How to accurately shoot running targets

Good timing and accurate shooting are necessary attributes for taking game on the run. A running deer can be a comparatively easy target when you master the technique and necessary skill. 

I have seen more missed shots fired at running animals than at standing ones, and most are missed by the bullet landing behind the target.

Hunter with sambar deer
This sambar was a fast offhand shot at around 75 metres as he ran between two trees only about 30 metres apart

No shooter is born with the infallible instinct which allows him to hit running game consistently. It is a skill that is acquired through constant practice. 

It must be executed in a cool, deliberate manner, otherwise it should not be attempted at all.

In one way it resembles shotgun shooting, because aim is taken at a moving target and the gun must compensate for that movement in order for the bullet to intercept the target. But the basic technique calls for more precise aiming than shotgun shooting because the hunter has a single projectile.

A misplaced hit on running game can result in either a wounded or crippled animal that runs off to suffer a lingering death. This kind of sloppy shooting results in needless cruelty — something that is unsportsmanlike.

My first attempts at running shooting were at zig-zagging rabbits, and I scored few hits while doing little more than scaring the living daylights out of them. 

Hunter with moose
A moose shot offhand from 30 metres as he ran straight across in front of Nick

When faced with a running target, shooters who are used to taking slow, deliberate aim are inclined to stop the swing in the moment of firing. As a result, they miss behind the animal.

In order to effect a clean kill, you must keep your sights on the exact spot that will result in a hit. To successfully do this you must always be aware of where your sights are in relation to the game.


The amount of lead to allow on a running animal varies with the distance and how fast it is running. You learn from experience how much lead is needed and how fast to swing. 

The main cause of missing is wrongly estimating the amount of lead needed and the speed of the game as it runs away. 

If the animal is trotting quite slowly and is relatively close, a shorter lead is needed; just swing onto its shoulder and touch Old Betsy off. 

If a shot is taken at 100 metres, a hold on the end of a deer’s nose is usually enough to land a bullet in the vital chest area. 

No matter how close or how far away the animal is, however, it is vital to keep the muzzle moving and maintain your lead.

In open country a deer can hit top gear and 70km/h, but in wooded terrain it is considerably slower. A deer taking off in short, rapid bounds has an average speed of 30km/h; moving at a typical steady pace when not badly spooked averages 16km/h; deer trotting seldom exceed 12km/h; walking along undisturbed they rarely cover much ground at all.

A deer at 30km/h covers ground at a rate of about eight metres per second. So in scattered wooded terrain, it can be out of sight within three seconds or 24 metres — in only a few bounds. 

This means when you catch a glimpse of the deer you have only two or three seconds in which to get off your shot, as it crosses a small gap between the trees. 

In this situation a lot depends upon how quickly you can get off a fast aimed shot with no time to spare for a deliberate trigger squeeze or perfect sight picture. You only have time to plaster the sight on the game and get off a fast shot.

A badly spooked deer can take bounds of three to four metres, especially on a downhill run. This up-and-down motion makes it harder to hit. The best time to shoot is at the top of its bound when it is not moving up and down to spoil your aim.

It is easier to maintain your lead when your target is moving straight across in front of you, but if it is moving at a slight angle, you have to shorten the lead. 

If the animal is fairly close, don’t think you can hold dead-on and land a bullet in the vital chest area; you are more likely to gut-shoot it and lose it. 

Even with the latest, fastest magnum rifle, some lead is required.


“Spot shooting” is a method whereby you aim a stationary rifle at a clear spot somewhere ahead of a crossing animal. You align your sight on the farthest edge of the clearing and release your shot as soon as the target appears in the open. This is sometimes the only chance you’ll have to score in heavy cover.

Except in that instance, to score consistently on running game you must keep the sights moving in relation to the animal. There are two ways of doing this. 

With the so-called fast-swing method, you start with his rifle behind the target, move up past it, keep the rifle moving faster than the target, and fire the shot when the sights look to be the right distance in front.

Using the sustained-lead method, you swing the sight out ahead of the target, keep it moving long enough to estimate the target’s speed and to get set, and then let off the shot with the rifle still moving along at the same rate.

Both methods call for gradually increasing pressure on the trigger rather jerking it, and both require that the rifle be kept swinging to follow through after the shot is fired.


Obviously, many shots are taken at running game where no lead is needed. 

For example, on an animal that is running straight away from you, you only need to get those crosswires aligned on the middle of its rump and hope that if the bullet misses the spine it will hold together well enough to drive on through the paunch to get into the heart-lung cavity.

The mountain hunter often encounters game that has been spooked from its bed on the opposite side of a gully and is climbing at a steep angle away from the rifle. In this kind of situation, all you need to do is hold above and to one side of the animal and simply let it run into the bullet. The technique with a quartering shot is the same; just hold off slightly to one side and shoot with the rifle held still.

When you have to shoot quickly, a good 2x or 3x scope — or a variable set on the lowest power — is the fastest of all sights. 

Using a well-balanced sporter, you should be able to throw the rifle to your shoulder and find your eye looking through the centre of the scope’s field, aligned on the target as your cheek hits the comb. 

The best reticle I’ve found for running shooting is the duplex since it provides a good horizontal hold and allows you to maintain your lead.

Above all, remember that speedy snap-shooting and instinctive gun handling can only be cultivated through plenty of practice. 

You must make a conscious effort to get your sights properly aligned and keep your rifle swinging as you touch off the shot.   




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Nick Harvey

The late Nick Harvey (1931-2024) was one of the world's most experienced and knowledgeable gun writers, a true legend of the business. He wrote about firearms and hunting for about 70 years, published many books and uncounted articles, and travelled the world to hunt and shoot. His reloading manuals are highly sought after, and his knowledge of the subject was unmatched. He was Sporting Shooter's Technical Editor for almost 50 years. His work lives on here as part of his legacy to us all.