Bigger Isn’t Always Better

Most calibres can humanely dispatch a fox… with a well-placed shot

In these days of the internet where information can be obtained instantly, it is interesting to look back at the days when it didn’t exist.

I keep an eye on the shooting forums online, and one thing I notice is when a novice in the sport asks for advice. Normally there is no shortage of counsel, varying from the excellent to the downright perplexing. No more does that apply than when someone asks, “What is the best rifle for fox shooting?” That question usually brings forth a veritable deluge of advice ranging from diminutive wildcat rounds producing incredibly high velocities to rifles that would probably drop an elephant.

Years ago, anyone starting out had to learn from their own mistakes – or, as I did, tack yourself on to a friendly keeper and learn from him. But how does the newcomer decide from this welter of instant advice what the best course is?

It does not take a great deal to kill a fox with a rifle providing the bullet reaches the right place. Foxes have been shot with virtually every firearm out there including air rifles. In fact, my neighbour threw a stone at one that had been having a go at his poultry, hit it on the head and killed it – probably one of the less conventional ways.

Taking head shots at night is a tricky business

Many shooters these days have a rifle that can deal with anything that happens along, from deer to rabbits. Here, though, I am concerned with calibres that are more fox-specific. I am not getting involved with ‘wildcat’ rounds, just the ones that most newcomers would be familiar with and those that I use myself.

The .243 is an excellent calibre that will drop virtually everything you are likely to encounter in this country using the correct bullet, though it is a little too much for pure foxing use. Ammunition costs are expensive and the rifles are slightly heavier than smaller calibres. I would say the best all-round rifle for out and out foxing would be the .223. Easily obtained, there are always plenty on the market, which keeps the price down a little. Ammunition is readily available and, if you decide to go down the reloading route, it is a good cartridge to start with.

It is a flat-shooting round and capable of dropping foxes out to 300 yards – this is well beyond the abilities of most shooters, and I certainly include myself in that group. As a matter of interest where range is concerned, over the years I have kept a record of the distances I have shot foxes at and the average is a little under 100 yards. A .223 zeroed one inch high at 100 yards will do the job out to 200 yards with no problems. When not using my own loads, I use 55-grain Hornady ammo. Although any of the well-known brands will do the job, some rifles are a bit choosy with ammunition, so try a few.

The .223 would be my choice as the ideal fox rifle, but what of the lesser calibres? In the course of my work as a fox controller, I have three other rifles that I use on a regular basis depending on the circumstances. They are the .22 Hornet, the .22LR and the .17 HMR.

The first of my alternatives, the .22 Hornet, is an ancient round that is experiencing a mini-revival. Again, it’s relatively easy to load for yourself to start with, then dead easy once you have cracked the system. It is noticeably quieter than the .223, although not as flat shooting. It will drop foxes out to 200 yards. Incidentally, all these rifles carry moderators – essential and helpful for various reasons when after foxes. The three small-calibre rifles can also double up for small vermin. However, the Hornet is inclined to make a mess of rabbits unless you make a head shot – not always easy.

The next one down, the .22LR, has been killing foxes for donkey’s years. Although not classed as a fox round, there are times when this little round can do the job perfectly. When in ‘sensitive’ areas – where you don’t want to advertise what you are doing – I often have to shoot foxes using subsonic hollow point ammo (I use Winchester). Limiting the range to 50 yards, it seldom fails to kill outright. This is a useful round and – should certain factions get their way and lead shot is banned – there will be a multitude of .22 users who will rue the day.

Finally, the .17 HMR. This diminutive round has been with us a few years now and it has run into some problems ammunition-wise. This seems to have faded away, so hopefully the manufacturers have seen to the matter. I like this calibre and have shot quite a few foxes with it. Like the preceding rifle, it is a close-range (100-yard maximum) rifle. Although the sound is a bit snappier than the Hornet, this doesn’t present problems in the field. It can give rabbits quite a clout, but while others may not agree I find it marginally more accurate than the Hornet.

To get a direct comparison between the three lesser calibres (the .223 doesn’t need testing), I took the rifles out on different nights over the week. They were equipped with the Archer night vision or a Klarus XT30 LED lamp.

The first candidate was the Hornet. Setting up against the top hedge of a field where I knew foxes travelled, I didn’t have to wait long. A fox was patrolling the lower hedge 150 yards away. A couple of squeaks had it running up the field towards me, where a whistle stopped it in its tracks.

As it turned I released the 35-grain Hornady V-Max homebrew (13 grains of Lil Gun CCI small rifle primer), dropping it where it stood. Examination showed the shoulder shot had killed it instantly.

The following night it was the .22LR. A fox had been hanging around a neighbour’s poultry and they wanted it gone. This was a different scenario as I was indoors, sitting upstairs on a chair by the open window. This turned out to be a long wait but, fortified by a scotch or two, I passed the time watching members of the local badger and rabbit fraternity. After four hours, Charlie appeared and was duly dispatched at 40 yards.

Shooting foxes with the smaller calibres is challenging, but rewarding

A couple of nights later I was out after rabbits with my farmer friend. We had had a dozen or so when, crossing the same stubble field where the Hornet had claimed one before, a fox moved away to our right. Swinging the pick-up round, I picked it up in the lamp (no night vision this time). It was trotting away from us but a quick blast on the WAM fox call swung it round sideways and the .17 HMR did the job.

This one was 100 yards out and the shot behind the shoulder clearly did not exit but had done severe damage within the rib cage. Incidentally, I much prefer 17-grain ammo to 20-grain – they seem to work better.

All these calibres proved themselves to be more than sufficient for a fox. Two of the ones I shot were fair-sized animals – the one with the .17 HMR weighed 24lb. I have no problem killing foxes stone dead with any of these rifles, but shot placement and range is critical. The .223 will drop them if you hit anywhere in the main body, but this is not so with the three little ones. I head-shoot foxes very rarely as it is all too easy to injure and not kill. A big fox looks like it has a big head but skinning one tells a different story: a fox’s skull is small and the brain area smaller still. Particularly at night, it is very hard to guarantee a hit. I usually go for a shot behind the shoulder and this almost guarantees a quick and humane death. If they don’t drop on the spot they seldom cover more than a few yards.

Shooting foxes at night is perhaps not as easy as some would have it, particularly if you want to do the job cleanly. Using small calibres is challenging but, if carried out with care, can be most effective. Mike Powell

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