Dialing vs. Holdover for Hunting

posted on March 22, 2022
Dialing Vs Holdover For Hunting Lead

I was crawling around the flatter parts of Colorado behind the inimitable Fred Eichler, in pursuit of a herd of elk which just wouldn’t let us close the gap. The wide open fields of his ranch certainly offered a beautiful vista, but didn’t offer much in the way of cover. We finally set up, me with rifle over a pack and gasping for what little oxygen there was, as Fred began calling out ranges to the bull we wanted. He was weaving in and out of the cows and calves, and I just wasn’t comfortable taking a shot with a window of time so precariously short, but it did prompt an interesting conversation regarding how to compensate for bullet drop.

Bolt-action rifle with Leupold VX-6HD riflescopeOne of the author’s favorite scopes—a Leupold VX-6HD 2-12x42mm—has a simple duplex reticle and no exposed elevation turret; holdover can be a bit tricky outside of 250 yards.

On this particular hunt, I had a Winchester rifle in 6.8 Western, topped with a Leupold VX-6HD 3-18x44mm scope which had an elevation turret specifically compensated for the new 162-grain Copper Impact load. Marked in yardage instead of mils or minutes-of-angle, compensating for trajectory changes was as simple as rotating the dial to match the distance indicated by the rangefinder. We’d proven the system at the range before the hunt began, with consistent hits out to 500 yards, and, with Fred that morning calling distances as fast as he could range them, I was keeping up with the elevation turret. Just three decades prior, this was nearly unheard of—at least in the hunting fields—and drop compensation was achieved either through estimation or a graduated reticle; either means required specific knowledge of your bullet’s trajectory, and how much to adjust for it at varying ranges. The radical differences between the methods prompted the debate regarding which means of adjusting for trajectory makes the most sense for the average hunter.

It seems that younger hunters are more apt to embrace the ‘dial’ method, while those with a bit more snow on the roof are skeptical of the moving parts. Of course this is a generalization, and there are exceptions to every rule, but I know my Dad certainly wants his elevation turret comfortably resting underneath a cap, staying exactly where he put it. He believes in Murphy’s Law, and will make his adjustments via a compensated reticle, or using the good old estimation method. Quite obviously, the ranges at which your shots are taken will dictate the most logical means of handling your trajectory.

riflescope duplex reticle on targetIf dialing doesn’t suit your fancy, a compensated reticle can make holdover easier.

The average deer hunter in the Northeast will not have to concern themselves with trajectory compensation at all, as the shots in the woods rarely exceed 100 or 150 yards, and the shot is a dead hold. Switch to the mule deer hunters of the west, where the terrain is wide open and shots are much longer, trajectory compensation becomes a daily issue. My first safari—in the semi-Karoo of South Africa—saw some wide-open hunting mixed with thicker patches of bush, and I was happy that I’d spent the time to prepare a drop chart based on real-world data. My .375 H&H wore a Leupold VX-I 3-9x40 with a duplex reticle, and when we completely ran out of cover in pursuit of an eland bull, I got prone against a termite mound, and killed that bull at 400 yards, estimating the holdover. It worked, but I wouldn’t want to do it again.

Detailed DOPE card for hunting ammunitionIf you plan on using a compensated reticle to the fullest, a detailed data card can become a valuable asset.

Looking at the pleasures and pitfalls of dialing for elevation, I find this method to be the most accurate means, but you’ve got to understand the graduation system. If you use just one load for all your hunting, you can have a custom turret made, marked in yardage, for the simplest and most effective means. If you vary your projectile choice/velocity, you may want to have a turret marked in mils or MOA, and carry different drop charts, or memorize the trajectory adjustments. And make sure you return the turret to zero; I’ve seen guys dial for a 400-yard shot, then decline the shot and shortly see an animal at 100 yards, only to shoot well over its back.

