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Practical Hunting Rifle Accuracy
Marshall Stanton on 2005-08-27

Although hunters and gun cranks aren’t necessarily synonymous, many who venture afield each fall are rifle enthusiasts, seeking perfection from their pet rifle prior to that magic date on the calendar marking the opening of deer season.  For many shooters, this annual obsession includes hours of off-season handload development, scope and sight evaluation and adjustment, tweaking rifle bedding and investing lots of time behind the trigger preparing for the coming fall hunting seasons.

Through all the preparation and load development comes the quest for the perfectly matched load to both the rifle and game pursued.  While the “perfect load” for all occasions is as elusive as the quest for the Holy Grail, we generally come very close, and the end result is a highly accurate, very efficient game harvesting combination that goes afield in the fall.

Many times, however, in that quest for the “perfect load”, we “can’t see the forest for the trees”.  What do I mean by this?  It’s simply that while we strive for perfection in developing that 0.5 MOA load for our rifle, we overlook the human element of our capabilities with any weapon afield!  No, I’m not knocking surgical precision in the accuracy potential of our rifles and handguns taken afield after game, not in the least.  We have a solid, and solemn obligation to make any harvest clean, humane, and instantaneous so far as is humanly possible.  This is what I’m focusing upon here, the “humanly possible” variable.

Indeed, many hours spent behind the bench-rest shooting little-bitty groups at 100, 200, 400 yards and beyond is great for building confidence in your weapon and familiarity with the load and it’s true capabilities.  But, what does it tell you about your abilities and limitations in the real field-work of the hunting fields?  Very little!  We become obsessed with the micro-sized bench-rest groups, and the capability of sniping a game animal from several hundred yards away, that we lose sight of the hunt itself!

There was a time in my life that I perched on a particular bench of columnar basalt on the north side of a very brushy canyon that had pine plantations on either facing ridge, and a small creek in the bottom of the gulch.  From that precipice I filled many deer tags on opening day of season, always shooting a buck that never knew I was there, and always at a distance over 300 yards.  Yep, I filled deer tags, and there were some great bucks harvested, one of which still today hangs on my walls, but those days were about marksmanship and shooting, not hunting!  Those deer never knew I existed, and I surely didn’t use any woods-craft to close the distance to them.  The only thing that closed that distance was a high-stepping fast-shooting rifle with a good piece of glass, rested off a rock-solid rest from a sitting position, to a known yardage across canyon.

Sure, I did the off-season work, and wrapped up custom loads that would shoot honest 3/8” groups off the bench-rest if I did my part properly.  It was great fun to put together a precision package, then practice half the summer on high-desert jack rabbits and yellow bellied marmots just to get field experience with the rifle and load. 

Those days are behind me, and I must say, that while I still have both the equipment and the ability to duplicate what was my common practice so many years ago, the prospect doesn’t excite me in the least.  Actually several years ago I became totally soured on the long-range shooting of game animals for several reasons, one was ethics, and the other safety. 

First the ethics issue.  Each hunter has to develop his own set of ethics and guidelines by which he is motivated, and those ethics of decisions may or may not be the same for individual hunters, it is still a very personal issue that must be confronted before ever stepping into the field to harvest any game animal.  For me, there has to be an element of free chase, and a battle of skill and wits with the animal I’m pursuing.  I feel an entire element of bush-craft has vanished with the last two generations, and that much has been lost in the high-tech focus of our sport.  But, these are personal convictions, and as such, must be dealt with as such.

Second is the safety issue.  In some scenarios, those 300-400 yard shots, when in open country such as open sage or prairie type cover, are perfectly safe, and create little or no physical endangerment to others.  However, it’s my observation that many, if not most of those “Hail Mary” long-shots taken are done so under conditions that often times negatively impact the overall hunting safety of the area.  How?  Well, when hunting areas of relatively heavy cover, even those canyons and draws where there has been extensive logging activity, there usually accompanies this type of habitat, very heavy brush and reproductive timber growth.  It is along the edges of this type of cover that game usually frequent, and as such, so do other hunters.

Here I’ll convey some personal experience that has redefined my hunting ethics and practices.  Several years ago my then young teenage son and I were deer hunting in North Idaho along a power-line right-of-way with other acquaintances in the same area.  We had hunted a timbered bench, and with the snow falling, and just before dark, we emerged on the cleared power-line right-of-way and continued down the ridge towards our vehicles.  At one point I noticed something that just didn’t look right, and I lifted my binoculars to establish identity of what I was seeing.  What did I see?  A rifle and scope pointed squarely at me!  I waved my hands and my bright orange hat in the air to get the hunter’s attention.  Finally he waved back, and as I closed the distance it turned out to be one of our hunting partners.  As we got within easy earshot of one another, he said, “ Boy, it’s a good thing you waved, I thought you were a moose, and was just squeezing the trigger when I saw you wave your hat!”  My son was directly behind me coming down that open power line, and the man in question stated that he saw four legs and it was big, so he figured it was a moose and since he needed the meat he was going to shoot.  Needless to say I was furious, both my son and I could have easily been killed in one shot from his 180 grain premium bullet ammo out of that ’06 at 250 yards!  My son and I left in a hurry and have never gone into the field with those people again!

