Engineering The Shot | Know Your Target and What is Beyond

Engineering The Shot | Know Your Target and What is Beyond

For some of us, opening day of deer season is an extraordinary time. Decades ago, when I started deer hunting, it was relatively new to my part of the country. There were a low number of permits issued, via a drawing with strict guidelines, and none of the fancy hunting gear you see today was available. We were all basically in a learning phase and just did the best we could. For many years, deer season, and opening day controlled my blood pressure, sleep, and eating habits, during the weeks preceding the season. The excitement was out of control by the night before opening day. Finding, bagging, and checking in a deer, was not a slam dunk, and the first two years of my efforts only resulted in many miles of walking and hoping.

The point is, the whole hunting experience consumed me. Seeing a deer, and actually getting a shot, were the objects of my entire mental processes. When I finally tagged a deer, I was into my third year. Sitting on a log in the sun about mid-morning, I happened to see the white around a deer’s eye, moving in a thick tangle, no more than 25 yards distant.  It took several minutes for me to realize it was a deer, and to finally make out its midsection. At that moment, I got my first case of “buck fever.” I started to shake badly and could see nothing but the deer. I had no clue if anything or anyone was behind it. Shooting was my total focus. In retrospect, this scares me. It actually scares me a lot.

Upon reviewing the incident, I realized, I had abandoned all I had learned about safety from hunting other game. I had allowed the game to control my emotions and judgment. Fortunately, few of us had permits in those days, and I was far from houses and livestock. I didn’t cause any collateral damage, but I could have. From that point on, I began to initiate my own program, designed to prevent such foolishness in the future. I do not enjoy worrying or being scared.

All of us have been told to identify our target and to know what is beyond it. We repeat this note of caution numerous times in our hunter education classes. However, sometimes I think we become numb to some of these warnings and don’t fully understand the ramifications. Exacerbating the problem is some awful information in the hunting community concerning what some firearms can and cannot do, which can lead to unintended consequences.

One of the most common points of confusion and debate is just how far a specified firearm will ultimately shoot. This is an area that is hard to definitely establish and relies primarily on mathematical calculations.  The variables are many. There are data tables available for many calibers, and these can give you a rough idea. You will find some surprises if you take the time to research your favorite calibers. It occurred to me that maximum lethal range would be a moot point if we operated on the idea that we control the final resting place of the projectile.

Most all of the hunter education manuals state that a .22 round is dangerous to a mile or more.  Some find that hard to believe, but if you look at some documented cases of accidental shootings, you will soon see that it’s possible. When I look back at the nights I ‘coon hunted and shot up in a tree, it gives me the chills.  There you are in the dark, shooting into the night sky, and have no clue where that bullet will land. The same applies to squirrel hunting with a rifle. I have done both with no known incidents, but I am not comfortable with it.

Another example of an area of concern is coyote hunting.  Groups of hunters follow their dogs, tracking them with electronics from their vehicles, hoping to get a shot when the quarry gets close to a road. It is a lot of fun and makes for a great day of camaraderie. More time is spent in conversation, listening for the dogs, and waiting than shooting. However, the preferred firearm is a scoped up rifle in .223 or larger. Depending on the caliber, these centerfires will travel in the realm of two to four miles. A running coyote makes it challenging to shoot to a backstop, and due to the amount of travel involved during a hunt, keeping track of houses, livestock, and buildings, is nearly impossible. Many take comfort in the myth that a high-speed bullet disintegrates when it hits a weed, etc. and is, therefore, safer. Unfortunately, that is just not true.

Where I come from, deer season is the big thing. It has become a significant source of income for the various communities and has spawned many lodges and outfitters. In the early days, only smoothbore shotguns with slugs were allowed. I suppose because most thought shotguns didn’t shoot very far, they really didn’t have to worry. Nothing could be further from the truth. Over the years, there have been reports of buildings and vehicles being ventilated by deer slugs. A deer slug is an impressive round, and it takes a lot to stop it. You will always remember the day one came rattling through the woods in your direction. On more than one occasion, I have had to “hit the dirt,” as they say. On three occasions, I actually saw the person shooting my direction. All three times, the deer was between the shooter and me. I was in plain sight and was wearing the required blaze orange attire. This is an example of tunnel vision in the extreme. It is a rather uncomfortable feeling.

Ok then. What steps can we take to make hunting safer concerning managing a bullet’s ultimate destination?

