By Jon R. Sundra
Modern shooting gear has greatly extended the ranges at which competent riflemen can expect to accurately place a bullet. Many believe it removes hunting from the picture, though.
As dawn grudgingly gives way to daylight, a hunter approaches, of all things, a makeshift table and chair sitting in the middle of nowhere, yet seemingly awaiting just such a visitor. In this case, "nowhere" is a wooded sidehill in mule deer country. Below the table, the ground falls off gently for a few hundred yards, then reverses itself to form a rather exposed opposing slope stretching for a thousand yards or more until it peaks and falls off into another valley.
Anchored to a stout tree stump, the table consists of a few boards joined by a couple of cross pieces and supported by legs cut for the purpose from a sapling. The chair stowed beneath it is one of those plastic patio jobs that's been crudely camouflaged by the same hand with the brown-and-olive paints that also cover the table.
In our visitor's hand "let's call him High-Tech Hank" is an imposing piece of ordnance: a bolt-action rifle sporting a 26-inch varmint weight barrel chambered for Remington's potent 7mm Ultra Mag. Atop the receiver is an equally imposing scope, a 6-18x50, sitting on special tapered bases that provide enough vertical adjustment to use a dead-on hold out to 1,000 yards. Inside, the scope sports a mil dot reticle, and its adjustable objective is set at infinity. Taped to the butt of the rifle's fiberglass stock is a trajectory table showing points of impact in 100-yard increments out to 500 yards and in 50-yard increments from 500 to 1,000. Looking strangely out of place on the otherwise pristine opposing slope are strips of previously placed fluorescent ribbon undulating in the breeze to indicate wind direction.
From his rucksack, our hunter pulls a plastic ammo box filled with 20 meticulously prepared handloads; a 10x42 binocular; a laser rangefinder that measures distances out to 1,200 yards; a wind meter that measures a host of other atmospheric conditions such as altitude, air density and humidity; a GPS unit; and a pair of rabbit ear sandbags. He wishes he also had a benchrest-quality shooting tripod, but they're too bulky and heavy to carry for any distance and ... well, one must make some concessions when hunting, mustn't one?
Trajectory-compensating reticles like this Burris Ballistic Mil-Dot (left) and First Hit Technologies' TDS, take the guesswork out of holdover, making precise shooting at 400 yards and beyond more probable.
Now comfortably set up as if at a shooting range, our high-tech hunter begins methodically glassing the opposing slope. Say what you will about his tactics, all I know is that I wouldn't want to be a buck sauntering into this guy's field of view at any distance!
In stark contrast to the foregoing scenario is the guy who's an avid hunter, but is not technically oriented, doesn't handload and doesn't dote on guns or shoot during the long off-season. Don't get me wrong. He cherishes his rifle; it's the same lever-action .30-30 his father used for many years before bequeathing it to him. It's been modernized with the addition of a 4x scope, but otherwise it's a dead stock gun that came with a box of factory ammo with six rounds still left in it. Its owner has taken eight deer in as many years (the other six rounds were expended during prior sighting-in sessions).
This guy "let's call him Joe Average "prefers to be ensconced in his favorite stand well before dawn; it's strategically placed in a heavily wooded area that has always been productive in the past, and where the longest shot he's ever been presented with was less than 60 yards. Typically, if nothing's happening after a couple of hours "or he just gets too cold and stiff to sit still any longer "Joe will climb down and still-hunt in hopes of jumping a buck, or perhaps spotting one before it sees him, as unlikely as he knows that is. He'll also participate in drives on occasion, but in any event, all his shooting has been done at short to moderate ranges.
When the deer season's over, Joe's gun gets a good cleaning and back in the rack it goes 'til next season. Again, though, this is a guy who loves to hunt, so much so that the gun season isn't enough for him, so he takes advantage of the bow and/or muzzleloading seasons to extend his days afield.
These hunters are glassing game from ranges that their prey is not even aware of their presence.
Given the above two examples "which, I grant you, are at the very extreme ends of the spectrum "can we say that the first guy is primarily a shooter, while the other is more a hunter? Based strictly on the tactics and methods employed, sure we can, but it would be a gross oversimplification. For one thing, Joe hunts in the east and doesn't have a lot of options as to where he can hunt. Whether by choice or not, he finds himself hunting areas that are heavily wooded, where ranges are short, and where his .30-30, 4x scope and factory ammo work just fine.
