Safety etiquette for new Deer stalkers

Coming from a rough shooting background, at first I was mildly perplexed at the etiquette and general niceties of firearms safety in the deer stalking world. It all seemed a little, well, overkill. Unfortunately 'kill' can be the operable word when discussing firearms, so it could be argued it's impossible to be too careful. Without sidestepping in to this debate, I thought it worth taking a look at the top five things that will probably take a shotgun shooter by surprise in the stalking world.

Before launching in to my list, I'd like to spot a few of the fundamental differences between the sports. Deer stalking is slow and deliberate, whereas rough shooting relies on reacting to the unexpected, often quickly. Stalking can require a lot of sequential actions to be executed quickly, but rarely without time to do things carefully; bird shooting requires to you react often when you've already lost the advantage. Clearly there are a lot of differences, but the lethality of the tools remains the same. But on with the list!

1) Keeping the rifle slung on the shoulder

When walking a hedgerow, the very last thing I'd think of doing would be carrying the gun on the shoulder. After all, I want it close to hand, ready to swing to bear on a rabbit. Stalking, however, is a slower tempo affair, requiring all the senses to be trained on stealth. Stealth and rapid coverage of ground just don't go together, so given the pace you will be moving at, the rifle will be much more comfortable on the shoulder, and can be easily swung down once you spot a shootable animal.

2) Not using the scope to spot things

When tucked up in a bush with a .17HMR about 30 meters from a rabbit warren it's second nature to have a peek through the scope at that ominous hole and lovely welcoming backstop of earth. With a centrefire rifle (of which can travel some 4,000 meters if elevated to 35 degrees), waving the scope around also involved waving the rifle around. Which also involves waving a lot of destruction around. If you spot that lesser spotted yellow-browed warbler in a tree, don't swing the scope up to have a look! Binoculars offer a much safer perspective on the world, are lighter and more comfortable to use. The scope may well be a scope, but the situation is inherently different and you are looking for, and at, very different things.

3) Crawling

I've spent a lot of time crawling after quarry (more time than my knees would care to remember) but stalking is definitely the first time I've crawled with someone else (no puns, please). This adds a whole new dimension to it. After all, I'm carrying a rifle, someone is a few meters in front of me, so low and behold, I am now pointing the rifle at them. Not good. There are two ways to tackle this, either the lead of the party takes the rifle so it's pointing forwards, or the rifle is pointed sideways (but watch the horizon to the side).

4) Chambers

When we put cartridges into a shotgun, chances are they are going to be cleared (i.e. fired) pretty quickly, unless doing something cold like wildfowling, and chances are this will be stationary. When we put a round in the chamber while stalking, it can sit there… for a long time. Some considerable walking later, crossing a style or stream, it's always worth unloading before traversing and it could save an accidental discharge. Never hand an unsafe rifle to anyone, and always, always, check the chamber and NEVER assume it's empty until you have seen it yourself. Even if a friend tells you it's empty, they might have forgotten.

5) Safety Catches

This is also known as STOP FIDDLING WITH THINGS! Peter usually buries his head in his hands when I mention this, but my sporting shotgun doesn't have automatic safety. I guess I'm a rock'n'roll shotgun shooter. Equally, some people from military firearms backgrounds will opt to ignore safety altogether, and work on the premise that once the adrenaline is pumping, it's easier to cycle a round in to a chamber than it is to fiddle with a catch. We all bring baggage when using safety catches, and an inherent tendency to fiddle, but in stalking the safety catch is sacred. You rely on it a lot more than other sports, because it's a bigger safety net. You can't afford the noise of cycling a bolt and really desperately need all the help you can get in not accidentally discharging. So whatever you do, don't fiddle with it!

(For those completely new to handling firearms, County Deer Stalking is more than happy to start from scratch and provide a complete and comprehensive familiarisation of deer calibre rifles in order to get you comfortable prior to setting out for an outing stalking after deer).




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