Ricky King: Rifle Expert and Country Gentleman

By author of Brow Tines and Backstrap

It was a stone-still evening in early November; dry and cold, too, the kind of day when you can hear a deer’s footsteps from 200 yards. My attempt at slipping through the timber and squirrel hunting wasn’t going well. I might as well have been sneaking through a pool of cornflakes.

I was startled when I looked up and saw Ricky King sitting silently on his four-wheeler not 30 yards from me, a furrowed brow on his face and a near-limit of gray squirrels at his side.

“I’ve been listening to you coming for 30 minutes,” he said with a smile.

“You must be the only other guy in western Kentucky squirrel hunting over deer hunting right now,” I replied.

“I was having pretty good luck, too,” he said. “But I’ve got plenty of them here for a meal.”

I smiled, embarrassed for messing up his hunt, but intrigued by what he held in his hands. I’d met Ricky once before, but just briefly. I didn’t know him well. He’s 56 years old, polite and unassuming; the essence of a Southern country gentleman. We both hunted on the same farm, and through the farmer, I’d heard he was a rifle expert. Looking at his squirrel gun, a heavy-barreled CZ .17 Mach 2 with a 20-power scope, I believed it. My iron-sighted .22 suddenly seemed inadequate.

“How far can you kill a squirrel with that thing?” I asked. From about as far as he could see it. Head shots at 100 yards are a cinch.

A squirrel in the head at 100 yards is a feat – I don’t care what you’re shooting. When a man enjoys something like that and practices it a lot, he gets good at it. But when he’s forced into it, he’ll often take it to another level entirely.

In some ways, Ricky was forced into being a long-range rifleman. He loves to hunt, but for the last 28 years, he’s been unable to walk. He depends on his rifles to cover the ground that he himself cannot.

Ricky grew up hunting the farm country of southwestern Kentucky and Tennessee. He was a rabbit hunter to the core, but a deer and squirrel hunter as well.

“I was 28 years old when I had my accident,” he said. “We were on our three-wheelers, checking out spots on a farm we hunted down in Tennessee. They say three-wheelers are dangerous in themselves, but I don’t know. Maybe I was driving it too fast. There was a hole in the road, and the front tire hit that. That was the last thing I remember. I woke up in a hospital in intensive care in Jackson, Tennessee, and then when I really came to, they’d moved me down to Memphis.”

The accident left Ricky paralyzed from the waist down. But he had no intentions of giving up on his passion for hunting.

“There was no doubt I was going to keep going,” he said. “I just had to adjust the way I went about it. One day I looked at that three-wheeler and decided I was going to get back on it. I threw my leg over it, climbed on, and it was one of the best feelings of my life. I knew I could get back out in the woods again. I thought, ‘I’ll make this work.’”

With the help of his buddies, Ricky began fine-tuning his new approach for the woods. They built gun rests for his ATV, and carried ramps and boards with them to the field so that he easily could get on and off. For a while, rabbit hunting remained Ricky’s passion. He could park his ATV and wait on the beagles to run rabbits to within shotgun range of him. He loved it – still does – but over the years the rabbit numbers waned. Ricky began focusing more and more on deer and squirrels.

“I knew I couldn’t climb a tree or sneak through the woods, so I had to figure out a different approach,” he said. “I’d always been more of a woods hunter growing up, but then the deer got really thick around here, where we have more wide-open fields than anything. I’d always loved guns, and so I focused on becoming more of a ‘beanfield hunter.’ That’s when I really got into long-range shooting. And I knew to shoot at the distances I wanted to shoot, I needed to handload my ammunition and learn as much as I could about the guns.”

So what’s Ricky mean by long distance?

“I’ve shot does from a little more than 500 yards,” he said. “And because of the way I have to set up on these fields, a close shot for me is 200 yards. It’s not thousand-yard benchrest shooting or anything, but it’s a long way.”

Indeed. It’s not uncommon to hear of a deer hunter bragging about making a 500-yard shot. It does happen, but not often. Many of those claims are backed up with an exaggerated guess. Ricky’s are backed up with a rangefinder. Put simply, 500 yards on game is insanely out of range for the average whitetail hunter.

Ricky’s hunting style works, and even has advantages in this part of the world. Southwest Kentucky, called the “Jackson Purchase” region, is flat, marked by small wood lots and huge crop fields. The deer density is high, so when you know where to sit, seeing them isn’t a problem – getting them in range sometimes is. A skilled marksman has a decided advantage. Ricky has killed plenty of dandy bucks over the years (two in the past two seasons), and untold piles of does. He eats a lot of venison and gives plenty more of it away to hungry friends and neighbors.

Beyond his hunting prowess, Ricky’s gained a reputation as the neighborhood gunsmith, and this is in a neighborhood where folks own a lot of guns and do a lot of hunting. Last fall, he worked over the trigger on my .30-06 so that it breaks at a crisp 2 1/2 pounds, and fixed a broken shotgun that had sat in my closet for years. From trigger work and glass-bedding stocks to setting scopes and working up perfect handloads, Ricky can do about all of it.

“I enjoy helping people, and I just like messing with guns,” he said. “I enjoy seeing a guy with new confidence in a rifle that I’ve worked on for him. All the things I’ve learned about guns have been self-taught. Stuff I’ve picked up from reading about them and working on them.”

Folks might summarize Ricky in a variety of ways, but I think it’s safe to say plenty would call him an inspiration. He’s not a weekend warrior, or a once-a-season hunter. On the contrary, the guy spends more time in the woods than most people I know. And he’s successful, as evidenced by a freezer full of game.

So I asked him what he thought about that – being called an inspiration. I couldn’t get him to answer it with much more than a smile and a light nod. Ricky’s a country gentleman, and a country gentleman is humble. Sometimes no words are needed.

RICKY ON RIFLES AND HUNTING

  • I deer hunt with a custom .280 Ackley Improved that a buddy and I built. We rebarreled it with a Shilen barrel. I’ve fooled with a lot of cartridges, but I love that .280 Ackley. At one time, I had to fire-form the brass for it. Now, it’s popular enough that Nosler sells the cases for it.
  • Among factory rounds, it’s hard to beat the .30-06. It won two world wars, and you can find it on the shelf of about any hardware store in America. I can’t say anything bad about it.
  • If a guy brings me a rifle that he’s having accuracy troubles with, I check the bedding, the trigger and the optics first. All of those things have to be right for a rifle to perform as it should.
  • The Remington Model 700 is the best bolt-action platform. Ninety perfect of your custom rifles are built on it. I do like the Winchester Model 70 and Browning A-bolt as well. Savage has also come on here in recent years. For a gun that’s really accurate right out of the box, they’re phenomenal.
  • I love trading guns almost as much as I enjoy shooting them. I started trading BB guns when I was a kid, and haven’t stopped. I spend a lot of time online, and do a lot of trading with GunBroker. You meet a lot of good people when you’re trading guns.
  • Nobody likes fried squirrel any better than me. And I like to squirrel hunt almost as much as I like to deer hunt. I like it best later in the season, when the leaves are off and I can see through the woods. I have my four-wheeler set up with a box up front, and I carry sandbags in it. With my rifle rested across that, it’s nearly as good as a shooting bench. I also keep a little tripod rest so I can shoot a squirrel on either side of me. Of course, if they’re directly behind me, they’re pretty safe!