Deer Guns and Sights

The following information on deer guns and sights comes from Chapter 11 of How to Hunt Deer by Edward A. Freeman. How to Hunt Deer is also available to purchase in print.

All deer hunters, with the exception of a few camera fans, hunt with the intention of killing a deer. In order to accomplish this they usually carry a gun of some sort, although the use of the bow and arrow is beginning to gain in popularity. These guns are many and varied. When anyone attempts to point to an ideal deer gun, he encounters as many differences of opinion as there are different makes and calibers of guns. Each hunter has his favorite which he considers to be the best, although he might admit that some other gun might be satisfactory for the purpose. In a sense, he is right. If he has a gun which has served him well, killing his deer cleanly and regularly without too many missed shots, he has a good deer gun. Place the same gun in another hunter’s hands and there might be a different story. The man behind the gun has a lot to do with the gun’s effectiveness.

Almost any gun will throw a bullet which will kill a deer if conditions are right, but consider the problems that must be overcome in designing one which will be ideal for killing deer under all conditions.

First, we have an animal that varies in size from that of an oversized jack rabbit to that of an undersized moose. The bullet that would kill the fawn if placed right could easily be deflected by a rib of the larger animal, while a bullet that would be sure to kill the largest buck would probably make mincemeat of a large portion of the smaller fawn.

Second, we see deer at different ranges and the bullet that will hit and kill a deer at fifty yards might not even reach a deer at three hundred yards.

Third, we find deer in all sorts of cover. If the deer is in thick brush where visibility is limited to less than fifty yards, we need a heavy, slow-moving bullet that will cut through the intervening brush without being turned aside. If the deer is in the open at a range of three or four hundred yards, we need a fast-moving bullet with sufficient force, or energy, to kill the deer at that distance. Such a bullet would probably be deflected by a twig the size of a lead pencil and would be almost useless in heavy brush.

Fourth, we have hunters who are expert marksmen, others who couldn’t hit the side of a barn if they were locked in it, and all types who could be classed between these extremes. The marksman can make consistent kills with almost any gun, while some of the others need a bullet that will kill with a near miss.

Fifth, we have hunters who cannot shoot well with a gun which has a heavy recoil or excessive muzzle blast. All of us would like to have a gun that we could carry all day without leaving us worn out when night comes.

Sixth, some hunters insist on a gun that will be sure to kill with no regard to the amount of meat that is destroyed by the bullet, while others want a gun that will kill with minimum meat damage.

The perfect deer gun which would meet these specifications would need to be light with little recoil or muzzle blast. The bullet must be able to cut through brush and kill a deer in the next county with a near miss and do the job without destroying the meat. Such a gun may be developed about the time that the last deer has been killed or has died from natural causes. In the meantime, the hunter must make use of some of the many guns which are available, find out the one which suits him best, learn what that particular gun will and will not do and adjust his shooting to that gun.

New hunters enter the field every year and many of these men select their gun with little or no knowledge of what they are buying or what they need. Some companion has recommended a certain make of gun in a certain caliber as being a good deer gun and they spend somewhere in the vicinity of a hundred dollars for a weapon which may or may not suit their hunting conditions and shooting ability. Perhaps they have read some article dealing with technical information and, being impressed with foot-pounds of energy, with velocity, with flat trajectory and with other terms which they do not really understand, they buy a gun on the strength of the article. Sometimes these guns turn out to be just what the man needs, but buying guns in this manner is mostly a hit-or-miss method.

Before buying any gun, the hunter should try out guns of different makes and calibers—in the woods if possible—to see how they shoot and handle. Some people adjust to the automatic while others should use a bolt or lever action for best results. The company which manufactures the gun is not too important, as most of the domestic manufacturers supply a dependable product, but the type of action and the caliber must be right, or considerable time must be spent in adjusting to the gun before the hunter can make fast, consistent kills.

My personal preference is the lever action, but I have used other types without trouble, except on extremely fast shots. I tried out one make of automatic at one time, with the intention of buying a similar gun. It seemed to be just the gun I wanted until I took it into the woods. I found that it was virtually impossible to carry it with one hand or under one arm, due to the location of the clip magazine at the gun’s point of balance. This forced me to carry the gun at the ready position which was favorable to fast sighting, but the inconvenience of having both hands occupied with the gun prejudiced me against this particular make of automatic.

