How To Shoot a Running Coyote

A coyote is just as big running as standing still. But he’ll be in a new place when your bullet arrives.

How To Shoot a Running Coyote

“I can hit running game better than if it’s standing.” If so, you’re in rare company. Still that’s not as inane a boast as “I don’t shoot paper, but I’m deadly on animals.” 

The best riflemen (and women!) are those who hone their skills on paper targets. Any novice can roll a Coors hull with a bullet to the same acre of dirt, or kick dust over a distant rock or spit basalt shards behind a coyote and exult, “Hoo boy! That one must have cut hair!” Paper shows exactly where bullets strike and how far off the mark they passed. Paper humbles you with daylight through your failures. But paper is also fair, conceding your progress too.

Dismiss paper, and you doom yourself to mediocre marksmanship.

Hitting running game, on the other hand, results not just from diligent practice. Art and alchemy contribute too. At least, you’ll be hard pressed to prove they don’t.  

In 1907, exhibition shooter Ad Topperwein brought to the San Antonio fairgrounds 10 Winchester 1903 .22 rifles and 50,000 rounds of ammunition, plus 50,000 wooden blocks 2 1/4 inches on a side. As an assistant tossed blocks in the air, Ad fired at them. Resupplied when he ran out of blocks and cartridges, Topperwein stopped shooting after 120 hours and 72,500 tosses. He’d missed nine blocks. His longest run without a miss: 14,500. That remarkable record stood for half a century. Remington salesman Tom Frye then put it to bed with the company’s new Nylon 66 rifles, hitting 100,004 blocks of 100,010 tossed. 

Such shooting is certainly rare; but it’s not unique. Earlier, Annie Oakley readied herself for the exhibition circuit by shooting quail on the wing with a .22. A century after her exploits, Tom Knapp used a rifle to hit airborne BBs! Their secret? Credit disciplined practice and physical gifts denied most of us, plus an instant, almost super-human awareness of where two trajectories – one invisible! – will intersect.

Mathematicians calculate the path of a space capsule to put it on the moon; math can help you hit moving predators. Because an animal is as big running as it is standing, you’ll hit if you get the numbers right. Of course, you must also execute well. A moving target may actually help you do that. Swinging a rifle, you “iron out wobbles” that jerk your reticle all over a still target. Swinging can smooth your trigger press too, and, as background becomes blur, sharpen your focus on the target. 

So it’s not unusual for practiced shooters to hit moving animals as easily as they would the same targets stone-still. Some find the moving game easier.

Luck? It has no bearing unless your target suddenly, unexpectedly dodges into the bullet’s path.

Offhand, you swing from knees, hips and shoulders. Arms and rifle track the target as a unit, no strain.​ (Photo: Wayne van Zwoll)
Offhand, you swing from knees, hips and shoulders. Arms and rifle track the target as a unit, no strain.​ (Photo: Wayne van Zwoll)

Was I Lucky?

There’s no telling now if I was lucky or the fox unlucky or luck simply absent when, on a wintry Michigan day, Reynard bounced from a brush-pile and rocketed away. The shot came before my decision to fire, before the sights aligned, even before the barrel snapped into view.

At least, that’s how it played back in memory. Magically, the fox somersaulted in an explosion of snow. A snap-shot, you might say. In some circles, snap-shooting has been defined as firing without aim. So I avoid the term. If you can’t aim, you have no business shooting. But aiming can be done quickly, and practiced shooters have become so adept at quick aiming that they appear to have skipped the process altogether.

To clarify, and split the kindling fine, I nailed that fox with an instinctive shot. The open-sighted SMLE didn’t fit me well, and the trigger pull was long as a sermon. But it had a nose for the target.

You’re better off with a rifle that fits like a worn-out sock. Its heft should lie low between your hands. A fat bead in a wide notch or a big aperture, or a low-power scope hugging the receiver, helps you fire before you make the conscious decision. There’s more art and alchemy to a quick point-and-fire than to a sustained lead or a swing-through shot, no more thought required than for hooking a weed with a hoe or hurling a stone.

Deliberate shooting presumes the luxury of time. In open places and at distance, calculating and maintaining lead can bring more hits.

