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Firearms are tools called on to deal with the three Ps: pests, predators and parting with livestock



Before she moved to her southern Ontario farm, Aileen Dancey was a live-and-let-live sort. “I probably wouldn’t have even thought about guns, to be quite honest,” says the former social worker. When racoons turned her fluffy little chicks into midnight snacks and foxes treated her hens as take-out dinners, Dancey turned the other cheek.

She left loaves of stale bread by the fox’s den, hoping it would leave the chickens alone. Instead, the fox treated the bread as a go-with, like the like the dinner roll at Swiss Chalet.

So Dancey borrowed her brother’s single-shot .22 rifle, and started taking target practice.

Soon the fox was on the run, hot lead whistling past his ears. A thieving racoon bit the dust. “That was one racoon I shot in anger,” she admits. “He eliminated forty-some of my chicks. I saw that guy and I said, ‘You’re dead.’ ”

Guns carry conflicting meanings in our society: they’re props in homemade hip-hop videos, totems of rugged individualism and the pioneer ethic, and instruments of horrific crimes. But on the farm, firearms remain a tool called on to deal with the three Ps: pests, predators and parting with livestock.

While the firearm may not be a tool you use much, it’s important to understand its safe use, storage and maintenance. Whether you’re thinking of buying a gun, or dusting off the relics in Grandpa’s gun cabinet, you’ll need to know the right firearm for the right job.

Job one: safety

In December, 2011, 15-year-old Rachel Yoder tumbled from a horse-drawn buggy near her Ohio home, bleeding from her head. Her family thought she’d been injured in the fall, but when she was rushed to hospital, doctors were startled to find she’d been shot. The incident seemed bizarre. Who would target a young, Amish girl on her way home from a Christmas party?

A police investigation determined Rachel was the victim of a gun owner’s thoughtless error. As she rode home, a man returning from a hunting trip fired into the air to empty his muzzle-loading rifle. The bullet struck Yoder, more than a kilometre and a half away. She died the next day.

Attitude is everything in firearms safety. Thoughtless or cavalier actions can lead to tragedy in fractions of a second. If you haven’t taken the firearms safety course, make that investment. (See sidebar.) And the next time you handle a gun, remember Rachel Yoder, and think about the other Rachels on and around your farm.

Parting: nothing sweet about this sorrow

Putting down an injured ewe or stunning Spot the pig for home slaughter can be one of the farm’s most unpleasant jobs — like living out the end of Old Yeller, over and over.

At least Old Yeller’s end was clean. Beginning farmer, but experienced hunter, Jeremy St. Onge was home-butchering a few pigs with a local veteran hog producer last autumn. The veteran was stunning the pigs with a well-placed shot from a .22 rifle, but when St. Onge’s turn came to stun his Berkshire, “I thought, a .22 is good, but maybe a .22 magnum is better.” Unfortunately, the higher-powered, metal-jacketed bullet went right through the animal’s skull, and out the throat. The wounded pig took off on a run, only to be brought down by a follow-up shot.

Euthanizing an animal “is something you want to learn to do correctly,” says Roy Lewis, the Alberta veterinarian who wrote Alberta Farm Animal Care’s fact sheet, Humane Euthanasia of Farm Animals. “You do feel better if the animal goes down, because you know you’ve ended it quickly.”

Lewis wrote the fact sheet in the wake of the Mad Cow crisis, when euthanizing older cows went from an occasional part of the job to a more common chore. As vets and farmers dusted off their rifles, “I heard some horror stories out in the field,” he says. “I think it was a federal vet who missed an animal and put a bullet in his vehicle.”

Aimed in the right area, Lewis says the garden-variety .22 long rifle bullet should do the job for most animals, with the more powerful .22 Winchester Magnum as a backup for thick-skulled animals like bulls. The goal is to have a sufficiently powerful round to penetrate the brain and render the animal insensible, without having the bullet emerge out the other side or ricochet. Hollow-point or soft-nosed bullets will increase tissue damage, and make for a surer kill, in smaller, thin-skulled animals such as lambs and young ewes, but solid-point bullets are required for larger animals with thick skulls. As with St. Onge’s tale, full-metal jacket bullets make a poor choice. They’re apt to go right through the animal.

