With modern rifles and bullets, the distances we shoot at animals keeps creeping further and further out. But as bullets travel further away, they lose more and more velocity. How much they lose, and how fast they impact is a very important subject when it comes to cleanly killing an animal. We’ve killed many animals over the years, and its an interesting and important subject. And one particular instance is one I’d like to discuss today.
Last fall, a friend of mine shot a small deer at 900 yards with a 6.5 Creedmoor using a 143 ELDX. This was certainly towards the end of the envelope of energy and velocity for that combo, but it did the job as good as one could hope. The deer took a single shot quartering away, the impact hit just behind the rib cage and passed completely through the animal, exiting through the front of the chest. The heart was punctured, and the deer made it about forty yards before tumbling down the hillside. Everything looked textbook as far as killing it cleanly and quickly. The impact velocity was right around 1800 FPS which according to Hornady should have been enough to open the bullet.
After much hiking to get to the deer, we found a massive blood trail and a perfectly perforated buck. We retraced his steps, as well as the video we recorded looking to see all the details. I was absolutely amazed when as we stood there recounting the events, I looked down to see the bullet laying there in the dirt, not far from where the deer lay dead. The bright copper shown against the damp hillside. Even though the bullet had hit a rock after exiting the deer, it had come to rest nearby. Our immediate impression was “that doesn’t look right”. The bullet had barely opened at all, it had only lost its plastic tip, and bent the front of the bullet off to one side. On further inspection back at the house, the bullet weighed 142.3 grains. Probably just the weight of the lost plastic tip.
Despite the bullet not opening as best we could tell, it still did plenty of damage. But it seems the 1800 FPS in this instance wasn’t enough to cause sufficient deformation of the bullet. This is one of the reasons I like to use “softer” bullets when shooting long-range, they are much easier to rupture.
Impact velocity greatly effects the bullets ability to do damage. I have found several bullets in elk over the years, that obviously didn’t do the job. Whoever shot those bullets may still be scratching their head wondering what happened. Bullets can fail to perform just like anything else, which is one reason why I stress shot placement so often. This event is a perfect example why, even though the bullet did not rupture as designed, it still made a hole through the most vital of organs, causing a quick death for the animal in question.
Distance to the target, and the impact velocity of any given bullet is just one of the many things marksmen need to take into account when evaluating a firing solution. Another anecdote featuring the same bullet; a friend of mine shot a cow elk at approximately 600 yards, the bullet impacted broadside passing through both lungs and stopping in the offside shoulder. Again this one had lost its tip, and barely opened. The cow made it into the trees a few dozen yards, where it lay down and expired. In this case one would surely expect the bullet to have opened, as the impact was likely in the 2200 FPS range. And again, due to good shot placement, it worked despite the bullet not opening.
These are of course a couple of anecdotal examples, and surely not a full representation of this particular bullets performance. But it is certainly food for thought, and something to keep in mind. I have gone into much more detail on the subject in this article about shot placement, I’d invite you to read that one as well, and we can carry on the discussion.
I hope these discussions are helpful, the game we hunt deserve the best skillset we can prepare to avoid undue suffering.
Has technology pushed back the goal posts in hunting?
I can remember, not too long ago, when shooting a deer from a distance like 600yds or more would get you raked over the coals by the general hunting public. I remember telling my own Father about my aspirations of hitting targets at 1000 yards, and hearing his skepticism. I remember a well known gunsmith telling me that it was silly to twist a .223 Remington barrel for 75 grain bullets and higher. “Everything else peeters out past six or seven hundred yards” I told him. Again, came the refrain; “you cant shoot that far.”
Like Ralphie, in the famous Christmas Story, I felt like nobody understood my dream. Nobody could see what I saw in my mind. But there was a wave coming, and it was fueled by science, technology, and at least in my case, a quest for ballistic perfection.
Don’t get me wrong here, its not that I simply wanted to kill something from as far away as possible, that could be borderline recklessness. What I wanted was something more, I wanted to build a rifle or rifles that would make me unstoppable at hitting small targets at distances like half a mile or more. And to that end the ability, if needed, to take my game wherever it presented itself be it near or far. It’s easy now, to see my former folly. I had focused so hard on equipment, and failed to see my part as a marksman that is equally important. Thankfully, these Rocky Mountains are a great educator. In today’s hardware driven market, it is hard not to fall for the sales pitch of this rifle will make you a sniper. Many of the best manufactures sell more than just hardware, they sell you training to go with it. Dont be a fool thinking that your wallet will make up for your aspirations.
