The following information comes from Practical Rifle Shooting by Walter Winans. Practical Rifle Shooting is also available to purchase in print.
This book is not intended to instruct in deerstalking any more than it is a manual of instruction in shooting at regulation targets. Deerstalking is, however, one form of practical shooting with the rifle. For this reason I propose to give a series of hints derived from personal experience at deer.
I have a preference for a double-barrel rifle. I have killed nearly all my deer with a double barrel, and may be prejudiced for this reason, but I certainly consider that a double-barrelled rifle balances better than most single barrels, and that it also comes up to the shoulder more level, without the tendency to cant to one side, which is the fault of some modern sporting adaptations of military rifles. My second reason for the preference is that most very small bore patterns are furnished with sights which are raised on stalks—to my mind an awkward arrangement; but I have seen some wonderfully neat, well-balanced, handy, and short single barrels, especially the new short Mauser made for chamois shooting.
My continental experience has led me to like a sling on a rifle. It is a great convenience, as leaving the hands free for a climb or to push through thick cover, while it rests the arms if one can sling the rifle during a long tramp, or on the way to or home from the ground.
The bottom of the “V” of the hind-sight on a deerstalking rifle should not lie too close to the barrel, nor yet be too much raised from it. A “V” which is close down on the barrel is difficult to align, and the mirage which forms on a barrel in hot weather, or after several shots have been fired in quick succession, also obscures a low sight.
For the same reason, and also to prevent a glare when in sunlight, the top rib of the rifle should be chequered or otherwise roughed.
I imagine that it would be advantageous to paint the whole metal work except the sights a dull grey, if a man did not mind spoiling the appearance of his weapon, as it would prevent the glint from the weapon frightening deer.
The front-sight should be large and dead-white in colour.
Most rifles are sent out from the makers with too small front-sights, and these are consequently hard to find in a poor light. The great thing for deerstalking is to have a front-sight which enables one to obtain an approximately true alignment instantaneously, rather than one for extremely accurate aim when time is no object and the light is perfect. Most deer are shot in a bad light, early morning or late in the afternoon, so that too fine sights are a mistake.
Some deerstalkers like to say that they have killed so many stags with so many shots, and to endeavour to miss as few shots as possible is legitimate. It is not, however, either sportsmanlike, nor good for one’s reputation as a “shot,” to buy such a boast at the price of never firing at a stag when the shot is not a “standing shot,” and a very easy one. It would probably surprise a good many people to learn how few frequenters of deer forests have ever killed a stag moving even at a walk, while fewer still are those lessees who can kill a right and left when the stags are racing past at the speed of a racehorse and bounding into the air, or who have even attempted to do so. A stag racing past you, down hill, and at a distance of, say, 200 yards, needs an allowance of over a length and a half to two lengths to bring him down with an express rifle. The newest high-power small-bore rifles have reduced this allowance. But always remember that the point aimed is where the stag’s shoulder will be at the moment when he is struck, not the position of that shoulder at the moment of firing. For instance, if the stag is springing off his hind-legs as you fire at the level of his shoulders, he will jump over your bullet. If he is landing on his fore-legs, the same aim will shoot over him. If he is on the upward part of his bound, shoot high; if landing from his spring, aim low. I like, if possible, to shoot at running deer at the moment when they are landing over a burn. By watching how the leading hinds land in jumping a burn or other obstacle in the course, you can often take each stag as he follows at the same place. If a stag drops, the rest often hesitate and give you a good chance.
The spot to hit is the shoulder, well forward, and not the heart. The stag’s heart is perhaps three inches in diameter—an uncertain mark to hit in a galloping beast or at a long range. Very little above or below the heart may result in your losing him. At best, he will need a second shot, when you ought to be shooting at a fresh beast.
The shoulder offers a far larger mark in the first place. And secondly, a stag hit in the shoulder by a solid bullet, or one which does not expand too readily, drops at once and is done with. Such a wound pierces his lungs and disables one or both shoulders. A stag with “a body hit” (I omit the rather coarse term used by stalkers) can go far, much faster than a man can follow him, and keeps on going; but one with broken shoulders can only kick himself along for a few yards.
