Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hail Mary Shooting...

I first heard the term "hail Mary" shots years ago when I lived in Tennessee. They referred to a long shot by regional standards- about 200 yards with a typically open sighted rifle. They were called "hail Mary" after the football term "hail Mary pass" because the feeling is that the person performing the action would have plenty of time for prayer and contemplation from the time the shot (or pass) is initiated and the bullet (or ball) gets there. It was also felt that these long shots are only doable with saintly intervention and the shooter (or quarterback) holds little hope of success. In football, its usually the act of a 4th quarter, 4th down, no time and points behind quarterback- where the usual tactics of ball possession, controlling the clock and defense have failed. Its either this or certain loss. With the hunter its typical of the last day of a long (and expensive) hunt or perhaps the closing moments of the season.

In other words its a final act of desperation.

From the hunting field this year I'm hearing more and more tales of these outrageous shots. Hunters in the field being tempted to squeeze the trigger on a moose or caribou at distances well over 300 yards. Maybe they're desperate for a moose, maybe they've watched shows like "Best of the West" and feel confident anybody can whack an elk or a moose at 700 yards, or maybe they feel its reasonable to even try. Bottom line is that I've heard of several moose taken during the early season in the neighborhood of 500 yards. While the moose I've heard about were taken (none particularly cleanly I'll add) I do wonder how many were lost? Potentially with lingering wounds? Hunters don't typically brag to each other about the blood trail that faded out or the one that limped over the far ridge. I hate to judge other hunters and their methods but this current growing trend in hunting is, at least in my opinion, simply indefensible.

Since this is quickly turning into an ad hoc op-ed piece (known as a rant), I'll explain my thoughts.

First off, I've done a fair bit of shooting on a 500 meter range. Enough so to get reasonably good at it and know that 500 meters is a long way off for anybody. With a little practice a skilled marksman can hit the 18" steel at that range with surprising regularity. But here's the rub- in the hunting field I don't want regular; I want certain. That 18" gong is going to hang right there hit or miss and a marginal hit will ring that gong the same as dead center. A miss will raise a puff of dirt and get you a ribbing from your buddy and you take another shot to redeem yourself. No harm done.

I'll give an example of a tale from the field. Two hunters are glassing over a valley and one spots and stalks a moose, the moose wanders away from the first hunter and is leaving the valley. Hunter #2 starts firing at nearly 500 yards and manages after a dozen shots to hit the moose. It turns and wanders back up the valley (to every one's good fortune) past Hunter #1 who shoots it with a .375 at 80 yards. The moose is down before the gun even comes down out of recoil. The first hit was with a .30 caliber magnum but the bullet lodged in the gut, far aft of anything vital with no exit and no blood trail. The second hit was with a .375 though a shoulder, two lungs and a huge exit behind the far shoulder. It's pretty clear that without Hunter #2's fortunate intervention this would have been a lost moose. It doesn't mean that a .375 is a better moose rifle either- it means closer is better and shot placement is paramount to success.

There are a myriad of reasons why long shots are to be avoided and its easy to see the rationale behind Cooper's dictum that the thoughtful hunter should write himself an exhaustive apology, "long hand, in triplicate", for trying such a stunt. After watching a couple of hunting shows and a few Youtube videos of such performances all I can do is manage a grimace. I'll give the contemplative hunter some things to think about.

It pretty obvious that these shows and such that are promoting such long shooting are often tied to a retail arm in the business of selling you a "super duper scope" on top of a "super duper rifle" and tell you that rifle craft has evolved to the point where "700 yards is the new 200". With special bullets, and special scopes and a really special mega-magnum rifle you too can whack elk at a third of a mile.

Pure horse apples.

