Shooting Sportsman – Estancia Los Chanares Testing the Zoli Expedition on high-volume doves Silvio Calabi – March 2008

It was a relief one morning to hear Dick Kennerknecht, from Global Sporting Safaris, say at breakfast that when he’d closed his eyes the night before, all he could see were doves flying at him. Oh, good, I thought. If I’m going crazy, at least I’ll have company when I get there.

Welcome to Argentina, southern land of tango dancing, beefsteak, leather-trimmed everything and wingshooting that can reduce even a Republican to sniveling tears. You know you’re shooting doves in Argentina when your left arm hurts too. When you cringe as your loader empties yet another box of cartouchos into your shell bag. (No mas!) When you decide to wait for the next shot to reload, so you don’t have to open the shotgun one more time. When you’re too jaded to move and find you’ve screwed your feet into the dirt. When you can’t swing fast enough any more to catch up with a bird closer than 30 yards. When a lively gun begins to handle like a concrete block. When a sadistic deep-tissue massage at the end of the day actually feels good…

Think this is fun, huh? I was tasked by Steve Lamboy, head of Antonio Zoli North America, to take one of the company’s new travel guns to Argentina. He wrote, somewhat disingenuously, “We need a little help from someone who understands how uncomfortable high-volume shooting can be.”

A New Englander might fire an entire box of 25 rounds on an unforgettably rare and providential day in the uplands. At one of the primo lodges west of the Mississippi, a wingshooter can burn up to three boxes of cartridges per day. Pay the price for a really big day on a Spanish or British estate and you might go through as many as eight or 10 boxes. At Los Chanares, in Córdoba Province, if you haven’t fired least 20 boxes-a case of shells, 500 rounds-before lunch, Alex, the manager, will discreetly inquire if everything is OK. Is the señor troubled by recoil? Would he like to borrow one of the estancia’s soft-shooting semi-autos?

If the señor showed up with a 12-gauge, he deserves pain. No sane person would shoot anything bigger than a 20 on Argentine doves. Because now the ammo costs the same-$ 10.75 per box- you really ought to use a 28. (Or a .410, though at $12 per box. Send your letters to “Editor,” care of this magazine.) Even a 20 gauge, though, can kick hard, and thus the rationale behind Zoli’s new Expedition over/under game guns: “specifically weighted, balanced and stocked to be used where there are constantly changing presentations and extended high-volume shooting without the need for Tylenol or a gunsmith.

The gun I used, a 30-inch 20-bore with a Decelerator pad, weighed 7 pounds 2 ounces and was stocked like a trap gun and balanced like a game gun. It soaked up recoil beautifully. (A 6 pound 8-ounce Expedition 28, now available from Zoli too, would have shot even more comfortably while reducing what I lifted to my shoulder by more than 600 pounds per day.) The heel of that sticky pad should be radiused for a hang-free mount. (It has been.) The comer of the pistol grip bruised my stomach where it dug in while I opened the action. (Get the straight grip.) The effort to open and close the gun increased as it heated up and finally got oppressive. Recoil eventually jiggled out the middle bead on the rib and the setscrew on the sliding trigger, but my shoulder, head and neck never hurt.

So no Tylenol, and one of the estancia’s masseuses rolfed away other aches in the evening. But the gunsmith? Ejector “issues” came up on day one: Periodically, the upper barrel didn’t clear; the ejector fired but the empty stuck halfway out. The problem got worse until every top shell hung up. Then my loader swabbed out the chamber with WD-40 and a brush. Problem gone for a while. On the third day, though, the top ejector began to overachieve-tossing out loaded cases too. I got to where I could catch them in midair. The single trigger, all the lockwork and the safety/barrel selector behaved flawlessly.

My gun had fired 500 rounds-as fast as it could be reloaded and the trigger pulled-at the factory in the Val Trompia. I put another 2,450 down it in 2 1/2 days, and then e-mailed the results to Steve Lamboy. He convened Zoli’s engineering and QC people, then e-mailed me back: After further testing, “in one gun in four the empties stuck 50 percent of the time. The problem guns (and the cartridges) were measured. It was discovered that when shells exceeded their diameter specifications slightly and the chambers were at the minimum end of the range, these ‘stacked’ tolerances plus extreme heat caused the sticking problem. The team also found ink from the shell markings burned onto the chamber walls. I still have burns on my hands, too.”

