Hunting: Is It Better to Dial or to Hold Over?

In a hunting situation, should you dial your scope’s elevation or rely on good old Kentucky windage?

by posted on February 23, 2024
Deering Holdover

When shooting a rifle with a scope at longer-than-sighted-in distances, there are two basic ways to account for bullet drop: You can dial your scope’s elevation turret, or you can just hold your crosshairs higher than you normally would so that your bullet drops into the spot you want it to. Which is better for hunting?

Let me be clear here: I’m not telling you to take long-range shots at game, and I’m not telling you not to, and I’m not telling you what you should limit your distance to. Those are things you need to decide on your own based on your skills, experience and knowledge, the conditions you’re in at the time, and the behavior of the animal you’ve got in your sights. But those of us who are comfortable taking shots past about 200 yards will need to know how to handle bullet drop. For either of these methods, you need a reliable way to know how far your bullet will drop—the numbers on the ammo box are pretty close, but I recommend you use a ballistic calculator to get exact numbers. And for either of these methods, I recommend you memorize the numbers you’re most likely to need, so you don’t have to whip your phone out at the moment of truth and waste valuable time in the field.

Dialing: Pros and Cons
Dialing your scope’s elevation turret is a much more precise method of holdover because there’s no guessing involved: Your ballistics calculator tells you exactly how many mils or MOA to dial for, and doing so puts your crosshairs in exactly the right spot to account for bullet drop. There’s no “that looks like about six inches or so, doesn’t it?” guessing. The farther you shoot, the more important this precision becomes. The other benefit of this method is that you can hold your crosshair in the precise spot on the animal that you normally would, so your sight picture remains consistent and simple.

One downside of this method is that it requires a bit of extra time and movement in the field. And, if your scope is not equipped with a ballistic stop, you’ll need to be careful about dialing back to the right spot when you’re done (and don’t lose that turret cap if it has one). You also need to pay attention to the range; if the animal is moving toward you or away from you while you’re waiting for a shot opportunity, you might need to move again to adjust your turret. Of course, you’ll need to pay attention to the range with either method.

If you’re definitely going to use this method, memorize or write down your bullet drop in mils or MOA, whichever your scope uses.

Holding Over: Pros and Cons
The benefit of holding over is that it’s extremely quick. If you have your numbers memorized or written on your stock, you can throw the scope up, take aim and shoot. It requires no dialing and no additional movement; you don’t have to fool with your scope at all other than to adjust the magnification the way you want it.

The downside, of course, is that “Kentucky windage” is pretty imprecise. The bigger the animal and thus the bigger its vital zone, the less of a problem this is, but the fact remains that holding eight inches high is going to be something of a guess. This can be a big downside depending on the range, but the speed and ease of use still makes holding over an attractive option for many hunters. The other downside to holding over is that you need to prepare yourself for what the sight picture looks like when your crosshairs are not on the animal’s vital zone, particularly if you do not have a ballistic reticle. Holding the crosshairs on the line of an animal’s back and pulling the trigger looks and feels downright weird and trips a lot of people up.

What Do I Do?
Personally, I like the speed and simplicity of holding over, but I do so with limitations. Before  hunt, I decide how far I am willing to shoot—about 400 yards on an elk or 300 yards on a whitetail—and I memorize the range at which I can hold dead on, which is usually out to 200+, and then I memorize the drop in inches at 250, 300, 350, 400 and 450 just in case. Then I do some figuring based on the size of the average deer or elk’s chest and figure out exactly where I need to hold in order to drop the bullet into the vital zone.

My personal rule is that I don’t want to hold more than a tiny bit into the air above an animal’s back. Through a scope, you can estimate a few inches above its back, but more than that and you’re really just guessing. If I know a bull elk’s chest averages about 32 inches in height, and the center of the vital zone (lungs) is approximately in the middle of that, I know holding at the line on the top of his back equals around 16 inches of drop, and I have several inches of leeway up or down. If I need much more drop than that, I will dial, because I don’t want to be holding the crosshairs way up in the air and hoping for the best—it’s just too hard to estimate inches at long range in the field. So before the hunt, I’d memorize something like “At 350, hold at his back. At 300, hold two-thirds of the way up his chest. At 250 and below, you’re dead-on.”

I’m more cautious the farther the distance increases, and the size of the animal matters, too. That 16-inch drop (with the last rifle I used on a hunt) gets me to about 360 yards on an elk, but on a whitetail buck with an average chest height of 17 inches, the halfway point is only eight inches or so, which is the drop at approximately 300 yards.

Before you go on a hunt, do some research about the size of the animal you’re pursuing, the longest range at which you expect to take a shot, and what your bullet will do at that range and at several ranges between that and your sighted-in distance. Use a ballistics calculator to determine how much holdover in inches you would need at your longest expected range and where exactly you’d have to hold on the animal in order to achieve the desired drop into the vital zone (you can do this in MOA or mils if you prefer). If that holdover puts you in territory you’re uncomfortable with, or you just don’t like the whole idea, consider dialing your scope’s elevation turret so you can put the crosshairs directly in the vital zone and have confidence that your numbers are as precise as they can be. Just don’t forget to memorize your drop in MOA or mils if you choose this method, not in inches, or you’ll be doing math in the field when you should be aiming or shooting. Some shooters write their drop numbers on a notecard and tape it to the inside of their rifle’s buttstock, covered in clear tape, so they don’t have to commit everything to memory. It’s right there next to their face for quick reference in the field.

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