After a fair old time of stalking and hunting deer, moose, elk and caribou over hill, bush and forest for sport, I have been collating some reflections as the “Big 60” draws near. Many are about topics that appear regularly in these pages anyway and Frax's absolutely brilliant "Musings" article from a couple of days ago prompted me to get on and put these up. I claim no expertise or originality in any particular field and what follows are just some observations, gathered over many years in the UK, Norway, Canada and Africa. It’s not meant to be an “old man’s rant” but I suppose it is a collection of things I might want to pass on to a new stalker and I’d welcome other people’s thoughts - my “tin hat” is firmly in place.
Most importantly, it is not directed at or meant in any way to patronise the many professional or semi-professional hunters, stalkers and deer managers or the well-respected and experienced sporting shots on here from whom I continue to learn and for whom I have such great respect! Anyway, here are some thoughts on ...
Stalking Rifles and Equipment
Many modern rigs are worlds away from when I started. Forty years ago the typical, sporting stalker set off armed with a simple, un-moderated .30 calibre rifle, fitted with a basic sling and a fixed-magnification 4x32 ‘scope. He would also have an ex-army 8x30 binocular or 3-draw telescope, a face-net, a sharp knife and a stout thumb-stick. They would reckon to close within 100-120 yards or so (often closer in the forest) of a suitable beast and expect to kill it cleanly with their first shot. As I recall, most did (but then, hindsight has very rose-tinted glasses ...).
No-one seemed to talk (or know) much about ballistics, MoA, BC etc. In fact, I think we talked about practically anything but ballistics. Just about all the stalkers I knew then only had one rifle but most had been in the Army and could shoot well, in all weather, from all positions, over open sights and their standards of hillcraft and general awareness were pretty high. When I say they could shoot well, I mean that they could consistently “hit a tea plate” at 100m from the usual positions, using their thumb-stick if needed. Indeed, that was what we practised, using paper plates or just bits of cardboard on a stick. Given time to prepare a solid position, they could shoot very accurately indeed to 300 yards and beyond in the right circumstances. If waiting in ambush, a bag, smock or a couple of short sticks stuck in the ground as a makeshift bipod might be used and the sling was usually employed when shooting from the sitting or kneeling positions – something I rarely see now.
Since then, I have watched a steady increase in the expense and complexity of stalking rigs, with every kind of bell and whistle. We buy beautifully-made and balanced rifles, then unbalance them with a big, variable-magnification ‘scope that seems rather more suited to astronomical observation than stalking (but spend most of their time left on around 6x anyway) and are often subject to distortion, exaggerated shake, narrow fields-of-view, short depths-of-field and unpredictability. Then there are moderators like beer cans; ungainly bipods; tri-quad-funny stick things done up with yards of tape and rubber bands and even range-finders and GPS.
The list seems endless and most of these things definitely do have their useful place under certain conditions but I admit to occasionally being amused by companions who are so preoccupied with fiddling with all this kit and the knobs and wheels on their sights that they forget the basics of fieldcraft and marksmanship. All this stuff can be heavy, bulky, noisy, time-consuming and cumbersome and it can soon affect their ability to melt into their surroundings, stalk their quarry and shoot quickly and accurately. It certainly helps them get through their money, though...
And staying on the topic of money, it can’t be said often enough that a half-decent, used 8x40-ish binocular and a good-quality, used rifle that fits you, properly-mounted with a second-hand, good-quality, fixed-magnification ‘scope, is all you need to get started (and, actually, probably all you’ll ever need). Even a rough-ish but serviceable old gun with a good bit of glass on top will do most folk pretty well.
So, what is "good" glass? It is a 'scope of robust and weatherproof construction that holds zero, delivers repeatable adjustments and provides a clear sight picture, with sufficient eye-relief, at a useful magnification with good depth-of-field and sufficient field-of-view. There are plenty about and they needn't cost a fortune. For me, that's meant a Pecar 4x35 in the woods and a Zeiss 6x40 on the hill for deer-sized quarry. Both are over 20 years old, still pretty much as good as new but worth very little and definitely not for sale!
