RIFLES: How Much Help Do You Need?
By Wayne van Zwoll
Those who choose long-range marksmanship over real woodcraft forfeit the best of hunting: intimate encounters that make the heart gallop.
Killing is a simple act, if not always easy. Bent solely on killing, you employ the most efficient tools and techniques. Sport hunting is not just killing, though. It’s a series of events that may yield a kill—but are themselves of value. For most hunters, process matters. With no chance for success, you wouldn’t hunt. Without the prospect of failure, hunting would have no merit.
New generations of hunters learn from their forebears but also develop their own tactics. In my youth, no one bugled for elk. You couldn’t buy a commercial bugle. Beginning in the 1970s, if dimming memory serves, archers took up pipes en masse. Little more realistic in tone than gym whistles, those first curled tin tubes evolved. My first bugle, home-made of plastic plumbing and a birch plug, served well enough. Then came grunt tubes and diaphragms. I hunt silently now, unable to match the bellows of the champs, and quite content to chase bulls running from them.
New tactics beget new equipment. Sometimes the gear comes first. Archers have battled over the legitimacy of compound bows since Holless Wilbur Allen’s ’69 patent. While compounds now dominate sales, and bowmen use triggers to hurl mechanical broadheads at more than 300 fps, Pope and Young records show average killing distance has increased only 1½ yards in the past decade. It is still less than 24 steps! The generation of bowmen who accepted cables and cams proved a hard sell on crossbows—the next step in reducing effort while increasing range. In 1977 Wyoming became just the third state to permit crossbows in archery seasons. Over the next 25 years, no other states did. But in 2002 Georgia opened its four-month archery deer hunt to crossbows. Now 24 states permit them! Archers who started with carbon arrows and trigger releases surely view crossbows as less foreign—and forbidding—than do those teethed on cedar shafts and hickory self-bows.
So it goes now for riflemen. Shooting far once fueled a cottage industry in long-range rifles and loads. What few fancied has become a trend. Manufacturers trip over each other fashioning hardware to extend reach—ever careful not to endorse The Long Shot afield. Distance, after all, increases error, which cripples game. Second hits become difficult, if not impossible, at distance. Getting to the shot site takes more time and effort. Even finding a dead animal can be hard. Beyond cruelty and waste, though—is this hunting or shooting? Does it twist the definition of fair chase?
Lust for faster bullets and more fetching rifles is no more a mystery than the evolution of Ford’s Mustang from the Model T. The first smokeless cartridges were quick-steppers indeed, compared to their black-powder forebears. The 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser slung 139-grain bullets at 2,650 fps. A couple of decades later, in 1913, Charles Newton trotted out his .256 (a .264-bore). It sent 129-grain bullets at 2,760—blinding speed for the day. Two wars and a generation later, in 1959, Winchester upped the ante with its .264 Magnum. It hurled a 140-grain bullet at an advertised 3,200 fps (later revised to 3,030). Then, just this spring, the .26 Nosler arrived, with 140s listed at 3,300. My handloads clock 3,400. They reach 400 yards with a ton of energy, more than Townsend Whelen’s .30-30 had at the muzzle.
Hotrod cartridges show their stuff in big bolt rifles on bipods—which in turn beg powerful optics with range-compensating reticles. Some of these new sights, though, aren’t really optics. They’re special-purpose computers. The TrackingPoint scope has a heads-up display, three internal gyroscopes and seven processors. It feeds you distance, temperature, barometric pressure, even a compass reading. Enter a wind value, and this sight corrects for drift. It adjusts for cant and vertical angle 54 times a second. The reticle changes color when it’s on target for a center hit, given the level of precision you’ve programmed. When a target moves, the display shows its speed and provides automatic lead. Want more? An integral WIFI server lets you stream video from the scope to your mobile device. A TrackingPoint sight on a Remington 700 in .30-06 helped me ring gongs at unmarked ranges to 737 yards, with Barnes TTSX bullets. Now, this device weighs 52 ounces and sits high and wide on the rifle. It must be programmed to a given load.
