Todays 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 didnt 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 Ive 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 scopes 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 youre 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 technologys there.
Others are probably fascinated. Human nature constantly pushes the boundaries of
possibility. Thats 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. Ill 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 wont 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 whos 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
Each hunting tool we choose creates
a different circle. A good shot with a compound bow doubles the longbow hunters
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 circles 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, theres 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 thats why he bought it,
so he wouldnt have to make long stalks after distant antelope. I threatened to spook
any buck he tried to shoot past 300 yards, because Id watched him sight in his new
super-rifle. We eventually stalked within 200 yards of a good buck, which he missed
My own inner circle has varied
considerably over the years, partially because Ive 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 Im sure of a
first-shot kill. Hunting being a rather random adventure, sometimes this doesnt 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 todays outer
Right now Im 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.