Why You Missed That Deer Part II
I meet a lot of whitetail hunters at our sight-in days shooting lightweight, magnum caliber rifles – 7mm Mag, .300 Win Mags, I even had a hunter come in once with a .338 Lapua. I don’t mean to bruise anyone’s ego, but for a lot of whitetail hunters, that may be too much gun. (Check out this Ten Minute Talk on why lightweight rifles aren’t always better.)
By this I mean the recoil from your rifle could be affecting your ability to consistently put rounds on target. Recoil aversion can develop into a case of the “flinchies” (more formally called a pre-ignition push), where your body is moving the gun before the round leaves the barrel as a result of your subconscious trying to avoid the “pain” of a loud, hard-kicking gun.
Get the notion of “stopping power,” “knock down power,” or “energy transfer” out of your head – those are myths. Last fall I hit a 3-year old buck squarely with the front end of my Toyota Tundra at 45mph. The buck flew across the road, stood up and ran away like nothing happened.
My truck hit that deer with about 377,000 ft-lbs of energy, 100 times the energy of a 300 Win Mag at the muzzle. Energy alone does not kill deer. You need enough energy to ensure adequate penetration, but the placement of your round is the critical factor. A .243, 6.5 Creedmoor, or .308 are all excellent whitetail calibers and easy to shoot. I have even taken deer with a well-placed .223 round, and at shorter distances, the .223 can be an excellent round for youth hunters if they can put their round in the vitals. Larger calibers are beneficial when shooting through a shoulder, but unless taking an anchoring shot is part of your plan, don’t base your entire strategy around missing your target – the vitals!
Un-zeroed rifles are another big problem. Just because you shot a deer last season and put the rifle in the safe doesn’t mean it’s good to go this year – you need to confirm your zero, especially if you worked on your gun or changed ammo. Military and law enforcement snipers are constantly checking their “cold bore” shots and confirming how their rifle is grouping. Like them, your first shot is the most important one – make it count.
For most hunters, I recommend a 50-yard zero, which will result in the bullet striking within 2-3 inches form your point of aim from the muzzle, out to about 200 yards. A 100-yard zero will actually result in a shorter distance you can shoot without having to compensate for bullet drop due to the flatter trajectory. It is also easier for the average shooter to fire a good group and make scope adjustments at 50 yards. (Want to know more? Check out our podcast on how to sight-in your rifle.)
Along with a zeroed rifle, having a basic knowledge of ballistics – at least understanding the relationship between your sights and the path of the bullet -- can be important in certain situations. Years ago, I was a new hunter in search of whitetail in a hilly spot of eastern South Dakota. I came across some does down in a valley about 125 yards away. I snuck up to the top of the ridge and went prone, laying my rifle across my pack in a rock-solid position. I was hunting with a borrowed .243 that was zeroed at about 50 yards. Thinking the extra 75 yards past my zero distance would result in greater bullet drop, I held several inches higher on the deer and made a clean trigger press. I watched the dirt kick up behind the deer as the bullet went over her back.
What I didn’t know at the time was due to the parabolic arc of the bullet, my point of impact was actually about 2” higher than my point of aim at 125 yards. I compensated for something I didn’t need to worry about. Conversely, when you start pushing beyond your “maximum point-blank range,” all sorts of factors start to matter – range, wind, bullet design – and small errors you make are compounded. Equipment like laser range finders and BDC reticles become extremely helpful, and of course, knowledge and experience are critical.
Poorly mounted optics may be the biggest issue we run into with our hunting customers. Optics and guns do break from time to time – but for every single piece of “broken” equipment, we see HUNDREDS of optics that were improperly mounted, or mounted using cheap, low-quality rings. Rings are like tires to a car – you wouldn’t buy a Ferrari and then put cheap tires on it. If you did, you certainly couldn’t expect Ferrari-level performance.
Low-quality rings, or improper scope mounting cause a number of problems – the scope can shift during recoil, internal mechanisms can bind or be damaged, scope tubes can be torqued or even crushed, and reticles can break. This can cause zeroes to wander and scope adjustments to be off. Buy quality scope rings, use an inch-lb torque wrench and read the directions! There are lots of videos on this on the Vortex YouTube channel that will show you how to mount a scope properly.
Rifles need to be carefully setup for the individual who will be using it. If your gun does not fit you properly, your accuracy will suffer. Length of pull, comb height, and eye relief are all things that can vary greatly from one shooter to another. This is especially important if you are trying to introduce a spouse, child, or friend to hunting for the first time. Ensure the rifle is setup for them – not you – so everyone can have a memorable experience.
There are of course a multitude of other things that can result in a missed deer, but by looking at these basic equipment and shooter issues, you can drastically increase the odds of landing your next shot squarely in the vitals.
Adrian Alan is Director of Vortex Range & Range Operations at Vortex Optics, in Barneveld, WI. A 14-year law enforcement veteran and firearms instructor, Adrian served as SWAT officer, police sniper, and police sniper instructor among a variety of other tasks.
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