Deer Hunter: Up the Mountain
- By Pete Moore
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- Last updated: 23/03/2020
I’m getting too old for this sort of shit, but I still keep doing it! At IWA 20129, I was on the Blaser stand with Alexandra Berton (Head of PR) and Robert Sajitz (then CEO of Blaser Sporting UK) and was invited to come up and shoot some red hinds in Scotland on the Ardnamurchan Estate run by West Highland Hunting (Niall Rowantree) lovely name. And maybe a few Woodcock too. I’ve hunted around the world, but never north of the wall and had some very fixed ideas about their Red deer. My impression was animals that survive near totally on heather were nowhere near as big or strong as a good Suffolk Red and we have some potato and carrot-fuelled monsters, trust me!
However, as I discovered, Ardnamurchan is a peninsular on the west side of Scotland and the animals are far from small and scrawny, mainly due to their better and more diverse diet and generally less harsh conditions in the winter. I turned 67 last year and like my food and drink a bit too much, so am no longer in my prime, but thought I was up for the trip; they do say ignorance is bliss… I flew up to Edinburgh and we had a 4-hour drive to the ferry at Loch Sunart, with another hour to the estate.
We were a small crew with a French hunter/journalist I knew a little and an Austrian journo/hunter called Martin. We were hosted by Blaser Group’s new UK CEO Frederic Hanner also on the guest was Dom Holtam (Editor) Sporting Shooter. Niall popped in a bit later to tell us the plan. We would be split into two groups, with some doing woodcock and the other Reds up in the mountains. The other thing that drew me was their new calibre, the 8.5x55 Blaser, firing, in this example, a 139-grain, non-lead, ballistic tipped, monolithic hollow point. It seems to have been produced for shorter barrelled rifles like their R8 Silence with its 16.5” tube, to maximise performance. There was not a lot of ammo available and I was happy to shoot it on the range to get some idea of performance, as I never hunt with an unproved load or weapon.
Along with Frederic and Martin and our Blaser F16 doubles, we followed our guide for what he termed a little stroll. That’ll be nice I thought, but the land had other ideas. Moving through a small thicket, my left leg suddenly went down to the knee, followed by the right and, to put it bluntly, I was stuck solid. I just couldn’t pull free and at one stage I could feel my tightly laced mountain boots trying to come off my feet. The guide had to dig my legs out and with Frederic and Martin lifting me free. It occurred to me if that had happened and I’d been on my own and not missed, it could have been very different.
But it got worse, it was some of the gnarliest ground I’ve ever been on, even worse than Sweden, where you are on sphagnum type bog that bounces like a mattress as you walk on it. I spent more time trying to get around peat hags (bogs) that just did not stop than I did looking for birds, which were few and far between. After a couple of hours, I was beat and told the other three to carry on and I’d just keep up as I could. I forgot my trekking pole and had to use the butt of the F16 as a replacement, as crossing the hags meant stepping from one patch of grass to another, which was vaguely more solid using the gun as a walking stick. Sorry Frederic, without it, I would have been Pete in the bog! Suffice to say, I did not have a good time, however, kudos to Frederic and Martin, as they both got Woodcock over the course of the day. In my stumbling about, I did put a few up; god they are fast and twitchy, and I thought African doves were sneaky.
When I got back to the hotel that night, I showered with my boots and trousers to get the mud off. Frederic suggested we try a German delicacy; Schnepfendreck, which translates into Woodcock-dirt, which is pretty much the intestines etc. cooked, and it tastes like a cross between pate and haggis. It was OK.
Next morning, we went to the range for a look at the Blaser R8 Ultimate (20”) and an R8 Silence (16.5”) in 8.5x55 along with their new (steerable) Quad Stix. The calibre proved accurate and easy to shoot, but someone forgot the chronograph, so I could not get any data. The Stix are brilliant, as they offer superior support and have a handle at the front that is rotated to swing the rifle left or right as required. I have a set coming for test.
That afternoon I was up a high seat, doubtless due to my physical prowess or lack of it, and we saw plenty of deer but nothing shootable came our way; such is hunting. The others did better up on the hill. That night in the bar I reminded Niall to bring his chrono for the last day.
Along with the staff of West Highland Hunting, there were two English guys who turned out to be serving Royal Marines (RM) from something called Project Artemis. The ideas was from WO1 Steve Tompkins RM. It seeks to bring together the whole Royal Marines Corps family, including serving soldiers, veterans, wounded, injured and sick to professionally develop and gain experience within the countryside sector, with the ambition to find jobs to suit. As an ex-soldier myself, who served for 10 years with few serious injuries and no trauma, apart from not tolerating fools gladly, I am very keen to highlight Artemis and help if I can. I will be following up next month with more details.
