Hunters minimise shooting errors

If there’s anything I’ve learnt from a lifetime spent hunting and shooting it is that the hunter should keep everything as simple as he possibly can. The more complicated things are, the more chance there is for something to go wrong. Now more than at anytime in the past, the less a shooter knows about anything, the more he is fascinated by gadgetry, whereas the older more experienced shooter knows that the more complicated his equipment is, the more easily it can develop problems and he prefers to keep his outfit as simple as possible.

The oldtimer then, is acutely aware of Murphy’s Law – that anything that can be screwed up will be screwed up and any piece of hi-tech equipment that can be misunderstood will be misunderstood.

Shooters setting out to reload are delirious with joy when they learn that they can buy a lot of different bullet weights for their rifles. The more bullet weights available, the happier they are. One of the reasons the .30-06 has been so popular is that there’s such a wide range of different weights and types of bullets for it. Offhand I can think of bullets weighing 110, 125, 130, 150, 165, 168, 180, 200 , 220 and 240 grains.

The inexperienced shooter goes into raptures over all these different bullets and imagines himself selecting exactly the right bullet for the quarry at hand – just like a golfer deciding what number iron he will get on the green with.

This may sound like a pious idea, but the experienced shooter knows that generally these different bullets all shoot to entirely different points of impact, and that if he is sighted in with a 180gn bullet at 2700fps, he won’t be with a 150 or 220gn bullet. In addition he knows full well that under field conditions he almost never has a chance to change his ammunition. And he has long since learned that it doesnít make much difference to a deer whether it is hit with a 150 or 180gn bullet if the missile is properly placed.

Various weights of bullets loaded in factory ammo often confuses the unwary and bemuses theorists who fondly believe that game is killed with kinetic energy and not properly placed shots. After studying the ballistics for the .243 Winchester naive gun lovers often swoon with joy because it can be loaded with bullets weighing 55, 65, 70, 75, 80, 87, 90, 95 and 100 grain bullets. They got the idea that it was more versatile than the .257 Roberts as there were more bullet weights available. No one ever spared a thought to what the 95gn bullet was capable of doing that the 100gn bullet was not. They chose to ignore the fact that the .257 Roberts when handloaded to equivalent pressures was a more powerful and versatile round, they simply wanted a greater variety of bullets to amuse themselves with.

Experienced shooters and reloaders are much more pragmatic. They are content to settle for reloads featuring just one or two different bullet weights. The notion of using one rifle and a variety of bullets and powder charges for everything from varmints to sambar is very appealing, but in practice it does not work out. It’s possible to get by with a .30-06 for a variety of purposes with just about everything you can feed it. But alas, it makes too much noise, kicks too much and isn’t any better on varmints than a good varmint rifle in .223 would be on sambar. Best solution is to have one rifle for varmints and another for deer. In the real world there’s no one-gun solution, itís largely a matter of horses for courses.

Now lets look at sights
The more complicated they are the more the innocent dote on them. Back in the days after World War II before riflescopes became commonplace, many hunters bought peep sights, attached them to their rifle and then tried to use them without removing the open rear sight. They intuitively thought that if two sights were better than one, three would be better still than two.

The hunting peep sight should be used by looking through a “ghost ring,” paying no attention to it, making no effort to centre the front bead in the peep, but simply dabbing the front bead on the spot where you want the bullet to strike and touching Old Betsy off.

A peep sight with a large aperture is very fast. But if it is used in conjunction with an open rear sight it is actually not used at all since the rifleman handicaps himself by lookng through the peep in order to use the open rear sight.

When hunting scopes first appeared on the scene, rifle users were wary of them, figuring that because they had glass in them, sooner or later something was sure to break. Anticipating this, German gunsmiths made scope mounts with a tunnel through the base under the scope so that if the optical sight went out, or if the hunter felt the urge to use the open rear sight while the scope was still attached to his smokepole, he could get his head down and squint through the hole at game. Alas, if the comb height was right for the open sight, it was too low for the scope and vice versa. No Virginia, there ain’t no free lunches.