I actually quit hunting elk in North Idaho with a centerfire rifle the last several years for similar reasons.  The last time I hunted during modern firearms season, I was scoped over by someone with a riflescope at least once a day, every day that I hunted, and three times in one day!  I now hunt a primitive black powder only season for this very reason.

A nurse that works with my wife Gayle, in our local hospital was telling me that her husband has lost two hunting partners and friends in the last twelve years due to elk hunting accidents.  One was shot in October of 1993 at long range by a hunter firing at an elk across a clear-cut, and never saw the hunter beyond.  The second friend was killed last elk season, 2004, by a hunter, again, at long range across a canyon, and the gentleman was hit by a bullet intended for an elk as well.  The deceased victim in this case was never seen by the hunter firing the shot.

Firing long range at game not only increases the potential for injuring unseen persons beyond the intended target, it also increases the opportunity for merely wounding game so that it is never recovered, and becomes a fine game animal killed for scavengers.

In recent days, I’ve put my personal limit on range for shooting big game to around 200 yards.  My field-shooting abilities are very proficient at this range, and too, the range is not so very long as to not have excellent definition not only of the intended game, but the surrounding cover, when viewed through quality binoculars. 

Now, having come full circle through the information and ideas presented here, I finally get to the core of this discussion; practical hunting accuracy.  I’ve had numerous customers call me recently and inquire if their various hunting rifles that are shooting 2-2.5 inch 100 yard groups are “good enough” for deer hunting.  “Good enough”, that’s an interesting thought.  From a mathematical viewpoint, those rifles are absolutely fine for hunting in regard to accuracy on deer to 200-225 yards!  A rifle that shoots 2.5” at a 100 yards is essentially shooting 2.5 MOA, and doing the math, even to 200 yards, the rifle will still shoot a 5” group with the given load.  Comparing what a 5” circle covers on a typical deer’s anatomy, clearly reveals that clean heart-shots are possible with that kind of accuracy, and heart-lung shots give much more latitude for error as well.

Alluded to earlier, the human factor in hunting accuracy, we need to seriously, and honestly assess our practical field skills, and our shooting abilities.  The degree of field accuracy when shooting must be determined from actual hunting conditions and positions. Shooting skills must include both, off-hand and sitting, as well as kneeling positions.  The consistent and predictable degree of accuracy attained shooting from these typical field conditions will determine the actual yardages at which game can be reliably and confidently harvested.  Then, once armed with the knowledge of the combined field accuracy of both the rifle and load combination when coupled with the human limitation factor, it’s relatively easy to determine your self-imposed ethical hunting ranges at which you can, and will cleanly harvest a game animal with absolute assuredness.

While this established yardage for a clean harvest may be substantially extended through the use of a solid rest, such as a log, rock or daypack, those may not and probably won’t be options in the field except for a small percentage of the time.  However, I do take advantage of every sighting aid in the form of a rest, as often as possible when hunting, and often make my stand in such a place as to take advantage.  However, positively knowing the outer limits of both your own personal human factor coupled with your rifle and ammo’s potential is essential when going afield, and just count the addition of convenient rests in the field when hunting as a bonus, not the norm.

So, even if your rifle is a sub MOA shooter off the bench, the human factor will be your limitation.  If hitting an 8” paper plate off-hand at 150 yards with that weapon is about the edge of your ability, then 150 yards will be your ethical limit of range.  However, if you can take your favorite lever-action rifle that typically shoots 3” groups at 100 yards, and consistently break clay pigeons with it at 150 yards, then you could be quite comfortable using that rifle out to 200 provided trajectories didn’t become an issue.

I have a friend who hunted many years with a very crudely customized model 95 Mauser action in 7x57 Mauser, having a simple bead front sight on the 19” cut-down barrel and a simple Williams 5D receiver sight mounted on the rear.  He killed many, many head of big game with that rifle, and yet had never put the rifle on paper for accuracy.  Once he did so, and found that on a good day it only shot 4” at 100 yards, he lost complete confidence in the rifle, and he never hunted with it again.  However, the point remains that he never did miss, or lose a game animal he shot at, and many of those were up to 175 yards away!  However, this same friend is an excellent off-hand shot, and I’ve seen him regularly break party balloons at 200 yards with his .54 caliber custom traditional muzzle-loader.  Human error on his part was less than that of the rifle in question!

The bottom line when assessing hunting rifle accuracy for field suitability isn’t so much the on-paper grouping ability, but rather the combined ability factoring your human error, and that of the rifle, and in combination finding a reasonable and honest maximum range for your hunting pursuits.  Happily, this self-established range often just happens to fall within a parameter which also allows for excellent visual confirmation of beyond-target details so-as to not invite a catastrophic accident.

So, as you are evaluating your rifle selection for this hunting season, factor in the human error quotient, and then get in lots of practice from practical field positions, then do an honest assessment of your abilities, and hunt within them!

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