Monday, October 19, 2009

The 'Texas' Heart Shot

I don't know the history of why this particular shot is called the "Texas Heart Shot" and I'll apologize to all the fine Texans I know right out of the gate but then again- I didn't name it. After the well received responses to my "Hail Mary Shooting" article and some consideration of the factors of wounding game animals in the field I thought I would write again on the topic field shooting and the ethical hunter.

I'll refer the reader to an excellent essay on the subject by Gary Wolfe, entitled "When Not to Shoot" in which he organizes the primary reasons behind wounding loss to be distance, angle, movement, and haste. I'll not elaborate on any of the excellent points Mr. Wolfe makes but I'll keep his general outline in which I'm in agreement with. Mr. Wolfe was the ranch manager for over a decade on a large elk ranching operation and has had more experience retrieving wounded critters than most of us will even think about. During the last essay I think we pretty well covered the distance but today I want to talk about the angle and to a lesser degree, shot placement.

The famous (or infamous if you will) "Texas Heart Shot" is any shot taken from dead astern. Any of my readers who are even slightly familiar with quadruped anatomy will realize that this is a shot the places the bullet clearly away from the vitals but in a manner that will almost certainly mortally wound your animal. I became familiar with it not in my native Tennessee where I'd never heard of the practice but rather among hunters of the tiny Sitka Blacktail deer on the coastal islands of Alaska. Apparently the technique is to move through the thick brush in the hopes of spooking a deer into bolting and then snap shooting the fleeing creature in the rear end; hoping your bullet penetrates through to something that's quickly fatal. Hunters who pursue this shooting generally use a much tougher bullet or a much larger rifle than one would normally think appropriate for deer that barely break 100 pounds in weight in hopes of getting a complete shoot through the brisket. From an ethical shooting standpoint I have to shake my head as I'm sure the number of deer wounded in this manner has got to be quite high and the number of recoveries very low.

First of all, gut shot deer tend to bleed surprisingly little and the entry wound is not in a position to rub on brush and leave a good trail. Second, the thick coastal vegetation and constant rain would make following a good blood trail challenging and a faint one almost impossible. The position of the gut and its contents puts a lot of mass between the aft and the first vital component- the diaphragm and the heart/ lung cavity beyond. Consider a moose with the same placement- there could be 5 feet of water, vegetable mass and gut between the point of impact and the vitals. It would be like shooting something several feet under pond water- that's asking a lot from even a Superfloogunboomer. Bad show. In the words of Cooper in The Art of the Rifle- "'s impolite, tends to wreck the carcass and doesn't bring the game down."

But the Texas Heart Shot isn't the only less than idea shot you can be presented with. The dead forward or facing shot is almost as bad. The forward profile contains lots of space where a bullet can wreak havoc without an immediately fatal wound. The heart is a possibility as is the spine and you may get lucky and get a lung but facing is a poor way to make a shot. In a lot of animals I've seen recovered over the years, sometimes days afterward- this was frequently the wounding mechanism. A facing or a strongly quartering too position that certainly dropped the animal at the shot but they got up and ran vigorously afterward as nothing immediately fatal was hit.

The other shot I hear bandied about is the neck or head shot. This one is often declared the preferred shot by folks using undersized rifles and who profess to be such stylish shots that they can't possibly miss a vital point. A killing shot is possible in either the neck or head and I've seen it brought off a number of times. I've also seen it blown rather badly and the result is a horrible wound that a strong deer could live with for days. A moose has a brain that's roughly the size of a man's fist and its really a rather small organ when you consider the size of the creature's great head. A good friend of mine tried this on a moose this year and his .300 Winchester magnum failed to penetrate the brain from a mere sixty yards and expended its energy in the nasal cavity- that moose was recovered but only through fortune as the head shot didn't even take him off his feet. The spine in the neck is a similarly small point and its location in the neck isn't where you'd generally suppose and its surrounded by surprisingly robust tissue. Leave the head and neck shots to the sniper wannabes and gun shop commandos; the ethical hunter darn well knows better.

What are the preferred shots then? The broadside of course is a splendid shot. Where a moose's brain is the size of a fist; a good bull or adult cow's lungs are the size of a small block Chevrolet motor. Every single quadruped has a set of lungs that are at least an order of magnitude bigger than any other vital point in their body. On most animals a broadside shot with even a modest caliber rifle will involve both lungs since the bulk of the space is air and presents little in the way of resistance to the bullet. The heart is the largest in profile as well and lies generally between the lungs. So from broadside you will likely hit both lungs and lots of times the heart as well. You don't have to be a doctor to figure out that the damage is invariably fatal and the rapidity of death will surprise even some experienced hunters. Strongly possible shots are the quartering away and quartering too but be advised the more the angle deviates from 90 degrees the more uncomfortable the ethical hunter should become. The vital zone is best represented as a cylinder which you'll want to puncture from end to end. The broadside is often presented by fleeing animals after a few dozen yards as they have the fatal habit of turning to look and see if they're pursued, a patient hunter will often wait for his quarry to look back and then pull the trigger.

A lung shot is quickly fatal and in my experience a lot of animals such struck barely move from the spot they're shot at and often fall at the shot through some means I can't quite explain but high velocity rifles do so with more regularity in my experience. I believe it has something to do with rupturing blood vessels in the brain but its simply a theory. The animal may occasionally regain its feet but usually falls again quickly. Even a bolting animal generally piles up within just a few yards and expires. The lung shot also has the added bonus of bleeding the animal rather quickly into the lung cavity and that reduces meat loss, particularly in warmer weather.

I strongly advise all hunters to study up on the basic anatomy of their quarry, much the way a bowhunter would. There are several excellent references available both in the bookstore and on the web. In fact, I wish all rifle hunters would think more like a bowhunter in that the angle of the quarry is a very significant factor in good field shooting. While a lot of folks think the benefit of range practice would reduce game wounding (and I'm certain it would to a point) I think some basic knowledge of animal anatomy and wound mechanics would do even more so. The rifle is not a magic talisman that barks loudly and causes animals to fall (much to the chagrin of the ballistic marketeer). It is a basic instrument and its wound mechanics are rather straightforward, easy for any one to understand and vital for the ethical hunter to comprehend before going afield.

Good hunting friends!
About the Photos- this is a mature cow that hangs around the house sometimes. The first photo from aft, you'd be lucky to get a stout loaded .375 to penetrate that moose from that angle into the vitals. For reference- that is a 3/4 ton F250 in the background to give you some sense of scale. A few moments later the cow turned and slowly walked into the woodline- from profile just about any decent centerfire rifle would have completely penetrated the vitals and killed this cow within seconds.

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.