Best Tips to Help You Avoid Missing Shots on Predators

It’s not the wind or spin-drift, the rifle, the optic or the bullet. It’s not voodoo, either. If you're missing shots on predators, what’s left?

Best Tips to Help You Avoid Missing Shots on Predators

If you're missing shots on predators, go over everything you're doing — from your ammunition, rifle and scope to clothing, setup and calling — and try to figure out the problem. (Photo: Wayne van Zwoll)

Shivering as night made way for a grim November dawn, the kid was also shaking from excitement. He couldn’t steady the rifle, even when he braced against the fence post. And the deer seemed far off. He’d have to aim high. Sight bobbing above the buck’s shoulder, the kid yanked the trigger. The buck kept eating. Two more shots drew nary a glance. The deer might as well have been cropping wheat on the moon.

Since that humiliation decades ago, I’ve avoided aiming high. “The barrel is already pointing up,” I recite when taking aim. Zeroing a rifle, you adjust sight line to cross the bullet’s path at a distance of your choice. Because the bullet starts falling when it leaves the muzzle, the barrel must be elevated to hit a distant target. The sight line angles down toward bore-line and cuts the bullet’s arc twice. The second intersection is the zero range. Between intersections, the bullet travels above the sight line, but it never actually rises.

Point-blank range is any distance at which a dead-on hold yields a hit. With rifles zeroed at 200 yards, modern loads from the .223 to the .30-06 stay within 2 ½ vertical inches of point of aim to 250 — generous point-blank range for most targets. Bullets strike highest just beyond mid-range, as trajectories are parabolic.

Distance is commonly assumed the biggest obstacle to accurate shooting. It does magnify errors and the effects of wind and gravity. But other variables can dash your dreams too. The longest poke I’ve taken at game was half again as far as the next longest. Still, my bullet struck nearly spot-on. Ideal light and still air made it an easy shot from prone, with a sling. I have also missed shots as close as 14 feet!

In broken country, many hunters overshoot, thinking the animal farther than it is. Your eye sees terrain the bullet ignores, because bullets don’t follow ground contours. Outfitter Jack Atcheson once told me: “Never hold off hair. If you think you must aim above the back, you’re either wrong or too far away.” A caveat: game on flat land can seem closer than it is, because the ground is foreshortened to your eye.

Pointing your rifle at the wrong spot is just one of several ways to miss. Marksmanship comprises several acquired skills. When you think yourself a “natural,” targets are either too big or too near. Practice needn’t mean live fire. My college teammates and I drilled for small-bore matches by holding our rifles in shooting positions while studying or watching television. Stretched and strengthened, our muscles also “memorized” bone-supported shooting positions. Dry-firing honed our trigger technique.

Every position works best if your body is so aligned that the rifle naturally points where you wish. If you force it on target, you’ll induce muscle tremor. As your body involuntarily relaxes at the shot, the muzzle will come off target. Move your base of support, not your upper body, so the rifle relaxes onto the target.

Once, closing the bolt of my Anschutz in a match, I brushed the trigger. To my dismay, the rifle fired. I’d barely sunk into position, hadn’t looked through the sight. The best I could hope: the bullet had missed the paper entirely, as any hole would be scored. To my astonishment, it had instead centered the correct target on a sheet of 11 small black bullseyes! Smashing-good luck? Surely. Still, this bullet went where my position directed the rifle. Hunters who seldom handle their rifles, and fire only from a bench, don’t train their bodies to yield the rifle to the target, where it should spend most of its time as it’s aimed.

Even the steadiest position is not still. Your pulse, if nothing else, induces some movement. You cannot guarantee a shot will break when the crosswire is dead center on your target, so the next-best thing is to try to make the bullet leave when it is near center. If you apply pressure to the trigger when the sight is on target, maintaining pressure when it moves off, you should earn an acceptable shot. Trying to snatch a hit with a tap on the trigger when the sight moves to center typically fails. Between the instant you decide to shoot and the instant the striker ignites the primer, that sudden pressure will have moved the rifle.

