The hunting tradition in America is a wonderful but funny thing. If you were born into a hunting family, you probably don’t realize how much stuff you “just know” without ever having really been taught it. For anyone who wasn’t born into a family that hunts, finding their way into hunting is kind of a lucky accident, and they’ll lack all of that passed-down wisdom and have to play catch-up. If you came to hunting as an adult or it’s something you discovered on your own with no one to teach you, you’d be smart to avoid these common mistakes that many of us “just know” or were taught at a young age.
Mistake 1: Forgetting to Dial Your Scope Out
I’ve been hunting for decades and still make this mistake occasionally, so I’m not sure I can put it in the “rookie mistakes” category. When you sight in your rifle at the range, you might crank the magnification on the scope up so the target fills your scope and you can see your group a little better. I like to sight in this way, and I even like to shoot game with my scope cranked most of the way up if I can, although I’ve been told by more than one instructor that this isn’t as efficient as shooting with less magnification (which is clearly true, but hey, I like what I like).
The mistake comes when you finish sighting in and leave your scope on its highest setting. Then you head to the woods, wait all day for a deer, and finally get a shot opportunity—only to pull the gun up and discover that you can’t find the animal in your super-zoomed-in scope. See, the higher the magnification, the smaller the field of view, and if your scope is cranked up, you won’t be able to see the landscape in front of you to locate the deer in the scope. Now you’re moving the gun around, wondering why you can’t see anything and trying to find the deer. This costs valuable time, and I have lost more than one animal that ran off while I was remembering what the heck I’d done and dialing my scope’s magnification back down to a reasonable level.
The lesson: Always dial your scope all the way down to its lowest magnification setting after every range session, and get in the habit of double-checking that it’s on low magnification before you head into the woods.
Mistake 2: Guessing at the Yardage
If you’re new to ballistics, you need to know that bullets don’t fly in a straight line. Therefore, a rifle/scope combo will only place a bullet where the crosshairs indicate at a specific distance; if you shoot at a target closer or farther away than that, the projectile will hit higher or lower than you were expecting. You can compensate for this if you understand the specific ballistics of your rifle and your ammo, but if you’re not going to do that, you need to stick to a distance close to what you sighted in at. With most rifles, if you sighted in at the classic one inch high at 100 yards, you’ll probably be fine out to 200 or thereabouts.
The mistake comes when you don’t know what 100 or 200 yards looks like in the field. Especially when you’re hunting wide-open prairies or expansive greenfields, it’s easy to underestimate how far away an animal is standing—and the bigger the trophy, the more tempting it is to just go ahead and shoot and hope for the best. Don’t do this! You need to know the range of the animal you’re shooting. If you hunt in the deep woods where you can only see 50 yards in any direction, no problem. But if you’re set up where you can see a lot farther than that, don’t guess at the yardage. Lobbing a bullet at a deer that’s 350 yards away when you guessed him to be only 200 yards away is going to end in, at best, a clean miss, and at worst, a difficult and maybe fruitless tracking job.
The best advice is to carry a laser rangefinder in your pack and start ranging a few landmarks around you when you get on stand. Experienced long-range shooters who are going to take truly long shots need to know exact yardage and will need to range the animal before they shoot, but if you’re going to limit yourself to 250 yards or so, you don’t have to be quite so precise. If you know that, for example, that tall pine tree is 186 yards from your stand, you can comfortably shoot any deer that’s between you and the pine without getting an exact yardage.
The lesson: Distances can be deceiving, particularly in wide-open spaces. Don’t guess. Carry a laser rangefinder if you’re in a position where you can see farther than you’re comfortable shooting, and make sure you know how far away an animal is before you pull the trigger.
Mistake 3: Switching Ammo Without Re-Sighting In
I once showed up to deer camp and in the course of conversation, somehow mentioned that I had “only” five or six .30-06 cartridges on me for the day. This is a number I’m more than comfortable with for a single deer hunt, but one of the old guys in camp disagreed. “Here,” he said, handing me six more cartridges, “I’m shooting .30-06, too. Just take some of mine in case you need them.” I thanked him, put the cartridges in an empty pocket where I wouldn’t mix them up with my own, and didn’t touch them again until I returned them to him at the end of the day. I would sooner have let a deer walk than use one of them.
What the well-meaning old-timer didn’t understand was that different ammo shoots differently—sometimes very differently—out of the same rifle. Two brands or configurations of the same chambering/caliber might have wildly different points of impact, and because it is available in such a wide variety of loadings, .30-06 is one of the worst cartridges to indiscriminatingly swap around. His brand and mine might have different weights, and even if they didn’t, the differences from one brand or even different lines in the same brand can be huge. There’s just no way to know how a particular type of ammo will shoot in your rifle until you have shot it at the range.
So, when you are sighting in a new rifle, pick a few different brands or lines of ammo and shoot each several times at a paper target. Whichever ammo gives you the tightest group (the holes are the closest together) is the ammo your specific rifle likes. This is part science and part voodoo, I think, and you can’t always predict what a given load will do or guess at what your rifle will shoot best. You have to shoot it to find the best load, and when you find it, stick with it. If you switch to a different brand, a different line, or a different bullet weight, you need to start the sight-in process all over again.
The lesson: Ammo of the same caliber is not interchangeable. Point of impact can change dramatically from one load to another, so don’t think you can run out of ammo on a hunting trip, pick up another brand at a local sporting goods store and hit the woods. You need to hit the range and re-sight in your rifle every time you make an ammo change.