Making The Running Shot

Making The Running Shot
Understanding the science behind hitting moving targets and learning the basics will make you a more versatile hunter.
The ethics of shooting running game is a source of great debate among hunters. I grew up in the Midwest in the 1980s, when deer drives were popular, and as a child I assumed the practice was commonplace everywhere whitetails were pursued. But by my late teens many hunters had deserted the orange-clad army of slug gun-toting deer drivers to hunt solo in tree stands. This started a battle between the drivers, who heralded hunters who consistently took down running deer as local heroes, and stationary hunters who viewed the practice of shooting moving deer as the desperate act of unskilled and unethical hunters who’d been duped by their quarry.

As I’ve learned over the course of my hunting career, the ethics of a shot have as much to do with the marksmanship skills of the shooter as they do with the circumstances of the shot. Of course, this is predicated with the understanding that all hunters must stay within the legal boundaries in the state or country where they are hunting. I have met hunters for whom a 200-yard shot was unethical under any circumstances, and there are hunters who routinely and effectively kill game on the run with a rifle.

In Europe, where driven hunts are still popular, a high percentage of game is killed on the move, and watching a skilled Swedish moose hunter or Romanian driven-boar shooter deliver a perfect shot makes it clear that, while shooting running game may not be ideal for most shooters under most circumstances, learning to effectively and efficiently shoot running game with a rifle is possible.

There’s also another important reason why hunters—even those who are ardent about shooting stationary animals—should learn to shoot running game. If your first shot isn’t perfect (and sometimes even if it is), you may need to place a follow-up shot on a wounded animal. If your ethics compel you to reduce suffering and kill an animal as quickly and humanely as possible, which they should, at some point you’ll probably have to deliver a shot at a moving, wounded animal.

Recently, I was on safari in Mozambique and was shooting a reedbuck for camp meat. Since the animals were strictly for consumption, I shot the reedbuck rams in the head. The shot on one reedbuck was a bit off and struck at the base of the horn. The reedbuck, injured but not fatally so, turned and ran, and I had to put in a running shot behind the shoulder. When the second bullet struck, the ram went down, and although we couldn’t salvage every possible piece of meat, the reedbuck wasn’t left injured to die later.

Two days later I shot a Cape buffalo bull, and it required a running shot as well—this time for a much different reason. My first .375 H&H bullet struck where it should have, behind the shoulder, but the bull was heading into tall sawgrass where a follow-up would be extremely dangerous. A second shot to the shoulder as the bull ran helped anchor him before he reached the wall of sawgrass, much to my relief and that of everyone else standing around me.

At shorter ranges (top), Erik As advises to place your aiming point on the leading edge on the vitals. At longer ranges, he suggests aiming one vital-zone width ahead of the animal.

These instances reinforce the point that if you’re going to hunt with a rifle, you’ll eventually have to make a running shot at game for one reason or another. It’s best to learn to do so effectively. I interviewed Erik As, Aimpoint’s chief trainer in Sweden, where hunters must pass a running-game marksmanship test before they’re allowed to go hunting.

As you probably know, Aimpoint is a leading maker of red dot sights. While most of us are wedded to scopes, when it comes to hitting moving game, shooting with both eyes open with a red dot sight is definitely an advantage. However, some of the principles that follow are transferable to riflescopes, so just because you shoot a scope don’t think you’re not going to learn anything here.

When shooting at moving targets with a red dot, the shooter should focus on the target, not the sight. The process will be familiar to anyone who’s ever hunted ducks or doves with a shotgun. With stationary targets your focus remains on the sight, but to successfully shoot a moving target, you’ll need to train yourself to instantly adjust your point of focus to the target itself.

This isn’t natural for most shooters, but with regular practice your eyes will transition naturally from sight focus to target focus when a target is moving. Proper gun mount and swing is as crucial when hitting a running target with a rifle as it is when breaking clays with a shotgun. A solid cheek weld, a slight forward lean, and a fixed upper and lower body positioning with the point of rotation at the hips are all critical factors for successfully shooting animals on the move.

