The running shot

Lessons learned about shooting a moving target

The small herd of does burst out of the woods and cut across the soybean field, the howling of the hounds behind them in the swamp.

We were standing around vehicles, telling lies and talking hunting when the six deer came out of the woods and cut catacorner across the field, 200 yards from us.

There was a general scramble for guns as it was a doe day — but the deer were too far off. Most everybody hunted with shotguns, and the several horseback riders carried only shotguns and buckshot in their gun scabbards.

Except me.

I had a sporterized Mauser, a Model 1898 German model that had an ill-fitting wood stock on it. It was a pretty thing, with its blonde wood and dark, blued .308 Winchester barrel — and it wouldn’t hold zero for beans.

I had it rebarreled when it wouldn’t group, thinking the ancient 8mm Mauser barrel had been shot out.

As I was later to learn, rebarreling it solved nothing. The doggone thing just would not shoot — but this was early in my rifle career, and I had much to learn.

“Hold on!” one of my cousins called out. “This man’s a rifleman: Let him take the shot.”

Taking a rest over the hood of a truck, nervous about the audience, I put the crosshairs on the lead doe, the rest of the group following her like a flight of geese in a staggered trail.

I suddenly realized I had no idea what I was doing.

How could I miss? It was a whole herd, strung out from stem to stern, with no daylight between them as they loped across the bean field. From the first doe to the last, it was a continuous line of brown.

Heck, if I missed one, I had to hit one behind it — after all, who would know which one I was aiming for?

Taking a massively incorrect lead of about 2 feet, my knowledge coming from my “WAG” computer (Wild Ass Guess), I squeezed the trigger on the first doe.

When I got the crosshairs down, she was still running. In fact, they were all loping along as if out for a Sunday jog — the lead one actually looked distractedly from side-to-side as she led them across the field, oblivious to our presence — and oblivious to my shot.

Running the bolt, I cranked another shot after them, this time widening the lead about a foot. I might as well have shot at them with a dime-store slingshot.

Desperate now, I tried placing the shot right over the lead doe’s head, thinking the bullet drop and trajectory would hit maybe one of the deer behind her — and salvage my reputation.

They kept on running as if they had absolutely nothing to worry about — and from the quality of my shooting, they were right.

With a sickened, futile effort, I threw the last round in the magazine after them, and they made their way across the beanfield intact, into the woods.

I could have sworn I heard a deer-like giggle waft across the field to the group of hunters — who were standing in awe that someone could sling four high-powered bullets across a beanfield at six tightly-grouped deer — and never cut a hair.

There was a moment of silence as the last shot echoed through the woods. No one spoke — I certainly didn’t have anything to add to the conversation. My rifle had spoken for me.

One of the horseback hunters broke the strained quiet as he lifted his reins and disgustedly wheeled his horse away.

“Some rifleman” he snorted as he trotted off, voicing, I am sure, the considered opinion of every hunter in that crowd.

I could go on and describe how that rifle would change zero with the regularity of the change of the barometer. Or how I had absolutely no idea of the drop in trajectory at that assumed range of the 150-grain .308 bullet I was shooting.

Or, if I ever showed my face around that club again.

But none of that would help. I eventually burned out on that rifle, and gave it away to a young up-and-coming hunter who was thrilled to get it.

And it was a great trainer for me. As a wise old gunsmith told me, “You don’t learn anything from a good rifle.” From that gun I learned the vagaries of moisture on wood stocks, the problems with poor wood-to-metal fit, and how to glass-bed stocks to make rifles shoot better — much better.

But it was a number of years, and several more magnificent misses, before I learned how to lead — and hit — a running deer.

John Wooters, a classic hunter/outdoor writer, wrote a book called “Hunting Trophy Deer.” I bought this book, and gave several copies to my young cousins in Mississippi. We all wanted to hunt and kill the proverbial trophy. I was amazed, in an Amazon search, to find the book is still in print, though Wooters has passed on.

It shows quality lasts. Wooters talked about a subject that was almost revolutionary in 1977 — how to manage for trophy deer. But it was his shooting tip that made the book worth its purchase price, and it has stuck with me forevermore.

The tip works whether the deer is crossing perpendicular to you or quartering away from you.

The point of aim is the nose. It has worked for me. Several times.

According to Wooters (and experience has proved him true), if you swing through the deer, just like swinging through a flying bird, bisecting the body with the horizontal crosshair, and pulling the trigger when the vertical crosshair touches the nose, you’ll bust him (or her) in the lung area — every time at any reasonable distance.

I have since used that trick on several running deer, and have had the immeasurable pleasure of seeing them pile end over apple cart in a very satisfying thump after I pulled the trigger.

I also used this point of aim on a hapless buzzard on a recent hunt out in Texas — where the cattlemen hate them because of their nasty habit of attacking newborn calves, and eating the afterbirth of cows, causing them to sicken and die.

Trying to freehand the shot with a stiff wind moving the tree, I missed the first shot with my Remington R-15 AR in .223.

But as the buzzard took flight, it went left (away from us) quartering from me about 65 yards out. It was on a straight plane, moving slowly, flapping its wings as it tried to gain airspeed.

I picked it up in the Nikon 6-20x scope, placing the horizontal crosshair level with its body.

Swinging through, when the vertical crosshair touched his beak, I pulled the trigger — and shot him out of the sky. There was a burst of feathers, and he fell 30 feet to the cornfield.

That one made up for the day in the Mississippi beanfield. The Texans whooped and hollered, and I went out to look at my trophy.

I had shot the rear quarter out of the filthy creature, and I left him where he lay, walking back to the acclamations of the crowd, silently thanking an old-time deer hunter for such a workable, usable tip — and glad I didn’t have to repeat the shot.