Work your way through 60 years of Guns & Ammo and you can find stories about almost any type of firearm. Clear back in the 1960s, Elmer Keith often wrote about the “stalking rifle,” but he also wrote a lot about “stopping rifles.” One of Jeff Cooper’s hot buttons was the “scouting” or “scout” rifle. The stalking rifle is not a stopping rifle, nor is it a scout rifle. To some extent, they might be interchangeable, provided good gun fit and fast-handling capabilities.
The stalking rifle was born in the Scottish Highlands where, traditionally, red deer are neither sniped at long range nor ambushed from stands. They are stalked. Still, in Scotland, the red deer is a crop harvested by hunters. Antler quality is often not a concern. In fact, on many estates, better stags are left to breed. Only the stags with poor antlers are taken.
To this day, in the British lexicon “shooting” refers to shotgunning and “hunting” is running foxes with hounds. Stalking refers to pursuing four-legged game with a rifle. The point is the stalk, as in a hunter that works their way in to get as close as possible to their quarry. We’re not talking dangerous or extremely large game. In India, in the day of the Raj, it would have been chital (axis deer) and sambar. In Europe, it’s red deer and roebuck. American hunters would consider deer and perhaps elk to be the equivalent.
The stalking rifle needn’t be a big boomer. It must be light enough to carry and handy enough to crawl with, usually between 6 and 9 pounds. Arguably most important, when it comes up, it must be right-on for the way you see the field, so stock fit is personal and important.
The classic form of the stalking rifle came out of the English gun trade a century ago. Slender of barrel, it was chambered to a moderate but versatile cartridge suitable for shooting to a couple hundred yards, sometimes a bit more. It might possibly be a .25-caliber or 6.5mm, perhaps on up to .318 Westley Richards or .338 Federal. In that range would certainly be today’s 6.5 Creedmoor or 6.5x55 Mauser, the 7mm-08 Remington and the old 7x57 Mauser.
Walter “Karamojo” Bell didn’t hunt only elephants with his .275 Rigby-chambered rifles. His ivory earnings bought him an estate in Scotland where he avidly stalked red deer. Several of the six .275 rifles he purchased from Rigby never even saw Africa.
Before World War II, a stalking rifle would have a multiplicity of folding leaf sights or perhaps a cocking piece aperture sight. The height of comb would accommodate these metallic sights. However, we live in the scope era. Today, a stalking rifle can be stocked for either irons or optics, but no height of comb can properly accommodate both. Most contemporary stalking rifles will be scoped, but since long-range shooting is not anticipated, big scopes are not necessary — and they can ruin the clean lines of a rifle, as well as add bulk and weight.
For optics, I consider a stalking rifle to offer a power range between a 1.5X and 6X, and a 3X to 9X variable power. One of my favorites is a scope with 2X to 7X magnification.
Rigby Highland Stalker
The new, retro-styled Highland Stalker is the ultimate stalking rifle. It’s a beauty built with great walnut, using a Mauser action that’s been adapted for scope mounts and auxiliary Express sights with folding leaves. Naturally, chamberings include the .275 Rigby, as well as .30-’06 Springfield, 8x57mm Mauser and 9.3x62mm. Such a rifle is useful for much hunting.
The traditionalist side of me screams that a stalking rifle should be stocked in good wood. The practical side says stock material doesn’t matter. A step further: Since stalking often involves creeping and crawling, scratch-resistant and weather-impervious stock materials clearly support the concept. So long as it fits, this doesn’t matter. Any moderately light rifle of reasonable versatility that comes up fast and smooth on target can be called a “stalking rifle.”
Let’s be real.
Continuing on the practical side, today a lot of American deer hunting is done from stands, likewise in Europe, a lot red and roebuck hunting. From the purist’s view, stand-hunting is not stalking. However, that’s not the point. A proper stalking rifle can certainly be employed in stand hunting. However, a good stand-hunting rifle is not necessarily an ideal stalking rifle. The differences are subtle, but real.
The AR-platform is America’s best-selling rifle. It is fun to shoot, accurate and, in the right chamberings, a great hunting rifle, but no semiautomatic is a proper stalking rifle. In treestand hunting you secure the rope around the rifle, climb up, pull the rope up and get comfortable. Oops, now you must ready the rifle. Clack, clack, as your teeth grit in horror within a silent forest. There is simply no way to silently charge a semiauto. Slide-actions and the all-American lever-actions are almost as bad.
Stalking is a different game. You are moving quietly. As you negotiate obstacles such as fences, logs and boulders, you may load and unload a dozen times. To my thinking, the only proper stalking rifles are bolt-actions and single-shots. Semiautos, slide actions and most lever-actions are too difficult and too noisy to repeatedly clear and then reload. With a bolt action or single shot, you can slowly and quietly snick the bolt back or open the action, retrieve and recover the chambered cartridge, then slowly and quietly reload, engage the safety and continue on. When the chamber is loaded, port-arms carry is again appropriately safe.
One in the chamber?
The business of stalking creates innumerable ongoing dilemmas as to when a rifle should have the chamber clear or be fully loaded and on “safe.” The old British alternative to the stalking rifle built around the Mauser action was a single-shot. At the tail end of the blackpowder era, there were many great single-shot actions. In America, we had the Browning Model 1885, the Sharps and Remington Rolling Block. In Great Britain, the Farquharson rifle, the Martini-Henry and more. Bill Ruger unabashedly drew from the Farquharson when he introduced his Ruger No.1 in 1966. The No.1 has been chambered to cartridges suitable for everything from small varmints to the most dangerous game.
I’ve owned many single-shots in numerous chamberings, set in both walnut and synthetic stocks. A modern single-shot in an acceptably versatile cartridge may be the ultimate stalking rifle. It is either fully loaded or completely empty, ideal for creeping and crawling. When the time comes to load up, this can be done almost silently.
The Perfect Stalker
For me, the so-called “perfect” bolt-action stalking rifle was built on the British pattern: A left-hand Montana action by Todd Ramirez (customgun.com). It’s stocked for low-scope mounting, but fitted with express sights. I also have a Ruger No. 1 Light Sporter in similar nick, and a Dakota Model 10 single-shot with a longer barrel and awesome wood. It is not entirely coincidence that all three of these rifles are chambered in 7x57 Mauser.
However, dozens of other cartridges and rifles would fill the bill. All that’s needed is reasonable accuracy and moderate range, a stock that enables fast acquisition, and near-silent operation.
In Kansas last year, my old friend Jason Morton of CZ-USA showed up with a CZ 527 chambered in 6.5 Grendel. On the first night, he flattened an awesome buck with a 100-yard shot. OK, in purist terms he took that buck from a stand, not by stalking. Even so, his rifle was a proper stalking rifle.
Rigby Highland Stalker Specs
- Type: Bolt action
- Caliber: .275 Rigby (tested)
- Capacity: 5 rds.
- Barrel: 22 in., 1:8.66-in. twist
- Overall Length: 44 in.
- Weight: 7 lbs., 8 oz.
- Stock: Turkish walnut, Grade 5
- Grips: Round, checkered
- Length of Pull: 14.75 in.
- Finish: Blued (steel); oiled (walnut)
- Trigger: 2 lbs., 14.2 oz. (tested)
- Sights: Bead, ramped (front); Express, regulated for 65, 150 and 250 yards (rear)
- Safety: 3-position
- MSRP: $8,600
- Manufacturer: John Rigby & Co., johnrigbyandco.com