“Eight inches high, six inches to the left of the bullseye,” I reported, as I looked at the 100-yard target through my Meopta spotting scope. “Shoot one more. Bam! Six-inches low and three-inches to the right of the bull’s eye” came next.
My shooting partner retorted: “Ought to be good enough. Elk are big! OK, I’m ready!” he said, putting his rifle back into a soft case.
I did not say out loud what I was thinking: “You gotta be kidding, good enough? If you have to shoot beyond about 50 yards, you’re going to have a wounded elk on your hands! If you hit him,” were my thoughts.
This was the next exchange. “Back home where I hunt, most shots are less than 100 yards. So, if my rifle shoots within a six-inch circle at a hundred yards, I feel it is sufficiently accurate. Never really thought that if I had to shoot at 200 yards I’d be shooting a 12-inch group.”
I then asked, “Would you like to try my .270 shooting Hornady ammo, just for fun?” Moments later, this gent put two bullets near the center of the bullseye. As I suspected, he had been shooting an inaccurate rifle. That’s when I told him, “I’ve got another one back at camp, set up the exact same way as this one. It shoots just as accurately. I’d be honored if you used it to shoot your elk.” Thankfully, he thought that would be a good idea. Back at the range a few minutes later using my rifle, this guy was shooting one-inch groups. Two days later, he tagged a really nice 5×5 bull at 200 yards.
Would he have taken the elk with his personal rifle, shooting a 14-inch group? I doubt it! At 200 yards, his group would have been 28 inches.
That night around the campfire, I asked those in elk camp what kind of accuracy was required to take big game animals. The bearded hunter sitting across the fire from me responded immediately, “I think it was Dave Petzal, who writes for Field & Stream, who said, “Inaccurate rifles are boring!” For me to keep a hunting rifle it has to shoot one inch or less groups at 100 yards. That sometimes means trying several bullet weights and loads to find what that individual rifle prefers. People forget a rifle that shoots one-inch groups will shoot a two-inch group at 200 and three inches at 300 yards!” He knew whereof he spoke.
The hunter who would use my rifle the next day spoke up. He said, “Growing up, I was always told if a rifle shoots within the vitals of the animal you are hunting it was accurate enough. The Whitetail deer and bear I hunt at home in Pennsylvania usually have vitals six to eight inches in diameter. Hunting elk and hearing that their vitals were 14 inches wide and equally as long, I assumed that a rifle that shot within such a group would be sufficient.” He then added, “Knowing elk were bigger and tougher, I switched from 150-grain bullets to a 180-grain. Doing so opened up my group a bunch.”
The outfitter, pointing in my direction, then asked, “How accurate do you think a rifle needs to be, or what would you consider hunter accuracy?”
Here’s how I responded. “Hunter accuracy is an interesting term. To me, it involves both the accuracy of the rifle and the ammo you’re using, but it’s also the shooter’s ability to make an accurate shot. I’ve seen some hunters who at the bench could nearly put every shot into the same hole, but when there is “hair in the scope,” they do well to hit within 10 feet of the animal.”
I continued in detail. “What group size comprises sufficient hunter accuracy depends upon the animal hunted, speaking of the heart/lung vital area and distance to your target. For most Whitetails standing broadside, the heart and lungs are about eight to 12 inches in length and six to eight inches tall. But if the deer is facing the shooter, the vital area is essentially eight inches tall and just as wide. In both instances, these dimensions include marginally lethal-shot placement areas. The same is true with most of the deer species, as well as with black bear and pronghorn. In caribou and elk, their vitals increase to about 10 to 14 inches in length and 10 to 12 inches tall. Moose and buffalo have larger hearts and lungs.”