If you are starting out on this sport, don’t buy anything on the basis of what you read in shooting magazines. Find someone you trust and ask them ... indeed, you will get all the advice and help you need from the “usual suspects” on this forum!
The picture below is of a fully-equipped Canadian sniper in Belgium, October 1944 ... and, unlike ours, his quarry was also trying to kill him. (No, it’s not Errol Flynn – it’s actually Sergeant H.A. Marshall of the Sniper Section, The Calgary Highlanders). Notice how simply he is dressed and equipped to enable him to observe, move easily and quietly, merge with his surroundings and shoot quickly and accurately from a variety of supported and unsupported positions. I guess we wouldn’t need the grenade, though, and the Kukri in his belt is possibly a bit OTT...
It seems to me that the essential feature of stalking is that it means getting close to your quarry. When stalking deer, that means (to me, anyway) to within around 150m or closer. Soldiers are trained to think about shape, shine, shadow, surface, silhouette etc but, over the years, I have come to a few conclusions about the essentials of stalking fieldcraft, bearing in mind that, unlike a military sniper, your quarry isn’t also stalking you ...
- It doesn’t really matter what you wear, as long as it is a sensible colour, protects you and doesn’t rustle or shine. One of the best stalkers I ever knew wore an old blue boiler suit and a battered, brown trilby hat. And he wore exactly the same on the river – with equal success;
- Check that you are quiet. Empty your pockets of things that rattle or tape them up. Tape your sling swivels and any loose strap ends on slings, knapsacks etc;
- Stalk upwind and think about the wind constantly – has it changed? Try to see what the wind is doing where you are trying to get to – how is the foliage moving over there? Is it different? Why?
- Since much stalking takes place when the sun is low, stalk with the sun as nearly behind you as possible and get right into those early morning/late evening shadows but remember the wind (if there is any) takes priority;
- If you are not winded, it is usually movement that gives you away. You have to move very slowly and exploit every possible scrap of cover and fold in the ground. Notice that when someone turns their face towards you, it sticks out a mile. Keep your head low and wear a good, brimmed hat or net and cover your hands. Moving slowly means slowing down all movement, like when you raise and lower your binocular, turn your head, crouch down or stand up. Do everything in slow-motion ...
- Stop, listen and look for at least a minute at regular intervals. Do a full 360 – you never know who or what might be behind you. See them before they see you – if you have been stalking properly, they probably have no idea that you are even there;
- Once you have selected a target, think always of what it can see. Where is its eye-line? What ground is “dead” to it? Is there anything else around (other deer, birds etc) that might see or scent you and raise the alarm on the way in?
- Think again as you prepare to shoot: is your identification right? If you have lost sight of it for more than a moment, are you still going for the same beast? Is the shot still absolutely safe? Where might the beast run and how will you recover it?
One of the difficulties that many recreational stalkers face is the fact that they don’t have the opportunity to shoot often enough. You have to practice but that doesn’t mean that you have to blaze away with a centre-fire stalking rifle. “Plinking” with a scope-mounted air rifle, .22 or .17 against a safe background is great fun, cheap and an excellent way of keeping your eye in and honing hand/eye co-ordination without frightening the horses.
Dry practice with the stalking rifle, moving and “shooting” from a variety of positions whilst cycling dummy cartridges, is also important, so that you are completely comfortable and familiar with it in your hands, as you move. Stalkers who are plainly awkward and clumsy moving through cover with their rifle, particularly if it and they are adorned with every “must-have” gadget and gizmo, are unlikely to mount and shoot smoothly and accurately from ad hoc positions. It also pays to get in plenty of dry practice just mounting the rifle using ad hoc supports (a tree, stick, gate, fencepost) and exploiting the sling in the kneeling and sitting positions especially.
