Students or friends outside of the industry often ask what I think about a particular “bolt-on” gadget for the gun, gun belt, pack, or load system. I gladly give my thoughts on the item, but hopefully the discussion continues into how I approach gear selection or evaluation. I enjoy that aspect of the conversation much more than just endorsing a product (or shooting it down in flames). Similar to the “teach a man to fish” satisfaction I suppose. The other reason being that tactics, opinions, likes, and dislikes vary with everyone. I joked at work that if you got two of us in a room, you would have three different opinions on something. My opinion, although spectacular and awe-inspiring, may not work for everyone. (<-That sentence may contain sarcasm.)
So how do I approach a particular widget evaluation?
Experience and knowledge help out obviously. However, someone who does not carry a gun professionally can methodically evaluate most items with equal results. The first question I tell people to examine before putting something on their gun (think AR-15 accessories) or gear is “what need it is filling?” Think in terms of most likely scenarios, NOT most catastrophic or rare. Ergonomic grips? Absolutely. A light for pig hunting? Definitely. A CQB style Red Dot site for your long range shooter, just in case? Wait… what?! Maybe you will need to clear a building with your bolt action deer rifle, but probably not. These are extreme examples to illustrate a point, by the way. Going back to my previous articles regarding dual use items: Is this function already done by something else? Does it add weight? Is it streamlined? Does it fill a critical role, or maybe just slightly enhancing? Or does it just look cool and elicit envy when you break it out at the hunting camp? Can you overcome the shortfall simply with more practice? After OBJECTIVELY weighing these considerations, the item is ready to actually be evaluated.
Now we have something that has made it through the initial cut. This widget is filling a need and you want to put it on. For the next filter, I suggest simply taking it for a long hike. Regardless of your profession, you carry a weapon more than you actually shoot it. Put on your hiking boots, walking shoes, or duty footwear, along with as much of your hunting, duty, or purpose clothing as possible and go walk with your firearm or gear system and the new widget for two hours. Distance is not really all that important, but don’t go too slow. Try to get more than just level sidewalks in your terrain (especially if you are trying out an AR-15 widget in a neighborhood—might look bad). Hills and canyons are even better because now you are burning energy and getting tired. Take mental notes and look at the widget objectively. You will likely come to one of three conclusions.
You may confirm that this widget does fill a need and its design synchs up well with your existing systems and intended use. It rides smoothly with no problems, chaffing, load shifts, or other concerns. Now you can feel good about purchasing it and actually taking it up on the mountain during a hunt of a lifetime. It is not totally validated yet, but it is as close as it can get before actually putting it into service.
On the flip side, you may decide right away that this new widget is dead weight, adding nothing to your capability. Perhaps it is a new sling that made everything else miserable while walking due to its design, material, or thickness. Maybe you realize that the slight advantage of this new bipod mount in an exact, rare situation is not worth the extra pound in your left hand. Pain or misery often enlightens one’s perspective greatly! In some cases the item may fall apart or break. We have now just eliminated an unnecessary purchase and made room for something else on the trip that works. Or we just cut pounds, which is even better.
Finally, you may decide the widget does in fact add some new, necessary function, but not in the current configuration. My favorite example of this scenario is the scope level. In my opinion, a scope level is absolutely critical for any shots beyond 400 yards (my benchmark between regular hunting ranges and “long range” hunting. More on this subject in future article). The market has several styles to choose from. Some are offset to one side. Some REALLY stick out to one side. Others ride on top of the scope tube or replace a scope ring cap. Some flip in and out (retractable) or mount to the rails. A two-hour walk will sort many of them out for you. Maybe that level caught on every belt loop, pack strap, seat belt, or branch you walked by. It may have worn a blister on your side. Now you can evaluate if you should simply remount the one you have in a better position, or try a different style altogether.
Another alternative solution is to modify the gear. Monster Garage time! I wrote about pack setups and gear belts in a previous article. Suppose your new GPS pouch makes carrying the Garmin much better and you love it. However, if its lid is finicky when you are sweaty and tired, time to cut, sew, and tune it to your need. The enlightenment of the long hike will now prevent gear frustration or misery on your ultimate hunting trip.
Clearly there are other variables to consider in gear selection. Durability, craftsmanship, precision, tolerances, and more all play a part. Some items may look good the first year but not the next. You may need to evaluate some items longer than others. Although price is not always the best indicator of quality, the maxim “you get what you pay for” generally holds true with performance outdoor and firearm gear. I have plenty of those lessons learned sitting around my garage by the way. My two boys can learn the ropes with them before using Dad’s “Cadillac” gear!
Thanks for tuning in this week!