The following information on long range game shooting shooting comes from Rifles and Rifle Shooting by Charles Askins. Rifles & Rifle Shooting is also available to purchase in print.
It is to be taken for granted, now, that if the young rifleman has followed the method outlined in the previous chapter, and has practiced assiduously, he knows considerable about shooting a rifle; can at least tell when he has held a bad shot or pulled a good one. After the amount of training he has undergone he might specialize at this time, taking up the match rifle or the army gun, but if his idea is to make an all round rifle shot of himself, especially a game shot, he will do well to continue his work according to instructions given in that chapter.
Very fair target work can be secured at distances up to one hundred yards from the .22 long-rifle, provided the distance is measured or the sights are set exactly for the range, but we mean to go farther than that, shooting up to three hundred yards and farther. It follows that a new and more powerful rifle is in order.
Since the student has been accustomed to the .22 caliber only, it is not wise to make too radical a change, but he should be content with a weapon that, while giving a fairly flat trajectory and good accuracy up to three hundred yards, has practically no recoil. In such a weapon we have a number of cartridges to choose from. If from motives of economy or choice the marksman prefers to reload his own cartridges, I think there is nothing better than the .25-25 Stevens. In factory loaded ammunition of higher power, however, which are really better adapted to our present purpose, either the .22 Newton H.P. or the .25-20 H.V. ought to serve every purpose.
Having our rifle, it is a foregone conclusion that we will have to get out into the woods and fields where we can use it; the man who must shoot on a measured range will have his inning later. The regulation bull’seye is two inches at fifty yards, three inches seventy-five yards, four inches, one hundred yards, six, one hundred and fifty and eight inches across at two hundred. There are finer rings inside the bull for match work, but the bull itself will do now.
Step or measure off the distance, put up a bull of a size in proportion to range with a good margin of white around it, and continue the work you have previously been doing with the .22 in-doors, firing from the sitting, kneeling, standing, and prone positions.
The military and match style of rifle shooting is to change the sights every time the range varies, one elevation of back sight for one hundred yards, another for two hundred, etc., the effort being to have the sights so aligned as to strike the center whatever the distance. This is the right system of course for measured ranges, and it would be well enough to practice it for a time, marking the sight for one hundred, one hundred and fifty, two hundred, and two hundred and fifty yards.
It is well to have an assistant in this kind of work to spot the shots. Change positions frequently, firing a few shots off-hand and then sitting, kneeling, or prone, carefully noting the needed changes in elevation if any. When tired of shooting from a fixed spot, take the target from some other angle, estimate the distance, and then use the rifle to verify the judgment. The man who can keep in the eight-inch bull at two hundred yards, firing one shot standing, the next kneeling, the third sitting, fourth prone, keeping it up in rotation until ten shots have landed in the bull, has a very high order of skill so far as holding and pulling are concerned.
Attempting to elevate the sights and set them for the exact range will not do for the game shooter. In the first place it frequently happens there is no time; the shot must be taken instantly when opportunity occurs. Also the system of setting sights for unknown distance is the essence of guesswork.
First we guess at the distance, next we guess at the proper elevation, then when we miss, we guess which of the previous guesses was wrong. Of course, there are times when we might note the impact of the bullet from its striking sand or water, but this happens rarely and is generally seen too late to do us any good.
In game shooting as in actual war what must be depended upon is “danger zone.” The danger zone for the soldier is taken at the height of a man, sixty-eight inches, for it doesn’t make any difference whether we hit him in the head or in the foot, but the danger zone for a deer is only eight inches since we must kill him outright. The problem of the game shot then is to set his sight so as to keep his bullet in this eight-inch without any further adjustment. The limits of the danger zone are about the maximum distance at which game can be killed with any certainty, and in order to strike center the rifle-man must study the path of the bullet’s flight or its trajectory curve, and so hold as to correct errors.
Not everything is unknown or guessed at in this case. For example, if his rifle has a four-inch trajectory at two hundred yards, he knows that it will shoot four inches high at a hundred and about two inches high at fifty or a hundred and fifty, which he must make allowance for by his holding. He cannot make this allowance, however, unless he can very closely estimate the distance and this is the present task of our rifle student.
Now is the time to begin a long and patient schooling in judging distance within sporting ranges, say up to three hundred yards. Select a variety of targets, now a knot on a tree, again a patch of moss on a bare rock. Estimate the range and hold for it. Fire several shots so as to be sure one badly held missile will not deceive you, and then go up to the target, carefully counting steps so as to verify your judgment of distance.
