So You Want To Own a Gun (Part Four)
We covered self-defense in and outside of the home in the previous article. Fortunately, firearms are for more than defending your life.
Hunting, plinking, and various shooting sports are time-honored forms of recreation, and the only ones explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, with the Second Amendment call for a "well-regulated" (well-trained) core of citizen shooters. All have different requirements, however, and different rules of acceptable behavior. Today we’ll focus on hunting.
Hunting was one of mankind's core functions for tens of thousands of years. Before the domestication of certain animal species, if you didn't hunt, you didn't eat meat. Today hunting is generally recreational, though the more successful hunters among us can often fill out all of their game tags and don't have to purchase store-bought, hormone-filled meat at all.
For those that choose to hunt with a firearm, the most important things you need to learn are target identification, target discrimination, establishing safe zones of fire, and your own limitations as a hunter. These are matters of safety, legality, and ethics.
A depressing number of people, pets, and domestic animals are killed every year because some yahoo shoots at movement, at a glimpse of part of an animal, or even at a sound.
Part of target identification is verifying that the animal you are about to harvest is the correct species. Horses, donkeys, cows, goats, or dogs may indeed be brown, four-legged mammals, but trying to use that in court to justify shooting someone’s livestock or family pet is a losing proposition, as is defending shooting an out-of-season animal.
A more refined but equally important part of hunting is target discrimination. This means determining whether the animal or animals you see within a harvestable species comprise what you really want to shoot from a game management perspective. Factors can include age, sex, size, or unique characteristics.
For example: if you are treestand hunting on the edge of a field and four animals walk out of woodline into view, target identification tells you that the animals are indeed deer. Target discrimination is the act of selecting the deer you want to harvest. Will you choose the young buck, the gangly young doe with a deformed jaw and albinism, a healthy doe, or the mature buck?
The meat of all will taste the same, but by harvesting the doe with albinism and a deformed jaw -- a real-life game management problem encountered years ago in a deer herd in Halifax County, North Carolina -- you remove an animal that may starve in the future because of her deformity, and improve the quality of the herd’s genetics in the process. Before man intervened and killed off most predator species in the U.S., a red wolf or large bobcat might have culled that deer or others from the herd. By eliminating predators, we now bear the responsibility of playing their role as ethical hunters, even if that sometimes means leaving the trophy for another day.
Zones of Fire
Equally important to target identification and discrimination is knowing what is downrange of your target. As more and more Americans move into rural areas and suburbs pop up in farm fields like mushrooms after a spring rain, it is vital for hunters to know the land they are hunting in and to establish zones of fire. They must know that they can safely shoot without risking a shot in the direction of a building or road. This may not be as much of an issue in truly rural areas, but in many parts of the country the population density and geographic realities conspire to make finding a location with truly safe backstops for your zones of fire more problematic. In particularly crowded areas, these concerns have even affected the kinds of weapons that can be used. In some locales, centerfires must be traded in for shorter-ranged shotguns, or firearms are banned entirely for even shorter-range bows.
Hot and Cold
From the pure shooting perspective, most big game and many kinds of small game hunting hinges upon being able to fire an accurately aimed "cold shot."
You may have just one shot at the animal you intend to harvest. If you miss cleanly, the animal will likely bolt at the sound of the shot and may flee into cover before you can fire a second shot. Worse, if your gun isn't "cold-zeroed" or you fail to follow the basic mechanics of shooting, you could injure an animal and sentence it to a slow, painful death, something all ethical hunters avoid.
Two key mistakes made by many hunters: zeroing their optics or sights at the range as part of a shooting session, and not letting a barrel heated up from the firing of the previous shot cool back down. A warm barrel will often not shoot to the same point that a cold barrel will. The difference can be subtle, but crucial.
The difference in aim and impact points between a cold and hot bore may be enough for a clean miss, or it may be enough to take the animal humanely with a minimum of suffering. Typically, big game hunters and many kinds of small game hunters will want to prepare for cold-bore zero. Certain kinds of hunters who will see relatively intense and frequent shooting, however -- for example, prairie dogs hunters -- may want to perfect their hot-bore zero. Adjust your zero to your kind of hunting.
The Right Tool for the Job
Another consideration for hunters is the selection of the right caliber and cartridge for the species they seek and the style of hunting they will pursue. Most small game in North America (rabbits, squirrels, etc.) are taken with rimfire rifles or shotguns, using small bullets at comparatively low velocities and energy levels to preserve the meat of these small, thin-skinned animals. Legally, there may be no legal restriction on using a 7mm Remington Magnum to harvest a ground squirrel, but you’d be lucky to find anything beyond a pink mist and floating puffs of fur. My recommendation is to talk to experienced hunters or guides in your area to see what they suggest about the kind of hunting you want to do, including not just species, but also terrain. A scoped 270 bolt-action rifle may be great for eastern deer hunted in soybean fields, but a quick-handling lever action .30/30 is a better choice for deer or hogs in dense brush, and neither are great choices for Alaskan big game that may look upon you as a tasty snack. Likewise, waterfowl and game bird hunting (with the exceptions of turkeys in some states) are a shotgun-only affair, sometimes with considerable and bewildering selections of shotgun chokes, shell lengths, shot sizes, and shot materials depending on the species you desire to chase.
Know Your Limitations
Almost any modern firearm that is reasonably well-maintained and firing quality factory-made ammunition is going to be capable of more mechanical accuracy than its human operator is likely to be able to wring out of it. If you are the kind of hunter that isn’t able to make it to the range frequently to keep your shooting skills sharp, they will fall away from you. You should limit yourself to shots within your “envelope of competency,” for lack of a better term. This will vary wildly from shooter to shooter. For individual shooters, it will vary between individual weapons.
A gentleman I know is a professional shooter for a gun company and may fire in excess of 10,000 rounds of ammunition a month out of heavily customized rifles built to his requirements. His envelope of competency on a large game animal with the rifles he shoots most often legitimately exceeds a half-mile. The same shooter with an unfamiliar firearm may feel his envelope of competency reduced dramatically to less than a hundred yards. Most of us, of course, are not professional shooters, or even gifted amateurs. If you only fire a few zeroing shots from a bench just before the season, you should know whether or not you have the skill to hit a running animal at 75 yards, or a stationary one at 200.
Want a good rule of thumb? If you think luck is going to be a significant factor in making a clean kill, don’t take the shot. Hunting is a very rewarding sport, one that can bring you close to nature and to your roots as a part of the land like no other. Pursue it ethically.
Next up: plinking. What you can learn from informal shooting practice with a pistol and rifle.