“How many of us ever practice stalking before we go out to the woods?” asked Ian Spicer, at his inaugural Deer Stalker’s Accuracy course at Bisley, in Surrey, last month. “As a rule, the rifle stays in the cabinet until the moment comes, does it not? We might fire a few rounds beforehand to ensure it is properly zeroed, but what about ourselves? We are the ones who are likely to miss ? not the rifle.”
This new course offers amateur stalkers the opportunity to receive tuition from experienced instructors and, more importantly, gives them a chance to iron out bad habits and gain confidence in situations away from the pressurised environment of the hill or woods.
“I took a client out stalking at the end of the roe doe season this year,” Ian said, by way of an example. “He had passed his DSC Level 1 and was studying for Level 2. We tiptoed in on a trio of deer ? two bucks and a doe. The doe fitted the cull criteria; there was a safe backstop and we were 110 yards away. I stepped aside and nodded for my client to take what should have been an easy shot on sticks. He shook his head. “I don’t feel confident,” he whispered.
“So we went forward to 70 yards undetected. Again I offered the shot. ‘I still don’t feel confident,’ said the client. So we tried to retire to a high seat, but the deer moved off and the opportunity was lost. He could not take the pressure and was afraid that he would end up wounding the beast, which is fair enough. But it was a miserable experience and avoidable with a bit more practice.”
In business speak, modern managers are forever trotting out mantras, such as “fail to prepare: prepare to fail”, to motivate their staff. The same is true of sports coaches, who exhort their charges with slogans, such as “there’s no ‘I’ in team” and “pain is just weakness leaving the body”. While this surge in boardroom gobbledegook has been lampooned repeatedly (think David Brent in The Office), Ian believes the modern Rifle can still profit from one of these new-age methods.
“There is a technique used by many top athletes named Calling for Alpha,” he said. “It involves finding an inner calm at the most pressurised moment so that nothing else matters but the job in hand. All your focus is on being successful. For rugby, place a kicker trying to win the match in front of a huge crowd or an international footballer at the penalty spot, he has practised this situation so often that he blanks out everything and performs the task like a robot.”
Experienced stalkers will do this anyway. Shouldering the rifle, finding the correct eye relief, setting the sticks or bipod, flicking up the sight covers and squeezing the trigger will all come as second nature. “The more you do it, the quicker it becomes instinctive muscle memory,” said Ian. “You will not then need to think about it. You can relax and concentrate on the stalking instead.” Finding a relaxed position from which to fire should become second nature and, again, it is something that can be practised in your bedroom rather than under the glare of an expectant gillie or stalker.
“For the right-handed Rifle, the left hand contributes very little. I recommend using it
in a loose snooker cue grip. For the right hand, a light but controlling hold on the pistol grip: imagine you are holding a wine glass and not gripping a bag of money. The rifle itself will shoot straight ? only your errors will cause the bullet to miss the intended target, so the fewer influences on the fore-end of the rifle, the better. Of course, it is important to have the stock into the shoulder, not least as any gun that sends a missile forward at 3,000ft
per second will have some recoil.”
The final moments before and after the shot can be the most important, and again this is something that should be practised away from the field. “People might wonder what you’re doing, but if you’re sitting on a bus or on a train, why not practise squeezing the trigger with your index finger? Or practice your breathing technique? A good breathe in, exhale halfway and hold. Develop a rhythm so that it becomes second nature. When you look through the scope nothing else should matter but the deer in front of you, so the shot itself should come as something of a shock. I sub-consciously tell myself I’m holding the cross-hairs on the point of aim until the gun goes bang. And then follow through as you would a golf swing. Remaining in position for those split seconds afterwards is essential, as this will avoid the temptation of looking up and jerking the rifle. Then recycle immediately, in case you need to take a second shot or there is another beast to cull.”
Experience tells Ian which stance to take when finding a platform from which to shoot, but he will instinctively go through a list of options, starting with the most secure and ending with the shakiest. “If you could get in a prone position to take the shot, as one does with Highland stalking, then that would be ideal,” he explained, “but that doesn’t present itself readily when woodland stalking. If you can sit down on a log, stump or tussock and take a seated shot, then that would be next best, but again you can’t always rely on that. Kneeling is another secure platform, but if that isn’t possible, then I look to rest against a tree. No trees, then it is off sticks ? my preference being triple. If you are that close in that there’s no time for excess movement, then I’m down to just the one stick. At that sort of range, it won’t be an issue.”
Learning from the best
The instructors are all members and past champions of the British Sporting Rifle Club at Bisley. The club’s president John Kynoch was a silver medallist at the Munich Olympic Games, in 1972, in the Running Deer discipline. He explained to the group the “physiology of death” and why a lung shot is always best. “Death only occurs when blood cannot bring enough oxygen to the brain. The same principle applies to Halaal slaughter, when the jugular artery is cut to remove blood quickly, as the blood pressure reduces instantly and the animal dies humanely. By the same token, a heart/lung shot with a legal deer round will cause massive internal bleeding and death will soon follow.”
Another reason for a heart/lung shot, John says, is to avoid the concept of a point of aim. “If you try to take the perfect shot each time, then you can get yourself into difficulties because really there is no such thing. Put a bullet in the heart/lung of a deer and it will do its job. We all wobble a bit when shooting and it is important to accept that. By knowing when to squeeze the trigger in harmony with your wobble, then you turn it into an advantage.
I don’t see any need for a head shot.” During the course, attendees will be able to practise on the hi-tech laser ranges, which avoid the need to stop all firing to check the targets. The instructors take you through the varied shooting stances from bench rest, prone, high seat, sitting, kneeling and standing with sticks. At the end, there is a relaxed tournament with each competitor taking two shots sitting (100 yards); kneeling (80 yards) and standing (60 yards), just to create a little more pressure.
Attendees must have a firearms certificate and insurance. While it is better if the attendees bring their own rifle, one can be provided. Bring around 60 rounds of stalking ammunition, and have your rifle zeroed at 100 yards. Lunch and beverages will be provided during the day.