September 23, 2010
It's the "medium distances" that get to me.
Given a choice, I'm very comfortable shooting over a daypack. It's fast and steady, but it's still important to take time to properly evaluate the shots. There's a fine line between rushing the shot and dithering too long, but I think most of my "midrange misses" come from not taking enough time.
An outfitter friend, Frank Fackovec, e-mailed me just yesterday, attaching a photo of a beautiful 10-point whitetail. I recognized the deer, of course; he was truly exceptional for a Texas Hill Country buck. "We got that buck you shot at just the other day, not a half-mile from where you saw him."
Thank goodness! I'd love to have gotten him, but I'm really glad somebody did. I remember him so clearly, standing on a low mesquite ridge at about 260 yards. I was lying on a rock outcropping, resting over my daypack, and I just plain missed him.
Except, I'm ashamed to say, I didn't miss him. I knew I'd hit him, and the video camera we had running confirmed it: low and too far back. Frank's e-mail confirmed what we'd suspected--not only a bad hit but poor bullet performance: lack of expansion, with just a pinprick in and out.
We'd suspected this not only from the video, which showed the angle of the bullet impacting behind the deer, but also from the fact that we'd searched for hours and failed to turn up a single drop of blood. He'd vanished over the ridge, and we had no idea where to look. Two weeks later, he was spotted, seemingly unhurt, by another hunter who had done a much better job than I had.
Honest, guys, I don't miss very often. But it does happen, and please don't write in to say it has never happened to you. Stick around, keep hunting, and I can assure you it will happen sooner or later. It can happen at all ranges, from point-blank to very far, and at any time--often when you least expect it. For me, I can honestly say that in nearly 40 years of very active hunting, I've missed very few close shots and only one or two genuine long shots. Although there's really no such thing as an easy shot on game, close shots should be the easiest, with the greatest risks coming from overconfidence and/or rushing the shot.
Long shots should be the most difficult, and technically, they are. Way out there you must contend with genuine challenges like doping the wind and precisely judging the holdover required. Even so, I've been very successful at long-range shooting. This is at least partly because I have an ingrained horror of long-range shots at game. I don't try them unless I'm very steady, have plenty of time to figure the hold and feel really good about the shot.
Perhaps oddly, if I'm going to miss a shot, it's most likely that the medium distance will get me. Partly, I suppose, the law of averages comes into play. As primarily a western hunter the vast majority of my shots at game occur at middle distances--something over 100 yards but less than 300 yards. Also, as a western hunter, I tend to think of anything less than 100 yards as a very close shot. What I think of as long range probably starts at about 400 yards, but I gotta tell you, I think really hard about attempting any shot beyond 300 yards. If I decide to try it, I probably have it figured and will place the bullet correctly. This is generally also true of medium-range shots, but if I'm gonna miss, that's probably when it will happen.
I'm not sure why this should be, but since missing is clearly if not very bad, certainly counterproductive, it might we worthwhile to figure out why.
It isn't a matter of equipment. Flat-shooting and exceptionally accurate rifles wearing large scopes definitely simplify long-range shooting, but equipment isn't all that important at the middle distances. There are literally dozens of cartridges from 6mm up into the .30s that have all the power you need, and most rifles will provide enough accuracy. Just sight-in a couple inches high at 100 yards, maybe a wee bit higher, and you can hold on hair out to 300 yards. At closer ranges you might want to hold low on the shoulder. Out there a bit you will probably hold high on the shoulder, but you sure don't need to hold off of the animal.
You don't need a specialized scope either. Fixed 4X is plenty of magnification for the distances we're talking about, which means the 3-9X scopes most of us are equipped with today offer an image plenty large enough to shoot at.
So what can go wrong? Well, let's take a closer look at that shot I blew in Texas. I was shooting an adequately accurate bolt action with a medium-powered variable. The cartridge was .308 Winchester. As you may know, the .308 isn't my cup of tea (I'm a .30-06 guy), but it's a very good cartridge and certainly capable of the shot I asked it to perform. It was an unfamiliar rifle, but, after all, I spend so much time shooting test rifles that unfamiliar rifles are darn near the norm for me. I checked it before we started the hunt; it was a couple of inches high, and the group drifted perhaps an inch left--not enough to make a change.
The point of shooting from a bench is taking the time to get it really right. I failed to do this on the hunt described in the story. I knew the rifle was shooting slightly left, but I didn't think I'd have a shot long enough for it to matter. I was dead wrong.
As I said, the buck was standing at about 260 yards, apparently broadside, head to the right. I normally shoot a cartridge that's just a bit faster than the .308 Winchester, and I normally sight-in a wee bit higher. Obviously, I hadn't anticipated a shot beyond 200 yards, but that's what I drew. Knowing I had a bit of drop to contend with, I think I held the horizontal wire right on the backline. I got that part right. The hit was a bit low, but if I'd planted it on the shoulder I'd have been just fine. However, I didn't. I am certain that the vertical wire was on the shoulder, but I now know that the bullet drifted about 15 inches left.
I wish I could figure out exactly how I did that. I can't, but I can come up with several contributing factors. Singly, none of them explains the error, but collectively? First, I knew darned well the rifle was shooting a wee bit left at 100 yards. I neither corrected the sights (when I could have) nor allowed for the difference. Technically, I shouldn't have been more than 2 1/2 inches left, so this is not an excuse, but when I squeezed the trigger I was starting the bullet drifting that direction.
Second, I failed to read the wind. It was a breezy day, but lying low to the ground for the shot, I couldn't tell what the w
ind was doing. Absent gale-force wind drift is usually not significant in the middle distances, but a smart shooter should at least take note and make a conscious decision to either allow for the wind or take your chances and ignore it. I honestly don't know where the wind was when that bullet left the barrel, but let's assume it was a crosswind that pulled me another few inches to the left.
Third, although I saw the deer as standing broadside, the video replay showed he was quartering away--not severely, but enough to narrow the target and place any error to the left somewhat farther back than it might seem. Not visualizing the deer's attitude correctly was probably my greatest error.
Finally, as you've undoubtedly figured out, I rushed the shot. Maybe I had time to remember the rifle was a bit left. Maybe I had time to properly figure the wind. Maybe I had time to study the buck more carefully. Or maybe he would have bolted. In any case, I didn't get him, did I? Far worse, I didn't exactly miss him. I lay down and was steady enough, or at least I thought I was. The buck was looking our way, frozen, so I thought I had very little time to get the shot off before he took off. My biggest worries were the distance and the hold. The former I got right; the latter I only got half right (which isn't good enough).
I'd have been better off taking just a few seconds longer to make sure I had it all right. But after all, it wasn't all that far. It was a very normal shot at very normal distance, the kind of shot that I would place in the vital zone almost every time. So I guess I suffered from overconfidence as well.
Shooting too slowly can be a huge problem, but it's better than shooting too quickly, before your computer has processed all the information. And that's what I did.