By David Hart
Still-hunters have higher odds of seeing running deer. To shoot or not to shoot is a question that should be based on your abilities and the circumstances of the shot itself.
A 6-pointer jumped up from a clump of briers barely 5 yards from my feet. I was in the middle of a walk to push deer from their bedding areas to a couple of friends sitting on the edge of a field a quarter-mile away. I had my .270 cradled in my arms, ready for a split-second opportunity, and the buck tried to make a break to my left, away from my waiting friends. In a second, he’d drop over a hill and out of sight, so I threw my rifle to my shoulder, swung through and pulled the trigger as if shooting a shotgun at a flushing quail.
The buck cartwheeled and fell to the ground, his legs kicking in what I was certain were the final moments of his life. I could see a mark in his neck; and although there was no visible blood, I assumed the buck was as good as dead. I continued the push to its conclusion, but when I returned with my friends, the buck was gone. There was no blood, no hair - not a single speck of evidence. How could a neck-shot deer get up and walk away? The bigger question, however, had more to do with my decision to shoot at a running deer. Should I have taken the shot, or should I have let the buck go?
Sometimes you just don’t have a choice. Well, you do, but that choice is to take the shot or not. In many cases, that’s all you get. Ever participated in a deer drive? While some bucks will try to sneak out ahead of the drivers, most rely on their last-ditch line of defense: speed. The same is true in deer-hound country where dogs trail deer running through Southern swamps and pine thickets.
Occasionally, deer will stop and take a look behind them, offering a brief chance at a standing shot. Most of the time, however, they have their running shoes on. Rutting bucks hot on the trail of a doe often only give us one chance, and that chance is usually running. It’s a choice we all have to make sooner or later.
The decision to shoot at running deer shouldn’t be taken lightly. A poorly-placed shot can result in a wounded deer, and that means spending the rest of the day on your knees following a faint blood trail.
Every Shot Is Different
I took a shot at that 6-pointer because I had complete confidence in my ability to make it count. He was at 15 yards, with nothing between me and the deer to deflect the bullet. It was safe, and I felt comfortable with my shooting skills. I’ve connected with running deer before, and I’m pretty decent with a shotgun on doves, quail and other moving targets. Would I have tried it if the buck was at 100 yards or if he was bounding straight away or hustling through a cedar thicket? No on all counts.
Every opportunity is different, and each running deer presents a different angle, speed and situation. Some shots are easier than others. Without a doubt, broadside shots offer the best chance at a clean kill. And the closer a deer is, the bigger the target. Of course, the vitals on a typical whitetail don’t offer much of a target to begin with. And as I learned, a neck shot is far from a guarantee. But a gut-shot deer is even less likely to fall quickly, even with a beefy rifle cartridge.
The decision to shoot or not to shoot has to be made in a hurry, but the longer it takes you to make up your mind, the less likely the chance of killing the deer cleanly. The distance increases and so does the angle, typically from a good one to a bad one as the deer turns away once it figures out you are there. Also, the distance you need to shoot in front of a running deer, the lead, increases as the span between you and the deer grows.
What Really Matters...
... are your shooting skills. Hitting a moving object with a shotgun loaded with large or small pellets is pretty tough. A few rounds of skeet or sporting clays can be quite a lesson in humility as bird after bird sails to the ground unbroken. Hitting a running deer with a rifle is much more difficult. While most deer hunters have a reasonably good chance of at least putting a few buckshot pellets in a moving object the size of a whitetail, far fewer can consistently hit one with a single rifle bullet.
As a group, we don’t spend enough time at the range. And when we do, we wedge our rifles into a pile of sandbags and lock the crosshairs on a paper target tacked to a stationary board. If we feel adventurous, we might try an off-hand shot or even a succession of quick shots. That doesn’t help us get better at running shots. Practicing at moving objects is the only thing that will.
