From .17 to .243, Mike Powell lines up the options to find out which best suits different foxing situations
Two questions I see crop up time and time again in shooting magazines or on the internet are what is the best calibre for foxes, and the distance at which you can shoot them.
Both of these queries have multiple answers and are further complicated by the circumstances in which the actual shooting takes place. Personally, what colours my choices is not the distance I am likely to shoot most foxes at, but where I am doing it.
To explain this in more detail, the starting point has to be the wide variation of countryside this island has to offer. For example, my good friend and colleague Mark Ripley shoots a lot of his foxes at distances I would be unlikely to even think about taking a shot at, because the land over which I shoot is totally different from the wide open downland Mark shoots over.
Few of the fields in the part of Devon I live and shoot in are much wider than 200 yards, and with the network of roads and other situations that present hazards to safe shooting, I have always reckoned that 200 yards is top whack range-wise.
I suppose too that having shot many thousands of foxes with a shotgun for their skins when I did it for a living, I have always endeavoured to get as close as I can before taking a shot.
I have said before that any rifle from an airgun up to a .243 centrefire, which could be classed as the biggest calibre normally used specifically for shooting foxes, is capable of killing a fox. I’ve heard of someone who has shot foxes into double figures using a 12ft/lb rated Air Arms S410.
All of them were shot in his garden at no more than 15 yards from an upstairs window, which gave a perfect view of the foxes’ heads. On the other end of the scale, I know an extremely good shot who is more than capable of dropping foxes out to 500 yards using a .243.
Of course, these are the extremes and nearly all foxes are shot somewhere in between – and it’s here that the controversy starts!
In my early years all my foxes were shot at very close ranges, most at around the 30-yard mark. I took considerable satisfaction in being able to get foxes at that range.
Today there seems to be an ever-growing desire to shoot foxes further and further away, and while I have absolutely no problem with this if it’s done by those who are capable of it, killing foxes at over 200 yards is hard enough in daylight, let alone at night.
However, in my own case much of my fox control work is done at quite close ranges and it’s here that, depending upon the individual circumstances, I find that a wide range of rifles come in handy.
Let me clarify what I mean when I say air rifles can be used on foxes. I have an FAC-rated Daystate in .22 calibre, with which I have shot the odd fox where necessity dictated.
This rifle is more than capable of putting a pellet through a 2cm pine plank that is substantially thicker than a fox’s skull; ‘skull’ is the important word here as that would be the only target I would contemplate when shooting a fox with such a rifle, and even then the range would have to be no more than 25 yards.
At that distance and knowing the rifle well, I would be confident of shot placement.
It’s certainly not my number one option, but there are occasional sensitive situations where it is called for. One recent one concerned a gent lives in one of a pair of cottages, and recently the next-door neighbour died and new people moved in.
These folk had come down from London to retire and immediately started feeding the local foxes and badgers! He wasn’t over pleased at having nightly visits from foxes, who came into the next-door garden for appetisers before looking for the main course in his!
Not wishing to have a major fall out, he rang me up to ask if I could help. Neighbourly relationships wouldn’t be helped by having a .243 let off within 20 yards of their living-room window so other tools had to be used.
Hatching a plan, I suggested that for a few nights he put out a small quantity of dog biscuits mixed with some cat food. I also put down a small quantity of fox-attracting scent (from Best Fox Call) on the pole of rotary washing line. A few nights later the chap rang me to say he had seen a fox eating the food in his garden, so I said I’d be over the following evening.
I rolled up just before dark and smuggled my Daystate Huntsman FAC air rifle, complete with PARD night vision, into his house. Later we went upstairs, where the spare bedroom window overlooked the garden, giving a perfect view of not only his lawn but next door’s as well.
After about half an hour, a decent-sized fox appeared next door where as usual some scraps had been left out. It was an ideal night, cold with some light rain, more than enough to deter people from a town being out and about.
Eventually the fox was joined by a badger, and at that stage it decided to see what was on offer next door. Squeezing its way through the hedge, it immediately started sniffing the washing line pole, at which point an Air Arms Diabolo Field Heavy .22 pellet entered the rear of its skull, killing it instantly. The pellet went right though and out the other side, at a range of less than 20 metres.
All this took place about a month ago and neighbourly relations are fine. The badgers are taking the food, the neighbours assume the fox is still coming, and my contact is a happy man again.
This is where a choice of rifles can be very useful, though even an FAC-rated air rifle couldn’t be described inherently as a ‘foxing calibre’. Let’s move up the scale…
Relatively recently the .17 calibres, especially the .17 HMR and the Hornet, have been getting a lot of publicity. With high velocity and light bullets, they are flat-shooting and extremely accurate.
However, the attributes that make them so attractive also produce certain problems, and that is where the controversy begins. Small, high-velocity calibres can be affected noticeably by the wind, though personally having used a .17 HMR and .17 Hornet I’ve never found this to have caused me any great difficulties, possibly because I don’t shoot at long distances.
Much of my shooting is done at night and when using the .17 HMR on rabbits I would guess that 90 per cent of the rabbits I shoot are well below 100 yards and at this sort of range the wind isn’t a factor. In any case, when driving round in the 4×4 I never know which direction the wind is coming from anyway!
When I take my .17 Hornet out for fox work it’s almost always where I know the range will be no greater than around the 150-yard mark. At this sort of distance, the relatively quiet report makes it ideal for use around habitation or in other sensitive situations.
Once you move up to what I would call a traditional fox round, the .223’s range is really limited only by your own abilities. The same goes for the .243.
I have absolutely no doubt that these two larger calibres are the best for the job of serious fox work, but as we know, shooters have their own favourites and there seems to be a trend towards smaller, faster calibres today. I don’t see any problem with this from an ethical shooting point of view provided that users of these smaller calibres realise their limitations.
I can only speak from my own experiences of shooting with a wide variety of calibres and I have no doubt that as is very often the case in life, a good big’un will generally beat a good little’un!
Today there are ‘crossover’ calibres – the rimfires and small-calibre centrefires that you would take out when setting off after rabbits, crows and the like, but not necessarily foxes, but if you come across one at ranges within the rifle’s capabilities as outlined above, they will do the job.
When going out on my fox control work I have a good idea of the sort of situation I am going to be dealing with, and it’s here that having a choice of rifles can be handy.
I have various people for whom I have been doing fox control for many years, and because I know both the land and the distances involved, I know the rifle that will be best suited for the job.
For instance, in the last week we have removed a lamb-killing fox with the .223 at around 130 yards and another with the same rifle at about 150 yards. My shooting partner had one with his .243 at 225 yards and I had two more with the .17 Hornet at 55 and 110 yards. Those two were close to habitation in ‘sensitive’ areas.
Modern, small calibre centrefires are lethal, accurate, relatively quiet and highly effective – as well as extremely enjoyable to shoot. But on foxes, they should always be used within sensible ranges – the .17 Hornet that will drop a rabbit at anything up to 300 yards will do the job on a fox at half that distance. As they say, horses for courses.
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