After the action has been decided upon, the shooter must decide on the caliber and the ammunition which he should use. Some calibers are made in one standard load, but others have different loads and bullet weights which are to be used for different purposes. Find the one that is best for deer as you will hunt them, and sight in the gun for that cartridge. Remember that if a different load is ever used, the sights must be changed to compensate for the difference in trajectory of the two loads.

Trajectory, as defined by Webster, is the curve that a missile describes in moving through the air. When we speak of a straight-shooting gun, we are speaking in relative terms, as no gun will project a bullet in a straight line. The accurate gun will send bullets of the same weight and density, propelled by the same amount of powder, into a target at a fixed distance with consistent regularity. These bullets follow the same course in a vertical plane unless moved from their path by wind or obstructions. Sights are placed on a gun in such a manner that a line projected from them will intersect the bullet’s path and will be in the same vertical plane. In order to intersect the path of the bullet, the sights must be placed at an angle in relation to the bore of the gun, that is, the rear sight must be higher than the front sight so that when the line of sight is level the line of the gun bore is pointed upward. This causes the line of sight to cross the bullet’s path at two points, one quite near the muzzle of the gun and the other at a greater distance. This latter point is the one which we usually use to hit a target. This is generally known as the point of impact. The rear sight should be adjustable vertically in order to change this point. In effect, the changing of this rear sight does not change the line of sight, but it depresses the rear of the gun bore so that the point of impact is placed at a greater distance from the gun. Thus the point of impact may be moved to the extreme range of the gun. Theoretically, a shooter should be able to hit a vertical target at any range which the gun can send a bullet, provided the sights are exactly above the center of the bore.

Any tilting of the gun will nullify the effectiveness of the sights as a means of determining the point of impact of a bullet. To illustrate, place the gun on its side, shoot it with the sights lined on the target and observe where the bullet hits. This is an extreme position which the hunter would never assume, but modifications of this position will cause misses. Fortunately, guns are so designed and balanced that they assume the proper vertical position provided they are held in a normal manner by a shooter using a natural shooting stance.

The hitting of a horizontal target is a different matter and depends on the shooter’s ability to judge distances and his knowledge of the trajectory of the bullet which he is using. The most pleasant way I know of to observe the path which a missile takes when moving through the air is to watch a ball game. A baseball is far from a perfect projectile and the way it is presented to the batter is designed to prevent him from controlling his hit; but whenever the ball is thrown or hit, it must travel a path which is governed by the physical law that determines the course of all projectiles.

A line drive is the nearest thing in a ball game to a rifle bullet that can be observed with any degree of accuracy. Suppose that the batter, using all of his power, sends the ball into center field. If the ball passes two feet over the pitcher’s head, it will be about four feet over second base and will hit the ground well back in center field. The next time at bat, the same man using the same power sends the ball in the same direction, but this time it passes four feet over the pitcher and reaches its highest point some distance in back of the second baseman. Such a hit ball would probably reach the center field fence. With the same power, added elevation results in more distance up to a certain point. Too much elevation results in less horizontal distance unless more power can be added. Notice that in a line drive, the ball travels upward to its highest point and then descends until it reaches the ground. Notice that the rate of ascent decreases as the ball nears its highest point of elevation and that the rate of descent increases as it nears the ground. This is caused by the falling off of the energy imparted to the ball by the bat. The speed, or velocity, of the ball decreases with distance in a like manner, but such a drop in speed is not as easily seen. There is nothing constant in the path of a missile, be it baseball or bullet.

To return to the problem of hitting a horizontal target. New guns are fitted with sights that are factory tested to place a certain bullet, propelled by a certain amount of a certain powder, into a spot at a certain distance from the gun. This may seem complicated, but most cartridges are standard and most guns are sighted for these standard loads. Many guns are sighted for one hundred yards, but some of those made in the higher velocity are set for greater distances, and a few of the older low-velocity weapons are set for less than this distance. If the shooter doesn’t know the setting of the sights on his gun, it is a simple matter for him to erect a target, measure off one hundred yards and determine where his bullets hit at that distance. It is best to use a bench rest or a prone position unless the shooter is an expert at offhand shooting.

