Stalkers in the US don't use gun slips or cases, so why do we? Is it that we are overly anxious about being seen in public with a legal firearm, asks Alasdair Mitchell in Shooting Times

Gun cases that catch the wind

Are we overly protective of our rifles? Are we over-using padded slips out in the field? Rifles are designed to be used outdoors, in the wind and the rain. So why do we see hill stalkers struggling up slopes with their guest’s rifle cosseted in an enormous soft case that sticks far above their head, catching the wind like a sail?

The contrast with the custom in US is startling. There, hunters carry their rifles uncovered when looking for game. If they do use a cover, it might be a lightweight, elasticated rain protector that simply snaps off, allowing the rifle to be used in an instant. Many rifles now have synthetic stocks, while scopes can be protected by neoprene covers or flip-up caps. In New Zealand and Scandinavia, too, stalkers tend to carry their rifles on slings, or in backpacks incorporating a soft scabbard. These packs are carefully designed to minimise weight and bulk, while leaving the rifle readily accessible should an opportunity arise. I doubt these hunters would tolerate toting a bag the size of a bedding roll, only to have to unsling and unzip it, extract the precious rifle, load up and then get into position.

I wonder if our propensity for hiding our rifles in gun cases away even when we are out and about in the countryside has something to do with UK firearms law? Perhaps we have become so shy of being seen carrying a gun that this overspills into our behaviour on private land. More likely, perhaps, we have simply become too protective of our rifles and scopes. This might be exacerbated by the bouts of gadgetitis to which most of us are prone.

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Mind you, padded slips are genuinely useful for shotguns. Most traditional shotguns have no provision for slings, so a slip might be the most convenient way of carrying a gun to your peg on a driven shoot. Moreover, repeatedly getting in and out of motor vehicles is a definite hazard for shotguns, the thin barrels of which are easily dented. And slips also have a valid use in wildfowling, given the need to cross muddy, treacherous creeks in poor light.

But when stalking on the open hill, overly cumbersome gun cases are a liability. Woodland stalkers, by contrast, are not so susceptible to over using covers. They have to be ready to take a shot at any time. Besides, they are not normally subjected to the same extremes of terrain and weather that are such a feature of hill stalking. Even so, some woodland stalkers seem to burden themselves with all manner of other equipment.

It’s not that I am against progress. A professional hill stalker once told me that, after the telescopic sight, the advent of the bipod was the biggest aid to accuracy in his lifetime. However, I did once find a time-served estate stalker who grumbled that scopes and bipods led to a tendency to expose too much of the shooter’s face. “The old colonel rested his rifle on a rolled-up mackintosh and kept his head down; he knew his stuff,” he said.

Even as I decry the use of huge rifle bags on the hill, I pause to remember that old stalker. I have an uneasy feeling that I am becoming a little bit like him.