You can buy accuracy to a degree, but you cant buy skill.
There is so much more to making a good shot, than just the hardware. Skill is equally important, perhaps more so. “Its the Indian, not the arrow” many people say. You can put a good rifle in the hands of a skilled marksman, and he will deal deadly force against anything within range. But even the finest precision rifle in the unwashed hands of a novice may be useless beyond its point blank aiming radius.
I should move on from the generalizations and get down to real information we can use. The foundations of a good shot are anchored firmly on several things, I dont claim any kind of authority or prestige, so I’ll just throw em out there in the order I see em.
A properly trained marksman, who can yield at least MOA accuracy in expected conditions
Ammunition matched to the rifle providing at least MOA accuracy
MOA is a good start, but ideally you should strive for much better
If you cover those three basic pillars, you are well on your way. But all three of them have been around for at least half a century, so why has it taken so long to break these time cemented barriers that I mentioned above? I think part of it is human nature, and conservative thinking.
If you cover these bases, all it takes is a little pinch of science and a dash of high tech equipment to shatter the barriers that once congested both minds and ranges.
Now lets talk a little bit about hunting. As I outlined in my last piece, killing an animal, is about placing enough energy in the right spot. To me, that is what accuracy is all about, being able to hit my target exactly where I want to. The capacity to place a shot accurately should be the main determining factor in a hunter’s killing radius. If two hundred yards is as far as you can shoot accurately, then you would be imprudent to shoot beyond that.
Now we have come back to my original point, which was people looking down their noses at long range shooting, and long range hunting in particular. Shooting animals at long range distances is a taboo subject, mainly because people have either shot beyond their accuracy envelope, or watched someone else do it, and experienced poor results (wounded/unrecovered animals). Nobody likes seeing things like that happen, so most will shy away from questionable shots, which is a safe and conservative choice.
And so it was for the better part of the twentieth century, few dared to push the limits, mostly those in competition or LE/Mil circles. But to the average shooter, and particularly the hunter, the subject remained taboo and legend.
The advent of technology has brought a miriad of supplies to the industry, this has allowed everyone, even rednecks like me the ability to crash through the taboo with impressive impacts.
Some of these technological advances are worth pointing out, in no particular order:
Better bullets with higher Ballistic Coefficients allowing the bullets to cheat wind and resistance, keeping them on track further.
Better propellants, giving higher velocities, more stable and efficient burns.
Compact, accurate, and affordable laser rangefinders, allowing marksmen to extract the data they require to make proper predictions.
Precise and accurate telescopic sights, to adjust their shots according to data with exactness.
Reticles that allow precise measurements and wind holds.
Chronographs, Doppler radar, and other bullet flight testing equipment.
Ballistic computers, inexpensive and incredibly valuable for predictions.
Handheld Weather Stations, giving exact local atmospheric data.
All of these tools, as well as others have not only become available to the average shooter, but they are affordable, and fit in a pocket. The science of shooting has also progressed greatly, even in the short time I have been following it. And again, it is all available right at your fingertips.
So it seems no small wonder then, that what once seemed nearly impossible, is now commonplace. Even as little as twenty years ago, who would shoot at something so far away that a guess could be off by hundreds of yards? And the target could barely be made out in your 3X9 scope? And even if you doped the wind right, and managed the correct holdover, your bullet may have run completely out of energy before it gets there.
These high tech gadgets have given us the tools to cross all those T’s and dot all the i’s. Now you hear about it at every end of the internet, on hunting forums and Facebook pages.
Which begs the question; Are we now living in a post short-range world? And is taking those long shots any more irresponsible with the help of today’s technology? I guess that depends on how you look at it. I have heard both sides of the argument for some time, and I have yet to find a compelling argument against this new anomaly as long as one does his due diligence. For starters, anybody can make a poor shot on an animal. If you hunt long enough, you will eventually make a bad shot, we’ve all seen it. Whether its caused by buck fever, lack of experience, weather conditions, equipment failure, or any one of a million other things that people can blame it on rightly or wrongfully. I’m not making an excuse for it, nor am I defending it, it just happens. I would go as far as to say that more animals are wounded and go unrecovered at close range, than at long range. Simply due to the numbers, the majority of hunters probably never shoot beyond 400 yards. Hitch that to their hit a paper plate at 100yds mindset, and you can count on some animals going unrecovered or lost.