If several bullets hit high on the target, the gun is sighted for a greater distance; and if they hit low, the target is too far from the gun. After finding the range for which the sights are set, the trajectory of the bullet can be determined by shooting at targets placed at different distances from the shooter and observing where the bullets hit these targets. All shots nearer the zero target will be high and all that are beyond will be low. The shooter must take these differences into consideration when he shoots at any distance other than the one for which the gun is sighted and he should aim low for the closer distances and high for the greater ones if he expects to place a bullet where he wants it to go instead of where the sights indicate.

The use of the adjustable rear sight will move the point of impact away from the shooter, but this point cannot be moved nearer than the base setting without considerable work and the average hunter should not attempt to change this setting. That is a job for the factory or a well-trained gunsmith.

On the target range, it is a simple matter to allow for the vertical deviation of a bullet from the line of sight; but when hunting deer, the shooter desires a bullet which will travel near enough to the line of sight so that any errors in judging distances will not be great enough to cause a complete miss.

The largest vital target area on a deer is the chest cavity, which contains the heart, lungs and important blood vessels. This area is about a foot in diameter in large deer and a hit in this area is usually fatal. It follows that if a bullet travels within six inches of the line of sight and the shooter aims for the center of the chest cavity, the bullet will hit somewhere in that cavity. For the smaller brain and spine targets, the bullet would need to follow the line of sight with less than two inches of deviation in order to compensate for errors in judging distance.

The deer gun should throw a bullet that does not deviate more than six inches from the line of sight, regardless of the distance of the base sighting range, and most hunting guns are sighted to keep within this limit. If we have a gun that is sighted to hit the target at two hundred yards, the bullet will reach its highest point at about one hundred and twenty-five yards; and if this point is six inches above the line of sight, the bullet will not fall six inches below this line of sight until it reaches a point somewhat less than one hundred yards beyond the target. This gives the shooter a deer hunting range of nearly three hundred yards which he can use without changing the sights of his gun or considering the trajectory of his bullet.

Many calibers will not permit this two-hundred-yard sighting range and keep within the six-inch limit. For example, the 170-grain bullet in the popular .30/30 caliber will drop about one foot in 165 yards. This does not mean that this is the limit of the six-inch variation from the line of sight because the bullet starts below the line of sight and the highest point of its flight is beyond the half-way point between the gun and target and thus the six-inch limit is extended beyond the distance of the twelve-inch drop. It does mean that if the sights are set for much over 150 yards, that there is a good chance of missing the vital area of a deer at mid-range unless there is some effort to compensate for trajectory. Similarly the .30/06 with the 180-grain load will drop a foot in about 200 yards. I have never tried the 270 caliber, but have been informed that this gun may be safely sighted for 250 yards, with telescope sights, and the six-inch limit will not be exceeded either above or below the line of sight for at least 350 yards.

For the greatest satisfaction in relatively flat country, most deer guns should be sighted for one hundred yards. This gives the hunter a hunting range of about 150 yards without the need for making allowances for trajectory. The average hunter will have difficulty in hitting a deer beyond this distance unless he has a standing shot and in such cases he will have time enough to make the necessary allowances for the distance.

I find that it is not desirable to make any changes in the sights while actually hunting. Aiming high for those long shots may not be as accurate as changing the rear sight to compensate for the increased distance, but, since the distance must be estimated rather than measured, there is about as much chance of error in either method. In aiming high, there is no danger of forgetting to return the sight to its original setting and thus missing an easy shot at some future time.

The sights on a deer gun are important because they are the only control that the hunter has over the bullet’s course. These sights are made in many different shapes and sizes. Blade, post, bead, ring and a few other types of front sights are made in different sizes in order to accommodate different shooters and different shooting conditions. Rear sights are made in so many different styles, shapes and sizes that it is difficult for the non-hunter to select any one that will give him satisfaction in the woods. Some of these sights are only adjustable vertically, while others may be readily moved to any position which the shooter desires. Some of the leaf-types have several different sights which may be snapped into position so that the shooter has a choice of sights to suit different shooting conditions. Most of the aperture-type sights have several sizes of apertures for the same reason. Telescope sights vary in power and field of view and are adjustable in all directions.