Whether or not you've ever given it much thought, if the foregoing scenarios were accurately articulated, I'd bet most people would say that at some point, hunting ceases to be hunting and becomes a clinical exercise in shooting. Where we draw the line is something each must answer for himself, but wherever that line is, it is determined primarily by distance. Most of us envision hunting as a contest between instinct and intelligence, but to actually be hunting, it must be done at relatively close distances where the hunter must employ skill and stealth to be successful. He must not only be aware wind direction, but also that movement or noise at the wrong time can bring an abrupt end to the hunt. But when the quarry is so far away that scent, movement and noise (within reason, of course), are no longer factors, it then becomes purely a test of one's shooting skill and equipment. That's not an indictment, mind you, simply a statement of fact.
Where am I on this issue? Somewhere between the middle and the tech side, and I'd venture a guess that the majority of GunHunter readers feel the same way. I mean, the very title of this magazine suggests that to those who read it, the rifle, caliber, the specific load, along with all the other ancillary equipment used on a hunt, can be as important as the hunt itself. In fact, I'll bet there are quite a few readers out there to whom hunting just happens to be the best means of trying out new equipment "a new rifle, cartridge or handload.
The author took this mule deer buck in Colorado last October from a distance of 403 laser-measured yards. To him, that's close to the range where hunting becomes shooting.
Can a tech weenie love to hunt just as much as the guy who looks at a rifle merely as a tool? Of course. It's just that in addition to the enjoyment derived from hunting, the techie is committed both emotionally and financially to the equipment to the extent that it provides a year-round interest Acquiring a new rifle, whether it's chambered for an old classic or the latest cartridge, then finding the most accurate handload for it are ends in themselves. It's what drives the firearms industry, and thank goodness, too, because if we were all like Joe, who's content using his dad's hand-me-down rifle and buying one box of ammo every few years, we'd be able to see every exhibit at the SHOT Show in 20 minutes. It is us, you and I, who are the reason we see the cornucopia of new products that are introduced every year "new rifles, cartridges, optics and all the other related products that keep pushing the envelope and make us more effective hunters.
One thing I can tell you for sure is that if Joe Average suddenly becomes fascinated by guns in the way that we are "and it happens all the time "he'll soon find himself looking for a new rifle; something with a flatter trajectory and more reach than what he'd been using. From that point on, chances are he'll develop if not an interest in handloading, at least a good working knowledge of ballistics. He'll also begin looking for hunting venues that will allow him to take advantage of his newfound potential. It's just the natural progression of things.
While we're tossing definitions around, generalized as they are, let's talk about the difference between marksmanship and shooting ability, at least the way I see it. The former is the ability to shoot unbelievably small groups from any of the four shooting positions unaided by nothing but a rifle sling, if that. Put an antelope 300 yards in front of me and ask me to shoot it offhand, I'd refuse, because I know my limitations and I have too much respect for the animals I hunt than to use them as targets. And I probably wouldn't take the shot from the kneeling or sitting positions, either; I'm just not steady enough. When I pull the trigger, it's always with the expectation that I can put the bullet where it belongs. If I feel I can't do it with any degree of certainty, I don't shoot. That's not to say I never miss, Lord knows that's not true by a long shot (no pun intended). But I don't miss often, and it's only because I won't take a lot of the shots other people would.
Laser rangefinding capability built into binoculars and wind meters are invaluable aids to extreme-range shooting.
So while I'm just a little better than average as a marksman, I'm pretty good at long-range shooting as long as I have a steady, two-point support for the rifle. But then who among you out there can't say the same thing? Having that two-point rifle rest, precision shooting becomes nothing more than knowing the range "a factor that used to be the most critical element in the equation but is now solved with laser rangefinders. One must also know the various points of impact downrange, and have some idea of wind velocity and direction, and to what degree it will deflect the bullet. Mirage, too, can be a factor in Africa, the American Southwest, or any region where hunting is done in warmer climes.
To me, rifles, cartridges, handloading, internal and external ballistics, and accuracy interest me as much as the hunting itself. Whenever I have the option of choosing terrain and tactics, I always opt for wherever I can set up with a command of the largest chunk of turf and the longest shooting. If that makes me more a shooter than a hunter, so be it. The important thing is that, athough methods, tactics and equipment can differ widely, we all belong to the same fraternity.
--Jon R. Sundra / GunHunter Magazine / July 2009