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The Original Silver Bullet
Rifle Magazine
November - December 2003
Volume 1, Number 6
Number 6
On the cover...
Cover photo John R. Ford
Rifle Magazine
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Table of Contents
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Rifle Magazine

I think the annual SHOT Show is probably the second largest sporting goods and accessory show in the world. Every year I make plans to go, but it is always held so far from my home state of Alaska that I seldom attend. I doubt I miss all that much, as every fall what has to be the largest show, a combined migrating SHOT Show and a Cabela's super store, arrives at my camp when all the new hunting clients arrive.

All the current, cutting-edge equipment gets unpacked from overstuffed, green Cabela's bags and piano-sized aluminum gun cases. Along with all the gee-whiz clothing, rangefinders and gear are the newest, most fashionable, super-magnum rifles topped with gargantuan European scopes that are guaranteed to shoot period-sized groups. It is all quite interesting, but I, like any guide, am much happier when a well-used, blue-worn rifle wearing a sensible 4x scope appears from the case. At least that way I know the shooter has real hunting and shooting experience.

Last year one of my hunters hauled out a Mel Forbes super lightweight, custom rifle. Holding the rifle in his right hand he made a little .5-inch circle with the thumb and forefinger on his left hand. "My rifle shoots groups this size at 100 yards" he claimed. I hear from reliable sources that Mel makes accurate rifles so was initially impressed. Then he said, not varying the size of the group at all, "and it shoots groups this size at 200 yards" (unlikely, I thought) "and 300 yards" (improbable) "and 400" (impossible) "and at 500 yards" (BS). He had unintentionally informed me of one thing, though; he had never fired groups over 100 yards with any rifle including this one. From my shooting bench he did manage to keep three shots inside a 6-inch bull. I made sure he was under 100 yards when he shot his trophy.

I find it incongruous that typical hunters using primitive arms - like black-powder rifles, handguns and archery equipment - usually have a definite, self-imposed limit on how far they can shoot at a game animal. Twenty-five to 40 yards is typical for bow hunters, 70 to 100 for iron-sighted handgun hunters and 150 for black-powder enthusiasts. Most of these hunters have determined their personal limits through practice and know exactly how far they can reliably place all their shots in the kill zone. Yet if you ask most rifle hunters how far they can shoot, you commonly hear tales of 400, 500 and at times even much longer shots.

Over the years I have witnessed dozens of these self-proclaimed expert, long-distance marksmen who struggle to hold three shots within a 5- or 6-inch circle at 100 yards from a benchrest. On most big game that would mean a 300-yard shot from a bench would be a stretch and after a brisk stalk, using a hasty field position, a quick shot at half that distance can be marginal for all but the most experienced marksmen.

I attribute this overly enthusiastic optimism to two things: hunting articles that brag about long-distance shots and advertising. I understand that rifle and scope manufacturers desire something new to sell, but the current trend of using powerful varmint hunting equipment to shoot at big game across formidable distances all too often borders on the unethical. Equipment is being peddled as a substitute for stalking skills and marksmanship as a substitute for hunting prowess.

The entire long-range shooting phenomena is sort of a slippery slope, and writers, custom and factory gun builders and scope manufacturers are all willing accomplices. We all love shooting and are fascinated by precision tools that enable us to hit small targets at great distances. Killing live animals, though, is not the same as punching holes in paper targets, and varmint shooters are basically culling rather than hunting. There are distinct philosophical differences.

When I was a boy growing up in north-central Missouri, groundhogs were the largest game I hunted. Because an iron-sighted, single-shot .22 is not a long-range sniping rifle, they had to be actively stalked and hunted. I vividly remember skulking along brushy fence rows and slithering up drainage ditches in order to get within sure range of old, wary hogs. Later, as a college youth, I used a .222 Remington and heavy barreled Sako .243 Winchester and enjoyed sniping at them at long distances. I eventually came to the conclusion that I received as much, if not more, satisfaction by again picking up a .22 and stalking them.

Most varmint shooters seem to think that the skills they acquire shooting rodents translates directly to big game hunting. It is true that their experiences at judging distance, windage and trajectory, plus the skill and ability to shoot accurately is an asset, but they must realize that their high-velocity, ultra frangible bullets result in either a clean miss or a quick, humane death on their tiny quarry.

Such is not the case with big game. Big game has a defined, relatively small kill zone; and unless an appropriate bullet is correctly placed, they will run off, possibly escape and likely die a horrible death.

All too many long-distance shooters seem conspicuously shy of actual hunting and tracking experience. Maybe I should say that in reverse. The more actual hunting knowledge and experience hunters have, the less likely they are to risk long-distance shots. They realize hunting is a sport and receive more pleasure from a well-executed stalk and a 100-yard shot than a 300- or 400-yard Hail Mary. They also understand the difficulty and uncertainty of successfully tracking a wounded trophy and the sickening, heart-wrenching feeling when the animal cannot be located.

Custom rifle builders also unwittingly promote long-distance shooting. Many are accomplished shooters in their own right and are justifiably proud of their skill and craftsmanship. They are, after all, just building a tool and should not be held accountable for its misuse. However, like prominent sports figures, they are admired and emulated by others and because of it inherit a certain responsibility. They need to realize that bragging about long-distance shots has the same effect on inexperienced hunters as bragging about fast driving does to teenagers. We all share the same road, the same hunting grounds, and are painted with the same brush by land owners, game departments and especially anti-hunters.

Riflescope manufacturers that market long-range “tactical” scopes also fan the flames of long-distance shooting at animals. Again, they shouldn’t be held responsible for unethical uses of their product, but when they make a big deal in their advertisements about multiple dots and cross wires and show holds on big game animals at distances up to a half-mile, I am reminded of the disingenuous advertisements of the tobacco industry.

The boom in laser rangefinders also plays a large factor in the rash of long-range shooting at big game, but it is a double-edged sword. On one hand they do remove the uncertainty of range and give conscientious hunters a definite edge in correctly placing their bullets for humane kills. On the other hand, they give inexperienced shooters a false sense of confidence. Just because one knows the trajectory of his rifle and the exact range does not make him an accomplished shooter. Only broad experience can do that.

I guess that is where we gun writers come in. We, of all people, should understand that, right or wrong, we are often emulated. If we write that the .300 Ultra Mag shoots as flat as a guitar string and kills elk like lightning at 600 yards, then you can bet that next season someone will attempt it. In the hallowed name of journalism and freedom of speech, we can excuse ourselves of any culpability, but the best, most ethical writers not only strive to keep their shots reasonable but also don’t feel the need to brag about distances. Those of us with real hunting experience should emphasize the importance that woodsmanship, tracking and stalking skills have in the overall enjoyment of hunting.

In fact all of us who love hunting have an ethical responsibility, not only to the game we hunt but also to those with less experience. I don’t mean we should go on a crusade and proselytize but rather by deeds and example show others our seriousness and commitment to hunting ethics. When someone claims to have killed an animal at some unreasonable range, ask why they didn’t stalk closer. Tell them you find that much more interesting, more enjoyable and more the measure of a true hunter.

Hunting is arguably the oldest of all human enterprises and is a complex, multidimensional endeavor. It melds a multitude of skills, all your senses, emotions, intelligence and intuition. The final act, killing the quarry, is but a small portion of the overall drama. Long-range shooting, while an enjoyable, challenging sport, has little, if anything, to do with hunting.

Montana X-treme
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