All of these sights will direct a bullet to the desired spot if they are adjusted properly; but some of them are practically useless to the deer hunter; and some of the others, while giving satisfactory results, are too complicated to be practical. The deer hunter needs a sturdy sight which will not be knocked out of adjustment by rough handling and he needs a sight which may be seen easily without cutting side vision.

I like the open hunting sights which are standard on most guns. Such sights are easily seen under most hunting conditions and are accurate enough for hunting within the base range of most deer guns. These coarse sights permit errors in sighting that are multiplied as the range increases and a more accurate sight should be used if most of the deer will be seen at the longer ranges.

The aperture-type of sight is excellent, but the hunter should use the largest aperture while in the woods, in order to see his target in the shortest possible time.

Telescope sights are probably the most accurate, but, for deer hunting, the low power and wide field of view features should be employed. When using one of these sights which gives more than four-power magnification, it is difficult to see and keep the sights on a running deer, especially in heavy cover.

Local laws will restrict the deer hunter’s choice of caliber in some areas. The use of rifles is prohibited in Massachusetts and New Jersey, and other states prohibit rifle calibers that are not considered powerful enough to kill deer under the hunting conditions of those states. The Maine Fish and Game Commission credits the hunter with enough intelligence to use a gun which is suited to the game he hunts. While this results in the loss of some game that is wounded by under-gunned hunters, the loss is negligible when compared to that which is caused by poor marksmanship of men who are adequately armed. The wounding of men by stray bullets from the high-powered guns, the principle objection to the use of such arms, has not become a serious problem in Maine up to the present time.

The hunter who decides that a shotgun is the weapon of his choice should remember that this is definitely a short-range gun. The use of one of the several sizes of buckshot compensates for the lack of accurate sights on one of these guns. It is sometimes difficult to follow a blood trail when a deer is wounded by these shot as the small punctures do not permit free external bleeding. The use of the round ball will correct this condition, but the high trajectory and poor accuracy of this load decreases the chances of a killing hit. The rifled slug is a great improvement over the round ball, but for the utmost satisfaction while using this load, the gun should be equipped with a rear sight. The killing range is thus extended and a rear sight will give the hunter a better chance to use the increased range. All of these deer loads are deadly within their range and even smaller shot will kill deer at the shorter ranges, but the use of anything smaller than buckshot should be reserved for game smaller than deer.

I have never made it a practice to hunt deer with a shotgun but I have killed quite a few, and failed to kill others, with this type of gun. As a young man, I had a double-barreled gun with which I was quite familiar. Later I acquired a single-shot, sixteen-gauge, full-choke which forced me to improve my shooting in order to bag game. I have shot a large number of various species with this gun, including five or six deer. The only deer I failed to kill was one I shot at with the wrong load. This does not mean that the gun is a good deer gun, for I never attempted any shot which I was not sure would kill the animal.

I used buckshot on most of these deer at ranges of less than thirty yards. I used a rifled slug on one at a distance of seventy yards. The deer was facing me with head erect, providing a good vertical target, but not permitting much lateral error in aiming. I aimed for a spot midway up its neck and the slug hit it in the throat, passing through the lungs and digestive organs, lodging in the fatty area where the flank joins the rear leg. The deer dropped in its tracks.

If, on these excursions, I had used a gun which allowed me several rapid shots, I would probably have killed more deer; but I am sure that my killing average in relation to the number of shots used would be far below that achieved with the single-shot gun. I would have attempted many of the possible borderline shots depending on quantity of lead to compensate for open patterns and improper holding. Whenever anyone takes chances of this sort, there are bound to be some missed shots and some wounded deer which will not be recovered.

Most hunters will prefer a multiple shotgun of some type instead of the single-shot. The knowledge that a miss on the first shot can be followed by a possible hit on the next one does not encourage good marksmanship and careful shooting, but on the other hand, the indifferent marksman with only one shot at his disposal will have little chance to discover and rectify his shooting mistakes.

