One good shot is all you’re apt to get in the thick stuff. Make it count.
Despite all the tales of shooting game from one mountain top to the next, the bulk of big game hunters’ shots are at close range in thick cover. Shots in the brush are often more difficult to make than deliberate long-range shots. Branches reach out like a catcher’s mitt to block a bullet’s flight, and game is frequently running.
However, a hunter can make those shots by setting up for a clear shot and using one of several methods of connecting on moving game.
If you’re hunting in thick cover, sit down to set yourself up for a clear shot at a standing deer. When you’re still, deer have no idea danger is close.
A hunter can also choose a spot with open lanes for a clear shot.
When I took my neighbor’s daughter, Emilee, whitetail hunting last fall, I knew she would be accurate if she had a few seconds to line up her sights on deer. So in the dark before morning, we tiptoed through the woods to sit at the base of a big ponderosa pine with a view down a lane along the edge of swamp.
At sunup, a doe came prancing up the way, stopping every so often to look back over her shoulder. After a minute, the antlers of a buck floated through the trees and brush where the doe had been. When the buck stepped into the open, I grunted. It stopped with its chest behind the only tree in the path, and looked toward us.
But Emilee had her rifle on her shooting sticks and remained still. After a minute, the buck stepped toward the doe. Another grunt stopped it in the open this time. Emilee fired within a few seconds. In a step, the buck was gone into the trees. But it fell within 20 yards, a bullet from a .257 Roberts through its lungs.
More often, game is somewhere else and you have to go find it.
When still-hunting through the forest, I creep a short distance, then stop for a few minutes to look ahead with a binocular. A binocular’s ability to focus on a specific spot distinguishes stumps from bedded elk and branches from antlers.
Seeing game before it has a chance to see you is a huge advantage.
Two years ago, I was sneaking along a creek bottom and stopped to scan ahead with my binocular. A branch 60 yards ahead looked suspiciously like a whitetail antler.
Within a few seconds, the branch turned and I saw the nose of a deer. After a minute, the buck stepped into the clear, and I sent a 130-grain bullet from my 7mm-08 rifle through the buck. It is the largest whitetail I’ve ever taken.
Often as not, though, the game spots you first, and a running shot is your only chance at redemption. If the animal is more than a hundred yards away and beating feet, the chances of making a lethal shot are poor, and it’s best to hold your fire.
There are several methods to hit running game at shorter distances. One is to hold on an open spot ahead of the game and fire when it runs into the open. Another is to swing in front of the game and fire. A third is to start the rifle behind the game, swing through and past it, and fire when the sight crosses in front of the animal.
My reflexes are too slow to hold a scope’s crosshairs in front of a deer and fire at the correct moment to hit it in the right spot. Even at 50 yards, the lead for such a shot seems too great to allow my brain to complete the circuit of seeing the game, deciding to shoot and then squeezing the trigger.
Also, the chances of connecting depend on the speed of the game and how far it is from you.
One spring long ago, I peeked over the lip of a hill and saw a black bear below me at 40 yards. It saw me at the same time and took off running. I pointed the crosshairs of my .338 at the left edge between two trees and fired when the bear entered the gap.
The bruin flinched at the shot and turned downhill. Lucky for me, and I do mean luck, a second bullet hit the bear behind the last rib and went up into the lungs.
Keeping the rifle swinging. the sights a certain distance ahead of fleeing game, and firing when it runs through an opening, is more effective. It removes some of the muscle response and brain delay of firing.
Because everyone’s reflexes differ, and game might be running at an angle or at varying speeds, only you can tell how much lead is correct for you. For me, the crosshairs with just a touch in front of the chest is correct for shots out to 50 yards.
On an elk at about 80 yards, the right lead is a vertical line down from the nose, or about 2 feet in front of the shoulder. Keep the rifle swinging all the way through the pull of the trigger, or your bullet will hit too far back.
Swinging a rifle from behind and shooting when the sights move beyond the game removes having to calculate how fast the game is running how much lead is required.
The faster the game is running, the faster the rifle moves, and the swinging rifle automatically incorporates the correct lead. By the time the brain signals to pull the trigger, the sights are properly positioned to make the shot.
Maybe this timing works because of the eons humans have been shooting at game. This swing-through method has worked best for me over the years. However, all is lost if rifle swing slows or stops when the trigger is pulled.
How do you practice for a running shot? It’s almost impossible unless your shooting range has an elaborate setup with a target on a track and someone kind enough to run it.
Long ago, an outdoor magazine author wrote that shooting at a tire rolling down a hill was good practice for running shots. He must have had a very good friend to lug those tires up a hill, roll the tires down the hill and then stand in harm’s way while bullets zinged his way. About the only practical practice is to shoot at rabbits.
Bunnies streaking through the brush force a hunter to swing his rifle and keep it swinging as the trigger is pulled to make a hit.
In Sweden, a hunter must pass a running-shot test before hunting moose in that country. I had no way to practice running shots the summer before I hunted there, so I shot offhand at every opportunity. In fact, I fired 500 rounds through my .30-06 between May and September, and that practice helped me quickly and smoothly mount the rifle and shoot without delay.
At the shooting club in Sweden where the test was conducted, a moose target was mounted on a rail track and pulled by cables. The target came from behind a berm at 80 meters and stopped in the open. The target then came at a full run to the right for the hunter to shoot once.
A couple of seconds later, the target came back to the left to be shot another time. The target ran right and left a second time for two more shots.
A heart shot was worth five points and a lung shot four points. I put the crosshairs about 2 feet in front of the shoulder on the running shots and kept my rifle swinging.
That sustained lead and swing worked well because I scored 35 out of 40 points.
A few days later, I put all my practice to use. But instead of using a sustained lead, I reverted to my favorite method of starting the swing of my rifle from behind the game.
I heard the thump of hooves of a moose running toward me under a full head of steam through the spruce forest. When the bull came into sight at 60 yards or so, I brought up my rifle and started tracking the moose.
A few steps before the bull came into a narrow opening at 35 yards, I went to the scope and began swinging the rifle behind and forward on the bull. When it ran into the open, the scope’s crosshair came from behind it and the rifle fired as the crosshair met the front of its brisket.
The swing of my rifle never stopped, because only out of the corner of my trailing eye did I see the bull crash to the ground.
This article was published in the December 2009 edition of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.