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Sized-Up Straight-Wall: Winchester .400 Legend

Winchester's straight-wall .400 Legend paired with the bolt-action XPR rifle prove to be a formidable pairing during an Idaho bear hunt.

Sized-Up Straight-Wall: Winchester .400 Legend
Winchester .400 Legend. (Photo by Joe Kurtenbach)

The dogs were baying up ahead. Not the constant frenetic howls of a running chase but the intermittent warnings that signaled a treed bear. My guide, Keedin Denny, and I had been trying to keep up by vehicle but were barred at every turn. Despite being a Spring black bear hunt, plenty of snow remained in the hills around Garden Valley, Idaho. Capable as our dog-boxed, backcountry Tacoma was, we found ourselves shoveling, cutting, and winching to progress — or escape — the old logging roads that crisscrossed the mountainside.

Turning to our ultimate all-terrain conveyance — our feet — we geared up and began hoofing it toward the pack of Walker hounds to see what trouble they’d found. We were soon vindicated in our decision to quit the truck, as roads narrowed to trails and disappeared completely beneath the brush and alders. However, our urgency increased since the dogs were more than a mile away as the crow flies, and we were fresh out of wings. We’d have to make do covering miles of circuitous, sloping trail before dumping off the side and going hell for broke down, and back up, the steep, dense faces of the creek-bottomed valley.

The Camp

Two of our most important tools for this hunt: the hounds and the shovel. (Photo by Joe Kurtenbach)

Table Mountain Outfitters ( is run by Scott and Angie Denny, who you may know for their long-running show “The Life At Table Mountain.” Their service outfits in Wyoming and Idaho, and offers guided hunts and comfortable accommodations for bear, cougar, antelope, elk, and deer. The Dennys run a professional operation with personable staff. Don’t hesitate to book if you are interested in great western hunt, their expertise has earned them a busy calendar with plenty of repeat customers. In fact, most of the hunters in my party had been afield with the Dennys at least once before.

The hunt was arranged by Brian Lynn of the Sportsmen’s Alliance ( He and Evan Heusinkveld, the president and CEO of Sportsmen’s Alliance, host the camp annually to connect with corporate sponsors and outdoor media reps. It’s a very tangible way to share the type experience their organization is working to protect. If you’re not familiar, Sportsmen’s Alliance is one of the few lines of defense for hunters and America’s sporting heritage. Sure, there are a wide array of conservation groups doing excellent work to protect and enhance our nation’s natural resources, but almost none that directly facedown the barrage of legal and legislative initiatives aimed at curtailing the pursuit of game. Heusinkveld makes no bones about his organization’s mission, “We fight anti-hunters.” Their battlefields are the courts, the state houses, and the halls of Congress, and their mission is to protect our hunting heritage and expand public support for, and participation in, outdoor recreation.

400-legend-id-Tacoma winch
Shady spots on the trail held snow drifts even in late May. Due to the changing temperatures, we struggled to find traction on ice in the morning, and got bogged down in snowy slush in the evening. Winches can be a pain to deploy, but they can also get you out of a jam. Here, we were finally one tug away from freedom. (Photo by Joe Kurtenbach)

In addition to a couple writers, including my colleague Skip Knowles of “Wildfowl” magazine, Rafe Neilsen and Jake Wallace from Winchester were in camp, and equipped us with XPR bolt-action rifles chambered for the new .400 Legend straight-wall centerfire cartridge.

The Gear

Beyond a bigger bore, not much was changed between the .350- and .400-Legend XPR. I had used the former with great success during a black bear hunt in northern Maine a few years prior. After that event, I came away impressed with the handiness and accuracy of the Winchester bolt gun, especially in dense country, as well as the definitive terminal effects of Winchester’s .357-caliber/9mm straight-wall cartridge. The .350 Legend has absolutely caught fire since its release.

