Tools for the hill

Picking a rifle to serve you well on a hind stalk is no easy task – but Byron Pace has some pointers to help you get it right.

Choosing the right rifle is always going to be hard. Whether it be your first or tenth, there are a lot of aspects to weigh up before you make a final decision.

The truth is, with new rifles it’s hard to get something truly bad. Even the cheapest budget modern rifle can shoot, and can sometimes outshoot much more expensive rifles. Of course they may still be found wanting in finesse and longevity.

In the UK we can rule out semi-auto fullbore rifles, as our laws don’t allow ownership. Single-shots don’t tend to be popular for stalking, though they are an option.

I currently have a Ruger No 1 sitting in the cabinet and find myself increasingly drawn to it. But in the main, the choice for a stalking rifle lies within the bolt-action genre. This can be split into turn-bolts and straight pulls.

I thought long and hard about the advantage or disadvantage of one type over the other for homeland applications, and overall I couldn’t truthfully suggest one is superior.

One could argue that for the travelling hunter who frequents European driven hunts, the speed and smoothness offered by straight pulls such as the Blaser R8 is a distinct advantage.

Indeed, many stalkers with no intention of ever heading out in pursuit of moving targets still opt for the Blaser system owing to its versatility and reputation. Equally, discussing push-feed or controlled-feed applications is largely irrelevant unless we get into the nitty gritty of big game hunting.

Yes, controlled feeds are more reliable, and push feeds are smoother, so build that into your decision if you feel it could swing it either way. My advice, however, would be to not let this design aspect alter the decision-making process for a stalking rifle – its level of importance ranks fairly low.

Rifle weight is a key concern for some. Think about how you will be using the rifle

It could be argued that we should split straight pulls and turn-bolts further into fixed and switch-barrel rifles – but many shooters buy rifles offering the option for multiple calibres and never actually add a second barrel.

The further we move from the most basic designs, the more money a rifle tends to cost. You won’t find a budget straight-pull, so if you’re looking for a rifle in that bracket, it simply isn’t an option. Add switch-barrels into the mix and again the price starts to bump up.

It’s a given that monetary constraints will form a constricting aspect to any buy, and in fact that makes life easier, immediately eliminating certain options. It is far harder to take a blanket look at the entire ‘off-the-shelf’ market with money no object.

Now you have to break down the pros and cons for types of rifle. This is actually quite a job with rifles, more so than shotguns, because the peculiarities of each rifle can vary considerably.

As I said earlier, straight pulls have become far more a standard choice in the UK – but equally, there are many seasoned shooters in Europe who still opt for standard bolt-action designs.

This leads me to the conclusion that it’s no longer necessary to split decisions by the action type unless you particularly dislike the operation of one over another.

Whether you need to fit a mod, and the associated weight implications, is another concern

If speed of operation is a motivation, it’s important to consider the calibre you wish to shoot. Keep in mind that switch-barrels, of which a number are also straight-pulls, are forced to opt for a longer action than may be necessary in order to accommodate for the possibility of chambering larger calibres.

If you are shooting the relatively short .308 Win family of cartridges, then a purposely designed, smaller action in a smooth turn-bolt can prove every bit as effective, if not more so in some cases. This is due to the reduced travel required while cycling.

Although it seems almost irrelevant given modern technologies and tolerances, it is worth noting that the old-fashioned turn-bolt tends in most cases to be a stronger, more reliable design, with less to go wrong or hamper operation.

Don’t misunderstand this comment as suggesting that straight pulls are liable to problems – just note that it’s reasonable to suggest that the simplicity of a turn bolt has less that can prevent operation.

Apart from the action length consideration of a switch-barrel, it is also worth scanning over the rifle specs. Generally, the extra machining and design required to offer such flexibility pushes up the ‘naked’ rifle weight.

As with any such statement, there are always going to be exceptions, and some turn-bolts weigh more. However, if you wish for a rifle at the extreme light end, you will need to look at a turn-bolt.

It is important not to get bogged down in brand names when looking at rifles. The choices are vast, and you need to stay focused and decide based on what you hold in your hands. Fairs and shows are the perfect opportunity to handle a potential shortlist and examine the look and feel of each one.

Decide if having a switch-barrel is important to you – if it is, your search is immediately refined. Do you have an action preference? This may halve the options again. Be sure to think about the little aspects as well. How is the trigger and is it adjustable?

The wooden-stocked version may be fantastic, but that’s not to say the synthetic stock is of the same standard. What is the mounting system like? Do you need open sights and does the rifle offer them?

The bottom line is that with any rifle, make sure you get a chance to handle it in the flesh. There is no substitute for that. 

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