Know where your bullet will hit

The serious big-game hunter should always know exactly where  his bullet hit. When shooting at a trophy animal it’s vital to be  able to recognize the indications of a hit, solid or otherwise – the frantic dash that usually indicates a heart shot, the humping –up that signifies a gut shot and the staggering gait that  suggests a  poorly placed bullet and a wounded animal. If you  hear the bullet hit with a solid whock, it means it’s hit bone or heavy muscle and usually the animal is anchored on the spot or  going to go down in a short distance. A bullet that lands behind  the shoulder and gets into or completely penetrates the chest  cavity is not so easily heard, but often results in an instant on-the-spot kill.

None of these indicators are carved in stone, but they do give the hunter a  fairly good idea of what to expect. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and anyone who tells you  different is either foolish or inexperienced. Sometimes you won’t  hear the bullet hit, sometimes the animal’s reaction is at odds with what you would normally expect with a certain placement, and sometimes the animal shows no sign at all of being hit.

The  reality  is this:  there’s no way  we  can  accurately  predict how the animal will react to any kind of hit, nor will  two individual animals behave in exactly the same way, even when  hit in the same place. Some animals drop straightaway and are  anchored by a relatively poorly placed shot, while others will  run several hundred metres after  receiving a fatal wound.

Game  animals are entirely unpredictable.  Some deer will  run a short distance and then lie down when wounded; others will  run until they drop. When wounded some dangerous game animals  will charge the hunter on sight, others will take flight.  Obviously, you can’t kill ‘em any deader than dead, but in real  life most animals have an ingrained flight instinct that, even  after being fatally hit, will allow them to travel some distance  before the bullet takes effect.

When game runs off and gets out of sight,  the ethical hunter  always looks for blood and other signs that indicate a hit. It’s  important for the sportsman to know, as quickly as possible,  whether he’s hit or missed. And, if it’s a hit, whether the  bullet landed where it was supposed to. The experienced  hunter/rifleman can call his shots. He will know  exactly where  his sights were when the bullet hit in the split second when he  pressed the trigger. This is not something that can be learned;  rather it’s a skill – the culmination and natural result of many  years spent in the field – and many thousands of shots taken at  game. Being able to do this is valuable, because it immediately  lets the hunter know whether a second follow-up shot is going to be needed. With dangerous game, however, no matter how dead it  may look, a second follow-up shot is always good insurance.

Years  ago in Zimbabwe, my P.H and I stalked a vlei  early  one morning, using the scattered cover to approach a herd of  sable led by a spendid bull. When we peeked around the last bush,  the bull was within 50 metres looking straight at us. He took  flight and went straight into high gear as I swung the reticle in  the scope along his ribs and let him have a 200gn Nosler  Partition from my 8mm Rem. Mag. There was no indication of a hit  – no thump, and the big antelope never flinched as he ran away  from the rest of the herd, left the vlei and headed up onto a  ridge. The trackers came up, but apart from a few spots were  unable to find a blood trail. They started following the spoor.  It led them up along the ridge but then came back down onto the  vlei where they lost the sable’s tracks among a lot of others.  The P.H declared I’d hit him too far back, but I was using my pet  Remington 700 and had called the shot just behind the shoulder.

Finally,  the trackers were stymied and gave up.  Meantime,  acting on instinct, I went up on the ridgetop and followed it for  about 2 km before they used the car horn to call me back. After  lunch in camp, we went back and I started where I’d left off and  after going only 30 metres stumbled over the dead sable bull  where he’d fallen in mid-stride. Later after the animal had been  skinned, we found my bullet had hit exactly where I’d called it – behind the shoulder. It had gone through the lungs but stopped  short of the opposite side of the chest cavity.

African safari hunting dictates that the trophy fee must be paid if the trackers find a single drop of blood on the ground.

In other words:  if you hit ‘em you have to pay for ‘em. I heaved a sigh of relief when I found the sable because we’d seen  a few  splotches of blood even though we never heard the bullet hit or  seen the bull show any reaction, and he’d run off as if unhit.  The distance he’d run before dropping shows just how tough these  big antelope are.

But I’d called my shot right and was happy to  be proved right.

Another  time  I shot a massive eland  in the chest  and  he  also ran off. After the trackers followed on his spoor for about  90 minutes, we caught up with him and I hit him again. We  then followed him for another 6 hours before it got too dark to  see, and took his trail again the next morning. Shortly, we found  him lying under a tree and finished him off. My first two shots  were where I’d called them.

The  African PH will always ask you to shoot the game  again  if it is still on its feet after being shot. This is a good idea  since it avoids a long trailing job. In Namibia, I shot a  hartebeest walking along and he fell down kicking. The P.H told  me to give him another one, and I did but only after we’d closed  to a distance of two metres. A couple of other times when asked  to shoot the animal again, I declined as I’d called each shot and  knew the game was fatally wounded and a second shot was not  needed. If there had been any chance of one of those animals  getting up and escaping, I’d surely wouldn’t have chanced losing  the trophy fee for nought.

It  is  important  to be able to  call  your  shot,  through  knowing exactly where the crosswires are placed when your rifle  fires.  But how do you learn to do this? There’s only one way.  This is a skill that only results from long practice in the  field. There’s no mystery involved; it’s simply a matter of  paying close attention   to the sight picture each time you press  the trigger. Calling the shot on standing game is easier,   because the rifle is usually being steadied using some kind of  hastily assumed rest, but its takes a lot more practical  experience on estimating lead before you can call your shots on  running game.

The  same technique applies to every  shooting position,  but  of course, the less steady you hold the gun, the greater the  margin for error. From offhand the rifle can’t be held dead  still, since you have to try and synchronize your wobble with  your trigger squeeze. This is where trigger control is critical.  The idea is to take up about three-quarters of the pull weight  and then squeeze off the remaining few grams in the instant when  the crosswires look just right. If you want to be a successful  game shot, it’s important that you know where your bullet hits,  and be able to call your shots from any position.

This article was first published in Sporting Shooter, February 2012




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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.