400-legend-id-Winchester XPR SR
Winchester XPR SR Bolt-Action Rifle. In chamberings like .400 Legend, the muzzle flares a bit to accommodate caliber-appropriate muzzle threads. (Photos courtesy of Winchester)

For the Idaho hunt, I selected and sighted in a pre-production XPR SR (Suppressor Ready) rifle. The distinguishing feature of the gun is its 20-inch barrel which, in .400 Legend, bells slightly at the end to accommodate the 11/16x24 muzzle threads. A knurled thread protector is included, and the polymer magazine holds three rounds of .400 Legend. A variety of scopes were represented in camp, but my rifle wore a Leupold VX-3HD 3.5-10x50mm.

Like its little brother, the .400 Legend is designed to offer improved performance over legacy straight-wall cartridges, but the new offering ups bullet diameter to .40-caliber. It’s a relatively short-range cartridge that boasts big, heavy bullets to absolutely thump mid-size game like whitetail deer and black bear. Despite packing a wallop, recoil for both Legend-series cartridges is surprisingly minimal — both are enjoyable to shoot.  Currently Winchester offers three loads: 190-grain Deer Season XP, 215-grain Power Point, and 300-grain Super Suppressed. Our group was using the latter.

Winchester .400 Legend straight-wall, center-fire cartridge. Note: Packaging images and cartridge rendering are not to scale. (Photos courtesy of Winchester)

Although we expected our shots to be within 100 yards, we still got a kick out of the 300-grain bullet’s exaggerated drop between 50 yards and 100, which seems to be about 4 inches, give or take. The other .400 Legend loads offer zippier velocities and flatter trajectories, but the Super Suppressed cartridges reminded me of lobbing .45 ACP rounds at 100-yard steel. It was a good time, and we enjoyed cracking jokes about having to dial for elevation if we saw a bear at 75 yards.

Spangler Forge EDC Belt Knife (author photo); Eberlestock Jacknife Pack (Image courtesy of Eberlestock); Lacrosse Ursa ES GTX Boot (Image courtesy of Lacrosse).

A couple other items I brought that are worth a mention were the new Lacrosse Ursa Early Season (ES) GTX boots, Eberlestock Jacknife pack, and Spangler Forge EDC Belt Knife. This kind of ancillary kit hardly ever gets the spotlight, but it’s the little things that can make or break a hunting experience. I’d worn the soles off of my last set of hunting boots, and the Ursa ES GTX seemed an apt replacement. Waterproof yet lightweight, the 8-inch-tall boots offer ample ankle support, which would be appreciated when trekking Idaho’s steep terrain. The pack has become a favorite for travel and everyday use. With about 23 liters of cargo space, including a padded tech pocket, the Jacknife is well-organized, well-constructed, and offers plenty of room for necessities without being overly large. The padded and fully adjustable shoulder harness helps set Eberlestock’s EDC bag apart, and allows it to pull double (triple?) duty as a light hunting pack toting layers, liquids, snacks, and kit. Finally, Spangler Forge knives have also become a go-to for my daily carry. Hand-forged from spring steel and left with a ruggedly handsome raw finish, the EDC Belt Knife is a compact, multi-use blade that works well as a skinner and for other camp chores.

Spangler Forge EDC Belt Knife
Hunters know the work really begins after an animal's been taken. Having the right tools for the job can make all the difference. (Photo by Joe Kurtenbach)

The Hunt

Chasing bear with hounds is an exhilarating and challenging hunt. It begins by cruising known bear hangouts with the dogs anxiously sticking their noses out of their transport box. The tension builds as you wait for a “strike,” or a clear indication from the dogs of recent bear activity. There’s no mistaking a strong strike. Most houndsmen or “doggers” have a couple animals whose noses they trust best, but if you find a location with a bear nearby, the whole pack explodes in excited howls.

After a strike, a couple lead dogs will likely be let out to pick up the trail. Their progress, location, and behavior is tracked with electronic GPS equipment worn on all the dogs’ collars and displayed on mounted or handheld control units. Experienced guides understand both dog and bear behavior, and they can identify from the data if their hounds are on the trail or actively chasing. Once the chase starts, things really ramp up. If it seems like the bear is nearby, the whole pack may be turned loose on the spot. In other situations, the guide may try to parallel or get ahead of the chase and add dogs to the race strategically. In any event, the pack’s goal is to tree the bear by wearing it out enough that it chooses to climb rather than keep running.


