Bruce Potts shares his advice for shooting rabbits more successfully
Go out into the field shooting rabbits and you will improve your hunting and shooting skills, learning about how animals avoid humans and predators.
The rabbit ranks as some of the best sport a shooter can have. It’s all about being in the fields, watching and listening. It’s not about head count although you will bring home some delicious rabbit meat.
Although it is perceived as less glamorous, shooting rabbits is physically and mentally testing. Rabbits bolt from any angle at any given time, run along the ground, up and down ditches, away and towards you and partly when they are hidden in the undergrowth.
The best time of day for shooting rabbits
Start by taking a look at the weather forecast, because this will influence rabbit behaviour. If the night before has been warm and breezy with a bright moon then the rabbits will have been out in it, eating. By daylight they will be back in the burrows for the rest of the day, so you won’t see them.
Go out early just as the sun comes over the fields and you will usually see rabbits feeding warily above ground.
Rabbit activity increases in hot weather. I usually go out in the early morning shooting rabbits before it gets too hot. The rabbits don’t expect a human presence then and they are out looking for the sun.
In the evening you can sit still and wait for the rabbits to come out. Whether at dawn or dusk, if the sunlight is bright and strong, rabbits will often feed farther back in the cover where it is warm, in which case they will see you before you catch sight of them.
On long light evenings you will generally need to wait for the rabbits to appear rather than stalking them as you might in the morning. That said, undisturbed rabbits will often be out. Try to approach them with the setting sunlight behind you to blind them and not you, wind permitting.
Hiding next to a burrow lit by the last light on a summer’s day can be very rewarding, and if you aren’t successful you can always lamp later.
The very best time is to go out shooting rabbits after a night-time rainstorm. The rabbits will have stayed in their burrows and will be keen to feed come the morning. If they are hungry they will be slower to bolt back into their burrows so you should get two or three shot opportunities. Don’t be too keen not to reload and follow a group of running rabbits. In situations where rabbits have fed overnight and are full up, if you disturb or shoot one it can often be a long wait for a re-emergence.
Early mornings before the sun becomes too hot is Bruce’s favourite time to hunt rabbits in summer
How the wind affects rabbits
Look at the wind direction because it’s something a rabbit is very sensitive to. If the wind blows a rabbit’s scent into a hedgeline they can be very nervous as a fox can smell them and sneak up on them. Rabbits are more relaxed with the wind blowing from the hedges out towards them as they feed. This is because their scent is being blown across the field, where they can keep a look out. Plus, if you are sneaking along the hedge, your scent will reach them first. Scent, as with wind, means you should always stalk with your back to a bush, scrub, tree or hedgeline. Ensure that you are never a silhouette against the skyline; crouch if necessary.
Let the wind work for you: if there is no cover available get them down the burrows with your scent and then get into position, downwind this time, and wait for them to re-emerge.
What to take and wear shooting rabbits
You will need a good-quality pellet or bullet pouch to stop your cartridges getting wet
Should you wear camouflage? It’s popular but I wear a natural colour wool check top that blends into the surroundings. Don’t wear anything that rustles, your clothes need to be silent. Personally I cannot shoot without gloves.
Silhouettes, rangefinding, setting out wind tape, and whether to stalk or hide are all valid considerations before you set out on any rabbit shoot. I like rabbit shooting on the hoof as you travel light, unlike hide shooting with poles, hides and decoys. It feels more natural to me.
Where you’re likely to find rabbits
- Rabbits like to be warm and dry and in the morning you’re likely to find them sunning themselves somewhere they are sheltered from the wind.The best spots to stalk are where there is plenty of gorse, thorn bushes and brambles interspersed with open cauldrons and hollows where you can use a crawl-in stalking technique.
- Sheep-grazed fields still offer rabbits plenty to feed but make it easier to spot them as the grass is short. Look on the lee side of the hedges where it is warmer.
- Where cover is short, a disturbed rabbit will often dither before running off. It will be hoping you have not seen it and thinking that any more movement would give itself away. In this instance, raise your rifle when it is on the move and wait for that second stop, then shoot.
- Keep records of the wind, temperature, crops, so that you know when to switch tactics and stalk the most productive areas.
A rabbit’s behaviour
Rabbits are vegan and eat grasses, bulbs, bark, roots and herbs. Their food supply causes them to live on the fringes of cultivated areas or woodland margins in several large family groups. The mating season is usually between February and July, but with climate change a full seasonal breeding regime is commonplace.
Gestation is 28-31 days with between four to six litters a year of four to six young, which allows a rapid and successful regeneration of rabbit numbers despite heavy hunting pressure. Suckled within four weeks, they are then independent and the cycle begins again.
Due to their clear hierarchy, rabbits commonly scent-mark their territory using a gland located under their chin (called “chinning”). Male rabbits, or bucks, in particular will chin anything they consider theirs, often logs or stones. Learn to look for these and a clear rabbit-living regime will emerge, making your shooting a lot easier.
Tips for tracking rabbits
- Rabbits can sneak through and under tiny holes in fences but will prefer to use any holes made by sheep, deer, badgers or foxes as these are easier. These are a good place to sit and wait.
- Brambles, thorn bushes and gorse with interspersed bracken are perfect rabbit hide-outs and should alert you to stop and wait to see what emerges.
- Rabbits like to burrow into easy soil that is dry, so sandy ridges are good places to look first.
- The abundance of scratches for roots indicates a good rabbit presence, as do any elevated platforms that rabbits often use as dropping toilets.
- Move when rabbits’ heads are down. Rabbits have keen eyesight, making them alert to movement. Their eyes are also positioned to see at a wider angle than ours, so take care.
Take it slowly
- Calling to mimic a wounded rabbit or a magpie as it chatters at the sight of a fox can cause rabbits to reveal their position, as they will get on their hind legs from cover, so a shot can be taken. If small rabbits are the first to emerge, leave them and use them as confidence decoys to lure out the mature rabbits.
- Shoot one rabbit and if the others make a bolt for it wait until they dither near a stop, for example a fence or bush. Line up your shot there, ready.
- If you are stalking on foot, move in the long grass and shoot at the short. When you are among taller crops or longer grass you can reposition your feet or pick up a spare magazine out of sight of rabbits, as rabbits will only see your top half.
- Take things really slowly. As with most game, rabbits are less bothered by a slow movement as they are likely to be used to slow-moving cattle and sheep, but a flighty bird or you raising the rifle into the aim will get them running quickly for cover.
- Always stalk rabbits with your scope set on low power. This increases the field of view and if a rabbit pops out close it can be located in the scope quicker.
- It is often better to leave the fallen rabbit in situ, as others may be nearby and to break cover may spoil that second shot. But do not leave them too long — foxes have a very good sense of smell.
Using classic rifles for rabbit shooting.
Airgunning is a popular way of going after rabbits and today there is so much kit available for the rabbit hunter. Modern rifles, scopes, laser rangefinders, night vision and now thermal imagers
However I sometimes enjoy going the opposite way — down the old classic gun route. 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.
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.
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What to pick
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.
Which ammunition for shooting rabbits?
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.
For my rabbit shooting 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 rabbits 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 shooting rabbits with classic rimfire and open sights — it’s like starting your shooting career all over again without the expense.