland was only 50m if that and hit right where I aimed. By the time we’d stalked in on the zebra we could only get to 184m which is a dead on 200 yards. I proned out and aimed carefully with the zebra facing me and the shot hit about a foot low of where it should have. WTF! It clearly hit the zebra as there was a nasty hole in its side just behind the liver but it wasn’t bleeding heavily and I couldn’t see the entry wound. We needed to follow that shot up and put it down before it suffered much. I tried jacking the final round into the chamber but it was out of dimensional spec somewhere and jammed so hard I couldn’t open or close the bolt. I set that rifle aside and grabbed the .308 my friend was carrying and as soon as the zebra turned its side to me I put the crosshairs just behind the shoulder bones and let fly. That shot hit about 9 inches right of my aim point which put it, too, in the bloody liver. There was no wind to speak of and I’m a pretty good shot who doesn’t get buck fever (or pony fever) but I chalked it up to a bad shot on my part anyway. That shot didn’t help at all and now the zebra faced away from us for a good 20 minutes. As soon as it gave me a side profile of the neck I lined up on the ear and put the final shot in which hit about 8 inches rearward of where I’d planed on it hitting but it snapped its neck and blew the big blood vessels apart so the pony curled up its hooves and joined the choir invisible. My farmer friend said that he had been wanting a zebra skin so he got the skin (or so I thought, a couple years later he handed it to me and it now forms a very nice rug in my room) and we took the meat to a processing plant where, I gather that, they make salami out of it and I got a picture and a once in a lifetime experience.
After the Zebra we went out for warthog. I did manage to shoot one and it was gunna die any minute after I shot it but as warthog are wont to do, it promptly ran and dove into a hole from which it simply refused to be dislodged. We were disinclined to harass a mortally wounded warthog (it was pouring blood from an artery hit but was still pretty vocal and thrashing). So we elected to leave it be for the moment and have the workers dig it out in the morning after it’d had a little bit to die in peace, whereupon the workers would parcel out the meat and share it amongst themselves. For our part, we’d be hitting the road very early in the morning anyway so I didn’t get a chance for a picture. Sigh. The best laid plans of mice.
On the road we had a good long 8 hour drive ahead of us and only suffered one catastrophic failure on the way. Our trailer blew a wheel bearing and a tire and all we had was a spare tire. We had to use beer and soda and flecks of ice to keep the tire from overheating every 500m or so as it rubbed on the trailer chassis. We got to a little turd of a town called Edenburg (the name was blatant false advertising BTW) and found a mechanic who could and would replace the wheel bearing and after another horrid South African cheeseburger war crime (seriously, they cannot make a burger to save 10,000 lives anywhere in the whole country) we got back on the road arriving in the Little Karoo just about at sundown on Friday. This was handy as my friends place the sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday and observe it strictly. We rested until sundown the next day and then Sunday a whole bunch of people arrived and we did some long range shooting for the next 5 days with me providing some instruction on the range and in a classroom setting. We had endless fun characterizing guns and then doing drills to work on speed and accuracy and then experimented with different ways of dealing with wind and generally had a great time. That culminated in 3 of us, me included, attempting to and subsequently putting hits on a man size steel target at 1-mile. I made the shot with a .50BMG Steyr HS50 M1 with A-Max’s after 1 shot to get the drop sorted and another to get the wind sorted. Another shooter made it with a 6.5CM from his RPR (we had to walk that in a bit). The last guy made it with 655gr South African ball .50BMG ammo from the same Steyr I was shooting. The Sus-Tac suppressor on the Steyr really tamed the recoil and cut the blast to levels that were, if not totally ear safe, at least not uncomfortable. I still wore plugs because I only have 25% of my hearing left and I’m stingy about giving up any more of it. I should note that I generally detest firing .50BMG’s but the Sus-Tac suppressor on that Steyr made it about as not-unpleasant as such a thing can be.
After a week of long range plinking and general good times, it was time to hunt. This time we were going for my kudu. Another friend who I call Kudu van Klipspringer (because of his habit of literally running up and down mountains that would have olympians panting and spitting) owns this farm and they’d sort of set one of the kudu bulls aside for me. If anyone else spotted it they’d say, “No that’s meccastreisand’s bull.” It was a very old bull that had done its thing and now was just fighting with other bulls and not reproducing much. Its teeth were worn down and due to the drought it was getting pretty skinny in addition to its hide looking a bit ratty with numerous bare patches. In short, it was time to pull the guy from the herd and put it in the freezer. It would not make it through the next winter and it certainly wouldn’t make it through the current one (our summer is their winter) if I had anything to say about it. I did have something to say about it as it happens.
