As sportsmen and sportswomen, it is our responsibility to make sure we maintain sportsmanship. As shooting and hunting techniques evolve, we can sometimes get caught up in the whirlwind of "what the cool kids are doing." Over the last couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to practice long-range shooting (very limited compared to many) and I’ve noticed an increase in the number of people shooting farther and farther. EVERY year there is a new rifle that’s better than the last, in a modern-day battle of the “King of the Hill.”
Long-range shooting isn't a new concept. According to an article from Hap Rocketto, it has actually been around for many years, beginning with the early European settlers. Although the considered long-range to be 50 yards, and would likely shutter at our 1,000+ yard shots.
In a hunting scenario, is long-range shooting considered real hunting? Is it fair to the game? Is it just another skill to aid us in filling our freezers? Are you even capable of making the shot? The debate begins.
To this day my farthest shot is just outside of 1400 yards, with a two-shot impact using a 6.5 PRC. I had a spotter as well as an instructor who shoots professionally. He built my gun, so he was very familiar with my rifle (named Beth Dutton, all of my rifles have names) and her capabilities. I am very far from being a professional, but hearing the ring of a gong just seconds after pulling the trigger is quite the rush! The reason I even began to consider a long-range caliber over my dad’s old 30-06, was to have a gun that could really reach out there for hunting wolves. I wouldn't necessarily take a shot at a wolf that far, but I wanted the ability to shoot further than my current gun could go. I was also looking for an all-around hunting rifle that I could use for just about any game. And let’s be honest, guns are like potato chips, you can never have just one!!!
Once I began shooting my rifle and hitting targets out past the naked eye, it made me more confident in my shooting. It also got me thinking, "Is this even OK? Should I be considering taking a shot at an animal past a couple of hundred yards or less?"
The dream buck
Last year, I was presented with the opportunity to shoot what would have been the largest mule deer I’d ever seen in real life. It was October 25th and we had been hit with a snowstorm and temperatures of -12 degrees. Striking out all morning, we finally found a herd of deer on a faraway hillside, just below the ridge. The terrain was extremely steep and would take a long roundabout way to get there in order to stay off private land. Putting him to bed, we went back to the range to help boost my confidence with a gun that was similar to the one I was having built. Things went well and we devised a plan.
We began our hike back to the spot where we had last seen the deer bedded down. The first hurdle was crossing the river and I found out quickly that my gaiters were not tall enough and I had flooded my gear from the knee down. Although not the best situation to be in with the temperatures being what they were, I continued on and we finally reached the ridge just adjacent from where the herd was lying and got set up. The target buck was out in the sun pushing his does around. I had my rifle setup up on him and just watched him for a bit.
I was offered the shot. He was ranged at 789 yards. But my gut sank. Could I even make an ethical shot like that? It was across a canyon and onto the other hillside. There was a crosswind right about the middle of the canyon and how could we know what it was doing where he was standing. Temperatures had warmed up to 24 degrees and I was shivering, and not just a typical chilled shiver, but full-on, struggling-to-control-myself shiver. To make things even worse, my trigger hand was numb and I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to feel the trigger, especially with it being set to "you even sneeze and the gun goes off" setting! I’d never taken a shot that far on an animal. Even if he didn’t move, that is a really small target, with a lot of things that could come into play and go wrong.
This was a really difficult moment for me. I had a dream buck right in front of me and the chance to take the shot on him. It was the last day of the season and I hadn’t killed a deer since 2012. The temptation was almost unbearable! Thinking it through, I knew I could not take the shot and felt that it was not an ethical decision for me to even try. I was not confident in my shooting at a living target that far away. Sure, I probably could have controlled the shivering long enough to make the shot, but I knew I shouldn’t attempt it. Then there was the fact that in the amount of time it would take that bullet to get to him, he could always move. I was not skilled enough to know the bullet's trajectory and how the wind and temperature would affect the bullet's flight path. And even if all the conditions were perfect, I was not comfortable and felt it was not an ethical shot. I had made up my mind and said no. My hunting partners were surprised and urging me to shoot, but I put the gun down and stepped away from the trigger. I told them that if they wanted it, the shot was theirs, I was not comfortable doing it. They stepped up to the plate, took aim, and fired. The first shot hit three feet above the deer, the second shot landed in front of him, kicking up dirt and causing the buck to run for the timber. We watched the tree line and he appeared after about ten minutes. After a third shot, the last shot rang out and the buck lay there motionless.
A feeling of relief came over me. That could have been me. They had more experience than I did and it took them multiple shots to figure out exactly where that bullet was going to go. What if I had made a bad shot and just wounded the animal? I’ve known people who ended their hunting career after not recovering an animal. It was at that moment that I knew I made the right decision. Walking up to that animal I had mixed feelings. Of course, as we got closer he seemed to only get bigger and I felt mad and jealous that I had passed him up. The bigger part of me knew that deer will come and go. As long as I can confidently back my decision and sleep at night, it was the right choice.
Is it ethical in hunting?
You will hear many different opinions about long-range hunting; my opinion is based on my own personal experiences and how I choose to hunt. I feel that taking long shots on an animal is very risky, any shot is. For fear of injuring the animal with a non-lethal shot, or causing the animal unjust harm that ends in a slow and painful death and may never be recovered. I’ve also seen a long shot made where the shooter was "positive it was a clean miss" and didn't even hike over to confirm the animal hadn’t been wounded.
Do I think it can be done ethically? Yes. However, I feel that there are very few people who are truly skilled enough and have the ability to consistently hit their mark 99% of the time. Like anything, with the proper training, if not their actual career, there are people who can make that shot. Even then, we are human and things can go wrong. That weight lies on their shoulders and at their sole discretion of the consequences, it results in both good and bad. Each person has their own style of hunting and knows their skills, abilities, and limits. I personally don't think shooting an animal that far is ethical because I've been in the situation to take the shot. If I can’t get closer than 500 yards, is that really hunting? Other hunters may not have the same opinion and that's ok. It’s a gamble I am not willing to take, in fear of not making a clean kill shot.
Every time I see the picture of that buck, I feel appreciation for such an amazing animal that I got to see on the ground and pack out. I also feel proud of myself for saying no to a shot I wasn't comfortable with. Sometimes we forget that it’s OK to say no. No matter the situation you're in, if your gut is telling you no, then don’t do it. There is a reason. If I could go back, I’d pass that buck up every time. Everyone is different, but trust your gut and KNOW your limits. Limits are what help us to improve. We can’t be the best at everything. Every hunter needs to know where they stand when it comes to taking the life of an animal and the entire world looks at the decisions we make.