This is my rifle

James Sutcliffe

James Sutcliffe

James Sutcliffe is BASC’s deer officer. He has over 10 years’ experience of recreational and professional deer stalking and gamekeeping. He has spent time guiding in New Zealand and managing wild boar and red stags in Germany. James is a keen rifle and shotgun shooter who enjoys working his Labradors throughout the game shooting season.

There is an interesting trend that I am noticing in the shooting world. That is the increasing number of “tactical” styled rifles showing up in the field.

Whilst this is an interesting enough occurrence, recently I have heard of a number of Police licensing services attempting to pass their own brand of judgement on a particular rifles suitability for deer stalking based purely on how it looks. Add to that the number of comments I received about an advert in the latest BASC magazine showing a chap shooting an AK47, it all prompted a bit of debate between myself and a few fellow stalkers, and I thought that I would put some of these thoughts on paper. 

What do we mean by a 'tactical' rifle

Firstly, what am I on about when I’m talking about a “tactical” or “military styled” (to quote one firearms enquiry officer I spoke to) looking rifle? After all, just about every feature we know and love about our guns has come about because of military innovations.

Everything from telescopic scopes to detachable magazines and synthetic stocks were developed for service use, and most of the calibres we obsess over in the stalking world are either civilian versions of a military cartridge or can trace their lineage back to a military cartridge being modified.

Very popular cartridges, including .30-06, .308, 6.5×55, .223, are all military calibres and even things like the .243 can trace their roots back to one (.243 is a modified .308 case which is in turn a modified .30-06 case, both military calibres).

For the most part, I believe we’re talking about either the heavy “sniper” style of rifle, usually bedded into a chunky tactical stock with a very angular and purposeful design with near vertical pistol grip and high comb, or one of the multitudes of “precision” rifles that are becoming ever more popular.

These rifles tend to share a similar style of having a metal chassis as opposed to a normal stock (this allows for the maximum rigidity and barrel free-floating), a stand-alone pistol grip and usually a highly adjustable butt section.

There are of course far more than just these two styles. For instance, the huge array of semi-auto AR-15s in .22lr and even the vast choice of ex-service rifles – like the Lee Enfield – that some people still use for deer stalking.

Radically-styled rifles

So, why are we seeing so many of the more “radically” styled rifles out in the countryside pursuing our resident quarry species?

It’s a very tricky thing to answer, as I’m sure everyone has their own reasons. To boil it all down and put it in a nutshell, I would say that the main reason would be due to the accuracy potential of these styles of rifles.

Both the more traditional style of tactical rifle and the precision rifle type are known to have excellent potential for shooting very accurately and with the capability of shooting out to very long ranges. There are a huge number of factors that contribute to this not least of which is that they are likely far heavier than your traditional stalking rifle. 

Purely based on my own experiences, a heavy rifle is far nicer to shoot than a lightweight one as recoil is reduced and therefore so is the chance you’ll start flinching.

The stock or chassis will be very stiff with little to no flex, so consistency between shots is all but guaranteed. Quality heavy barrels, crisp triggers and the potential to adjust the stock to perfectly fit you all add to the fact that these rifles can, usually, shoot very well.

In all likelihood, your average bolt action sportier rifle will perform equally as well at most normal stalking distances. However, there is something to be said for the confidence boost of knowing the full accuracy potential of your rifle. I’m not saying we should all run out and swap our Sako for an Accuracy International, but I do understand this side of the appeal.

There is also the fact that a lot of people will want to use one rifle across the various disciplines they shoot. With target shooting competitions like precision rifle shooting becoming more popular (and using cartridges that are equally suited to taking down a deer humanely) it stands to reason that we are seeing a crossover in how the rifles are being used.

Personally, I could not care less what a rifle looks like.

Do 'tactical' rifles have a place in the British countryside?

This is the question that will likely divide people the most, and there are a few factors to take into account.

There are those who will swear that tactical or precision rifles are the best for everything and there will be others who think that if it’s not got a wooden stock and blued barrel it doesn’t belong in the shooting field.

While I’m pitched on the side of the debate that has no problem at all with this type of rifle, even I will say that there are a few instances where a bit of discretion would be advised.

If, for example, you stalk in an area with a lot of public access then prepare for a few more nervous looks when you encounter one of them.

We all know that how a rifle looks has very little to do with anything, but to your average town-dwelling dog walker, the black metal, army-look rifle on your back might just be a bit much to get their head around.

Some areas or leases may well outright ask you not to use such rifles for this very reason.

We stalk an area of woodland that is heavily used by the public as well as very close to several major military bases. We are even told what type of camouflage clothing we can wear to avoid distressing the public, so you can see how turning up with a rifle that looks like its straight out of Call of Duty might ring some serious alarm bells.

A question of weight

Whilst I wouldn’t opt for such a rifle for deer stalking purely down to the weight, I do use a customised Tikka for fox control which is more on the outlandish side in terms of looks. I also own and regularly use a .22 AR-15 type rifle for pest control, purely for the fact that it is highly adaptable, customisable, accurate and is ideal for use with night vision for controlling rabbits in the dark.

As a stalking guide, the main things I’m looking for when a client gets their rifle out are that firstly it’s a deer legal calibre that they have on their certificate for stalking use. They should know how to handle it safely and be familiar with all the relevant controls on the rifle. Of course, they should also shoot it to an acceptable level of accuracy. The way it looks doesn’t factor.

As I touched on before, the rifle is going to be slung on the shoulder for far more time than its being shot. So, provided they don’t mind lumping it around for as many miles as it takes and are right where I need them to be when its time to take a shot, I’m not bothered in the slightest about how the rifle looks.

The key is just to practice and familiarise yourself when getting your hands on a new rifle.

I have noted a few downsides of alternative rifle choices, however.

In one instance the rifle was so heavy that it took an age to get it up on the sticks, long enough that the deer had moved on. Its very easy to get carried away bolting things onto the picatinny rails or M-Lok slots that a lot of these rifles have, not to mention a huge scope in this instance, so make sure to keep an eye on the overall weight of a rifle! If it gets to the point where you can’t handle it effectively and fast enough for normal stalking situations, you might want a rethink…

Carrying the weight of expectation

On a slightly more light-hearted side, but still a valid point, if you turn up to the range or on a stalk with a rifle that looks like it should be able to shoot the head off a pin at 800 yards and proceed to turn in a bad group or even, heaven forbid, miss a shot altogether, prepare for some serious ridiculing!

I compare it to turning up to a clay ground with a high-rib, adjustable, Olympic spec shotgun and turning in a bad score card. Not the end of the world by any means but expect a bit of mick-taking.

 A rifle that looks like a serious shooting machine carries an expectation that it will perform to match. Most rifles these days, not least the high-end precision rifles, will be able to shoot far more accurately than most people can get out of them.

The key is to practice, don’t buy the best and expect the rifle to do the work for you, you still need to do your bit.

There is no substitute for range time to get used to it, and I’m a big advocate for dry firing tests to get used to the trigger pull and break (I would always recommend using a snap cap and in rimfire rifles they are essential to avoid damaging the firing pin or barrel face).

Overall, what rifle you buy and use is down to you. Whilst there may be certain and very specific times you can’t use a “tactical” looking rifle, for the most part the decision is yours.

As I have mentioned, be prepared to carry a bit more weight and endure some funny looks, but the benefits are there to be had if you can put up with that.

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