Whatever we want to call it — some say “freehand” — I think we understand the intent. Yet, let’s describe it and then ask the question: Is it ever a legitimate practice for big-game hunting? If so, why, when and how ?
It’s been quite a few years since our second son, Phil, and I used to visit a small but crowded gun shop on Eglington Avenue in Toronto. Yet we immensely enjoyed those “adventures”! And that was due to two circumstances that were inevitable: The Italian owner and the over-crowded conditions of “too much stuff”!
The owner was a very likeable, talkative, bald, fat, and funny story teller with himself as the main character in his folksy yarns. And the shop was full of stuff related to shooting and hunting, including very expensive shotguns that were sold mostly to his Italian friends, about whom he often complained. Just picture a somewhat heated “discussion” going on in a crowded Italian gun shop over the “right” price for an expensive shotgun… I think we get the picture! (I hope the Mafia isn’t reading this, they might still be looking for me after forty-five years have passed!)
All of the preceding is to set the stage for the owner describing his shooting (at?) a bull moose, far from home on a moose hunt “Up North” with his buddies. His description is as follows (but it’s impossible to include the emotion, expressions, eyes, hands and arm movements):
Bob: “Did you get a moose, Joe?”
Joe: ” I saw this big moose at a far, far away distance, and started shooting…
Bob: “What were you shooting?”
Joe: “My three-hundred magume”!
Bob: “Did you hit the moose?”
Joe: “Oh, I must have… that three-hundred magume can kill from far, far away, ya know!”
Bob: “Were you able to get closer to finish off the moose?”
Joe: “Aaaah…, Noooo… it disappeared into the thick woods…”
Bob: “Did you have a rest for your rifle, or did you just fire away from a standing-up position?”
Joe: “With that rifle you don’t need a rest… Why would you do that? It can kill no matter how far away you’re from the moose.”
End of discussion. Phil and I left the shop shortly thereafter and had a good laugh. We weren’t disappointed with our afternoon’s entertainment! And “Joe” continued to do his annual moose hunt in the “Up North” with his buddies.
That story is a fair representation, though quotes may not be exact of what transpired and was exchanged that late fall afternoon, though “Joe’s” name is not his real name to protect the guilty.
Yet, as far fetched as this true-to-life episode may seem to be, there are more than a few annual hunters who are guilty of such practices. When I asked “Joe” an estimate of how far away he thought the moose was from him when he commenced firing, he thought it was “more than three-hundred yards and maybe even six-hundred”! I think it should go without saying that no hunter should be simply flinging lead into the air at a live, un-wounded animal when he has NO IDEA of what he’s doing — neither where his rifle is sighted, nor the vaguest idea of the approximate range to the animal!
While I’m certain that the readership of this piece is in full agreement with me, that we should always be aware of the circumstances surrounding us when we squeeze the trigger, as well as control of the rifle knowing full well its capabilities and sight-in — as well as its limitations. Yet there are occasions when the flash of fur demands instant reflexes to take over, such as in (a) a snap shot, or (b) offhand shooting. Those, of course, are distinct entities.
A snap-shot is an instantaneous – reflexive action, whereas an offhand shot might be more deliberate. But in either case a rest or exterior support is missing. So, let’s have a look at each of these, including various circumstances, positions and equipment. Then, finally, asking the question: Are such types of shooting at real, live game ever legitimate?
In “Joe’s” case, since he’d been looking for a moose to shoot for a few unsuccessful days, and he rightly thought that IF that bull was “about” 300 yards from him, the .300 Winchester Magnum he was using for this hunt would be capable in it’s own right IF he could hit the moose in the “boiler room” at the imagined range. He obviously didn’t have a range finder in his shop, and it’s doubtful that any were available forty years ago anyway. But, the question remains: Even IF he was able to judge the distance to the moose within ten yards and knew the sight-in of his rifle, should he have taken an offhand shot at +/- 300 yards?
OFFHAND SHOOTING: In all such cases, I’m thinking rifles or shotguns using slugs. I have no experience in hunting animals with a handgun.
There’s no doubt that offhand shooting is a permitted practice in Africa on both PG and DG under certain conditions, both by residents, PHs and their clients. But it is discouraged, and “sticks” are used as support whenever and wherever possible. If not “sticks”, then bipods, tripods, a tree or a branch, or even a termite mound. But there are times when some shooters are fully capable of shouldering their rifle, aiming carefully, taking off the safety, squeezing the trigger and making a good hit through chest or shoulders of the animal — without the use of an exterior support. But some are much better at it than others.
