Distance gunner

"Here they come! Get ready!"

"A rooster!"

Just thinking those phrases sets a bird hunter's soul on fire, kindling fond memories of the past and future dreams of the coming season.

Wingshooters have two challenges in shooting success after they get close to their quarry -- hitting the animal, and killing it. The hunter's prayer is: "Lord, if I shoot, let me kill clean or miss clean." This article is about helping shotgunners be successful.

Hitting the bird, bunny or squirrel involves aiming, and leading it at the right distance as it moves. The late actor and one-time shotgun champion Robert Stack used to say that the image to have to know how far to lead a bird is that you should imagine that you're shooting a stream of water out of the barrel of your gun -- like from a firehose. Swing through the bird and imagine that water stream, and when the stream and the target connect, squeeze the trigger. Yeah, practice helps.

Judging distances is the second part of the equation to killing an animal cleanly and quickly with a shotgun. You can hit an animal squarely with a shotgun's pattern, but if it's too far away for that load, the pellets will have lost their shocking power and penetration ability and the animal is only wounded, which no ethical hunter wants.

The distance that shotgun pellets travel with effectiveness, depends on the size of powder charge that propels them and the size of the pellets. Magnum loads will always push pellets a little farther and harder, but still every load has its limits.

The smaller the size of the shot pellet, the more the pattern will cover, but the shorter the distance it will travel and be effective to bring down game. A 12-gauge slug fired into the air at a 45 degree angle could travel almost a mile. Buckshot might travel 1,000 yards.

On the other hand, a low-base 7 1/2 shell that people commonly use for doves, quail and pheasant is effective out to 35 yards, but the shot can travel out to 200 yards, depending on the elevation of the gun when fired, wind, etc. In contrast, a load of BB's or number 2-shot might travel 350 or more yards. Regardless, the effective killing range of the shell is much shorter.

I'm proud to be among the 50,000 Hunter Education Instructors in the U.S. Working with newcomers, I find that a good way to quickly help them understand the patterning of a shotgun is to set out a series of cardboard silhouettes at 10-yard intervals, take a shot at each one, then count the holes in each.

To demonstrate this, I set out 10 silhouettes and took one shot at each of them with a 12-gauge with No. 6 regular field load. At 10 yards, the shot pattern is already beginning to disperse, but the central core of the pattern is still pretty small and it blows a quarter-size hole through the target. This bird would not be edible. If you must shoot at a wounded bird at this distance, aim at their head and aim a little high otherwise the bird is inedible.

At 20 yards, 151 pellets hit the target. For a small bird like a quail or dove that could be OK, but a larger bird like a pheasant or duck is going to require a lot of picking shot to keep from chomping down on lead when you dine on the bird. Let them get a little farther away.

The target at 30 yards showed 46 holes. This is great coverage. Dead bird.

At 40 yards only 10 holes showed up in the silhouette. Maybe I was off a little, but at this distance those that hit the body center -- four pellets -- would still have killed the bird.

The 50 yard target had 15 holes. Good coverage, but this is stretching the effective range of the shell with #6's, although the one pellet hole in the head could have dropped a bird.

Sixty yards showed 10 hits, seven yards had 13 hits, 80 yards had five hits, 90 yards had six hits, and at 100 yards, I did not find any holes in the cardboard silhouette. I either missed, or the pattern was so dispersed that the bird slipped through.

One additional factor into your distance of effective fire is whether you are using lead or something as heavy as lead, or steel.

I grew up hunting ducks on Lake Erie with lead shot. Number four's in a 12-gauge was the standard load for open water shooting from blinds or sneakboats.

Then came the ban on lead shot for waterfowl. I quickly learned that while steel may travel a little farther and faster than lead shot, steel shot is not as heavy and the lighter weight steel shot has less stopping power. My answer to this, after chasing cripples that should have been dead birds, was to switch over to #2 shot for close decoying birds, and BB's for passing shots and geese.

Not as many pellets, but if you hit them with a pellet this large, even just a couple pellets, the birds generally are dead when they hit the water. Fewer pellets also makes me concentrate a little harder on when and where I shoot, and that's always a good thing when it comes to shotgun success.

Handy distance gauge

So, how do you judge distance in the field, when you have to make split-second decisions, and you have been sitting there waiting patiently in the blind for hours for this one shot at a Canadian honker that has just sailed in over your decoys?

Your hand is an invaluable guide in judging essential shooting distances. Hold your thumb up with your arm outstretched. At 50 yards, which is about the maximum distance you should be shooting at a game bird with a shotgun, a 6-foot tall man is about the height of your knuckle to the tip of your thumb.

When you get into a duck blind, use your thumb to determine what is 50 yards away, mark that distance with a decoy or some other object and refuse to shoot at anything beyond that distance.

At 20 yards away, a six-foot man is about the height of your entire thumb. Toss a decoy to mark that distance. Anything that flies between those two decoys is fair game.

Your hand has other uses for judging distance. Crowding, and being cut off are some of the most common complaints of bird hunters in public hunting areas. Continue holding that thumb up and compare with a person standing a football field away. At 100 yards away, a 6-foot tall man will be about the height of the thumbnail. That's way too far too shoot at a bird, but it's way too close to fire in that direction if someone is standing there.

At the bottom of the thumb nail 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 range -- about 300 yards.

Don't set up this close if at all possible, but if you have to, do not fire in that direction, for shot will come raining down on this person if your muzzle is pointed up into the sky. 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 decoys next to another hunter in a marsh. If at all possible 500 to 600 yards away is better spacing for both you and the other hunter.

It takes awhile to learn all that you need to know to become an ethical hunter, but if you pattern your shotgun gun at various distances, learn the maximum effective distance to shoot, and learn to use your hand to estimate distances, you'll come home a happier, safer and more successful hunter.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.