Last fall a fellow who worked for an ammunition company showed up at deer camp with a new .30-06. With the Polar Vortex bearing down on us, we trudged off through frozen prairie grass under shivering stars. Dawn came. My pal spied a fine buck on a hill 120 yards off. He took careful aim, then fired, and the deer ran away.

“Maybe you’d like to check that zero.” It was a diplomatic response I’d practiced often.

“Naw. One of the techs at the factory prepped this rifle. He’s very good.”

But he’s not you, I thought. He’s not here. He’s not invested in this hunt. He won’t eat your tag.

The next day, as I still-hunted a promising swale toward my friend, he got another shot. Actually, four. At 80 yards. This buck too waltzed off, unscathed. The hunter had run out of time and went home empty-handed. He later checked the rifle. Sheepishly, he conceded: “It shot 13 inches high at 100 yards.”

Perhaps the easiest way to miss a deer is to use a rifle that doesn’t shoot where you look. If you don’t want to miss, you’ll check zero — personally and from hunting positions — before each hunt.

Preoccupation with long shooting can scuttle your chances at mid-range. “I zero at 350,” a hunter once boasted to me. “This magnum has legs!” A few days later he missed at 200 yards, where the bullet reached the apex of its arc. Zeroed at 200, most modern loads strike 2 to 3 inches high at 100 — a negligible bump. Zero the same load for 350, though, and the mid-range gap grows to nearly a foot!

The rifle you carry needn’t nip half-minute groups to kill deer. In fact, if it shoots into a grapefruit at 100 yards, it will upend whitetails at 250. That’s a reasonably long shot, even in the West. It’s as far as most loads afford point-blank aim — that is, as far as bullets will strike within 3 vertical inches of center.

Few rifles fail to meet the grapefruit standard. But hunters often miss bigger targets.

The notion that rifles, ammunition and optics hardly ever cause a miss should shock shooters off their sandbags. If they believed it they’d practice firing from the sitting, kneeling and standing positions. A bench helps you zero, as it isolates your rifle from pounding pulse and quivering muscles. From bags or a mechanical rest, you can adjust the sight to the bullet’s track and compare the accuracy of various loads. Beyond that, a bench is all but worthless, because it absolves you of marksmanship.

Accomplished marksmen kill deer. Poor marksmen miss deer.

Pelted often now by claims of one-hole groups and deer popped across the breadth of a township, I retreat a century, to the days of Ad Topperwein. Born in 1860 in New Braunfels, Texas, the blue-eyed boy grew up plinking with an 1890 Winchester .22. Shooting became a career. In 1894, with a rifle, he hit 955 of 1,000 2 ¼-inch tossed wooden blocks. Clay shotgun targets proved too easy; his .22 broke 1,500 straight. In exhibitions, he held a 63 Winchester self-loader port up, fired, then hit the tiny case in the air with his next shot. In 1907 he hauled 50,000 rounds of .22 ammo to San Antonio’s fairgrounds. Assistants tossed 50,000 blocks. Ad’s 10 Winchesters were still working, so he got more ammo and more blocks. He stopped after 72,500 shots, having missed only nine targets and run 14,500 straight. No one trumped that marathon for decades. Then Remington’s Tom Frye fired at 100,010 air-borne blocks, missing only six.

That’s marksmanship. You’ll see a different kind in NRA bullseye matches, more deliberate fire at smaller targets. Equally demanding on the highest plane.

A few years ago I guided a hunter into the Utah hills. Four days of rain and failed sneaks left us both exhausted. On the final afternoon, gulping air on a muddy slope, I spied a wink of antler. “Hurry!” I yelped, as if my client had another gear. The animal dashed through aspens 90 yards out, quartering off. “Shoot!” I screeched. Offhand, gasping, the poor man had no chance. But a shot was my salvation; it took the hunt’s outcome off my shoulders. Blam! To my astonishment, the great deer tumbled. It was one of the finest shots I’d ever seen, under truly trying conditions. A rare level of marksmanship.

hunting sighting in a rifle

Your bench zero is a necessary first step. Check it from hunting positions, and check it again just before a hunt.

Still, hunters increasingly gauge their lethality by the size of groups drilled from the bench. One fellow recently described maximum sure-kill range as a function of bullet flight time.

Honestly, until deer visit sandbags, the result of any shot depends on your execution of it.

Now, one shot does not a marksman make. Luck can reward the undeserving. My first whitetail was sprinting through Michigan poplars when I swung hard and triggered my $30 war-surplus SMLE. A break in the dense boles blurred behind the bead. Bullet and deer entered that slot at the same time. I’ve since made a few such shots, but must in truth call them gifts.

Good luck won’t keep your freezer full. Neither will time at a bench chewing tiny knots in distant paper or ringing even-more-distant gongs. While shooting far over bipod or bags can tell you much about bullet drop and drift, most deer are killed at modest ranges, without the help of such devices. Three of my four best deer were shot offhand — though I try at every turn to sling up in a lower, steadier position. And I’ve declined many chances to fire because the sight wasn’t steady. Huge prints in snow once kept me for hours on a buck’s trail. At dusk, as a storm blew in, he appeared below me. The curve of the hill forced me to stand to aim. In freshening wind, I couldn’t keep the reticle on his chest. He ghosted off, one of the biggest bucks I’ll ever see.

If I’d fired I would have risked a crippling shot as well as a miss. Missing deer is easy when you take every poke that puts antlers in your sights. The inevitable fringe hits are not easy on deer.

My standard is 90 percent. A shot is truly a shot if I’m confident that under prevailing conditions I can make it nine times in 10 tries. Shy of that, firing is irresponsible, reckless.

