One of the hardest things to do in all of hunting is to hit an animal running flat-out, quartering away from you. Today, at Clark Armory, we are going to teach you how to do that.
Disclaimer(s): To maintain sportsmanship and respect for the animals we hunt, it's best to not have to shoot at a moving animal. And, only take the shot if you are fully prepared to make a humane kill. This list is not exhaustive - feel free to add comments and share other tips & tricks to improve odds of successfully taking moving game. While most references here will be made to deer, the lessons apply to any larger game.
First, we are going to talk about safety, since it is the most important thing when handling a firearm. If you are in the position where you must shoot at a moving target, you are probably there due to necessity. Perhaps you are on a deer drive (that's where mine came in Pennsylvania) and a 9 point buck jumps out in front of you. Time to react, right? Adrenaline tends to take over in these moments, and a little bit of preparation for this situation goes a long way, especially when a moving target is a high likelihood. Here are some ways to increase your & innocent bystanders' health.
When you first get to your spot, plan your shooting lanes. You should always do this, but when there is a higher likelihood of a moving shot, be certain where your "no go" shots are. It's far more likely that you have plenty of time when a big game animal enters your range on its own accord. You can patiently wait until the animal comes over the ridge or hill crest enough that your backstop is the side of the hill, rather than the unknown over the crest. When that animal is running at 30 mph, and you need intense focus on getting your shot placement correct, other things will receive less attention. Be prepared and plan for that by creating scenarios, such as: if a deer reaches the 100 year-old oak tree in the fence row (random example), it is out of my range. Be conservative in determining those boundaries on a running animal, in the heat of the moment, it may be easy to miss them.
We are going to assume that most times when one must shoot at a running animal that the situation is generally one where the animals are being pushed via deer drives or other methods of moving game (we recognize that driving deer is a controversial, but traditional method of moving deer). If driving deer or running them with dogs (common in VA and the South), the biggest safety concern is to identify where your partners (human and K9) may appear. One of the ways that we planned our drives out with my hunting group was to actually draw the terrain on large index cards. That was the days before smartphones! Either way, those index cards allowed the group to all be on the same page. "Driver 1" will be coming through this channel, "Sitter 1" will be sitting here, etc. Timing is another consideration, here. You'll definitely want to know about how long it will take "Driver 1" to come through the expected channel. For example, if you expect it to take him or her ~20 minutes and after 10 minutes sitting, you hear footsteps on dead leaves, it's time to start preparing for an opportunity.
Taking all of these items into consideration will dramatically increase your likelihood of much improved safety when taking a shot at moving game.
We love shotguns at Clark Armory, especially shooting clays! They are also great training devices for getting used to shooting moving targets. Few things are more important for shooting a moving target than getting used to the practice of following game (or clay pigeons) with a steady hand. This is key when shooting targets or game. So, find a spot, buy a few boxes of clays, a hand slinger, a few friends & have a great time practicing. Repetitions matter in this game, just the same as going out and getting used to shooting your rifle to find the best ammo for your gun. If you make following game with your aim second nature, you'll be able to spend your precious concentration on more important things, such as looking at the terrain where the game is running.
Another popular method is to get some old tires and cut some cardboard to fit where the wheel would normally reside. From there, one could have a friend (from a safe place) either roll it down a hill or you could have a more elaborate set-up where it hangs from a tree and swings like a tire swing. Again, practice safety on this - you'll want to make sure that you where your bullet will go.
Pick your Gear Wisely
As with any adventure, picking the appropriate gear comes first and foremost. Assess your situation - are you likely to have to shoot at running game. If you are driving deer or running them with dogs, they answer is yes. So, how would your gear choices be different if you expected to have to shoot at moving game?
Ever notice that, unless the shotgun is rifled and being used for slugs, they never have scopes and have simple iron sights? The expectation is that you are going to be shooting at fast moving game & targets and iron sights are better for that. But, most of those shots are relatively short. A lot of time groups engage in deer drives because of the nature of the terrain - thick undergrowth where the deer like to hide out. From experience, most shots when driving deer come at close range <50 yards. I'm a big fan of using the basic shotgun set-up as a starting point, especially if buckshot is legal in your location. If it isn't, firing up something like a Winchester Model 1894 .30-30 is a great choice (and my personal choice in Pennsylvania)! These historic guns are great for sporting open sights & basically made for the conditions in dense Eastern US forests where white-tailed deer thrive & shooting distances are often short.