When we consider rifle calibers, we are confronted with a maze of figures which have little meaning to a man who is not familiar with gun and bullet terminology. It is desirable that a man should have some understanding of the basic method which is used to differentiate guns of different calibers and powers, but fortunately, complete and exact knowledge of the terms is not essential to the deer hunter.

In the black-powder days, guns were designed to handle a certain cartridge and were identified, together with the cartridge, by numbers which indicated the bullet diameter followed by the amount of powder in the load and sometimes by the bullet weight. The bullet diameter was expressed in hundredths of an inch and the amount of powder, in grains. Thus we have the old .45/70 and the .45/90, both guns of the same caliber as far as bullet size goes, but two different guns in the powder department. Both employed bullets which measured 45/100 of an inch in diameter, but the cartridge for one was loaded with 70 grains of black powder and the other with 90 grains of the same powder.

(Foreign gun makers use the millimeter [mm] as a unit in expressing caliber.)

With the advent of smokeless powder, the difference in the power of the two powders made the black powder designation obsolete, but until new guns were designed, the cartridges were loaded with an amount of smokeless powder which would give power equivalent to that of the old black-powder charge.

As new guns were designed, the numbers denoting the powder load and bullet weight were omitted from these guns and the bullet or bore diameter was the only identification. This is the true caliber. Some of these guns were designed to handle cartridges of different bullet and powder combinations. This fact is seldom recorded on the gun, but is usually found on the cartridge container.

Some of the modern guns are marked with a number which does not express the true caliber, but serves to identify the gun. These guns are so near the caliber indicated that the difference is not important.

With modern guns, modern powders and modern bullets being used in almost endless combinations, caliber is not as important as it was fifty years ago. The newer small caliber bullet traveling at great velocities will do more damage than the slow-moving large-size bullet which was considered necessary in the black-powder days.

I think that the best way for a beginner to select his gun is for him to follow the crowd. Find out what caliber is the most popular in the area to be hunted and select a gun in that caliber. If he is not satisfied after a thorough trial, he has a gun which may be easily sold or exchanged for one which is better suited to individual preference.

Gun popularity is constantly changing, but the change is gradual and is due to changing hunting conditions and to new developments. At the present time the swing is towards the smaller calibers and higher velocities.

In Maine, the black-powder gun was the .45/90. This gun gave way to the .38/55, the gun which has probably killed as many Maine deer as any other caliber. The .30/30 superseded the .38/55 and now this gun is, in turn, losing favor. What its successor will be is not clear at this time. The 270 is a possibility, but it will probably be one of the high-power guns in .30 caliber.

The gun which I have carried through most of my hunting years is a .38/55. My selection of this arm was not the result of a well-considered choice, but was more or less accident. My economic condition at the time had quite an influence on my decision. I knew that the gun was a dependable killer, within its range, and I have always been satisfied with its performance when I have used it properly. This does not mean that I would select the same gun at the present time. That gun, a full-magazine rifle, seems to gain weight as I grow older; and, while the nine-shot capacity seemed little enough in those days, I have never used over six shots at any one time without the opportunity to reload. A carbine would have served me as well, unless the shorter sighting radius caused more misses. As for the caliber adequate for hunting in wooded country, it does not throw a bullet far enough, fast enough or hard enough for open country hunting. I would not go so far as to choose one of the ultra-high-speed guns of any caliber, but would probably settle for something like the .35 Remington caliber. This bullet performs about the same as my .38/55 in brush, has about the same effect when it hits a deer and has the advantage of extended range in the open country. If I changed guns, I would probably continue to reach out for those deer which are fifty yards beyond effective range, as I do now, and as I would probably do this regardless of the gun that I was using. My gun has served me well, but I feel the need of a gun which will reach a little farther and save me the time and effort of stalking the game which is just beyond range of my .38/55.