There is much variation in cartridge head diameters and rim thicknesses, and shotshells with cheaper steel bases-increasingly common everywhere, including Argentina-present an extra challenge: When fired, they expand to the chamber dimensions and pretty much stay there, whereas brass shell bases expand and then spring back, in addition to being slipperier. Many shotshells now have brass-plated steel bases. with the lubricity and the look but not the elasticity of true brass. It is also a fact that cartridges are far more likely to stick in expensive shotguns, the ones carefully machined to no-slop tolerances.

As a result of this experience, Lamboy said, Zoli’s chambers now have been bored out slightly and also mirror-polished; the ejector springs are 20 percent more powerful; and opening the gun has been eased to offset the stiffness of the new springs and to reduce effort. The latter is accomplished simply with better hand-fitting. (Lamboy again: “During rapid-fire sequences, we all labored heavily after only four boxes of shells.” I feel better.)

The trigger setscrew loosening under incessant recoil seemed to me to be just a matter of a dab of Loctite, but to Zoli it was a much bigger deal. This is a trigger- plate action: Backing out a retaining screw at the rear of the guard lets you pull the lockwork down out of the body as a unit. (It’s the usual ingenious, compact and beautifully polished assembly of tumblers, springs and sears of which the Italians-FAMARs, Perazzi, et al. and now Zoli-are justifiably proud. Whenever someone shows me one, I want to say, “Oh, look-a flying cow” and slip it into my pocket while heads are turned.) The trigger itself slides on a rail to let the shooter fine-tune its position for comfort. Zoli was concerned that if recoil loosened that setscrew, it also could upset the screw holding the entire lockplate, especially given the steel used there. “This is what raises hell with the triggerplate,” Lamboy said: “This steel is a bastard to harden, after which it may warp slightly and that screw hole can go out of round and get larger, so the thread contact becomes loose. But we don’t want to give up the hardening or the steel, as this gives you an action that can go 100,000 rounds before needing new hinge pins or locking bolts.” So a major change was made here, too: Zoli now uses a hardening process that affects only certain high-wear parts of the frame and triggerplate and thus eliminates warping. Zoli also added a spring-loaded ball at the back of the plate that snaps into a matching detent on the frame. “We tested this system under rapid fire without any retaining screw, and it worked perfectly,” Lamboy said. “It never loosened. So now we have a belt and suspenders, the retaining screw as well as the plunger-redundant systems that still allow easy removal.”

The trigger setscrew is now fixed with non-permanent Loctite. The sighting beads now have finer screw threads and set in the rib with Loctite Red. The rib itself is “filed” with a three-axis computer-controlled laser cutter. This creates very fine checkering matted to a dull charcoal-gray that reflects little or no sunlight, and the color remains no matter how many times the barrel is re-blued.

The Dove Hatch
The lab mouse behind all this R&D is Zenaida auriculata, the eared dove-locally, simply the paloma. Almost 25 years ago a study (“Las Aves como Plaga en la Argentina”; Bucher, E.H., 1984; Publication no 9) conservatively estimated the dove population of Córdoba Province at 24 million and the losses to agriculture caused by doves at $200 million. Today, with many more hectares of food crops, both numbers probably have more than doubled. Palomas are considered a plague, thus Córdoba’s no-limit, high- volume shooting. One estimate (and that’s all these huge numbers are-estimates) is that 30 million doves must die each year just to maintain the status quo.

In ideal conditions-weather, habitat, food, no Gringo shooters or government poison-eared doves are said to be able to reproduce up to five times annually, with two eggs per nest, and enjoy a lifespan of five years. It typically takes 35 to 45 days for the pichones (young doves) to start flying; at 20 weeks a bird enters the Córdoba “dove factory” and begins to breed. The major hatch typically takes place in August-late winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Córdoba is north of Buenos Aires, closer to the Equator, so even in winter the climate is wonderfully benign.

David Perez’s Estancia Los Chanares encompasses about 10,000 acres and includes part of a major dove roost. A survey in the 1990s reportedly estimated 20 million doves on this single roost. (In 2007 the pheasant population of South Dakota was at a near-record high of approximately 16 million birds. South Dakota is 48.5 million acres.) Perez says his guests fire two million cartridges per year and shoot more than a million palomas.

