EA CULPA. I might as well get that out of the way. I have muffed
shots. Many at paper bullseyes and metal silhouettes, some at game. Some were difficult. Those were at targets. When I fire at game, it's with a measure of
confidence. Nothing of substance is lost if a bullet lands in the 8-ring instead of in the middle. A shot that rips the paunch instead of drilling the lungs brings
suffering. For that reason, I decline many shots at game, even a few that on target ranges would seem easy.
Those bullets launched at animals should all have connected. Some have not.
The first was meant for a buck nosing about in Michigan wheat stubble one icy November dawn. Under dark clouds and against biting wind, I crept to a fencepost, then, shaking with
excitement, pressed my rifle against it. The whitetail looked very small in the K4. It would be a long shot. The reticle quivered above the buck's
shoulder. I tugged the trigger.
The deer kept eating.
It died when, after missing it again, I fired my last bullet. At a loss for a better option I held dead on.
Many hunters overshoot because game appears farther off than it is. In broken country, your eye takes in lots of terrain. But bullets don't follow ground
contours. "Never hold off hair," Jack Atcheson told me long ago. "If you think an animal is so far that you must aim above it, you're either wrong or too far away to fire."
By the same logic, game on the prairie can seem closer than it is, because your eye snares so little earth. Your brain tells you the shot is short because there's less intervening
ground. That's largely why so many pronghorns have been crippled by bullets to the legs.
Target visibility also influences your perception of distance. Pronghorns are largely white, and in the clear air common on the apron of the Rockies, visible at great range. As
there's little cover, you often see most if not all the body. Bright and big in your scope, that pronghorn looks closer than it is. A swatch of elk or mule deer hide sandwiched by
timber across a gaping canyon looks far because it is obscure and small, and there's so much terrain and vegetation commanding your view.
While distant targets can fool your eye, long shots also magnify errors in shot execution. Add the tug of wind and gravity on your bullet. So even hunters with laser
Conditions — wind, light, your shooting position — matter at any distance, but especially when the target is far off. The longest poke I've taken at any game was half again
the measure of the next-furthest. Still, my bullet struck less than a hand's width from where I aimed. Dead-calm air, a front-lit target and my solid, sling-assisted prone
position made shooting a reasonable option at yardage ordinarily too long. The clincher: I had used the rifle and ammo extensively on steel targets to 500 yards.
Plates at distance help you check bullet drop, dope wind. Fire at game only as far as you hit targets!
Had an approach been possible, I'd have declined that shot, no matter how certain. Because a kill from afar never pleases me like one earned with a sneak into iron-sight range.
Close shots don't ensure kills. I'm a member of what must be a small clan who've missed game at less than 15 feet. The mule deer was bedded on the nose of a ridge, only its
antlers visible from behind. I dropped to the leeward slope and quickly reeled in the yards. Then, crosswind, I bellied toward my prey. Fifty steps from the animal,
I could probably have eased to a sit for a shot to the ribs. But full of hubris, I chose to get really close. Slowly my lizard-low approach pulled us together. Alas,
I'd failed to see a dip in the ground. A flyrod-length from the buck, my torso was bowed, feet up, belly down. The deer rose. My back had reached its limit of
concavity, however. Desperate to boost the muzzle clear of intervening rock, I strained to push the barrel up as I yanked the trigger. The basalt exploded, shards peppering both
me and the deer, which shot off that ridge as if riding a rocket.
Few failures afield remain sharper in memory.
Not that I'm alone. I once watched a hunter shoot a brow tine off a bull elk at very short range. Fully exposed, the animal was statue-still while my pal steadied his rifle on
sticks. But this was his first elk, and he had his eye on the antlers. Game is often missed — or crippled — because hunters lose focus. Your target is
neither the animal nor its antlers. Rather, it is a small place inside the animal, where it lives.
"The young man nervously raised his rifle and fired …. Instantly the buffalo wheeled and charged us at terrible speed …. With admirable coolness,
Fay [fired twice, then] threw herself into her lover's arms. With the two of them locked in a close embrace on the narrow trail, I couldn't get around the idiots to shoot. The
bull was almost on us [when] I managed to force the barrel of my [.475 between them]. The bull came crashing down, throwing foam and blood over Fay's trousers …."