Here is how I approach it. The first thing I do is to become as familiar as possible with the hunting area I have selected. When I started using this approach, I would go to the local Soil Conservation office and buy an aerial photo. Now, with Google Earth and it’s tools, you can get all the information necessary for a parcel of land, including the ability to measure distances and identify centers of population. In some cases, a street view may be available. Once I get the photo, I physically scout the area, making a note of houses, livestock, roads, topography, and proximity of municipalities. You can mark these on the map, along with possible stand locations.

During my scouting, I further narrow down the actual spots I want to hunt. I pay particular attention to possible shooting scenarios. I do a lot of visualizing, actually imagining where I would like the deer to stand, after determining likely traffic patterns. I immediately start identifying shoot-no shoot zones, based on my position, versus the “lay of the land.” Many times, the looking setups, get vetoed once I check my maps and review the location of houses, etc.. You must remember, a bullet can get deflected by anything it might hit during its flight and careen out of control. The goal is to have complete control over the projectile’s flight from beginning to end.

One of the most challenging assignments I have ever had was my participation in a wildlife mitigation project at a government facility. Deer were the primary problem, and after spending many hours with a state biologist, I began to implement what I have described above. To make it even more interesting, I was permitted to shoot day or night and to use whatever firearm and caliber, I determined to be the safest for the situation. The target area was about 300 acres containing several deep hollows, and timber totaling approximately 40 acres. There are houses, roads, and livestock surrounding the property, and a town close by. One of the conditions for the latitude I had been given, was for me to guarantee that no round would leave the property.

Since the total property is not that large, whatever I used would shoot right past the fences, so I opted for a Ruger #1 with a 3-9 power scope, in .25 06, for the most serious work. This round will travel over 3 miles. Therefore, it is imperative that every bullet must stop within property boundaries. In addition, with the exception of light varmint bullets, the projectile will almost certainly pass through the target. I began to literally decide where the deer would have to stand, and the angle I would have to be relative to the target. This had to be pre-determined, in the event I was shooting in the dark. Angle, distance, elevation, and backstop were all figured in, along with making sure that any variable I couldn’t control, would not result in an errant flight towards my neighbors or their property.

Let me give you an actual example of this in action. One morning while driving on the property, I saw four deer spread out in the cornstalks paralleling the roadway I was on. They were all on the higher part of the field, and even though there was a timberline behind them, I was not about to shoot. There was only one area in the stalks low enough that I thought a shot would be possible if I had the correct angle. The trick was getting them to that spot. The distance was about 150 yards, give or take. I drove to where I needed to be and waited. Eventually, one of the four started feeding toward my predetermined “X.” It soon walked into the depression and stopped. The rifle did its job and anchored it on the spot. As I was reloading and watching for the others, a second deer walked up to target number one to see what was going on and met a similar fate. Reloading again, I saw that deer number three was on its way as well. Scratch three.

The shakes began at that point, as I wondered about deer number four. I unloaded and drove back to where it had been feeding. It was now on the move, heading for the other three. I hurriedly returned to my original position on the field road, got out, slid another cartridge into the Ruger #1 and waited. The wait was brief. I dispatched deer number four as soon as it stepped on the “X,” and I was a wreck: four shots, four deer, and all in less than ten minutes. Keep in mind that they would have all walked had they not been where I wanted them to be.

For those that might be curious, I give away most of the deer to those who have contacted me. I always have a list, and in this particular case, the four deer went to a pair of disabled Viet Nam vets and their families, who had contacted me the day before. I bagged a fifth one the next day for them. It was most gratifying.

When teaching novice hunters, I try to convey the idea that we are always going to try to determine the bullet’s final resting place. It is human nature, especially when the biggest buck you’ve ever seen is approaching, for you to get a dose of “buck fever.” The pulse quickens, breathing becomes rapid and shallow, and in some cases, tremors begin.  At this point, the total focus is on the quarry, and most thought processes outside of bagging the deer, vaporize. This is where my technique can save the day. If you pick your shoot zone in advance of seeing the game, deciding for example, that the target must be on the hillside, between tree A & B which are 50 yards apart, and about halfway up the hillside, you won’t have to make that decision in the heat of the moment.  Granted, it takes real self-control to pass on a shot, but it’s more than worth it. I have let many more deer walk than I have taken, and I have taken many more than most.

So far, we have applied this to primarily hunting from a stand. However, we can apply the same principles whether driving deer (where legal), coyote hunting, or bird hunting. It becomes a more fluid and ever-changing process but can be easily done. The bottom line is, if it doesn’t look right, don’t shoot. You have given up control, once you pull the trigger.

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John Guthrie has been a sport shooter and hunter for several decades. He has experience in law enforcement, competition, and has taught hunter education for 35 years.
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