I borrowed a gun in which is used the .30/06 cartridge and killed four deer with it. The first was standing at an estimated distance of three hundred yards. (It measured 270 paces.) The deer was hit in the spine and practically all of one vertebra was destroyed. The second shot was at another standing deer at a distance of 310 paces. The bullet hit the deer in back of one shoulder, passed through the lungs and hit the leg bone in the opposite shoulder. It died almost instantly, but the meat of one shoulder was practically destroyed. The third was standing about fifty feet from me and I shot it in the head. Apparently the bullet failed to expand in passing through the head as the exit wound was little larger than the entrance hole. The fourth and last deer on which I used this gun was another standing shot at a range of about fifty yards. Another head shot, the bullet entering just above the right eye on a slight upward angle so that the entire left antler and a good portion of the skull were removed when the bullet left the head. Four deer with four shots proved the killing ability of this load, but I doubt my ability to handle the gun fast enough for running deer. Every time I used this gun, I felt that I was overgunned for the game. I have the same personal objection to other high-velocity loads in the larger calibers.

Except for the .250/3000, I have never used the small-caliber guns with high velocities on deer, but I object to their muzzle blast on the target range. I am quite sure that this muzzle blast would have an adverse effect on my marksmanship.

Some of these high-velocity bullets in the smaller calibers have a tendency to explode, or disintegrate, on contact with the bone or muscle of the larger game animals, causing a large shallow wound which might or might not prove fatal. This fault may possibly be overcome by the bullet makers as they design better bullets with controlled expansion.

Smaller-caliber bullets without high velocity do not have the force or the weight to kill deer consistently, except when fired by an expert. I have seen a bullet from a standard .22 caliber gun driven through the cover from a kitchen range. A neighbor had a horse killed by a stray bullet of this caliber which traveled for about a half-mile before hitting the horse between the eyes. But a more humiliating experience occurred when I attempted to use one of these guns to kill a deer which another hunter had wounded. I had to use three shots in the head before the deer died. Each shot would knock the head to the ground but it recovered from the first two shots. Later I examined the head and found that one bullet had gone through the base of the nose. Another had hit a sloping part of the skull, cracking the bone but not penetrating the skull and the third had entered the brain passing through the skull but lacked sufficient power to get through the hide on the opposite side. Had any of these hits been made with a heavier bullet with correspondingly greater force, the deer would have been killed by the concussion or by bone splinters penetrating the brain. For my money, the successful use of this and other small low-velocity loads, depend on the shooter’s having a thorough knowledge of a deer’s anatomy and the ability to place a bullet in the exact spot which he chooses.

The deer hunter’s ability to place his shots depends on many things other than a straight-shooting gun equipped with the proper sights. The fit of the gun has an important bearing on his ability to make fast accurate shots. In a shotgun, this fit is all important, but most rifles are made with an almost straight stock which will fit the average shooter. To judge the fit of a gun, place it at the shoulder in shooting position, and see where the sights are pointed when the cheek is placed in contact with the stock. The eye, both sights and the target should be in line if the fit is perfect. Minor faults in gun fit can be overcome by changing the position of the shooter’s left hand on the forearm of the gun, but if it requires a strained or awkward position to line the sights on the target, the gun should be altered by a good gunsmith to fit the individual.

The shooter should use the same sighting method at all times. It is no use for him to sight his gun in on a target range by bringing his front sight down in the notch of the rear sight so that it can hardly be seen and then shoot at running deer with half of the front sight above the notch. This changes the point of impact so that he will overshoot. His sighting habit should be consistent with his sighting procedure when shooting at running deer and at these times he seldom has the time to draw a fine bead.

While shooting on the target range, the shooter has a large variety of positions to choose from, but in the woods his choice is limited. The prone position is prohibitive except in rare instances. The bench rest is out unless he can improvise one by utilizing some handy tree or limb. When doing this, never place the gun barrel in direct contact with any solid object, but use the left hand as a shock absorber or rest the arm on the object and support the gun with the hand. The kneeling position may be quickly assumed and often this is the best position the hunter can use. While this makes for steadiness of aim, the target area is limited to a small segment of the surrounding area. The time necessary to adjust the position to a deer which runs out of this target area is often just the amount of time needed by the deer to reach protective cover. The offhand shooting position is the quickest and often the only position which the hunter can take, and time spent in the practice of it will pay off in the woods. All of the motions that are used in assuming this position should be made instinctively. Once the target is sighted, the eyes should not leave it until after the shot. The right foot should shift automatically to a position that will counteract the gun’s recoil and place the shooter’s body at the proper angle in relation to the target. The target should be about half way between straight ahead and a point at a right angle to the left. With the feet and body in position, place the gun butt at the shoulder, the left hand in its proper place on the fore arm and the right hand on the grip with the trigger finger on the trigger. The safety should be released or the gun cocked while the gun is on its way to the shoulder. As the gun comes into position, the head should be inclined so that the cheek comes in contact with the gun stock thus bringing the rear sight into line with the target. If the left hand is in the proper position, the front sight will be in line, but it may be necessary to change the angle of the left elbow slightly before both sights are in line and the gun is ready to shoot.