Euthanasia guidelines from the British Cattle Veterinary Assn. also suggest a shotgun (including 12 or 20-gauge) loaded with No. 4, 5 or 6 shot fired from 5-20 cm away. At this range, “there is a relatively small entry wound but the brain is completely destroyed,” reads the Association’s Guidance for Veterinary Surgeons on the Emergency Slaughter of Cattle. To find the target, Lewis recommends drawing imaginary lines from the inside corner of the eye to the opposite base of the horns, (or where the horns would be for a polled animal.) Aim for the spot where the two lines meet. Animals are typically shot at close range, but not with the firearm held directly against the skull.

The aim should be perpendicular to the skull to reduce chances of ricochet. In case the animal is merely stunned, and not killed, (or for home butchering), bleeding the animal out ensures quick death.

Horses, swine and sheep can all be killed with a similar technique, but hornless or polled sheep can also be shot in the back of the head, between the ears with the gun aimed towards the throat. Scottish veterinarian David C. Henderson recommends hitting heavy-skulled horned rams in the centre of the forehead slightly above the eyes, to avoid the bony area between the horns.

This can be a heart-rending job, and no simple task for the novice. You may want to call your vet out to do the job, either with a drug overdose or a penetrating captive bolt gun. Similar to the system used to stun cattle in an abattoir, the captive bolt gun sets off a charge that pushes a metal rod into the animal’s brain. “It renders them brain-dead right away,” Lewis says. After that, the animal has to be bled out to ensure rapid death. Captive bolt guns start in the $300 range and up, and they may be handy on a large farm. But for the same cash, why not buy a more versatile rifle or shotgun, and ask an experienced farmer (or home butcher) to coach you through the job? “You see the butcher take his time and get his aim right,” Lewis says. When the telling shot is delivered, “the animal just drops like a stone — crumples straight down.”


Groundhogs, racoons, and their ilk are the spam of the animal world. You can try ignoring them, but they continue, relentlessly building speed bumps to rattle your haybine, ambushing the hens, or thieving from the lamb creep. No wonder so many farmers want to hit the pest delete button. And for that task, they choose the shotgun.

“If you’re only going to make do with one gun, I would say it would be a 12-gauge shotgun,” says Steve Galea, assistant editor of Ontario Out of Doors Magazine, and a long-time rural resident and hunter. “You can’t beat it for versatility.” Armed with a selection of shells from tiny No. 9 shot to large lead slugs, you can handle everything from pigeons and squirrels to coyotes and bears, and use the gun to hunt geese and deer in the bargain. Because shotguns spray pellets in a densely-packed concentration (the density depends on the “choke” or constriction of the barrel), “it’s a point-and-shoot weapon. You don’t have to be a deadeye to hit your target,” Galea adds. The drawback — and benefit — of the 12-gauge is its relatively short range. For smaller animals and lighter shot, the effective range is about as far as you can throw a baseball; typically 50 yards or less with a full choke. With the newer smooth-bore slugs, accurate hits on a deer-sized target are possible out to 75 or 80 yards. That’s not to say pellets or slugs won’t damage a building or hurt a person or animal further away, but the chance of long-range catastrophes are reduced.

Shotguns come with a range of “actions”, including pump, auto loading and bolt actions, but the simplest, cheapest, and safest for the novice farm user is the single-shot break-action or “hinge” model. The barrel swings open on a hinge at the breech, and the shotgun can be carried about, open, ready to load. That way, you know it’s unloaded until you’re ready to use it.

The drawback with a 12-gauge is it comes with a wallop when you squeeze the trigger. Smaller users might prefer the reduced recoil of the 20-gauge. It’s lighter and easier to handle, and with accurate shooting, can be as effective as its big brother.