400-legend-id-Dogs Out
Send in the pack! (Photo by Joe Kurtenbach)

My hunt was on almost immediately. A strong strike and bee-line trail quickly had the whole pack turned out. Following the race on screen, the bear tried to shake its pursuers by circling, doubling back, and running figure eights in order to confuse the scent trail. The tactic worked as some of the younger dogs got turned around or fell out of the race, but the more experienced hounds weren’t so easy to fool, and these dogs live for the chase. It wasn’t long before the action came to a halt and all indications were that the pack had a bear bayed up in a tree.

The dogs had done their work, now it was our turn. Once Denny had made the call to bail out and go full-send on foot, we got to humping. Despite our best efforts, it took time to negotiate the distance and tough terrain. We arrived at the tree worn out but ready, and I was impressed by the dogs’ ability to hold the bear in place. Quickly finding the bear and surveying the scene, Denny got to work leashing his dogs up away from the tree. They were close enough to keep the bear honest, but far enough to avoid a scrum if the bear decided to come down and make a break for it.

400-legend-id-Keedin and Cash
My guide and outfitter Keedin Denny with his Walker hound "Cash." Dogs and their predecessors have always served as man's hunting companions, and that lineage continues today. I've been lucky enough to see "man's best friend" at work all over the world, from blood dogs in Africa, to bear dogs in Idaho and Maine, and bird dogs of all types from sea to shining sea. It's always an amazing experience. (Photo by Joe Kurtenbach)

With the dogs secured, both Denny and I worked our way around the tree trying to get a good look at the bear. Right away, it was pretty clear the bear was good size. It was up a large, thick tree, and the bear’s body seem to be about the same diameter as the trunk. Denny also did his best to identify if our bear was a boar or a sow, and make sure there were no cubs present. Sows with cubs are strictly off the menu. The size of the bear and the width of its head had my guide pretty convinced this was a good boar. Once I had the thumbs up from Denny, it was my turn to perform.

Treed bears often present a challenging shot because of the high upward angle and obstacles like the trunk and branches. I set myself up in a kneeling position and placed my pack over my support leg to cushion and elevate my supporting arm. I had a stable position, as well as a shooting lane to the vitals if I could slip the bullet under a large branch. Pausing after an exhale, I broke the shot. Nothing happened. I waited a beat but did not see so much as flinch from the bear or splinters from the tree. I’d already reloaded so I sent another, and this time the bear quaked and fell, then laid still at the base of the tree. As it turns out, I’d put a perfect pair through the boiler room only about 1/4 inch apart. Who knows why the bear didn’t fall with the first killing shot — that’s hunting for you.

400-legend-id-Hunt Rifle
Once again, a Winchester rifle and Legend-series cartridge got it done on Ursus americanus. Remember, anytime you are hunting with dogs you need to be extra vigilant and situationally aware. Listen to your guides and remember that your job, when the time comes, is to deliver a good shot. (Photo by Joe Kurtenbach)

The pack out was no picnic. We even stuck the truck one more time trying to get off the mountain, just for good measure. It didn’t matter. We had all the dogs in the truck, and a fine, black-coated boar to boot. The hounds had been great and fun to watch, Denny and I had done our part, and the equipment performed as expected. It’s always satisfying, too, to put in the sweat and the miles and really earn the harvest. Getting back to camp, we were able to swap stories, compare adventures, and just appreciate the camaraderie and shared experience that hunting provides. There’s a reason that hunting camps live fondly in our memories, and these opportunities are worth protecting so future generations can share in that heritage.

Regarding the .400 Legend, if the success of the .350 Legend offers any insight, expect the cartridge to take off in popularity as rifles like the Winchester XPR, Ruger American, and Savage Axis hit the market — these makers are already cataloging the guns on their websites. As with the .350, there’s a lot to like about the .400 for hunters in straight-wall states, and really anyone looking for close-cover brush gun. Production rifles from Winchester are expected later this year, and we’ll de standing by to offer a technical evaluation when they come on line.

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