Oxygen is thin at 10,200 feet and the stars lurk close, thinly lighting the pre-dawn darkness in elk country.
As his father dropped bacon into the sizzling pan, Kyle Hogan pulled his lanky six-foot-three frame to a sitting position, heaved his inert legs around one at a time, and deliberately threaded them into his camo trousers, being careful to not allow his torso to get out-balanced and tip over.
Serious elk hunters — and Hogan is one — all know the subdued excitement, the undercurrent of adrenaline, the thrill of anticipation on opening morning of elk season. And this was no ordinary opener: After 20 years of applying, Kyle had drawn a trophy bull tag for one of the best units in Utah.
Eighteen years before, with two elk points already earned by applying in Utah's limited entry elk lottery, Kyle had been in the passenger's seat of a small pickup truck and suffered through a horrible backcountry crash, rolling over and over down an extreme mountain slope.
With all his ribs broken, both lungs crushed and punctured, one scapula shattered into three nerve-severing pieces, his trachea smashed and swelling, and multiple vertebra broken in his mid back and neck, he lay for over four hours before help arrived in the form of a life-flight helicopter.
Paralyzed from the mid back down and with limited use of his left arm and hand, Kyle knows adversity. Driven to hunt, he's taken a 220-class mule deer, a whopper pronghorn antelope, and several other big game animals that color more mobile hunters vivid shades of green.
Kyle has found that patience is critical to his success — patience and the willingness to pass on good animals, accepting that he may go home empty-handed — in the belief that chances at a truly great buck or bull must be earned the hard way.
Fortified with bacon, Kyle shrugged into his coat, was lifted from his bed by brother Kurtis, then passed off and piggybacked to a Polaris Razor on his brother Wes. Thirty minutes later he transferred to his four-wheeler rigged with a shooting rest on a swivel, fired it up, and rumbled into the predawn.
Several big bulls were working low-country meadows that Kyle could access on his quad, and he wanted to be in position at least 30 minutes before dawn to allow the landscape to quiet and forgive the sound of his machine.
While scouting, Kyle and his father had seen one wide, heavy bull with long tines and sweeping main beams, and another in the distance that faded before they could discern just what it was but left an impression of size.
Plus, friends had caught an extraordinarily heavy non-typical bull on their trail cameras, working down the migration route leading to Kyle's hunting area.
Diligent scouting had revealed a vantage point overlooking the final leg of that migration route, where big rutting bulls and harems of cow elk spilled into the low-country meadows. Heavily clothed against the chill, Kyle was motoring his quad down the ATV trace toward it when the machine took on a life of it's own, accelerating hard.
The thumb of Kyle's winter glove was stuck in the throttle, pushing it wide open. Struggling to right the issue, roaring into a turn at 40 mph, his body slid sideways on the seat, his one-handed clench torqued the handlebar sideways, and the machine flipped hard, pile driving Kyle into the dirt and stalling upside down, wheels still spinning, in a cloud of dust beside him.
Thankfully, the quad didn't land on him. Examined and righted by his father and Wes; bruised, scraped, and breathing with painful difficulty, Kyle made it to his vantage point, late but still in the game.
Hampered by other hunters, unseasonable warmth, and injury from the quad rollover, Kyle hunted hard, passing several bulls not up to standards set by 20 years of applying for the special tag. "Score doesn't interest me," he responded when I asked what sort of bull he was looking for. "I like uniqueness. I'll know when I see him."
When the right bull appeared he was a battle-scarred veteran with a broken fifth and long, sweeping main beams. Dawn was still young when Kyle activated the ranging function in his Burris Eliminator, steadied his crosshairs on the bull, and squeezed the trigger of his Browning BAR.
The Rifle Problem
Follow-up shots and dialing a turret for distance present a problem for Kyle. His upper body strength is superb, but limited use of his left hand makes it difficult to hold a rifle while his right hand functions a bolt, and his fingers don't have enough grip to turn a tight elevation turret.
