The snake was across the river, near the far bank, maybe 60 yards away, swimming in the time-honored tradition of all snakes, its head about six inches above the water surface, its body cutting a "V" as it pursued whatever snake business it had in mind, blithely unaware of our existence.
It was just too tempting a shot to pass. Port Vincent was a lot less populous in those days. When you crossed the nearby bridge, you were within the town limits of the small Cajun village. But no one back then paid much attention to rimfire rifle shots.
I had a Marlin bolt-action in .22 Winchester Rimfire Magnum — one that had earned that much-bandied nickname back then of being a "match-striker." It had a cheap four-power telescopic sight, solid rings and bases, and would print three shots inside a dime at 75 yards. While I never actually attempted to strike match heads with it, I had little doubt the rifle was accurate enough to make them ignite.
With Butch watching, I rested the Marlin on the top of a handy creosote fence post, picked up the head of the moccasin in the crosshairs, and swung through him, leading him about two inches as I stroked the trigger. The horizontal line bisected its flat head, and the vertical line was just in front of its nose when the magnum spat its CCI Hollowpoint.
We were rewarded with a satisfying "splat" and the sight of the big snake roiling the water in huge and frantic twists and turns.
Targets, as they say, are where one finds them. Growing up in South Louisiana, I wanted to take a rifle and go anywhere else to shoot varmints. I absolutely lusted for a centerfire .22 varmint rifle and the opportunity to travel to the upper East Coast to hunt woodchucks, or maybe a trip out to West Texas or New Mexico, to spend a couple of days setting up on a hillside with a good rifle and a spotting scope, sniping prairie dogs.
South Louisiana just didn't offer the exotic opportunities for the type of long-range rifle shooting I wanted to practice. And besides, even in the rural areas where I grew up, a centerfire rifle still announced your presence over a long distance.
There's just something about the blast of a centerfire that unnerves city folk that have moved to the country for the rural lifestyle — and frequently don't agree that loud, booming gunshots are an accepted part of that lifestyle.
My own experience is a perfect example. I shoot a lot at certain times of the year. I live in a mixed rural area called Central City, a newly incorporated bedroom community of Baton Rouge that has been discovered, and is growing as vacant land is turned into subdivisions.
A couple of thousand feet away, through a patch of woods, is a subdivision. It is far enough from me that I can legally and safely shoot on my range into my dirt berm. But every time I shoot a high-powered rifle into my well-constructed dirt backstop, I wonder what those folks in that neighborhood are thinking.
A .22 is still more or less acceptable in our crowded, suburban lifestyles, its flat, snapping report so commonly heard, even subdivision dwellers in rural communities rarely pay it any attention.
The problem is that the range of the .22 rimfire is limited. Speaking in broad terms (sometimes a mistake in a column like this), a .22 is used out to 50 yards or so. A .22 WRM (the proper name for what is commonly called a ".22 magnum") is usable up to 100 yards or so. After that, its velocity drops considerably, and thus its ballistic "curve" increases drastically as the projectile begins falling downward in a more-pronounced manner.
Enter the new kid in the semi-rural woodlot, perfect for slipping along bayous, drilling reptiles and even sniping tree rats (during season, of course) with satisfying head shots.
And this new kid reaches out to an effective range of 150 yards or so with a factory specified velocity of 2,550 feet per second.
That raises the bar considerably over the old .22 WMR.
Allow us to introduce you to the .17 Hornady Magnum Rimfire, known commercially as the .17 HMR.
.17-caliber rifles have a very spotty history with U.S. shooters. The most commonly asked question when one appeared on the scene would be "Why?"
And it is a very good question to ask. Back in the early 1970s, Remington standardized a wildcat "17" made from a necked-down .223 Remington case. It was fast, too. A 25-grain bullet would surpass 4,000 feet per second in the hot loads, and these rifles made a small blip on the shooting world radar for a short period of time.
The trouble was, no one could figure out exactly what to do with them. Sure, they were hot. And they were extremely effective on SMALL varmints, with coyotes being about as large an animal you would want to shoot with these little pills, and some reloading manuals advised that even shooting large coyotes with the little cartridge might be ethically challenging.
One particularly aggravating feature was buying a complete new set of cleaning gear for your hot, new .17.
