The estate rifle
How to familiarise yourself with a borrowed rifle for stalking in under 10 minutes, with Holland & Holland's Steve Rawesthorne.
If you are booking stalking in Scotland, or perhaps woodland stalking elsewhere in the UK, you may well need to use an estate rifle – one lent by the stalker or guide taking you out under the ‘estate rifle’ provisions of the various Firearms Acts. It might, for example, be that you are travelling and do not want the hassle of taking your own rifle with you.
All too often the introduction to this loan rifle is two quick shots at a target on the range before heading to the hill. But there is a lot you can do to ‘customise’ the rifle so that you can be confident when you take a shot at live quarry. It need only take 10 minutes – and that’s including your two or three shots on the range.
This is something I suggest every professional stalker do with their client, and something every client should insist on.
When the stalker and client, friend or whatever arrive at the range or target, the client – as we shall call him from now on – should familiarise himself thoroughly with the rifle. Now is the time to do this, not when you are on the hill in view of your trophy stag, trying to work out why the safety catch won’t come off or the bipod is far too high.
The rifle should be passed across to you, the client, unloaded and with the bolt open. Always check that this is the case and there is nothing in the magazine. I was once passed an estate rifle on a range only to find there was a live round in the chamber and the safety catch was off, ready to shoot!
Having ascertained it is unloaded, point the rifle in a safe direction and close the bolt. Familiarise yourself with the safety catch; is it two or three position? Can you lift the bolt to unload with the catch on or not? Is it possible to take the catch off quietly? And try moving it back to the safe position – some are more difficult than others.
With the rifle still unloaded and pointed in a safe direction, dry-fire it a few times (unlike a shotgun, this will not do any harm). Feel what the trigger is like – is it single or two stage? Is there any creep? How heavy is the trigger-pull? Some are extremely light, like a set trigger. If you close your eyes as you try the trigger, you can really focus on what it feels like.
If the rifle has a bipod, lie on the ground and get comfortable. Is the height of the bipod okay for you? Is it a tilt model, so that you can compensate for uneven ground? Too high or low and it could be a problem, and now is the time to get it right. Adjust the legs to suit you and make sure they are both set at the same length.
One of the most common causes of missed or poor shots is having a scope that is not set up for you.
At this stage, you cannot move the scope back or forward or move the rings, but there is still a lot you can do and it will take about one minute to achieve.
Turn the dioptre adjustment on the scope (the ring at the end of the eyepiece) down or in as far as it will go. If the scope is a variable power model, turn the magnification up to maximum. Mount the rifle into the shoulder and point it at a piece of flat blue or grey sky – you will be focussing on the crosshairs, not an object. Move your head so that you have proper eye relief – the outside edge of the circle you are looking through should be sharp, with no floating black circles. Now turn back the dioptre adjustment slowly until the crosshairs are clear and sharp. The scope will now be set for you at any magnification.
If it is a variable model scope, turn it back to around x7 magnification. For a long shot, you can always increase the magnification a little if you feel it is necessary, but remember that lower magnifications give you a wider field of view, have greater light gathering ability and minimise shake.
We are almost ready to shoot now, but before we do, check the calibre of the rifle – it will be stamped on the side of the barrel somewhere. Just because your stalker, friend or whoever gives you a magazine of five rounds and tells you to load, it doesn’t mean it is okay. Take the rounds out and check the handstamp on each one; the calibre is stamped on the base of each cartridge. If you try to shoot a round of the wrong calibre through a rifle, the result could be disastrous. You will probably be able to sue the stalker or his employee afterward, but is that really compensation for the loss of a hand or an eye? With luck it should not chamber, but some will and will still fire.
Lastly, if the rifle has a moderator, check that it is firmly attached, not loose, and that it is also of the right calibre. If you try to squeeze a 6.5 round through a .25 moderator, you are going to have a bad day. And if a stalker or friend has several rifles, calibres and moderators, the potential for an accident is always there.
Now that we have set the rifle up, checked the bore is clear and that the moderator and ammunition are of the right calibre and properly attached, we are ready to shoot.
Get into a comfortable position so that you are naturally aligned with the target, and settle in behind the rifle. Remember the basics: get your sight picture and the eye relief right, then slowly inhale and exhale three times and on the third breath, exhale half way, hold it, squeeze the trigger and watch the strike. Fire a second shot and if it is nice and close to where you want it and close to your first shot, you are good to go. If it is high, low or off centre, adjust the scope and fire two more shots. The shots need to form a group before you start making any adjustments to the scope – chasing single shots around a target is not a good idea.
All of the above should, as I say, take no more than 10 minutes. You are now ready to deal confidently with whatever the hill or woods might offer.
All of the above and more is covered in the Stalkers’ Course held at Holland & Holland Shooting Ground.