Should You Shoot Running Game?
Is it ethical, and should you even try it?
Before, after, and throughout my long tenure as editor of this magazine the “Buck Sense” column written by John Wootters was one of our most popular departments. Created early on in the whitetail explosion, the popular column did much to shape the “whitetail cult” as it is today. However, Wootters was a proud Texan. Feedback from readers made it clear that some from other regions couldn’t relate to John’s primarily private-land in Texas situation. A few took stronger positions, calling an ethical “foul” over the use of feeders, which are part and parcel to Texas deer hunting and have been legal forever.
Deer feeders are more widespread and accepted today than they were 40 years ago. As our whitetail populations exploded and overpopulation became an issue, more states legalized baiting, largely as a tool to increase harvest. Baiting deer is legal in Kansas. Some of our stands overlook feeders; others are just “in the woods.” If a guest objects to hunting near a feeder we have other options. So far nobody has objected.
Many jurisdictions remain in which baiting deer is not legal, but in general, I think the self-assured “ethics police” have lost this battle. However, those who feel strongly about deer feeders have free choice: Nowhere is their use required.
Today we have another ongoing ethical skirmish. There are those who believe it is unethical to take a shot at a moving animal. This has progressed to the point where some networks refuse to air video of animals shot while moving.
I think we can all agree that a stationary shot is always best. I usually carry a grunt call, and most of the time a quick grunt will stop a moving buck in its tracks. A loud cat-like meow can also work. However, animals don’t always stop, and sometimes these efforts change a walk or a trot into a spooked gallop.
Let me give you two diametrically opposed opinions from two great gunwriters. The same John Wootters of “Buck Sense” fame once commented to me that he wished firearms had “cutoff switches” that would preclude firing at a moving animal. Jack O’Connor took the opposite position, writing that game animals were “just as big moving as standing still.”
Wootters was, of course, a whitetail fanatic, but he hunted widely across North America and a lot in Africa. O’Connor hunted mostly the West, but he also did a lot of hunting in Africa and some in Asia. Lord knows how many Coues deer he took, but he only took one “big” whitetail, and that was on his last hunt.
These totally different viewpoints from two revered hunters is hard to explain, but let me give it a shot. In his Arizona days, when big game was scarce, one of O’Connor’s favorite pastimes was shooting running jackrabbits. In other words, O’Connor practiced shooting moving game.
Euros on the Run
Our European brethren also practice. They have to because over there the “driven hunt” is one of the most prevalent techniques, and all shots are on the move. Experienced European hunters are undaunted and get good at it. I’m not sure if they would be amused or outraged by the concept that such shooting is unethical, but they would not agree. They do have an advantage: Since shooting moving game is normal in their world, good European ranges have running targets on tracks. So European riflemen practice hitting moving game. In fact, in several countries one must demonstrate proficiency on a moving target to qualify for a hunting license. In Sweden and Finland, everyone in the party had to hit the “running moose”—repeatedly in the vitals—before our hunt could commence.
The running target was once an Olympic shooting event. I’ve seen a few “running boar” courses over here; they’re difficult and fun. Indoor ranges where you shoot at video images—in virtual reality—are amazing, but such setups are scarce, and few American ranges offer running targets. As a result, few of us practice shooting moving game. It’s not a major psychological stretch to first avoid moving shots, then fear them, and, finally, decide they’re unethical and no one should take them.
Honestly, if you’ve never practiced hitting moving game with a rifle, forbearance is a good policy. O’Connor was correct about the vital zone not changing size when the animal is moving, but Wootters was also correct because his point was that shooting at moving animals is a good way to wound game. Which, I suppose, is also the main point of the ethics fascists who would, if they could, outlaw taking any shot other than standing broadside.
O’Connor had his jackrabbits, and Europeans (and some Americans) have access to running targets. “DIY” options take creativity. We’ve all heard about putting a target inside a tire and rolling it downhill, which is great fun but labor-intensive. There is another option for practice, and most of us do it but perhaps haven’t thought of it in this light: shotgunning.
Turkey hunting is different: It’s usually a point target that’s aimed at. But wingshooting means shooting flying birds. (Oh, Lord, are the ethics police gonna get hold of this and mandate that we now must ground-sluice our birds?) Shooting moving game with a rifle requires more precision because that one bullet must be properly placed, unlike the forgiveness of a shotgun’s pattern. The principles, however, are the same: Acquire the target, establish the lead, and keep swinging. All wingshooting are good practice for moving game. For increased training value, put an optical sight, like the Aimpoint Micro S1, on your shotgun and go shoot clays. You’ll be surprised how quickly your precision increases.
Most skilled shotgunners are pretty good at hitting moving targets and, like me, are reluctant to draw a line in the sand and say, “Moving shots must not be taken.” However, “moving” covers a wide range of activity, from a stately walk to bounding over deadfalls. Target speed makes a huge difference in the practicality of a shot. Distance probably matters even more. A rifle bullet averages about 2.5 times faster than a shotgun charge. So at very close range the required lead is minimal provided you keep swinging. And don’t stop the gun! At 100 yards on a fast-moving target you need to start doing math, and it’s already too far—and usually too late!
Sure, I’ve missed running shots. I’ve missed stationary shots, too. Taking a shot is always a judgment call based on your confidence—in that split-second when the trigger breaks—that you know what you must do and do it to the best of your ability. This applies whether the animal is moving or standing still. I don’t advocate moving shots, but I’m not afraid of them. As with most things, practice makes (almost) perfect.