Lee Watts on the importance of field craft

Lee Watts is a leading light in the slug ammo revolution, but acknowledges that basic hunting skills are the key to success in the field.

Changing back to pellets for a while proved to be a revelation, and Lee was soon eager to use them on a roving hunt

Sneaking around the fields with a spring-powered break-barrel used to fill me with excitement as a young airgun shooter. Walking the hedgerows under my dad’s watchful eye in the hope of bagging a rabbit for tea is a special memory that I will always cherish.

What I didn’t realise at the time was that it was the beginning of my subconscious studies in fieldcraft which, over the following years, would see me honing my stalking skills and gaining a greater understanding of my quarry’s behaviour. That learning experience is a massive part of shooting; it makes a huge difference to our success rate and is something none of us should ever neglect.

Air rifles have changed dramatically since I started out. The things these rifles can now do was unimaginable at the start of my shooting apprenticeship. Power and accuracy have now reached astonishing levels, and as a result the air rifle remains my first choice for most of my shooting.

As an FX Impact owner it wasn’t long before the slug scene got a grip on me. Experimenting with these projectiles soon became obsessive and took over the way I shot. Seeing what this ammo could achieve blew me away and I really wanted some of the long-range action.

There is no denying that slug ammunition has transformed the capabilities of air rifles. The distances they can shoot over and their energy retention is astonishing compared with a standard pellet. The potential for experimentation also seems to be endless, with different twist rates of rifling and infinite variations in ammo design to consider in the pursuit of ever-improving accuracy.

Although my results have been amazing, it is very apparent to me that the slug revolution has had a negative impact on my approach to hunting. The fact is that the ballistic gains have made me somewhat lazy, to the point that I began to lose touch with my fieldcraft skills.

Lee had a great time relearning the skills needed for close-quarters hunting – even when the weather wasn’t exactly favourable

Ranging out

Sitting behind a bipod and taking very long shots is sometimes necessary, especially on some of my difficult permissions where getting close to wary quarry in open fields is simply not an option. 

The fast speeds, flat trajectory and high ballistic coefficient of a slug really lends itself to this situation, especially when it’s windy, but I’ve noticed that I’m slipping into the habit of adopting this approach for most of my shooting. Rather than using fieldcraft skills to get in close and make opportunities when I should be able to, I’m choosing to sit well away and wait for a chance to present itself.

After a challenging stalk in the rain is successfully completed, Lee lines himself up to take the shot
Lee takes aim at a pigeon that’s pitched in a tree – he certainly wouldn’t take a steep shot like this when using slugs

The fact is that it’s all too easy to get sucked into the long-range airgun shooting craze that’s clearly on the rise, when in reality the job could be done far more effectively just by getting closer. It could also be argued that getting up close and personal with your quarry is far more rewarding than sniping it at extreme range.

There is also a very important safety aspect to consider. A slug can travel a long, long way and retain a lot of energy, so a miss could be catastrophic if a suitable backdrop is overlooked. Although less detrimental, expense is an important factor because good slugs cost a lot of money.

My favoured slugs are hand-swaged rounds from Wildman; they are very consistent in weight and expand well. 

This makes for accurate and humane shooting, but the labour-intensive production process means they cost a lot more than pellets, which is certainly something to think about when deciding if slugs are for you. 

Slugs are also very, very fussy and require a lot of patience to achieve the sort of accuracy we take for granted with an average pellet. They also need more speed, which means more power, which means more air, which means more cost and more strain on the working parts of the rifle. Slugs do have an important role to play in specialist hunting situations, and I remain one of their greatest exponents, but don’t overlook pellets – they have stood the test of time for good reason.

Track and field

After analysing my own recent choices of shooting tactics, I decided to load up with pellets and go back to the traditional stalking approach I seemed to have neglected. Rather than sitting and waiting for a rabbit to pop out down the field or a long-range pigeon to land in my strike zone, I decided to go and find them.

Did I enjoy it? You bet I did, racking up 15 rabbits, but scaring as many through being rusty and heavy-footed on the twigs. It really brought the excitement back to my shooting – a feeling I hadn’t had for a while. I also managed to pot a pigeon by sitting under some trees; something I wouldn’t dare do with a slug in case I missed!

Taking out-of-breath shots from my knee after a challenging leopard crawl or from an awkward fence post really do test your skills and make for a much more varied day. It also makes you realise where you need to brush up your skills – in my case, most of them.

Could I have shot those rabbits from further away with my usual approach? Some of them, yes, but I don’t think I would have had as many or as much enjoyment. Getting in closer also ensured clean kills and reduced the chance of a wounding shot. 

Another pest falls to Lee’s pellet approach – but he’ll be back on the slugs when targeting tricky permissions that demand long-range tactics

And then there are the shots that would have been left with my long-range setup simply because of the absence of a suitable backstop in the field. Choosing instead to try shooting safely at close quarters really did pay dividends.

Of course it is ok to shoot from longer distances. People always want to push the boundaries of their sport and I will certainly continue to. Slug ammo offers massive advantages, but there are many, many variables that have to be considered to get it right and do it safely and responsibly.

Evaluating the situation and making the right choice is the key factor. Plenty of us like to have that recorded long-range shot to show off to people, but it’s not going to be as impressive if the dangers of wounding are there for all to see. It may be all the rage on YouTube, but the complication and expense of buying and setting up specialist kit might not be the best choice.

What is of value to all live quarry shooters is constantly honing our fieldcraft, and it’s something you never stop learning. Adaptability is very important and most fieldcraft skills can be applied to a wide range of different hunting scenarios. Another thing I have discovered is that we all need to keep learning in order to get the best returns from our sport, not just in terms of bag size, but also enjoyment and satisfaction.

There is a time and a place for both the pellet approach and the slug approach, and I have certainly been reminded that there are times when I could have, and perhaps should have, done things differently. 

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