Its pixilated images can’t match the resolution and brightness of optical sight pictures. And it’s expensive.
But is it unethical?
Verily, a scope cannot be ethical or unethical; neither can it be kind or brutish. A shot is likewise amoral. Long shots aren’t too long until they become unpredictable. In still air a practiced marksman with a solid position and gear up to the task can hit pie-tin centers routinely at eye-popping distance. Whether a distant poke is sporting is another question. Predictable first-shot kills are humane. You can hardly fault someone for being humane, whatever the range.
Distance is only one factor that makes a shot difficult. In 600- and 1,000-yard competition, bullets riddle centers smaller than elk vitals. Killing an elk offhand after a stiff climb, your target a brief wink of rib in aspens 100 yards away, can be devilishly hard. I declined a point-blank shot at perhaps the biggest mule deer I’ve seen because conditions put odds of a kill below my self-imposed floor of 90 percent. No rifle, load or scope can rid you of the shakes that make you miss!
Laser range-finding riflescopes, as by Burris and Zeiss, can help you put the reticle on the right place. But like the TrackingPoint sight, and trajectory-matched reticles by Greybull, Leupold and others, they don’t support the rifle, dope the wind or crush the trigger without a twitch. Distance magnifies error. It is not alone—or even primarily—responsible for misses and marginal hits. I’ve bungled so often and egregiously at modest ranges that distance has become a small fly in the soup. For me, the range at which an elk seems too far isn’t much farther than the range at which a shot seems quite reasonable, given ideal conditions. In challenging conditions, distance becomes almost irrelevant.
Not long ago, squirming through prickly pear and Texas rock, I was ending a tough four-day hunt for aoudad. The sharp-eyed wild sheep hadn’t cooperated. The morning before, I’d almost closed the deal, my crosswire on a fine ram at 150 yards. But the animal was in a tight knot of other sheep. Bunched, they moved as a unit over the ridge, descending vertical cliffs and sifting into the blue beyond of the Big Bend country. I couldn’t fire without fear of a pass-through hitting another ram.
Now, prone again, I knew the muzzle of my .308 was too low. But I dared not expose myself in a sit. The lone ram stood, obliquely but obligingly, at 200 yards. I jacked my position as high as possible, the reticle bumping back and brisket in wobbly response. Still, that tangle of steel-wool brush … I fired. The stricken ram sprinted in a wide arc. Cranking the bolt and snaking forward, I found no clear alley. My second bullet struck a branch and deflected. Mercifully, a third slipped through, catching the ram perfectly as he lunged off a rim. He tumbled down the rocks and nosed to a stop.
Without knee-high snarls of desert vegetation, a 200-yard poke prone can be child’s play. But you don’t get to change conditions. Sometimes you can’t move. All you can do then is shoot or decline.
Far is relative. It may be just a tad farther than the place you can reach with a little effort. A mule deer my pal once spied bedded on a ridge was facing us, 400 yards away. We’d run out of cover. “Shoot,” urged John. “I can get closer,” I replied, knowing odds were slim. I also knew my rifle and its 14x scope, and my shooting position and conditions, made a 400-yard kill near certain. Still, I eased ahead. The deer held. Thirty yards. Fifty. When I triggered the 7mm Magnum, the buck leaped up and dashed away. We found him dead. My sneak may have made no difference. But it gave me the satisfaction of having done all I could to trim the distance. It changed a shot to a hunt.
In Spain I once had to borrow a rifle to hunt ibex. “Shoot from here,” my guide advised, when we spied a ram just a little closer than Egypt. He insisted his 6.5x68S shot so flat I could hold dead-on. I told him I wasn’t skilled enough to use such a rifle and would have to get closer. Two stops later, I’d run out of excuses, and the ibex were still flea-size in the scope. As courteously as my limited Spanish allowed, I left the fellow, crab-walked an endless ridge, crawled to within 200 yards of the animal and dropped it.