If a shotgun is a bit of blunt instrument, a rifle is more of a surgical tool. With its greater accuracy at ranges out to about 100 yards, the .22-calibre rifle has been the workhorse on most farms during the past century. Lethal to small animals over relatively short ranges, the rifle will dispatch raccoons, squirrels, weasels, rats, and even coyotes with a well-placed shot. With its modest recoil, it has the advantage of being easy to fire. It’s relatively quiet and its cheap ammunition makes it inexpensive to practice with. It’s also the most-commonly called-upon rifle when an animal must be put down.

As with the 12-gauge, the single-shot, bolt-action rifle is a safe, durable and cheap beginner’s gun, starting in the $200 range for a new unit. Sure, you’ve only got one shot, but it’s almost always the first shot that counts.

That said, more experienced shooters may want to go with a bolt-action magazine rifle, where additional cartridges are held in a box or “clip” style magazine beneath the action. Pulling the bolt back ejects the fired cartridge and chambers the next. Semi-automatics, where each pull of the trigger fires a round, are also popular, but more mechanically complex.

If you’re buying a rifle for farm use, you should be aware of one provision of Canada’s firearm storage rules applying to farmers. The law requires non-restricted firearms (a term covering most common rifles and shotguns) to be stored unloaded and locked or inoperable. But a gun used for predator control may be stored “temporarily unlocked, and out in the open, as long as it is unloaded and not readily accessible to ammunition.”

In other words, if you’re having a coyote problem, you can have the gun handy, as long as it’s not loaded. To comply with the law, you should select a gun that’s quick to load. Good examples include a bolt-action single-shot, a rifle equipped with a box magazine or clip, and our previous candidate, the break-action shotgun.


If the 12-gauge or .22 won’t do the job, the old-time farm response was to dust off the “deer rifle”, typically in the .30 calibre range. Classics include the .308, .30-06, .30-30, and the Lee-Enfield .303, workhorse rifle of the Canadian army during two World Wars. Thanks to its versatility, the Lee Enfield is still “a good, rugged gun for farming, a deer gun, a moose gun, a bear gun,” says Ontario-based firearms safety instructor Peter Brushey.

By the standards of more modern rifles, these are old school, heavy and, depending on the cartridge, relatively short or medium-range. They’re overkill for pests, although I know at least one farmer who uses his .30-06 to deter both groundhogs and coyotes. But if you’ve got one, and you face problems with larger predators, it may be a handy firearm to become proficient with. It’s also a good choice if you’re planning to take up hunting and don’t want to spring for something new.

For farmers facing wary predators, or very jumpy groundhogs, the more modern solution is the “varmint rifle,” with calibres including .223, .22-250 and .243. Equipped with a scope and firing small, high-velocity bullets, these guns send rounds zinging off across open areas on a relatively flat trajectory, frequently reaching out to hit targets beyond 200 yards.

Ellie Emlaw and her husband, Ken, run sheep and cattle on a farm near Parry Sound. In recent years the coyotes in their neighbourhood have become so canny that they stake out the house, observing the routines of both the farmers and their guardian llamas and dog. With such wary predators, “we never use a .22, because you can’t reach them with it,” Ellie says.

An incident on the Emlaws’ farm last June offers a good example of the “varmint” gun’s effectiveness. One morning Ellie glanced out to see a ewe down on the ground, with a wolf gnawing at the victim.

“You’ve got to be quick, because they’re watching the house when they’re eating,” Emlaw says of the predators. Ken grabbed a .30-30 rifle (suitable for deer in brush at relatively short range), ran outside, and propped the stock of his rifle on a fence post. Ellie emerged onto the deck with her .22-250. She admits she’s not very good at judging distance, but reckons the wolf was probably 400 yards away, maybe further.