One of the most satisfactory scope mounts is also the most simple. The Leupold Q/R mount rings have an integral peg that enters a hole in the base and is secured by turning a lever. The scope can be removed by turning the levers in the reverse direction. This leaves the top of the receiver clear so that open sights can be used. The scope can be removed and put back innumerable times with no change in impact. I like this mount very much. The scope can be quickly removed from the rifle to be packed separately. And if by some evil chance the scope should get broken, one can always attach a spare scope that’s been previously sighted in.

Another fetching idea is a scope in a sort of hinged mount that can be swung aside to gain access to the irons. Weaver makes such a Pivot mount and actually this is not a bad way to mount a scope. At least it’s not perched up in the air where the shooter has to lift his face off the stock to see through it.

I have a Model 70 in .270 Weatherby with a Zeiss Conquest 3- 9×40 in Q/R mounts. It doesn’t have irons, but I carry a spare scope with rings in my gun case whenever I go overseas for insurance. But maybe the smartest thing to do with any rifle is to mount a good scope with a strong simple mount and leave it in place.

Another complication. The tyro is intrigued by the thought of having a set-trigger with a final let-off of a few grams rather 1.36 kgs. Theoretically it can be used unset when you’re in a hurry to shoot at game and you can set it for a slow, deliberate shot when taking aim at a standing undisturbed animal.

Too often the tyro on seeing the game, particularly if it’s a big trophy, gets nervous and his jittery finger trips the trigger prematurely, causing the bullet to fly wide and hopefully not wound the animal. I’m just old fashioned enough to prefer a single-stage trigger that lets off at 1.36kg and have developed an abhorrence for any kind of set-mechanism. I’ve had too many go off before I was ready.

Long range hoo-doo
Nothing intrigues the hunter with limited experience as much as the thought of long range shooting, There is something about reaching out with a bullet from 500 to 1000 metres and striking down some innocent herbivore that is deeply appealing. These guys are fascinated by so-called ‘Tactical’ rifles and scopes with built-in rangefinders and Mil Dot reticles, and are willing to complicate their lives a bit more with them. The average shooter often finds it difficult to distingush game which is hidden by a fancy reticle. And unless he is adept at mental arithmetic by the time he works out which dot or hash mark he should aim with the target animal may be gone from sight. Sometimes guys become so entranced with looking at the exquisitely detailed reticle that they forget to shoot altogether.

In my experience the best scope reticles are the simplest ones – the crosshair, the single dot and the Duplex and I also like crosshairs that taper down to a fine intersection in the centre like Leupold’s CPC. But I do see a use for illuminated reticles that glow making them easy to see in poor light and thickly wooded terrain.

Stadia wires witin the scope are still used in some makes to determine how far away game is. As a rule the space between the wires subtends 6 minutes of angle (6 inches for each 100 yards of range) and if the body of a mature fallow buck from shoulder to brisket fills the space between the two wires it’s a safe bet that the deer is around 300 yds. away. This would work out fine if we only shot at mature bucks that come in uniform sizes and always stand patiently broadside while we measure them. As a matter of interest it take a good big fallow buck that will weighh field -dressed in the neighborhood of 90 kilos to measure 18 inches in a straight line running from the top of his shoulder down to the bottom of his brisket.

The same anomaly applies to some scopes with BDC (Bullet Drop Compensators) since they are also based on the premise that game of all kinds comes in standard sizes. Years ago I did a fair amount of hunting with scopes having stadia wires and BDC and used the reticles to check the size of animals in order to make a guess as to the range. In almost every instance I found that they were not as far away as I’d thought. The simple way to solve the problem was I discovered, to sight in a rifle to be used for open-country hunting for the longest distance that wouldnít cause midrange misses – a process I still adhere to.

Other BDC reticles are calibrated for certain muzzle velocities and have half a dozen different aiming points for ranges from 100 to 500 yds. They can be fairly exact if the velocity is correct and the ballistic coefficient of the bullet coincides. While they are fairly quick to use they do tend to clutter up the field of view.

With big-game rifles my rule of thumb is to sight in so that the path of the bullet will never be over 4 in. above the line of sight. With the majority of rifles giving a muzzle velocity of between 3100 and 3200 fps and with a scope whose optical axis is 1.5 in. above the axis of the bore a dead-on hold in the centre of the chest will result in a hit out to around 320 to 360 yds. In my book that’s really a long way out yonder. If an animal is farther away than that few people have any business shooting at it. I think this simple rule is a very sensible one.