We stalked in over fairly rugged country for a good 3 hours before taking position in some bushes on the edge of a rock outcropping that had solid views of the 2 hills that the kudu seem to like to use as bridges between feeding areas. No sooner had we tucked in to the bushes and proned out did we see the first set of 15-20 kudu cows coming around the ridge towing a couple nice middle-age bulls with them. While my friend is inspecting those ANOTHER herd of 15 or so comes around with a very grey, and very clearly old bull with nice curling horns strolling in the middle of the pack. It was over 400m away at that point and my buddy and I got our wires crossed about the elevation to put in on the reticle and I pitched the shot just over its back. We were crushed but I cranked that bolt handle and got back on target just in time for the kudu to crawl into a bush for a quick nap.
The shot sent the cows and calves trotting off but not truly spooked. The bull crawled into a bush and just laid there having a snooze. We went to, let’s say, interestingly outrageous methods to try to get the bugger to stand up which it eventually did… inside the bush. It just didn’t want to leave the bush. So, lacking a perfect shot I lined up for at least an effective shot at now 375m, held for wind by 1.5mils and took the shot. We thought the kudu was facing us inside that bush but it turned out that only its head was facing us and the “shoulder” I shot was actually front end of the thigh but, the hit was such that it didn’t really destroy any meat. Instead it went through the rumen, then through the liver, through the diaphragm and then through one lung and all kinds of important large blood vessels before coming to rest in a muscle that sits on the underside of the spine between the shoulders. The bullet jacket separated on the 225gr Hornady SST after about 18 inches of penetration which SST’s have shown a habit of doing for me. Otherwise bullet performance is fully acceptable and penetration was almost 1 meter. The beastie sure felt that hit and tried to run but only took 2 steps before hosing blood from the nose and crumpling up.
We did a little more tromping around the bush but at that point it was really time to get back to farm life so we put the guns away and did farm work for a few days. We sorted sheep, we made my kudu into driewors, we handled some building construction details. General farm work which I actually like. It’s not like computer work. When you’re done with computer work you can’t see anything different in the real world, at least if you did it right.
Driewors? What’s that? Well, it is a kind of traditional South African boer (farmer) sausage with coriander, clove, salt, pepper, garlic and mutton meat and fat mixed in which is then hanged for weeks to dry. It’s a bit like a really fat Slim Jim with more texture to the meat and with an entirely different spice pack which is largely clove and coriander. It tastes like Christmas if you’re an Amercan.
Each year I set up my vacation time to spend a week longer in South Africa than I think I’ll need in order to get everything on the itinerary done. Every year I find I’m short about 5 days. The first year I did 2 weeks which was way too little to even get over jet lag. The next year I did 3 weeks which was way too little to actually relax properly. The next year I had a lot more planned and so a month was set aside which, of course, was entirely too little. Eventually I’ll have to move there just so I can get all the things I want to do while on vacation there done. I’ve actually given some serious thought to that and will continue to do so. It’s not for everyone but being an expat in South Africa is actually pretty common and not a bad way to go if you start out in an industrialized western European country or north American country that’s not Mexico. Your money goes a lot further there, largely because their economy sucks and has little hope of improving under the current system of government.
Of course who can visit South Africa without picking up some souvenirs? Not me and certainly not with my friends in the mix. One of them hooked me up with a Triggercam. This was super cool as a concept and ended up horrid in execution. In addition to the Triggercam, I also picked up a new chassis stock. This has some cool features that I don’t want to discuss here until the intellectual property stuff is dealt with. It’s made of a similar alloy to the 6061 that most chassis stocks are made of but which is superior in a few ways and the stock is cheaper than its competitors. Better materials, innovative features, ultra precision machining, lower price, cleaner lines. That’s what you call a better mousetrap. It’s got the obvious adjustable length of pull and adjustable cheek-rest height and adjustable butt pad height but none of those are innovative. The other thing that I’m keeping secret for now, that’s innovative. Thanks to Postman Precision for the stock. It’s now holding up a Howa 1500 in 6XC with a US Optics SN3 3.8-22x44mm scope, a JP Tactical brake and a Jard trigger.
I finally brought home my trophies from Africa from last year. My eland (center) and my springbok (right) now share a wall with my 5×5 blacktail deer rack. The springbok skin is now draped elegantly over the back of my sofa and is not pictured. The size of that eland skull really gives some idea of the initial size of the animal. I plan to put the kudu skull up in a European mount below the eland so the horns come up on either side of the eland skull. There’s no other way it’ll fit. The horns are almost a meter long and with the skull it’s going to be well over a meter tall.
