Tim Weston tackles the controversial subject of head-shooting deer, and says it sometimes does have its place when the right skill sets and equipment are applied in certain scenarios
The historian David Jones recently wrote an article in the sporting press about First World War recruiting officers looking for professional gamekeepers and deer stalkers to make up sniper battalions. This was because, as a whole, they were experienced with firearms and expert shots with a rifle. Indeed, often in the First World War, it was very much the estate laird who would be a senior officer, with his sons usually making company officers or subalterns, and the estate gamekeepers and stalkers being the sergeants and corporals.
Major Hesketh Prichard MC DSO (great grandfather of former Sporting Rifle editor Charlie Jacoby) did much to turn the tide of the sniper war, which the enemy pretty much had the monopoly of midway into the conflict. The major was a noted big game hunter, adventurer and sportsman of his time. Through Prichard’s dedication and innovative ideas, the British soon had the upper hand. Seeking the best shots for his specialist sniper training programme, he sought out gamekeepers and stalkers, because these professionals already had the qualities he desired.
When one looks at today’s shooting professionals outside of the military, it seems not much has changed since then. Full-time keepers and stalkers are still at the top of the tree when it comes to marksmanship in most instances. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking, I think that is a fair statement. It is simple really, as a full-time stalker or keeper will be using a firearm on an almost daily basis, so they will be well practised with its use. Indirectly, their livelihoods depend on their results, so there is a high incentive to become proficient.
As modern technology has improved along with firearms, cartridges and bullets, keepers and stalkers have been able to raise the bar and shoot animals more humanely. Telescopic sights and moderators can improve our accuracy and comfort, but there is still no substitute for practice. Familiarity with your shooting ground and firearm, as well as an intimate knowledge of your quarry and its habits, will put more game in the larder. But most importantly of all, we should know what our limits are.
If we are rabbit shooting, for example, most people will go for a head shot – but why? It is simple; there is less meat damage, and it is usually a hit or miss scenario. The same can be said for hares and in some situations foxes, but it can also apply to deer. However, mentioning deer in an article like this will usually result in an inundation of letters, emails and phone calls from stalkers saying we really shouldn’t be head shooting at all. Personally my thoughts are echoed in an earlier sentence: “Most important of all we should all know our limits.” In some circumstances, within one’s limits head shots are applicable.
I don’t often head shoot myself, but there are certain circumstances when it can be the safest and most humane shot. Head shooting is very effective if done correctly, but it is not something to be undertaken lightly, and that goes for any species.
Why is more weight put on one species of animal than another? I think it has a lot to do with the ‘big brown eye’ effect and a vocal group of the shooting community who have their sport’s best interest at heart. It is similar to high pheasant shooting: if you are not capable, please don’t do it. You can learn and earn the skills to become a better shot by practice with either rimfire rifle, a shotgun or a centrefire rifle. David Beckham didn’t just get good at taking free kicks – he had some talent already and worked hard to perfect it.
Head shooting isn’t without possible pitfalls. You can get it wrong, and with deer for example, it leaves little blood for a follow-up. So the simple answer is, of course: do not get it wrong. Again this comes with practice, knowing your quarry’s anatomy and habits, plus your kit and your own ability.
Shooting any species should be done as humanely as possible, no matter where you are aiming, but we also have other factors that include meat damage and possible contamination. No type of shooting is foolproof, and heart or lung shots can go equally as wrong as can neck shots.
It is head shooting, however, that tends to get the bad press, even when performed correctly, and I feel that it shouldn’t. As I have said earlier, I rarely head shoot, but if it is required and is the best shot at the time, I will do it. Industry professionals will find they have to consider head shooting more often than amateur enthusiasts owing to the nature of their work.
The British countryside doesn’t have hundreds of wounded foxes, deer and small game running around, because generally we all shoot within our limits and most shooters do know their quarry. This is a real plus point, as sporting shooters we are generally sensible and shoot within our own abilities; however, professional shooters such as keepers can take this to an even higher level.
If we are incapable or uncomfortable with head shooting ourselves, we certainly shouldn’t criticise someone for taking a head shot, if it is safe and for the right reason. As long as we are shooting within our ability and limits, we will all keep killing humanely.
It is very easy to condemn another, but we should carefully cover all scenarios before we voice a knee-jerk opinion or biased comment. Not to do so makes us little better than the many ignorant politicians who have hurt our sport by doing very much the same thing in the past. Head shooting isn’t a black and white issue, as I have hopefully shown, many variables apply and to dismiss it out of hand as plain wrong is, I believe, fundamentally flawed. It might not be wrong, but as with all tricky and controversial shots, head shooting is best left to the professionals.