To figure lead, you must know your bullet’s time aloft. Say you fire at a coyote trotting across a field 200 yards away. The 100-grain boat-tail softpoint from your .243 leaves at 2,960 fps. At 200 steps, velocity has dropped to 2,510 fps. Mean bullet speed is thus 2,735 fps. But the bullet spends more time flying below that speed than above it. Say average velocity is 2,690. The bullet reaches 200 yards in 0.22 second. A coyote loafing along at four miles per hour moves about a foot and a half in 0.22 seconds. If you move the sight with the coyote, a hold 3- or 4-inches ahead of the nose will put your bullet in the boiler.

What? You jerked the trigger and missed? Now Br’er Coyote is in overdrive, scooting along at 32 mph. Eight times faster. Your bullet still exits at 2,960, still capitulates to drag. Your lead now matches the length of a crew-cab pickup.

Don't Give Up

But wait! That clever canine isn’t Santa Claus. Rather than give you more chances with a steady crossing run, it corners hard and sprints off at an angle, say 60 degrees. Target speed is the same; but lead changes because the coyote’s apparent speed is now just a third of what it was, say 11 mph. Your bullet doesn’t care about the animal’s actual speed or direction, only its lateral displacement. You swing four feet ahead of where you want to hit.

Oh no! The little dog dodged just as the last ounce came off the trigger. You miss again. Anyone would. Not your fault. Flicking the bolt as the beast adds yardage by the second, you wait out the jinks for a straightaway dash or (dare you hope?) a pause for one derisive look back.

Applying calculated lead, keep that rifle moving! If it tracks with the animal, you can forget about a host of variables, any of which can cause you to miss if you stop that swing. Reaction time, trigger time, lock time, ignition time, barrel time – none of that matters because with the rifle moving at the target’s apparent speed, a hit results whenever the rifle fires. A strong side wind, of course, can complicate your task.

If you swing through, the rifle moving faster than the animal, timing is critical, because your lead grows at every instant! You can swing through so quickly that the shot seems an afterthought. Properly done, it is a conscious sweep with measured pressure on the trigger.

Much written about lead is preachy. Some rules can make you miss. In my innocent youth, I read, “Double the lead you think you need.” So I did. And missed every shot. Then one day I rousted a buck from a thicket and began levering bullets in his direction. I missed, cut my lead and missed again. Bead kissing the brisket, I heard a hit. My sight was riding the shoulder when a fourth bullet threaded ribs.            

Swinging too far in front is not only possible, but more common than many hunters think. Here’s why: Most running game is shot close to the gun, where bullet flight time is very short. Also, target speed is easy to over-estimate. As a grouse erupting through alders mere feet away seems faster than the distant goose cleaving open sky, so a bobcat scooting through sage at 20 steps appears rocket-fast compared to a coyote skimming a barren slope 200 yards off. 

Leading for actual instead of apparent speed scuttles many shots, too. A fox jetting off at an angle may best be killed by keeping the reticle at rib’s edge, not leading the animal as if it were crossing at 90 degrees. Finally, your rifle has movement as it comes to cheek, and naturally follows the target. That muzzle may not need an extra nudge to deliver a center hit!

Here's the Secret

A big part of hitting running game has nothing to do with ballistics or leads. It’s simply pointing your body so you can swing naturally. However you choose to hunt, be aware of your position! If a shot comes, where will it pull the muzzle? Can you easily, fluidly put knees, hips and shoulders into the swing without moving your feet? On slopes, can you accommodate uphill and downhill angles?

In cover, you’re smart to time your pauses in shot alleys. Predators are still just before they leap on prey, so hiding game is prone to flush when it can no longer track movement. Right-handed, I swing most easily to the left and keep that in mind when I pause, feet shoulder-width apart, weight on the balls of my feet. Sitting and kneeling are steadier positions, but limit your swing. Prone anchors extremities and torso, rendering you as flexible as flagstone. 

Some bipods are designed to twist or rotate so the rifle can follow a moving target without losing bipod support. In the field, they’ve not impressed me. I use a Brownells Latigo sling to control the rifle. It permits as much swing as my body can manage from any shooting position.

Running animals impose constraints on both time and position, so I decline all but the closest and easiest. Often, waiting for a standing shot proves the best option. Be the target predator or big game, near or far, standing or running, I follow up on every bullet sent. After all, it was expected to hit or I wouldn’t have turned it loose.


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