John A. Hunter's tales of his early-20th-century adventures in East Africa fanned my safari-lust. A crack shot, the intrepid Scot showed his skill as a PH after a career as an ivory
hunter and shooting for the government. His accounts were not of hits at four-digit yardage, but of fast offhand action, heavy bullets driving, at rock-throwing range, toward mountains of
muscle and bone barreling through thickets.
Tall bush and dangerous game call for big-bore double rifles, here a .470, and fast offhand shooting.
Shooting dangerous game up close makes sense. The shorter the shot, the more likely you'll hit where you wish. The peril of waiting, of course, is the risk of a
malfunction. Inside 15 steps, you're not only out of time to reload, but face daunting shot angles, a kaleidoscope of motion. "I should have fired sooner," Don told me after a
brush with an elephant. "But I didn't want to kill that bull." At six steps, the animal tucked its trunk and came. At two paces, the 9.3x62 Norma solid destroyed its
brain. Momentum carried the elephant forward, and as Don leaped aside, the falling beast's trunk broke his arm.
That episode in memory, Don took a client hunting for a lion. Big tracks led them to a fine male. Smoke from the client's black-powder load in his Holland 10-bore erased the
lion's departure. But as the white cloud dissipated, a lioness saw the hunters and charged, low and lightning-quick. Again, Don's shot came at the last instant, his bullet
smashing the animal's spine between the shoulders. Dead in mid-air, the lioness cart-wheeled. "Yes," he reflected, "firing sooner would seem the better option. But
sometimes the window is very, very small. Sending a bullet as soon as the rifle hits your shoulder can be too late. A lion can reach you faster than you can say, 'Kitty's
coming! Shoot low!'"
Even if your life never hinges on a quick shot, precision has a price. A deer may pause for only a second at cover's edge. Deliberate aim can cost you the chance.
Quick instinctive shooting is a skill (albeit the truly gifted make it seem like an art). As with other skills, you cultivate it with practice. But these days, hunters are
shooting less from unsupported positions and increasingly from the bench. Ever-more-sophisticated rifles, optics and loads developed to hit targets far away are ill-suited to
catch-as-catch-can marksmanship. They reward instead time-gobbling math that reduces the shot to a science. Wind, range, even a bullet's ballistic coefficient figure
in. The shot is not so much executed as engineered. Time stands still in this pursuit of precision.
This vintage Browning-designed Winchester 86 is nimble, quick to aim, deadly at modest distances.
But hunting is exciting largely because you cannot predict how your next chance will come! My first deer rifle, a battle-worn SMLE I re-stocked and fitted with Williams open sights, was
by no current measure accurate. But it killed a couple of deer I'd likely not have taken with a scoped rifle, let alone one of the "long-range" models popular now. A red fox that
scooted from underfoot one winter day tumbled to that old .303 before I realized I'd cheeked and fired it. A whitetail buck bounced from thick pines just a few feet away dropped in two
jumps. Again, I'd fired as if the rifle were a shotgun. As if shooting grouse.
Even when you have plenty of time, you're ill-advised to wait for the sight to hang in the center. If it visits the middle, it won't stay long. The longer you aim, the wearier
you become. The accuracy you expect influences the speed of your shot. No one holds a rifle still; the best you can hope for is acceptable wobble. You determine the
speed and amplitude of sight movement. Demanding too much precision it to court a miss! When breathless on a windy hill, you must accept more motion than when conditions favor
you. Insisting on a perfect sight picture can yield the same result as firing before your sight finds its mark.
My first shooting coach, Earl, told me: "Don't over-think. As soon as you feel a good shot, let it go. Don't analyze it; don't tell yourself it's too good to be
true. Just turn it loose." Sound advice.
"A bullet from my right barrel hit him above the brisket. He never flinched and came on …. The [next] shot hit him fairly below the ear, and he went
down. At the same moment [another rhino] tore past me and I saw my scout hanging on his horns …. I waited [an instant] then fired for the rhino's
shoulder. The animal dropped and the boy shot off his head like a rider whose horse has refused at a jump …."
As John Hunter knew, there's a time to aim, and a time to fire.