Continuing, I noted, that the central part of the vitals is essentially six inches for medium-sized animals and eight or so inches in our bigger game animals. I said that a properly designed bullet placed into a six-inch circle within the vitals should be sufficient to bring down an animal. “No shots should be taken beyond the distance beyond where a hunter can’t keep his or her shots within a six-inch circle! That may be as close as 50 yards or out to 200 or more yards.” I ended my dissertation with this: “Know the capabilities of your firearm and your capabilities with it.”
That hunt took place years ago while I was hunting with Jay Verzuh and his “Colorado Elite.” However, the hunter accuracy question continues to be discussed in hunting camps around the world.
While I was in the Dallas Safari Club offices recently for an evening presentation, I asked Tim Fallon about hunter accuracy. Tim operates the famous FTW Ranch where Sportsman All-Weather, All-Terrain Marksmanship Hunter Training (SAAM) programs are taught. Each year the FTW trains many people in hunter marksmanship, from those with little or no shooting experience to those with many worldwide hunts under their belt. The FTW’s several-day courses involve classroom and on-the-range training, and they are the best in the business. Tim has long been a trusted hunting partner I have hunted with throughout the world.
Said Fallon, “Hunter accuracy depends upon the shooter’s skill level, equipment used and the environment and circumstances. We train hunters who will never shoot anything bigger than a Whitetail deer to those who hunt throughout the world, including dangerous game and distant mountain lands. We train to aim small and to select a specific spot, rather than shooting at the entire animal. Aim small, miss small.”
Tim Fallon added, “Keeping your bullets within a six-inch circle covers the central part of the heart and lungs, the vitals. We always suggest hunting with an accurate firearm/bullet and load/scope combination, which means rifles that are able to shoot one-inch groups at 100 yards. At the range, you need to determine the maximum distance where you can keep your shots within a six-inch circle when shooting prone, or from a solid in-the-field rest. That rest may be a backpack, tree, log, rock or shooting sticks.”
Fallon continued, “Many hunters can keep their shots within a six-inch circle at 100 yards taking a relatively quick shot from a rest if they are shooting an accurate rifle, which also includes a good trigger that breaks consistently. With a solid in-the-field rest, that hunter’s accuracy distance increases to 200 yards. If that same hunter has this going for them: sufficient time to properly set up for a longer shot, knowing his or her equipment, has spent hours at the range practicing longer shots to develop a range card, telling them how much a bullet will drop and what the appropriate dial-up is on their adjustable scope turrets is. They also may know wind drift, then be able to make a shot at longer ranges, but again, only after considerable practice at the shooting range. Remember that a rifle that shoots a three-inch group at 100 yards will shoot a nine-inch group at 300 yards. Also, if a hunter wants to learn how to shoot greater distances, it is imperative that they also learn how to read the wind!”
Fallon added, “At the FTW, we do not encourage long-range hunting. We always suggest getting as close as earthly possible before squeezing the trigger on any animal. We train hunters to shoot long range, so when they crawl to within 200 yards or less of the animal, they can precisely place their bullet into their quarry’s vitals.”
Later that same afternoon I called Linda Powell, a long-time friend with Mossberg Firearms. During the past few months I have become enamored with the Mossberg Patriot rifles. They are relatively inexpensive, with excellent triggers, and very nicely accurate. I own three Patriots, a .270 Win, .30-06 and 7 PRC. Each is topped with either a Trijicon Huron or Trijicon AccuPoint scope. My Patriot rifles absolutely love Hornady’s Precision Hunter ammo.
Linda spends considerable time in hunting camps. She also is almost daily in the company of knowledgeable and experienced hunters. I asked her about what she considers hunter accuracy.
Powell told me, “As much as everyone would like a rifle to shoot 1 MOA, that level of accuracy may not be necessary for hunting and not applicable when in the field as many factors may come into play.” Her tips include these:
- Know the vital zone of the game animal you pursue regardless of the angle of the shot.
- Sight-in with an appropriate bullet weight designed for the animal you are hunting.
- Understand the terminal performance of the bullet at every distance you will be shooting. With most big animals, a rifle that shoots a three-inch group or less at 100 yards should be sufficient when shooting out to 100 yards but not beyond.
