How to Avoid a Blown Shot
We kill ourselves to get that one chance; Yet so many deer hunters miss on much larger elk. Here's how to avoid the heartbreak of a blown shot.
My client looked at me in disbelief as the elk ran into the dark timber and disappeared, unscathed. I whispered that his shot had missed high and that he had not wounded the big bull. There was really no reason to whisper after a loud gun report had broken the silence in the mountains. It just always seems unnatural to speak loudly or even in a normal voice while in the woods; like yelling in a church or a library. We hiked down the ridge in relative silence to confirm what I was sure I had seen through my binoculars. It’s a habit my dad taught me, and I always confirm even what I know is a clean miss out of respect for the animal. After confirming the bull had not been hit, neither of us talked as we hiked up the ridge back toward my truck. Each of us were concentrating on the rocky climb and lost in our own thoughts. Mine were consumed with where I should go to try and find another bull that evening and how we had just blown a good area for the next few days. My client’s thoughts were on how he had missed a shot he felt he could and should have made. I knew it was weighing on him because when we got in my truck he asked what I thought had happened. My canned answer for questions like that is usually, “must be a loose screw behind the butt plate” but he didn’t seem like the kind of guy that would appreciate my humor, especially when directed at him. I also knew any chance at a tip probably hinged on how I responded. So instead of deprecating humor I went with genuine suggestions on what probably went wrong.
First off, it’s only fair to say I have missed elk. Over the years, I have missed shots with a compound bow, recurve bow and rifle. So between my own mistakes and having guided elk clients for almost 30 years I feel qualified to offer suggestions on what usually goes wrong. Elk are huge, how can you miss? I unfortunately know about this subject from both a personal and a professional angle.
A lot of variables come into play when it comes to making an accurate shot with any weapon. Whether it is a target or an animal, a lot of things have to come together to make your arrow or bullet hit its intended target. Out in the field, there are even more variables that can cause you to miss. Here are a few of the most common ones and how to try and avoid them.
WHEN YOUR RIFLE FAILS
Often it is some type of equipment failure that causes us to miss our target or not even be able to shoot. A prime example of that happened to me on an archery elk hunt years ago. I had hiked miles into public land and shot an elk with a recurve bow. On the hike out, my buddy Blye Chadwick and I spotted a grouse. As I drew my bow to shoot the grouse the string broke. The grouse flew away and my buddy commented how ridiculously lucky I was to have made the shot on the elk since the very next time I drew my bow, a few hours later, my string broke and a grouse got away. That equipment failure was my fault. I knew my string was old and worn and I should have replaced it. That old string cost me a grouse dinner and almost cost me an elk.
I have seen all types of equipment failure cost clients an elk. While guiding bowhunters I have seen broken pins, pins that slid from their original position, rolled peep sights, arrow rests that malfunctioned or broke, broken releases, snapped cables, broken strings, broken limbs, cables that came off cams, mechanical broadhead failure, arrows that snapped when shot because of a crack in them and even nocks that exploded when the bow was shot causing the arrow to fly off track.
With firearms I have seen bullets jam, malfunctions due to grease or lube that froze up in cold weather, both factory loads and reloads not fire, scopes that rolled in their mounts, scopes with broken crosshairs have broken, scope glass that has broken or been knocked off zero due to dropped guns or bad falls, trigger sears that broke at the wrong time, safeties that wouldn’t come off, muzzleloaders that didn’t fire due to bad caps and hang fires and even a gun stock broken in half when my horse rolled over on a client’s gun while in the scabbard (that one was kinda my fault).
Over years of guiding elk in both Colorado and New Mexico, I have seen some things and have the scars, the T-shirt and the tattoos to prove it. When it comes to the equipment failures, I have experienced plenty myself and witnessed many others, the majority of which could have been avoided.
CHECK, CHECK, AND RECHECK YOUR GEAR
This sounds obvious, but every year I see small things that are overlooked cause missed shots. Take a compound bow for example. The last time I checked a client’s bow I showed him over 30 screws that were on his bow, sight, quiver, rest and release that could potentially cause a missed shot. One screw that works loose due to the vibration of practicing, driving cross country or rough airline baggage handlers can cost a hunter thousands of dollars, a freezer full of meat and some money in counseling. It doesn’t matter if you’re a do-it-yourself public-land guy or if you’re on a guided hunt. One loose screw can ruin a hunt.
The remedy is simple. Check them all every day, same with cables, string, cams, limbs, arrows and broadheads. I have had more than one person pull out an arrow to shoot an elk and the broadhead stayed in the quiver because it had vibrated loose. A little bees wax on threads could keep that from happening. Recurve and longbows are much simpler and have less to check, but like my string that broke while in the field, it’s always better to check everything and carry extra gear.