Before bullets traveled at Mach 3, exhibition shooters married accuracy and speed in eye-popping routines. Early among them: Phoebe Ann Moses, born in an Ohio cabin in
1860. Hunting to help feed her family, she showed extraordinary talent with a .22 by hitting quail on the wing with a .22. At age 15 she soundly beat visiting marksman Frank
Butler at a local rifle match. A year later she was Frank's wife, and shooting for his traveling show. Soon they joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, she as
Annie Oakley. Aiming in a mirror, Annie fired over her shoulder to burst glass balls Frank tossed. Rattling 25 shots in 25 seconds from a .22 repeater, she could make one ragged
hole in the center of a playing card. A colleague, Johnny Baker, tried for 17 years to outshoot Annie. "She wouldn't throw a match," he said. "You had to beat her, and
she wasn't beatable."
An understudy .22 helps you hone fundamentals. Low cost, no recoil. You'll become a better shot!
Ad Topperwein had the magic too. Born in 1869 in Texas, he showed an artistic eye early on and was first employed as a cartoonist. Ad had little interest in hunting but enjoyed
firing at airborne targets. In exhibitions he found tossed wooden blocks and clay targets easy prey for his .22 rifles, and combined his talents to sketch Indian heads with bullets fired
into sheets of tin, a shot a second. In 1907 he recorded 72,491 hits on 72,500 thrown blocks 2¼ inches on a side. That tally, shot with Winchester Model 1903s, stood
unmatched for half a century. Remington's remarkable Tom Frye finally beat it using Nylon 66s, at the autoloader's debut. He fired at 100,010 blocks and missed just six!
That era passed during my youth, as Winchester's Herb Parsons wowed pie-eyed fans. A table of assorted firearms within reach, Herb would start talking and tossing things aloft, blowing
them apart with whatever rifle or shotgun came to hand. He'd pulp oranges with a .30-30, then snatch up a .348 to "chop salad." Grabbing a Winchester .351, he'd fire the auto's 10
shots from the hip, shattering 10 clay targets standing on edge. "They're not hard to hit, folks," he'd laugh, deftly switching rifles, "just easy to miss!" Chattering on as fast
as he shot, Herb would bend over, toss a handful of eggs between his legs, whirl and break them all with quick shotgun blasts as they fell. He'd milk seven rounds from a Model 12 so fast the
bursts came as rolling thunder, leaving dust floating where with one hand he'd lofted as many clay disks.
Herb hunted with Hollywood stars of his day — Andy Devine, Clark Gable, Roy Rogers. He did the stunt shooting for the movie "Winchester '73," starring Jimmy Stewart. A
champion shotgunner, Herb loved waterfowling — for which he used Winchester's .410 Model 42. On one hunt he dropped ducks so fast, his partner fired not a shot until at last Herb
unloaded his .410. "Your turn," he grinned. On July 19, 1959, Herb Parsons died of a heart attack, following surgery. He was 51. A hunting guide
observed: "That man was a machine. He never missed."
Well, he did. Everyone who has shot has missed — even the late Tom Knapp, Benelli's sharp-eyed exhibition shooter, who could toss a stack of nine clays and powder them all before
any hit the ground. I once asked Tom if he used an open choke, to ensure hits. "No," he said. "Patterns must be small so each hits only one target. In fact,
I often focus on a section of a target to prevent hitting another close by." Tom told me that with a .22 he had hit a tossed golf ball thrice before it landed, clipping it low to keep it
aloft. He once smashed 13 tossed aspirins in a row!
I asked what, besides extraordinary hand-eye coordination, made such aerial shooting possible. He shrugged. "Standing hip-deep in spent shotshells every day doesn't hurt."
Firing from a bench doesn't prepare you for shots afield. After zeroing, switch to hunting positions!
Shotgunners without that option can get more hits by simply sharpening their focus. "Track the leading edge of the bird," urges Gil Ash, who, with wife Vickie, demonstrates what he
preaches in wing-shooting seminars and clinics. "Above all, don't look at the shotgun."
Riflemen must see the sights, but the focus must still be on the target. "I look past the bead," said one African PH who can shoulder and trigger a heavy double rifle with shotgun
speed. "It's in the notch, but both sights are fuzzy when I fire. The animal — rather, the spot I want to hit — gets all my attention."