Now for the taco story. I had planned on making proper tacos for everyone in SA. The least I could do since they showed me all around their cuisine, several items of which are life changers. We stopped at a grocery store in Pretoria looking just for tortillas or even just flatbread and a few simple spices. No dice on that and especially no dice on the spices I needed, particularly chili powder. They have a thing they call peri-peri but if you don’t know what’s inside the package it might surprise you as to the level of spiciness or lack thereof. White South Africa is not a spicy food loving people from what I can see. Salt and pepper usually do them just right. So, we went to a grocery store in Bloomfontein. No dice there either. They had things I needed to buy in high quality and low quantity and right then: ground beef. I got a kilogram of ground beef which they call “mince”.
I also tried a grocery store in Edenburg. Well, if you can call it that. It had literally: piles of orange Fanta, 2 bags of wheat flour, a can of something illegible, a bunch of bags of cornmeal and some sad looking sandwiches which I hope to hell were for display only. It was also where I’d purchased the two singularly most hideous cheeseburgers I think I’ve ever stuck in my face hole. I think it’s to do with Dutch Calvinism… you can’t be a Calvinist and enjoy a truly good hamburger. At least that’s how it seems but, I digress. That grocery didn’t even have bread that was not already devoted to vomit inducing sandwiches and burgers so we decided to sally forth and forsake the orange Fanta and corn meal.
Finally we come to a little town called Willowmore where I have been before (it’s home to a coffee shop amusingly called Sophie’s Choice) and there was some kind of cycling competition in town that weekend meaning there were 50,000 brandy sozzled people in sun hats in town instead of the more normal <1000 people not in hats of any kind. I don’t like crowds. Crowds in Africa are a fantastic way for you to find out how bad of a day you can really have. I really don’t like crowds of pasty drunks in sun hats. Crowds in Africa give me a special kind of the heebie jeebies. Mix all three liberally together and I’m looking for an exit sign.
So as we dodged traffic and traded off leaving one person in the pickup whilst the other gathered supplies, I finally found my way in to the 3rd of the 3 grocery stores after the first two were beyond completely hopeless. Again, grocery store is a misleading term for Americans to see here. It implies certain levels of variety and availability which simply do not exist anywhere in Africa much less in Podunkville in the province of “Other”. Wouldn’t you know it, not only did I find 4 packages of crunchy taco shells with a convincingly Mexican sounding brand name but right bloody next to them was 4 packages of “Taco Seasoning” by the same vaguely Mexican sounding company. All I needed now was jalapenos, right. Ha! I hate jalapeños. What I needed was sour cream, shredded cheese, ripe avocados, ripe tomato, lime and shredded lettuce. I managed to source all but the lettuce from KVK’s wife and I eschewed the jalapeños because they’re disgusting. Besides, if folks there are skeered of a little spice packet such that anything outside salt and pepper is considered spicy, they’ll get downright negative about jalapeño peppers even in cooked form. The tacos were a 100% hit. KVK’s eldest daughter actually danced while eating them. Her siblings were equally as excited but a great deal less dancy about it. I made sure that my host’s family got first serving before telling the guys about it. Just to make sure the family got some. The whole group of guys then piled in and trepidatiously tried what they came to find out was the food of the gods.
I know it’s mean to introduce people to something delicious that they simply cannot even fabricate in their country due to lacking availability of ingredients. I really do. I also love the idea that one day each of those people will come visit me here in California and the first question they ask will be, “Is there anywhere good to get tacos around here?” to which I’ll be able to respond, “Well, it’s funny you should ask. I think the answer would be ‘literally anywhere’. Even Chinese food restaurants here have good tacos these days.” But I won’t take them out for tacos. We’ll drive the hour and a half to my place and then spend an hour making tacos. Crunchy tacos, soft tacos, corn flour tortilla tacos, wheat flour tortilla tacos, tacos al’ carbon, tacos guisado, tacos de carnitas, tacos de carne asada, tacos de pescado, tacos de lengua, tacos al pastor and of course, the magical Choco Taco.
Recipe for Tacos de Africa:
Find taco shells in Africa. This is from impossible to nearly impossible.
Find taco seasoning in Africa. This is from impossible to nearly impossible.
Find pico de gallo in Africa. This is very possible as you can make it quite simply and the ingredients are easy to come by.
Find ground beef in Africa. This is slightly easier than finding air.
Prepare the above ingredients as indicated on the packaging.
Assemble tacos to taste. Pro-tip, fill crunchy shells by layering ingredients on the sides like you would bread, not in the valley like you think a taco should be assembled. Makes a better taco. You can thank Kudu van Klipspringer for that little gem.
Do you know what a standard deviation is? If not, start with the Wikipedia entry on that then come back. The document above is rife with terminology from statistics. If you don’t understand the really quite simple definitions though you’ll probably miss the point.
What the document above says in short is that, all else being equal, a cold-bore shot on an animate or static man sized target beyond 700 yards is more or less a pipe dream. In fact, a first round hit even by a highly qualified shooter beyond 400 yards on a man sized target starts to get to less than 99% certainty of impact of metal anywhere on meat.