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By Mike Hudson

Gun writers often stress the importance of cartridge availability when advising readers on which hunting rifles are more or less suitable for general use. Only rifles shooting rounds currently in production by Winchester, Remington, Federal and sometimes Weatherby are recommended, which generally limits discussion right from the start.

It is my belief that the question has been vastly overstated and oversimplified at the same time, leaving shooters, especially those in the novice category, with far fewer options than they might otherwise enjoy when it comes to rifle selection.

Of course, the promotion of current production rifles tailored to popular rounds manufactured by the Big Three can't hurt advertising revenue one bit at the magazines, but far be it from me to draw any conclusions along those lines.

No centerfire cartridge is more commonly available throughout the world than the 7.62x39 Soviet, and in addition to the millions of AK and SKS military rifles, Remington, Ruger, CZ and other companies have offered bolt action rifles chambered for it.

That doesn't save it from being a real dog, however, and as loaded by the major cartridge companies, with a 125 gr. PSP bullet loping along at 2365 fps, it is suitable only for coyote and javelina at ranges not much greater than 100 yards. You might actually be further ahead if you did lose it and had to borrow a rifle from somebody who knew better.

What are the odds, anyway, of losing your ammunition or having it rendered otherwise useless when embarking on a hunt? I always take mine along with me in the car or, if I'm flying, have it shipped to my destination and waiting for me when I get there. The great likelihood would be that, if I've lost my ammo, I've also lost my rifle, so having the correct cartridges for that particular gun would pretty much be a moot point in any event.

There was a time, in the days of our youth, when cartridge availability mattered a lot more than it does today. That was when you bought your ammunition in the darkened interior of some rural gun shop, redolent of coffee, cigarette smoke and Hoppe's No. 9, where you listened to the muted conversation and eyed the prizes behind the dirty glass counter. There was every chance in the world that rounds thus purchased had been gathering dust on the shelf for more years than you'd been alive.

Failing that, you stopped off at the Western Auto. Their hours were more regular and they generally had what you needed, which, more often than not, was a box of .22 Long Rifle or .30-06, .30-30 or 12 gauge. Only the latter offered any options: High brass or low, pumpkin balls or rifled slugs if you were after deer and a shot size as close as possible to the one you actually wanted if you were after anything else.

I can't recall anyone in those days asking for a specific bullet weight or supplying any other details when buying rifle cartridges, and I spent quite a bit of time making a pest out of myself in such places back in the day. They'd say, "Let me get a box of the .30-06," and that was it.

If neither place had what you were looking for, they could order it, a sometimes bewildering process that might or might not get you a box of the ammo you wanted at some point in the distant or not-too-distant future.

When I was shooting the 7.62x54 Russian a lot, the guy who owned the empire known as "Wolfe's News & Guns" and "Wolfe's Wacky Weiners" in Corry, Pa., would get me surplus military rounds and showed me how to pull the FMJ bullets and replace them with hunting bullets of the same weight. It worked out well enough and provided my introduction to handloading. I don't know what happened to that guy. Work took me away, and Wolfe's, like all the other independent gun shops in the neighborhood, was closed. When I went down there for a visit last summer, I was astounded.

Corry, after all, sits in the heart of northwestern Pennsylvania's deer country, nestled right at the corner of Erie, Warren and Crawford counties in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. The area is dotted with hunting camps, and deer season has traditionally been an important factor in the local economy.

"What happened?" I asked some old shooting buddies. "Wal-Mart," they replied ruefully.

Not only had the gun shops been driven out of business, but the men's and ladies' clothing emporiums, the bookstore and Slyke's Hardware as well, they said. And it was true. Except for the saloons, restaurants, professional offices and the grocery store, just about every storefront on Center Street had a "For Rent" sign hanging in the window.

Still, I'd gone down there to try out an old Mauser on the region's pesky woodchuck population and hadn't brought any ammo along, thinking of the gun shops, where I might also get the chance to renew old acquaintances.

So Wal-Mart it was. They offered exactly one load in standard velocity .30-06, a "reduced recoil" job firing a 150 gr. bullet. Cartridge availability? Try picking up a box of .340 Weatherby at your theoretical country gun shop. Or Wal-Mart, for that matter. They can order it for you, of course, but why not just order it yourself?

Web sites such as Midway, Sportsman's Guide, Graf & Sons and Old Western Scrounger offer more calibers in more configurations than any gun shop or department store possibly could. Obsolete cartridges? No problem. Obscure European metric rounds? What bullet weight would you like?

This is, after all, the 21st century, and the Internet, combined with niche marketing, has enabled companies like Black Hills, Norma and Wolf to manufacture a wide range of new, factory production ammo in a dizzying array of calibers and bullet weights, often at prices that are quite competitive. We won't even go into what can be had from the truly custom ammunition makers.

Recently, I found myself in need of 100 rounds or so of -- you guessed it -- 6.5x50 Japanese. A quick computer search found that Horandy manufactured a 140 gr. SP, Norma offered a 139 gr. SP and their premium 156 gr. Alaska RN, and P.C.I. produced a bargain 144 gr. FMJBT load for target practice and plinking. I bought two boxes of that, two boxes of the Horandy and a box of the Norma Alaska in the unlikely event I run into a moose this fall.

They arrived within a week and any problems I might have had with cartridge availability seem taken care of for the next six months or so, anyway. Averaged out, cost came in at a little over a dollar per round, not at all out of line with the MSRP for more conventional centerfire rifle cartridges offered by the Big Three American manufacturers.

There are of course any number of dire scenarios in which a hunter might become separated from his ammo stash, especially in the bush country of Botswana or the icy wastes of the Yukon. But over the past 40 years, I've never had to face the apparently all-too-common problem of losing my ammunition, so everything I know about it I read in the gun magazines.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Oct. 2 2007