Stricken Elk and Second Chances
by Wayne van Zwoll
Good hits come harder after bad shots. Fire as if you have only one chance. Then fire again.
The best way to prepare for a second shot is to assume you’ll always need one. But you take your first shot with the assumption you’ll have no chance for a second. This paradox may draw shrugs from hunters who’ve never fired at an elk, and those who’ve never lost one. The uninitiated have my sympathy.
Your first shot can be worth several follow-ups. Most first shots are fired at undisturbed game. You’re often able to get close and manipulate the shot angle to your advantage. Ideally, you have time to aim, let your pulse subside and steady the rifle.
Most second shots follow poor first shots. You hurried; you jerked the trigger; you flinched; you fired even as your wobbly position let the sight wander off-target. I’ve squandered chances at elk with these and other blunders. A follow-up bullet can salvage what you lost to bad shooting, or to conditions beyond your control—a wind gust, an elk’s step just as the trigger broke.
Differences in bullet path, upset and energy affect animal reaction to hits that look the same from behind the scope.
Elk that drop as if the earth were yanked from under them have most often sustained injury to the spine and its nerve bundles. Without them, the animal can’t stand. A spinal hit behind the shoulders puts the rear quarters out of service. A bullet to the forward spine short-circuits all support and can itself kill instantly. It’s the proverbial neck shot. Alas, organs and tissue around the neck vertebrae occupy a lot of what you see in your scope. If you miss the spine, a neck shot can seriously or fatally injure the elk without giving you a chance for a follow-up or recovery.
No elk can run, or even stand, with two broken shoulders. A shot that shatters one impedes travel.
A bullet through both lungs will always kill, sometimes quickly but most often after a short time. The elk often moves off, sometimes in a hurry. A bullet through the heart commonly acts like a shot of adrenaline, prompting a sprint that can carry the animal dozens of yards before Death swings its scythe.
Like a hit too far back and a neck shot that misses the spine, a shot that damages a leg is bad business. If the bone is intact, expect a long trail. Even if you shatter a front leg, you’ll work hard to catch that elk. It’s more apt to stop and/or bed if alone. But elk are herd animals, and others on the move can pull the injured animal far. Even a shot that breaks a hind leg can test your persistence. Bone splintered high is more debilitating than if your bullet strikes below the knee or hock. All leg hits are glaring proof of poor marksmanship, judgment or both.
Elk reaction clues you to a bullet’s effect, but that evidence isn’t conclusive. Better, in my view, is your “call”—the point of impact you expect, given the image of the sight picture as recoil erased it. With this in mind, you can predict internal damage. Remember: elk vitals are three-dimensional.
Shot angle affects both the entry point for a bullet and the damage it causes.
Keep an open mind. If a bull collapses, you may have destroyed the spine or shoulders. Or you may instead have splintered a spinal process—the topside extension of a vertebra. The shock of such a hit can floor an elk. But absent injury to the spinal cord, that effect is temporary. When the animal suddenly sees you approach, it may vault to its feet. Able again to move, it won’t soon stop. Call a high hit? Prepare to fire again right away! Given a good look at the downed animal, send another bullet to the chest.
You might delay that follow-up shot if you’re certain you drilled clavicle or humerus. Elk vitals lie low between the shoulders; a bullet’s path through both is lethal.
A high-speed softpoint detonating a shoulder ruins a lot of meat, so ordinarily I put my first bullet in the crease just above the “elbow”—assuming a broad-side look. I’m not concerned if the elk moves off after a good call. Still, given another chance to fire, I take it.
Usually, the sooner you shoot, the better. A second chance can quickly vanish.
After a hit, I jettison my “90-percent” standard. That is, I fire even if I’m not 90 percent certain of a lethal hit. Such a bar for the first shot seems to me a good way to ensure you won’t need a follow-up. But a hit imposes a responsibility to kill. You must then conclude the animal is doomed, that it will succumb to the damage. Declining a second shot won’t spare the beast. That stricken elk is yours. You can’t heal it; you can only kill it. Firing, once your prerogative, is suddenly your imperative.