Leupold Riflescope with Custom Elevation TurretA custom Leupold elevation turret designed specifically for the trajectory of the 6.8 Western’s 165-grain AccuBond load, marked in yardage.

I like the scopes which feature a positive zero-stop—the Leupold ZeroLock is my favorite, as you can instantly check for a zero setting, even if you need reading glasses—as it prevents or at least minimizes the chance of your elevation turret being somewhere you don’t want it. I tend to keep my turret set at 200 yards, as that allows me to handle any quick shot inside that distance, though it might run risk of moving while hunting. That said, I've never had clothing, vegetation or anything else move my turret—yet.

I think that it would be sound advice to say that if you intend to dial your elevation turret for trajectory compensation, you need to practice with it, and practice often. It can be frustrating trying to turn the elevation turret to the proper place under the pressure of the hunt, (especially when trying to shoot an animal walking away, with changing distances). The more familiar you can become with the act of backing your eye slightly off the scope, focusing on the elevation turret, making the adjustment and getting back on the scope with minimal disturbance to the rifle’s position, the better off you’re going to be.

Elevation Turret on Bushnell Rifle ScopeThe MOA markings on this Bushnell scope are large and bold, making adjustments easy when you’re behind the rifle.

If you are the hunter who stays inside of 200 yards, a scope with an elevation turret designed for rapid elevation changes might not be for you. If you are the type of hunter who prefers one favorite big-game rifle for most of your hunting, you may want just such a scope, even if you don’t rely on it often, but may take that rifle to hunt Coues’ deer, caribou or sheep. There is nothing wrong with a scope designed to be dialed on any varmint rifle; I feel that when it comes to precise shot placement, there is no more accurate means of obtaining the proper holdover. Unlike many of the second focal plane compensated reticles—which need to be calibrated at a specific magnification setting—the dial method can be used at any magnification setting, leaving the reticle’s appearance unchanged.

Man shooting bolt-action rifleAll the technology in the world won’t help you if you don’t become proficient with it; training and practice are paramount.

Our hunting gear is become more technologically advanced each year, and I’m alright with that if it ends in a more precise, humane kill. If the idea of dialing in the hunting field seems completely alien, maybe it’s time to give it a try, and see if it might not enhance your hunting experience.

Want to read more from Philip Massaro? Check out the following articles:
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Top 5 Dangerous Game Cartridges
Top 5 All-Around North American Big-Game Cartridges
An Ode to the .308 Winchester
Tips for Traveling to Hunt in the COVID-19 Era
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• An Ode to the Winchester Model 1886
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• 6 Ways to Fine-Tune Your Hunting Rifle
• Review: Heym Model 26B Double Rifle .45-70
• 5 Reasons the .300 Win. Mag. Rules the Roost
• Bolt-Action Rifles: Push-Feed vs. Controlled-Round-Feed
• Scope Magnification: How Much is Too Much?
• A Hunter's Guide to Staying Sane During the Coronavirus Outbreak
• Is Walnut Dead? Synthetic vs. Wood Stocks
• Rifles for the Traveling Hunter
• Top 5 Lever-Action Rifle Cartridges
• African Game Meat: What Happens After the Shot?
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• Deer Hunting: Were the Good Old Days Really That Good?
• Essential Gear for the Traveling Hunter
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• Top 8 Bullets for African Plains Game
• Review: Tikka T3X Lite
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• An Ode to the Ruger Model 77
• Top 5 Hunting Cartridges of the 21st Century
• Top 5 Deer Bullets for 2018
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• 5 Reasons to Book a Spring Bear Hunt
• An Ode to the Ruger Mini Thirty
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• How to Build a Custom Rifle
• Choosing a Cartridge for North America's Big Game
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• Top 5 Boutique Bullet Companies
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• Top 5 Safari Calibers
• 5 New Year's Resolutions for Hunters
• What Your Favorite Rifle Cartridge Says About You
• America's Most Wanted Cartridges
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