column By: Jack Ballard | May, 18
From the standpoint of killing an animal, leaving a rangefinder behind can create considerable anxiety in the mind of a modern hunter. What’s a fellow to do in the absence of one of these precision devices when it comes time to pull the trigger on a critter at unknown range?
A line from a movie, its title having slipped my mind as completely as a falling snowflake lost in a drift, seems appropriate in this respect: “There’s no school like the old school.” I can only recall my father fussing about range on one occasion, an antelope hunt, when I was preparing to shoot a buck through the neck at an estimated 350 yards as a cocky, confident young adult. “That’s pretty far for a neck shot,” he observed drily. In deference to my sire I opted for the animal’s shoulder instead, receiving an infrequent compliment, “good shot,” when the buck crumpled on my firing.
Before describing some procedures for turning a guesstimate of distance into a considered estimate, it’s worth noting that the kind of precision we’ve become accustomed to with rangefinders isn’t really necessary when firing most popular big-game cartridges at reasonable range. Suppose you’re shooting a Hornady 150-grain GMX from the ubiquitous .30-06 Springfield at a bull elk. The rifle is zeroed at 200 yards, just shy of your estimate of the range to the bull. However, the animal is 30 percent farther than anticipated, standing at the edge of a clearing at 280 yards. The bull stumbles on impact from the shot, runs into the meadow and piles up. Although the bullet dropped almost 6 inches from your point of aim at the middle of its ribs just behind the shoulder, it still took out a vital organ (the bull’s heart instead of its lungs). Make the same mistake with my cherished .444 Marlin, however, and you’ll miss low. No one counts on leaving a rangefinder in his duffle in the tent, but if you do, a flat-shooting rifle/cartridge combination greatly mitigates the consequences in relation to bullet drop.
Unfortunately, it’s as easy to overestimate range in many situations as to underestimate. I’ve witnessed many instances in which a hunter aimed over the shoulder of a pronghorn or mule deer in anticipation of bullet drop only to miss high. “Aim high, miss high,” is a rule of thumb frequently bandied about in precision-shooting circles. For a number of years I covered an antelope hunt for fully disabled Vietnam veterans in eastern Montana for a national magazine. Most participants were wheelchair bound, but more than a few were wickedly accurate with their rifles. Few had experience shooting on the plains, coming from hometowns such as Mobile, Alabama, and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Most wielded cartridges with a modest bullet drop: .30-06s, .270s, 7mm-08s, .243s and the like.
Russ, their outfitter, had been guiding on the prairie for more than two decades. “Never hold off the animal,” he advised them. Assuming the range was equal to or greater than the rifle’s zero, a “dead-on” hit would result in a high-shoulder strike if the shooter aimed a bit high to compensate for perceived “long range.” Even with a creature as small as a pronghorn a foot of drop meant the bullet would still find a lethal point of impact. I have parroted his advice on numerous occasions. Holding high on the animal with a flat-shooting cartridge gives a considerably higher margin of error in underestimating range. Pull the reticle up to some point of aim above the critter and you’re essentially assuming you have zero possibility of the opposite error of overestimation.
The best outcome of a range estimate, of course, is an acceptable degree of accuracy. One common means of working toward something superior to a “gut feeling” is to assess the distance to a target against some known measure. For more than a few guys, the length of a football field is helpful. I spent three years on the gridiron in high school, playing receiver on offense, safety on defense. Those positions sent me racing up and down the yard lines enough times that viewing a distant object in relation to how many 100-yard fields are between my pupils and the target is an ideal starting point.
Another very useful tactic harkens to a basic math strategy for “story” problems. Breaking down a more complex formula into smaller parts is foundational to successful computation. It also works for assessing distance. Estimating the range between several points between shooter and target makes the process more manageable. The equation for approximating the distance to a mule deer buck in broken terrain might go something like this: “50 yards to the little pine tree, another 50 to that big clump of sagebrush which looks like about half the distance to the cutbank just in front of the buck for a total of 210 yards.”
A third means of range evaluation can be quite accurate, but requires some advance planning. The average body size of young versus mature males of any ungulate species varies considerably, but once bucks or bulls reach three or four years of age, the subsequent change in the height of their ribcage viewed broadside is minimal.
Using some reference width in a scope at a specific distance (the broader portion of the reticle in the common “duplex” reticle works very well), determine at what specific magnification it just covers the animal’s ribcage. Ideally, this will be the maximum range the hunter plans to shoot, or shoot without holdover. For example, the heavy part of the reticle might cover the ribcage of a mature buck deer at 300 yards at 4x on a particular scope. To assess acceptable range, set the scope at 4x and take a look. If the wide part of the reticle is the same width as the buck’s ribcage or smaller, a range estimate of less than 300 yards can be made confidently. This technique is a slightly more crude application of the “mil-dot” reticles found on some scopes that allow the shooter to compare the size of a target (an elk’s ribcage) against small circles on the lower half of the elevation post to determine range. In unbroken, flat terrain, this method of range estimation yields a reasonable degree of precision where assessment against other objects and terrain features is impossible.
Savvy rifle shooters taking a position in a blind or another ambush point for big-game hunting should take a cue from archery hunters who routinely range shooting lanes before an animal appears for a shot. This is a good practice even if you have a rangefinder, doubly important without one. You’ll make the best estimate of range if you slowly and patiently make the assessment ahead of time.
There’s no denying the precision and efficiency of a modern laser rangefinder. But in its absence, an intelligent “old school” assessment of distance will still suffice for shooting big game at reasonable range.