She continued with this information. “Practicing shooting from various in-the-field positions, such as standing, prone and from sticks, will improve your in-the-field accuracy. Remember the accuracy you achieve shooting from a rest on a bench likely will not transfer into the field. That’s especially so if you are looking through your scope at the buck of a lifetime!”
I love hunting with handguns and rifles. I have been doing so for many years. My hunting handguns are single shots and revolvers, both single- and double-action. In the past, I mounted long-eye relief scopes on my handguns. These days, my handguns are topped with Trijicon’s SRO, 2.5 MOA red-dot sights. Those include Taurus’ Raging Hunter revolvers chambered in .44 Mag, .45 Colt, .454 Casull and occasionally .357 Mag and .460 S&W Mag.
I shoot and hunt with Hornady ammo. My .44 Mag dearly loves Hornady’s 240-grain XTP Custom. My .454 Casull accurately shoots both Hornady 240-grain and 300-grain XTP. In my .454 Casull I also shoot Hornady’s 225-grain FTX Leverevolution .45 Colt. These combinations at 100 yards shoot as accurate as most rifles do.
After visiting with Linda Powell, I called Ryan Hoover with Handgun Hunters International. His response regarding hunter accuracy follows.
“As far as what someone should consider good hunter accuracy, I really think it’s up to the person. But at a minimum, I think a shooter’s group size should be smaller than the vital zone of the animal pursued. I limit my shots to the distance out to which I can keep all my shots in a four-inch circle. I practice shooting at a four-inch round steel target. This is a personal choice based on my own self-assessment of my shooting ability. However, if someone could only keep their shots in a six to eight-inch diameter at the range, yet killed every deer they shot at, I would not be giving them a hard time about their group size.”
Hoover added, “Since manufacturing techniques have allowed us to develop and maintain tighter and tighter tolerances and guns have become capable of greater mechanical accuracy, I don’t know of any factory gun where the average representative isn’t capable of hunting accuracy right out of the box. I think many shooters have come to expect tiny groups, translated that to what they “need” for hunting. Think back to the heyday of handgun hunting. Remember when folks got excited by a revolver that could shoot four-inch groups? Yet, even though we have custom revolvers that can shoot every bit as good as rifles, the size of a deer’s heart has not changed. To sum up, I’d say that it is far better to practice keeping your groups within a moderate size under as many field conditions as you can simulate than it is to chase ever smaller groups.”
All of the comments presented consist of good advice regarding “hunter accuracy” from those who have been there and dealt with many different hunting situations and circumstances.
Shooting from a solid rest on a bench at 100 yards, I personally want my rifles to shoot a group no larger than 1½ inches and my handguns to shoot a group no larger than 2½ inches. But I prefer tighter groups.
I personally limit my shot distances to where my groups will not be large than three inches with my rifles. I limit my hunting handgun shots to 125 yards depending upon which gun I am hunting with and what kind of solid rest I can achieve.
Shooting at any animal, I am a firm believer in getting as solid a rest as possible. I have hunted essentially my entire life and I still get excited when getting ready to shoot an animal. Shooting from a rest with a rifle or handgun, regardless of the animal, I feel more confident of making a killing shot with my first shot.
Most outfitter/guides, when outfitting hunters, require that their clients shoot their firearms before the hunt. I agree with this wholeheartedly. I want to determine if their firearms were properly sighted in, but I also want to see how the hunters handle their firearms. I always ask each hunter to shoot three shots, but I pay the most attention to their first shot, which is always the most important.
Do you need a hunting firearm that shoots one-inch groups at 100? No, probably not. But you do need to be able to keep your shots, at whatever the reasonable distance, within a six-inch circle.
This is the central part of the vitals of most game animals, regardless of how the animal is standing. If you do not feel confident in making a clean, accurate killing shot, do not shoot!