Many people recommend the excellent practice of getting a friend to load for you, slipping in the odd dummy round in order to expose flinching and pulling. This works really well when practising from different positions. Seeing the muzzle wobble violently off target on a dummy round with a “shot” taken from the kneeling or standing position is a revelation that can work wonders.
The correct eye relief and stock mount are so often overlooked. Seeing someone wriggling their head around, squinting all the while, trying to get a full sight picture (particularly through a high-mounted, high-magnification ‘scope) because they just can’t get their cheek down on the stock and see properly through the ‘scope at the same time is so silly, so common – and so easy to fix.
Reams have been written on zeroing a stalking rifle. However you do it, the most important thing is to know how your rifle is zeroed and with what ammunition, then check it and stick with it. For what it’s worth, I have always zeroed a .30 calibre rifle (mine is a .308) at around 1.0 inch high at 100m for the first shot from a clean, cold bore – pretty standard stuff but it works. I use Sako 123gr Gamehead and that puts me near enough dead centre at 50m and 150m, which is what I want. Once the bore is foul, it will shoot a little higher but not enough to make a difference at those sorts of ranges.
Smooth shot-release is everything, controlling the breathing so that the shot is taken just as the cross-hairs rise gently into the chosen spot. Holding too long is almost always a mistake – relax and set it up again! If you find yourself trying to compensate for more than one “variable” (wind, rain, breathlessness, spooked beast, uphill/downhill, range etc) at a time – pass up the shot and eliminate the variables instead, usually by getting closer, changing the angle or by just being a little more patient. Never worry about not taking a shot and never feel pressured into taking one that you are not completely happy with.
Just about everyone claims to understand the basics but, sometimes, I think we can over-emphasise some aspects at the expense of not being firm enough about others. Much real stalking and hunting has to be done with a loaded rifle, safety applied and ready to be mounted in an instant. It has always seemed to me that the two paramount rules are: “never allow your muzzle to point anywhere you’re not happy for the round to go - and especially not at any person – ever!” and: “keep your finger clear of the trigger (ie held firmly straight along the side of the trigger guard) until you take the shot!” The other rules and conventions of firearm safety are important, of course, but these are the two that will prevent tragedy if all else fails and they should be ruthlessly enforced. No-one has ever been given a second chance to swing their muzzle across me. Naturally, you can only move like this alone or in the company of those whom you trust completely – but who wants to stalk with those in whom you lack such confidence?
Wandering around with an unloaded rifle slung over the shoulder or in its slip, pausing occasionally to gaze through some exotic German optic in case there might be a deer in the vicinity, may sometimes be a necessary preliminary – and it is certainly a pleasant enough way to pass the time - but it isn’t stalking.
Stalking involves seeing a beautiful creature before it sees you, closing with it without disturbing it and then killing it. This is a very profound thing and is never to be taken lightly. Respect for and a deep knowledge of deer and their environment is essential if stalking is to be undertaken in the right spirit. It isn’t a game and Frax expressed it so beautifully in his "Musings" when he wrote:
"It brings to mind the first time you did this, the heart racing emotion, the nervousness at the shot, the exaltation and finally the sadness."
But, to stalk well, the mind must be set upon the task single-mindedly from the instant the rifle is grasped and, when the moment comes, the shot must be taken calmly, resolutely and with every fibre willing the round to a clean kill. It really is all in the mind and the mental and moral commitment to the task in hand is paramount. A lack of this inner and absolute focus and commitment is the source, in my view, of many (most?) missed and wounded beasts – and of so-called “buck fever”.
I think that this philosophy applies equally to dressing and preparing the carcase from shot to table – it is all part of it and every new stalker must learn to do it willingly and well. And, finally, they must also learn and retain a proper respect for those who own and manage our stalking grounds, for it is in their hands that the future of our sport truly lies.
And that’s it. I guess those are some of the things I’d want to convey to someone who wanted to start on this great pursuit of ours. And thanks, again, Frax, for those thought-provoking musings.
What else might you add, or is there anything with which you disagree?