The home of Shooting Times and Sporting Gun

How to choose a stalking rifle

We round up what you need to consider when you're choosing a rifle to go stalking

How to choose a stalking rifle

Now, let us imagine your firearms certificate (FAC) has arrived in the post, and you are in a position to go out and purchase a gun. But in the excitement of the moment don’t walk straight into a gun shop and buy the first thing that takes your fancy. First, you need to think about what you want from your new rifle and how you intend to use it.

Very importantly, consider your budget. It’s easy to spend a great deal of money, but if your pockets are not deep you still have plenty of options. It is true that a top-end rifle will be expensive, and if you want tack-driving accuracy you may need to spend more, but today even mass-produced factory rifles should be capable of producing group sizes of below 1in at 100m. This is more than adequate for deerstalking.

There are some excellent rifles available at a fraction of the price you might spend on a prestige model, but many of the differences are largely cosmetic. When it comes to the crunch, what really counts is the rifle’s ability to shoot accurately and consistently.

Choosing a scope 

The scope is probably the more important part of the set-up, so we will look at that first. Spend as much as you can afford on the highest-quality scope. It must be robust enough to absorb the punishing recoil of a full-bore rifle and still retain its zero, placing your bullets where you want them time after time. You can get away with a cheaper one on a .22 rifle or an airgun, but not so with a deer rifle.

Some of the most likely times for seeing wild deer are periods of low visibility, such as dawn or dusk, so your scope must also be able to use the available light as effi ciently as possible. It will be described using two figures, such as 6x42mm. The first number describes the magnification offered; the second is the size of the object lens. You are looking to be able to divide the object lens by the magnification and arrive at a figure – the “exit pupil” – as close to seven as possible. The maximum aperture of the human eye is about 7mm in extreme low-light conditions and there is no point in exceeding this figure. The closer the exit pupil is to it, the better the theoretical light-gathering capability of the scope.

The higher the optical quality, the smaller the object lens you can get away with, saving on both size and weight. It’s worth noting that a high-quality scope will often signifi cantly outperform a cheaper one, even if it has a larger object lens, so it pays to try before you buy, preferably in low-light conditions.

A 6x42mm scope will cover most general stalking needs, and some very experienced stalkers consider 4x magnification to be more than enough. You may be tempted by a variable power scope where the magnification can be increased or reduced according to circumstances. These can offer you great versatility, but beware of cheaper models, which may alter zero at different power settings.

Admittedly, it is useful to be able to reduce the power in close woodland, where 6x can be too much when the deer is very close and all you can see is brown when trying to sight on a specific point. On more powerful settings, however, remember that as you increase the magnification you will also emphasise any rifle shake, as well as reduce light-gathering abilities.

Make sure that you are comfortable with the reticule pattern – the crosshairs – as there is a wide variety available. A popular choice is a fine centre with thicker posts on the outside, which makes aiming easier in poor light. Don’t neglect the scope mounts either. These are the essential connection between scope and rifle, and must be secure and robust enough to do the job properly.

Selecting a rifle

Finally, we can move on to the rifle. Most deerstalkers opt for a straightforward bolt action. There are other options, but this is the popular choice for several reasons – not least because it carries its own resupply of spare rounds of ammunition and allows for quick reloading between shots.

Will it have a wood or a composite stock, though? Wood is undeniably more attractive, but composites are lower maintenance and less prone to warping.

Is your rifle going to be an all-weather workhorse, or is it just for occasional, recreational stalking? If the former, you may also want to consider a stainless steel barrel rather than a traditional blued one.

Full stock, or stutzen, rifles, with a wooden stock that extends to the end of the barrel, can be tempting. They are light and manageable but usually come with a light barrel that heats up quickly. They are intended for sport hunting when only one or two shots are likely to be taken at any one time. This can be frustrating on a range when you have to wait for the barrel to cool between strings of shots, and you cannot risk the barrel overheating and shifting zero when taking multiple shots during actual culling. It’s also usually impossible to fit a sound moderator.

A detachable magazine is handy, although not essential. It allows for easy loading and unloading, and a spare one enables you to carry spare ammunition conveniently and ready for a quick reload if necessary. Don’t be too concerned if your choice of rifle does not come fitted with traditional iron sights. These are usually rendered redundant by fitting a telescopic sight and, besides, no conscientious deerstalker would wish to use open sights for shooting live quarry when a precision alternative is available.

Moderating the sound

I hope you intend to fit a sound moderator – and that you remembered to ask for one when applying for your FAC, because you need separate authority to acquire one. Over the years moderators have become smaller, lighter and more efficient, and they bring many benefits beyond just protecting your hearing.

Hopefully, your final choice of rifle has been screw cut to take a moderator in the factory. If not, be aware that, even if skilfully cut by a rifle smith, this could count as a modifi cation that might invalidate a manufacturer’s guarantee.

By now you’ll probably have little change, if any, from £1,500 for a new rifle, scope and moderator, and it’s easy to spend more than twice this figure. On the other hand, you may wonder if you can afford a new set-up.

There is, of course, the second-hand option. There are certainly some excellent bargains to be had, but do take care that the barrel has not been shot out, and that the rifle is in proof and fully fit for purpose. Buying from a reputable gundealer who offers a guarantee and reliable after-sales service is always prudent.

Before leaving the shop, purchase several brands of ammunition to try. Don’t rely on recommendations from friends who have had good results with their own particular set-up. You will find that different rifles prefer different loads, and perform accordingly. In time you may wish to take up home-loading and tailor loads to your specific rifle but, for now, it pays to experiment with various manufacturers and find out what works best.