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The Art of Hitting Running Game

Shooting at running game with a rifle requires a technique that's closer to shotgun shooting and it is more an art than a science.


Shooting at running game has fallen from grace with modern hunters and is often now criticized as being an example of poor hunting ethics. But for generations it was a well-accepted technique and was practiced by most hunters. Hunting writers used to publish articles on the subject.

Running-deer competition shoots were popular. For years Lyman had a logo of a running deer on its sights. Dizzy Dean said, "It ain't bragging if you can do it." I would paraphrase that it's not unethical if you can do it. All those old hunters knew they could hit a running deer, and any shooter willing to practice today will find he can do it, too.

It makes sense to practice, even if you utilize this skill just to finish wounded, running game. The most ethical thing you can do in such a situation is stop the animal from escaping. If you practice running shots you may be able to do that instead of standing there feeling, looking and acting useless.

Shooting a rifle at a stationary target is a fixed mechanical process that requires the shooter to execute a precise technique in a repeatable manner. If you try that on running game you'll be as frustrated and befuddled as Obama with a broken teleprompter.

Shooting at running game with a rifle requires a technique that's closer to shotgun shooting and it is more an art than a science. It takes practice. Rather than logically thinking about each step as you do with most rifle shooting, you must develop the ability to let your subconscious mind control the rifle. You still must be aware of the sight position, trigger control and all the thousand other things that make good shooting, but you must learn to let everything run on auto pilot.  
There are basically three methods of shooting at running game.

Point Shooting
This is a good method for close shooting in thick brush. For example, an Eastern whitetail hunter will find this helpful. Point shooting is where you shoot with a stationary rifle at a spot ahead of the target, where you think the animal will be when the bullet arrives. Generally this is done by throwing the rifle to your shoulder as you focus your vision on the spot. For this to work correctly, you must fire instantly as any hesitation will cause you to shoot behind the target.

This method works well when shooting at close targets, particularly in thick brush. It helps a great deal to have a rifle that fits you correctly and hits your shoulder with the sights lined up perfectly with your eye. Despite some conventional wisdom, low-power scopes are far superior to iron sights for this technique. Keeping both eyes open works best.

My grandfather taught me a variation of this when I started hunting deer 45 years ago. He said, "It's thick here in Vermont with lots of trees. If you try to swing your rifle with the deer, you will shoot a tree. To hit a running buck, pick an opening in the woods ahead of him and point your gun at it. Watch the sights, but keep looking for the buck with your peripheral vision. When the buck enters your vision, pull the trigger. If you miss, don't chase the deer with your rifle; get on the next opening, hold the rifle still and do it all again."

Swing Through
With this method the hunter starts with the rifle behind the running target. By swinging the gun faster than the game is moving, the sights will pass by the target. When the forward lead is correct the shooter fires the rifle. This timing requires anticipating not only the speed of the critter and the speed the muzzle is moving, but also shooter lag time and the lock time of the rifle.

The rifle is kept moving the entire time; if you stop moving the rifle when the sight picture looks right, you will shoot behind the target. You must fire without hesitation. Hesitation will usually cause you to shoot in front of the target, as the gun will swing past the correct lead before firing.
I find this to be the most difficult method and I rarely use it in the field. The few times I have were when my sub-conscious realized there wasn't time for a sustained-lead shot and just took control.

Sustained Lead
This is my preferred method for most shooting at moving game—particularly if the target is more than 50 yards away. The gun is moved with the target at the same perceived speed. The proper lead is attained and retained while the rifle is kept moving through the shot and follow-through. Once again it's important that you keep the gun moving. The tendency is to stop moving the gun when the sight picture looks good and before pulling the trigger. If you do that, you will shoot behind the target. Follow-through is also very important; if you keep the gun moving until you pull the trigger and then stop, you will still shoot behind the deer. Keep the gun moving as you pull the trigger and the bullet moves down the barrel and exits and then a bit longer.

As you learn these skills always remember there is an inherent danger in shooting at running game because the shooter tends to focus on the animal and block out the rest of his surroundings. It can be dangerous when the target is moving and the rifle is moving with it.

Imagine if the hunter is following a fleeing deer and just as he pulls the trigger his hunting partner's head appears in the scope. Both are focusing on the same deer and never even notice each other until it's too late. Never let your focus on the shot become so complete that you fail to realize where the muzzle of your rifle is pointing at all times. There is no animal worth the risk of shooting somebody. 

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4 Responses to The Art of Hitting Running Game

Dave wrote:
July 27, 2011

I was hunting private land in Texas three years ago when my Father in Law were both set up in the same blind and decided to try a double doe shot. (I do not recommend this). A little on my background, 10yr Military/Iraq War Veteran with certain skill sets with a rifle and an avid hunter…enough said. This is how it went…Two does showed up and presented themselves both broadside, we both lined up our shots and 1-2-3 shoot! Well my Father in Law shot a tad early and as I pulled the trigger my doe bolted and the shot missed, his doe dropped. I am an instinctive “chamber a second round” shooter, I stood up and off hand dropped a running doe at 180 yards with my Marlin 30/30 LeverEvolution 160gn bullet. I agree with many out there that the running shot should only be taken if you have the right set of skills, luckly I do. I do recommend that rifle hunters should practice this in the event that it is needed, you never know.

Tim Delaney wrote:
June 13, 2011

I watched my dad shoot two running does, for a neibor, at about 400 yards with a 280 Remington rifle. One shoot each and they rolled up like they were shot at short range. I was impressed, our neibor was in absolute disbelief.

rich wrote:
June 09, 2011

A long time ago and far away, I took a spiked buck, now illegal in PA, with 2 shots. The first, obviously not lethal. The 2nd, at a running, wounded deer, quartering away to my left, 150 yards out! I lead him at his chest and fired, hitting him behind the rib cage and through the chest cavity. Probably the best shot I've ever taken on target, as all went the way I wanted. But, I wouldn't want to have to do that all the time.

M336A24 wrote:
June 08, 2011

I was extremely lucky to have a mentor teach me to hit a running deer with reasonable chance of a succesful,humane kill. We had access to an abandoned soft shale(Important to limit bullet travel)quarry.He got several old truck tires,we put pieces of plywood inside and attatched targets off center. We used colored paper platesabout 6" dia. It was possible to roll the tires downhill from safe cover.Being off-center gave the targets a similar motion to the heart-lung area of a running whitetail. The location and geography of the quarry was extremely serendipitous or we could not have usedit. I do NOT suggest anyone try to duplicate our methods.The best rifle turned out to be the model 141 Rem. pump for follow-up shots.We used multiple targets to simulate a group of deer when we got proficient with singles calling a color to simulate a chosen deer.It was great practice but probably not possible to duplicate now,a half century and millions of people and rules later.