Vote of Confidence
September 23, 2010
The decision to shoot a second shot sometimes comes down to a hunter's frame of mind.
The author was so confident of the first shot on this Marco Polo ram that he didn't shoot again. They caught up with the animal one ridge later, just before dark, at 16,000 feet in extreme cold.
I don't know about you, but I always feel a great deal of pressure when I take a shot at a game animal. At least some of this is self-imposed because I really hate to miss, especially in front of witnesses. Part of it is normal, or at least I hope it is, because as much as I hate to miss, I most especially don't want to wound an animal. I want to do it right, so when I shoot an animal and see it go down I feel not only elation but a whole lot of relief.
Game doesn't always drop to the shot, though, and sometimes there is a second chance, and whether you should shoot again or not is a tough call. After all, dead is dead, and a well-placed shot will be fatal.
Why mess up more meat than necessary? And since the second, more hurried shot will rarely be as good as the first, there's also risk of unnecessarily damaging the hide or even ruining the horns or antlers on a trophy.
Obviously taking a second shot depends tremendously on the circumstances. I've been criticized for this, but if a potentially dangerous animal is still on its feet I keep shooting, provided there's no risk of hitting the wrong animal.
I don't do this out of lack of confidence, but simply because I don't want a hairy follow-up if it can be avoided, and I don't like betting my skin (or the skins of folks with me) on either my shooting or the performance of my bullet.
I think this is a sensible policy with dangerous game--especially tough dangerous game, whether bears or buffalo. With everything else there is sometimes a decision to be made. Sometimes there isn't.
No matter how fast you are, a spooked animal (hit or unhit) can move pretty darned fast. It's best to be as careful and as sure with that first shot as you possibly can be because it's a rare situation when your second shot opportunity is as good as your first. Even so, I believe in instantly getting ready for a second shot--and then, sometimes, you can have luxury of deciding whether you should use it or not.
When you lose an animal it's because the first shot wasn't placed well enough or because the bullet failed, which does happens but much more rarely than shooter error. Unfortunately, if you lose an animal you almost never really know which it was, and it doesn't matter; it's still a horrible shame.
Perhaps there wasn't time to fire again those subsequent (and more difficult) shots missed, and that's horrible. But it's even more horrible--at least in terms of kicking yourself--if you had a chance to shoot again but failed to do so because you were too certain of that first shot.
The decision to shoot again or hold your fire and let the first bullet take effect is thus a matter of confidence. To some extent this decision gets simpler the more experience you have, but unfortunately field experience in shooting game is hard won. This can be mitigated by lots and lots and lots of practice.
We've talked in this column about the importance of being able to call your shot--not only knowing in your heart exactly where the sights were when the trigger broke but also rapidly judging the animal's reaction and listening for the sound of the bullet striking flesh. Unfortunately this is not a perfect science, no matter how experienced you are.
You certainly need confidence in your equipment, sure knowledge that your zero is right and you have the accuracy you need to accomplish the job. This is at least partly why I like big game rifles that are far more accurate than the job really calls for.
Perhaps even more importantly you need confidence in yourself. This is where shooting practice, lots of it, comes in: Sure self-knowledge of exactly how steady you were (or were not) when the trigger broke, and exactly where the sights were at that moment.
If there is any possibility of taking another shot, this is ultimately what that decision must be based on. If there's any doubt whatsoever, you should try again if you possibly can because the potential consequence, false confidence, is far worse than not enough.
Just keep in mind that this is not perfect science, and it's not a perfect world. Stay humble. If I've hit an animal and it goes out of sight, it doesn't much matter how good I feel about the shot. I have plenty of bad moments until the recovery is made. I don't think this comes from basic lack of confidence. Maybe it's a streak of pessimism, or maybe it's just reality: Stuff happens, and nothing is for sure until meat is on the pole.
Remember, too, that no two animals react exactly the same upon receiving a bullet. Last year I shot a nice Texas whitetail about as perfectly as I could. I hit him with plenty of cartridge and a bullet that opens nicely. I'd worked the bolt quickly, and this was one of those times when I could have fired again, although I would've had to have been very fast. But in the end I did not shoot because I was sure I'd hit the buck well enough.
Fifty yards later, on the spoor, I wasn't quite so sure. There was plenty of blood, and it looked fine, but a medium-size buck hit where I thought I hit him, with what I knew I'd hit him with, shouldn't have gone 50 yards. Another 50 yards and I was really worried. Now I was replaying the shot over and over again, and was starting to wonder if I'd hit him too far back. There was still plenty of blood, but Murphy's Law applying, a morning drizzle was turning into steady rain.
Another impossible distance, possibly as much as 50 yards more, and I almost stumbled over him, stone dead, the bullet channel quartering from behind one shoulder, through the chest and out the off shoulder. He shouldn't have gone that far, and I had no reason to second-guess what had actually been near perfect shot placement. But I'd rather have too little confidence than too much.