Paul Harding tries to answer a question often asked in incredulous tones by stalkers: Can single-shot rifles really be suitable for stalking?
It began some years ago at a sporting rifle competition. The course of fire was 10 shots at a roe deer target fired from various positions, similar to the requirements of DSC level 1. The competitors were firing a mix of single-shot and lever action magazine rifles – and the competition was won with a Ruger No 1 single-shot.
One competitor, who had been using a Marlin lever-action magazine rifle chambered in .444 Marlin, asked whether single-shot rifles could ever really be used for deer. He said that he much preferred the capacity for multiple, fast follow-up shots when stalking.
Since then, the subject of single-shot rifles on deer has often come up – sometimes in a tongue-in-cheek manner – among a circle of stalking friends. Clearly, single-shot rifles are perfectly adequate to win sporting rifle competitions. On top of that, they are deemed effective enough to allow the user to qualify for DSC level 1. But are they really suitable for use on live quarry?
I will happily state that I am a great fan of single-shot rifles, in particular the Ruger No 1. That said, my first deer rifle was a Tikka M65 chambered in .270 Win – in fact, it is still my preferred deer rifle. I have had it for over 20 years and would not wish to be without it for stalking and range use. It shoots well at 1,000 yards when suitably loaded. I also own .222 Rem and .22LR bolt-action rifles, so am in no way biased.
Most deer stalkers choose a bolt-action rifle, and you can’t really fault them for it. This style of rifle is justifiably accepted as generally being accurate, easy to handle and available in many configurations. With a magazine capacity of four or five, it provides the fast second or third shot that some stalkers like to have in reserve.
So let’s consider the basic requirements of a deer stalking rifle, particularly for the most common type of stalkers: enthusiastic amateurs, not professional deer managers or foresters. The rifle should be sufficiently accurate, available in a reasonable selection of suitable calibres and relatively easy to handle in field conditions. Given the popularity of bolt-action rifles, I think that we can accept that this type meets the requirements. But how do single-shot rifles measure up against these criteria?
My own experience does not include single-shot rifles of break-open design or combination guns – though these can certainly be accurate and are the choice of some stalkers who fancy something a little different. This discussion is limited to the falling block action that many shooters will recognise.
I have owned four Ruger No 1 rifles chambered in .22-250, 6mm Rem, .45/70 and .416 Rem Mag. I am happy to say that all are capable of minute-of-angle accuracy or better. I also have a .45/70 Pedersoli reproduction Sharps rifle that will shoot better than two minutes of angle. It’s not everyone’s choice as a stalking rifle and loads have to be carefully selected, but given open sights its accuracy is certainly more than adequate.
Single-shot rifles are available chambered to take deer-suitable cartridges from .243 Win to .45/70. If you fancy a rifle for muntjac, Chinese water deer and foxes, you could choose a .22 centrefire cartridge.
Ease of handling
Single-shot rifles handle very well, coming to the shoulder like a shotgun. Weight distribution is good, providing a well balanced rifle. In addition, owing to the comparatively short action of a falling block design, the overall length versus barrel length is reduced, providing a rifle that is more comfortable when negotiating low branches in woodland. The addition of a bipod and/or a moderator will, of course, add weight and affect the rifle’s balance.
My Ruger No 1 chambered in 6mm Rem with a 26in barrel measures 42¼in – only 1in longer than my .270 Win Tikka with its short 21in barrel. Even better is my .45/70 Ruger No1 with an overall length of 38¼in.
Typical bolt-action rifles with standard-length action and a 24in barrel will measure 44½in. I know which I would prefer to regularly carry in a woodland situation.
At the beginning of this piece I mentioned the requirement for fast follow up shots. I firmly believe that all stalkers should practise as often as possible, either on a range or on other suitable ground. This ensures the rifle remains correctly zeroed, and just as importantly, we gain confidence in our ability to place the first bullet in the correct position in our target. This practice should include any firing position that we are likely to use when stalking live quarry, preferably using a deer target on a simple wood frame and a good backstop. A well-placed first shot reduces the likelihood of a follow-up shot being required.
Anyone who is familiar with their rifle, either bolt-action or single-shot, should be able to reload and take a deliberate aimed follow-up shot at a deer after determining that the animal may not be incapacitated by the first shot. It is possible that not having a magazine of four or five cartridges available concentrates the mind of the shooter on making the first shot count. This may be the case, but rushed first and follow-up shots no doubt result in poor bullet placement and excessive meat damage.
If it’s follow-up shots you’re worried about, the use of a cartridge holder on the rifle butt greatly enhances the quick reload of a Ruger No 1. When shooting prone, you may find this less easy to achieve – the underlever will be poking into the ground and you may have to reach awkwardly for the next cartridge. But when shooting from a high seat, standing or kneeling, this is not a problem.
Having used single-shot Ruger No 1 rifles for deer stalking over the last 15 years or so, I do not feel in any way inadequately armed when out in the woods after deer. In 20 years of stalking I have shot muntjac, roe, fallow and red deer with both bolt-action and single-shot underlever rifles, with the single-shot accounting for more than half the deer I have taken.
If you are not one to always follow the crowd, or perhaps as in my case when considering a second or subsequent rifle, please do not overlook the single-shot option. You may well become hooked, as I have.