Once this offhand shooting position is assumed, the relationship between the gun and the shooter should not be changed until after the shot. If the deer is moving, the body together with the gun should swivel to follow the target without changing the horizontal angle of the gun in its relation to the body.

The body should always be erect while shooting offhand. If it should be necessary to change the elevation of the shooter’s eye because intervening objects prevent a clear view of the target, this change should be made by bending the knees rather than the body. Bending the body will tilt the gun thus destroying the relationship between the line of sight and the bullet’s trajectory. Many deer have been missed or only slightly wounded by hunters who have been out of position when they had perfect sight alignment which did not correspond with the bullet’s path.

When this ability for fast accurate sighting becomes instinctive and automatic with one particular gun, the use of another gun of different weight or balance, with different sighting arrangement, will cause the hunter some trouble on the fast shots. Usually, if the rear sight is the same on the two guns, this slow-down will be negligible, but if the rear sight is higher or lower than on the gun to which the hunter is accustomed, he will need to change the position of his cheek on the stock in order to raise or lower his eye position to correspond with the sights of the gun. This causes a considerable slow-down, which could be important on some of the shots that require split-second timing. This slow-down is particularly noticeable when a man changes from open sights to one of the high-mounted telescope sights. Furthermore, when changing the cheek position in order to reach the higher eye piece, there is a momentary partial obscurement of vision as the rim of the sight passes between the target and the eye. There is also a tendency to tilt the gun in order to bring the sight nearer to the eye level. Any tilting can be detected by the position of the cross hairs in the sight and is automatically corrected by the shooter.

“Leading” or shooting ahead of moving game is usually thought of in connection with shotguns and wing shooting, but it is sometimes important with the rifle while shooting deer. There is always an interval between the time the bullet leaves the gun and the time it reaches the target, and this interval increases as the distance between gun and target increases, regardless of the bullet’s speed. The combination of a fast-moving deer traveling across the line of sight and a gun with a slow-moving bullet, calls for a certain amount of lead. That amount depends on the speed of the deer and its distance from the gun.

The only time I was ever able to measure this lead on a deer with any degree of accuracy was on one I wounded superficially with my first shot. This wound caused the deer to put on an unnatural burst of speed in an effort to reach protective cover. I was unable to swing with the animal and keep the sights on it, so I aimed ahead and waited for him to run into the line of fire. I started my trigger pull as his head came into the line of sight and I am as sure as anyone can be that the cartridge exploded when the sights were lined on his shoulder. The bullet broke the deer’s back, just ahead of the hips. Allowing for some error in calling the shot, the deer traveled about two feet while the bullet traveled the seventy-five yards that separated the gun and deer. Double the distance and anyone can see the possibility of missing fast-running deer with a slow-moving bullet similar to my .38/55 unless there is some attempt to lead the game.

On one of my hunts, I jumped a deer which was minus a tail. This lack of a flag and the fact that the entire rear end of the animal was red instead of the expected white, delayed my identification of the animal until it was too late for a killing shot. Later in the day I met the hunter that had removed the tail. He had been using a twelve-gauge shotgun loaded with the regular ball load and had fired at this deer as it ran across a small field. I did not find out the distance at which the shot was made, but evidently lack of lead was the cause that resulted in a tailless deer instead of a dead one. Swinging with the target will reduce the amount of lead which is necessary and if the shooter can time his shots to coincide with the time when the deer has all four feet on the ground—between jumps—the amount of lead necessary is greatly reduced, for the animal is to a degree motionless for a short time. Judgment gained by personal experience should be used to determine the amount of lead which is necessary in each individual case.