I may add a hint as to the choice of one’s stags. When stalking deer, or watching the approach of a driven herd, try to form a mental picture of the different stags worth shooting. Commit to memory the number of stags in the herd, the shape of each one’s horns, number of points, colour, or other distinguishing particulars. You will thus avoid the risk of emptying your rifle at smaller beasts, when the large stags are still to come into range—a common accident with inexperienced men, who are naturally flurried at the great moment, and blaze at everything with horns.
From the shooter’s point of view, the conclusion of a successful stalk or drive ought to see the big “heads” on the ground. If, however, your object in shooting is to raise one stock of good “heads” and heavy bodies in the forest, the stags to shoot are of course the bad heads, and old or injured beasts. A man who is improving his stud does not sell off his best horses.
If a stag, when hit, claps in his tail, or spurts in a crouching attitude with outstretched neck, he is finished and will not go far. You can safely leave him and take another. My personal idea about sights for a stalking rifle is that these weapons should only have one hind-sight, a fixed sight for one hundred yards, and that the aim should be a little high or a little low, as you estimate the distance to be beyond or below that standard. “Judge the range and aim high or low” is better and quicker than raising leaves, and more accurate than changing the amount of foresight taken.
My great objection to having a rifle fitted with leaves adjusted to various ranges is their liability to get inadvertently raised when one has to run or crawl. If it, then, happens that you have to take a quick shot, you may easily miss a stag, thanks to having the two hundred yards sight up and noticing it too late. Or, if you do notice it, there may not be time to shut it down and take your shot as well. An adjustable telescopic sight may be useful for chamois or antelope, but at the short range at which Scotch deer are shot there should be no need of one.
Stalking rifles should always be provided with a safety bolt, and one which will not get shifted in crawling.
A very large white bead, to slip over or in front of the ordinary front-sight, is useful, in case you need to shoot at a wounded deer after the light has failed. When it has grown very dark, also, it is frequently of service to remember that you can sometimes get an aim by drawing a bead against the sky, and then lowering your rifle upon the stag.
Before leaving a dropped deer which appears dead, always make sure that this is so by sticking him or putting a bullet through his neck. (A shot in the brain may spoil his head for stuffing.) A stag is often only stunned by a shot, and it is both a source of vexation and needless cruelty to pass on only to find the beast gone when you return. If a stag falls instantly, he may be only stunned; if he gradually collapses he is probably finished.
Cartridges should be carried in some way which prevents their rattling against each other, but does not hinder their easy extraction from the case. Most cartridge cases or belts require a lot of tugging or unbuttoning before it is possible to draw out the cartridges. A useful habit is to cause your tailor to furnish the lining of your right-hand pocket with a few compartments of a size to take one cartridge each, and tight enough to hold them during a crawl without making it difficult to draw one out whatever the position in which you chance to be at the moment of needing so to do. Take enough cartridges, you may need them all.
Be particular to choose a knife of which the blade is both long and wide enough to do its work properly. It is sickening to see a deer tortured because a man will not trouble to provide himself with a suitable knife. Always be sure that a beast is quite dead before proceeding to gralloch him, i.e., remove his inside. One way of determining this is to see if he flinches when you touch his eyeball with a finger. Gralloching should be done as soon as a stag is dead, as delay causes the meat to deteriorate.
It is sometimes useful to fire in a sitting posture, with one or both elbows resting on the knees, as described at length in the chapter on the Bisley “Running Deer.” It is a good position for a long running shot, over two hundred yards say, when it is often difficult to trust the steadiness of one’s arms without some support. It is particularly useful for a shot across a ravine when a big wind is blowing. But while the position is serviceable when the mark is not moving at a very high speed, you will find it impossible for snap-shooting at live deer running hard or jumping into the air.