When I first started to hunt whitetails on my own with a bolt-action 12-gauge with slugs, my first attempt was to “fling” a 12-gauge slug across an open field at a very healthy, fleeing buck. The range was probably 200 + yards, and the slug likely missed by more than 20 feet! I was not a novice with that gun. I’d cleanly taken a good number of grouse with it from almost any angle on the ground, in bushes or in flight. But those were not with slugs nor beyond 25 yards. My shot at that fleeing buck was reflexive, knowing full well that a hit in a vital spot would be by chance alone. Lesson learned.
My next encounter with a whitetail using the same equipment, was in a tightly wooded area where I was able to put the sneak on a fat doe that was busy scratching for nuts in a hardwood bush. I got to within about twenty yards, took aim at her broadside chest, off went the safety and “KABOOM”! The doe dropped in her tracks. I was sure she was finished. But as I approached within about fifteen feet, she jumped up and fled into a thick tangle of bush before I could reload! Mistake number two! No hair, no blood, no trace and no snow — and alone! I later took that shotgun to a sandpit and fired off a couple of the same ammo, that had somehow missed the doe, at an improvised target. No sign of a hit within five yards of the aiming point on the target!
That was in 1959. I was a young pastor somewhere in central New Brunswick, with a wife and seventh-month old son. We were living on $50 – $55 per week, running an old chev that still cost $20 per week for gas (don’t remember exactly the cost of gas back then but it was around 30 cents per Imperial gallon, plus other costs for running an old car through nearly six months of bitter cold and blizzard conditions) and $12 – $15 weekly for food, so that didn’t leave much for other pleasures or hunting. But I did manage to buy that shotgun, new, in Fredericton, for $35. A deer tag was $2 and a box of shells (20) for around $5. I still have a very old box of No.5, 1 1/8oz Supreme 12 gauge Shotshells, still with eight of twenty in it. They were bought at Canadian Tire, I assume in Fredericton (Provincial Capital of New Brunswick) for $5.69. Twenty for $5.69, and I doubt there was any tax. That’s 28 cents per shot. And gas at 30 cents costing $20 per week meant at least 67 gallons. 67 x 15 (mpg)=1005 miles per week! Yes! I was pastor of three full-time churches, and a fourth part-time, that covered 1200 sq-miles (3200 sq-km)! And I travelled that at least twice weekly! By the end of the first winter I had to replace that ’49 chevy with a ’52 chevy!
All that to explain why my only firearm for big game and birds was a 12-gauge, and it was no good for BG because it had a full-choke built in! It was a good bird gun but no good for deer, even from fifteen feet! And 000 Buck wasn’t allowed in those days.
I did also own a single-shot .22LR from my late teen years. And the churches did provide a house with a wood furnace and electricity without cost to us. The “bathroom” was at the end of the woodshed.
It was several years later before I owned a big-game rifle that opened the door for handloading. First a 7 x 57 military Mauser still in its grease, followed by a Mauser’98 rebarreled to .30-06. I started reloads for that .30-06. After a year or so that was traded for a “real” .30-06 in an M70 Winchester.
My first whitetail buck with that rifle was from an offhand shot at sixty-five yards. It was a handloaded 165gr Sierra BT leaving the muzzle at around 2800 fps. I didn’t have a chronograph in those days, so I went by “the book”. It was a nice fat nine-pointer, and I did give it a finisher from about five yards between the eyes from an offhand stance.
So offhand shooting is common in my view and experience. Results, however, will often be mixed depending on the shooter, the physical conditions and the equipment.
I asked a friend, Bob Fritz, to share some insights and experience on offhand shooting of live game. Bob is an expert shooter of rifles and shotguns. In the past he was a champion shooter in High Power target shooting from offhand. Also, he has done quite a bit of hunting of big game in the USA and Alaska. Then, he has also made a few trips to Africa for both PG and DG, taking a fair share of each, including elephant, Cape buffalo, lion, hippo and crocodile. He has used .30-06’s, a .300 Weatherby, .375 H&H and a .458 Winchester Magnum. Some of it has involved shooting from “sticks” (bipods and tripods — though he prefers bipods), and quite a bit of offhand shooting. Today he shoots a lot in the shotgun sports.
His counsel for shooting game (large or small) is always to use a rest — if possible. And always a scope on the rifle in offhand shooting, for the following reasons: 1) The target animal is brighter and sharper. 2) You have a wider field of view that is in the same plane as the reticle. 3) It’s faster to get on target than using irons (particularly in snap-shooting). But use the lowest suitable power — say 4x on a 3 – 9 x 40mm scope. 4) Use a stance or position that is most stable (less wobble or body movement) for the circumstance. Raise right elbow (if a right-handed shooter; opposite for a left-handed shooter) so it’s parallel to the ground. Keep left arm straight with the hand that grips the forearm. But most of the rifle weight should be borne by the right hand that pulls the rifle into the right shoulder. 5) Don’t lower the rifle from the shoulder for extracting the spent cartridge or reloading (in the case of a bolt-action repeater). 6) Don’t grip the bolt handle for this but rotate the rifle slightly clockwise while catching the bolt with the upper fingers (or palm, I would add) of your right hand that moves swiftly up and back and then forward and down for a repeat fire if necessary while keeping your eyes fixed on the target.
