MAKING YOUR BEST SHOT COUNT
by Tony Monzingo,
Keeping low as a snake's belly in a wagon rut, you creep over the crest of the ridge. On the next ridge, across a steep, open ravine grazes the ram of your dreams. No chance to close the range any further by stalking. You take the shot or let the big guy go. You estimate the range at 250 to 300 yards. Your rifle has plenty of energy for a clean kill at that range. But is the shot ethical? Let me suggest a system that can help you be confident in your own shoot/don't shoot decisions.
First of all, all game animals deserve our respect. To attempt a shot without full knowledge that the animal can be cleanly killed and retrieved is unethical. Each of us has the responsibility to sight in our rifle, practice enough with it to establish an ethical shooting range, and keep all shots within that range.
So how do we figure our ethical shooting limits? First, we sight in under controlled conditions at known distances. Once sighted in, we shoot from hunting positions at progressively greater distances until the combination of bullet trajectory, bullet energy, and personal shooting skill puts a lid on it.
(Caribou hunting often requires careful estimation of distance. Photo by Ralph Miller, Deltana Outfitters.)
Preparing for hunting season and sighting in your rifle should begin with a thorough cleaning session. A rifle's accuracy will often dramatically improve simply by a rigorous cleaning.
Once cleaned, check the mechanical operation of the rifle to insure that it is operating properly. Check the screws on the action, sights, scope mounts, and scope rings. A literal loose screw may play havoc with accuracy in the field.
The next step is to select your ammunition. Select a premium quality bullet that is relatively heavy for the caliber of your rifle. Heavy-for-diameter bullets improve deep penetration even if they strike a bone. Ammunition is not a good place to economize on a hunt.
Every rifle has a personality. Some will shoot one brand of bullet or ammunition more accurately than another. To obtain your rifle's best accuracy try at least two brands of ammunition to see which combination your individual rifle will shoot best. I have a .375 H&H that shows a distinct preference for 300-grain Noslers. My .280 will only strut its stuff with 160-grain Fail-Safe bullets.
Now let's head for the range. Make sure you have hearing and sight protection. Purchase a few targets with one-inch grids that are specifically designed for sighting in a scope-sighted rifle. If you use a peep sight or open sights select a target with a 6- or 8-inch bullseye.
At the range, use several sand bags to completely support and position your rifle. Support your rifle at two points--one just ahead of the butt of the rifle and second under the forearm. You should not have to physically hold the rifle to aim. Absolutely do not rest the barrel on anything! Upward pressure on the barrel will likely change the impact point of the bullets.
Sit upright so you will not "crawl the stock" with your face and wind up with "magnum eyebrow." Sitting upright also allows the body to move with recoil which lessens the perceived "kick."
The objective now is repeatability. You want to control as many variables as possible while firing your sighting-in shots. To do this you support the gun, you breathe, and you squeeze the trigger the same way every shot. Unless the gun is a real hard kicker, you can control the gun with only one hand on the pistol grip. Harder kicking guns will probably require a second hand on the forearm but behind the supporting sandbags.
Fire a fouling shot first. This removes any residue from cleaning and oiling. The fouling shot is the best time to be sure your rifle is adequately supported and to practice breath and trigger control. Squeeze the trigger at the end of a normal exhale.
Use constant pressure on the trigger until the rifle fires. If you have correct trigger control the rifle will fire unexpectedly. If it takes too long to get a steady sight picture, relax, breathe naturally a few times and try again. As the rifle fires keep your head down on the stock. Try to keep your eyes on the target. This is follow through. It is important in shooting consistent groups. If your follow through is good you should be able to "call" your shot based on the sight picture when the rifle fired.
Assuming your rifle is properly bore-sighted, your fouling shot will be on the paper. Do not adjust the scope or sights yet.
Loading a single round at a time, slowly fire three shots using the basic techniques of solid gun support, controlled breathing, constant trigger pressure, and follow through. Rapid fire will heat the barrel and mask what your rifle will consistently do on that critical first hunting shot.
You should find all three bullet holes near one another. They should form a rough triangle. Using the center of that triangle and the one-inch target grid lines you can now determine how far the sights must be adjusted to center the group two to three inches above the point of aim at 100 yards.
Now adjust the scope to move the point of impact. Sighting in two to three inches above the point of aim at 100 yards will result in the bullet of most modern high-velocity rifles striking between four inches high at 150-200 yards and four inches low to between 250 or 300 yards. A well-placed shot at a big game animal from muzzle to 250-300 yards will strike within the vital area of the animal. It will usually be fatal within seconds. Most shots at big game occur within this range. This sighting-in strategy eliminates the need to memorize a trajectory table or be precise in range estimation within 250 to 300 yards.
After adjusting the sights, let the barrel completely cool down to air temperature. Repeat the three-shot group. Further sight adjustment or three-shot groups may be necessary.
You should now be able to shoot a group from a cold barrel that will center on the vertical axis of the target between two and three inches high at 100 yards. To practice for big game hunting I use a six- to eight-inch diameter bullseye target or simply a white paper plate of the same diameter.
After firing a fouling shot from a clean barrel, fire three shots at the 100 yard range from a hunting position. In hunting conditions, ground cover often prevents using the prone position. Use your practice time shooting from kneeling, sitting, and off-hand positions.
Practice until you can place all three shots somewhere on an eight-inch paper plate target at 100 yards. Then move the target further away at 50 yard increments until you can no longer place all your shots on the plate. The greatest distance at which you can place three shots on the plate should be considered your maximum shooting range.
Now back to that trophy ram. Properly sighted in, the rifle and ammunition are capable of making the shot. If you have practiced enough to place all your shots in an 8-inch circle at the ram's range, take the shot and get the skillet hot. If not, the responsible hunter will pass on the shot and wait for another opportunity to get within range.
(The hunter's rewards for a bullet well placed are good memories, good meat and a good trophy. Photo by Ralph Miller, Deltana Outfitters.)
This season let us resolve to shoot straighter. An animal wounded by incompetent shooting suffers unnecessarily. An animal shot and not recovered takes away an opportunity for another hunter and future hunters. Public opinion overwhelmingly supports taking game for human consumption if done cleanly and quickly. Help maintain public support for hunting. Practice enough before the season begins so you can make your best shot count.
This article was originally published in the August, 1997 Alaska Hunting Bulletin. Tony Monzingo was the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Hunter Services Program Coordinator until 2002. He is a widely experienced shooter and hunter.
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