As says the critical first step when shooting running game with a red dot is to properly adjust the brightness of the dot so it facilitates target-focused shooting. To do this, he recommends finding a brightness setting that is comfortable given the ambient light conditions and then increasing brightness one level.

This allows you to remain focused on your target—and more specifically to the aiming point—without having to switch focus between a dim dot and the animal. Ideally, when game is moving, you’ll identify point of aim and bring the rifle into position and the dot will be clearly visible.

Regardless of whether you are shooting a stationary animal, an animal running at close range or an animal at farther distances (beyond roughly 50 yards) at a high rate of speed, the four-step process for accurate red dot shooting remains the same: contact, focus, aim, fire.

Learning to shoot moving game begins by learning to apply these techniques to stationary targets, As says. When you’re firing at an animal that is standing still, the red dot should first make contact with the animal, usually just below the vital zone. Next, the shooter must focus (keeping both eyes open) on the point where he or she wants the bullet to strike.

Aiming involves bringing the red dot into the center of focus on the target and, when the red dot reaches the center of the focus point, firing. This process reduces the amount of time the red dot is stationary in the kill zone, which, in turn, eliminates movement and helps deliver a more accurate shot. Practicing these steps also builds skills required to shoot an animal on the run, essentially training the mind to follow the same routine with every shot.

Once you become comfortable with making contact with the sight, focusing, bringing the sight to your focus point and firing, you’ll have built a foundation to be a more effective shooter when game is moving. At close range, say, 40 yards and less, your focal point will be the leading edge of the vital zone, and As says at these distances it doesn’t matter how fast the animal is moving—the lead will always be the same.

The process is much the same as it is for shooting a stationary animal, except with moving targets your initial contact point will be behind the vitals. Once the red dot has made contact with the animal’s body, bring the dot toward the focal point at the front of the vitals and fire when the red dot reaches the focal point.

By doing this you are moving the rifle more quickly than the animal is traveling, and lateral movement will smooth your swing. There shouldn’t be any hesitation once you’ve decided to shoot and you’ve brought the red dot from the initial point of contact forward to the focal point.

To shotgun shooters this is known as “riding the target,” and it generally results in a miss, and the same is true when shooting a rifle. Keep the swing smooth and even and maintain follow-through after the shot.

With a red dot sight, which has no parallax, the shooter can keep both eyes open as he tracks the targets and swings the rifle to the proper point to break the shot.

At “long” ranges, out to 60 yards or so, As says you’ll have to be more conscious of the animal’s speed and will need to shift your focal point farther forward (he refers to these forward increments as “clicks”; each click is roughly the equivalent of the animal’s vital zone).

As the speed and range increase from there, you’ll need to increase the number of clicks ahead of the vitals, but the basic principles remain the same. However, As believes shooting at moving game beyond 60 yards is not ethical (unless, of course, you’re trying to stop a wounded animal) because judging the speed and distance and determining the proper number of clicks of lead is incredibly difficult.

But at the ranges we’re discussing, it’s not only possible but also quite doable. For a trotting boar at 60 yards, for example, the proper lead in As’s system would equate to roughly one click, so your focus point would be a full vital zone ahead. When you see the animal running, make contact with the red dot, take note of the speed and distance, and adjust your focal point accordingly. Bring the red dot from the point of contact to the focal point and shoot when the red dot and focal point meet.

After firing, keep the muzzle moving. This will help if you need to make an additional shot since the rifle will remain in motion with the animal’s direction of travel. Judging speed and distance requires practice, but the important first step toward becoming a better shot at running game is to repeat the same process with each pull of the trigger.

The basic principles of hitting running game may seem foreign to many shooters, especially those who don’t regularly shoot shotguns. However, the ability to quickly and cleanly kill running game is a tool every hunter needs regardless of whether you plan to make a running shot.

Eventually, you’ll be called upon to shoot running game in the field, either by choice or by circumstance, and knowing how to hit a running target will make you a more effective, efficient and ethical hunter.

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