When ranges get long there are a host of other factors to consider, ones that a wonder rifle won't address. First is wind- no bullet is immune to wind regardless of velocity or ballistic coefficient. In our mountain valleys, the wind is so inconsistent that no shooter is any great shakes at "doping the wind" either- at least not without sophisticated metrology. Flight times are also long and that allows the wind much longer to act on that bullet. At 100 yards the difference between a 5 and a 10 mph crosswind is negligible. At 1000 yards its measured in feet.

The second is bullet construction, bullets perform well over a pretty narrow range of velocities. I saw Hunter#1's recovered bullet from my previous example- I believe you could wipe off the gore and reload it if you were so inclined; no expansion and no upset. At 2800fps (a typical 100-150 yard shot impact velocity for a .300 mag) that bullet would have mushroomed beautifully, punched a hole clear through Mr. Moose (I'll also assume in the vitals at that distance) and he would have expired post-haste. At long range when velocities for even the mega magnums have fallen below 2000 feet per second, bullet performance is simply too erratic to count on. Most of us wouldn't even contemplate shooting FMJ ammunition even at close range (in most locales its typically illegal to boot) on big game animals; so how can we justify shooting at ranges where even the softest hunting or ultra accurate match bullets behave like FMJ ones? I don't get it.

The third factor to consider is physiology. I've said in print several times that moose are soft for their great bulk. Don't confuse what I'm saying here- soft for something the size of a Clydesdale horse is still the size of a Clydesdale horse and while not as hardy as elk reportedly are, they still take a good deal of killing no matter what. During those long flight times, animals move position and once the bullet is in flight its simply beyond prediction what will happen next. Animals with even good, solid hits at close range can run for surprising distances and many animals shot at close close range are shot again fleeing at medium ranges. If your initial shot is out past Ft. Stinky, how will you ever hit it again when its running? Bottom line is that you won't.

From a mathematics perspective all these factors are cumulative and add up to something Cooper terms the "Morning Glory Effect" in his excellent book- The Art of the Rifle. For example, my MOA rifle will consistently shoot 1" at 100 yards. Can I reasonably expect that same rifle to shoot 10" at 1000 yards, also MOA? Not by a long shot (pun intended). All those little things that add up- bullets not being perfectly concentric, variable wind, a little shooter wobble, even the darned ebb of the tide for all I know add up to a group that gets bigger exponentially as distances get farther. At some point the inconsistencies will add up to a group that's too big to shoot at a living animal with a clean conscience. I'll admit that good marksman with good equipment can extend that distance a good deal over what the average hunter might do (which isn't as far as he usually thinks) but so many of those variables are beyond the shooter's control at some point we've got to say its just over the limit.

Bottom line is that I'm sick to death of hearing stories of big game shot at ridiculous distances. While a long shot only might prove that you're a good marksman, lucky or the beneficiary of saintly grace it certainly proves one thing- that you're a poor hunter. Instead of hearing guys quote ballistic charts and tales of shooting to the next county I'd much rather hear of people skillfully stalking to bayonet range or exercising what I'm beginning to feel is the ethical hunter's most dominant trait- putting the safety on and admitting that despite your best effort you simply couldn't get close enough for a certain kill. A hunter who can stalk to good range and put the bullet through the vitals for a clean, quick and certain kill has my utmost respect. One who takes a chance and flings lead though the air in the hopes he might hit something deserves (at least in my book) nothing but scorn. To brag about it as if he's really accomplished something special?

Well, that's just contemptible.


Albert A Rasch said...

On the Saturday Rodeo for sure!

It is, as you say indefensible. Granted if you're useing a 338 Lapua Magnum in a dedicated long range rifle, with a Schmidt Bender scope that coasts three times as much as the rifle, yeah, then I might accept that as a viable 350-450 meter rifle, but you would have to show me that you could keep it inside six inches in the field.

I might even accept the use of a 45-110 with big heavy tempered lead slugs, but you would have to show me it works-each and every time.

Me, no thanks, make it close and personal, where my lousy eyes and the scope set to 1.5X will work just fine, thank you very much.