Other options are offset sight mounts. They enable you to have both a scope on the top of the rifle and offset iron sight or red dot mount, so that you can have your cake & eat it, too! Here is a great example.
All that said, having a scope isn't a deal-breaker. There are tons of applications where a scope is perfect for hitting running game. In particular, they are great for getting the precision lead you'll need for animals greater than 50 yards out. Everyone has their own preference for optics, find one that you are comfortable with and practice finding your crosshairs quickly.
Know Your Prey
We've cobbled a little table here of the land speed of popular big game animals in North America. Another thing to keep in mind is the style of running, such as when this particular species is running at full speed do the vital areas stay at a consistent height off the ground?
| Running Speed of Common North American Game
Know your Velocity (FPS) & Lead Free is faster (almost always)
We are talking about the Feet Per Second here of muzzle velocity. Most rounds will have this detail on the side of the box. This is one of the most important inputs into calculating how far one must lead a running animal since it determines how long it will take for the bullet to reach your prey.
Doing a quick scan of the available rounds on our website suggests that lead-free rounds as a whole have a higher muzzle velocity than traditional ammunition. When all things are equal - same size bullet, same powder charge, etc, the muzzle velocity should be basically the same between lead bullets and non-lead bullets. However, lead is >25% denser than copper (most lead-free bullets are made of copper). This means that, given the same sized projectile, the lead one is going to be heavier and slower, given the same powder charge. Or, one could match grain and get a larger projectile, which means more damage. Either way, the outcome is generally better for humane harvesting of game, running or not. If the game is running, that means you'll have to lead the animal by less distance. That's always good and allows for more precision.
Naturally, you'll also want to know more about how your bullet drops at distance, but that is the case for all shots, not just those on running game. We won't address that here.
Putting it all Together: Use our Helpful Tool to Determine Lead Distance
It is time to put all this information together in order to help you determine how far to lead the animal.
Sounds pretty far, doesn't it. Intuitively, it feels like a bullet gets to its location instantly, but we like to use math here at Clark Armory to dispel any myths out there about hitting running game.
One thing be totally aware of is that you are not going to have this calculator on hand when in the field! I like to prepare for these items, by crafting a few scenarios ahead of time that I can manipulate when in the field. For example, if you are hunting white-tailed deer, your first input to the calculation is 30 mph. If you are hunting with one of these .308 G2 Research Trident, then you know that your velocity is 2690 fps.
From there, I like to craft 2 specific scenarios, one where the animal is quartering away & one where the animal is running broadside. And, I like the distance to be 50 yards. The reason I like 50 yards is because I don't want to shoot a running animal more than 100 yards away and I know that a lot of these shots occur at 25 yards or so. If I use 50 yards, I can double my lead distance to get my 100 yard lead distance and half my lead distances to get the lead distance for a 25 yard shot.
Then, once I'm in the field, I like to find those 25, 50, and 100 yard perimeters around my location. That way, I'm very ready to take advantage of my preparation. Complicated? Maybe, but shooting running game isn't easy and calls for more precision. You generally can't get one without the other.
We hope that this was a valuable read for you. We know the topic is controversial and we stress as sportsmen that one should only shoot at running game if appropriately prepared to make a humane kill. Always be aware of your surroundings ahead of time - it's hard to do that in the heat of the moment.
Again, this piece isn't supposed to be the exhaustive requirements to take running game. This is to be a great starting point to learn some of the details in taking your shooting game up another notch so you are prepared for any scenario in the woods.
Feel free to leave comments on additional tips for our readers, I'm sure they'll thank you. And, share this with a friend who might be interested in using our calculator. Thanks for reading.
And, if you want to have fun at home, here is our calculation so you can do this on your own. You can even add additional variables that might make your calculation more precise for your exact application.
Time to bullet impact = Distance in Yards*3/Bullet Velocity
Animal Speed in FPS = Animal Speed in mph *5280/3600
Angle Multiplier = cosine(90-angle) - Trigonometry reminder: Make sure it is in degrees, not radians
Feet Necessary to lead = Time to bullet impact x Animal Speed in FPS x Angle Multiplier
To go one step further, you might want to calculate the speed that your bullet slows down, especially if you are shooting from long distances. But, to be honest, if the distance is far enough, you can probably wait to shoot.