That phonograph needle-sized bullet required a cleaning rod about the diameter of the bass string on a concert Steinway. Anything any thicker just wouldn't go through the barrel, let alone push a brush or bit of cleaning rag through it.
Consequently, the centerfire .17s never went very far. They were resurrected a few times, but the same problems and limitations always presented themselves. Even if some gun writers lauded the virtues of the "new" .17 caliber, the shooting public just wasn't buying.
I was discussing the new .17 HMR with Pat Blake, owner of Accurate Firearms and Police Supply in Baton Rouge, one day, wondering what the excitement was all about.
"I've got one," he offered. "Take it and try it. See what you think."
So I borrowed it at the beginning of the summer. By summer's end, he was making noises about getting his rifle back, and I still hadn't tested it. It's just too hot at that time of year to get out on a range and properly test a rifle.
But I was embarrassed by taking advantage of his never-ending generosity with his guns. I decided to get it done one Sunday afternoon in August. I waited until 5:30 p.m., and stepped out on my carport, thinking I could set up on my range behind my house. Ninety-five degrees under the carport greeted me, and the heat waves danced on the range, in my field.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and I just couldn't face Pat again without bringing him his rifle. So I walked down to the small ditch that parallels the house, and set up a target.
I pulled my old picnic table up under the carport, threw the sandbags on it, and viewed my makeshift range through my Bushnell Yardage Pro Compact 800 laser rangefinder. 80 yards — more than enough distance to make a reasonable test of this Marlin 917V outfitted with a BSA Contender 4-16x40 scope.
Pat is a rifleman, and had mounted the scope on Redfield-style tall high-power mounts. These firmly hold a scope against the bruising recoil of centerfire cartridges. They would be overkill on the mild recoil of a .17 HMR. When it comes to scopes and mountings, I like overkill.
Pat had supplied me with three different types of .17 HMR cartridges-CCI Gamepoint, Federal Premium V-Shok, and Hornady Varmint Express with their V-Max bullets. He stated the rifle seemed to like the Hornady the best, and the CCI the least.
After I turned on the big carport fan to move the heat around a bit, I settled into the sandbags with the Marlin, and cracked off the first round. It was a much lighter report than expected, no more than my .22 magnum.
Of course, under the carport, it echoed a bit. And since I hadn't told my wife or daughter what I was preparing to do, there was a short female scream from inside the house. My wife, I supposed, because my daughter and hunting partner, Jessica, stuck her head out the door, grinned, and turned back into the kitchen, calling out, "Oh, it's just Dad, shooting under the carport." That's my girl.
Once I settled into the rifle, I have to say I was impressed with the accuracy of all three bullets.
The Federal shot a group just over ½ inch in diameter. The CCI gave me group just under ½ inch. But the most impressive was the Hornady, which printed two shots in one hole, and a flyer brought the three shot group out to just 3/8-inch diameter.
When I finally finished testing, even with the big fan, I was dripping with sweat. I had to wipe the gun down with Kroil to insure no perspiration remained on the gun barrel.
Years ago, Marlin had a proprietary barrel design they called "Micro-Groove." I never shot a Marlin rifle in any caliber that didn't impress me with its inherent accuracy. I don't know if they still call their barrels by the same name, but this 917V lives up to Marlin's high standards of accuracy.
And I think I've finally figured out a use for a .17-caliber rifle. In the rimfire versions, reaching 2,250 fps, we've finally got a good, usable and accurate mid-range varmint cartridge. It is one that will allow you to reach out and touch them just a bit farther than a .22 WMR, and certainly considerably farther than a standard .22 rimfire.
The recoil on these guns is negligible — next to nothing —making them an excellent training aid for kids and women who need to practice at longer ranges than a .22 can reach, preparing for the harder-kicking, more-practical centerfires for deer.
I liked the cartridge. I liked the rifle enough to add one to my personal collection.
Of course, I like almost any rifle that shows me the accuracy I found in this one. With just a little tuning, it might be possible to snipe off that turtle's head, instead of cheating and aiming at the whole shell.
The Gunner's Guru, Col. Jeff Cooper, has always been fond of saying, "Only accurate rifles are interesting."
I find the Marlin 917V and the new .17 Hornady Magnum Rimfire interesting indeed.