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Stalking Rifles

Stalking Rifles

These quick-handling hunting guns are a breed apart.

By Clair Rees

When I finally became old enough to hunt deer, my favorite uncle took me under his wing. Making dry camp on a sagebrush-covered hilltop, we waited for opening day to begin.

It was still full dark when he nudged me awake. “Bring your rifle, canteen and sleeping bag,” he said in a low voice, “and follow me.”

I stumbled through the sagebrush until he held out a hand to stop me. “Stay here. Two trails cross about 40 yards away,” he said, pointing into the night. “Your sleeping bag will keep you warm until sunup. Try to stay calm if you see deer. Remember what I taught you. Put that front sight on the deer’s shoulder, then squ-e-e-z-e — don’t pull — the trigger. If you need me, I’ll be on the other side of the hill.”

I loaded the 7.7mm Arisaka rifle, then placed it before me as I crawled into the sleeping bag. My uncle had “liberated” the rifle during the war in the Pacific. It was a heavy, unlovely firearm, but I was happy to have it, even on loan.

The desert was growing paler when seven mule deer does appeared, walking single file along the trail. Steadying the long-barreled Arisaka on its monopod rest, I took careful aim at the largest deer and fired.

In the glow of that first success, I thought deer hunting consisted of finding a likely spot, then waiting in ambush. I used that tactic for the next few years, and usually went home with a fat doe for my mother’s freezer. I didn’t even know what stalking was until I read about it in a hunting magazine.

Spotting distant deer with a binocular, then plotting a route that might put me within decent range before the animal left was a new concept for me. A major stumbling block was the lack of a binocular, so I started squirreling a few dollars away every chance I got. The borrowed Arisaka was heavy and awkward to carry, but I didn’t know there were rifles far better suited for this kind of hunting.

I continued to hunt with increasingly better rifles, but the concept of a pure stalking rifle didn’t strike home until I traveled to British Columbia to hunt moose and caribou. Colt sponsored the hunt, so I carried one of the new European rifles the company had begun importing. The long-barreled .30-06 weighed nearly 9 pounds. The steel-bodied scope mounted on it boosted total heft to 10 1/2 pounds, not counting cartridges in the magazine.

The rifle wasn’t really a burden as I rode through the woods. The scabbard was strapped to the saddle, and the horse didn’t complain. A few days later things drastically changed. Guide Reg Collingwood and I left our lakeside camp in pre-dawn darkness to climb to the top of the Skeena range. It was a steep, lung-searing ascent. By the time we reached the summit 6 hours later, my rifle’s weight had multiplied.

After we paused for breath and a quick lunch, Reg glassed a bull caribou sleeping in a patch of snow well over a mile away. We had a clear view of trophy-sized antlers jutting skyward.

“You won’t do better than that!” Reg said. “If we drop off the other side of this ridge and work our way along it, we can stay out of sight until you’re in range. The hard part will be scrambling across a couple of shale slides, then climbing back to the top of the ridge. Grab your pack, and let’s go!”

As we hurried over the ridge, my rifle seemed to weigh at least 20 pounds. We half-walked, half-ran nearly a mile before reaching the first slide. The rifle’s weight was forgotten as I gaped at the 50-yard stretch of loose shale we had to cross. A hundred yards below us, the slide ended in a vertical drop that went on forever.

“Pick a spot on the far side, then run toward it,” Reg advised. “Don’t look down — just run. Keep your momentum up and you’ll be fine.”

Knees churning, Reg made the crossing first. He arrived just fine, but the sound and sight of loose shale tumbling down the slide and into space did little to calm my nerves.

A half hour later, we reached the landmark that showed we were near the sleeping caribou. Reg climbed up to look over the ridge, then slid down beside me.

“He’s directly below us, maybe 300 yards away,” he said. “Take a minute to catch your breath. When you crawl over the ridge, push your pack in front of you and use it as a rest.”

My hunt was successful, but from that day on, I shunned overweight rifles when making long stalks for game.

Hefty rifles have their place. Long-range beanfield rifles were developed for sitting all day in a Texas tower and being prepared to shoot at very long range. High-powered scopes make sense. So do hard-kicking rounds with magnum reach. Sit in a stationary blind overlooking a food plot, and rifle weight doesn’t matter. You’re not likely to tote that rifle more than 150 yards, so a 10-pound rifle won’t wear you out.

Stalking RiflesStalking (the method I’ve come to prefer) calls for relatively light, handy rifles you can carry all day without fatigue. The object of stalking is to close the range, so shooting at an extreme distance isn’t required. That makes big, bellowing magnums unnecessary.

My stalking rifles range from .30-30 lever carbines like my dad, granddad and countless other hunters once depended on to bring venison home, to a variety of 5- to 6½-pound rifles chambered for 7mm-08, .308, 6.5x55, .30-06 and similar mild-recoiling but highly effective rounds. While magnums have their place, I seldom use them for hunting deer. The old standard rounds do the job just fine out to 300 yards. The vast majority of deer I’ve taken over the years fell less than half that distance from my muzzle.