Every now and then I read a piece about expert riflemen who lug portable benchrests up on hillsides and knock off deer at long range with special heavy-barreled, high-velocity magnum rifles after they had been located with spotting scopes, and ranged with a laser rangefinder. The marksman then peers through his high magnification tactical scope and aims with the correct Mil Dot on his reticle and presses the trigger.

I have no doubt that this is an interesting technical exercise, but one that bears no resemblance to sport hunting. The task of lugging a benchrest, a 6 kilo target rifle, a spotting scope, extra large high-power binoculars, and a mate or two to operate all this equipment is too complicated for a poor simple country boy like me. I may be considered too conservative, but I think an unsuspecting deer deserves a better fate than to be bushwacked at 900 metres by some genius with a computerized brain and a half-tonne of equipment.

The Too-Easy Way
Too many people like to do things the complicated way. I encountered a shooter in Canada like that. This fat businessman was loaded with dough and a rabid equipment nut. He’d dash his retainers a few bucks to stake out kid goats in a clearing until a wolf or bear got used to hearing them bleating for their mothers and came sneaking in for a free feed. Then after the predator got used to going there and finding his dinner served up for him, the would-be nimrod would have a tree stand erected nearby, a powerful spotlight centred on the bait and any intervening brush cleared away. Then he’d saunter down late one evening, climb into the stand and wait, his .300 Weatherby with 8×56 Zeiss cocked and ready to go. When he heard the wolf or bear crunching bones, he’d switch the spotlight on and lower the boom.

All this filled the hunter with a feeling of great accomplishment, but to me it’s too cold blooded, too remote to afford much of a thrill. I feel pretty much the same way about baiting black bears to within sure hitting range. I find it’s far more satisfying and a lot more sportsmanlike to spot and stalk the game. Don’t venture to ask my opinion of those who shoot big game using a spotlight.

Modular Madness
One lesson learned about the desirability of the simple and hazards of the complicated is one I was told by my outfitter in Namibia. It concerns a German hunter who came on safari bearing only one gun – a four-barreled combination gun with a mechanism only slightly less complicated than than the guidance system of a ballistic missile. It had two 12 ga shotgun barrels set side- by-side, a barrel integrated in the rib for the rimmed 5.6x50mm cartridge, and a barrel below the shotgun barrels for the powerful 9.3×74-R cartridge.

The phlegmatic teutonic huntsman had it all worked out. A 6x Kahles scope on the gun was sighted for the 5.6x50mm cartridge, and he was going to collect all the small bucks with it. The open iron sights were aligned for the 9.3×74-R barrel and he’d brought RWS ammo with two different bullet weights – the 258gn H-Mantel for kudu and gemsbok and the 293gn Original Brennek TUG for buffalo. He’d use the shotgun barrels to bowl over guinea fowl, francolin, sand grouse and other feathered game, while the open-choked right barrel could also be used with Brenneke rifled slugs using the irons.

When he wanted to shoot big game with the 9.3×74, heíd pop the iron sight up by pushing a slide on the tang. Then one trigger fired the 9.3 and the other the 5.56×50. The Greener-type safety was located on the side of the tang.

An added refinement (complication), the rear trigger of the drilling could be set by pushing the front trigger forward.

After the Germanic huntsman gave a demonstration of the gun’s capabilities, his pro hunter grudgingly admitted that it all sounded very practical, while keeping any reservations he may have had to himself. His worst fears were soon realized when the hunt turned into a fiasco. His client was always pushing the wrong button or pulling the wrong trigger, shooting at francolin with 9.3 bullets or stinging indignant kudus with No. 6 shot. The pro-hunter finally got so exasperated that he wrenched the drilling out of his clients hands and shoved a well-used Mauser 9.3×62 at him. He used to take everything from pint-sized duiker and steinbock to kudu, gemsbok and buffalo and enjoyed a very successful hunt – because the gun was so very simple.

My motto is K.I.S.S and no, Iím not lusting after the voluptuous blonde who lives down the street; it translates into “Keep-It-Simple-Stupid!”.


This article was first published in Sporting Shooter, May 2011.




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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.


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