Spitting Distance: Tactics For Close-Range Shooting

Spitting Distance: Tactics For Close-Range Shooting

The stand was set against a stout oak a few hundred yards up a brushy ridge. It was a good spot where several trails converged and a rocky outcropping created a funnel. The best visibility was straight ahead to the rocks, but it was a spot where deer could come from anywhere.

It was about 8:30 when I heard faint crunching in the leaves somewhere over my left shoulder. I'm left-handed, so that's my worst possible angle. Slowly I swiveled my neck, then my body, and in a few seconds I picked up slight movement in thick oaks about 60 yards behind me--several does feeding on acorns--and then I caught a flash of antler as a buck started to move up the ridge to my left.

He wasn't a monster, but he had the points and gave the impression of maturity. Carefully I stood in the stand, glad for the safety harness, and turned to the left.

The low cover was dense enough that I got away with the movement, but now the buck was in really thick stuff, showing just the occasional flash of antler and patch of brown hair. I leaned against the tree and followed the faint movement. When I had a patch of shoulder I fired the sweet little 7x57, waited a few minutes, then cleared the rifle and climbed down. On the ground it was thick enough that, even in 75 yards, I lost my bearings--but the buck was there, waiting for me.

Long range is very much the rage these days, but it seems to me that the majority of rifle shots at big game are what I think of as "medium range." To me this means something between 100 and 250 yards.

(RELATED: Boddington On Long-Range Shooting)

And then there's close range, inside 100 yards. Even when carrying a flat-shooting gun, I've had close shots at a wide variety of "open country" game: pronghorns at less than 75 yards; wild sheep and goats at less than 50 yards; elk within 25 yards; and a lot of mule deer well under 100 yards. Then there are the animals that are often taken at very close range: moose, whitetails, bears and wild boar--not to mention Africa's big stuff and forest game.

Whether the shot is at 10 yards or 99, close-range shooting is a bit different. On animals with reasonable vision you are in immediate danger of being detected, so your own movement in raising the rifle is a critical factor. And your options in getting steady are limited.

Whatever you do must be done with as much stealth as possible, but you can't mess around. At close range the clock is ticking. At any second the animal might look up and notice you, and it's all over with even the slightest sound or swirl of unfavorable wind.

Visibility may be a key factor, because it's often thick cover that allowed you to be so close in the first place. Let's address that first, because before you can shoot the animal you have to see it and recognize it for what it is.

My first experience with close-cover hunting was in western Montana's jackpine jungles in the early 1970s. I wasn't very good at it. When I was stationed in Virginia in 1974 and had my first experience hunting eastern whitetails I was just horrible. I had great eyesight and could pick out animals at amazing distances, but I couldn't visualize pieces of animals at close range in thick cover.

Perhaps my most humbling experience was on my second safari to then-Rhodesia in May when the leaves were full. I simply couldn't see what my professional hunter was seeing.

I remember one day we stalked a sable bull, a black animal motionless in midday shade at the base of a big tree. My PH saw him clearly at 100 yards, but I had no idea what he was looking at. So we crawled, closer and closer. I doubt we were 15 yards away when he crashed away--and that was the first time I saw him.

To this day, hunters who grew up under close-cover conditions are much better at this stuff than I am. But slowly, over the last 30 years I've spent a lot of time in varied close-cover situations, and I'm a whole better at it than when I was a kid.

The trick, I think, is keeping yourself still while really studying the cover. If you are motionless, even the slightest movement of an animal--the flick of an ear or the twitch of a nose--will be noticeable.

Absent movement, you are looking for anything out of place: horizontal back lines, the shine of an antler or a wet nose, the difference in light reflection between hair and leaves. Then you are trying to see through the cover to visualize the whole animal. This may not mean a shot is possible, but the first key to close-cover shooting is to see the animal.

Now the first thing that comes to mind when many hunters think of close-range shooting is "brush buster" cartridges. No, there is no such thing. No bullet from any cartridge of any caliber will reliably hold its course through a brushy obstruction.

Years ago Guns & Ammo's Payton Miller and I conducted tests where we created a "screen" of dowel roads and put it in front of deer silhouette targets. We tried a wide variety of cartridges from 6mm to .45, including legendary "brush busters" like the .358 Winchester and the .45-70.

Nothing held its course reliably, but there were a couple of trends. First, although bullets might keyhole, the closer the obstruction was to the target the better the odds of the bullet hitting the vital zone. This is intuitive, but the surprise, which goes against all conventional wisdom, was that high-velocity cartridges firing bullets with high sectional density seemed to do better than the big-bore brush cartridges.

