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Scott Rall: The fine art of Canada thistle dispatching

Scott Rall

Daily Globe outdoors columnist 

Shooting for fun used to be pretty cheap.

I can remember when I was a kid my dad would drive me and my brother McChyne out into a cow pasture in McPherson County, S.D., and just shut off the engine. We would sit in the front seat and aim a .22 rifle out the window and shoot gophers.

Remember that this was a very long time ago. This lasted until we had hit and few and scared the rest down the hole never to be see again in the attention span of a little kid. There was no way we could sit for 10 minutes without making any sounds.

So dad, he was an energy saving kind of guy, so instead of driving all over the pasture he would tell us to take turns trying to shoot the blossoms off the Canada thistles that were always available in unlimited numbers. We would shoot and shoot and every once in a while a blossom would hit the ground. Boy did we think we were just like Chuck Connors of the TV show “The Rifleman” that was popular in the day.

That was so long ago. I got my very first gun, which was a Browning lever action .22 when I was 10 years old. I still have that gun in like-new condition. My brother was a lefty, so he got a left-handed bolt action .22 He was two years older so he beat me to the punch on the first gun thing.

In the gun world, being left-handed is a curse. For every gun made for a left-hander there are 10,000 made for a right-handed shooter. I figure that being left-handed had to be a pretty severe handicap if you ever watched my brother shoot. I felt bad for him, but not too bad.

We used to shoot starlings and grackles back in the day, too. I can remember one time I shot a blackbird with a gold head and after I had done so, I felt so bad that is sticks with me yet today. The gold headed and red-winged blackbirds are so cool I would never shoot one today. Starlings are still on my radar, though.

Shooting a .22 is a lot harder to do today than it was 40 years ago. You could buy 100 rounds of .22 ammo for 99 cents and it was stacked on store shelves like hay bales in a hay mound.

Enter the frightening scenario a few years back that the administration was going to come and take all the guns and ammo and almost every caliber of ammunition became almost extinct overnight. You could only get a box of .22 ammo if you bought a new gun. Many common hand gun calibers were just about like the dinosaurs there for a while, as well.

The fear subsided and gun ammunition has become more readily available with the exception of .22. You can buy it now if you are willing to pay though the nose. You just have to love the laws of capitalism. You know the one, the law of supply and demand. What used to cost $10 now cost $50 or more.

I had the opportunity to visit with Ryan Bronson a few weeks back. He is the director of conservation for Federal Ammunition Company based in Anoka. We were talking about ammo for the upcoming 2014 governor’s hunt. I took the opportunity to ask him about the .22 ammo situation. I wondered if the higher cost and lack of availability was due to hoarding. Hoarding is where a ammo buyer will buy thousands and thousands of rounds in whatever quantity he can get it and then just squirrel it away in the basement somewhere.

I have heard of some scenarios where shooters have 15,000 rounds of .22 ammo just because they think the price is just going to continue to skyrocket. His response was that there might be a little bit of that going on, but he figured it was a change in the way people recreational shoot today compared to years ago.

Most gun manufactures have come out with some form of .22 rifle in what is called the AR-15 format. These guns look much like a Vietnam-era M-16 and they come in almost every caliber. I had not thought about it very much but I, too, had purchased a Ruger SL-22 rifle that looks much like an AR-15. It is a really cool-looking gun and I have shot it a few times but never for an extended period. It has pop-up sights and is very accurate for the aluminum cans that I have killed with it. You can knock over a can at 40 yards with open sights all day long.

My Browning lever action .22 holds 10-12 rounds and the standard magazine on an SL-22 holds 10 also. Where the difference comes in is that you can buy a 50-100 magazine for the SL-22. Almost every manufacturer offers higher capacity magazines than the standard 10.

High capacity magazines on a .22 rifle is no big deal. I have never heard of a 7-11 getting robbed with a SL-22. The difference is in the amount of ammo that can be expended in one short afternoon.

Me and McChyne would shoot a short while and then reload. If we would have had two 50-round magazines my dad would have had to either get a second job or taken us shooting far less often. Ryan indicated that an afternoon with a couple of kids used to be a 200-300 round experience. With the new AR-15 formats this same afternoon could very well be a 500-1,000 round afternoon.

He figures that the average shooter is just using more ammo than they used to. It is this difference in shooting experiences that can be credited for the ammo shortage. He also told me that recreation shooting in both high school trap and other shooting venues is on the rise in North America, and as more people enjoy an afternoon of recreational shooting the demand for ammo will continue to rise.

It is my understanding that Federal is running at full speed on many if not all of their production lines. I did specifically talk to Ryan about this. I think the two big .22 lines run 24 hours per day.

I read once that in order for an ammo company to add new production facilities the demand has to be in place for more than five years in order to recoup the initial investment. We had gun and ammo scares before and in the past they lasted less than two years before demand returned to normal.

I don’t think that will be the case this time around but I am not the one committing tens of millions of dollars on a new production factory. Doing so is a risky proposition if demand would fall again to what was normal levels. When I buy ammo and shot shells I do try to buy them in the largest quantities I can afford.

In my opinion, ammo and shot shells do not date out if they are stored property. This is in a cool dry location away from the guns the ammo fits. I have pulled a box of shotgun shells out of the cabinet that was 10 years old and they fired just as good as a brand new box. You can sometimes get shells at a rummage sale or from grandpa that are pretty old. If they are designed for modern firearms I would not hesitate to use them.

There are a few things that have come down in price. The very first Bulova digital watch I purchased at Larson Jewelry on main street Worthington in 1977 was $350. Today it is about $3.99. Computers that used to cost thousands can now be bought in your cell phone for $99.00 with a new contract. Shooting ammunition did come down for a few years when I sold my reloading supplies, but as soon as I did they went right back up and have continued the climb ever since.

Shot shells purchased 10-30 boxes at a time are the norm. When you find them on sale (although they are rarely ever on sale) is a good time to stock up.

Notice I said stock up and not hoard. Even with the higher cost, shooting for fun it is still really fun. If you have not done it in a while, go grab the first gun you ever got as a kid and go shoot a few rounds. It will bring back the memories like mine of killing Canada thistle blossoms, and if you’re lucky you can find a young kid to take along. Everyone loves to be Chuck Connors every once in a while.