We can probably agree that the “stalking rifle” has its origins in the British gun trade, and that in its classic form it’s a beautiful and beautifully light little rifle with origins almost certainly pre-dating smokeless powder (if not self-contained cartridges). But the exact definition, if there is one, is a bit more elusive.
As George Bernard Shaw said (and Churchill restated), the Brits and the Americans are “one people divided by a common language,” so in order to understand the “stalking rifle” we need to first turn to the British usage of the word “stalking.” In proper British sporting terms, “shooting” means shotgunning for birds. “Hunting” means riding to the hounds. And here, in my initial understanding, is where I messed up. “Stalking” refers to pursuing big game with a rifle. Yes, except, in the proper English lexicon, “big game” implies large and sometimes dangerous game hunted else where, formerly India, today Africa and even North America. So “stalking” in its purest sense means hunting four-legged game afoot in the British Isles: Red deer, roebuck, introduced species such as sika, muntjac, and more. Yep, you guessed it: The bottom line on a “stalking rifle” is that it’s primarily a deer rifle!
THE BENCHMARK: BELL AND CORBETT
Something that makes this revelation even more interesting is that the two most famous of all stalking rifles were grossly misused! Although I’m being totally arbitrary in my coronation of these two rifles, is there anyone out there who wants to argue? I’m thinking of rifles owned, used, and written about by Walter Dalrymple Maitland “Karamoja” Bell and Jim Corbett. Both used other rifles, but I’m thinking about their .275 Rigby rifles. It is coincidence that both were .275s (a.k.a.7×57 Mauser), and equal coincidence that both were made by Rigby. Certainly Holland’s and the other great British makers had equally suitable choices.
Bell, however, was definitely a Rigby guy, according to factory records commissioning 13 Rigby rifles between 1906 and 1938. Six of those were .275s, starting with a pair in 1910and finishing with a takedown in 1923. Jim Corbett was neither a Rigby guy nor a “gun guy,” but through much of his career he had at least two very good rifles available, a double in .400 Jeffery; and a bolt-action .275 Rigby, the latter presented to him in 1907 for killing the Champawat man-eating tigress. My heretical reference to the misuse of these
.275 stalking rifles is pretty obvious: Bell was an ivory hunter, and he used his .275s for elephant as well as the Scottish stags he pursued in his later years. Corbett was just a hunter, skilled enough that he was called upon to “handle” several of India’s most infamous man-eaters. Typically he used his double .400 for tiger and his .275 for leopard and other game, but there was crossover based on what he was carrying, so his little .275accounted for man-eating tigers as well. Such uses brought fame to the cartridge and the gunmaker…but were well outside the strictest intent for a “stalking rifle.”
In the blackpowder era the “express” cartridges were almost certainly developed with deer stalking in mind: An extra-light hollowed lead bullet in front of a stiff charge of black-powder offered higher velocity and flatter trajectory, but it was quickly learned that light-for-caliber projectiles reached their limit on deer-sized game!
It wasn’t long before the British gunmakers started offering their
own cartridges. The .275 Rigby, understanding Rigby’s then-exclusive arrangement with Mauser, was nothing more(nor less) than a British designation for the7x57. Except: Rigby’s fast 140-grain load was primarily intended as a deer load, a whole different deal than the 175-grain steel-jacketed solids Bell preferred. Holland & Holland had their .240, .244, and .275; Purdey had their .246; Gibbs had a .256 Magnum; Jeffery had a .280; and so forth. There were also somewhat larger calibers: Jeffery’s .333 made history, as did Westley Richards’ .318.
Regardless of cartridge, caliber, action or even what type of game the rifle was ultimately used for, the stalking rifle developed as a light, handy rifle that was modest in caliber. While “stalking” implies deer hunting first and fore-most, the word also implies a simple ethic that, at least at one time, was also common in the North American game fields: “Git as close as you kin, then git ten yards closer.” Marc Newton, Rigby’s Managing Director, amplified the thought: “The stalking rifle is the mark of a gentleman…it’s actually part of a process, killing to hunt, not hunting to kill. As a form the rifle speaks of the art of hunting.”
Interestingly, at this moment neither Rigby nor any of England’s other famous makers currently offer a “stalking rifle” as standard, although I know such is under consideration. Technically, I suppose you could take any reasonably lightweight, medium-caliber rifle and call it a “stalking rifle,” and you would certainly be within the intent. But, despite the obvious similarities and identical capabilities, I have a little trouble comparing a synthetic-stocked American production rifle in, say, 6.5mm Creedmoor with a century-old Holland & Holland 6.5mm or a .275 Rigby.
