or, ‘to be a great shot, shoot a lot.’
The day was bright, crisp and beautiful. It had started out overcast and blustery with a hint of sleet in the air, but the sun had burned away the clouds and calmed the wind and the late season warmth was beginning to seep into my bones. It was pleasant and quiet with only a few birds chirping in the distance. I had earlier heard a turkey fly down from his overnight roost, but there was no gobble. A lone crow called in the distance.
I was sneak hunting along a trace through the hardwoods of the Ozarks in Missouri, watching for a spot of white in the thick tangle on either side. Gumby, the cameraman, was sneaking along behind me. It always amazed me how quiet this 400 lb man could be when he wanted. He was ready for a shot , as was I, him with camera up to face and me at port arms, my White 504 caliber Super Safari loaded and ready to go. The rifle was loaded with 100 grains of Pyrodex P and a White 50/45-435 grain SuperStar hollow pointed saboted bullet. We were hunting fallow deer.
Gumby heard about the deer first, a huge white fallow buck with high, wide palmated antlers on a thick wooded ranch in middle Missouri. Deer so smart or woods so thick, or both, that nobody could get a shot, or if they did it was always a miss. Landowner frustrated that he could not get the critter off the place, bothered because it competed with his fancy whitetail and worried that it would die of old age or end up pulled down by a coyote without him harvesting a fee from some hunter. His hunting was ‘guaranteed”, no kill no pay. A kill, for him, was money in the bank.
Our first tour around the 1000 acre ranch quickly illuminated the difficulty of hunting this particular fallow deer. We had the advantage of fall, no leaves on the trees. They had already fallen. Even at that, the place was a jungle of oak with a thick layer of Mahogany-like brush as tall as my head and knee-high grass. It was hard to see more than 30-40 yards into that tangle. The ground was covered with a thick layer of fallen leaves, and with the dry weather, the shin-tangle had been not only difficult to walk through but was crunchy underfoot.
Worse, the acorn crop had been excellent that past few years and the ranch was thick with wild hogs and whitetail deer. It seemed like we couldn’t go 100 yards without running into some sharp eyed critter, which complicated the still hunting tremendously. If we spotted them first, we would have to back off and circle around, if they sensed us first, the snorting and crashing of their flight immediately alarmed every other critter within hearing.
Even worse yet, the whole ranch was a jumble of small hills and valleys penetrated by only a few trails. One dirt road meandered through the place, a two wheel track followed the fence line, and a single unused pole line track crossed the hills below a big power line. The low places occasionally opened up into small areas of pasture that the pigs kept well plowed as they searched for roots and grubs. It occurred to me that 1000 acres of Ozark woods was as difficult to hunt as 100,000 acres of my more familiar open western mountains.
It was obvious that we could hunt the deer two ways, sit and wait in a blind or stand, or slow hunt the woods. We had only three days, so chose the latter. We thought we might be able to cover the 1000 acres, or come close, in the time allotted. As it turned out, we didn’t even come close.
We spent the first day still hunting the steeper, upper end of the ranch. It became a never ending littany of tip-toeing slowly along, carefully placing the feet to avoid noise, watching and looking, standing to listen, using the binoculars to peer as far through the brush as possible, watching for ears or legs or tails or pieces and chunks of wild bodies. It was imperative that we see the wild animals first, before they sensed us. So we hunted feral boar and whitetail as well as white fallow deer, seeing many of the former but never the latter, often being stymied by the noisy flight of an animal that spotted us first, having to settle down and sit while he woods quieted down again. I’ll bet we made a whole half mile that first day, a single pass the length of the ranch..
The second day was cooler and more overcast, with a bit of wind. We tried to use the cover of the wind to our advantage, still hunting into the breeze to cover both the noise we made and our telltale scent. This proved to be harder than it sounds, the hill and valleys eddying the breeze in unexpected ways. It caused us to wander off our planned search routine and left many good hides unsearched. Once again, the wild pig and whitetail hunting was spectactularly successful, we just didn’t see anything that resembled a white fallow deer.