There are certain principles bearing on the estimation of distances which it is well to fix in the mind. On perfectly level ground with no prominent intervening objects the chances are the distance is underestimated. In rough, broken country the tendency is to overestimate. In heavy timber the probability is the range will be overestimated despite every allowance. Familiar ground will be underestimated, whereas unfamiliar lands are nearly certain to be overestimated.
The novice will shortly learn that he can hold better than he can judge the distance. A diagram of shots in an eight-inch target at some unknown distance, which he decides is about one hundred and fifty yards, is as creditable as a like target at two hundred measured yards with a spotter to mark the shots. A half dozen shots, all well held, but all missing the target owing to bad judgment of distance, will prove a lesson not easily forgotten. By and by the student will come to know both his rifle and himself, realizing that for work at unknown ranges there are well fixed limitations.
Hawks, crows, jack rabbits, wildfowl, etc., are all legitimate targets for this kind of practice. Pretty soon it will dawn upon the observant youngster that holding is not half his problem. For instance he can kill a bird the size of a hen hawk very frequently at two hundred yards if he knows the exact range, but not knowing it, his best judgment will only permit him to shoot with a good prospect of success at about one hundred and twenty-five yards. The man who can kill a crow with one bullet in three at a hundred yards (estimated) is a good shot, or a hawk at one hundred and twenty-five, or a jackrabbit at one hundred and fifty. Striking the hawk is about equivalent to hitting a four-inch, the crow a three, and the jack a six.
A hawk sitting on the dead limb of a tree with the sky for a background is a beautiful target, but hitting him at an unknown range is not so easy as it looks. I have shot at one half a dozen times, finally cutting the limb in two upon which he was sitting without touching a feather—every ball was held close enough to kill had I known the elevation.
The practice with the lightly charged, high velocity rifle should be persisted in until the marksman will be able to estimate a distance in the neighborhood of two hundred yards with such certainty that he will rarely make a mistake of greater than twenty to thirty yards whatever the circumstance of light, cover, and ground. His object is to so ground himself in this art that he can call shots fired over unknown ranges with the same certainty as the known. When he misses then he will know instantly whether it was due to a poor aim or the wrong elevation.
Half the shots which miss game and most of those that merely cripple are due to a bad estimate of the range. No man ever did or ever will judge distances perfectly when on strange ground, but the clever game shot will always be found far superior to others in this respect. Other things being equal, as shooting skill, one sportsman will still be able to take his deer with as much certainty at two hundred yards as another would at a hundred and fifty, solely because of superiority in calculating the range.
It should be remembered that the object of all this study of distance and bullet path is to enable the marksman to center his game, not land somewhere within the eight-inch. There are enough other factors tending to throw him out without wilfully permitting trajectory to do it. As an example, the hunter might fire at a deer one hundred yards away. He knows that his rifle will shoot four inches high, but does not make allowance for that knowing that the bullet will still strike within the circle. However, inadvertently he pulls the shot four inches high, and the result is a ball eight inches from center and a lost buck. On the other hand, had he aimed low, as he should, the bullet would still have proved fatal.
Having thoroughly learned to handle our rifle up to the limits of the eight-inch danger zone, it would be well now to elevate one notch, sighting to center at three hundred yards. With the Springfield ’06 ammunition this would give a trajectory height of a trifle over seven inches at one hundred and fifty yards, with a .30-30 the height would be fifteen inches. Practice with this new elevation until you know it thoroughly all up and down the line. Of course the object of the three hundred yard sight is to shoot only at ranges beyond two hundred yards, but it is well to know the bullet’s path both inside and beyond the distance for which it is sighted. Of course, as noted in a previous chapter, the ballistics of the rifle would govern its danger zone and when I mention sighting for two and three hundred yards, it might be taken as having reference only to rifles with a muzzle velocity of 2,500 feet or better.
Difficulty of Killing Game at Long Range
All of us have heard of the man who can regularly kill his game at extreme ranges. Sir Samuel Baker tells of dropping a Cape buffalo at eight hundred yards with one ball from a muzzleloading eight bore. Another writer speaks of shooting antelope on the run at seven hundred yards, evidently a customary occurrence with him. The Boers are popularly believed to have made a common practice of shooting game at distances of from five hundred to one thousand yards. I have recently been reading of a great game shot who could strike his quarry with fair certainty at fifteen hundred yards.