Equally important is your understanding of velocities of individual bullets and shot-shells in relation to the speed of a running deer and the distance between you and the animal. No, you don’t need to whip out a calculator and crunch numbers before you pull the trigger. You do, however, need to know how far to lead a deer. For example, if a whitetail is bounding broadside at approximately 30 miles per hour about 50 yards away, how much lead should you give it? That’s a question that can’t be answered easily, says Eddie Stevenson, press relations manager for Remington.
“There are too many variables,” he said. “Deer run at different speeds, and every rifle cartridge has a different velocity. You just don’t have time to do an exact calculation of how much lead you need to give a moving deer when you are shooting a rifle.”
Stevenson has shot at and killed plenty of running deer, both with a rifle and a shotgun, and he follows a rule of thumb for most of his rifle shots.
“When I shoot at a running deer less than 100 yards away with my rifle, I generally hold in front of it about as far as the tip of the nose,” he said. “Of course, as the deer is running, it’s bouncing up and down, so that adds an entirely separate factor. You might shoot over it or under it, depending on where the deer is in its stride.”
While a rifle bullet will generally perform well at distances up to and beyond 300 yards, buckshot is entirely different. You have to know if the shot you take will do what you want it to do. Just because you hit a deer with a load of buckshot doesn’t mean it’s going down. The farther the shot, the less energy and penetration you get from the individual pellets.
Too often, deer that continue sprinting after a volley of buckshot are written off as a clean miss. After a cursory search for a sign of a hit, hunters give up, assuming the deer will run again another day. Buckshot that enters a deer’s body but doesn’t exit will produce far less evidence of a hit - blood or hair - than a pellet that passes through. A hit from a single pellet in a non-vital area, however, can fester and ultimately kill the deer.
In other words, whether to shoot at a running deer with buckshot is less of a question of hitting it than how well the load will perform at a certain distance, says Stevenson. As the distance increases, the shot pattern widens to a point that it might put only one pellet in the deer. And that pellet could hit the deer virtually anywhere. Remember, the vitals are considerably smaller than the rest of the body.
“I limit my shots with buckshot to about 40 yards,” Stevenson said. “I’ve patterned my gun with a bunch of different buckshot loads and found that 40 yards is about as far as my gun will shoot and still make an effective shot.
In order to consistently hit a moving target, it’s critical to practice. The best shooters shoot often. Whether you prefer a shotgun or rifle for deer hunting, a great way to understand leads at different distances and angles is to head for the nearest skeet or sporting clays range with your deer hunting shotgun and a couple of boxes of shells. No, shotguns aren’t rifles, but practicing with a 12 gauge can offer clear insight into exactly how far you have to shoot in front of a moving target in order to hit it. Shotgun practice can also build confidence, and it can create an instinctive knowledge of how fast to swing, how far to lead and when to pull the trigger.
Stevenson says nothing is more important than knowing the capabilities of a load of buckshot in your gun. “You hear it all the time, but it really is true: You have to shoot several different loads with different chokes and at different distances to really understand the capabilities of your shotgun,” he said. “There is no other way around it.”
Practicing shots at a moving target with a rifle is far more difficult, especially for those confined to a public shooting range with strict rules. Most of us have heard the idea of rolling a tire with a target fastened inside the hole down a hill, but is that realistic? Is it safe, and who’s going to carry that heavy target back up for the next volley? If you have the space and can do it safely, try tossing an empty milk jug into the air and shooting at it with a BB gun. If nothing else, it will drive home the difficulty of hitting a moving object with a single projectile, and it might make you think twice about shooting at a buck sprinting across a distant hillside.
The decision to shoot at a running deer ultimately comes down to each situation and each hunter. Some opportunities are certain for a clean miss, or worse, a crippled deer. Hit a deer and lose it, and you’ll carry that burden with you for at least the rest of the season. We all want to bring home more deer. But before we pull the trigger, we have to be honest with ourselves about our ability to make a clean, safe shot.
-- Reprinted from the December 2006 issue of Buckmasters Magazine