Ken fired first, with the heavier bullet from the .30-30 dropping right in front of the target. The wolf looked up, backed up a bit, and then stood side-on, probably wondering what caused the noise and puff of dirt from the ground. That’s when Ellie, resting her rifle on the railing of the deck with her eye in the scope’s eyepiece, pulled the trigger. “It just fell over as if someone knocked it over,” she says.

In the ideal world, no farmer would need a gun. Foxes would be content with stale bread conveniently left beside their den. (Ah, room service.) Coyotes would seek out wild game, because it offers better exercise and the cachet of the 100-metre diet. Livestock and wildlife would get along like characters in a Beatrix Potter book. (Although even Peter Rabbit had a run-in with Mr. McGregor.)

Because the ideal world isn’t here yet, a gun still comes in handy on the farm. The best policy may be to ask questions first, and shoot (with due attention to safety) as a last resort. But as Aileen Dancey says, when you can’t bribe the predators with bread, sometimes the farm gun becomes “a necessity.”

Gun numbers

In 2011, the year before the federal government eliminated most rifles and shotguns from its registration system, there were about 7.8 million guns in the system, with about 1.9 million people licensed to own them — an average of just over four firearms per licence-holder. The total does not include weapons smuggled into the country for criminal use, and guns that are “forgotten” and unregistered.

Safe ownership The licence

A possession only licence (POL) allows the holder to own the guns they already have and buy ammunition. To buy guns, you require a Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL), and must pass the Canadian Firearms Safety Course.

The course, typically two days long and costing in the $200 range, exposes students to the full range of common rifles, shotguns and cartridges and shells, including some types you’re unlikely to own. The benefit is you’ll be able to safely handle any firearms you encounter. If, for example, your hunting partner has a heart attack in the bush, you can give him first aid, then unload his firearm and ensure it’s safe.

The vital four ACTS of firearm safety:
? Assume every firearm is loaded
? Control the muzzle direction at all times
? Trigger finger must be kept off the trigger and out of the trigger guard
? See that the firearm is unloaded

PROVE it safe:
? Point the firearm in the safest possible direction
? Remove all ammunition
? Observe the chamber
? Verify the feeding path
? Examine the bore for obstructions (Source: Canadian Firearms Safety Course)

Safe shooting

Practising with your firearm?a few times a year (ideally on a supervised range) will improve your accuracy and act as a safety refresher, provided you repeat safe handling procedures.

“If you have a gun and you don’t use it very often, when you feel you do need it, you might not know how to use it properly,” says Gary Mauser, Business Administration professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, and member of the B.C. Wildlife Federation firearms committee. “Familiarity does not mean contempt. It means practising the safety rules . . . Following those rules in target shooting two or three times a year is going to burn (the safety procedures) into your brain.”

Safe storage

Non-restricted firearms must be stored unloaded and either locked with a secure device (a trigger lock, for example), with the bolt or bolt-carrier removed, or in a securely locked container, receptacle or room. An example could be a locking gun cabinet fastened to the wall studs.

Ammunition should not be kept “within easy access” to the firearm, unless it is stored, together with or separately from the gun, in a securely locked container or receptacle.


Of the three classes of firearms in Canadian law — non-restricted, restricted, and prohibited — farmers are most likely to be licensed for a non-restricted gun, typically a rifle or shotgun used for hunting, predator or pest control. Although the definitions of restricted and prohibited weapons are quite involved, restricted firearms include most handguns, while prohibited weapons include fully-automatic rifles. Firearms basics–Rifle: features internal grooves in the barrel to spin the bullet and stabilize its flight.–Calibre: The bore diameter measured in hundredths of an inch or millimetres. –Shotgun: Typically a smooth-bore gun that fires a shell that releases a collection of pellets (“shot”) or a single slug. Some shotguns feature rifled barrels for more accurate slug shooting. –Gauge: Measurement system for shotgun bores, ranging from 10 gauge (largest barrel) down to .410 calibre. Common sizes include 12 gauge and the smaller 20 gauge. –Choke: The constriction at the end of the barrel to control the spread of the shot. Choke ranges from full choke for maximum range to cylinder bore, for maximum spread over shortest range. A rifled choke can be used for slugs. Some shotgun barrels are manufactured with a particular choke, while others come with interchangeable chokes or barrels.

