How small is too small?

Size matters: Wind drift and deflection can affect the smaller calibres. Photo credit: Andy Lee

David Barrington Barnes considers the minimum calibres for shooting deer in the various parts of the UK, where although the law may be simple enough, opinions vary hugely

Most readers will be aware that the firearms law on the killing of deer differs between Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales. I hope readers will also know of the fairly recent changes in England and Wales that have made legal the use of .22 centrefire rifles for muntjac and Chinese water deer, subject to technical provisos.

Hugh Rose, the celebrated Scottish deer expert, has enlightened me on the tangled technical background to the legislation. The .240 calibre was originally selected as the minimum calibre for deer, but this only came about because that calibre was the estate rifle on the estates over which the 1963 legislators stalked. They thought this would include the .243 Winchester – an up-and-coming calibre at that time – although Hugh points out that the calibre is actually a .236 if measured in the British way, which is why .236 is specified in Northern Ireland’s legislation.

The 1985 Scottish Firearms Order legalised .22 centrefires as roe rifles, although legislators agreed that these were insufficiently powerful to shoot the larger deer species humanely. The issue was whether a deer was likely to be recovered after a bad shot, and the minimum 100-grain bullet weight and the 1,750ft/lb muzzle energy were introduced to aid recovery as well as to react to the increase in the use of telescopic sights and home loading.

Hugh comments that one of the reasons for excluding roe deer from the species that can now be shot with a centrefire calibre in England and Wales is that some roebucks are as heavy as fallow does. Some have argued that allowing roe to be shot with .22 centrefires would open the door to demands for their use against fallow.

The law today is easy enough to follow, but its background is a tangled affair

In England and Wales, .22 centrefire rifles are now legal for muntjac and CWD, with .240 and larger calibres legal for these and all other deer. In Northern Ireland the law for calibres for muntjac and CWD (although they are not as yet confirmed resident) are technically the same as, for practical purposes, they are for the larger deer, although the minimum calibre reference in Northern Ireland is .236, the minimum bullet weight 100 grains and the minimum muzzle energy 1,700ft/lb.

In Scotland .22 centrefire rifles may be legally deployed against roe deer with bullets of at least 50 grains and a muzzle velocity of at least 2,450fps and a minimum muzzle energy of 1,000ft/lb. However, for hunting the larger species the minimum bullet weight is 100 grains, the required minimum velocity is again 2,450fps and the minimum muzzle energy 1,750ft/lb.

These legal differences do not greatly affect deer stalkers. An English deer stalker with a .243 and a shop-bought supply of 100-grain ammunition can lawfully engage any of the deer species that are in season at the time. It is true, of course, that the Scottish deer stalker may be inconvenienced if he wants to shoot an English roe deer and does not possess a .243 or other English legal deer rifle.
Most deer stalkers focus on the practical considerations. There are widely ranging views on the different calibres.

Duncan Grey, the owner of the Ben Damph deer forest and a lifetime red and roe deer stalker, thinks ‘treble two’ rifles are good calibres for roe. “They are lovely and light,” comments Duncan, “and this makes them very accurate, and accuracy is lethal.” Duncan has observed that adherents of treble twos are never ‘trigger shy’, whereas users of larger calibres such as the .270 can sometimes flinch and pull shots.

My young friend Miles Kaye, a ballistics enthusiast, likes the .22-250 for Scottish roe stalking. “No dramas and clean kills,” he reports, but he has concerns about the use of unsuitable varmint bullets against roe.

Jim Stewart in Sutherland favours .22 centrefires for roe because of their accuracy and avoidance of meat damage. Jim has used all calibres against roe over the years and hates the .308 for carcase damage. Jim is the only ‘pro’ I have canvassed who favours the lesser calibres.

Clean kill: It’s what every hunter wants, so make sure your calibre is big enough to allow you to achieve it

Lachie Smith of Highland Sporting– professional deer stalker and outfitter – has shot thousands of deer and witnessed the performance of numerous calibres on high and low ground against different species of deer. Lachie confesses to an enduring love affair with his .243. “If you can shoot straight, it will kill any animal in the UK,” he claims.

Lachie acknowledges that .22 centrefires are the rifles of choice for most gamekeepers and that they are “phenomenal vermin controllers – very acceptable among the boys.” He suggests that the familiarity of gamekeepers with .22 centrefire rifles makes them very confident and accurate, and that they derive great satisfaction from shooting deer with pinpoint accuracy.

Lachie himself has three issues with them. “Firstly, their bullets blow off quickly,” he says. “Secondly, if you are shooting a beefy beast and the bullet hits the shoulder blade, it may not penetrate fully – it’s half the weight of a .243 bullet. Thirdly, I would be concerned about using a .222 from a prone position on flat ground in a populated area. The lightweight bullets bounce like bumblebees.”
Dougie Tait, the well‑known Scottish Borders shoot operator, deer stalker and fisherman, could legally use a .22 centrefire for his roe deer and has done so, but now swears by his .25-06. He describes the .223 as “fine for foxes, but too light for roe” and has four colleagues who say the same. There are frequently high winds in the Cheviots, and Dougie points out that wind drift is much more likely to render the light bullet inaccurate than is the case with his heavier .25-06 missiles.

Readers will have noticed that the three professional stalkers favour more than the minimum calibre. If this is a general view in that respected constituency, there may just be a tiny concern that a few minimum calibre adherents are pushing the boundaries as to what is acceptable when it comes to the humane shooting of deer.

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4 comments on “How small is too small?
  1. Iain says:

    I went from .243 to 6.5×55 so that I can stalk anything that the UK has to offer.

    Plenty of practice with the one rifle, and only 140 grain ammo, means a solid combination that has yet to let me down

  2. Barry says:

    Knowing your quarry and your capabilies / limitations is key, a well placed bullet will do the job, well thats what more senior and experinced keepers told me when i started deer stalking.

  3. John Mark says:

    There is far too much debate over calibre, bullet weight, and anatomical target. Two factors are paramount for a clean kill:
    1. “The nut behind the butt”, that is the marksman, his or her experience and maturity.
    2. The energy of the bullet on impact. The late, great, Jack O’Connor said you need 10 foot pounds of energy per pound of animal. ( He didn’t say what to do when facing an elephant where his dictat requires an artillery piece!)
    Clearly, 1 and 2 can, to some extent, compensate for for each other’s inadequacies. So a professional stalker might be happy taking a hill Red using a .243 and a vital organ shot, but, on energy grounds, even a Fallow is too big for that calibre.

  4. Robert says:

    Deer species no matter what the physical size are tough animals , your better over gunned than under gunned.

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