Why Hunters Miss
By Wayne van Zwoll
It likely isn’t the rifle, ammo or scope, the wind or the rotation of the earth. Guess who’s left?
Honesty and diplomacy both fail when your pal is already crestfallen. But, “You made a bad shot” is more helpful, in the long run, than the dodge, “Maybe something’s wrong with your rifle.”
Rarely, something is wrong with the hardware. But the rifleman still bears responsibility. On safari years ago, I called a good shot on an eland, but heard the “whump” of a paunch hit. We trailed the bull, and I killed it. Confidence restored, I kept hunting. But my next shot was again off the mark. Then I saw that a windage screw on my Redfield scope mount had backed off the ring. Recoil had bounced it from the opposite screw. The next shot had sent it back, and so on. I should have checked zero right away, with three shots.
A zero isn’t likely to shift, but each is precise for only one person, load and position! Recently, I hunted with a fellow who worked for the firm that had built his rifle. One morning a fine buck appeared 120 metres off, and stood. I waited for it to wilt. But a couple of shots later, the animal left. Thick silence ensued. When I asked if he’d checked his zero, the man barked, “Our staff zeroed this rifle!” He targeted the .30-06 later and found it shot 40 cm high at 100 metres! Using a rifle zeroed by someone else is an easy way to miss game. There are others.
I once watched a hunter shoot a brow tine off a bull elk at 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. The target is not the beast or what’s on its head. With few exceptions, the target is the sphere of life between its shoulders.
A rifle-scope can help you send a bullet through the vitals – or impede your view of the animal. Night was zipping up the sun one evening when a young woman and her PH came upon a fine kudu just 30 metres off. All actors froze, the PH like a bird-dog on point. The rifle danced about as his client tried to find the bull in her scope. Its ribs were shadowed but unobstructed.
“Everything’s a blur!” she hissed, desperate. The kudu sunfished to the blast of the .300, and galloped off. Skilled tracking by the PH brought a second, killing shot at last light. Equipped with a powerful variable scope, the woman had neither a sharply focused image nor an adequate field. A 2½x sight would have served her better, without sacrificing 250-metre precision.
Powerful glass can also delay a shot by magnifying wobble. The longer you aim trying to settle a reticle bouncing violently about the field, the more desperately you want to breathe. Pulse-bump becomes an earthquake as eye fatigue burns the target image into your brain. Muscles tire, wobbles become shakes. Aware the shot is unraveling, you yank the trigger and miss.
Long isn’t hard.
Shivering in the November dawn, the kid was also shaking from excitement. He couldn’t steady the crosswire, even when he leaned against the fence post. It would be a long shot – the deer looked small. He’d have to aim high. With the sight bobbing above the buck’s shoulder, the kid pressed the trigger. The buck kept eating. Two more shots brought no more reaction. The deer might as well have been cropping wheat on the moon.
Since that humiliation 50 years ago, I’ve avoided aiming high. Before every hunt I chant, under my breath: “Your barrel is already pointing up!” It is, relative to the sightline. It got that way when I zeroed!
When you zero a rifle, you’re adjusting the sightline to cross the bullet’s path at the distance of your choice. Because a bullet starts dropping as soon as it leaves the muzzle, the barrel must be elevated to hit a distant target. Your sight-line is a straight path at a downward angle to bore-line. The sight-line cuts through the bullet’s arc, meeting it twice. The second intersection defines the zero range.
Point-blank range is the distance at which a dead-on hold brings desired results. Most of my hunting rifles are zeroed at 200 metres. Given this zero, popular cartridges like the .30-06 keep bullets within 8 cm above or below center to 250 metres – a long effective point-blank range. A center hold to 250 will hit vitals on all but the smallest game. Bullets will strike highest just beyond mid-range (trajectory is parabolic).
Many hunters overshoot because game looks farther than it is. In broken country, your eye takes in lots of terrain. But bullets don’t follow ground contours. “Never hold off hair,” renowned hunter and outfitter Jack Atcheson told me. “If you think an animal’s so far that you must aim above it, you’re wrong or too far away for an accurate shot.”
A caveat: game on a flat pan or plain can seem closer than it is, because your eye snares so little earth. Your brain tells you: less terrain, shorter shot.
Distance is commonly assumed the biggest obstacle to accurate shooting. It does magnify errors in aim and shot execution, and the effects of wind and gravity. But other variables can also ruin your day. The longest poke I’ve taken at elk was twice the measure of the next-longest. Still, my bullet struck less than a minute of angle from point of aim. Perfect light, still air and a slinged-up prone position made this long shot an easy shot. Last month at this writing I missed – twice! – a gemsbok close enough for a chat. Clipped by another hunter, it was dashing through bush. My stance was poor, the iron sights hard to see.
Close shots don’t ensure kills. Neither do rifle-scopes with reticles born of calculus in tubes the size of irrigation pipes. Accomplished rifleman David Tubb has designed a scope reticle that compensates for spin drift – vertical displacement of bullets in wind. For right-twist rifling, a 3-o’clock breeze kicks a bullet not directly left, but to 10 o’clock. Left wind shoves bullets to 4 o’clock. Tubb’s horizontal wire is curved to track bullet paths down-range. Still, David insists hunters must master shooting fundamentals before sophisticated hardware is of any help.
