Calibre of choice
Holland & Holland shooting instructor Steve Rawsthorne offers his expert guidance on the perfect rifle set-up for covering all forms of deer stalking in the UK.
Most stalkers have an opinion on what is the best rifle calibre for deer control, and the choice for a new stalker buying their first rifle is bewildering. Some of these opinions are based on fact, and some have just come about over time. If you are looking for one rifle to do all your stalking with, whether a big red stag or the diminutive but worthy muntjac, with perhaps the odd fox thrown in, what would you choose?
There are some legal constraints imposed upon one depending on whether you are stalking in England and Wales or in Scotland. Our calibre and rifle should be legal for ALL species in BOTH legislative areas. In England, this means a minimum calibre of .240 to cover all species and minimum energy of 1,700 foot pounds. In Scotland, the minimum is a bullet weight of 100 grains and 2,450 feet per second, and 1,750 foot pounds of energy. While there are smaller minimum calibres for roe in Scotland, and Chinese water deer and muntjac in England, since we are looking for one rifle to do all species, we will not consider these here. We must also use expanding ammunition.
Many shooters become obsessed with “flat shooting” calibres. We stalkers are not shooting paper targets at huge ranges, but a live sentient animal, and owe it to our quarry to kill it cleanly and quickly. We need a rifle and ammunition which will shoot roughly a one inch group on the range at 100 yards, not one hole. In field conditions, with the adrenalin flowing, time pressure and less stable shooting position, this group is bound to open up, so a four inch group on the range is useless in my opinion. Lightweight bullets at great velocity are liable to fragment, have less penetration and cause more carcass damage. Conversely, a heavier bullet at say 2,600 to 2,700 feet per second will not drop dramatically over the distances we are shooting, say a maximum of 300 yards as a very long shot; 12 inches - I would suggest - is acceptable. Most deer are shot at less than 150 yards where the drop is not a factor at all. We are, after all, stalking and the challenge is to get close to our deer. Heavier bullets have greater sectional density, better penetration and less carcass damage.
In England, because the minimum calibre is .240, many stalkers or potential stalkers are guided by licensing officers towards the ubiquitous .243 Win. Undoubtedly, many thousands of deer and foxes have been shot with this calibre. The maximum bullet weight for the .243 is 105 grain, at which point it is at the absolute limit of its performance, and many factory rifles will not shoot the 100 or 105 grain bullet well, preferring the lighter bullets, which may rule them out for use in Scotland. If shot placement is perfect every time, the .243 is adequate, but I prefer the greater margin of error with a heavier bullet. One has to be just as “safe” with a .243 bullet as with a .300 Win Mag or a .308. If land is deemed suitable by Firearms Licensing departments to use one calibre on, then it should be safe for any other - it is the shooter who needs to be safe rather than the land.
So our calibre of choice needs to fire a bullet of between 120 and 170 grains so that it can cope with any of the deer species found in the UK. We want it to be comfortable to shoot, with manageable recoil, to be produced by a variety of manufacturers so that we have a wide choice of models available to us, it should use ammunition that can be readily sourced and be legal for all species north and south of the border. And it should have a bullet drop of no more than 12 inches at 300 yards. If we can find one softpoint bullet which will have sufficient killing ability to cover everything we will encounter, we will not have to hold several different bullet weights and waste time and money re-zeroing every time we change our ammunition.
Two calibres that fit this bill nicely are the 7x57 and the 6.5x55 - the latter being a favourite of mine. With either calibre, the recoil from a 140 grain softpoint at around 2,680 feet per second, is very soft, allowing for more accurate shot placement. Neither calibre is a barrel burner, and ammunition can be sourced from a variety of manufacturers with different bullet heads. Holland & Holland produce beautiful bolt-action 7x57 stalking rifles, based on the Mauser 98 action, and there are many standard rifle makers producing both calibres, so we have a choice of barrel-weights, fixed or detachable magazines, stock types etc. The .270 Win is a common calibre, but for me it has too much “crack” at both ends and can produce a lot of carcass damage. The .308 Win is a useful flexible calibre with a wide variety of bullet types and rifle models available, and becoming more accepted is the 7-08, using the short action .308 Win case necked down to 7mm - it performs very well at all ranges and species.
In conclusion, if I were looking to buy one rifle for all my stalking needs, I would, and do, use a 7x57 or 6.5x55, firing a 140 grain softpoint bullet for everything from muntjac to red or sika. Sighted in at an inch high at 100 yards, drop at 200 would be two inches and at 300, 12 inches. I would only use, and stick with, one bullet weight, so that I don't have to continually re-zero. If it ain't broke, don't fix it! I recommend that you pop up to the range at Holland & Holland, as we have a range of rifles and calibres for you to try. In addition, unlike other ranges, we also give you the opportunity to shoot from simulated high seats, off sticks, prone, sitting or kneeling.