The Science of Shooting Deer: Craig Boddington on How to Hit a Running Target

You are walking slowly down an old logging road, heavy brush on each side with dense second-growth pines beyond. You see a flash of white behind a thick screen, maybe the twitch of an ear. You freeze, and a doe squirts across the narrow track. Is there a buck behind her? The rifle comes to high port, and you wait....

We used such a logging road to do some "running deer" shooting. The deer target was mounted on a wagon and towed across a 6-yard opening by a long rope tied to an E-Z Go cart. The scenario was that we knew the "buck" was there, but there was no shot until he came into the open. With rifles ready but not shouldered, the deer started to move at random intervals. Its speed varied between 4 and 6 mph, and the deliberately rutted road trapped the wheels of the cart, making it bounce. This created an effect that, well, looked like a running deer.

In real life, a shot at a running deer might occur at any time, from any distance, and in any kind of cover. In our case, we knew exactly where the buck was and where he was going. This was essential. With only 6 yards in which to pick him up and fire, we agreed the chances of getting a shot without any warning were nil. But regardless of how much time you have, the requirements are the same: Identify the target, mount the gun, swing, establish your lead, fire, and keep swinging. Our guns, scopes, and ammo were the same as in the snap-shot event.

I've read that animals present the same size target whether moving or standing still. That's true--but hitting them while they're hoofing it presents a whole different set of problems. How effective would our group be? Does taking such a shot make sense?

Our results suggested that, given experience and competence, the practicality of a running shot depends heavily on the distance--and may be influenced by choice of firearm. We went in sequence, each of us having three runs at two distances. The first series, at 65 yards, was a dismal failure with only five vital-zone hits out of 12 runs.

Things improved dramatically when we moved 30 yards closer, to 35 yards. Now we scored 10 hits out of 12 runs. So it appears that a running shot had better be real close. At this distance two of us had three hits out of three: van Zwoll with his shotgun, and me with the peep-sighted Model 94. These were the least accurate of the four firearms used, which suggests that in a fast situation like this, accuracy may not be as important as handling qualities. Shotguns are built to swing, and outfitted with a rifled barrel and a low-powered scope and stoked with modern slugs, a shotgun may offer some advantage over a rifle when deer are running fast and close. The traditional old lever actions like Marlin's 336 and Winchester's 94 aren't too bad, either--but as the only person who used open sights, I can attest that a low-powered scope really helps.

WHAT WE LEARNED The lesson in this event was not that shooting at running game is impossible but that it's hard. The difficulty--and the risk of wounding an animal--increases exponentially with distance, but there is a cure. If you intend to shoot at running game, you need to practice shooting at a moving target, and at ranges you can handle.

RECOMMENDED GUNS This shot needs to be taken fast, so handling qualities are essential. I was comfortable with my lever-action Model 94, and I'd have been just as happy with Petzal's Marlin (I tried to steal it, but it never left his hands).

It's worth noting that van Zwoll with his semiauto shotgun and I with the Model 94 were both able to fire second shots, despite the speed of the deer and the narrow width of the gap he crossed. We all agreed that would have been impossible with a bolt action, and I suspect that the recoil of Petzal's heavy .45/70 loads slowed him down.

One shot in the right location is all that matters, but on real deer there's nothing wrong with correcting a sloppy first shot with a well-placed backup round. So for running deer, my nod goes to rifles and shotguns that handle fast, swing smoothly, and offer the capability to correct errors if needed: Winchester 94s, Marlin 336s, Browning BLRs; slide and semiautomatic shotguns; and rifles in the same action types like Remington's 7600 slide action and 7400 semi-auto and Browning's BAR and BPR. And a scope beats the pants off iron sights.

ADVICE TO SOMEONE WHO WANTS TO IMPROVE

BODDINGTON "Practice from field positions. Stay away from the bench. Varmint shooting is ideal because you get to shoot a lot, and at unknown ranges."

PETZAL "Try any kind of systematic practice where you are forced to keep score on yourself."

SIMPSON "Practice."

VAN ZWOLL "Practice intelligently. Don't simply burn ammunition. Think about each shot and force yourself to do your best with each shot."