It’s the same with firearms. Check and recheck. Muzzleloaders, and especially flintlocks, require care to keep them clean and powder dry to ensure smooth and fast ignition. Hang fires have cost clients of mine elk in the past. Modern rifles also require some care. Every year we see scope mounts that have worked loose from the gun itself or the scope. Check all mounting screws and use Loctite where applicable. Too much lubricant or gun oil can cause your gun to freeze up in cold conditions. Make sure guns are checked and wiped down and be sure to check slings and sling swivels. I have watched a lot of guns hit the rocks when a swivel popped or worked loose.
I won’t bother to go into why it’s important to have quality gear to reduce equipment issues. Any hunter reading this is aware why a cheap rifle scope made in a country where citizens can’t even own a gun, a borrowed bow or reloads from a buddy are never a good idea.
CHECK THAT ZERO
This also seems obvious, but it’s one I have been guilty of not doing when I have arrived in camps late or even let my clients slide on because they arrived late or we had elk close to where we were sleeping and I didn’t want to spook them. Failure to check bows and rifles has cost me and clients elk in the past. Any type of traveling can potentially cause issues. Confirming that everything is on and in good working order can reduce the odds of issues. It can also reduce stress as well as be a confidence builder. One of the worst feelings is pulling a trigger or shooting a bow and hoping everything is still dialed in like it was when you left the house. To avoid missing or wounding an elk make sure your gear is still dialed in first thing when you arrive to hunt camp. The other thing you can do to help ensure your equipment makes the trip safely is to invest in a good gun or bow case—don’t skimp on that. Spend the money and protect your rifle or bow with a quality case.
Accuracy trumps power: Don’t over gun/over bow. I hear it every year: “I bought a new magnum gun for this trip because it’s my first elk hunt.” If I was to hand out one piece of advice to experienced rifle hunters that come out west for the first time it would be to bring the rifle you are comfortable shooting. The one you shoot most accurately. I have literally had guys leave there old .270 they have shot 50 whitetail deer with at home and come out to Colorado with a new large-bore magnum they can’t shoot worth a darn because it kicks like a bad mule; but they thought they needed it. Our boys have all shot elk with a .257 Roberts and we routinely take elk with a .308 and a 6.5 Creedmoor. With the right bullet, accuracy trumps caliber and foot/pounds of energy every day, all day.
It’s the same with bows. We have all seen those people at the bow range that start with their bow pointed at the ceiling and they jerk the bow down while yanking the string back. Then red-faced they finally break the cam over. That may be OK for standing up and shooting paper. But try that from a kneeling, sitting or twisted position with a sharp-eyed elk looking for you. Even if you do happen to get your bow back, odds are he will be in the next county by the time you get the bow to full draw. A poundage that you can comfortably draw from any position after doing 20 push ups is the best way to go. If you can pull it back slowly and smoothly from any position—if it’s a compound, a recurve or a longbow—then that is probably plenty. My wife shoots 45 pounds and kills an elk every year out to 30 yards, usually getting a pass through. So it doesn’t take much poundage to kill an elk, but it does take accuracy. If you can’t get to full draw without getting busted, you will never have a chance to show off your accuracy, or enjoy your own elk steak for that matter.
KEEP SHOTS IN YOUR WHEELHOUSE
I have a range I know I am consistent at with my recurve, my longbow, my compound bow and my rifles. Know your distance and be honest with yourself and with your guide. If you’re on a guided hunt make sure your guide knows what that range is. A good portion of missed shots are because of pushing our limits. It’s pretty usual that the ranges we claim to be comfortable at are based on range-type settings. We also usually practice in nice weather in the spring or summer. In a real-world hunting situation if we add bulky clothing, rain, snow, sleep deprivation, exhaustion and excitement, which usually is accompanied with an increased heart rate and breathing, then throw in a possible contorted shooting position, well, just one of these factors can greatly reduce accuracy. A combination of a lot of them can cause the range we thought we were comfortable with to be cut in half or much more than half that often causes misses we can’t understand.
THINK NEGATIVE AND MAKE THE SHOT
I have watched seasoned hunters just lose it with the excitement of seeing their first bull elk or a huge herd of elk where multiple bulls may be bugling and running cows all around. Sights like this can often shake even the most experienced whitetail hunter. I have two suggestions to help curtail the excitement. One, as silly as it sounds, is to watch videos, YouTube clips, DVDs or anything you can watch with elk on it. Get used to looking at them. Watch their body language, listen to the cow calls and bugles and try and imagine yourself there hunting. If you have a zoo close by with elk, go look at them. If you are within driving distance of a Cabela’s or Bass Pro go stand and look at the full mounted elk. Part of the issue I have seen is that guys are often in shock at not just the sheer size of an elk but often at just seeing their first elk. In police and military training I have been told the goal is to make the training as realistic as possible so people will react the way they have been trained to react. Try and train yourself to get used to looking at elk and forcing your eyes to focus on the crease of the shoulder and not the elk’s eyes or even more commonly the antlers. Get yourself trained when watching videos to just pick the spot you want to shoot.
