The helping hand

Occasionally I hear people say they took a "snap shot" at something.
Actually, if you are an ethical hunter, there is no such thing. A
responsible hunter has to make a whole series of decisions before he
shoots. The decision window may be compressed into a short time, but it is
always there as a checklist of what must be considered before a shot is fired.

In my work as a hunter education instructor, I ask new hunters to raise one hand to help them develop the mindset of an ethical hunter. The thinking is that if they can learn to use that one hand as a reminder of what responsible hunting is all
about, they'll be an ethical hunter and a role model for others.

Each finger on that hand represents one of the progressive decisions that
a responsible hunter must make before taking a shot, because in the back of
a hunter's mind must always be the assumption that this is to be a
killing shot. Hunters may not kill something on an outing, but killing is
the difference between hunting and wildlife watching. Taking responsibility
for taking a life must be the foundation of an ethical hunter's philosophy.

1. Is it legal?

The first finger (let's start with the thumb), reminds us of the basic
questions: Is it legal? Is your target in season? Is the species and sex
legal? Does killing that animal represent breaking any laws? To answer this
question, you must have studied the laws thoroughly, which is not an easy
task in some states. Nonetheless, that is the first responsibility of a
hunter — to be law abiding.

2. Is it safe?

The second finger stands for the question Is it safe? We always need
to be aware of the ultimate trajectory of the shot in our line of fire,
whether it's from a rifle, a shotgun or a bow. If you can't be sure that the
shot will fall harmlessly to the land, then that shot should never be
taken. (Later in this article I'll show you how your hand can help you determine safe distances.)

3. Is it sporting?

The third finger stands for question 3: Is it sporting? The rules of fair
chase were established to ensure that game has a fair chance of escaping.
This is more often a matter of personal ethics than law. Shooting a duck in
the water may not be sportsmanlike to some, while others assert that it
does not damage the breast and it is more sporting to stalk to get into
range. The same is true for shooting a turkey in the roost. Some believe
turkeys should all have to be called in before shooting, others maintain it
is harder to stalk close enough for a shot; and in both cases the birds are
sitting still, so what's the difference?

Ethical choices aside, if a bird or animal is hit, the shot should be
lethal. Remember the hunter's prayer: "Lord, if I shoot, let me kill quick,
clean and humanely, or miss clearly."

4. Is it practical?

The fourth finger stands for Is it practical? You may be able to hit that
bighorn sheep standing 300 yards away on the edge of a cliff, but if you
do, will it drop over the edge of the cliff and into a valley where you
can't retrieve it? The same is true for waterfowl. If you don't have a dog,
sometimes the responsible thing to do is to not shoot a duck that will fall
into heavy cover where you may not be able to find it.

5. Is it the right thing to do?

The fifth finger stands for: Does taking this shot represent a positive
image of hunting? The future of hunting, more than ever before, depends on
how the non-hunting public in general sees hunters. If you have a safe shot
at a legal buck at a reasonable distance, but you are being watched by a
group of wildlife watchers or children, maybe you should hunt someplace
else. The point here is that most people today don't have first-hand
experience with hunting. If you bag the duck or deer cleanly, that is one
thing, but suppose you just wound it. Now suddenly you have a whole
audience watching as you chase a wounded animal. Hunting is not a spectator
sport, unless you are hunting for a show on television. People may get the
wrong idea. This is one reason I believe that hunting seasons should never
be held during the height of tourist season.

Judging distance

Your hand is also an invaluable guide in judging distances in the field.
Hold your thumb up with your arm outstretched. At 50 yards, which is about
the maximum distance you should be shooting at a gamebird with a shotgun,
a 6-foot-tall man is about the height of your thumb. When you get to a duck
blind, use your thumb to determine what is 50 yards away and refuse to
shoot at anything beyond that distance.

Crowding, and being cut off are some of the most common complaints of
hunters in public hunting areas. You can't take a tape measure with you
into the field, but you can take your hand. Continue holding that thumb up.
At 100 yards away, a six-foot-tall man will be about the height of the
thumbnail. That's way too far to shoot at a bird,
but it's way too close to fire in that direction — a shotgun with
birdshot can carry well over 200 yards. A 12-gauge shotgun with No. 8 shot
will carry just over 700 feet. A shell with No. 4 shot will carry about 900

At the bottom of your thumbnail there is a white half crescent. When you
can hold your thumb up and sight it toward a person and their height is no
taller than that white crescent, that person is now out of shotgun range — about
300 yards. This distance not only helps determine your zone of fire, but
it should also help determine the minimum distance you should be from
setting up next to another hunter in a marsh. Admittedly, five times that
distance is better, but the reality of hunting in many public
areas is that you will not be that distant from the next hunter.

It takes a while to learn all that you need to know to become an ethical
hunter, but all you need to remember is on that one hand.

James Swan is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting."
To purchase a copy visit his website.