In crawling up to a deer, if it is at all down hill, and most stalks are so, it is easier to go feet foremost, as the blood does not rush to one’s head. I always leave my stalker behind and go on by myself; a deer does not see one man so easily as two, and you can get closer by yourself; also there is no use having the stalker near you, and he will only flurry you by whispering all sorts of distracting things just as you need all your attention. For instance, when I was a boy, and had only shot a few stags, a stalker whispered to me, “Be sure not to miss, he is the biggest stag in the forest.” The result may be imagined. Also if you miss, the stalker is almost sure to say “Over,” even if you have missed by six inches too low. When approaching deer feet foremost, the back position is the easiest to shoot from. There are many forms of this, but the one I adopt, and which is suitable for any one not stout or short-necked, is as follows. I turn on my right side, and rest the rifle on the outside of my left knee, my left leg crossing my right. The left hand either steadies the butt of the rifle or holds the fore-end against the left knee. This position also enables you to spring to your feet quickly, or to a sitting position for your second barrel as the deer gallop off. If you shoot in the prone position, be sure to let your legs slope well to the left.
In connection with “wait till he rises” I have heard the following anecdote:—
A “gun” was sent out with a stalker, who, after taking him a long crawl, pulled the rifle out of its cover, took off the stops (it was a double barrel), and whispered the usual formula, “He is lying down, wait till he rises.” “Lying down, is he?” said the “gun.” “I’ll soon get him out of that” And, standing up in full sight of the deer, he, to the stalker’s intense horror, fired his right barrel into the air. The stag was up and off in a twinkling, the “gun” giving him the second barrel and rolling him over like a rabbit.
It is curious how close deer will lie. As I finished the above paragraph I went out to sight a rifle. Close to where I stood was a small patch of nettles (young ones), none of them a foot high, the patch about ten by twenty yards. After I had fired twenty or thirty shots from a .25cal. rifle, a fallow deer fawn jumped up in the nettles and made off. I stepped to where he had been lying. It was eight yards! He must have been lying in full view from where I stood, but as I had not looked in his direction he thought it best, like Brer Rabbit, to “lie low.”
It is well to remember that a deer rises by first raising his hind quarters and then his fore-hand (the reverse to a horse). If you want to “wait till he rises,” aim just above his withers, give a low whistle, and fire just as his withers come up.
It is much more satisfactory and interesting to learn to stalk deer oneself, without the stalker, as soon as one gets to know the ground, and there is no danger of inadvertently crossing the march to one’s neighbour’s ground.
You can first begin leaving the stalker the last few yards of the stalk, gradually getting to do all the work yourself.
It is not very safe to be absolutely alone in a forest in case of a broken leg, or getting into a burn, or otherwise needing help. A broken leg from a slip might, for instance, necessitate one’s stopping out all night or until a search party could find one.
Old foresters have a lot of traditions for stalking, and are apt to want to go through the whole routine, whereas there are circumstances where a lot of it may be cut out. For instance, with the setting sun low and full in the stag’s eye, a crawl can be made towards him (if straight towards him and on level ground) on perfectly exposed ground. Also, the traditional remark, “wait till he rises,” is often better ignored. A stag may lie in such a way as to offer a good broadside shot, and you can make more certain of him by taking a steady shot when you are ready than by waiting an indefinite time, getting cold and perhaps “stag fever,” and then seeing him rise when you least expect it and speed away with his tail towards you. Also be suspicious of too long a “spy” for deer; it may only be a lazy way of passing the time. Once I caught two stalkers (who did not think I understood any Gaelic), “spying” the oats in each other’s crofts, and comparing their ripeness, when they were supposed to be spying for deer.
The manner of weighing deer is unsatisfactory for the purpose of a comparison. They are weighed, some with more, some with less, of the inside taken out. Some forests use eight pounds to the stone, others fourteen pounds. A uniform custom should be adopted. I believe a stag, weighed as he falls, at fourteen pounds to the stone, would weigh the same number of stones as a gralloched beast which was weighed at eight pounds to the stone.