Tim Pilbeam heads to WMS Steel Challenge in Wales, which offers the chance to practise stalking techniques in conditions that can be as tough as any stalk
How effective is your highland stalking? Are you to able to practise in similar terrain? Can we teach someone new to stalking how to shoot properly in a fully supervised and safe environment? Do you know someone who does not fancy killing a live animal but enjoys shooting and stalking?
In my early days of using centrefire rifles, I practised on my flat fields in Sussex at distances between 100 and 200 yards, and hoped that when the beast appeared in front of me in the glens of Scotland, I had the ability to accurately dispatch it as quickly as possible. I hadn’t prepared for the intense cold, the fine drizzle making the optics blurred, and the fact that my lungs were bursting, causing the ghillie behind me to snigger at my apparent lack of fitness.
To simulate highland stalking, long, rocky, wet, steep hills are required, mixed with indifferent weather, so where can you go for a guaranteed safe environment not only for the stalkers, but also the general public? WMS in Wales.
Patron, proprietor and vastly experienced instructor in all aspects of animal control, including dangerous game for zoos, Andrew Venables is the man to visit. With over 5,000 acres of rolling mountains and rocky outcrops, he can offer a range of shooting experiences for anybody from a stag party to the highly experienced rifleman wanting to be tested at all ranges.
Andrew’s brief was simple. My deer stalking friends Matt and Chris and I wanted to walk and stalk a variety of animal targets, from distances of 50 to 300 yards, on a mixture of terrain. Despite arriving at 9am for the safety briefing, we were still sipping cups of tea and coffee at 11am thanks to the low cloud that had descended, reducing visibility to less than 100 yards. I knew it was going to be one of those days.
After an early lunch, gaps in the Welsh cloud gave us an opportunity to set off and spot some elusive roe deer, carefully positioned to test our observation techniques. As we walked along the shale track, a bright yellow roebuck appeared to our left – an easy one to start off with. Immediately, Matt, Chris and I dropped down and found a suitable shooting position. “Ok guys, how far away is it and what effect will this wind have on your point of impact?” asked Andrew in a calm voice. Up went the various rangefinding gizmos, but none of us had noticed the smiling face of our instructor. Something was up, and he knew it. “50 metres,” “75 yards,” “25 yards,” we replied, realising that the low cloud had rendered our optical aids totally useless. “Ok, discuss your gut feelings of the distance and then make your decision,” said Andrew.
Yellow Buck was positioned across a small valley with a narrow stream at the bottom and a young tree plantation to the right. We agreed a range of 175 yards would be suitable. We worked as a team – one shoots while the others spot – and it was soon apparent that Yellow Buck was actually about 120 yards away, with the first shot hitting a little high but just within the five-inch kill zone. The low cloud was obviously affecting our ability to judge distances. The wind was gusting to about 15mph from nine o’clock, but at that distance we all correctly allowed a maximum of 1-2in of movement.
The clouds lifted enough for Andrew to mention that there was another roe watching us, but at a longer distance. Could we see it? Ok, the mist did not help, but after some help from Andrew, we managed to spot ‘Rusty Roe’ standing sideways on to us, to the left of a small reservoir. Once again, the rangefinders were struggling. If this was a real stalk, we would have to wait for a chance to move closer to properly identify the animal and to guarantee a safer shot.
The low cloud was a nightmare, so we decided to stay put and make the most of the limited shooting window, but what was the correct range? “Maybe more than 250 yards,” “I reckon 300 at the most,” and “Is it 350-ish?” were our guesses, but the wind was now touching 20mph in the gusts from 7-8 o’clock, so this was going to test our skills to the limit.
At these longer ranges, the different calibres came into consideration. Chris and Matt’s 6.5x55s will shoot their 120-grain bullets at a much flatter trajectory (2,900fps) than the 150-grain bullets from my 16in-barrelled .308 at 2,600fps. The 6.5 is more efficient when travelling through the air, and will have 30 per cent less wind deflection than my slower and fatter .308. As anticipated, Matt’s first shot hit Rusty Roe but he had not allowed for any wind, resulting in a shot to the front of the animal, but at the correct height. “Windage six inches to the right,” shouted Chris, and Matt then held over to the left, making a perfect second shot.
Discussions soon ensued, detailing reasons why it is so important to learn about the capability of the shooter and the rifle in such arduous conditions as this. Taking long-range shots was quickly given the thumbs down, despite all of us having some of the best gear available on today’s market. Before moving onto Andrew’s next foray, Matt and Chris practised taking what some would consider controversial head shots from a shorter distance at Yellow Roe and then heart shots on Rusty Roe at 325 yards, under time constraints.
“Hills! Andrew, steep and long, please,” was my last request, so off we went to circulate the cold blood pumping around our cold bodies. I replaced the rifle for the camera gear, in pursuit of our next challenge. A half-hour climb followed and I was glad to be carrying the camera case and not the rifle.
For interest, I clipped on a heart rate monitor to see what walking up a steep hill does to the old ticker. I am a reasonably fit 50-year-old who plays competitive sports every week. From experience, my maximum heart rate is about 175 beats per minute (this depends on the individual and is not a reflection of fitness).This climb sent my heart rate up to a 155 – some 86 per cent of my maximum. This is extremely hard work, but superior fitness leads to quicker and smoother recovery – a vital ingredient for taking that well aimed shot.
We laid up on what I thought was a fairly steep hill, only to realise that it was an incline of 20 degrees. It felt like 35-40 degrees. Matt and Chris practised shooting down and across a small burn at distances between 200 to 250 yards, replicating a typical Highland stalking scenario. What about allowing for a higher point of impact when shooting downhill? At 200-250 yards on an 18-20 degree slope, to be honest, we proved it makes little difference – just aim on and pull the trigger.
As for steeper gradients, well, that’s another article. Trying to maintain a steady shooting position on slopes more than 18 degrees is not easy, especially when there are no rocks or knolls to rest the rifle on. Matt kept sliding down the slope and Chris cheated by taking advantage of the bank next to a loose scree slide.
I really enjoyed the session with Andrew, despite not being able to use many other animal targets owing to the low cloud, and can thoroughly recommend having a go. The simulated stalking at WMS allows people to experiment without fear of wounding an animal.
While practising on a local range is essential, there is no substitute for doing it in a harsh but safe environment, dealing with the vagaries of the weather and rough terrain. It is also a superb facility to test if your kit is up to the job. Is the rifle too heavy? Are the optics suitable for stalking? Are you fit enough to enjoy the experience?
I might suggest having half a day on simulated stalking and the other half day exploring the rest of the vast facility at WMS, shooting steel targets from 50 to 1,000 yards. Both Andrew and his colleague John are experienced instructors, always willing to help riflemen to improve their techniques and understanding of their kit.
For more information contact Andrew Venables at WMS at www.wms-firearmstraining.org or on 01686 413030 or Andrew’s mobile 07767 365804.