Occasionally a follow-up is best delayed. There’s no sense whaling away at a departing elk when, if you steadied your reticle on an opening, or waited until the bull turned, you’d get a sure shot.
Bullet damage to the meat may influence placement of your first shot, even your decision to fire at all. It has no place in plans for follow-ups, when your priority is to anchor the animal. I’ve killed elk quartering away, pulverizing hams to apply the brakes. Last fall I hit a bull in the hip after a shot I was sure had lethal effect. None of us want these outcomes. But as long as an elk is mobile, additional shots make sense. Saving meat won’t matter if you lose the animal.
First, second or fifth, the only bullets that count are those that hit. Neglect aiming, and you might as well save the cartridge. Ditto if you accept a sight picture that bounces the sight wildly about the mark. I once missed an outstanding deer because I hoped the reticle would jog onto the target. Hope contributes little to marksmanship.
Long pokes have become common currency, resulting in much crippled game. Poor hits far away mean follow-ups that impose more bullet drop and drift and greatly magnify the effects of wobble and rough trigger pulls.
Whether on a follow-up or your first shot, a misfire is unnerving. The overwhelming temptation: fire again, quickly! So you yank the trigger and miss.
Perhaps the most disheartening of misfires is that of a muzzleloader. Your only hope, if a primer fails, is to replace it or cock the hammer again. Fishing another primer from your possibles bag is rarely an option when the animal knows you’re there. As a misfire can derail your focus, so can awareness of that stack of cartridges in your magazine. The easier it is to fire repeat shots, the more likely you are to rely on them. That’s one reason auto-loading rifles fail to impress seasoned hunters. Immediate access to another shot seldom saves the day; it becomes a liability if you can’t wait to get to it!
A single-shot rifle can help you concentrate. So can loading your magazine short of capacity, or hunting with only the four or five rounds in your rifle. None of these “handicaps” has cost me a second chance, or left my rifle empty. Surely I’ll hear from hunters who’ve trudged to camp for more softpoints! One hunter out of ammo finished a wounded but still active elk with a knife. “A wild ride,” he conceded. “But the hospital bed was comfortable.”
Given limited firepower, you’re naturally more careful. But once an elk is hit, conserving ammo plummets on your to-do list.
Usually, your best chance for a lethal second shot is from the place you fired the first. Even if the animal leaves, you’re smart to remain still, rifle ready. If you move, you may well alert game that didn’t see you before. You increase your heart rate, which makes accurate shooting difficult. Unless you mark it, you can lose track of where you fired—a spot you may need to reconstruct the shot. Because I fire mostly from slinged-up prone or sitting, moving requires disassembly of a carefully built position. Rebuilding it takes time, and there’s no guarantee another suitable place will appear when the animal does.
As soon as the rifle fires, I cycle the action and re-establish my position. If the elk has dropped or has stopped close by, I keep my scope on that spot, even if brush cancels a chance or the elk is down.
For every second chance you’ll get at elk galloping away, you’ll likely approach several down but not yet dead. I once delayed finishing shots. “No sense ruining meat or charging the animal with adrenalin,” I’d heard. Other hunters watching animals die cite the cost of ammunition or pride themselves in one-shot kills. I’m not in that camp. A humane kill is my first priority. Now I end the drama right away, usually with a shot between the shoulders from the brisket. I stay some yards off, to spare the animal the terror of a close approach.
You might say a finishing shot is your second chance for a clean, sportsmanlike kill.
Wayne van Zwoll—journalist, scholar, sharpshooter, hunting guide—has published 10 books and more than 1,000 articles on rifles and big game hunting. Among his most recent works:
Elk and Elk Hunting, Bolt Action Rifles, The Hunters Guide to Accurate Shooting and
The Book of the .22.