For instance, cartridges such the .243 with 100-grain bullets, .270 with 150-grain bullets and .30-06 with 180-grain bullets all did better than the .358 or .45-70. In the years since I've had large caliber bullets catch twigs and miss entire buffalo at 50 and 60 yards.

Again, the closer to the animal the obstruction is, the better your chances. Also, the nature of the obstruction makes a difference. For instance, if an animal is standing in grass up to the midpoint, you might be justified in dropping your hold slightly into the grass, and your bullet will probably get through. But unless you have a clear, clean, unobstructed aiming point any shot is purely a gamble. So what you must look for is a window in the cover, an opening big enough to thread your bullet through.

It isn't easy to visualize exactly where that clear patch of hide lies on a mostly obscured animal. So for serious close-cover hunting, it may be a good idea to choose cartridges of greater power than the animal you're hunting actually requires.

Raw power doesn't overcome poor shot placement, of course, but in thick cover a bit more energy, frontal area and bullet weight may make a difference if your perception of the shot isn't exactly right or if you catch an unseen twig. There's a reason why big guns such as the "guide guns" in .444 Marlin and .45-70 remain popular with close-cover hunters.

Choice of sights is actually more important than caliber. For close-range shooting I'm a big fan of iron sights, especially aperture sights, because I like their looks and the added challenge, but under most circumstances there is no substitute for a low-powered scope.

These days there is a trend toward bigger and bigger scopes. At close range this is not harmful as long as you have a low magnification setting of no more than maybe 4X and you leave the scope set there. But you don't need major magnification, and at close range magnification causes problems. The field of view will be smaller, making it difficult to acquire the target.

What low-powered scopes do for you is enhance visibility by gathering light and, of equal importance, a scope makes it easier to see obstructions that might be invisible through iron sights.

At really close range, a sound option is one of the non-magnifying red-dot sights. My E.R. Shaw rifle in .35 Ackley Improved wears an Aimpoint Hunter model. It's non-magnifying but gathers light like a scope, and the centered red dot is incredibly fast. I can use it to at least 100 yards.

This past January I was carrying this setup while I stalked a nilgai at last light. He was feeding on the far side of a brushy tree, and at seven yards there was just no shot. Finally he got nervous and started to move out. I moved around the tree, put the red dot at the base of his neck, and dropped him at less than 20 yards.

I think one of the most important skills in close-range shooting is to learn to shoot with both eyes open, especially with a scope. In order to properly visualize an animal in thick cover at close range you need the depth perception created by binocular vision.

Like most people, I do most of my hunting with scopes from about 3-9X to 4.5-14X. I try to remember to keep the power down until I need it, but I've had a lot of chance encounters and follow-up shots at unexpectedly close range.

With both eyes open, too much magnification has never been a problem. My left eye behind the scope may not know exactly what I'm seeing, but the right eye does. People who are cross-dominant (as in left-eye dominant but shooting right-handed) or with vision problems in one eye have challenges to overcome, but if you can train yourself to shoot a rifle with both eyes open the benefits are huge--especially at close range.

In close-range shooting there may not be time, or there may be too much risk, to take a steady rest. The best you may be able to do is drop to a knee or lean against a handy tree, or both, but since neither will work all the time, a sensible practice regimen should also include lots of offhand shooting. Now, even well within 100 yards I'll take a steady rest if the animal is undisturbed and I think I can get away with it. But, honest, a decent rifleman should be able to hit a stationary deer-size target in the vital zone out to 100 yards. Many cannot, but that's an issue cured by practice.

Close shots often turn into running shots, which is an altogether different skill set. But as Jack O'Connor said, animals are "just as big moving as when standing still." Practice on moving targets is the only solution, and here's a secret: Hitting a moving animal with a rifle is almost the same as shooting a shotgun. So any and all shotgunning helps.

In a confined situation such as a deer stand, your options are limited, as is your ability to adjust. A safety harness is essential so you can move as much as possible without risk of falling. When you site your stand you will organize it for the most likely shot so you can simple lift the rifle and fire. But so often things don't work out as planned. When you put up the stand, take a few minutes to practice raising the rifle for as many angles as possible.

On the range, practice from your weak side. If you're right-handed you'll set your stand for the most likely right-hand shots, but you'll cut your movement way down and increase your chances if you can shoot left-handed when necessary.

Although I'm totally left-handed, over the years I've shot a few turkeys and several whitetails right-handed when they came in on the wrong side. On last year's Kansas buck, described in the beginning of this article, I almost did exactly that, but I thought there was enough cover to risk the movement--and I shoot a lot better left-handed.

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