The accomplishments of snipers have been celebrated since the American Revolution. As Captain Herbert W. McBride mentioned in his book, A Rifleman Went to War, “… the result [of war], then, is largely in the hands of the man with the rifle. All that has been done and all that anybody can now do will be nothing if he fails.”
With the immense popularity of the movie American Sniper, snipers are now mentioned even more frequently. The initial reason remains the same; real men continue to be inspired by bravery and rifle shooting prowess. But, American Sniper added something else to the mix. For the first time in our country’s history, we’re in desperate need of a hero. American Sniper brought this to the forefront and Chris Kyle fit the mold. Read more about my thoughts on the movie.
Hunters And Snipers
Shooters and hunters often want to emulate that long-range rifle proficiency. This is a good thing; it drives shooters and hunters to better refine their craft. It can also be a bad thing because hunters might attempt shots they’re incapable of making. We were starting to see this even before American Sniper; reaching out across the canyon to kill a mule deer was becoming the “in thing” to do.
Before you take a shot while hunting–any shot–consider whether it's one you are capable of making. A shot taken outside your skill level is unethical, regardless of the distance.
In fact, there’s a long history of correlation between hunters and snipers. McBride also observed that, “When the British finally did get around to organizing anything like a real Sniping Corps (in 1916), they made good use of the game keepers, guides and men from the Scottish deer forests.”
So, here’s the question: Is sniper-like shooting while hunting, ethical? Is it the proper thing to do? I talk to lots of shooters and hunters and it’s my opinion those who are against shooting at animals at long range, for the most, part lack the abilities or equipment to do so. Therefore, to them, it’s an unethical endeavor.
As a parallel, consider bowhunting. Some look at the stick and string, especially traditional versions, as an unscrupulous tool for the pursuit of game. Like with long-range hunting, this undeserved classification is most often based on a person’s inability to shoot a bow. Never mind that some bowhunters are more accurate than some rifle hunters.
Ethics Of The Shot
I believe all those hunters are right, but only as it pertains to their hunting. But, criticizing another’s method, because its something you’re not capable of doing, is narrow-minded. It’s each hunter’s responsibility to only take responsible shots. The funny thing is, shots often considered responsible are, in many cases, not.
Few would argue a shot at a standing whitetail buck at about 100 yards is reckless. However, having spent countless hours on the range with military, law enforcement and civilian shooters, I’m comfortable speculating that fewer than 25 percent of hunters can put 9 out of 10 shots inside a whitetail buck’s kill zone at that distance, at least without a rest of some sorts.
Some hunters are not capable of shooting even this well at modest distances. Establish your maximum effective range at a distance where you can put 9 out of 10 shots inside the kill zone.
Is this a bad thing? No, not if those hunters do not take unsupported shots at that distance. But, tell a campfire tale about missing a big buck at 100 yards and it’s doubtful anyone will harp on you for your lack of hunting ethics. On the other hand, tell a story about missing a big buck at 487 yards, while shooting from a prone position, with a solid rest, while using proven ballistic data, and most hunters will chide your for not getting closer.
I know several hunters capable of hitting a whitetail deer’s kill zone at 500 yards, 10 out of 10 times, in the situation described. They can shoot better at a distance of five football fields than some hunters can shoot at a 10th of that range. Missing a deer at 50 yards is mostly described as something that “just happens." Miss one at 500 yards and your apt to receive insults on your hunting character.
Hunters have to live with the bad shots they make. At the end of the day you can find comfort in knowing you did not try to exceed your limitations.
Sometimes both could be something that just happens and other times both could be the result of a bad decision. It depends on the hunter.
Since the creation of rifles and optical sights, man has strived to increase his effective range. Inside 50 yards a .30-30 Winchester will do anything a North American hunter needs. If you want to carry that same terminal performance to greater distances, you need more power, more precision, better visibility and most importantly, more skill.
Long range to one hunter might be a chip-shot to another. It’s wrong to expect others to operate within the limits of your shooting ability.
This is why we have the .300 Win. Mag., premium optics and practice targets—so hunters can be more effective and efficient at their craft. The problem is few hunters take the time to develop the skills necessary to realize the capabilities of their gear, new or old. If you cannot hit a kill zone 9 out of 10 times at 100 yards, you have no business shooting at that distance. If you can do it at 300, 400, 500 or even further, then how is that unethical?
Know Your Limitations
Is it unethical because you did not try to get closer? What if you couldn’t get closer? Heck, what if you just didn’t want to get closer?
I don’t know a single human that must hunt for food to survive. If one exists, I could care less the techniques they employ to get their animal. When a whitetail blackstrap is all that stands between you and starvation, ethics seem much less important. However, for the sport hunter, ethics is and always will be part of the equation.
Sometimes the animal you are after dictates the ethics associated with the hunt. Dangerous game hunting at long range is not dangerous game hunting.
Some trek only a few hundred yards from their truck. Others climb to the top mountain. Some use dogs for deer—legally. Others think it near the equivalent of a sin. Some hunters struggle to hit a deer at 100 yards; others can put them down with regularity at five times that distance.
The ethical answer is not what others consider appropriate. Ethics is you operating within the law and your abilities. When you step outside of either, hit or miss, you have bridged the ethics gap.
Bottom line: Don’t let your inability to perform a task result in labeling it as unethical. Every man has to know his limitations, those who operate—hunt and shoot—within those limitations are ethical. For those who can shoot, long range is a lot further than it is for those who cannot. Long-range hunting is definable by the individual, not the hunting community.
Modern tools make shots at long range easier then ever. Still, a hunter must develop the necessary skills before an attempt becomes ethical.
Some say they do not want to snipe their animal, they want to hunt it. I understand this opinion, but sniping, by definition, is hitting an unaware target from a hidden position. That pretty much sums up most all types of hunting, regardless the distance to the target.
If you’re interested in increasing your effective range as a hunter, check out this shooting course.
Richard Mann is a hunting and ballistic expert residing in the mountains of West Virginia, spending his days at his range and at his keyboard, unlocking the secrets of shooting and fine marksmanship. For more from Richard: