January 31, 2022
It’s the kind of question big-game hunters don’t want to have to ask: How did I blow that shot?
A first thought, naturally, is incredulity. What went wrong? How did that happen? There’s lots of air space around a buck! Not all bullets go exactly as intended!
It’s important, however, to then think it through and do an instant replay. We need to know why that bullet went astray, so we can recognize the mistake and not repeat it. Also, unless you’re a lot different than I am, it’s the "mystery misses," the ones you can’t explain, that haunt you.
Writing about missed hunting shots is dangerous because, invariably, we’ll get letters from hunters who insist they have never, ever missed. "Boddington, you better find a different job."
Haunted by a Miss
Oh, yes, I’ve missed. Not often, fortunately, but I have, and the haunting can last for decades. When I was young, I missed a huge mule deer — steady rest, good sight picture, clean miss. I shot right over him, and I think I know why. In those pre-rangefinder days, my "guesstimate" might have been off. Even if I was close, I didn’t think about the steep downhill angle. Fifty years later, I can still see that buck.
I missed the biggest bull elk I’ve ever had a shot at, skinning a bullet right over his back. By then we had rangefinders, so no excuse. He was far, but I knew the range and the drop. The bull was up the next ridge, farther above me than I realized … until we went to look. I held right on his backline, and that’s where the bullet went. Oh, yes, I can still see him!
My most common error is to hold a bit too high. The old adage to "Hold on hair, never on air" applies to me.
Familiarity Leads to Better Shots
Consistently proven by surveys, most American hunters rarely venture far from home. On familiar turf, we know the ground and the game. We often have the whole season, no large investment, little pressure. Frequently, we’re just looking for venison for the freezer. Shooting at game is always exciting. The heart-stopping adrenaline rush of hunting a really large animal is addictive.
On your turf, it’s easier to take your time and pick the shot. That’s what we should do always, but it’s more difficult in strange territory with unfamiliar game, and shots perhaps taken from unaccustomed positions at uncomfortable distances. My Kansas farm is undulating oak ridges with thick leaf litter, so hunting from stands is our only sensible option. From most of our stands, even a 150-yard shot is unlikely.
I claim a home-court advantage, but our dozen-odd annual hunters come from all over, some with limited whitetail experience. Often, our hunters take deer from stands they have never seen before, perhaps climbing up in the dark.
They usually do very well. In some blessed seasons, we have had no misses at all, and several years have passed since we failed to recover a hit deer. In the Kansas rifle season just past, we had an unprecedented two misses.
One I put down to a rushed shot while a buck moved through a narrow lane. Such a scenario is part of whitetail hunting but, trust me, if an animal is moving, even slowly, your chances of missing (or worse) go up exponentially. It’s easy to say, "Always wait for a stationary shot." It’s harder to do in unfamiliar country, on a hunt costing hard-earned cash, while thinking this might be your one-and-only chance.
Look in the Mirror for Answers
The great hunting equipment we have today increases the hit ratio. We have more accurate rifles, more consistent ammo, and better optics. Today, we have laser rangefinders that account for uphill and downhill angles. I wish such an optic existed when I missed that elk.
We have precise dial-up scope turrets, and range-compensating reticles. Shooting is more difficult as distance increases, but our range envelopes are bigger. With distance known, if we know our rifle and load, we can figure the solution. Even at long range, primary variables remaining are: Can we read the wind? Can we get steady enough? Will the animal be stationary long enough?
At any distance, there’s still opportunity for error. You see, the second miss in my deer season just past was mine: Solid rest at 60 yards. Deer stationary. No sign of a hit. And no excuse.
It left me wondering why until I got to the range: Way off paper at 50 yards! The scope turrets had no zero stop. I can only assume the elevation turret caught and spun while taking it in or out of the soft case. My fault. I should have known better, but it was black dark when I got on stand, and barely light when I took the shot. I won’t hunt with that scope again.
I was lucky to find a definitive cause (and an inanimate object to blame). Rifles do go out of zero, but this stuff is rare today. Most often, look in the mirror to find the culprit.
Take a Certain Shot
Regardless of distance or difficulty, the most common reasons for missed shots are not getting steady enough, and not performing that last-instant sanity check: Are you sure you can make that shot?
On the range, practice from as many field positions as you can replicate, getting steady and calling your shots. It’s not helpful to remember your last glimpse of that buck’s marvelous antlers. You need to know exactly where the sights or crosshairs were when the trigger broke. Because of recoil and blast, you may have little idea of an animal’s reaction to your shot.
You must have a clear picture of where the shot went, so you know what you’re dealing with and what to do next. Even if you believe you missed, the search for blood must be thorough. We’ve recovered (often easily) a lot of very dead deer from "uncertain" shots.
Shooting practice is essential, but there are major differences with field shooting. Foremost, absent a proper hit, a clean miss is wonderful, an almost-good-enough terrible shot. Sometimes you get lucky, but an "almost-good" shot often means you have a mess on your hands. Like I said, it’s been years since we lost a deer in our Kansas woods, which I attribute to good and careful shooting … and some luck. We have done long tracking jobs. The farther the track leads, the more luck you need.
That last check before pressing the trigger saves misses and messes. Are you steady enough? Are you sure? If not, take a deep breath and start over.
Expect 'Buck Fever'
Another major difference in field shooting is sheer excitement, what we call "buck fever." It’s real and it’s there, a pure shot of adrenaline that goes back to prehistory, part of man the hunter. The heart rate and breathing accelerate, hands sweat, perhaps begin to shake. At first, even a doe or young buck for the freezer gets us going like that. We can’t stop it and don’t want to. It’s part of the deal, but over time we learn to control it. Well, most of the time.
In 2020, Lee Murray was on a stand near me. I heard a shot and was sure it was him, so I texted, "You shoot?" Affirmative, was the answer, but no other info. Something was not right.
Lee is older than I am, with tons of experience, and a serious whitetail hunter. When I got to him, he spoke gibberish. Biggest buck he’d ever seen. Bigger antlers than we’ve ever seen. I asked him where his crosshairs were when he shot. His answer was as honest as were his still-shaking hands: "I just don’t know."
We looked for blood for a day and a half but, of course, never found a drop. Lee came back in ‘21 and took a fine buck with a brilliant last-light shot. He admitted that the missed monster buck completely unglued him and we laughed about it. It’s a wonderful thing to know that, at 80, buck fever can still strike, and it is possible to miss. It can happen to any of us.