To miss is human!
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 as inexorably as facial hair. The pitiable souls who hang their egos with their targets are bound to be humbled.
Shooters who say they can’t practice because ammo costs too much or because they can’t access a range have little hope of shooting well. Many drills burn no powder. Practicing for small-bore matches, college team-mates and I donned shooting jackets and held rifles while we studied or watched television. We strengthened and stretched our muscles as they “memorized” bone-supported positions. We practiced deep breathing to bring oxygen to our eyes for sharper sight pictures. Empty hull in the chamber, we dry-fired to hone our trigger technique.
Once, closing the bolt of my Anschutz in a match, I brushed the trigger. The rifle fired. I’d barely sunk into position, had established no sight picture. The best I could hope was that the bullet had missed the paper entirely, as any hole would be scored. To my surprise, the bullet had centered the correct target on a sheet of 11 small black bull’s eyes!
Any shot to the middle without aim is great good fortune. But verily, this bullet went where the rifle had directed it. My position had allowed the rifle to point naturally at the target.
Many hunters miss game because during the off-season they fire only from a bench. Deprived of a rest in the bush, they don’t know how to align their bodies quickly with the target, so the rifle is supported by a platform of bone and relaxed muscle. Muscles under load tire and twitch; the rifle bobs and quivers. When you trigger a shot, tensed muscles involuntarily relax, shifting the rifle before the bullet leaves. A rifle relaxing onto the target will spend more time there during the firing sequence.
You’ll do well to keep both eyes open. A squint against bright sun, pelting sleet or swirling dust makes sense. But depth perception requires both eyes working in tandem. Using two eyes also gives you a wider field, so you see more details that might affect your shot. Each pupil has evolved to control the light reaching the retina, dilating in dim light, constricting in bright sun. Darkness imposed by closing an eye encourages that pupil to dilate, as the other wants to throttle light. Closing one eye strains both. Animals you seek use both eyes to stay alive or launch an attack; why close one of yours at the moment of truth?
You see best when looking straight ahead. Aiming, your face is best kept upright on the stock. Prone and sitting positions tilt your brow; but the less tilt the better! Kneeling and offhand, your head should be erect, even if only the stock’s toe meets your clavicle.
While aiming and firing a rifle is a physical process, “Marksmanship is as much mental,” said my first coach, Earl. He tapped ashes from a cigar long enough to holster. “But don’t over-think. When 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.”
Late shots don’t count.
“I should have fired sooner,” Don told me. “At six metres, he lowered his head. I didn’t want to kill that bull.” The Norma solid connected at just two steps. Momentum carried the elephant forward. As Don leaped aside, the falling beast’s trunk broke his arm.
Even if your life never hinges on a quick shot, precision has a price. Opportunity may be fleeting as an animal pauses at cover’s edge. For close encounters, fast shooting can trump gnat’s-lash accuracy.
The era of exhibition shooting stateside passed during my youth, as Herb Parsons gave his final demonstrations to pie-eyed audiences. He’d milk a Model 12 in volleys that rolled like thunder, leaving smoke floating where seven clay birds had hung briefly. Herb would toss oranges and pulp them with .30-30 bullets. Emptying a 10-shot .351 self-loader from the hip, he’d dust 10 clay targets standing on edge. “They’re not hard to hit, folks,” he’d laugh, “just easy to miss!”
Arguably, smooth, fast, instinctive shooting is disappearing, as shooters (and now, hunters) focus on ever-more-sophisticated rifles, optics and loads to hit targets far away. But some long-range marksmen have missed spectacularly up close. The equipment that helps them at distance can impede them in cover.
Better prepared for catch-as-catch-can hunting were shooters whose exploits date back a century or more. Early among them: Phoebe Ann Moses, born in a cabin in rural Ohio in 1860. Hunting to feed her family, then for market, she came to hit quail on the wing with a .22. At age 16, after thrashing him at a local match, she married visiting sharpshooter Frank Butler. They later joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, she under the name Annie Oakley.
Petite and sweet-tempered, Annie became an audience favorite. Aiming in a mirror, she fired over her shoulder to burst glass balls Frank tossed. Germany’s Crown Prince, later to become Kaiser Wilhelm II, asked her to shoot a cigarette from his lips. She did, allowing after World War I that a miss might have changed history! Annie shot coins from Frank’s fingers. Firing 25 shots in 25 seconds with a .22 repeater, she could make one ragged hole in the middle of a playing card, or split that card edgewise with a bullet. Johnny Baker, another Wild West Show marksman, 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.”
But nowhere do fast hits matter more than in Africa, when surly animals come for you. His brush with the elephant fresh in memory, Don took a client out for a lion. Big pug marks led the hunters to a fine male. At close range the client fired a black-powder load from his Holland 10-bore. The lion ran off, but the cloud of white smoke hung tight, obscuring three lionesses nearby. They charged. Two broke off, but one pressed on, low and lightning-fast. Don fired instantly. His 9.3 bullet smashed the spine between the shoulders. Dead in mid-air, the lioness cart-wheeled past the hunters.
Mused my friend: “Accurate may not be enough if you’re slow. But a miss is always worse!”