Good instinctive shooting follows repeated drills in shooting fundamentals, with simple sights. A low-power scope can be faster than irons because it puts target and reticle in the same
Some long-range marksmen have missed spectacularly up close. The equipment that helps them at distance impedes them in cover. One elk hunter shot nickel-size knots from a bench
after checking his zero in camp. But the rifle was heavy; the scope had a small field. The next day he fired at a six-point bull 175 yards away. His shot was off the
mark. So was the next, and the next. The elk struggled up toward the canyon rim. Badly wounded, it paused on a bluff 400 yards off. The hunter finished a box
of cartridges to kill the poor animal. I helped him carry the 12-pound rifle out of the canyon.
Ace rifleman David Tubb takes aim. But deliberate shooting at distance is just part of learning to hit!
In Africa a few years back, dusk was coloring the sun red when a young woman and her PH came upon a fine kudu just 30 steps away. Hunters and quarry froze. Slowly, the lady
raised her .300. The bull held. But in her 6-18x scope she couldn't distinguish the shoulder. "Everything's a blur!" she whispered. Then she
fired. The kudu sunfished to the blast, and galloped off. Skilled tracking by the PH brought the woman a second, killing shot at the edge of night.
Powerful glass delays your shot. If the animal is partly obscured by brush, or one of several in a herd, a tight field can steal seconds while you search for the target. As
your eye adjusts to the larger-than-life image and seeks an aiming spot, you must control the magnified movement of the reticle. The longer you aim, the harder that task becomes, and the
more desperately you want to breathe. Elevated pulse and tiring muscles send an earthquake into your sight picture as eye fatigue burns the target image into your brain. Aware the
shot is unraveling, you yank the trigger.
I suspect all the shots I've taken at game except one could have been made with a 4x scope. A 6x might have been handy at times, but not necessary. A few shots would have been
easier with less power.
As most sights now deliver more than enough magnification, most rifles are more powerful and more accurate than necessary. We hunt elk with .30 and .33 magnums hurling bullets at 3,200
ft/sec — when the biggest elk of the last century fell to a .30-40 Krag. A carbine in .25-20 claimed the biggest whitetail of that era. No scopes. The animals
haven't changed. By all logic, hunters shouldn't miss with the rifles and optics now at hand. They do miss in spite of and sometimes because of that hardware.
As high magnification in a scope can scuttle your chances up close, so can a heavy rifle built to smack steel plates at 1,000 yards. The Winchester 94, Savage 99 and Marlin 336
lever-actions of my youth handled like wands compared to the heavy, bulky rifles popular these days. Deadly from a rest or a bipod, these magnum bolt guns are hard to manage without
support. Consequently, hunters seldom fire them from field positions: sitting, kneeling and offhand.
Three of the last four elk I've shot at this writing were taken offhand — so too both whitetail bucks I killed last fall. An ironic turn of events, my offhand shooting is
hardly stellar. When prowling the hills, even before spotting game, I'm ever looking for places to flop prone! But prone is a luxury, no guarantee.
Tall grass keeps shots at hippos close on Namibia's Kwondo River. No bench! No place for prone!
Once, at a sight-in day on a shooting range, I asked 40 hunters who had just zeroed their rifles to take one offhand shot each at a 6-inch circle at 100 yards. Only five hits showed
up. That is, just one in eight of these people could lung-shoot a deer offhand at 150 yards! (The backing paper, 22 inches square, had just 30 holes, so 10 hunters had missed that!)
Marksmanship is an acquired skill. When you come to think yourself a "natural," your targets are either too big or too close. Or you've bought into the myth that shooting
prowess comes to every man who feels important with a firearm in hand.
You don't have to burn powder to make your body a better shooting platform. Preparing for four-position matches, college team-mates and I held rifles while we studied or watched
television. Such drills stretch and strengthen muscles and help the body "memorize" bone-supported positions. Fired hull in the chamber, I practiced deep breathing and dry-fired
to hone trigger technique.
Once, closing my rifle's bolt during a match, I brushed the trigger. My heart sank. I wasn't even looking into the sights! The best I could hope was that my bullet
had missed the entire paper, as any hole would be scored. To my surprise, it had centered the proper bullseye on a sheet of 11 targets! The bullet went where the rifle had
directed it. My body position had put the rifle's natural point of aim on target. A rifle relaxing onto the target will spend more time there during the firing
sequence. Result: more hits.
