Steve Rawsthorne of Holland & Holland Shooting School looks at the various components that make up a practical stalking rifle and offers his advice on what you should be looking for.
As an avid stalker and rifle shooter, I am always on the lookout for a new rifle to add to my gun cabinet. Here in the UK we are restricted in the number of rifles we can possess, having to justify the need for each one, but even so, there is opportunity to experiment. I will often buy a rifle in a particular calibre and use it for a year – experimenting with different loads and bullets, before moving it on, to make way for another project.
Over the past couple of years I have become very interested in custom and semi-custom rifles. I can really appreciate the workmanship and precision that goes into their making and the ideology behind them, to produce the most accurate rifle possible. Many of these rifles will shoot " four-shot groups – if the nut on the butt is capable of it, of course.
Looking through the adverts on gun sales websites is something of an addiction. There are various calibres that intrigue me at the moment. The 7-08 Remington, of which I have two, is one such calibre – a necked-down version of the .308 Winchester and ballistically superior to it in many ways. I have a Kimber Montana, marketed as the lightest production rifle made, with a shortened 18" barrel, which shoots " three-shot groups with 120gr bullets at 100 yards with hand loads – more than adequate for anything we have in the UK, including a big red stag. With a 2.5-10x56 Swarovski scope and moderator it weighs less than 7lb.
I also like the .260 Remington. Firing a 6.5mm bullet, it is ballistically superior to the 6.5x55 Swedish, or so it is claimed. I'm also interested in the 6.5x47, again derived from the venerable .308 Win. but with the 6.5mm bullet and its inherently high sectional density and ballistic co-efficient.
When I look through the second-hand rifles on offer today, there are some real bargain custom kits available. Originally built for around £6,000 by the likes of Brock and Norris, Precision Rifle Services, Valkyrie Rifles etc., you can frequently pick one up for half the original cost, and they often feature Barnard actions, Shillen, Lilja or Lothar Walther fluted barrels and bolt bodies, McMillan or Roberts stocks and aftermarket triggers and magazines. Such rifles are at the very high end of rifle-smithing – their barrels and actions are made to much finer tolerances than factory rifles, and bolt faces and bores are at perfect right angles (to within 1/10,000" in some cases). They can be an absolute joy to shoot, and one can feel the precision in the way the rifle handles and the bolt cycles.
Why oh why, though, are they made so heavy – 11 or 12lb before you add a scope and moderator? With 24" or 26" heavy profile barrels, and an inch or more in diameter at the muzzle, your highland stalker or ghillie is likely to tell you to carry your own kit!
If, however, you are shooting long distance targets on a range – where you may well be firing strings of 15 or 20 shots in short succession, and will not have to carry the rifle for long distances or raise it in short order onto the sticks to take a shot at a momentarily visible roe in woodland – such a rifle is appropriate. Benchrest and silhouette shooting competitors or military snipers would also find this configuration useful. But for your average stalker? I think not.
When we are out stalking we will rarely fire more than a couple of shots at a time. One morning recently, an occasion did arise when I shot four fallow in less than a minute, but that is a rarity. We need to configure our rifle for what we normally shoot. When woodland stalking, most shots are taken at between 50 – 150 yards. On the hill, however, ranges may well be out to 300 yards. Although you will find examples on YouTube of our American cousins shooting moose and elk at 600, 700 or even 800 yards, you do have to ask yourself how many they wounded before they got the shot right?
When shooting a number of shots in fairly short order, a rifle's barrel will heat up and begin to distort, resulting in the opening up of groups and decreased accuracy. This is why we have a heavy barrel on military or target rifles – it absorbs the heat and distorts less. For our one or possibly two shots when stalking, a lightweight barrel is not going to be affected by heat. Even with three or four shots at normal ranges, there is no significant deviation.
Many people seem to believe that to be accurate at long range we need a long barrel. For normal stalking ranges, 300 yards at most, the length of the barrel is not hugely important. I had a .308 with a 17" barrel that would shoot " groups and had a 100 per cent powder burn, with a velocity of 2,900fps. I have a 7-08 now with an 18" barrel which is capable of tiny groups, and I have shot deer out to 300 yards with it, no problem. Some calibres will not work with shorter barrels, so you need to do your research. I recommend using QuickLoad (a readily available software package) to ascertain what will and will not work before you start shortening your barrels.
Many manufacturers now produce .308 rifles with 20 or even 18" barrels. Shorter barrels are much easier to manoeuvre in a high seat and easier to handle when getting in or out of a vehicle. Any rifle that will shoot a 1" group at 100 yards will shoot a 3" group at 300 yards, regardless of how long the barrel is. The main variable affecting accuracy is the person shooting. If the best you can do with your rifle is a 3" group at 100 yards – which equates to 9" at 300 yards – you really shouldn't be taking shots in excess of 100 yards at live quarry.
The stock of a rifle plays a big part in its accuracy, too. Cheap, flimsy, synthetic stocks which are not properly attached to the action will introduce more variables than a heavy barrel can cure. If you prefer a wooden stock, fine, they can look great. Alternatively, a good quality glass and carbon fibre synthetic stock – which is not affected by heat and humidity and is easy to wipe clean of blood and dirt – can do the job. Whichever you choose, it needs to be properly bedded to fit your action, so there is no flex and no movement introduced. Some aftermarket stocks now have an aluminium bedding block to which your rifle action simply bolts, and these can be very good.
So for our ideal stalking rifle we want something that weighs no more than 7lb, preferably less. A good scope will add 1lb and a half-decent moderator another pound or so. Now we are at 10lb. A 20" barrel in light to medium profile, perhaps fluted as an aesthetic option if you so choose, quality pillar bedded stock, either synthetic or wood, with a detachable magazine and a quality trigger. Choose a calibre which will allow you to shoot all of the UK deer species, preferably with one 120-grain-plus bullet at a moderate velocity, so you only have to carry one type of ammunition, with no need to continually change and re-zero.
The only thing you need now is range time. Learn how to shoot a rifle properly at 100 yards, master your breathing, trigger-release and sight pictures so you can consistently shoot 1" groups in all the usual positions. Learn the effects of bullet drop and windage at longer ranges and only then think about shooting past 150 yards.