Choosing the right calibre

Red deer stalking - the right calibre is crucial

Anyone new to stalking might easily be forgiven for being confused by the selection of rifle calibres from which to choose. Roger Buss offers some suggestions.

Before deciding on a preferred rifle for culling deer it is of course necessary to take into consideration the law related to deer stalking and the calibres and ammunition available that comply with it!

The minimum legal calibre of high velocity rifle which may be used for deer stalking in England is .240 inches (Deer Act 1963). The ammunition is also specified by the Act and must be of the soft lead expanding type, with a minimum muzzle energy of 1700 ft-lbs. Police authority is required for expanding ammunition.

In Scotland the law is different and the Deer Scotland Order does not state a minimum calibre of rifle for shooting the roe deer species. It stipulates a bullet weight of at least 50 grains of expanding ammunition and a minimum MV of 1700; this specification can be loaded for .22 centre fire rifles in the calibres 22\250, .222 and .223. Other deer species can only be legally taken with rifles of a minimum calibre of .240 as detailed in the calibre training note.

The .240 calibre is a very rare beast and ammunition is virtually unobtainable, most people wishing to select a calibre at the lower end of the centre fire rifle scale opt for the .243 win, which was first developed by the Winchester Repeating Arms company (USA) in 1955 with the introduction of the model 70 bolt action. It was made by necking down the standard .308 round and the bullets are normally manufactured in soft lead encased in a steel jacket, and are available in 50 grains, 65 grains and 90 or 100 grain bullet weights. This necking down is also seen with the .270 win calibre developed from the 30.06 calibre, and is normally available in 100 grain bullet weights, 130 and 155 grains with expanding type ammunition.

The performance of the ammunition is very important as the different weights and bullet shapes affect the results on the shooting of a live deer. To kill instantly, the maximum hydraulic bursting effect on the living tissue and vital organs of the deer is needed. This is achieved by speed, impact and expansion, coupled with accurate placing of the bullet in a vital area. The .243 and .270 calibres we have already mentioned are said to have very flat shooting properties with a slow drop off of bullets at the longer ranges. This is because they have the best features of the two calibres that they were developed from, plus a lighter bullet which travels much faster.

It is to be noted that the performance varies with the different bullet weights. A light bullet travelling very fast may break up on striking earth or vegetation. Whilst this can be an acceptable safety feature it also means that expansion on a live deer may occur too rapidly on impact, thus wounding or blowing outwards and not penetrating to knock out the vital organs. This can happen if the animal moves slightly at the moment of firing when the lighter faster bullets are being used.

I have found that the .243 performs best with 90 or 100 grain bullets and the .270 with 130 grain bullets. The .308 is the most suitable all round calibre for all deer species, providing the bullet weight is adequate for the size of the deer species being culled .

Shooting with expanding ammunition

It is very important for all persons using expanding ammunition to realise that this ammunition is made of soft lead and sometimes a manufactured bullet will have a hollow core (nosler) or be manufactured as a partition bullet. This means that the bullet on striking any obstacle will explode into fragments or if it is an animal it will expand rapidly, mushrooming within the carcass. The implications on safety are obvious and so is the chance of wounding deer in close proximity to a target animal. The rifle should never be fired at a deer standing on a concrete road or other rock type surface where safety to anyone may be threatened.

When a deer is standing broadside on and shot with a suitable rifle using expanding ammunition, it will be seen that there is relatively neat entry wound on the facing side and a larger or jagged exit wound or wounds on the opposite side. Ideally the bullet will have entered in the heart and lung cavity to achieve maximum penetration and expansion. During the rapid expansion process, shrapnel is produced which may scatter in all directions and the momentum of the bullet sends some of it right through the deer to form the exit wound. The shocking power is acute and the results normally very effective, knocking out the aorta and tearing open heart and lung tissue .

In choosing a rifle calibre it is probably best to consider one which will be acceptable for all deer species which you are likely to want to shoot. For this reason I now recommend the .308 which has both a flat trajectory and a variety of bullet weights. The .243 is ideal for culling roe, muntjac and foxes but large fallow, sika and red deer need the knock down power of the .270, .308 or 30.06.

The continental calibres of 25.06, 7x57, 7x64 and so on may all be worthy of consideration - with expanding ammunition, but I do not recommend rifle calibres above 8mm for use on British deer.

The important points to remember are to use the legally required expanding type ammunition (authorised ) when shooting at live deer and to practise on paper targets with a correctly zeroed telescope sight on a rifle range which has a safe earth background. It is important to note that most rifle range authorities do not allow expanding ammunition, in which case you can use non-expanding ammunition of the same make and bullet weight to zero the rifle initially and follow up by checking with the expanding ammunition on a safely located estate zero range before shooting at a live deer.

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