by Wayne van Zwoll, Bugle, September/October 1999
The hunter assured me he could hit the bull. And he did. Once. It dropped but got back up and struggled into some brush. We could see it from across the bowl. "Wait until it gives you a really good shot," I said, knowing that he had already muffed the best shot he would get.
That elk died after a few tense moments and not a few more shots.
The best shot you'll get is indeed the first. It is the shot that gives you the most options. You can choose to trigger the rifle, wait or not fire at all. You may be allowed some choices with follow-up shots too, but after a hit, you can't choose not to shoot again if you have the chance. That prerogative is yours only with an animal that hasn't been hit. Once you've drawn blood, you've committed to a kill and must finish the job.
The first shot is also the best, because it is typically at an undisturbed animal. There's no rush. You can find a rest or steady position, double-check the wind and the distance, let your crosswire settle a bit, crush the trigger as if it were an egg and you didn't want to wet your finger.
Still, no matter how confident you are, no matter how easy the shot, things can go wrong. A sec-ond-shot routine makes sense for everybody. Oddly enough, many hunters who carry enough ammunition to have turned the tables at the Little Bighorn do not practice second shots.
The first rule of second shots is to reload right away, before the echo of the first shot has died. Train yourself to reload automatically, whatever the reaction of the animal and wherever you think the bullet went. Forget about the brass. Don't look at it. Don't even think about it.
Second shots are not like first shots. They must often be taken quickly at animals on the move or far off, and from less stable positions than you used for the first shot. What makes them even harder is your own sense of urgency. If you're like me, that sense can jump to just a throttle notch below panic. You can't hit consistently if you tighten up or rush the shot.
Efficient use of time can help you avoid panic. That's why you reload right away.
A couple of years ago, a hunter and I sneaked to within 100 yards of a big bull elk, visible through a narrow gap in the forest. The hunter shot. The bull went down, got back up and stood still, unsure of where to move. The hunter fired four more times, re-loaded and shot another magazine dry without sign of a hit. He was resting his rifle over my spotting scope, but his body shook uncontrollably with excitement. Every miss increased the urgency of the next shot. My efforts to calm him proved fruitless, mainly because I was wound pretty tight myself.
Eventually the poor fellow ran out of ammunition. But luck was with us. The stricken bull still didn't know where we were. I ducked into some trees, raced over the ridge and grabbed a rifle from the hunter's partner, who had waited while we made the final stalk. I got back in time.
The crucial thing missing from this elk hunter's kit was self-discipline. Not that anyone would want to lose the thrill of the shot, but keeping emotions under control for follow-up shots helps you hit.
The man may also have handicapped himself by using an autoloading rifle. In my view, rifles that hold lots of cartridges and cycle fast encourage sloppy shooting. While a single-shot hardly guarantees better results, it can make you more deliberate. You can actually reload a single-shot quickly with practice (though cold weather affects you to a much greater degree than if you were using a repeater). Extra cartridges can be carried in loops on an elastic sock that hugs the buttstock. Or you can slip backup rounds in jacket or trouser pockets (one per pocket to keep them from rattling). Even the best of leather and plastic belt pouches gives slow access. If you shoot a bolt-action rifle, a couple of cartridges in the magazine should be sufficient insurance.
One Wyoming autumn in the high country, I spied a bull elk sneaking through a stand of Douglas fir. He paused in an opening and dropped to my shot. But he wasn't dead. Partially visible, he thrashed around in low brush as my partner came up from be-low to join me. He got very excited telling me to hit the elk before it got up. That was not bad advice; but I was sitting, wrapped in a sling, with the elk in my scope. I could have shot instantly if the elk had jumped up. Firing without a sure shot might have put the elk on its feet while I was working the bolt. I patiently waited a few more seconds, got a look behind the shoulder and drove one more bullet through both lungs.
Elk don't always fall down when you hit them. Assume you did, unless you have clear evidence to the contrary. If you weren't certain of a lethal hit, you wouldn't have shot. You can often hear a bul-let strike. A solid "thwuck" or “thwunk" usually means a hit to the ribs. Bullets striking leg bones give you a "crack"; paunch hits sound sodden. If the animal is very close, the rifle's report may drown the sound of the bullet's impact. Close shots also deny you visual evidence because recoil hides the hit. But the closer the shot, the more likely a hit.
At long range you can sometimes see the flinch or even the impact. The elk is unlikely to stand after a hit. If you see a sudden reaction, you almost surely scored. An elk startled by the sound of the shot will be slower to move, because there's no physical jolt, and at a distance the sound arrives well after the bullet. A spurt of dust or snow beyond the animal means nothing, because bullets can pass through as well as miss.