Most of the above paragraph is from Bob. But I have put some of his advice into my own words. Of course, there are some caveats, depending on the rifle/caliber/cartridge employed. Bob believes very much in a “cheek weld”. I don’t in some cases where my teeth might get mashed by a heavy recoiling rifle and cartridge such as a max loaded .458 Win Mag shooting 500s at 2200 – 2300 fps. And for such a cartridge, I prefer a low fixed- power scope with a long eye-relief of about 5-inches.
Yet to be fair, the point Bob makes about this is that pressing the cheek against the stock in looking through a scope becomes an extra brace in steadying the rifle along with the hands and shoulder. For that I tend to use the sling over my right elbow (left elbow for RH shooters) as a “hasty sling”, pulled tight. Of course in “snap-shooting” there’s really no time for that. He want’s scopes as low as possible while I tend to want them a bit higher. Some of that, of course, is differences in physique.
But the proof of the pudding is, as they say, “in the eating”.
I would rate Bob as a professional-quality shooter. He’s at the top of that game. He has also studied and has had training in the sport of shooting. But, he is his own man with a practical, analytical mind, and all that shows in his accomplishments both in competition and in the hunting fields. In off-hand shooting of game, the following is representative of his straight-forward answers:
>”If at all possible avoid all off-hand shooting”
>” If I recall correctly, I’ve killed one whitetail deer, two caribou, one cape buffalo, one hippo, and some other stuff offhand. I’ve also missed some offhand shots.”
>”Pronghorn antelope running directly away. I shot over its butt and broke its neck. Guide said it was a 600 yard shot. I thought it was 300 yards”
>”Bull elephant (second and third shots offhand. The first shot was from sticks)”
I’m about a decade older than Bob, but have no experience as a competitive target shooter, and no experience hunting Africa’s DG.
Bob and I began correspondence about a decade ago when he wanted a copy of my reloading manual on the .458 Win Mag. Since then we’ve chatted in a friendly manner about diverse and sundry matters, but most often about guns, shooting and hunting. I always appreciate his thoughts and experience on these themes as well as politics, economics, religion, etc. — you know, the usual stuff most men discuss.
Thanks again Bob for your input.
My own experience in offhand/snap-shooting is limited but goes something like this:
>a good nine-point buck at 65 yards.
>a 1000 lb moose at 165 yards
>an eight-point buck at 35 yards
>a big jack rabbit at 35 yards
>a big black bear at 85 yards
>some big and small trees, deadfalls, stumps, targets, etc. And I too have missed some shots, mostly at moving game.
Generally, I find that holding an unsupported rifle steady on point of aim for more than about 4 seconds is just about impossible for me. By “steady” I mean on a particular spot on the animal or object. And the longer I hold, the worse it gets. A number of years ago, I was in a treestand hunting a particular black bear. Late in the day he came in behind me. I turned, looked around the 15″ thick tree and saw him coming sneakily downhill in my direction. He saw me when my head showed up peaking in his direction. He took off and hid in some thick brush. Then later reappeared behind a big tree to my right at about 30 yards. The problem was that the hardwood tree trunk was hiding his mid section. I had my rifle up, leaning to my right(I shoot from my left side) with the scope on him for what seemed like an eternity waiting for him to move a few inches for a clean shot to his lungs, but that never happened. My arms began to get tired and the end of the barrel was doing little circles. I had to give them a break and lowered the rifle into my lap — the bear took off on cue! I never saw him again. But it would have been an offhand shot on a trophy bear had he given me the chance. I had no rest on that ladder stand, and leaning as far to the right as possible wouldn’t have worked even if I had one.
What I’ve found in snap shooting, or even offhand, is that if I let the rifle’s sights (scope reticle) move in a parallel plane toward the spot I want to hit, and squeeze the trigger just before that spot is crossed by the intersection of the center of the reticle, I can hit the “target” just about dead center. I did that with the moose at 165 yards and a bear at 85. Both hits were within an inch of where I wanted the bullet to hit. And each shot was from a standing offhand stance.
Is such shooting of game ever warranted? Without flinging multiple shots into the air hoping to hit something… most definitely, yes, if there’s NO OTHER OPTION! Bob Fritz’s and my experience are positive. And I’m certain that there are myriad witnesses who could testify to similar results, but that is no guarantee for all hunters who frequent hunting fields or woods. Each one must be responsible for their own actions, and hold themselves accountable for knowing their limitations, and any constraints imposed by both gun and game.
Til the next…