Reaching that 90 percent mark is easiest prone, where your center of gravity is closest to Mother Earth and you have lots of ground contact. Sitting — crossed-ankle, crossed-leg or “tent-style” with your knees up in front — puts the rifle above grass and low brush. Kneeling, with vertical shin and erect spine, clears higher vegetation without sacrificing three-point ground contact. Then there’s offhand. A bipod helps in prone, sometimes sitting. Shooting sticks hike your odds in tall positions. For decades I’ve used Brownell’s Latigo sling to steady my aim in prone, sitting and kneeling.

You’ll miss less when you take only high-percentage shots, but there’s not always time to do the math. My first deer died because I felt the hit as I pressed the trigger. Like a basketball player launching a three-pointer, you can make a tough shot. On the other hand, few coaches show sympathy to rookies who shoot long without paying their dues in practice.

Another way to miss deer is to misjudge a bullet’s arc, which depends on bullet shape, weight and velocity, target distance and shot angle. Charts describe the bullet. But they won’t confirm that yon deer is 340 yards off, or that the effective range is actually 270 because you’re firing uphill.

One cold, gray dawn long ago, when I first carried a scoped rifle, I spied a buck in a stubble field.

Giddy with excitement, I duck-walked along tall grass in a fenceline to trim the distance. A post steadied the rifle; but even at 4X, that whitetail looked tiny. I held inches over its shoulder and fired. The deer did not look up. I jacked in another round and held on the backline. Pow! Annoyed, the buck raised his head. Distraught, I committed my last cartridge to the only option left: aiming where I wanted to hit. The buck dropped. Now I was jubilant! But a search in ever-widening circles 300 yards out turned up nothing. The stubble was ankle high; how could this be? Trudging back toward the post, I stumbled upon the deer just 160 yards from where I’d fired.

Surely you’ve not made such an error. But many deer inside point-blank range hear bullets crack over their backs, courtesy of generous range estimates. A canyon between you and a deer can make it seem far, as your eye sees lots of landscape. Conversely, a flat expanse shows your eye little ground, indicating the deer is close. Looking into the sun, or in poor light, or when only part of a deer is visible, you’re apt to overestimate distance as the animal appears small, indistinct. Silhouetted or front-lit, that same deer will seem closer, because it is prominent.

A bullet’s arc is steepest only when the shot is horizontal — when gravity acts perpendicular to it. Uphill and downhill angles reduce gravity’s effect. A bullet’s arc relative to line of sight depends on the horizontal component of the bullet’s travel. For a 280-yard shot at a 45-degree up- or downhill angle, you hold as for a 200-yard horizontal shot.

Wind moves all bullets. “Full-value” wind from 3 or 9 o’clock is most nettlesome, as it pushes at right angles to the missile’s path. Steeper angles reduce the effect. Wind from 12 o’clock or 6 o’clock has essentially no effect. The bullet meets terrific resistance even in still air, as it generates its own headwind. Exiting at 3,000 fps, it plows into a 2,000-mph gale. A 10-mph headwind or tailwind hardly compares!

Because bullets spin, drift has a vertical component. Right-hand twist typically nudges bullets to 10 o’clock when they’re pushed from the right, to 4 o’clock from the left — not to 9 and 3. You can ignore vertical displacement with hunting bullets at normal yardage. As a bullet’s descent becomes steeper with distance, so the wind’s effect becomes greater. Bullets scribe a parabolic hook under the press of wind for the same reasons their trajectory is parabolic.

Double wind speed, and you double the drift. Halve wind speed; you halve the drift. Change shot distance, however, and the math gets complicated. A 130-grain .270 bullet at 3,000 fps drifts less than an inch at 100 yards in a 10-mph FV wind. At 200 yards, it is 3 inches off course — four times as far! There’s negligible drift at 100 because the bullet gets there in just .1 second. Deceleration adds flight time. At 500 yards, drift is about 60 percent greater than drift at 400.

Here’s a rule of thumb for popular hunting loads in a 10-mph crosswind: Assume an inch of drift at 100 yards; double it at 200. Triple the 200 drift at 300; double the 300 drift at 400. This rule works for most pointed hunting bullets exiting at 2,600 to 3,100 fps. Here: a 180-grain .30-06 bullet at 2,700 fps….

 

Actual drift (inches):               Rule of thumb drift (inches):

100 yards                    0.7                                           1

200 yards                    2.9                                           2

300 yards                    7.0                                           6

400 yards                    12.9                                         12

 

In this case, the estimate stays within an inch of actual drift. There’s a fly in the ointment, though. Wind is hard to judge downrange, where the bullet spends most of its flight time. Once, waiting for a deer to move from a thicket across a canyon, I estimated an 8-mph blow from 2 o’clock. I held a hand’s width into it. The deer fell. But on the 320-yard canyon crossing, I felt the full force of that wind. Sure enough, my .257 Weatherby bullet had been pushed twice as far as I’d predicted, just catching the lungs, mid-rib.

Another way to miss deer is to overthink a shot, which can happen if you bring too much technology to bear. Plugging an anemometer into your cell phone or dialing up a ballistics chart — even fiddling with power, focus and elevation dials on your riflescope — distracts you.

Marksmanship comprises simple fundamentals: Position, aiming, breathing, trigger control.

Lamenting lost opportunity can also make you miss. I’ve bungled many chances, but I don’t think about them when sneaking on a deer or steadying the sight or crushing the trigger. Last fall, I spied a buck far off, approached too fast and bumped a doe. Both deer evaporated. I wept — but then retreated to a draw and hurried crosswind to cut them off. By great good luck, I found the buck just shy of cover. My reticle steadied. “Click.” No time left for weeping! I cycled the rifle and focused again on a controlled squeeze. This time, the rifle sent a bullet true.

The first cartridge had misfired. At least that shot didn’t count as a miss!