Now I do not wish to maintain that such performances are impossible nor to reflect on the veracity of the narrators, but I have a suspicion that all work of this kind is sheer, bull luck, absolutely dependent on chance. With his huge, round bullet of low velocity Sir Samuel must have held a hundred feet above the buffalo’s back. Shooting a running antelope at seven hundred yards requires a lead of about seventy-five feet. As for the fifteen hundred yard man it has been calculated that with our highest velocity rifle, the Springfield ’06, the ball at fifteen hundred yards would be dropping one foot for every eighteen feet of forward movement consequently would fall below a twelve-inch circle in traveling nine extra feet. Estimating fifteen hundred yards to within nine feet is close work—many men could not come within nine feet in judging fifty.
Occasionally large game like elk and caribou have undoubtedly been killed at very long range. Our military experts do not regard a highest possible score at a thousand yards as anything wonderful, and the inference is natural that game can be shot at a like distance. However, shooting game at the moderate range of five hundred yards is not so easy as it might seem. Kindly keep in mind that, no matter what the distance, we have to land our bullet in that fatal eight-inch circle.
It is a question in the first place of having a rifle accurate enough to do it when fired from a machine rest. The Springfield is said to be our most accurate rifle, and Government tests show its mean deviation at that range to be 5.9 inches. This is not saying that all shots would go into an eleven- or twelve-inch for we have only the average deviation, and plenty of shots would go outside. Granted that it would stay in a fifteen-inch, that is considerably wider than an eight, and wouldn’t do. The ordinary sporting rifle with soft-point bullets would require a twenty-four inch circle to contain the shots, with possibly not a single ball landing in the eight-inch.
As we see, not one of our rifles is accurate enough to shoot game at five hundred yards. But even if they were, accuracy is not the only thing we have to consider. On the contrary when shooting over such a range we have to take into our calculation judgment of distance and correct elevation of sights, windage must not be neglected, light can by no means be overlooked, and the barometer, hygrometer, and thermometer must be read carefully; lastly we will have to get our projectile into the game with power enough to kill.
Tests by the Government show that the danger zone for infantry, with the five hundred yard alignment of sights, ’06 cartridge, extends for only 128 yards back of the target. Infantry height is taken at sixty-eight inches, but our game danger zone is only eight inches across which reduces the distance to sixteen yards or thereabouts, hence if we underestimate the range sixteen yards in five hundred the result must be a miss or a crippling shot. Naturally the average game cartridge would be much inferior to the ’06, an error in judging distances of more than twenty-five feet being hardly permissible.
A good stiff wind blowing across the range would easily drift a .30 caliber bullet two feet and the lightest breeze that could be felt would send it out of the eight-inch. The most moderate head wind would drop our bullet beneath the circle or if coming from the rear would drive it over the top.
Light might vary the elevation a foot or two, and the man who failed to read his thermometer would make a fatal oversight. Referring to the Government cartridge, a change in temperature from zero to 100 would increase the initial velocity one hundred and fifty feet, with a change in trajectory that would throw us wide of the eight-inch. Changes in air pressure and air moisture would do so, too, with like certainty.
From the foregoing it is to be concluded that the hunter who would kill his game at five hundred yards must have a more accurate rifle than any we now possess, must be able to estimate the distance to within a few feet, must have a windgauge and elevating back sight, micrometer adjusted, and must carry with him a barometer, thermometer, and hygrometer. Additionally he will have to be a mighty good shot. The average hunter is supposed to have skill enough to place half his shots in an eight-inch bull’seye at two hundred yards, and at five hundred he would do well to strike a thirty-inch with some of the bullets scattered over a five-foot circle—this wouldn’t do.
However, we will say, just for the sake of argument, that the shooter could hit his game, how about killing it? It is generally considered that a striking energy of about 1,500 foot pounds is necessary to prove regularly effective on such game as might be shot at long range, moose for instance. Now how many rifles have this striking force at five hundred yards?
The Springfield ’06 wouldn’t do, having but a remaining energy of 927 foot pounds, considerably less than a .25-35 at short range, and the latter is not thought to be powerful enough even for deer. A .30-30 at five hundred yards would have no more effect on game than a .32 caliber pistol bullet. Indeed, of American cartridges I consider that the .405 Winchester is the only one that would retain sufficient energy at five hundred yards to be fairly effective on big game.
In the light of what has been said above, it is only reasonable to limit the range at which the largest game should be shot at to three hundred yards. Shots should be taken at a longer distance than this only when it is absolutely impossible to get closer, and then the rifleman is guilty of wanton cruelty to animals. Roosevelt thoroughly proved this, when in Africa, by pumping a magazine full of cartridges at a buffalo with no result other than the assurance that it would go off and die a lingering death. Van Dyke states that a deer at two hundred yards is an extremely long shot, with which I fully agree. Moreover, shooting at any game at five hundred yards is an unsportsmanlike act.