The third morning opened with a sleet spitting wind which turned to drizzle as the day warmed up. The walking and stalking suddenly got quiet as the leaves underfoot soaked up the moisture. Later that morning, when this story started, the wind died down to fits and starts, the rain quit and the sun came out. Hunting conditions got to be about perfect. We could move a little faster without near as much noise and the animals were decidedly more active, up and feeding, not near so spooky, as they often are after a spate of weather followed by sunshine.
We were climbing a hill through a tall grass-covered trace, when I spotted a flick of white off in the brush. It wasn’t moving. I really couldn’t tell how far off it was, just a fleck of white hidden by oak trunks and brush. I signaled Gumby, who had already stopped, sensing that I had seen something out of place. I slowly brought the binocs up, focusing on the white patch. Well, it was white all right, but I couldn’t see what the white was. I waited a few minutes, then stepped cautiously to the right, keeping the white patch in view as I moved. The patch disappeared for a moment then came back into view as I took another side step.
Once again I brought the binoculars up, studying the patch then expanding the study to the surrounding brush. Off to the left, could I see an antler tip? It was the same color as the brush but was smoothly rounded at the top, something brush hardly ever is. I took another sidestep. Just as my foot came down I saw an ear flick, a tiny movement. The patch of brush suddenly materialized into a palmated antler. It was like one of those maze pictures, you stare at it long enough, the pattern suddenly turns into a 3 dimensional picture as your eyes adjust. I could define an ear and a palmated antler, plus the white patch and maybe a dimly outlined body but certainly not all of that.
By this time, Gumby had sidled around behind me, looking over my shoulder. The camera was whirring and I knew that he has seen the buck too, but I wondered what he could get a picture of, surely not much was showing.
I studied the situation. It appeared that the white patch was centered on the buck’s chest, offering a fair shot. I looked for something to steady the gun on. There was nothing. The opening through the trees and brush was tiny, probably no better than a few inches in diameter. To hit the buck, I would have to hold low, hoping that the bullet would not rise far enough to hit any branches during its flight. The rifle was sighted in at 125 yards and shot 3 inches high at 75 to 100 yards and was capable of inch and a half groups at 100 yards from a bench. I decided to hold low, putting the cross hairs of the scope about an inch into the brush on the low side, This might well keep the bullet in the open window all the way to the buck. I was going to have to do it offhand.
I carefully positioned my feet, left foot forward, right foot back and a little to the front of the left, about 2 feet apart for good balance, left toe oblique to the right and right toe at 90 degrees to the deer.. I raised the rifle to my face, pulling the butt firmly into my right shoulder and supporting the fore-stock with the left palm just forward of the trigger guard. The left elbow was firmly braced against my rather generous anatomy. There was enough of it to give the elbow a pretty good rest. I took a big breath, then slowly let it out, intending to make the exhale portion of the breath last about 15 seconds. I lightly caressed the trigger as the cross hairs wobbled down to the bottom of the window. The trigger would trip any second now.
I heard a groan behind me, a heavy rush of air from a frustrated chest. I heard, “No, Doc, no.”, sotto voce. It was Gumby. He said it again, “No, Doc, no”. Evidently, he had no faith in my shooting. Well, I couldn’t blame him, he had known me only for a short time and only in connection with the inline muzzleloader business.
My mind flicked back in time, swooping over the years like a mind can do, looking at many scenes of off hand shooting. I had fallen into muzzleloading competition in the late 1950’s, after returning from an LDS mission to Brasil. We all shot originals then, there wasn’t anything else. Matches were as often offhand as they were ‘bench’. We didn’t have a formal shooting range, just went to the mountains or the desert and shot to nearly our hearts content. Carrying a bench around proved to be a pain, so we shot position matches for the bigger part, lying, sitting, kneeling and a lot offhand.