In its purest form, the “stalking rifle” is probably stocked in walnut and probably carries iron sights. But it is perfectly within bounds for it to be scoped. While I don’t mean to imply that John Rigby either created or owned the concept, they made a lot of .275s. This, plus fame gained from use by Bell and Corbett, makes a Rigby/Mauser perhaps the archetypical form of the stalking rifle. I asked my friend Simon Barr at Tweed Media to dig up a few photos of some vintage examples. He sent me photos of eight different Rigby “stalking rifles.” They are all similar in appearance, with slim, trim stocks that perhaps have a bit too much drop at heel for ideal use with scope sights. However, four of the eight are scoped (though probably not when they left the factory the first time). More interesting, however, is that fully five of the eight rifles have aperture sights on the cocking piece (in addition to express rear sights on the barrels). Only one of the eight has a flat pistol grip cap; the rest have rounded “Prince of Wales” pistol grips. Of these eight rifles, six are .275s. One, though otherwise visually indistinguishable, is a .303. That must have taken a bit of work to get the rimmed cartridge to feed from its Mauser ’98 action! The eighth rifle is rollmarked “7×57” vice .275Rigby…perhaps for a German customer? Only two of the eight had recoil pads; the rest had steel buttplates.
The rifles that were scoped carried vintage low-power scopes, but even today a scope on a proper stalking rifle would probably not be of extreme size or magnification, because the intent is to get as close as possible rather than snipe at longer ranges. Old or new, the stalking rifle will not wear a muzzle brake because its modest cartridges shouldn’t require recoil attenuation. However, as is so common in much of Europe today, I suppose there are examples out there that have barrels threaded for a suppressor to reduce noise pollution!
SO, WHAT’S IT FOR?
By today’s standards a cartridge with a bit more reach and a rifle with a bigger scope are probably more suitable in mountains, plains and deserts. And despite the uses Bell and Corbett put their .275s to, a properly chambered, light-recoiling stalking rifle is probably at its limit with red deer, elk and African plains game up to perhaps kudu and zebra.
Even those limitations leave open a whole world of hunting! I long admired from afar the sleek lines of the classic stalking rifle, but it was in England, 20-odd years ago, that I fell in love. I went over for a summer roebuck hunt, and Paul Roberts, then Managing Director of Rigby, loaned me a vintage stalking rifle in .275. It was a pure joy to carry and use…I had to have one!
Of course, being left-handed, that was easier said than done. Some years later Todd Ramirez made me a gorgeous “stalking rifle” on a left-handed Mauser action. It has the look and feel of the real deal: Light and trim, good express sights, detachable mounts, nice wood stained dark in English style, skeleton pistolgrip cap and buttplate. It’s the nicest rifle I’ve ever owned, and I’ve used it a lot…but not for everything. . I try, though not always with success, to keep it out of the roughest country, and I try to keep it out of situations where I might have to range past 250 yards. But that still allows a lot of use. It’s my “go to” whitetail rifle in wooded country, and I’ve used it in on all the continents. Donna, who is also left-handed, has used it quite a bit as well. Between us it’s accounted for red deer, roebuck, tahr, chamois, a variety of African game…and a whole bunch of deer! And, just once, with a 175-grain solid, I used it on buffalo!
Any great American custom gunmaker can certainly make a rifle on the “stalking rifle” pattern, as can any good English or Continental maker. But there are lots of other options. Again, it’s a concept, a mindset, not a specific rifle. I would submit that a vintage Savage 99 in .250 Savage is a perfect fit as an “all-American stalking rifle!” Likewise a Ruger Number One Light Sporter…I have one in 7×57:Iron sights, detachable scope, barrel-mounted forward sling swivel. And what about the incredibly sleek, light Dakota Model 10? Or any of the several single-shot “Stutzen” rifles from the Continental makers? Is there anyway to characterize them other than as“stalking rifles?”
In the bolt-action world, there are many departures. Synthetic is more popular today than good old walnut, and many of us (me included, sometimes!) worship at the throne of velocity. Good iron sights seem almost an anachronism, and scopes keep getting bigger and bigger. But there are still plenty of light, trim over-the-counter bolt-actions, both domestic and imported, that absolutely fill the bill, certainly in spirit as well as utility, if not elegance or appointment. Think about good old American standbys like the Remington Model Seven, Winchester Model 70, and Ruger M77 Hawkeye. Think about mild, easy-to-shoot cartridges like the .260 and 7mm-08 Remington, 6.5mm Creedmoor, and of course the .308 Winchester. Think about crawling through the sagebrush after a pronghorn or mule deer, or still-hunting the timber for a whitetail. While you want versatility, you don’t need extreme reach. Instead you need a rifle that’s as easy to crawl with as it is to carry, and will come up fast and on target when you get the shot…after you get ten yards closer to your quarry!–Craig Boddington