A Shot Too Far?

The hunter adjusts his scope, settles his cheek on the rifle’s stock and flicks off the safety. The rifle booms. Instead of reacting to the shot instantly, there is a pause before the elk staggers and falls to the ground. It’s almost as if the scene is played in slow-motion. But when a bullet has to travel nearly three-quarters of a mile to find its mark, a second can seem like minutes.

Welcome to the newest trend in hunting. What was once an impossible shot — or what many would consider a highly unethical one — is now the latest rage among big game hunters. At least three television shows highlight shots of 700, 1,000 or even 1,200 yards at animals standing on distant hillsides or on wide-open plains. A handful of Web sites are dedicated to long-range hunting, and at least a half-dozen custom rifle makers cater to this rapidly-growing market, touting models that are “thousand-yard ready.”

Aaron Davidson is one of those gun makers. He and his brother founded Gunwerks, a Wyoming-based company that sells guns capable of shooting “groups under five inches at 1,000 yards.” Davidson is also co-host of “Long Range Pursuit,” a television show that profiles hunters shooting big game animals at what used to be unthinkable distances. Last year, Davidson’s 12-year-old son killed an elk at 1,378 yards.

Not everyone thinks taking a shot at an animal a half mile or more away is a good idea. Tim Fallon even calls it immoral. A lifelong hunter, he teaches long-range target shooting at his ranch in Texas. His students include hunters who want to become better marksmen and military snipers who spend their lives learning how to make long shots under extreme conditions. Fallon and his instructors routinely practice shots at steel targets at ranges up to and beyond 1,000 yards. They don’t always hit their mark.

“We hit a nine-inch steel plate, which is about the size of the vitals on many big game animals, about half the time at 1,000 yards,” he says. “How many animals are these guys crippling that they won’t talk about?”

Pushing the Limits

Not many, says Davidson, who has been involved in long-range shooting and hunting for about eight years. He witnessed just one unrecovered animal, an Axis deer shot by one of his friends from a distance of more than 700 yards. That was last year. Davidson has made countless one-shot kills on animals well beyond that range and at much closer distances. He usually hunts with at least one partner who helps and who watches the animal through a powerful spotting scope. There is no question whether each shot is good or bad.

For him, long-range hunting is nothing more than a natural evolution to build bows and rifles that shoot faster, flatter, and farther. It’s simply human nature to push the limits, he says. Our racecars go faster, our planes fly higher, and our technology is smarter thanks to our unending desire to make everything better. “That’s what we do,” he says.

Besides, Davidson adds, the debate over taking longer and longer shots isn’t new. Hunters waded through the same ethical territory when bow maker Tom Jennings introduced the first compound bow in 1969. Until then, the effective range of a recurve bow was about 30 yards. Now, skilled archers can hit a quarter at twice that distance. The ethics debate also raged when Tony Knight introduced an in-line muzzleloading rifle in 1985, ultimately changing the entire hunting industry. What was once a hundred-yard gun evolved into a rifle capable of accurate shots at double that range.

The Wrong Message?

Fallon says the improvements to guns and the advances in technology are only as good as the shooter using them. He’s concerned that this new hunting trend will encourage those with limited skills and marginal equipment to take shots they are incapable of making.

“I often challenge my students to hit a nine-inch steel plate at 500 yards without any help. They have to make the shot entirely on their own. Not many of them can do it,” says Fallon. “I fear that young hunters who watch these shows will think they can do it, too, but they are in no way capable of making a shot at those distances. I urge restraint in all my classes because a four-day training course does not give you the tools hit an animal at 500 yards without continuous practice after you leave.”

Many hunters don’t fully understand factors including ballistic coefficients and the effects of temperature, altitude, and wind on bullet trajectories. A slight change in environmental factors can have a significant effect on accuracy. Davidson’s television show dedicates a portion of each episode to educating shooters on these and other factors, along with the techniques necessary to improve marksmanship. He also discusses ethics issues.

That’s not enough for Fallon. It can take hour upon hour of classroom time to comprehend many of the factors involved in long-range shooting. Most hunters visit the rifle range just a couple of times a year and have no idea what a bullet can and can’t do at long distances.

“Shooting a deer at 1,000 yards with a standard hunting bullet is like shooting it with an arrow tipped with a field point,” says Fallon. “The bullet doesn’t have enough energy to expand at that range, so you are basically punching a pencil-sized hole in the animal.”

He adds that hunters who take shots at extreme distances may not realize they actually hit the animal. An elk shot through the paunch may not show any sign of trauma as it walks out of sight, but it will likely die a slow death, nonetheless.

Is It Hunting?

The right bullet in the right gun in the hands of a skilled shooter will certainly kill an elk at 1,000 yards. However, Fallon and others wonder if taking such a long shot blurs the line between hunting and killing. At what point does long-range hunting become target shooting at live animals? Jim Tantillo, executive director of hunter-ethics think tank The Orion Institute, says that’s not a definition anyone can prescribe.

“We need to be careful about deciding what defines ‘too long.’ A 100-yard shot may be a long one where I hunt in New York, but a 400-yard shot is fairly standard out west,” he says. “It takes a lot of skill just to make a shot at long distances. These guys are fanatical about what they do and I have no doubt they are skilled hunters.”

“If you wanted to, you could carry that argument all the way to the end,” says Tantillo. “Why not ban all rifles and require hunters to use only compound bows or even only spears? We need to be careful about pointing fingers at each other and saying it’s not hunting.”

Davidson agrees. He wonders if climbing into a tree stand perched over a pile of corn and then ambushing an unsuspecting whitetail is any more ethical than hiking miles into the backcountry and shooting an elk at 700 yards. Davidson regularly climbs the rugged mountains around his Wyoming home to hunt mule deer and elk. He doesn’t always kill something. He spent nearly three weeks sheep hunting in Alaska in August without pulling the trigger. He had just one fleeting opportunity when he and his guide crested a ridge and came eye-to-eye with a large ram.

“I could have taken an off-hand shot as it was running away, but I wasn’t certain I could make a good shot, so I didn’t try, even though it was the only opportunity I had for the entire hunt,” says Davidson. “What’s more ethical, taking a shot at a running animal at 60 yards or getting a good, solid rest and taking your time on a 600-yard shot if you’ve made that shot numerous times? That’s an easy answer for me. I came home from that hunt without a sheep.”

What matters, all three men agree, is that a hunter knows his own limits and adheres to them. Equally important, parents and other mentors have a responsibility to teach basic hunter ethics. That includes stressing the importance of knowing when to take a shot and knowing when to pass, no matter how long it takes for the bullet to reach its mark.

David Hart, Field Editor