A long-range rifle on your shoulder can prompt the assumption you’ll fire at long range. (Oddly, passengers in your pickup probably don’t assume you’ll bury the speedometer needle or red-line the tach.) Failure to shoot far can irritate hunting partners and cameramen. Once, hiking in the dark in elk country, I turned my ankle and fell on the rifle before I could twist it out of the way. Predictably, an hour later, scars still fresh, the Marlin and I zeroed in on a bull at 300 yards. Not a long shot. Not a short one. Ordinarily I’d have fired. But the knock on the scope bothered me. The elk was hard against thick cover; there’d be no second hit. After some thought, I declined. We tried to get closer and failed. Our return to camp was chilly indeed, as my decision meant more days on the hill for everyone. Targeting the rifle later, I found the zero spot-on. At week’s end, I went home without an elk. About the only thing less palatable than losing a sure shot at a bull is crippling a bull.
A closer shot isn’t always easier. I’d rather fire prone at 250 yards than kneeling at 150, offhand at 50. Once, to kill a deer bedded on a point, I slipped around it, then up the point crosswind. At 40 yards I spied the antlers and could have sat, whistled and shot the deer as it rose. Instead I yielded to hubris and bellied to within mere feet of the buck. He stood. Alas, prone, I couldn’t lift the muzzle clear of the rock between us. With more hope than sense, I fired. Shards of basalt stung us both! That deer covered a half-acre in its first bound!
Memorable, that sneak.
Stalking close, relying less on equipment than on woodcraft and your inner predator, you add an element missing in long shots: excitement. I’m reminded of Ben Lilly, the legendary bear hunter. Born in Alabama in 1856, he grew up afield, steeped in the ways of nature. He slept outdoors—allegedly in trees when the ground was wet—and wore his clothes to the last thread, claiming wind and rain washed them well enough. Lilly was not a big man, but he was extraordinarily strong and athletic. If the tales are true, he could clear a tall barrel jumping out of it! Lilly moved West as better hunting, and his hounds, drew him. Married twice, he fathered several children and never worked on Sunday. But he’d leave for weeks at a time to hunt. Observers saw it as an obsession; to Lilly it was his destiny. He hunted other game for market, killed predators for stockmen. By best estimates, he tallied nearly 400 black bears, many in the Big Thicket of Texas, most at very short range. Around 1906 he trailed a bear into a tangle of rattan and wild peach. On hands and knees he got within feet of the bear, then “worked his body against the rattan vines on both sides to clear out enough space …” He fired a shot that wounded the bear, which instantly charged. Lilly leaped back against the vines, then grabbed the bear about the neck as it turned, jumped upon it and stabbed it with his long knife.
“Long range” would have had an odd ring to Ben Lilly.
He’d have puzzled over gear designed to help hunters fire from hundreds of yards.
Skills that have nothing to do with marksmanship figure heavily in approaching game—the cream of any hunt. The risk of each step stacks tension. Your theatre shrinks at whisper range. Focus narrows to steam curling from nostrils, a pebble shifting under a hoof, twitching muscles scattering flies, the animal’s soul mirrored in an eye. You get none of that six football fields distant.
As hunting has become more costly and restrictive, many hunters have traded away the intimacy and excitement of up-close shooting. Their talk is less about the animals and the woods than about antler scores, rifles, loads and optics. Now, I hardly fault them for that. Years before elk bugles and fog-proof riflescopes, shooters argued over hunting hardware. But The Long Shot has become ever longer; and in lieu of encounters that make the pulse race, some shooters settle for pokes that require no talent beyond the tug of a trigger.
Wayne van Zwoll has published 16 books and more than 2,700 articles on rifles and shooting. Two of his latest books, Shooter’s Bible Guide to Rifle Ballistics and Gun Digest Shooter’s Guide to Rifles are chock full of information. Just out: Mastering the Art of Long-Range Shooting—and yes, Wayne always tries for the close shot.