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Making the Shot

by Christopher Batin

Editor’s note: this is reprinted from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game publication, the Alaska Hunting Bulletin.

Just as a wolf instinctively knows how to use its teeth, weight, and energy to subdue a caribou, so does a hunter need to know how to make a clean, sure kill. Because our teeth and nails would have little effect on a full-grown bull moose, we compensate by using a bow and arrow, rifle and ammunition.

Shot placement is especially important with dangerous game; for example with Alaska brown bear hunting.  Photo courtesy Byron Lamb.

Let’s stick to rifles, as this is where much of the misunderstanding exists. It's easy to understand why. It’s all to easy to be misled by ballistic figures and charts that may have no direct bearing on what it takes to humanely kill game.

Consider the magnum. It’s easy to believe that if an animal gets hit with, say, a .300 Magnum, it's going down. Its muzzle energy with a 165-grain bullet is a whopping 3,567 foot-pounds of knock-down power!

It’s just not that simple. Knockdown power is irrelevant when it comes to immobilizing a big game animal. Even if the animal is knocked off its feet by the bullet's impact, the injury the animal sustains to its nervous, muscular and circulatory systems is, in fact, what determines when and for how long it stays down.

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Ammo manufacturers have inundated us with timed exposures of how bullets pulverize ballistic gelatin, suggesting that nothing could possibly survive one of their properly placed bullets. The only thing is, gelatin doesn't have mud-coated hair, thick hide, bones, and sinew, all of which absorb and affect a bullet's energy transfer and expansion. When a legbone is placed in the gelatin, and covered with a thick, tanned hide, these "wonder bullets" might fail to penetrate the legbone.

A killing shot combines skill and properly chosen equipment that provides the fastest means to dispatch an animal. Let’s talk about how to do it, and a little bit about equipment.

I believe the heart-lung shot is best and easiest for Alaska ungulates. A good lung shot is about 1/3 up from the belly line, right behind the front shoulder. A low shot will still strike the lung and take out the heart. A high shot will hit rib bones, spine and tough connective tissue, putting the animal down quickly. We have a margin of error with this shot, which is what makes it so effective. A heart-lung shot ruins little meat, and allows the animal to bleed immediately.

While a moose or caribou can run 100 yards or more with a heart or lung shot, they will quickly go down if enough damage is done to the musculature, circulatory or respiratory system. A clipped lung is usually not sufficient to slow an animal, and we may have a tough tracking job on our hands, especially if the exit hole is small or nonexistent. For that reason, it’s important to strike as close as possible to the front of the heart/lung area.

During the thrill of the chase, we can easily identify the outline of a shoulder, and unfortunately, it is all to easy focus the crosshairs on the shoulder rather than the obscure body lines that mark the heart-lung area.

Commit this to memory now: a shoulder shot isn't the same as a heart/lung shot. The shoulder is one of the toughest areas to send a bullet through. It invariably sends lead and copper fragments through pounds of prime meat.

Now, obviously, we don't want to make a lung shot if we need to stop an animal quickly. Here a spine or shoulder shot is preferred. A quick-stopping shot is also wise for species such as goats, which can either stand in one place before dropping, or catapult themselves off a ledge and into an inaccessible area after being hit. In other words, it's best to sacrifice a front quarter than lose a complete animal. But, I believe we should always strive for a shot that kills quickly and minimizes damage to meat.

Other examples of where we might consider an quick-stopping shot is a moose on the edge of a lake or river, or into the shoulder of a brown bear that has spotted us. Another might be wounded game that is fast disappearing.

Here is my basic recommendation: for most ungulates, we should stick with a heart/lung shot. It's the most deadly in the long run, and it's an easy shot that minimizes meat damage.

Here’s another recommendation: we’re best off sticking with heart-lung shots until recent bullet groupings at the range prove that we can place a bullet accurately in a variety of positions and at a variety of ranges. And always avoid the temptation of shooting at distances so far we have to put salt on the bullet to keep the meat from spoiling before we get there!

There are many things that go into making the optimum killing shot that are beyond the scope of this article: things such as sectional density and ballistic coefficient. In regards to accuracy, there is the issue of harmonics, as some rifles shoot some bullets more or less accurately than others. If you want to learn more about these, talk to your gunsmith or check out some handloading books.

I've personally stopped using standard factory bullets and inexpensive factory loads because test studies show these bullets often don't have the weight retention and controlled expansion under a variety of conditions as do the newer bullets. I concur with these observations based on my kills over the five years since I've seriously started to use the new-generation Trophy Bonded, A frames, Barnes-X and Fail-Safe bullets.

I do know other hunters, however, who swear by the factory and traditional bullets. Veteran brown bear and Dall sheep guide Joe Want swears by factory loaded Remington Core-Lokt bullets, and says they perform adequately.

For blacktail deer, caribou and sheep, a Nosler would be an excellent choice for a heart-lung shot, where there is minimal bone and tissue to penetrate. Also, these bullets are less likely to exit the animal. For larger game species, such as goat, bear, and moose, the new-generation bullets are probably our best choice, especially if we might be faced with making a shoulder or quick-stopping shot.

Here are a few final suggestions:

It’s important that we know our shooting limitations. All my Alaska big game hunting is done with two rifles: a .30-‘06 or a 338 custom. I'm not a believer in an arsenal of 20-plus rifles because I don't have time to stay proficient with many different firearms. But I can with two.

Shoot a variety of loads and see which bullet performs best in your rifle and at the ranges you typically shoot game.

Practice year round.

Before season, practice trigger squeeze and the mechanics of marksmanship, which is as much a mental activity as it is physical training and coordination.

And finally, remember that you decide the shot. The bullet always obeys your preliminary actions of sight picture, trigger squeeze and follow-through.

See you at the rifle range.

Chris Batin is editor of the Alaska Hunter and author of the 416-page, award-winning book, "Hunting in Alaska: A Comprehensive Guide." Autographed copies are available from the author. Write Alaska Hunter Publications, PO Box 82222, Fairbanks, AK 99708 or call 907-455-8000 or via the internet at http://www.alaskahunter.com
 

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