Bruce Potts goes rabbiting using classic firearms with old ammunition
An early morning start, with a light breeze, is an idyllic start to any day’s stalk. But on this occasion it was not an eligible roebuck that I had in mind; it was a humble rabbit.
I love rabbit shooting. It was the way I learned to shoot on my uncle’s farm in Kent and it offers so many opportunities to stalk, ambush, lamp and use myriad rifles to harvest a tasty morning’s bag. With modern rifles, scopes, laser rangefinders, night vision and now thermal imagers all increasingly available, I sometimes enjoy going the opposite way — down the old classic gun route.
We all love the economy and handling of modern cars but driving or owning a real classic is more fun. It’s the same with rifles. There is something pleasing about going hunting with a basic rifle, an old classic or an air rifle because it forces you to reduce the range and use those fieldcraft skills that can get sidelined in the progress of technology. That’s why on a recent outing I was carrying an old Remington M582 rifle and period scope with old ammunition — and not my new Sako custom rimfire.
The great thing about going classic is that the sky is your limit. Often really good, solid, accurate older models are overlooked on the gunsmiths’ shelves in favour of the latest trend. If you buy from a gunsmith you will get a good start, because the rifle will be guaranteed safe to use. Having said that, I have bought some crackers from auctioneers such as Holts, where the unloved but good little .22 long rifle can be bought for little of your hard-earned cash and there is a wide choice of firearms to look at.
You do not have to go down the usual bolt action route either. I love the challenge of shooting old semi-automatics and pump action rimfires with open sights. You can pick up a good “old” rimfire for as little as £50 and you could still have a “normal” modern rimfire on your firearms certificate for frequent use.
Your starter .410
Where to start? Bolt actions may be best to start with, such as BSA Sportsman 5, Remington M series or 541, Savage Model 64, Mauser .410 or Walther KKJ, which are all good candidates. Prices range from £50 to £150. Each can be fitted with a scope if you would like to do that.
I like using a period scope, which can be sourced at auction or online. Period Tascos or Nikko Stirlings are cheap. For that authenticity, why not try an old-style reticule too? On some older-model rifles, scopes such as the J. W. Fecker, Unertl or Redfield 3200 add that air of classic shooting and will test your shooting skills.
You could also try a pump- or lever- action rifle. I love the Browning/Miroku BL-22 lever action. It is superbly made and has a short stroke action with a large- capacity magazine and, even with open sights, is superbly accurate.
As for pump-action models, I like the Remington Fieldmaster with ribbed fore-end. My favourite is a Win Model 61, which uses a tubular magazine under the barrel. It takes a bit longer to load the rounds, unlike detachable modern magazines, but there is a big advantage. Being an in-line tubular feed magazine you can shoot all the lengths of .22 rimfire ammunition from .22 short, long or long rifle. In the Win Model 61 this means you have 22 shorts, 15 longs and 11 long rifle rounds at your disposal. You can load .22 shorts for close-range feral pigeon or rats and the 11.22 long rifle for longer- range rabbits.
The Browning SA is another gem, though this one is a semi-automatic. Prices start at less than £100 for a used one, but £150 to £200 buys a reliable rifle. Older Browning models made in Belgium are sought after as they were made by Miroku in Japan. Both shoot well but the Brownings from Belgium feel more authentic to me.
I also like the Remington Nylon rifle. It is horribly plastic, but it makes a very practical and cheap classic gun because it doesn’t matter if it gets scratched.
You can use modern ammunition, but I like to go the old ammo route to keep the old-time feel when shooting. But old ammunition, especially rimfire, can lead to misfires. Obtaining old ammo is tricky anyway, but I always chronograph each load to check for correct velocity and small standard deviation to ensure consistent results. I like the old packaging, too, and those 50-round card boxes are tactile.
On my outing I had a choice of four loads, which showed marked differences in velocity and accuracy. I tested them using my Remington M582 rifle. Accuracy is everything, so I chose the Remington Hi-Speed — despite being a round-nose and not hollow-point — but accuracy was so good and I head shoot anyway.
I sighted the Rem in using an old Nikko Stirling 4x32mm scope that had a German post reticule, which adds to the fun. Light gathering and lens quality may not be comparable with a newer model but 30 to 50 yards is fine for me.
I practised at 10 yards, 30 yards and 50 yards to check the trajectory, so that I was zeroed at 30 yards, but if a rabbit popped out at 10 yards or at 50 yards I knew the hold-over point I needed. This is doubly important on an old classic with no extra stadia in the reticule to help you.
The morning started well with a nice-sized rabbit sunning itself on a small ridge on the edge of a dramatic bowl in the Buckinghamshire countryside. A short stalk through the gorse and a shot off the sticks had the first one in the bag.
A second followed after 20 minutes. I wasn’t using a sound moderator, so a shot will put the rabbits down their burrows for a while. This one had me crawling through the grass until I reached 30 yards or so, then it noticed me cocking the Remington and got up on its hindlegs to get a better look. That gave me a clearer target and that was that.
As a second rifle, a classic rimfire can provide a lot of satisfaction and skill to your normal shooting regime and it won’t break the bank. Choose wisely and have the rifle properly checked by a gunsmith for reliable function. I guarantee it will put a big smile on your face when you harvest your first rabbit with classic rimfire and open sights — it’s like starting your shooting career all over again without the expense.