One of the more important factors which affect the deer hunter’s ability to shoot and one which he can do little to correct, is the condition of his nervous system. This varies with the individual and at different times in the same individual. The fact that a man does well in competition on the target range is no guarantee that he will do well in the woods where conditions are entirely different. There is something about the sight of a deer which has an effect on the nervous system which manifests itself in different ways on different people. This is the cause of the “buck fever” which all hunters have experienced to a greater or lesser degree at some time in their hunting careers. After years of deer hunting, I still have occasional touches of buck fever and if the time ever comes when I become indifferent to the sight of a buck bursting unexpectedly from cover, I will know that a large part of the thrill of deer hunting has gone and that the time has come for me to hang up the gun and take up other sport.

Extreme cases of buck fever are usually reserved for the novice and as he gains experience, he gains control over nerves and muscles so that the initial shock does not last long enough to prevent his bagging the deer. I know of one man who has a case of buck fever every time he shoots a deer, yet the effects do not hit him until the deer is down. He shoots almost automatically on sighting a deer, then his hand will shake so badly that he has to take time out for a smoke before he can dress out his game. He tells me that this reaction hits him every time he kills a deer. Evidently he hunts under a nervous strain which is released when the kill is made.

One phase of the nervous system over which we have little control is our individual reaction-time or the interval between sighting something and doing something about it. In the case of the hunter, this means the interval between each action from the time the deer is sighted to the time of the shot. This lag is difficult to measure because it is seldom the same under all conditions in an individual.

By practicing the motion of bringing the gun into shooting position until it becomes almost automatic, we are able to cut the reaction-time so that the only important lag occurs between the time of identifying the game and of pulling the trigger. A portion of this time-lag should be deliberate in order to check target identification and sight alignment, but that portion which is due to mental and muscular reaction should be held to the hunter’s personal average by avoiding anything which has a tendency to retard his reaction-time. Since different things affect different people in different ways, there is no hard-and-fast rule which can be followed. Most of us are a bit sluggish after eating a heavy meal, and a very small amount of alcohol will slow the reactions. Possibly an extra cup of coffee, or the lack of it, will have an adverse effect on some individuals. Each person should avoid anything which he thinks might interfere with his reactions.

My average time between sighting a deer and the first shot seems to be about the time it takes a deer to make one jump from a standing start. Probably more than half of this time-lag is due to slow reaction. This means I have no chance to hit a deer which crosses an open place with one jump unless I am able to see him in the surrounding woods. I have had deer walk across a ten-foot woods road before I could make identification and bring the sights to bear, and yet at times my reaction has been so fast that the deer seemed to move in slow motion.

I recall one such instance when I sighted a deer just as its front feet were leaving the ground as it prepared to jump. The deer’s head and shoulders rose until the deer was almost upright. At that time I had the gun aimed at its shoulder and I squeezed off a shot. The deer settled as the rear legs bent and then it bounded into the air and, before I could reload, it had gained cover. My reaction-time was very fast on that shot, but my eyes were so accurately focused on the deer that I had failed to see an eight-inch hardwood tree trunk that was directly in the line of sight. Perhaps there is such a thing as too fast a reaction.

One thing that will partly nullify the effects of the reaction-time, at the instant of the trigger pull on running deer, is to swing with the target. This should be standard procedure on all moving targets.

While the ability to get off fast shots will enable a hunter to bag his game under difficult conditions, he should never be so fast that he fails to identify his target before the shot. Safety is more important than bagging a deer and it is never safe to shoot until an object has been positively identified.

There is no necessity for fast shooting at standing deer, but some men who have trained themselves to this will find they miss some of the easy shots if they try to hold the sights on a motionless target for too long a time. This is caused by muscular tension which increases with time and unless the shooter has a rest for his gun, he should shoot as soon as his sights are in line with the target.

Click here to purchase How to Hunt Deer in paperback

Deer guns and sights for hunting

Return to How To Hunt Deer Table of Contents