Note: This article appeared in Whitetails Unlimited with a shorter version also in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.
Virginia teenager Lainey Brown may have to get used to the idea of sharing her new hunting rifle. Her dad Ryan has taken, as some country folks say, a powerful shine to it. In fairness, Ryan Brown did buy the gun for his 14-year-old daughter.
“She had outgrown her youth .243 rifle and I was looking around for a deer rifle for her. This was right around the time that the new .350 Legend straight-wall cartridge came out and I thought it would be a good, low-recoil option for her.”
He found a good deal on a lightweight Ruger American Rifle, a bolt-action with a short, 16-inch-plus barrel and detachable magazine. “It turned out to be absolutely the case,” Brown said. “The gun had mild to almost no recoil, is exceptionally accurate and performs very well at reasonable distances in the field, 100 to 150 yards.”
Brown is director of Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources, the state agency that manages hunting and inland fishing programs. Exposure to hunting came at a young age for Brown. He grew up in rural Fluvanna County, a central Virginia locale, and began hunting when he was 5, tagging along with his father. Hunting is a lifelong passion.
Brown gave his young daughter ample opportunities to accompany him. Lainey often tagged along, without a gun, simply to experience the wonders of the woods. “Her first gun was an old single-shot .243 youth rifle that came from grandpa, where all good rifles come from,” Brown said. “She had success with the rifle every year she carried it, taking a number of white-tailed does.”
"Racked” bucks eluded Lainey in her first couple years of hunting. That quickly changed with her Ruger in .350 Legend. She christened the rifle in what Brown calls “a really great story for a father and a daughter.”
Brown had spied a nice 7-point buck he had estimated to be 2.5 years old while hunting one afternoon. He passed on the deer but filed away the sighting for an upcoming hunt with his daughter. They enjoy strategizing their hunts, sometimes differing in view on ideal ambush points. On this particular hunt, Lainey preferred one location while her dad favored an alternate spot. Father knows best, so it goes, and the blind went up where Brown thought they had the best chance for a crack at the 7-pointer.
“We sat in the blind that dad considered to be the sure thing and, of course, no deer showed up,” Brown said with a smile. “The second afternoon, we hunted where Lainey wanted to hunt. A little before dark, a doe approached. Lainey elected to let the deer pass. A couple minutes later, a young buck, estimated to be 1.5 years, cruised by. She, again, declined the shot. A second later, the 7-pointer appeared. As often happens for kids, the deer cooperated and Lainey took the buck,” he said.
Brown usually doesn’t carry a rifle on those joint hunting experiences. As he began assessing his own forays into the Virginia woods, often hunting brushy areas where shot opportunities rarely exceed 100 yards, he realized Lainey’s rifle might be just the ticket. His previous go-to options for close-quarter hunting were a Winchester Model 94 lever-action .30-30 and a Marlin variant. For open spaces, such as fields or powerlines, he totes his old .270.
“Most places I hunt give you very quick shot opportunities. Having a maneuverable rifle that you are confident with is ideal for those circumstances. Plus, it’s very handy when you have to hike into an area carrying a treestand and a day pack. Shaving a pound or two always helps. I can really get back in the areas where those bigger bucks are hiding out, whether it’s swamps, cutovers, thickets of scrub brush or mountain laurel,” Brown said.
“I started enjoying that .350 so much that I began hunting with it,” he said, noting that his fondness for lighter-kicking calibers had its genesis when he was a 110-pound, wiry teenager who hunted with a shoulder-thumping .30-06. “It was a bit much. I developed a recoil sensitivity that took me some time to overcome,” he explained.
Such memories make the light recoil and minimal muzzle blast of the .350 all the sweeter. Brown said he closely watches Lainey shooting the Ruger at the range. She shows no difficulty in handling the firearm.
“Not worrying about recoil leads to better shots,” Brown maintains. “And the key to all rifles, including this .350, is shot placement. If you’re confident with your rifle and the caliber that you’re shooting with, when the time comes, you’ll make good shots.”
Like Daughter, Like Father
Brown used Lainey’s rifle to tag one of his best Virginia whitetails ever last year, a heavy-antlered, high-racked mainframe 8-pointer with a 9th point kicker. In describing the hunt, he pointed out that having friendly neighbors who share big buck sightings with you is a good thing. One such neighbor alerted him to his 2020 central Virginia monarch.
“It was Thanksgiving week and, as typical of many places I hunt with the .350, I was in an overgrown cutover. There was a small opening at a hardwood bottom that crosses the cutover. That’s where I set up. I was in my stand and I heard something behind me. I carefully glanced over my shoulder and saw the deer,” he said.
Brown was initially unsure how big the animal was, simply thinking that it looked like it had ample body size and, perhaps, decent antlers. As the deer approached, he decided that the deer looked good enough to expend one of his three Virginia buck tags.
Bucks in thick cover are notorious for confounding hunters, often veering off the expected route or disappearing behind trees or shrubs before vanishing. Fortunately, for Brown, this deer pulled no such Houdini act and strode toward the stand, pausing at 40 yards before turning broadside and offering a perfect opportunity. The 145-grain ballistic tip bullet found its mark.
“I knew the deer was well-hit when I shot. It likely wouldn’t go far,” Brown said.
While Brown knew the buck was nice, he didn’t think he had tagged anything exceptional in terms of antlers. Since Virginia hunters can legally take two deer a day and it was a cold morning, Brown opted to stay in his stand a little longer. After all, a doe or a big buck still might come by. As he sat there replaying the shot scenario in his head, he began reconsidering the deer below him and climbed down for a better look.
Brown found the buck in a thick clump of scrubby vegetation along the overgrown cutover. He knelt, lifting the buck’s head to marvel at the deer’s magnificence. He was also surprised at his own previous uncertainty about the buck’s stature. After snapping a couple photos with his smartphone, he called a friend to share the news before field dressing the deer. His Thanksgiving list of things for which to be grateful had grown by one. The buck later measured, for those interested, just under 140 inches on the Boone and Crockett scale, a beautiful 8-pointer in anybody’s book.
Brown, a lifelong deer hunter, says Virginia’s deer hunting is a somewhat unknown or underrated secret. “We’ve got a great deer population, generous bag limits, long seasons (in many parts of the commonwealth) and a little bit of everything when it comes to habitat, including coastal areas, the mountains and more than a million acres of national forests.
“When you hunt here your whole life, you take it for granted, but we have a lot to offer to deer hunters,” he said.
Brown said his daughter’s shooting skills are impressive for her young age, noting that she often outshoots him at the range. Her 7-point buck made her the envy of many of her buddies at school, he added.
Lainey also holds the distinction of taking the largest wild turkey gobbler ever recorded in the Brown family, a tremendous old tom weighing 22 pounds, seven ounces that was wearing an 11.5-inch beard and wielding 1.75-inch spurs. “She had to settle me down when that bird was coming in. I was shaking but she was steady as a rock,” Brown said.
“Lainey has definitely stepped into the family tradition of hunting. She is representative of a lot of what we see today with more female hunters getting into the sport. I’ve found she enjoys being in the woods as much as me and relishes the hunting experience whether we actually tag something or not,” Brown said.
It sounds like a second .350 Legend rifle option may soon need to find its way into this family.