We’ve seen people miss easy and simple shots, as well as make incredible and amazing shots. I’ve said it before, a good shot should be no surprise to a marksman, it should be expected after much practice and experience making same or similar shots in the same conditions and circumstances regardless of range.
We know what it takes to make a good shot, we outlined that above. Making a good shot is the same whether you are shooting 200 yards or 800 yards, the difference of course is the variables that come into play. For example, the wind at 200 yards is much less a factor than it is at 800 yards. What might only blow your bullet off course by an inch or so up close, may blow you completely off target at the further distance. Also, at 800 yards, one MOA is eight plus inches, which is why sub MOA is a much better goal.
As long as one considers all the additional variables and their consequence, they can be mitigated and overcome. Unless they cant be, what I mean by that is the further away your target the more downrange forces that simply cannot be anticipated unless you have forward observers or other assistance. And the further out the target, the more of these variables you have to worry about. Perhaps someday soon, technology will cover that as well.
Conditions will always dictate what you can and cant do, if it is a dead calm morning, you might be able to pull off something incredible. But if it is a switch wind breezy afternoon for example, it would be a wise choice to keep within your known envelope. A wise shooter, will always keep within his known realm of proficiency. But an even wiser shooter will recognize that his realm changes with atmosphere and weather. Keeping your finger in the air like a weak a politician, and paying close attention to what is happening around you, will go a long way towards letting you know when to shoot, or more importantly when not to shoot.
The ethics of long range hunting will be debated forever. There are those who think taking long shots will always be reckless, and there are those who are willing to take a long hard look at the data, make their calculations, and either take the shot, or choose another course of action.
Those who claim moral high ground, saying long range shots are unethical will always abound. But the truth is this; Not taking long range shots does not necessarily make you an ethical hunter, but staying inside your limits does. For some people, that limit may be four hundred yards, for others it might be twelve hundred yards. It is up to each individual to figure that out, and prove it to themselves repeatedly long before an animal falls in their crosshair.
I don’t hold anything against those who dislike long range shots, they are entitled to their opinion. But the irritating part of the debate comes when someone tells me (or anyone else) that you shouldn’t do that, simply because they cant do it. They love to make insults like; that’s not really hunting, or real hunters get closer. And it occasionally comes from people who hunt from a shoot house, with a Keurig and heater, overlooking senderos strewn with corn feeders on land so flat you cant see more than a hundred yards without jackin up the shoot house. Its really an ignorant position to take, particularly when you don’t know someone else’s skill-set or practices.
Just because a person can make a long shot, doesn’t mean they cant stalk into arrow range of an animal. There was a time where big bore muskets were used to shoot deer at what we today would consider archery range, should we go back in the name of purity? Would our ancestors look down their noses at our modern equipment thinking there is no challenge? It was the push for innovation that took us from those ancient smooth bores and stick bows to the rifle and/or bow you hunt with today.
Another problem with this way of thinking is that it is a never ending slippery slope. Long range hunting < spot and stalking < archery stalking < spear hunting < knife hunting < teeth and hands < etc. < etc. Where does it end? Are we so dedicated to our own ideal of hunting that we would deny another’s? Surely if a stalk into bow range is your thing, with wooden arrows and handmade broadheads, who am I to stop you? Despite having seen many wounded animals with arrows still in them, I wouldn’t argue that archery is unethical, nor would I want to keep people from doing it.
That leads me to my last point.
The worst thing that we hunters can do as a group, is to fracture off into different tribes pitted against each other. The anti hunting movement is growing wildly, everywhere you look there are people trying to take away our ability to hunt and fish the way we enjoy. We as a group need to stand together more than ever, for divided we will surely lose.
I used to be infuriated by the mass hordes of hunters that would flood my favorite hunting spots. It drove me nuts that they didn’t understand my plan, and walked right through my hunt. As years have passed, and age has toned my opinions, I have changed my attitude. Those hordes have just as much right to be there as I do, and I would rather it be other hunters interfering in my hunt than protesters.
Instead, I have evolved as a hunter. I now welcome these large groups of bush beaters, and like the predator that I am, I simply await the inevitable, like a hawk kiting in the sky. Instead of trying to beat them through the forest, and beat them to the stalk, I await the escaping game from a position where my skill allows me an advantage over the hordes. An advantage I intend to keep.
Technology and necessity have indeed pushed back the goal posts in todays hunt. I see nothing wrong with it, provided marksmen respect their prey enough to become swift and lethal, and stay within their known limits.