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Author: Mark Mazour
When it is "GO" time, right before you ease the safety off and squeeze the trigger, this is the question that every hunter must know the answer to. The problem is that you usually only have a small window of time to make this range calculation. Think fast.
When we ponder this topic, we first must know the effective range at which we can shoot. A good sportsman will determine his limits and only shoot when he knows he can effectively make a clean, humane kill. Although animals may be killed at ranges farther than this, many could also be left wounded and unrecoverable.
As a hunter education instructor, one of the most common student's questions I get is, "How far is too far when I shoot at a deer?" My answer is always the same, "Your maximum range is the distance that you can put five out of five shots into a ten-inch paper plate. Not one shot out of five, not four shots out of five, but all five. Although some rifles can now deliver effective energy to kill big game past 300 yards, most of us would only be guessing where the bullet would fall. For some of you, this range for deer may be only 70 yards and for others it may be stretched out to 170 yards. It does depend on your equipment, but just because you shoot a big magnum, does not qualify you as a killing machine out to 300 yards. The main thing is your shooting ability and lots of practice."
For bird hunters, this distance is where your shotgun can deliver an effective pattern to humanely kill the bird. This will vary with gun, gauge, load, and choke, but most of the time, this effective pattern has a maximum range of 40 yards. The process is simple. Just take a sheet of butcher paper out into the field and draw a 30" circle. Then, take aim and let fly with your load/choke at several distances. Comparing the sheets will let you know where to draw the magic line. The rest is up to the shooter. It takes practice to obtain the proper lead and barrel placement.
After you know your effective range (and remember, this is your effective range, not your buddy's or what it said on the shell box), you need to be able to judge the actual range and when you should pull the trigger. The students always then ask me, "How do you know that?" The answer is simple, "Practice!" With birds, I usually use detail as my measuring stick. I know by the size and features that I can see on ducks, pheasants, geese, or grouse whether I can make an effective shot. How did I come up with this? Practice. I practice looking at birds and shooting at targets. It does not come from shooting at game and then seeing if it will fall.
Another good tip that a fellow coyote hunter uses is to determine how much of his scope's crosshairs a dog takes up. As long as the magnification is not varied, this method is very effective for a quick check.
It all comes down to knowing the real distance. The old fashioned method was guessing what distance an object was and then pacing it off. Most often, people were very surprised at the result. After enough of this, they begin to adjust their estimates and eventually learn to judge distances more accurately.
I don't know about you, but guessing that a fence post is 125 yards away, pacing it off, guessing at a tree 150 yards away, pacing it off and repeating this several times can get monotonous and very tiring. Therefore, most people will go through this process two or three times and call it good. Now we have a better option, using the laser rangefinders on the market today. These compact, handheld devices allow you to instantly measure the exact range, with tolerances of up to + or - one yard.
A rangefinder has made it a lot easier for me to judge distances, and best of all, no more pacing! Just set up, make a guess, and take a reading. Soon, you too can be on track for good range judgement.
Unless the situation is perfect, or you see the animal a long distance away, rarely will you get a chance to range an animal with the rangefinder and then switch to your firearm. to solve this problem I range several landmarks, such as trees, fence posts, or even a clump of brush, as soon as you set up. Then, when an animal appears next to one of these features, you will know the range and be able to adjust accordingly or take the shot.
Range Guessing Stumpers
I have found that there are several range stumpers that you should be aware of before making a blind guess and taking the shot.
Large animals can sometimes skew your judgment. If you are used to shooting spike bulls or cow elk and a 330-class bull appears in the distance, he may appear closer than he actually is. Not to mention the "buck fever" that will naturally set in.
Open terrain makes it very hard for me to judge accurately. I recently moved to the open High Plains and have found distance to be deceiving there. A good example is when I was on the Interstate and could see the Cabela's store in the distance. I slowed down, figuring the exit wasn't more than a mile off. After looking at a mile marker I was shocked to see that we were still five miles off. With no major features such as trees to judge by, my mind was playing some tricks on me.
Large vertical canyons can cause troubles for many elk and mule deer hunters. Very often, shots will be taken from across a canyon or from one ridge to another. While it would take you a long time to descend the canyon and walk up the other side, the bullet only cares about the straight-line distance to the target. However, your mind will absorb the vast valley below and generally cause you to overestimate by 20% or more.
Case in Point
I, myself, fell victim to the range guessing blues this turkey season. I had determined that my patterns were very effective at 30 yards, but I did not want to push a shot past 40. On my fourth weekend of hunting, I had a good conversation going with a hot tom. He was answering every call of mine with a booming gobble. But I was on the top of a ridge, and I could not get him to leave the valley and show himself. After a while he shut up, and I figured our little affair was over. I got up, took five steps and saw his big fan facing me 60 to 70 yards away.
Immediately, I dropped down and belly crawled to some yucca plants, the only cover available. Some soft clucks brought him up the hillside for a bit, but then he retreated, full of himself and putting on quite a strutting exhibition.
He worked the opposite slope and began to come closer. When he reached a clump of yuccas he would not pass them. I was prone and looking down hill, trying not to be spotted. From my vantage point through the yucca plant and grass, I guessed this bird at 40 yards, the limit of my range. I had a half squeeze on the trigger twice, but aborted when he moved back behind the yucca. I didn't think I could jump up and get off a clean shot before he was past 45 yards, so I held off waiting for a better opportunity.
Needless to say, it did not get better. A hen eventually came up to me and became a bit agitated. The gobbler slowly walked away. Knowing I probably should have shot, I was a bit disgusted. I tried to prove my reason for holding off by pacing from my position to the yucca where he stood. It was not 40 yards like I had guessed. It was an even 32 steps! I could've easily shot him with his head up while he was walking away, but from my vantage point through the yuccas and grass he looked out of range.
This proved to me that I need a bit more work in the range department. Because I failed to judge range properly I ended up filing my tag in the wastebasket, instead of throwing a tom on the smoker. Bottom line - I needed to know the range quickly so I could decide to get into the game. Turkey hunting should only be a spectator sport for so long.
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