Guide to being a better stalker: rifles and equipment
Don’t rush choosing your kit — remember the adage ‘buy well, buy once’, cautions Chris Dalton
It’s time to focus on equipment: the rifle, ammunition and optic choices. There are a number of factors that will influence your decisions: complying with the minimum legal requirements for rifle and ammunition, the type of ground and terrain you stalk and, not least, the deer species. Budgets are also important, though we all generally end up with much more kit than we actually need — me included.
Stalking equipment is the subject of much debate and is not solely the preserve of newcomers recently granted their first firearms certificate. Many clients over the years have admitted rushing their decision when choosing a rifle or scope. They ended up with purchases that were wholly unsuitable and having to ‘make do’ or, more likely, replace it. ‘Buy well, buy once’ is sage advice.
Chris Dalton’s kit list
The rifle is almost certainly top of the shopping list. While it’s a vital part of your ultimate rig, is it the most important? I would argue not. Look at your optics choice first. Unless you are fortunate enough to have a bottomless wallet, buying your scope and binoculars is where the bulk of your budget should be directed. After all, if you can’t see a deer, you can’t shoot it.
My first rifle was a second-hand CZ Brno in .243 calibre; a good choice at that time. It was robust and accurate, legal for all deer species and was an ideal starter. However, faced with the choice of a good-quality, if slightly battered, second-hand scope or a similarly priced new scope, I opted for the latter. I did, however, more by luck than judgement, end up with a pair of very good second-hand binoculars.
Seeing the light
I shot a couple of deer without issue before heading south for a few days on roebuck. The outing was arranged with a professional guide at not inconsiderable cost. The first evening we sat in a tower and a lovely roebuck appeared at last light, meandering towards a pheasant feeder. Both the guide and I monitored him through our binoculars until he was around 150 yards away. Binoculars down, rifle up — and nothing to be seen. The problem was insufficient light, which meant I couldn’t see anything through the scope. Suffice to say, a decent scope was rapidly acquired.
Once you have the right scope, make sure it is mounted correctly. I often see incorrectly fitted optics, where it is set either too far forward or back and the operator has to slide their head along the line of the stock to achieve the correct sight picture.
The scope should be mounted so that you can lift the rifle into your shoulder, as you would a shotgun, and your eye should immediately be aligned. I am firmly of the opinion that the 8×56 fixed magnification is the best optical combination for deerstalking in the UK, so buy the best that you can afford. Top optics won’t let you down and will be fitted with the best lenses. It’s not a cheap purchase, but this is an area where price really does matter.
You should apply exactly the same principles to your binoculars too. A good pair will last you a lifetime with a little bit of care. As a professional stalker, I would argue that my binoculars are my single most important piece of kit. I use a pair with a built-in rangefinder to help locate deer and report distances to my shooting guests.
I didn’t feel that this feature was necessary for a number of years, when most of my stalking took place in close woodland. However, if you are generally shooting longer distances — such as on the hill — the extra cost of having a built-in rangefinder is worth considering.
As far as calibres and rifle manufacturers go, it is much like buying a car. We all have different ideas and tastes. Do your homework beforehand and, if possible, handle a few different types of rifle until you find one that suits you. I must add a caveat here. We are very much at the turning point in our use of non-toxic ammunition. Lead is being phased out. We can debate that as much as we like but whether we agree or not, it is happening. Accordingly, I am moving away from lead ammunition for my stalking activities.
I have found no issues with the non-toxic alternatives, having made the switch to 6.5mm Creedmoor a little under a year ago. I have found it to be particularly accurate in factory loads and generally very consistent across the board.
Before making any purchase, I strongly recommend getting out to country shows and game fairs, where you can handle and examine a large range of products at close quarters. Similarly, do the rounds at local gun shops and make use of the advice from the wise experts in the pages of Shooting Times.
I prefer rifles with synthetic stocks because I am out in all weathers. It makes cleaning and drying easier, though there is nothing more pleasing to the eye than an oiled, wooden stock with a lovely grain. It really is down to your own preference and how and when you will stalk.
Weight is a factor to consider too. On one hand, a heavy rifle offers real stability when you are using it on the range or in the field, but you are likely to find that this added weight becomes an issue after carting it around the hill all day. A compromise is usually best, but make your selection based on how the weight of a rifle will affect you alone.
An additional feature that I particularly like on a rifle stock is an adjustable cheekpiece, which allows me to achieve a consistent mount each time I raise the gun. If research doesn’t help you find what you need, be sure to ask questions. There are plenty of reputable sources of information and the second-hand market should be considered, especially if money is tight. Most importantly, enjoy the experience. Stalking is good for the soul and having the right kit makes the whole experience even more enjoyable.