If you hit an animal, well or poorly, the best option is to stay where you are, rifle ready, and shoot again as soon as you get a good opportunity. If the elk is moving away and unlikely to show you its vitals, shoot again as fast as you can with accuracy, aiming for what you can see. Be sure it is indeed the same animal you hit. Keep your eye glued to that elk, noting its travel direction and behavior. Shoot when you can hit. Don't hesitate.
A friend of mine once took a long, ill-advised poke at a bull, hit it too far back and went after it. He properly kept to the side of the track and did a lot of glassing as the animal entered a dense patch of brush. He spotted a piece of the animal and carefully eased to the right until he had an open shot at the ham in line with the off shoulder. It was a poor shot, one he would normally pass. So he passed. The bull heard him as he tried to position himself for a shot to the ribs and dashed away. He did not get another chance.
When an elk is wounded and still on its feet, the rules change. You shoot when you can, carefully but quickly, aiming to kill first but anchor if you can-not reach the vitals. You don't think about meat dam-age or the cost of bullets. Finishing is your only priority.
Several years back, I came through a dense stand of conifers at dusk and jumped a herd of elk. They crashed away in all directions. I pivoted toward a flash of antler and put a .338 bullet into the shoulder of a bull. The animal went down but got back up, scrambling. I fired as soon as I found a patch of hide in the scope, then fired again. The last round in my rifle dropped the bull for good.
I'd decided instantly, when I first saw the elk, that I could make a lethal hit with the first bullet. That was a snap decision, but one I made knowing my limitations and capabilities. These differ among hunters.
Once that first bullet struck, the mission changed. My criteria became much less stringent: if I could see the reticle on elk, I fired. In this case, waiting for a better second shot would have meant no follow-up shooting at all.
When the shot is close, in timber, and the animal runs, your initial urge may be to give chase. That can work to your advantage if the elk leave as a herd, especially if you can split the herd and stay between the two groups. You may be able to run fast into or across the wind. On a lone bull, this tactic is less effective because there's no commotion to drown yours. Besides, if you choose to sprint after elk, you must start right away. That means you're out of position before the elk is out of sight. Even if the elk appears to have locked the throttle open, your chances for a second hit are probably better if you stay put.
Once I made a high lung shot on a yearling bull at 60 yards, using a lightly constructed smallbore softnose that didn't penetrate. The elk darted toward nearby timber but stopped behind a tree at the edge, because it wasn't sure where the danger was. I was still wrapped in the sling, so it was pretty easy to shade close to the tree and break the bull's neck with my second shot.
When the elk does disappear and you've no chance to catch it with a sprint, be still for a few seconds before following. Some hunters extend that recess to several minutes, even an hour. Elk are fast and tough, however, and, in my view, a rifle-shot animal (not one hit with an arrow) is best followed right away.
A poorly hit elk may give you a long tracking job. On the other hand, the animal may stop close by. Be prepared! If you move toward an apparently help-less animal, it may find the energy to bolt. Once a hunter and I jumped a big elk from its bed. It stopped when I chirped on a cow call and collapsed to the hunter's bullet. We waited a full minute, then advanced. Within a few steps of the carcass, we were astonished when it came alive and jetted off through the timber.
"Shoot! I screeched. He did, three times, killing the elk just before it vanished.
This rifleman surprised me with his deft bolt manipulation. Many hunters don't know how to re-load quickly because they shoot mostly from a bench, picking each fired case from the breech and placing it in an ammo block. In the field, you mustn't look down. The elk may be gone when you look up, or it may change places with another in a herd, leaving you wondering which was hit.
Take a tip from National Match shooters who cycle the action with lightning speed in the rapid-fire stage of that event: Make up some dummy cartridges (mark them well!) and practice running them through the chamber from hunting positions as you watch television. Some riflemen reload from the shoulder. With bolt guns I prefer dropping the butt slightly to better see the target. Lowering the gun also lets you glimpse the magazine in your peripheral vision and gives you more leverage (translation: speed) with your hand. Another advantage: In cold weather, lowering the gun prevents scope fogging as you exhale between shots. Whatever your preference, practice so reloading be-comes routine. You should be able to do it in the dark, by feel. Remember that bulky hunting clothes and gloves or mittens make the job harder. Wear them in practice after you develop your rhythm.
You can't very well practice the panic you might feel after a huge elk flinches at a bullet's impact and springs away. But you can simulate excitement and boost your pulse with a burst of exercise before you shoot. That will force you to tame a bouncing rifle and control the trigger.
The best second shot, of course, is the shot you never have to take. But one-shot elk kills happen less often than many hunters think. The success of your next hunt may well hinge on your ability to shoot quickly and accurately after your best shot is history.
Wayne van Zwoll has published a dozen books, more than 1,500 articles and 3,000 photos about guns, ammo, optics and hunting. He has been a guide and logger, holds a Ph.D. in wildlife policy from Utah State University and was one of the Elk Foundation’s first field directors. His Bugle column, inaugurated in 1986, is our longest running department.