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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