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Big Game Rifle
Rifle Magazine
July - August 2001
Volume 33, Number 4
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 196
On the cover...
Beretta Mato features a muzzle brake, walnut stock with cut checkering and Swarovski variable scope. Cape buffalo photo by Gary Kramer.
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Today’s rifles, cartridges and telescopic sights make 500-yard big game shooting very possible for skilled shooters, and some take and make shots even farther. About 12 years ago, even I polished off a wounded pronghorn past 500 yards, and not with a cutting-edge Wonder Magnum and a 6-24x scope but with a .257 Roberts wearing a steel-tube 3-9x Weaver. I didn’t even turn the scope up all the way. This outfit would be considered extremely inadequate for long-range shooting by most modern hunters, and even a “primitive weapon” by some.

To show how far hunting rifles have come (or gone, depending on your viewpoint), a few days ago I received, on loan, a 4-16x Schmidt & Bender riflescope. Twenty years ago this would have been considered huge, but these days ranks merely middling. Recently I’ve seen even larger scopes mounted on bolt-action carbines used to shoot white-tailed deer at 125 yards.

The same cardboard box contained a spotting scope, several instruction books and a computer diskette containing a ballistic program. The scope’s reticle covers most of the bottom half of the field of view, a cone-shaped grid of intersecting crosshairs known as a “Christmas-tree” type. The upper left-hand quadrant contains an L-shaped range-finding reticle made of precisely spaced hash marks.

I skimmed over the instruction books just enough to find that, after installing the computer program, you venture into the hunting fields with your laptop, a rifle chambered for a cutting-edge magnum (the 7mm Remington and .300 Winchester being pretty primitive these days) and a companion carrying the spotting scope and perhaps some spare ammunition. Upon finding your quarry, you boot up the computer and input data such as range, temperature, wind speed, elevation and barometric pressure, along with the muzzle velocity and ballistic coefficient of the bullet you’re using. This information zips through the silicon and soon tells you exactly which crosshair to hold on yonder beast.

So you aim and shoot, while your shooting partner watches the target through the spotting scope, also fitted with a Christmas tree. If you miss, your partner tells you exactly which crosshair to use for correction. The book claims this scope, combined with a super-velocity magnum, has been used to kill feral donkeys in Australia at ranges well beyond 1,000 yards.

By now some of you are shaking your head. Why not just use a heat-seeking missile? After all, the technology’s there. Others are probably fascinated. Human nature constantly pushes the boundaries of possibility. That’s how we ended up with the variety of human experience, including the Sistine Chapel, hydrogen warheads, crawfish jambalaya and Bill Clinton.

My own reaction falls somewhere in the middle. I’ll try this computer-scope, though not on donkeys or any other big game. (Are donkeys big game?) But I will shoot some distant paper and perhaps even a prairie dog, and let you know what happens.

The reason I won’t shoot any big game relates to the title of this essay, and another essay published a decade ago in an obscure hunting magazine called Game Journal, which I happened to edit during its brief life. The bow-hunting columnist was the well-known “traditional archery” writer E. Donnall Thomas Jr., who wrote about what he called “the inner circle.”

By this Don meant the circle surrounding a big game animal, specifically the tight little circle a longbow hunter must enter for any rational hope of success. Anybody who’s seriously bow hunted knows the intensity of somehow penetrating that circle, of existing within a few short steps of eyes that do not appear soft and brown, but as hard and dark as polished obsidian, and just as sharp.

Each hunting tool we choose creates a different circle. A good shot with a compound bow doubles the longbow hunter’s 25-yard radius. A “traditional” muzzleloader mostly operates within 100 yards, while a “modern” muzzleloader, or a hunter using a scoped shotgun, can extend the circle’s radius to 150 yards. A good hand with an iron-sighted Savage 99 can make shots of 200 yards, and a very good shot with a .300 magnum with a 3-10x can make certain kills at twice that range, or even more. Now, it seems, the inner circle has been extended to the outer circle, out beyond 1,000 yards.

Of course, there’s a difference between mere shooting at distant big game and making one-shot kills. I once guided a pronghorn hunter from some place in the Midwest. He had a brand-new .300 Winchester Magnum he fully believed was capable of 1,000-yard shots. He said that’s why he bought it, so he wouldn’t have to make long stalks after distant antelope. I threatened to spook any buck he tried to shoot past 300 yards, because I’d watched him sight in his new super-rifle. We eventually stalked within 200 yards of a good buck, which he missed completely.

My own inner circle has varied considerably over the years, partially because I’ve taken game not just with scoped centerfires but various bows, muzzleloaders, slug-loaded shotguns and iron-sighted cartridge rifles of all sorts. My personal radius is the distance where I’m sure of a first-shot kill. Hunting being a rather random adventure, sometimes this doesn’t work out, but I practice hard with whatever hunting tool will be used and pretty much know what my limits are.

This does not include any “ranging shots,” whether with bow or fire-arm. Very occasionally one of those random events turns my first, very serious shot into a ranger, or a wind- doper. But I refuse to shoot at any living animal that stands a good chance of being wounded by my first shot. That eliminates almost all running shots, though I used to be pretty good at them. The distant limit varies, depending on rifle and wind, but stands far short of today’s outer circle.

Right now I’m drifting back toward iron sights, especially on lever-action rifles, so my inner circle has started shrinking again. This is not just an ethical shrinkage, but a selfish shrinkage, which calls to mind that elegant song-phrase, “I get no kick from champagne.” My inner hunter, that cluster of DNA inside the brain that compelled humans to kill mammoths with spears, does not awaken when the quarry shrinks to a distant particle on the horizon.

I like to see the hard obsidian of their eyes, to bypass that sharpness and reach deeply into the inner circle, whether hunting pronghorns with a scoped .257 Roberts or white-tailed deer with an iron-sighted .300 Savage. I like to reach in there, shake hands with some ancient DNA and pull myself out.

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