Getting Ready for the Tracking Season – The Marlin TSBL Trapper
As many of you know, I have been working with the new Marlin TSBL Trapper in 45/70 as my new go-to 2018 tracking rifle. I was impressed by the design of this model because of its compact size, the power and versatility of the 45/70 round, and its weatherproof design features. Much of that is covered throughout my previous articles on www.WhitetailTrackers.com. For this month, I want to review what I’ve discovered about the gun now that I’ve used it for a few months, and what modifications I’ve made to ready it for the tracking season.
First off, one of the beauties of the Marlin design in general is the simple fact that it fits me – especially the pistol gripped models. They line up fantastic with a peep sight, and the length of pull is just about perfect for me from the factory. So unlike many other rifles that I’ve owned through the years, I don’t usually need to modify the stock on a 336, 1894 or an 1895. The Trapper model also comes stock with a nice fat recoil pad as well, so I didn’t need to add that either.
The Rear Peep Sight
However, after some time with the gun, I realized some things I needed to address to make it more effective for the task at hand. The first modifications I made were to the rear peep sight and the front sight. The bright polished stainless finish of the Skinner peep sight can create a distracting glare on sunny days. (This is really noticeable when you compare the sight picture of the Trapper compared to the satin blued finish on the more traditional Marlin models that also carry a blued or dark painted peep sight.) Now this might seem like I’m nitpicking here, but if you’ve ever tracked a buck on a bright day with snow on the ground, and had to fire anywhere in the direction of the sun at a running buck, you definitely know that snowblindness can be an issue. Take a scoped rifle, look through the scope and point it close to the direction of the sun (not directly at it!) and you will get a similar but extreme case of the snow blind effect I’m talking about here.
Skinner sights are beautifully engineered, are elegant and well built, and are expensive. The fact that the Trapper comes standard with this quality sight is impressive, and so I was determined to make the sight work for me. I removed the ghost ring from the Skinner’s base and then placed the little metal ring in a vise and painted it flat black. Once dried, I reattached it to its base on the gun. This helped with the glare issue, but because the Skinner’s sight base itself is also polished stainless steel, the flat plane of base metal still refracted too much glare into the field of view for my liking. To see exactly how much of the issue was being caused by the sight itself and not the gun’s receiver top, I looked down the rifle with the Skinner sight, base included, completely removed from the gun. I did so on a bright sunny day. I looked down the receiver at the front sight sans the Skinner sight, and realized that without the polished stainless rear sight on the gun, there was very little glare happening at all. The entire gun is bead-blasted flat dull gray which obviously eliminates a lot of the sun’s effects. I then knew that the glare was caused by the Skinner’s flat polished base and equally polished ghost ring. Instead of painting the entire Skinner sight, base included, completely matt black and destroying its elegance, I called MidwayUSA and ordered my favorite peep sight, the XS brand Ghost Sight in a matt blued finish. (Many of the new marlins come stock with these quality sights as well.) I removed the entire Skinner sight apparatus from the Trapper, stripped the black paint I’d just applied, bringing its bright polished surface back to life. I then placed the Skinner unit in a box to be installed on a different rifle that won’t be used in the tracking woods. It won’t be in that box for very long, as it is just too nice a piece to be held in storage. It should be noted here that Skinner does make the same exact same sight in a black finish. In my case however, I simply prefer the XS sight to the Skinner brand for one simple reason; the XS ghost ring has a thinner circumference, making the ghost sight nearly disappear when you look through it. The difference is akin to looking through the middle of a bicycle tire compared to a fatter truck tire – it’s a much less constricted view of the environment and game you are aiming and shooting at. Between that small detail and the XS’s dull black finish, it is the perfect ghost sight for quick and accurate shooting that is required in many tracking scenarios. Several of my Marlins also wear these same XS brand ghost sights so I have confidence in them. Like the Skinner, it mounts directly to the existing scope mount screw holes so no drilling or tapping was required. Now before I go on, I do not want to say that everyone should make this change in rear sights. For most, I think the Skinner is a fine compliment to the design of the rifle, especially if you do not plan to shoot at running game. However, for me, I need my main tracking rifle to feel as close to perfection as I can make it, and clarity in the sight picture is of paramount importance to me.
