Getting Started in Deer Stalking
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- Last updated: 13/06/2022
All forms of rifle shooting have become ever more popular over the years and none more so than deer stalking, where it seems demands are now outstripping supply! But how do you get into it and what equipment do you need? With the advent of COVID-19 and new measures to ban lead-cored, ammunition it can be a bit of a fraught business to find land, apply for an FAC and choose the best kit.
For sporting use as with any other disciplines, the rifle shooter needs a good grounding as regards safety, law and most importantly gun handling and then the skill sets to actually hit the target. You have to find a suitable ground to shoot on in the first place or join a syndicate, so the best advice here is really to put some legroom in. Dress smart, have with you some insurance documents and any CV or references and knock on doors.
Probably the best way is to join a young farmers group, help in a Woodland Trusts workdays, or best of all start as a beater on a pheasant shoot. Although you may want to shoot rifles, if you can demonstrate you are safe and reliable on a pheasant drive and volunteer to help feed birds, repair pens and odd jobs, then very often the keeper or landowner will grant permission to shoot, or at least help out. It’s a foothold. Better still, I would strongly recommend joining a shooting organisation such as the BASC, or BDS. Find a local branch and attend meetings, or local training day shoots can also make valuable contacts.
If you are a complete novice (we’ve all been there), then you will need to show good reason for wanting to own a rifle for deer stalking and land on which to shoot. The vast majority of Police Licensing Departments are there to help. Your local Firearms Enquiry Officer (FEO) will talk you through the procedure for the application of your FAC and crucially advise on security issues regarding your gun safe.
Next, a probationary period will follow where you will probably have to show your abilities to another FAC holder or landowner. Quite rightly, they are not just going to grant anyone an FAC to go out and shoot deer without some understanding! Better still attend one of the excellent DSC level 1 deer management courses. This shows that you are serious about stalking and the course gives an excellent grounding in all aspects of the business; rifle safety, handling, shooting and also species, habitat, seasons, the law, and animal recognition.
It is also very important to be proficient with the rifle/rifles you intend to use for stalking. Most of us start with one, say a suitable 243 or 308 Win, but you might want a different calibre for smaller species in the future.
From a sporting point of view, the land you want to use will have to be passed for your rifle/calibre for safe use and this choice has huge implications. For instance, your FEO may suggest a .243 Win for both fox and deer use, as it’s a popular and effective cartridge for most needs. But is there a best choice for the various species? Everyone has their favourites whether that be what your dad or friends use, or what’s popular at the time. The deer don’t care, but we make quite a fuss about it. However, it’s still horses for courses, given the type of stalking you might do. If on the hill or taking longer shots over big fields then the need for a flatter shooting cartridge compared to a primarily woodland stalker would seem obvious. Plus, the legal requirements on calibre, bullet type and muzzle energy that must be adhered to across the UK and they do differ a bit.
So, let’s look at the most popular calibres for our various deer species, starting with the smallest. As we shall see there is some confusion already, as in England and Wales we have the diminutive Muntjac and Chinese Water Deer (CWD) generically known as ‘small deer’. Both species can be taken with any .22 centrefire firing a minimum weight (50-grain) expanding bullet that can produce 1000 ft/lbs of muzzle energy, which is a legal requirement. Good choices here; .222 Rem, .223 Rem and .22-250 Rem are all popular and effective, you can of course use larger calibres.
But with Roe deer there are two camps, in England/ Wales you cannot use a .22 centrefire on this species, as you must use a minimum of .240”/6mm that generates 1700 ft/lbs minimum, hence the popularity of the .243 Win. But in Scotland you can use a .22 centrefire on Roe - go figure!
The 22 centrefires hold a niche as a superb vermin and fox rifle, which excel with fastmoving and frangible bullets, designed to expand quickly on thin-skinned game and are highly lethal for quick kills, which we must try and achieve. That’s an unequivocal fact, but for larger deer the primary intention is the use of a heavier, more controlled expanding bullet that penetrates well into the vital areas and causes lethality without unnecessary meat damage.
A classic oldy but goody, as its track record is undeniable as regards accuracy, ease of reloading, light recoiling yet still possessing enough velocity for small deer at 250 yards. The normal 50-grain loading is capable of 3200 fps/1000 ft/ lbs energy making it also legal in Scotland to cull Roe, where the velocity of the bullet also needs to exceed 2450 fps. Factory ammunition too is bountiful from most manufacturers in many forms, now including non-lead options. Sadly the 222 Rem is seen by many as old hat these days and slowly slipping into the retirement home when compared to the next calibre.