In later years, as the Rendezvous movement appeared, shooting matches were all offhand in the West. It became the macho thing to do, ‘stand on yer feet and shoot like a man’. We often shot paper critters in the morning at 25 to 50 yards then shot steel targets in the afternoon at varying ranges, often up to 200 yards, but always offhand. I had taken my fair share of first places.
I vividly remembered arriving late at a high mountain rendezvous. It was 90 miles from my home in Roosevelt, high in the timber. About 90 shooters, all in costume, were into their second match, shooting squadded matches, when I arrived. They were kind enough to let me catch up in the third target, shooting all three of the first three while everyone else shot their third. I knew I couldn’t place with all the hurry, so relaxed and shot those three then the rest of the day without checking the score. I was shooting a flintlock copy of a famous long rifle by JP Beck in 58 caliber. At the end of the day, I was in first place.
I remembered a challenge from a young man at a stand-up shoot in Price one day. That was back in the 70’s when I was the guy to beat. I was shooting quite well that day. A fly lit on a target at 25 yards and sat there. One of the younger shooters said, “Doc, kill that fly” just to challenge me. So I did, offhand, shooting a single trigger flintlock copy of a 54 caliber Leman trade rifle. The whoop from the crowd when the fly was replaced by a hole in the target was most gratifying.
I remembered taking an over-under double barreled rifle in 54 caliber to a match on the Strawberry in the 90’s. It was stand up again, about a hundred shooters competing, all in costume. I shot the upper barrel in the morning, and the lower barrel in the afternoon, after lunch. This was the first match I took this particular rifle to, and the last. I came in third place. By that time in life, I was making so many rifles that I made it a point never to take the same rifle twice, always had a new rifle, often would sight it in at the match and still place in the upper five.
I took a brand new never before fired smoothbore 54 caliber full stock copy of an English fowler to the Bridger Rendezvous in 2004. I shot it in the trade gun match, using a 535 ball, ticking patch and 75 grains fffg black powder. The match was again offhand. My sighter was a ten, the 5 match shots formed a cup size group in the 9 ring at 25 yards, good for a third place. There was a lot of luck here, as I never touched the sights after installing them, but it all came together just right. Seems to happen a lot.
Of course, I long ago noted that the agony of long practice sure seems to make the luck a whole lot luckier. Breath control, trigger management, balance and stance and follow through are not suddenly acquired and are not natural. They are the product of long practice and lots of experience. You not only have to want to, but also have to practice at it to get it right. I remember my new wife, during medical school days, not being able to figure out what the black dot on the door of the study room was. Anybody could have told her it was a target. Dry firing always helped memorization
Poor Gumby had no idea what was flying through my head. Nor did he have any experience to back up what I was about to do. The ‘No, No’ had disturbed my concentration for a moment. It cost me another deep breath and a moment of forced complete relaxation. Once again the crosshair wobbled low as my trigger finger caressed the rigger. The rifle suddenly fired, the cross hairs about an inch higher than I wanted but at least on the low edge of the window. The rifle kicked up and out of the way. The white patch was gone. The camera stopped whirring.
Something heavy came down on my left shoulder. It was Gumby’s big hand. “Reload, Doc” came his whisper. “I can’t see him. Maybe you’ll get another shot. Reload!” There was some urgency in his voice. Hey! The smoke cloud must have obliterated the camera view of the deer with the shot. This big guy actually believed that I had missed! Au Contraire, big man. I did not miss. Well, mostly I don’t miss. Well, come to think of it, I didn’t hear anything struggling in the brush and grass and nothing ran away. A little bead of sweat broke out on my forehead. Could I have missed? Impossible? No. Improbable, yes. Has it happened before? You better believe it.
