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07/21/2004 Archived Entry: "A pair of field reviews by Ian McCollum"

A PAIR OF FIELD REVIEWS. (Blogispondent Ian has the forum today ...)

by Ian McCollum

Since last writing, I've taken some excursions to both the shooting range and the hiking trails, and I'd like to report my experiences with a couple of products. First a military-issue sleeping bag/bivy sack combo, and second the Beretta 1201FP shotgun.

I recently returned from a one-night (it was supposed to be two, but we hiked faster than planned) backpacking trip into the mountains. I used the opportunity to test out a USGI "Modular Sleep System" (MSS) I have on loan from a friend. We spent the trip at elevations of between 10,000 and 12,000 feet, and rain was forcast - so I needed a bag both warm and waterproof - and this one seemed like it would fit the bill.

The MSS is overall a clever and well-executed system. It consists of 3 basic components - a light sleeping bag (suitable for 30-50 degree weather), a heavy sleeping bag (for -10 to 30 degree weather), and a waterproof outer shell. All three elements snap together inside each other - so in extremely cold places, you nest it all together, and you're comfortable down to (apparently) -30 degrees. In warmer weather, you can use either sleeping bag alone with or without the shell. For this trip, I used just the lighter bag (temperatures were not supposed to go below freezing) and shell.

I don't have a scale handy, so I can't say exactly what the whole thing weighs, but it's not as light as some commercial backpacking bags (I would call it medium weight, and heavy with both sleeping bags). On the other hand, it seems much more durable than the commercial options. I had no qualms about rolling over onto sticks at night - which might well have torn less rugged bivy sacks. Tactically-minded folks will also appreciate its olive green and woodland camo coloring.

Anyways, about the time we stopped hiking for dinner, light rain started falling (we had been watching clouds build and listening to impressive thunder for a couple hours at that point). I ate dinner under a tree, and tossed the bag out so that the head end was sheltered from the rain by this small evergeen. As it drizzled, I could see water beading on the unsheltered end of the bag, but the gortex shell kept it all out. By the time I settled in for bed, the rain had intensified, and my sheltering tree was soon rendered ineffective. Still, the bag remained thoroughly dry.

My big complaint came after I had closed up the top of the bag to keep my face dry. Without any supporting pole(s), the shell came to rest on or within an inch of my face. This low volume and effective closure led to the air inside getting pretty stale pretty fast, which I found fairly uncomfortable (this was certainly compounded by the thin air at our 10,000-foot campsite). This issue was also worsened by a side effect of the shell's waterproof nature: since moisture couldn't penetrate it, it didn't take long for a big wet spot to condense right above my face from my breath. Between those two issues, I found the system uncomfortable to sleep in. If I had been able to leave the top of the shell open, I'm sure it would have been quite pleasant (the bag was comfortably warm).

Overall, I wasn't impressed enough to be willing to shell out the roughly four hundred dollars to get myself one of these bag systems. Instead, I'm going to try out one of the various bivy shelters on the market, in conjunction with my regular sleeping bag. Hopefully they will prove to be both waterproof and well ventilated.

Now, on to the second item - the Beretta 1201FP. For those of you not familiar with it, here's a picture of one. It's a semiauto 12 gauge shotgun with a 3" chamber, capacity of 6+1, weight of 6.3 pounds, and synthetic furniture. Some variants have ghost ring sights, but the one I used had rifle-type sights.

Semiauto shotguns basically fall into two categories, recoil-operated and gas-operated. The 1201 is a recoil-operated weapon, which gives it some advantages and some disadvantages. The good side is that it can reliably cycle rounds of most any pressure, from light trap loads to heavy slugs. The disadvantages are that it is less effective at mitigating recoil force and that if you have many doodads on it, reliability decreases (this is because the action depends on the recoil impulse to cycle - if you make the gun heavier, its rearward velocity upon recoiling diminishes).

I took the Beretta out to my range with a wide variety of shells to test its reliability. I used a box worth of assorted Remington, Winchester, and Federal "value-pack" cheap birdshot, a half dozen shells of old Remington #4 buckshot, a half dozen rounds of Sellier & Bellot #00 buckshot, and a box of 5 Remington 1oz slugs. Everything cycled fine; I had no malfunctions at all. Recoil was moderate with the birdshot, a tiny bit harder with the buckshot, and, ah, significant with the slugs. With a proper hold, shooting is pleasant or manageable with anything but the slugs (and doable for limited time with those). With a poor hold, this thing will definitely beat up your shoulder. I have since gotten my hands on some reduced-recoil "tactical" shells, but not had the chance to try them out yet. Rumor has it those are much more comfortable to shoot.

The rifle sights on the gun are quite precise, and the rear is adjustable for both windage and elevation. I found them a bit low for me, and I'm looking around for ways to remedy that. However, they should be excellent for shooting slugs, and the front sight is hardly slower to use than a bead when firing shot.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to do any patterning or rested slug shooting, so I can't say what sort of patterns/groups it'll make.

Handling was quite nice, aside from the low sights. The light weight of the gun becomes a definite advantage when you're carrying it around for a while. The safety is a side-to-side button located at the rear of the trigger guard. Not as handy as the tang-mounted safeties on Mossbergs, but perfectly serviceable. To load it up, you drop a shell in through the ejection port, slap the bolt release button on the side, and then thumb six more rounds into the magazine through the bottom of the gun (as you would with any other orthodox repeating shotgun). "Topping off" the magazine is as simple as thumbing more rounds into the bottom while the bolt is forward. The procedure to exchange the shell in the chamber (say, replace buckshot with a slug) is a bit tricky, and I haven't tried to figure it out yet - I'll report back again when I do (and when I've gotten a chance to shoot it for patterns and groups).

Posted by Claire @ 08:41 AM CST

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