A New Front Sight
Next came replacing the front white post-style (or stripe as some call it) sight. Removal was as easy as unscrewing the two mount screws. I am not a fan of post front sights for tracking, as they take time to aim. There is no focal “point” in which to easily focus upon in quick shot scenarios. Instead you are required to think about placing the top of a white stripe where you intend to shoot. This process takes precious time for me, which is something you don’t have when your buck flees his bed in the dense forests of the north. Of course, this design makes imminent sense in shooting long distances with say an M-16 where accuracy at long ranges is a top concern. The flat top stripe sights are commonly used in these kinds of military applications. But shooting at a running buck, or a charging bear (which is what the Trapper is designed for) requires a “point” of aim, and the color of this point must contrast with its surroundings, which a white stripe does not do (remember Alaska, Canada and the Northern US tend to be white with snow during the hunting and tracking seasons). To replace the stock sight, I found an older matt blued steel Remington dovetail ramp in my parts bin that fit the fat contour of the 45/70’s barrel, and then installed a Williams red fiber optic Firesight in the ramp’s dovetail slot with a brass punch. Finding the correct height for the front sight was simple. I just measured the difference in height between the top of the Skinner’s ghost ring and the top of the XS sight’s ghost ring and added that same difference in measurement to the front sight.
The Hammer Spur
The Trapper comes with a stainless hammer spur to be used when mounting a scope. One of the arguments against using a hammer spur at all is the fear of the hammer being inadvertently cocked from half-cock safety position to the live-cocked position when walking through thick brush. While I suppose that is possible, in more than 38 years of hunting with marlin lever actions in some of the densest cover in America, it hasn’t happened to me yet. Until it does, I’ll keep the hammer spur attached – even without a scope. When tracking, especially when you’re soaked and moving slowly in the death creep at the end of a long day’s tracking adventure, your hands can be completely numb. This also happens even when wearing gloves making the idea of finding the hammer with your numbed thumb in a cloak of wet wool a bit of a blind search. Having that chunk of metal sticking out from the hammer is a God send in such circumstances.
Here they are. After a boatload of shooting and load development, I’ve settled on a mix of components that when combined, make a couple of accurate and highly effective deer slaying handloads for this specific rifle. With a scope installed (a Nikon Prostaff 3x9), shooting from a Caldwell Leadsled to eliminate my flinching or coffee inspired morning shakes, the average 60 yard groups (3 - 5 shot groups each) with the following load were a ragged hole of .78”. That’s MOA at 100 yards. That’s silly good in a stock lever rifle. Other commercial loads did not get these results and surprisingly, many careful handloads fared worse than some of the cheap factory stuff. Some groups were in the 3 inch range at 60 yards…not very inspiring. But here is what matters…the two best loads are literally perfect for tracking and both came in under an inch at my short 60 yard shooting range. The .78 inch results were had by Hornady brass filled with 46.2 grains of IMR4198 and Federal large rifle primers, capped with a Hornady 300 grain hollow flat point interlock bullet at an overall average of 1810 FPS (remember this is a 16 ½ inch barrel here). The second best group of .98 inches was had with Starline brass filled with 48.0 grains of IMR4198 and Federal large rifle primers capped with a Barnes 250 grain hollow flat point TSX all copper bullet cruising along at an overall average speed of 1915 FPS 15 feet from the muzzle. With good knowledge of holdover, these are highly effective deer loads out to 150 to 200 yards. Most every tracked deer I’ve shot was within 75 yards, so holdover is not an issue. Frankly, the 45/70 at those kinds of distances is as ethical a weapon at dispatching life as any gun I’ve ever used before it at these reasonable ranges. The best factory load was Remington’s 405 Grain Jacketed Soft Point. This load hovers in the 1” arena at 60 yards and is a relatively soft shooting and effective deer load as well, albeit at shorter ranges.
The Time is Coming
The weather is turning cool, the first tinges of red and orange are showing up in the foliage, and the smell of deer season and gunpowder is in the air. I look forward to telling the tales of how this rifle performs in the field as I pursue an old wilderness mountain buck. Until then!
Note to the reader: If anyone reading this would like to ask questions about this Marlin rifle or any tracking rifle they might be modifying, I can be reached on the forums within the BigWoodsBucks.com Hunting Club. I look forward to hearing from you.