While rifles and shotguns are usually separate firearms, some companies offer a rifle/shotgun combination with a smooth bore (often 20 gauge or .410) and a rifled barrel (typically in .22 calibre, although sometimes higher.) These versatile guns make a handy combination for farm use.

Shotguns fire shells with various shot sizes or slugs. Always ensure you’ve got the right-length shell for your gun.

Rifles fire cartridges. Rimfire cartridges, common with .22 rifles, hold the primer in the rim. Centrefire cartridges, common with more powerful rifles, hold the primer in the centre of the base of the case.

Always match the ammunition with the rifle by reading the data stamp on the barrel of the gun, and on the head stamp on the centrefire cartridge.? For example: .303 British is not the same as .303 Savage, and neither is a 7-mm Mauser and a 7-mm Remington Magnum. Putting the wrong cartridge in a rifle could result in serious injury. (Never carry a mix of ammunition in your pocket, and always verify the ammunition you’re loading.)

Bullet weights are measured in “grains.” The heavier the bullet, the more grains. In general, lighter bullets fly more quickly, on a flatter trajectory, with reduced hitting power (but all these factors can also be affected or compensated for by the propellant and shape and type of the bullet.) A 150 gr. .303 Br. round, for example, has a muzzle velocity of 2,830 feet per second, while the same cartridge with 180 gr. has a velocity of 2,460 fps. The first round is suitable for deer in more open areas at slightly longer ranges. The second, heavier bullet would work for deer or moose at shorter ranges in brushy areas.

Where will the bullet go? A key aspect of firearm safety is to identify your target and look well beyond, ensuring a stray or errant bullet won’t hit other people, animals, or structures. “Effective range” is typically the distance at which you can hit your target with enough force to kill it or knock it down. “Dangerous range” is the distance at which the bullet could still harm another person or animal.

Typical dangerous ranges
.22 long rifle: 1.1 miles.243 Winchester: 2.2 miles.308 Winchester: 2.5 milesNo. 6 shot: 240 yards00 buckshot: 740 yards12-gauge one-ounce rifled slug: 760 yards(Source: Canadian Firearms Safety Course.)

The firepower you don’t need.
Although it was invented for the First World War, the Thompson submachine gun was produced too late for the conflict. Instead, the gun’s manufacturers touted the “Tommy gun” for civilian use, with an ad showing a cowboy driving off a gang of mounted marauders by blasting away with his Thompson. The gun was, according to the ad copy, “the ideal weapon for the protection of large estates, ranches, plantations, etc.”

There are valid reasons not to own a firearm, many of them listed in a 2009 statement by the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians. Having a gun in the house can turn an impulsive gesture like a suicide attempt into a near-certain fatality. The suicide “success rate” with a gun is 96 per cent, compared to only 6.5 per cent with an attempted drug overdose. One U.S. study found a home with a gun is 4.8 times more likely to be the site of a suicide than one without.

Between 2000 and 2009, twenty-three per cent of spousal killings involved a gun, as did 26 per cent of family-related killings of children. Between 1990 and 2005, the Canadian Agricultural Injury Surveillance program tracked seven accidental gun-related deaths of adults on farms.

If you’re gunless, you may be able to deter pests with sound cannons, bear-bangers, or netting and fencing. Even pellet guns, slingshots, and enthusiastic dogs can play a role. (Pellet guns and air rifles should still be handled as if they’re actual firearms.)

Farmers with predator pressure might be able to strike a deal with a local hunter or trapper to provide protection. If you need to euthanize an animal in distress, consider calling on the services of a neighbouring farmer, or your veterinarian.