Four Rules for Making a Killing Shot on Big Game

In Montana in the early 1980s, I was hunting a ridgeline in deep, soft snow and jumped a nice whitetail buck out of his bed. He whirled and started to accelerate, and I had perhaps two seconds to get my rifle up, find him in the scope, figure out the lead, and pull the trigger. As it was, two seconds was enough, and he was the only deer I saw that whole trip.

Shooting Under Pressure
Nothing gets the adrenaline going like sighting in on an elk or other big game. In those few seconds, a lot can go wrong. The animal can bolt, it may never get in the clear, you might forget how your fingers work, or you might rush and miss. Slow down and think.

In the best of all possible worlds, we would be able to watch a critter stroll into view, raise our rifles in a leisurely manner, and shoot with all the time we need. In this world, we are sometimes forced to shoot at an animal that is about to get or is getting the hell out of there—or we go home empty-handed. (And before we go any further, you should understand that I’m not presenting you with a rationale to blaze away at anything you please. Speed becomes a factor only after you’ve identified your target beyond the shadow of a doubt. If you’re not sure of it, keep your rifle down and watch through your binocular until you are.) Here are the basics.

1. Defeat Dither Speed is achieved by the absence of dither—a brew concocted from indecision and clumsiness that saves thousands of animals' lives every year. Much indecision comes from not knowing clearly what you want to shoot. Should I settle for a forkhorn? What if a better deer comes along after I shoot this one? While you are debating, the deer becomes aware of you and leaves. Decide what you want beforehand, and stick to your decision.

2. Take The Shots You Can Make If you think you can't make a shot, you are probably right. As you become experienced, you will develop a very good sense of which shots you can take and which you can't. Until you reach that point, play it cautious.

3. Know Your Gun Much hesitation is caused by unfamiliarity with your firearm. If you have a new one, or a different type of action from what you're used to, or you only pick it up once a year, you will dither—unless you practice.

4. Slow Down It's important to learn to distinguish between those times when you have to shoot fast and those when you can take your time. What to do? Use your common sense. If an animal is right under your tree stand, it can get your scent at any instant, and you are going to have to shoot right now. If it's 300 yards away, you're not likely to have your cover blown unless you stand up and cheer. Also, look at the critter. Animals have body language that reveals whether they're spooked or placid.

Here's a tip: On more than one occasion, I've had to endure the shame of shooting right-handed when I was up in a tree stand and a deer came from my left-hand side. As I shoot southpaw, I couldn't turn enough to aim at him without getting busted, so I moved the butt of the rifle into my right shoulder and shot that way. If you have a strong master eye on your shooting side, you are going to have to close it to shoot from the weak side. Practicing such shots help.