This is the next logical choice as it fills a niche between the venerable .222 and the larger .22-250 Remington. The .223 gains a 200fps advantage over the .222 with a small propellant increase. A 55- grain bullet at 3275 fps is more than good enough for Scottish Roe, Muntjac and CWD or use the 75 grainers for longer range use at nearly 2800 fps, but fast twist rifling is needed to stabilise them.
I like the Sako Gamehead bullet for small deer in both 50 and 55 grain at 3300 and 3255 fps, respectively. A 55 grain V-Max pushing 3277 fps/1312 ft/lbs in factory or reload is a good flat shooting round but they tend to expand quickly on impact so there can be quite a bit of meat spoilage.
In 1965 Remington legitimised the .22-250 wildcat round, advantages over the .222 and .223 being a velocity increase of 475-650 fps. It’s a bit old fashioned now, but still a great performer. Bullets in the 50/52-grain range are more like the ideal varminting weight and for Roe or Muntjac/CWD, I would use the 55-grain bullets. At speeds of up to 2700 fps, this weight is about ideal as it gives predictable accuracy, good wind bucking properties, combined with reliable performance on varmints, foxes or smaller deer, where appropriate. Its larger case capacity means you can push heavier bullets at good velocities too.
Now you are looking more at English/Welsh Roe, Fallow, Sika and Red where in England and Wales you need a minimum 0.240” calibre generating a minimum of 1700 ft/lbs as already mentioned. In Scotland apart from Roe, all other species require no less than a 100-grain bullet at a minimum of 2450 fps/1750ft/ lbs. Same species, two different requirements and methods, only the British could think this way!
So, the .243, .25-06, .260 Rem, 6.5 Creedmoor, 7mm-08, 6.5x55, .308, 7x57mm, .270 or 30-06 are the logical choices here. Although I like the smaller 6PPC, 6BR, 6.5 Grendel and 6.5x47 Lapua cartridges for their efficient powder burn to achieve good velocities. However, and dependant on barrel length, some of these might not make 1700 ft/lbs.
A truly capable calibre, launching a 55-grain bullet at nearly 3800 fps and a 100-grainer at 3000 fps, but it’s the 70 -100-grain weights that are more deer-suitable. I like the 80, 85 and 95-grain bullets, which are just right if not pushed too fast for smaller species at 3225, 3175 and 2950 fps respectively with the soft point, Spitzer, Partition and Ballistic Tip types. If placed properly on target the extra weight penetrates well and delivers a good compromise between kinetic clout and pure hydrostatic shock caused by velocity within the body cavity area (heart/lung).
The 260 Rem is a great 6.5mm cartridge both efficient and accurate and suitable for all deer species in Britain, but it has been eclipsed by Hornady’s, 6.5mm Creedmoor. Bullets offer a high ballistic coefficient (BC), so cut the air better and retain velocity/ energy longer. Good, hard-hitting makes like the Hornady 129-grain SST offer 2800 fps/2246 ft/lbs. The 140s are equally effective, with the Sierra GameKing achieving at least 2600 fps/2101 ft/lbs, so ideal for reds and fallow alike. So, the Creedmoor would seem the logical all-rounder, be it in factory ammo or reload.
Don’t rule out the venerable 6.5 x 55 mm and 7 x 57 mm. The former is a superb cartridge for all the deer species in Britain today. Loaded with heavier 140 and 160-grain bullets with velocities of 2750 and 2450 fps respectively, you have a good cartridge to tackle larger Red stags and rutting Fallow as well as tough Sika stags. The 7 x 57 is more geared to deer work and Rigby chose this cartridge for their proprietary .275 Rigby in their traditional Mauser-based sporting rifle.
My all-time favourite is still the .308 Winchester, solid, reliable, accurate and very flexible to work with. It’s my go-to deer round being able to tackle muntjac with 110-grain bullets and loaded up to 165 or even 180-grain for Red and Sika where more penetration and section density helps transmit energy. Traditionally you think of a .308, 150-grain synonymous with the typical deer weight bullet, generating 2850 fps/2706 ft/lbs and achieving the necessary down range kinetic energy and wind bucking abilities for all manner of deer duties.
