March 15, 2023
There's a reason most military sniper teams are just that: Teams. Many of the shots a sniper is called upon to make are beyond the capability of one soldier. While the designated shooter is the key trigger puller of the team, his partner, the spotter, often has the harder job. It’s his task to watch and read the wind accurately, to call changes in wind vector and strength nearly immediately as they occur, to watch and analyze in real time the trace, aka vapor trail, on its way to the target, to identify impacts—whether on target or off—and to call precise corrections when needed. Long-range shots at game are even more critical. A wounding hit is not a success.
When you’re hunting, less hinges on hitting your target. And you’re not in danger of your target shooting back. However, in simplest terms, making a successful clean kill on big game at long-range can be more technically difficult than making a successful impact on an enemy.
Factor in the months of training and years of experience that military snipers receive. Keep in mind that hunters—at best—have little more than a three-day long-range class on their resume. (A majority are most likely self-taught.) Then ask yourself: Are you ethically ready to head afield solo, intending to stretch your capability and attempt a clean kill on a buck, bull, bear, or ram at long range?
Having a spotter to help you read conditions, range the distance, prepare for the shot, watch your impact, keep track of your game after impact, and deliver a correction if a follow-up shot is needed can make the difference between a clean kill and a lost, wounded animal.
Before we dig into the skills and characteristics that make a good spotter, let’s just take a minute and address a common concern: What if I don’t have a spotter friend? (Candidly, it’s difficult to find a hunting partner with the complete package of top-spotter skills, and more pertinently, one that’s willing to be your shadow when you’re hunting.)
Here's the best answer: Don’t shoot long. Keep your shots inside traditional ranges, where you have a decent chance at controlling all the variables on your own.
Since many of us (myself included) are often unwilling to employ the best answer, here’s a second-best: Become your own spotter. This requires lots of patience, practice, and setting your rifle up properly. Master all the spotter skills we’ll detail next and serve as a spotter for other shooters whenever possible to polish those skills. Use an effective but efficient cartridge that wallops hard downrange, but doesn’t recoil excessively, for example a 7mm Rem. Mag. or .280 Ackley Improved. Use a top-quality scope, and keep the magnification dialed below 10x so you have a big enough field of view to see your own impacts during recoil. Perfect the ability to build a solid field position, aligned behind your rifle so muzzle jump is controlled. And of critical importance, shoot with a good muzzle brake—or better yet, a suppressor.
A complete combination of these skills and gear will enable you to spot your own impacts through your scope, and with practice, make on-the-fly corrections and fast, on-target follow-up shots.
If you want to extend your ethical maximum range, whether it’s from 250 yards to 400 yards, or from 400 yards to 800 yards, it behooves you to become a good spotter. Just as importantly, to persuade your favorite hunting partner to become a good spotter. That way, there’s a reasonably good chance that when you need a spotter, one will be available. And when it’s time to return the favor, you’ll be capable.
As mentioned earlier, a spotter’s job is to read wind, provide shot-distance (range) updates, advise holds, watch impacts, and call corrections. A hunting spotter should also take co-responsibility for marking where an animal was standing when shot, and where it was last seen. And not least; a spotter should have a calm “bedside manner” that keeps situations that get a bit western from spiraling out of control.
Let’s break these down one at a time.
As the saying goes, wind is the evil joker in the deck of long-range shooting cards. Everything else can be accurately predicted. Range can be laser-measured and accounted for. Bullet aerodynamics are predictable and consistent. Velocity can be chronographed and its effect calculated. Bullet drop, ladies and gentlemen, is easy. Crunch the numbers and dial your scope’s turret to compensate. All that is science. Reading wind, however, is an art form.
For the purposes of this article, just know this: To be an effective long-range spotter, you’d better find your inner artist.
You’ll also have to wear your metaphorical science-lab coat, because an understanding of ballistics is part and parcel to reading and compensating for wind. Learn about bullet aerodynamics, ballistic coefficient, velocity, and so forth. Master at least one ballistic app on your smart phone, so you can quickly create a profile for a buddy’s cartridge and bullet. Then, you can plug in your estimated wind strength and vectors. Mixing art with science, you’ll quickly build competence as a wind caller.
Eventually, if you work at it, you’ll master the art of calling wind and probable drift based on a knowledge of exterior ballistics, the wisdom of experience, and what you read on the breeze. When time is short, you can drop your crutches (smartphone and ballistic app) and run on your wind-reading, drift-calling skills alone.
While the shooter should plan to laser range the distance him or herself, it’s wonderfully helpful for the spotter to corroborate your measurement, and to then provide updates if the animal moves and distance changes.