I suddenly remembered a big moose near Pink Mountain BC. I was shooting a heavy barreled 58 caliber percussion rifle, throwing a 540 grain Pritchett bullet over 180 grains of ffg black powder. It was sighted in at 100 yards. My Athabascan guide and I had walked into this big 55 inch moose standing on a leaf covered hillside at what I thought was exactly 100 yards. I threw myself down into a sit and tripped the set rigger, planting a big bullet square into his chest. (I thought) The moose didn’t move. The Athabascan said, in his college educated Canadian English, “you shot under him” Now I knew damn well that the moose was center shot. He just didn’t know it yet. I slammed in a reload and planted another bullet same place, using the same sight picture. The moose ran off, unhurt. The Athabascan said, “you shoot good, white man, hit same place twict” this time using his best western Canada twang. I think he was being sarcastic.
Yeah, so I miss once in a while. Maybe this time too. “We’d best go look”, I said, “Follow me with the camera and let’s make it look like we know what we’re doing” “Might as well make the best of it.”
Doc White, Super Safari and White Fallow deer. This buck is about as big as they get, scored in the 270’s. There are bigger ones in Spain, they say. The Spanish Royalty loved to hunt these magnificent creatures on their estates back in the real muzzleloading days.
The camera shows me dodging trees and brush, sloshing through ankle deep leaves to a little clearing in the oak. There, lying on his side, was the very dead Fallow buck. There was no sign of a leap or struggle. The bullet had taken him just a tad high but fortunately far enough forward to destroy the big pulmonary arteries and both lungs. It appeared that death was near instantaneous.
I was a touch saddened by his demise. He was so beautiful and had escaped so many others hunters until he finally fell to me. Gumby was struck by the same spirit as well. Once again , he laid a ham-like hand on my shoulder as we studied the deer, saying nothing. Nothing needed saying. The buck was totally white, which is unusual, most have at least a little yellow on their bellies or a brownish spot or two on their back. The antlers were tall, wide and showed big palms with many points around the edges. I hadn’t seen a lot of Fallow deer, but had never seen a bigger one or one more handsome, He has graced my living room wall now for a long time. He’s my wife’s favorite.
After the Fallow was taken care of, back in camp, Gumby asked how it was that I would elect to make such a difficult shot in such a touchy situation. His real question was ‘Why was I confident enough to take the risk?’ He pointed out that I might have wounded the animal, only to have him run off and be lost, him eventually losing his life after days of agony, me going home without the animal and with an empty wallet.
My answer related to three factors, the gun, the load and the shooter. First, I was carrying a rifle in which I had supreme confidence. The Super Safari is ergonomically superb, very user friendly, well balanced and fit me perfectly. After all, I had designed the Super Safari to fit me in the first place. I had shot this particular rifle (and many like it) a lot, knew its trigger pull, recoil and trajectory of its bullet and knew what kind of accuracy I could expect.
Second, the load was designed specifically for this particular hunt. The load parameters match up for other kinds of deer, too, but I had specifically chosen this load because I knew what it could do. The 100 grains of Pyrodex P provided plenty of power and velocity for the 50/45-435 hollow pointed ShootingStar (nee PowerStar) bullet, about 1450 FPS at the muzzle, with better than 1800 ft lbs of energy. I also knew the shooting would be close, probably less than 100 yards in that Missouri jungle, so left the rifle sighted in at 125 yards with a 75 yard apogee of 3 inches.
Third, and probably most important, I had shot the rifle really quite a lot, probably 300 shots that previous summer, I had also participated in several ‘stand on yer hind legs and shoot like a man’ muzzleloading shoots, a few Rendevous and a couple of Cowboy shoots, tough offhand competition at every one, during the same time, so was well practiced. Most important, I had been shooting offhand for years, and knew my own capabilities. I knew what techniques worked for me because I had done it so much that it was second nature, not a matter of studious thought, but a pattern of reflexes well nurtured and repeatedly practiced.
Like the old man said, “wanna be a good shot, then shoot a lot”. Practice not only makes perfect, practice creates confidence and enhances ability. I’m constantly amazed at how lucky I get when I practice a lot .The truth is that I am not a great shot, I just shoot a lot.