When NOT To Shoot

By Chuck Hawks

It seems that the popular hunting and shooting magazines are full of descriptions of miraculous shots that successfully bag big game animals. Animals are reported killed while running away and at unfavorable angles, behind thick brush, at very long range, and sometimes all of the above. One might conclude that such exploits are commonplace and that it is morally proper to bang away at animals under all sorts of adverse conditions. Nothing, of course, could be farther from the truth.

Unfortunately, these writers never tell us the percentage of one shot kills achieved on their hunts, or mention how many times the author and his friends failed to put down game under similar conditions on previous hunts. We never hear about the many fine game animals that were wasted, escaping to die a lingering death hours or days later. If any shot goes astray in these articles it is invariably reported as a "miss." Yet in the real world clean misses are rare (it takes truly bad shooting to miss an entire deer!). Sadly, it is wounded animals that run off without showing any visible signs of being hit that are the norm, their pain concealed from the hunter by the temporary natural anesthetics of shock and adrenaline.

I have read that game departments estimate that as many big game animals are wounded and lost as are brought to bag. That is a shameful statistic that, in good conscience, simply cannot be tolerated. We cannot, as a practical matter, afford to waste so much of our precious game resources.

Every animal wounded and lost by an irresponsible hunter is an opportunity denied to all other hunters. It's time for responsible hunters to get mad at those who take risky shots. They should not be applauded for connecting on a low percentage shot, but ostracized for attempting it in the first place!

One famous author (now long gone to the great slaughterhouse in the sky) was always writing about taking "raking" shots on game, particularly elk. This guy apparently seldom if ever passed on a shot, regardless of the range or the direction the animal was standing or running. He believed that no rifle of less than .33 caliber should ever be used on elk or other large game. Like many big bore aficionados he seemed to believe that raw power could make up for poor shot selection.

But shooting at any big game animal from behind is a bad idea. Bigger calibers are not the answer, better shot selection is. The self-control required to turn down a shot from a bad angle or at a running animal is far more valuable to a hunter than a .334 OKH Magnum rifle.

In truth, some of these authors are (or were) gifted shots. A few dedicated hunters and riflemen, particularly from generations past when game was plentiful and game laws lax or nonexistent, actually shot at enough running game to get pretty good at it. Jack O'Connor was one of these, and he often wrote truthfully about his experiences shooting animals on the run.

But O'Connor lived at a time when it was possible to kill thousands of small and hundreds of big animals. He was a well educated, highly intelligent, physically gifted shooter who studied and practiced his craft. He had an excellent understanding of ballistics, animal anatomy, and a wealth of experience. No modern once a year hunter can, or should try, to duplicate the feats of men like Jack O'Connor, Warren Page, Pete Brown, Francis Sell, or Elmer Keith.

The truth is you are not Jack O'Connor, and neither am I. What we can do, though, is to hunt within our capabilities and thereby minimize the waste of game animals. We can be moral, humane, and successful hunters if we:

  1. Use a cartridge adequate for the purpose. The .243 Winchester, for example, is the minimum acceptable medium to long range cartridge for hunting North American deer and general CXP2 class game. (See my article "Matching the Gun to the Game" for lists of acceptable cartridges for taking the various classes of game.)
  2. Always shoot from within the maximum point blank range (MPBR) of the rifle/cartridge combination we are using. If the prey is beyond the MPBR, stalk closer or pass on the shot.
  3. Shoot only at standing animals--forgo shots at running game.
  4. Shoot from a position within an approximate 220 degree arc in front of the animal. Attempt no "raking" or oblique shots from the rear. Never shoot at an animal's ass!
  5. Shoot from the steadiest practical field position (usually sitting or from an impromptu rest).
  6. Most of all, take only shots that you know you can make. If you merely think you can make the shot, don't attempt it!

If we follow these simple rules the total number of shots we take at game will go down, but the percentage of one shot kills will go way up. And there will be more game for all of us to hunt in the future.

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Copyright 2003, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.