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Deer hunting

A legend was founded back during the Revolutionary War. Not being able to stand in open field and match up against King George’s Redcoats, the Continental Army and in particular the militias took to hiding behind trees and firing, then retreating to reload and fire again.

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It angered the Redcoats that the colonists would fight in such an unsavory way but it proved to be the difference in the war. The other major factor was the rifled barrels of the Pennsylvania and Kentucky long rifles were far more accurate than the smooth-bore muskets of the British. This allowed more long-range hits and coupled with the British not being able to close the distance on the open field, this must have been infuriating to them.

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The legends of excellence in marksmanship spill over into the First World War when long-range trench warfare was the norm. The Germans and Americans had trenches 300 yards apart with a “no man’s land” in between. Other than for an occasional nighttime raid or full assault, the muddy trenches and mustard gas made this type of fighting a living hell. Each side became adept at picking off anyone bold enough to stick his head out of the opposing trench. Then periscope-type binoculars were developed to keep spotters alive. Even then these sharpshooters were able to smash a pair of binos at great distance and giggle to themselves if the unsuspecting victim held the oculars up for too long.

Four many years I hunted with a 25’06 single-shot rifle. The small bullet and single-shot capability made me scrutinize every shot I took. Only a few years ago when I was able to hunt out west and hunt bigger game did I change to the heavier 30’06 in a bolt-action rifle. Over the years the legend of American marksmanship has dwindled as less emphasis has been put on the single well-placed shot vs. a burst of automatic fire. When one is walking slowly through the jungles of Vietnam or the close rubble of buildings in Iraq, it is more important to be able to avoid the first hit and then duck and return a barrage of fire than it is to aim carefully and take out a single target.

Unfortunately, this mindset has spilled over into the mentality of hunters across our nation. There are a few rifle makers who specialize in long- range rifles and scopes. I see children on TV killing deer at over a half a mile. I wonder for every successful shot we see on TV how many animals crawl off to die from poor hits, but that is another topic. Shooting at great distances is not often necessary when hunting in the eastern half of the United States. If you shoot well at 200 yards, it is usually more than adequate for the average deer hunter. Therein, though, lies the problem.

I really enjoy having guests hunt with me on my place. There would be no reason for me to plant all of the food plots I do if I was going to just hunt by myself. What has become an increasing source of irritation, though, is the number of deer we miss or wound.

Some of my guests never shoot a rifle and haven’t for years until they show up on my place to shoot at a live animal. Some assume that because they killed the last deer they shot at a year or so ago at 30 yards that they should be fine wailing away at an animal 200 yards away in the twilight of last light. I had one friend who wondered why he had wounded two deer within minutes of one another. I asked him when was the last time he had sighted in his rifle and he said, “You sighted it in for me.” I had to think for a minute to remember what he was talking about. I had indeed sighted in his rifle for him – 30 years ago!

I had other friends who kept missing or wounding deer and they absolutely refused to shoot at a target to verify where their rifles are shooting. One finally did and found his rifle to be over 4 inches high at 100 yards, which explained why he kept spine shooting deer at 150 yards. Another made a point of calling me up the day after completely missing a deer at 50 yards ( the second that month) when I suggested he shoot at a target. He huffily insisted on the phone that he had shot a doe at 20-30 yards at his place and “hit her right where he was aiming.” Well I guess that sighted in his rifle.

Another guest kept shooting deer and they would run off leaving no sign of being hit. We sighted in her rifle and found it to be dead on. I was stumped. Later that week I found a downed deer at night by blind luck and noticed the deer was hit back and high (in other words the silhouette of the deer had been centered). The body cavity had to completely fill up with blood before there was any sign of a hit. I had taught this woman to shoot and though she is an excellent shot, I realized I never taught her the different angles and the location of the vitals of a deer. That was my fault, and after practicing the different angles of vital penetration by placing her kitten on the kitchen counter and using a pencil to illustrate bullet path, I am confident she will be fine now.

I have another friend who has taken his young hunter out looking for bucks for several years. The child missed a trophy buck and when I questioned him about how much the young lady shoots at the range, I am led to believe that they shot a couple of rounds at a target five years ago and, because the child hit relatively close, that was considered enough practice.

All of these folks are very seasoned hunters that have taken literally hundreds of deer. They have the best equipment. They have excellent lands that they tend religiously for wildlife. Sometime the more confidence we have we tend to think we are above the basics that earned us that confidence. I have to remember to practice what I preach.

After all of the wounding and missing by my acquaintances, I got to thinking about my own rifle. I reload all of my hunting ammunition and shoot it before the season. I gradually made the switch from 180-grain Nosler partitions of which I have about 50 left to 180-grain Swifts A-frame bullets. These two rounds shoot fairly close at 50 yards, but at 100 yards and beyond, the point of impact separates rapidly. I had actually forgotten which bullet I had zeroed my rifle in with. So I loaded my Noslers up and shot targets one day. Wouldn’t you know it? I was shooting the wrong bullet. I shot at 50, 150 and 250 yards. I now know exactly what the rifle is doing.

We put up deer stands, plant food plots, cut firewood and cook out all in order to spend time with friends hunting deer and enjoying the outdoors. All of this fun and camaraderie revolve around the greatest big game animal in the world, the whitetail deer. I we are going to take the lives of these animals, don’t they deserve the lowest denominator of respect? Shouldn’t we go out of our way to end their lives as cleanly and humanely as possible? Don’t they deserve some measure of respect? They will get it from me.

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Dr. John Rheney has been writing his outdoors column for The Times and Democrat since 1984.

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