Thanks Hodgeman


R. Gabe Davis said...

I think this pattern is generational. My father was to worried about wasting an expensive cartridge to take a shot he was not absolutely sure of. Plus everyone wants to be an expert and a big trophy hunter like the guys on ESPN on Sunday morning. When most people take animals for only the head, they lose respect for the prey. I have heard people here in the hills of Tennessee say I took this incredibly long shot because I had nothing to loose. That is the attitude that needs to change. Being a great hunter means knowing your limitations.

Holly Heyser said...

Great post!

I take a pretty narrow range of shots right now (animal holding still, 100-150 yards) because I'm still pretty new at it, and while my performance at the range has gotten pretty good, a moving live animal is not a stationary paper target.

As I get better, I know I'll be more able to take longer shots, but I kinda hope I won't want to. I really don't want to get to the point where I feel obligated to take a long shot, when the no-shot option is always a respectable one.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...


You made the case very well, and the ethics of the shot, while unfashionable and un-brag-able, are to me a deep deep part of the whole enterprise. The idea that our time in afield is where we tread lightly both literally and figuratively,and kill decisively is central to my understanding of the experience.

Sadly: ethics aren't sponsored by a truck company and fieldcraft is difficult (read expensive) to film.
Commercial television is just that. Costs must be lower and sponsors must be brought in.
There's little chance of selling magazine advertising around an article called 'spend less trying harder for fewer results' so the trend will continue to be popularised by the sponsored media.

Modern life is rubbish

hodgeman said...

No flies on closing to 100 or 150 yds and sealing the deal with a well placed shot. None at all. My opinion is that its preferred. I've got some friends that are wonderful rifle shots and capable of much further shooting and they pass on shots past that distance every year.

You're right- hard to find a corporate sponsor for ethics and good woodsmanship/bushcraft doesn't make much of a commercial venture.

Hubert Hubert said...

That's a fine post, Hodgeman, I do agree of course - and some things occur to me.

The first thing that comes to my mind, and it's tangentially related to the 'Hail Mary' motif in your post, is that I'm a sinner. I don't mean by this 'and so therefore it's O.K for me to do bad stuff' but I suppose I mean that I'm wary of attempting to kid myself that I faultlessly observe ethical laws - and this because, at least to some extent, I have to acknowledge that I don't.

I understand what the ideal is and I work towards that ideal; sometimes I'm closer to it, and sometimes I'm further away.

It is possible though, I think, to become rather paralysed by one's inability to achieve - in action- a complete identity with a theoretical ethical ideal. In a way, no shot is without risk of producing what someone might describe as 'unnecessary suffering' so in that sense no shot can be entirely justified. But I do want to put meat on the table occasionally and so, if I'm going to take any kind of shot at all I have to acknowledge that I can't guarantee I'm going to be perfectly within that ethical green-light zone - because, I guess I'd argue, that's very rarely the case.


hodgeman said...

Nice comment Hubert.
I understand what you're saying- there is no real concrete line as what constitutes an ethical range for a shot. Too many variables like terrain, weather, and shooter skill to make a concrete determination but I'm convinced the ethical hunter gets as close or as perfect a shot as possible. Interesting when I think of the article from the position of an airgun hunter.

Phillip Loughlin said...

Amen once, and amen again!

One of my biggest pet peeves, both in the real field and on the TV/Video shelf is the total marketing of the long-range shot. It's hype to sell stuff, not to make us better hunters.

I also agree that there's no hard and fast rule as to what's "too far". That's an individual thing, and I know there are folks out there perfectly qualified and able to make those screaming, long-range shots... even if it's not what I'd consider "necessary".

What's even worse is the occasional success that makes these folks think they can do it every time... hey, they recovered that moose. A lot of folks won't remember that follow-up shot with the .375. They'll only remember that they hit that animal way out on the horizon and brought it home.

Practice long, hit the kill zone consistently, and then try to get closer... if you must shoot long range, then at least consider this as a guideline.