The other trick that can help is pessimistic thinking. Part of the reason we get excited is we want to get the elk so badly. The anticipation of success is part of the issue. By trying to remain negative, I find I can often keep myself under control. For example, instead of thinking,”oh my gosh I am going to get this bull” I continually try and adopt a pessimistic attitude. I try and convince myself I won’t get a shot. Or that the bull will wind me or spot me or not come in range. Even as I am lifting up my rifle or drawing my bow I try and convince myself that It won’t happen. For me, this negative attitude helps keep me cool through the shot. I still come unglued after the shot and have not come up with anything to help with the after shot meltdown. So if you have any suggestions on that feel free to write in and let me know.
STICK TO THE DECISION
It blows me away how many people try and second guess what they know. I say that because the vast majority of the missed shots I have witnessed on elk with rifle or bow are because people shoot high. They miss by shooting over the top of the elk. In talking with countless other guides it seems this is normal and most other guides see the same tendency. Here is my guess on why this happens. After talking to many of my clients about their misses and what they did I finally developed a hypothesis. The majority of our clients come from Midwest or Eastern states. In many of the Eastern states it’s rare to have a shot in the woods over 150 yards. In the mountains its common to not only glass elk sometimes miles away but shots can also be considerably longer than 100 to 150 yards. Many people tend to shoot high because it just feels like they should. I had a client take a 298-yard shot on a bull with a .300 Win Mag that was zeroed at 200 yards. He held over the top of the back of a bull at what I told him was an even 300 yards because I rounded up two yards. He could quote his ballistics and knew his bullet was only going to drop 7” at 300 yards. After shooting high and missing the bull I asked where he held and he said he hedged high and held right over the bulls back. It was a longer shot than he had ever taken on a game animal and he hedged high. It probably didn’t feel that high to him as he could probably just see a little light between his crosshairs and the top of the back of the bull. It must of been 71/2” high, or as I said to him, “just high enough to miss.”
Interestingly enough, it’s the same thing with bowhunters. The vast majority of our elk misses are high. This is also caused by a combination of things. First, people coming from states where shots are usually close tend to “hedge” high as well. That, and the fact that like whitetails, elk can and do react to a bow going off by loading their muscles to run, and they drop their body to do this. It’s commonly called “ducking the string,” but it’s really the elk trying to run from a strange sound and they have to go down before they can go forward.
It’s so rare to have one of my clients shoot low with a bow or gun that I usually instruct new clients or first-time elk hunters to aim just below the centerline of an elk’s chest. I also advise all elk hunters to get rangefinders with an inclination and declination angle compensation feature. That way you won’t shoot high if you’re shooting steep uphill or steep downhill. If you trust your rangefinder and shoot the calibrated yardage that takes into account the angle you should be fine. But to play it safe, hold just below the center of the chest.
ELIMINATE THE VARIABLES
For rifles, my personal preference is a medium caliber with minimum recoil topped by a scope with a dial turret like the CDS. With a custom dial system set up for your individual rifle it takes the hold over equation out of the picture. Once sighted in you just dial the yardage and hold dead on. It doesn’t matter if the elk is 200 or 400 yards away, you just dial the range and hold right on as the bullet drop has already been adjusted for by the turret. I also carry a tripod with me for a solid rest. Shooting off a backpack is great, but tall grass, deadfalls or other obstacles often make this impossible. I am not a fan of a mono-pod or even a bi-pod, because when I am excited or my client’s excited, I want the most stable rifle rest possible. I don’t mind carrying a little extra weight for a more stable shooting platform.
For bows, I don’t recommend a one pin sliding sight. It seems to take too long to dial the yardage and that yardage is constantly changing if a bull is walking toward you or away from you, which they are usually doing. When bowhunting, shots are often fast, close and you often don’t have much time to adjust on the fly. For the recurve, I prefer one single pin set for 25 yards and just adjust a little high or low based on the yardage. My favorite is a multiple pin set up with sight pins that are color-coded so I instantly know which one is my 20-yard pin versus my 40-yard pin. It’s one of the reasons I love hunting elk with a recurve bow. I don’t have to worry about yardage or pins. I just draw back and shoot. My mind does all the figuring.
If you have never taken up the challenge of elk hunting, give it a try. There are lots of areas out West with great public-land options available. Odds of success can be good for the hunter that doesn’t mind doing a little research and hiking into good areas. There are also some great outfitters that can help take you on your dream hunt. Either way, try and eliminate all the variables you can that cause us to miss.