The last day saw us at the range again, this time with a chrono and the ballistic results were quite impressive. Visually, the 8.5x55 case looks very similar to the 300 Winchester Short Magnum (WSM), which is based on a 404 Gibbs head. Apart from the difference in calibre, .30” to .338”, the shoulder angle looks identical, with only the neck being about 1-2mm longer. The 139-grain load is made by a German company called SAX. But according to Blaser’s website, there are three more (probably made by Norma): Norma 139-grain Oryx, Nosler 180-grain AccuBond and a 185-grain Barnes TTSX.
The lighter weight SAX KJG bullet offers good velocity potential and, looking at the build, I assume the design does double duty. Obviously, the ballistic tip initiates the hollow point and the deep ring /cut (R-Groove) around the base of the ogive causes the nose section to break off in a sub missile swarm, leaving the solid base to pass through. We had a block of ballistic gelatine and it showed the nose did fragment, but they did not travel that far outside of the smallish permanent cavity. However, full pass though on this medium was assured. I was not totally convinced, as it seemed to me that unless you hit a vital organ or bone, it might not do the job that well, which is just conjecture on my part. However, I do know for a fact that both the Barnes TTSX and the Nosler AccuBond do the business, but as they are heavier, they might need longer barrels to get maximum effect. The Norma Oryx is also a fine projectile.
Figures for both 16.5 and 20” barrels proved that the 139-grain SAX is comfortable and accurate and, as promised, offers high speeds; I’ve also included the quoted data on the Norma, Barnes and Nosler loadings. See Facts & Thoughts but given the barrel lengths I was using, it seems likely that we can deduct around 150 fps off the Blaser figures. Taking the 180 AccuBond, which would be my choice for standard game, we might expect an actual output of 2835 fps/3231 ft/lbs, which is still highly respectable. We shall see and I hope to get some ammo and a barrel for my R8 to test the calibre, but I know it seriously outperforms my 8.5x63mm REB I currently use for driven boar.
Back to the hunt, on the last day, I went with Niall and Andy from Project Artemis for the high hunt. Given it would take too much time for me to foot stalk into them, we went up the mountain in a Mud Ox, sort of Argo Cat, 8-wheeled ATV, which was great fun and allowed me to see a lot of the estate, which was amazing. I was using Naill’s R8 Professional in 308 with RWS 139-grain Evo Green (non-lead) ammo, a rifle and load I know well. We saw a lot of fine stags, all off the hit list, but showing the quality of the animals available, down no doubt to proper management. One of the oddest things was the silence, when you stop and shut off the engine and just listen, it’s palpable and also beautiful.
We stopped about 300m short of the summit and stalked in, in what I now describe as the Downton manner (just seen the Downton Abbey film). The actual shooter is very much just a machine to pull the trigger, as Niall carried the rifle, and we literally crawled in Indian file right up to the firing position. Overlooking a small valley, at the top were a small heard of Reds, with some nice stags and good hinds. My first target was a calf that needed culling, blocked by a big stag I had to wait until it cleared. Niall paid me a compliment, as Andy asked him if I’d be alright to shoot, probably referring to my lack of breath and he replied, ‘I think Pete will do just fine!’
The stag finally cleared, and the calf was near side on, at 109 yards according to my GPO Range guide rangefinder binos. A strong wind was blowing in from 3 O’clock, so behind the elbow, but a tad to the right JIC. Bang: the shot sounded muted and down it went, deader than Julius Caesar; I’ve still got it! The herd began to move and it was only then that Niall said take that female, but which one? So, I declined the shot, as I was not sure of the target ID. However, I have killed a lot of deer in my life, so one less would not be an issue, plus I had achieved my aim, albeit with a bit of mechanical help and done it the Scottish way.
Niall went to get the mud ox and Andy butchered the calf; we then had our ‘piece’ (packed lunch). We talked of the impending, possible legislation being considered by the Scottish government to restrict or eradicate mammal and bird hunting in general. Also, the Rewilding programme, where some bright sparks seem to think it would be a good idea to reintroduce wolves and other long extinct British predators to control the deer population instead of hunters. Sounds like a catastrophe waiting to happen, as well as robbing many rural communities of a way of life and economy. It seems to me the only thing it will do is depopulate the Highlands of people and be a sort of modern version of the original Clearance after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion was savagely put down by the English. I have asked Niall if he would do me something on this very important subject and he has agreed, I’m sure it will make for enlightening reading.
Despite my worries, I had a good time, and would do it again, but maybe lay off the booze and food a bit and do some regular exercise before I went. My thanks to Blaser for the invite and Niall Rowantree and his team at West Highland Hunting for showing us such a great time and allowing me to tick one of the few remaining boxes in my hunting career.
West Highland Hunting; www.westhighland-hunting.co.uk
Blaser Group Ltd; www.blaser-group.com
Project Artemis; email@example.com