Hunters loath to admit incompetence sometimes attribute missed shots to gear. Rifles, optics and bullets do fail. But rarely. And when they do, the fault still lies
most often with the hunter!
Sometimes it can be traced to the simple task of zeroing. Because a bullet starts dropping as soon as it leaves the muzzle, your rifle barrel must be elevated relative to the sightline to
hit a target at any range. The sightline should cut through the bullet's arc twice. The second intersection is the zero range. When you zero a rifle, you adjust the
sight to put that second crossing at the distance of your choice.
Off-season rifle practice in game country helps you hit under hunting conditions from field positions.
Point-blank range is the distance at which a dead-on hold brings desired results. Most of my hunting rifles are zeroed at 200 yards. Given this zero, cartridges like the .30-06
keep bullets within 3 inches above or below center to roughly 250 yards, so you can forget about aiming high or low to that distance. Bullets strike highest just past mid-range (trajectory
is parabolic). Zeroing at very long range is foolish, in my view, as you're then compelled to hold low at mid-range, where most game is shot.
At extended range, laser rangefinders and trajectory tables help you find the correct holdover. A "trajectory-matched" elevation dial permits a center hold; you spin the knob to a known
distance using the numbers on the dial as yardage marks. Graduations are determined by — and their utility is limited to — the arc of a specific load, or loads with the same trajectory.
No matter how accurate your rifle or precise your zero, and how well you can adjust for drop and wind drift, marksmanship matters! You must execute the shot perfectly to ensure a hit at
long range! The first culprit I collar after a bad shot is myself. The scope is next.
Modern scopes hold zero with great tenacity. A range check just before a hunt makes sense, but if bullets don't hit center, suspect the original zero — or the person who
zeroed. That should be you. A scope zeroed for one shooter serves another only if their shooting style is the same and their eyes take the same position behind the
lens. That's a lot to assume. Sometimes a "zeroed" rifle was simply bore-sighted by someone without the means or ambition to dial it in with live fire. Recently I
hunted with a fellow who worked for the firm that had built his rifle. One morning a fine buck topped a hill 120 yards off. I waited for it to fall. But a couple of
shots later, the animal left. "I can't understand," groused the hunter. "Our staff zeroed this rifle!" After the season, he targeted that .30-06 and found it shot a
foot high at 100!
Iron sights do not put your sight picture in a single sighting plane. Everyone seems to see irons in a unique way. If you didn't zero an iron-sighted rifle, you'll hit center
only by the greatest of good luck.
Scopes now are about as sturdy as iron sights. I've had more trouble from mounts — not because they're poorly designed, but because the screws weren't snugged or
checked. In Namibia once, I called a good shot on an eland, but heard the "whump" of a paunch strike. We trailed the bull, and I killed it. But my next shot was again
off the mark. Then I noticed a windage screw on my Redfield scope mount had backed off. Recoil had then bounced the ring off the opposite screw. The next shot had sent
it back, and so on. I should have checked those screws regularly, and surely after the first errant shot.
Hunting accuracy is partly a mechanical function of rifle and load. Mostly it depends on the shooter!
A fellow I was guiding on an elk hunt carried a Model 700 Remington, a .280 that by appearance had seen many trail miles but good care. The man was an experienced hunter, and I was
optimistic when one morning we followed a bull's hoarse braying toward a slot in the aspens. Easing forward, I spied the elk from the shadows and set up my tripod for a kneeling
rest. The hunter set his rifle on it; when the bull came clear at 60 yards, he fired. The elk trotted off unhurt. I grabbed the rifle before its owner could wrap it
around a tree and tried to wiggle the scope. It was tight. For half an hour I counseled the distraught man.
He had missed for the same reason many hunters miss. Call it nerves, excitement, buck fever. He had shaken so violently, the rifle had chattered on the
tripod. Because the elk was very close, I'd dared not move even to put a hand on the fellow's shoulder or urge a pause.
"Let's stay put," I said. "He ran downhill. Two cows climbed. He'll get lonely." My client rolled his eyes. In truth, I didn't expect a second
chance; but 20 minute later a wink of tan caught my eye. I set the .280 on the tripod. The bull stopped. "Take your time. Squeeze," I
whispered. He did. The elk wilted.
Excitement is part of hunting. When a bull elk at 60 yards doesn't bump your pulse to red-line, it needs checking.