Action types run the gamut from crank-lever carbines and short-coupled bolt rifles, to Remington pumps and Browning autoloaders. My favorites include a trio of 7mm-08 Model Seven carbines from the Remington Custom Shop, a .308 Model 77 Ruger Ultra-Light, a .223 CZ 527 carbine (where .22 centerfires are legal for deer), and a .308 Savage Sierra Ultra Light. All these rifles tip the scales at 61/4 pounds or less and are capable of drop-dead accuracy. A more recent addition, a full-stocked 6.5x55mm Walkabout Serengeti custom carbine, has taken a couple of fine antelope after long stalks over open prairie.

My stalking rifles wear low-mounted 1.5-4.5x to 3.5-10x variable scopes, none with objectives larger than 40mm. You may want more magnification for beanfield magnums, but it’s superfluous on stalking rifles. Large optics add unnecessary heft and bulk — things you want to avoid on a stalking rifle.

Even when long-range shooting is expected, I favor light, handy rifles. A few years ago, I traveled to Montana to hunt trophy bucks. “The rut hasn’t started yet,” the outfitter told me. “The deer we find are likely to be several hundred yards away. There may be no chance for a stalk, so be prepared. Bring a rifle you can drop a deer with at 400 or 500 yards.”

While I regularly kill prairie dogs at those rarified distances, I’m not a fan of shooting deer at extreme range. The rifle I brought was a Model Seven Alaskan Wilderness Rifle from the Remington Custom Shop. The 6-pound rifle was in .300 Remington SAUM (Short Action Ultra Mag) chambering, and printed 3/8-inch three-shot 100-yard groups with Barnes Triple Shock handloads.

The rifle was zeroed at 200 yards, and I taped a chart to the buttstock showing bullet drop all the way out to 600 yards. A Steady-Stix bipod would provide a stable rest.

After driving back roads for three days, we spotted a good buck moving into the woods 250 yards away. I left the truck and began stalking on foot. Moving as quietly as I could, I played a cat-and-mouse game with the buck. The deer would vanish into the trees, and I would circle to cut him off.

Slow, patient stalking eventually paid off. Just as I left a stand of woods, I spotted the deer moving along a trail not 60 yards away. I’d pre-set the 3x-9x scope to its lowest magnification, so the offhand shot was a cinch.

A year later, I was following a pronghorn buck through the New Mexico desert. As usual, we’d spotted the buck while riding in the outfitter’s truck. No true sportsman shoots from a truck, so I got out and loaded my Remington Model 700 7mm-08. Not yet alarmed, the buck had all but disappeared from sight some 400 yards distant. Using a low draw for cover, I hurried toward the animal, occasionally looking back to make sure my companions still had the buck in sight.

The buck was also watching my friends, comforted that they remained in clear sight.

The animal had failed to see me hurrying through the brush and had no idea I was closing in. After some 400 yards of hurried stalking, I eased around a large clump of sagebrush, and there he was.

My laser rangefinder indicated 318 yards, a reasonable shot from a sitting position. Doing my best to stay out of sight, I steadied the rifle against my bipod, lead the walking buck with the crosshairs and squeezed the trigger.

Subscribe Today!For antelope hunting, this had been a very short stalk. Larry Taller and others I know spend a week every year stalking pronghorns on a Montana Indian reservation. This is a pure meat hunt, not a trophy hunt. Their families dote on antelope venison, so each hunter buys only doe tags. Once they spot a band of does, they abandon the truck and set out on foot. I’ve watched in amazement as these hardy hunters walk mile after dry prairie mile, following the animals over the horizon.

Slow, stubborn stalking brings the hunters closer without putting the antelope into flight. Staying on their trail, the hunters eventually work their way into shooting range. For these expert riflemen, that means anything short of 500 yards. This brand of hunting takes both skill and incredible stamina. You can bet they’re not lugging 10- or 12-pound rifles.

While they’re not advertised as such, stalking rifles are a breed apart. They’re lighter and more compact than run-of-the-mill hunting guns, making them handier and easier to tote. Hard-kicking calibers aren’t required. Hunters who regularly stalk their game get as close as possible before they shoot. For dropping deer or pronghorn less than 300 yards out, the big magnums are more of a hindrance than a help. Anything in the 6.5x55mm .270, 7mm-08 or .308 classes will do the job just fine. That’s assuming both rifle and shooter are accurate and a properly constructed hunting bullet is used. If hunting elk with a 7mm-08 or .308 makes you nervous, try a good .270 or .30-06, which provides plenty of punch.

How accurate does a rifle need to be? While it’s nice to print tight groups from 100 yards, 1/4- or 1/2-minute of angle accuracy isn’t all that necessary. More than one stalking rifle I own won’t consistently deliver better than 1 1/2 MOA performance, and I’m happy to carry them afield.

Scopes? I’m of the firm opinion most deer hunters these days are overscoped. A 6-18x variable is fine for targeting pint-sized prairie dogs at 400 yards, but you don’t need all that extra bulk, heft and magnification for most kinds of hunting. You certainly don’t need a big overweight scope on a stalking rifle.

I enjoy most kinds of hunting, but when it comes to deer, elk and pronghorn, stalking gets my vote every time. Most of the rifles I own reflect this preference.

Reprinted from the August 2007 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.

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