Besides this roost, which allows Perez and his staff to put their guests on a peg in less than 15 minutes each morning, Los Chañares (chanares are a local species of tree) boasts the usual amenities of a deluxe shooting lodge: a fine kitchen and wine cellar, an Olympic-sized hot tub, comfortable guest rooms with full baths, and reliable vehicles with room for even us well-fed Norteamericanos. It is the shooting. however, that sets the place apart. Just an hour in the airport at Córdoha drives home the truth that Argentina has become a destination for shotgunners from around the world, but crowding is never a problem at Los Chanares. And a good stand there provides a greater variety and quantity of wingshooting than maybe anywhere else on earth. In seconds you can transit from snap-shooting targets that materialize in your face to contemplative shots on high, high incomers-cheeky buggers so far up they feel safe, with no need to jink and swerve. At ranges in between, the doves seem able to out-maneuver a shot swarm after it has left the gun. The numbers never fail to astonish. From atop a ridge, what appears to be a caddis hatch swarming off a trout stream is in reality hundreds or thousands of palomas rising out of the brush. And when the shooting gets heavy, the raptors show up like bears at a salmon run-dozens upon dozens of eagles and caracaras spinning downward in silent gyres to pick off a tiny fraction of the dead and crippled doves. It is a shooting man’s country.

The Highest-Volume Shooting Think a 2,000-bird driven day in Spain is big? The one-day record at Los Chaliares is 5,014 doves-to a single Gun, not a team of eight.

The Gun-the shooter-was Chuck Rod, of Willis, Texas. He runs a business that supplies industrial cutting tools throughout Texas and Louisiana and seems to be a man of good sense. But family pressure can drive us to extraordinary things….

The record was set on February 6. 2004. Rod was 52. His brother had just returned from another lodge in Argentina and a little wager developed. “I actually didn’t know how many birds he’d shot. Rod said, “so I didn’t have a goal. And I wasn’t out to set a record; I just wanted to shoot a bunch of birds, or more than I had before.

“I told Serge [Dompierre, then owner Los Chañares] that I wanted to shoot a full day. It ended up about 10 hours total. For the first hour or so I couldn’t find the right place. Finally we hit the sweet spot – in a hilly area, not in a grainfield. Mostly I was facing in one direction all day, shooting incomers and angling passers.

“I took a 30-minute lunch break in the field. The total was about 2,000 by then. My cousin was there and he had bet money on me, so after lunch he kept urging me to keep shooting, keep shooting!”

Rod used a pair of off-the-rack Benei Montefeltro 20-gauge semi-autos with standard stocks and five-shot magazines, with Improved Cylinder barrels, ported. “You can reach out a lot farther with that than you think,” he said.

“I never had a bit of trouble with either gun. I didn’t clean them over lunch. I didn’t even have to use the oil bottle in my vest. I had only one loader, and I was wearing ear plugs and gloves-baseball batter’s gloves, actually-plus a hat and shooting glasses.”

On big shoots in the UK or Europe cartridges are free but the birds cost a fortune. Argentina doves are free but the ammo costly. The loaders keep close tabs on what their Guns expend and what they hit. Rod fired 6,350 rounds that day-about 1.27 per dove-and on average decked a bird every seven seconds for 10 hours. You can figure out his shell bill yourself.

Stamina and skill aside, he’s the first to admit he was lucky. “First, you’ve got to have birds,” Rod said. “I’ve shot Argentina a dozen times, but when it comes to birds, nothing comes close to what they have at Los Chaflares. Then you’ve got to able to hit them and to be consistent. If your shooting goes off for an hour, you’re done. Then the weather’s got to be right, the guns and ammunition have to hold up, and you’ve got to hold up physically. Everything has to come together. Otherwise you just couldn’t do it.

“Dehydration was the problem for me, not recoil. I was fine till I stopped shooting. Walking back to the vehicle, I began to cramp up. I drank two Cokes, which was the worst thing I could do-I should have been drinking water. First I was walking stiffly, then I couldn’t even sit down. I had to stand in the truck going back to the lodge, my calves and legs were cramping so badly.

“I’ll go back, but not for more records.”