These three are also great deer rounds and this family of cartridges are derived from the venerable 30-03 and 30-06 cases, being necked down to accept smaller bullet diameters, and altering the neck and shoulder dimensions.
The .25-06 choice is good, ranging from as small as 60 up to 120-grains, 60s a bit light, but 100, 115 or 120-grains are ideal. The 115-grainers perform perfectly well on Muntjac with the tougher, heavier jacketed bullet causing little meat damage, but humane one-shot kills and they work equally well on Fallow.
The .270 was the mainstay of the Forestry Commission as it is a good flat shooting deer cartridge with 130-grain bullets, or heavier with the 150-grains tipping the 2900 fps barrier, especially the Hornady SST. Or try the 140-grain Accubond which has good penetration and expansion characteristics for all deer species but is especially good for Red and Sika. But many are now switching to the lighter 110-grain Barnes for good accuracy combined with sufficient expansion to transfer energy for humane kills.
The .30-06 is an old stalwart of military parentage. Standard loads include a 150-grain bullet such as the lead-free Nosler E-Tip giving 2900 fps/2802 ft/lbs, making it a tough nononsense large species deer load. For one favouring something heavier, like a 180-grain, it can generate up to 2700 fps and is great for stags high on testosterone in the rut.
There are many, good high power (magnum) calibres around with such great numbers as 7mm Rem Mag, 338 Win Mag and Winchester’s Short Magnums (WSM) in 270 and 300. They are really for those who require more oomph for larger/ tougher species and long range hunting. Truth is, they are very specialised and not the premise of the fledging hunter. Cartridges like the 243/308 Win, the 6.5s etc, are more than enough for all UK species, with correct bullet choice and of course placement. I would rather use a standard calibre and stalk just that bit closer than suffer the extra recoil and noise.
As a first rifle, I would always recommend a bolt-action, as the model choice of near all the major manufacturers will have something to suit and prices can be good. Buying new is nice, but there are many great second-hand bargains, as people tend to get rid of their trusted hunting guns in favour of new models and calibres.
If you go this route, then check the barrel condition for wear and corrosion damage and preferably get one that has already been threaded for a sound moderator as that will save money. I like Tikkas and Sakos, but have to say that Mauser, Howa, Schultz and Larsen, Remington are excellent too, it really is down to personal choice, as all are capable. With regard to sound moderators, again the choice is wide, here are a few suggestions: Ase Utra, Schultz & Larsen, A-Tec, Stalon, Evolve and for maintenance-free use then MAE’s all-stainless build is ideal.
Optic choice is perhaps the most confusing, as there are so many makes and models that purport to offer so much: Illuminated reticles, parallax (target focus) range-finding reticles, ballistic packages, different sizes and magnification values to name but a few. Resist the urge to over-scope, as you don’t really need some heavyweight, high magnification monster on your stalking rifle. What you should be looking for is glass quality and its ability in low light conditions. It’s always best to check out a scope’s ability at dawn or dusk. For many years we mostly used 3-9x40s or similar and we still brought home the venison. Like rifle choice, take some good advice and read the reviews in the magazines and buy the best within your budget. Mounts are the same, as they attach the scope to the rifle and there are many good ones around, not all at silly money either.
A bit of an overview but hopefully helpful. Ultimately, it pays to get good training from one of the BASC or BDS courses and get your DSC level 1 as this will show the police a level of knowledge and commitment. Don’t rush into things, speak with like-minded people and try and get as much experience, even as an observer on a stalk as you owe that to yourself and the deer too.
BDS -Training Courses - www.bds.org.uk
BASC -Training Courses - www.basc.org.uk
GMK Ltd - Rifles, ammunition and reloading kit - www.gmk.co.uk
Edgar Brothers - Rifles, ammunition and reloading kit - www.edgarbrothers.com
Norman Clark - Reloading Supplies - www.normanclarkgunsmith.com
RUAG - Rifles, ammunition and reloading kit - www.ruag.co.uk
Viking Arms - Rifles, ammunition and reloading kit - www.vikingshoot.com
Alan Rhone - Rifles, ammunition and reloading kit - www.alanrhone.com
Hannam’s Reloading Supplies - www.hannamsreloading.com
Raytrade UK - Rifles, ammunition and reloading kit – www.raytradeuk.co.uk