You’ll shoot best with both eyes open. Accurate depth perception requires both. Using two eyes, you get more information too. And you’ll enjoy sharper aim. Each pupil throttles light reaching the retina. Closing an eye prompts that pupil to dilate, while the other, illuminated, wants to constrict. Result: strain on both. Also, you see best when looking straight ahead, your face upright on the stock. Prone and sitting positions tilt your brow; but the less tilt the better! Kneeling and offhand, your head should be erect, even if only the stock’s toe meets your clavicle.

“Aiming and firing is a mental process too,” said my first coach, Earl, tapping ashes from a cigar long enough to holster. “But don’t over-think. When you feel a good shot, let it go. Don’t analyze it; don’t tell yourself it’s too good to be true. Just turn it loose and follow through.” Prompt, fluid shot execution is a big assist on moving targets. Dawdle, or pause your swing to refine the sight picture, and you’ll miss or lose your chance. A friend, also an African PH, once brought a client inside black-powder range of a fine lion. The cloud of smoke obscured a nearby lioness. She charged, lightning-fast, her final leap coming as the PH fired. His 9.3 bullet smashed her spine. Dead in mid-air, the lioness cartwheeled past the hunters. “Sometimes, an accurate shot delivered late treats you the same as a miss.” mused my friend.

Shooting at predators stateside is seldom so hazardous. Most moving animals are running away; there’s no imperative to fire. As moving shots at distance are difficult, I usually decline them. Missing is embarrassing. Crippling a creature, no matter the species, seems to me irresponsible and cruel. But if you choose to fire, the rules are the same as if the target were a charging lion. Focus, your body positioned to swing the rifle evenly with and past the animal. Fire the instant the sight looks right. Don’t second-guess.

Mostly, predator hunting yields a still target. Accurate rifles and loads, and powerful scopes with brilliant optics and precise adjustments, have made hits easier and stretched hunters’ effective reach. But there’s no mechanical, ballistic or optical insurance against a miss. Verily, while sophisticated gear makes some shots easier, it can impair your ability to make others.  

“Everything was a blur!” she said. The animal had been surprised just 40 yards off and hesitated just long enough for her hurried shot. The powerful scope had denied her a sharply focused image and an adequate field of view. A 4X sight would have served much better, without sacrificing 300-yard precision.

Powerful glass can also delay a shot by magnifying wobble. The longer you aim, trying to settle a bouncing reticle, the more desperately you want to breathe. Your pulse registers on the Richter scale; tired muscles add to the tremors. Eye fatigue burns the target image into your retina. As the shot unravels, you yank the trigger and miss.

In the same way, a heavy rifle that drills half-minute groups at distance becomes a liability when you must fire quickly from field positions. Ditto adjustments you don’t need. I’ve watched hunters muff easy shots after they’ve squandered time deploying bipods and fumbling with a scope’s power and focus dials. A rifle isn’t a washing machine or a punch press that, once adjusted and switched on, does what you wish. You send the bullet. And unlike an appliance or shop tool, you seldom have unlimited time to set up a shot. The astonishing achievements of exhibition shooters, from Annie Oakley and Ad Topperwein to Herb Parsons and Tom Knapp, owe little to their hardware, most of which was unexceptional. They were gifted shooters. They practiced. They took responsibility for their shots.

Heightened interest in long-range shooting has drawn hunters as well as target shooters to “match quality” rifles and ammo, and monstrous scopes up to nine times the weight of early but effective hunting scopes. High magnification and resolution can help you hit small targets far away, but they’re just that — an assist. Ace long-range rifleman, David Tubb, and Olympic shooters I’ve known, like Gary Anderson and Lones Wigger, say hunters must master fundamentals before better equipment can improve their shooting.

 The last coyotes I’ve killed were taken offhand, with 4X scopes on rifles that weighed less than a Winchester 94 carbine. Coyotes I recall shooting at greater range from steadier positions fell to rifles and optics with a tad more reach; but my challenge in all those cases, near and far, was keeping the crosswire on target, and releasing the bullet without disturbing the rifle.

That’s how not to miss, mostly.         


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