Plus, recoil often jars him out of position because of his lack of core control, and getting back into position and his crosshairs back on a game animal takes time. He's lost more than one opportunity because of the challenges, and almost missed his chance on the monster 220-class mule deer he'd shot earlier in life.
When Kyle drew his limited-entry elk tag he resolved to put together a shooting setup that would overcome his issues.
Strictly in terms of his rifle (the riflescope presented a problem set of its own), Kyle determined that he needed a semiautomatic, ideally one that provided one-MOA accuracy. That would overcome his difficulty working a bolt in time for a quick follow-up shot, and would offer adequate accuracy for shooting extended distances in the West's wide-open country.
To prevent recoil from shifting the rifle off target and knocking him out of shooting position, he also needed an effective muzzle brake.
The easy answer was a large-frame AR in .308, .260 Rem., or 6.5 Creedmoor, but Kyle knows elk — and how obscenely tough they can be — and wanted a cartridge with more reach than a .308 and more authority than the 6.5mms.
Gambling just a bit on his accuracy criteria, he purchased a Browning BAR Mark III in 7mm Rem. Mag. Priced at $1,340, it's fit with a 24-inch barrel, very nice oil-finished grade II walnut, and a lightly engraved aluminum alloy receiver. Weight is a recoil-dampening, stability-offering seven pounds eleven ounces.
It didn't disappoint. Stoked with Kyle's handloaded 160-grain Nosler AccuBond bullets over Reloder 22 powder, the BAR shoots tidy little one-MOA groups and gives excellent velocity.
Unfortunately, because of the barrel-to-receiver attachment system and the gas piston assembly, local gunsmiths were unable to thread the BAR's barrel for a muzzle break. A little research determined that Mag-na-port had the necessary equipment, and two weeks and $255 later Kyle's rifle returned fit with the company's sleek Mag-na-brake.
The Scope Problem
Over the years Kyle had experienced challenges with optics, too. Limited use of his left hand prevents him from supporting and activating a rangefinder, and worse, from dialing an elevation turret for shots past 300 yards.
Dynamic situations in the field — with an animal moving closer or farther — were tricky because he'd have to get out of position, cradle his rifle while he dialed the turret, and then work back into shooting position and find the animal again. Not only did fleeting shot opportunities get away, often by the time he was back in position and on the animal it had moved again, forcing him to begin all over.
Kyle put one of Burris's innovative ranging, drop-compensating Eliminator riflescopes on the Browning. Although the Eliminator is heavy and somewhat bulky, it features a powerful internal rangefinder activated by a side button easily manipulated with light pressure, so Kyle's left hand could run it.
Even better, once programmed with the pertinent velocity, bullet BC, and so forth an internal calculator plugs in the distance to the target and an orange dot (important because the orange is clearly visible to most color-blind shooters) appears below the center crosshairs, indicating the precise holdover necessary to connect.
Once in shooting position, the Eliminator enables Hogan to simply touch the "range" button, put the red dot on the vitals, and squeeze. If the animal moves, all he has to do is touch the button again for an updated aiming point.
In the Field
With his rifle set up, a good handload developed, and the hunt fast approaching, Hogan and I scattered several of my steel Range Systems targets across a wide expanse of public land. I watched as he shot, the rifle barely jarring him in his shooting position. Clearly, the combination of a semiauto action and the Mag-na-brake effectively reduced recoil to a very controllable level.
Transitions from close to distant targets and back proved easy and fast, thanks to the extraordinary capabilities of the Burris Eliminator scope. Impressively for a traditional semiautomatic, the BAR ran the targets clean all the way to 600 yards, and fast follow-up shots were no problem.
A couple weeks later, Kyle touched the range button, plastered the glowing orange dot on the vitals, and squeezed the trigger on his 20-year trophy bull. A second shot wasn't needed, but he had his crosshair back on the 350-class elk before his empty brass quit ringing off the gravely slope.