The Shot Not Taken- Knowing When Not to Fire

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Every mid-December, a small, hand-written note would appear on the bulletin board in a gun shop in the small Appalachian town of Christiansburg, Virginia: "End of Deer Season Ammunition Sale. 18 rounds of .30-06, new in box. Call Dave."

It was partly a local joke, but really more of a boast than an attempt at humor. Every year old Dave would buy two deer tags, fire two rounds, get two deer. In the simple algebra of the old-time hunters, if x equals the number of rounds you fired during hunting season and y equals the number of deer you took, then x better equal y, and no more. This ideal not only recalled the days when muzzle-loading rifles were the only option - when your first shot hadbetter count, because it would take a minute or more before you could take a second - but also a statement about shooting safety: Make sure of your target.

The one shot ideal is a worthy one, and deserves to be the goal of every safe and ethical hunter. To achieve it doesn't mean that you have to be a world-class marksman, only that you are willing to pass up as many "iffy" shots as necessary, until that sure situation allows you to fire the one round that you are absolutely certain will result in a clean, safe harvest. How do you know whennot to shoot? The simple answer is, "Unless you're sure." The scenarios of when not to take a shot become clear when you consider everything that can go wrong with a misplaced round.

Identify the Target

Anyone who has sat in a blind on hunkered on the edge of a clearing just before dawn on opening day has almost certainly had this experience: It's just barely beginning to get light, but not so much that you can actually distinguish more than just vague shapes. Suddenly, you hear thecrunch-crunch-crunch of something walking across the dry leaves or crusty snow. Is it a deer? You think it might be - you'd swear that you can see a nice set of antlers and maybe that's the outline of a back or a patch of white hair swishing back and forth - but are yousure? Of course not. Unless you can see a potential target well enough to count each individual point on the deer's rack, this is a clear no-shoot situation. Even later in the day, during full light, a flash of movement or the sound of hoofs on leaves in the middle of a patch of brush can bring you to full readiness. But can you actually identify the target? Some people will resort to what they call "scouting by fire," but most people simply call it dangerous.

What Is Behind the Target?

Even with a clear profile of the game, it may not be a safe shot. Hunters become so focused on the target that they lose sight of their surroundings. What isbeyond the game? If you miss or if the round goes through the animal and travels who-knows-how-many yards beyond, is there the possibility that the unspent bullet can harm someone or something else?

Firing Into or Through Brush

The power of modern ammunition is very impressive. Even a little experience with shooting will prove just how much energy is involved with firing a 150 grain piece of lead and copper downrange. Still, it takes surprising little effort to deflect a bullet in flight; a glancing blow off even a small twig can send a projectile going off in an unanticipated direction. When dealing with shooting, the word "unanticipated" is a very bad thing. Trying to smash a bullet through a tangle of branches will almost certainly result in a miss or, worse, a wounding, messy hit. Even if you are using a scope and can clearly see that there is a gap between the branches that will allow you to make a clean kill, it's a misleading sight picture: The scope is showing you the point of impact, not the arcing patch of the projectile.

Are Your Shooting Skills Up to the Shot?

By any standard, the best marksmen are those who know their limitations. Sure, everybody wouldlike to be able to say that they can hit a target accurately at 500 yards, but how many can consistently achieve such long shots? The same goes for taking a snap-shot at a running deer, leaping and jinking at full speed as he races across a clearing. Are the risks of missing (with the bullet ending up who-knows-where) or a wounding shot worth it? Even if you make the shot and achieve a one-round clean kill, can you honestly chalk it up to skill, or just luck?

Situational Awareness

Safe shooting practices while hunting can be summarized in a single phrase: Situational awareness. Identify your target before you fire, know what and who is behind and around you before you take the shot and be sure that the distance, angle and movement of the target is within your skill set. Know the direction, distance and location of other people in the area - not just your hunting partners, but possible strangers in the area - roads, buildings, farm animals and pets. If there is any doubt, any possibility of placing others in danger, don't take the shot. It's always better to go home with an unfilled tag but a clear conscience.