For the shooter to be able to rely on the spotter’s ranging skills, it’s necessary to master good rangefinding techniques. Use a premium rangefinder with a broad, flat beam. Take several readings and average them. Hit an obvious target (rock, tree) behind the target and one in front of the target, to rule out the possibility that you’re ranging past the target or inadvertently lasering some object closer than the target. Feed the shooter updates in calm, clear statements.
When the science is plugged in, the data is showing, and the distance is dialed into the scope, all that’s left is for the spotter to advise the shooter where to hold to compensate for any fickle, real-time variations in conditions.
Here, communication comes into play. It’s hard. Don’t downplay this challenge. Whether you choose to refer to the clock for direction, as in, “wind is from 4 o’clock,” or in left/right and percentages of full value drift, you’ve got to be succinct and clear. And whether your hunting partner uses Mils or MOA in his or her scope, you’ve got to be able to speak that language. So put on your metric thinking cap, but don’t abandon your imperial roots.
Advising holds is important before the first shot, and doubly so after. Assuming the hunter has the range and shot angle and has dialed for it, you’ll read the wind, and discuss and concur if there’s time. If time is short, simply provide your suggestion and let the shooter run with it.
When setting up to spot, position your spotting scope as directly behind the shooter as possible. Get low, just over the rifle. This positioning maximizes your ability to see and accurately read the bullet’s trace.
When the rifle roars, keep your eyes open and glued to the target. If atmospheric conditions are right, your peripheral vision should pick up the projectile’s vapor trail as it arches toward the target. Ideally, you’ll watch it all the way to impact. Particularly skilled spotters pick up on side-to-side waviness in the vapor trail and make deductions about the various wind vectors and strengths downrange.
If conditions aren’t right for it, you may not see anything until the impact. If impact is on target, communicate that clearly and briefly. If it’s on target but a poor hit, calmly provide that info. “It’s too far back; shoot again.” Give a simple, understandable correction: “Hold a foot left.”
If the impact is a clean miss, particularly if it’s nowhere near close, you may need to evaluate and call a halt. Something is wrong with ballistic calculations, or there’s a lot more wind than you thought, or the rifle and scope are messed up, or the shooter isn’t executing the shot correctly. It’s not fair to the game animal to spray and pray.
On the other hand, if the miss was very close, call the impact, followed by a correction. “Right over him. Come down about a foot and shoot again.”
As a hit game animal staggers around or makes a dash for safety, it’s your job to stay calm and analytical and observe as much as possible. You have the big scope, after all. Note the specific point of impact, if you saw it. Be honest if you’re unsure. Watch the way the animal moves, particularly noting broken legs or shoulders. Look for a humped back that would indicate an abdominal hit. Watch for the animal to go wobbly, which usually indicates it’s about to go down.
Also, listen for the impact. If it’s soggy and/or drum-like, it’s likely a gut hit. If it cracks sharply, the bullet went through bone (or hit a rock beyond). What you want to hear is a brisk, satisfying whop! indicating a clean hit through the vitals.
Now is the critical time to call a corrected hold, if needed. Even if the shot was perfect, advise that: “It’s good!” Keep calm, and don’t hesitate to put on your life coach hat: “Put another shell in and get back on him.”
If the shot was poor, be aware that your hunting partner may fall apart. It may be up to you to hold the situation together and bring it to a happy ending. Keep calm and keep your tone calm. The worst thing you can do is get excited and frantically call out a bunch of instructions.
Formulate a hold correction simply, and state it clearly. Only repeat it if requested. And keep your eye glued to that scope, reading the wounded animals’ body language, marking where it’s going, and watching for the next bullet coming in.
MARKING THE SPOT
I can’t count the number of times I’ve got up, jubilant that I made a good shot and the buck or bull dropped, gathered my gear, and looked across the canyon, only to say, “Oh gosh, where was he standing? Can you still see where he’s laying?”
A good spotter is a good friend, and you should have an answer for your hunting partner. “Yep. I still see him. He was standing by that old burnt pine stump when you shot. Went down about 50 yards to the left, sort of where that gravel is washed out. I can still see an antler through the brush. He’s not moving.”
These skills take time to master. The science takes study and quality range time learning the intricacies of your favorite ballistic app. The art of judging wind takes practice and a grasp of several rule-of-thumb methods. The ability to watch an impact, assess it accurately, and communicate corrections is challenging, and takes a lot of practice.
Hardest of all for many hunters is the ability to stay calm, to keep your demeanor and your communications steady, clear, and optimistic, and to talk your hunting pal down from the roof when things get crazy, and he really needs to focus and get the job done.
Thankfully, all these skills are fun. Learning and polishing them is a wonderful pursuit and will make you personally a much more effective shooter in the field.
Becoming a good spotter is important if you and your hunting partner are attempting to hunt at extended distances. It’s not just convenient; it’s an ethical necessity. Shooting at far-away game animals comes with a complete set of new challenges and having two savvy heads on the job makes a world of difference.