Elk Network RIFLES: Stricken Elk and Second Changes

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Stricken Elk and Second Chances

by Wayne van Zwoll

Good hits come harder after bad shots. Fire as if you have only one chance. Then fire again.

The best way to prepare for a second shot is to assume you’ll always need one. But you take your first shot with the assumption you’ll have no chance for a second. This paradox may draw shrugs from hunters who’ve never fired at an elk, and those who’ve never lost one. The uninitiated have my sympathy.

Your first shot can be worth several follow-ups. Most first shots are fired at undisturbed game. You’re often able to get close and manipulate the shot angle to your advantage. Ideally, you have time to aim, let your pulse subside and steady the rifle.

Most second shots follow poor first shots. You hurried; you jerked the trigger; you flinched; you fired even as your wobbly position let the sight wander off-target. I’ve squandered chances at elk with these and other blunders. A follow-up bullet can salvage what you lost to bad shooting, or to conditions beyond your control—a wind gust, an elk’s step just as the trigger broke.

Differences in bullet path, upset and energy affect animal reaction to hits that look the same from behind the scope.

Elk that drop as if the earth were yanked from under them have most often sustained injury to the spine and its nerve bundles. Without them, the animal can’t stand. A spinal hit behind the shoulders puts the rear quarters out of service. A bullet to the forward spine short-circuits all support and can itself kill instantly. It’s the proverbial neck shot. Alas, organs and tissue around the neck vertebrae occupy a lot of what you see in your scope. If you miss the spine, a neck shot can seriously or fatally injure the elk without giving you a chance for a follow-up or recovery.

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No elk can run, or even stand, with two broken shoulders. A shot that shatters one impedes travel.

A bullet through both lungs will always kill, sometimes quickly but most often after a short time. The elk often moves off, sometimes in a hurry. A bullet through the heart commonly acts like a shot of adrenaline, prompting a sprint that can carry the animal dozens of yards before Death swings its scythe.

Like a hit too far back and a neck shot that misses the spine, a shot that damages a leg is bad business. If the bone is intact, expect a long trail. Even if you shatter a front leg, you’ll work hard to catch that elk. It’s more apt to stop and/or bed if alone. But elk are herd animals, and others on the move can pull the injured animal far. Even a shot that breaks a hind leg can test your persistence. Bone splintered high is more debilitating than if your bullet strikes below the knee or hock. All leg hits are glaring proof of poor marksmanship, judgment or both.

Elk reaction clues you to a bullet’s effect, but that evidence isn’t conclusive. Better, in my view, is your “call”—the point of impact you expect, given the image of the sight picture as recoil erased it. With this in mind, you can predict internal damage. Remember: elk vitals are three-dimensional.

Shot angle affects both the entry point for a bullet and the damage it causes.

Shoot Deliberately

First, second or fifth, the only bullets that count are those that hit. Neglect aiming, and you might as well save the cartridge. Ditto if you accept a sight picture that bounces the sight wildly about the mark. I once missed an outstanding deer because I hoped the reticle would jog onto the target. Hope contributes little to marksmanship.

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Long pokes have become common currency, resulting in much crippled game. Poor hits far away mean follow-ups that impose more bullet drop and drift and greatly magnify the effects of wobble and rough trigger pulls.

Whether on a follow-up or your first shot, a misfire is unnerving. The overwhelming temptation: fire again, quickly! So you yank the trigger and miss.

Perhaps the most disheartening of misfires is that of a muzzleloader. Your only hope, if a primer fails, is to replace it or cock the hammer again. Fishing another primer from your possibles bag is rarely an option when the animal knows you’re there. As a misfire can derail your focus, so can awareness of that stack of cartridges in your magazine. The easier it is to fire repeat shots, the more likely you are to rely on them. That’s one reason auto-loading rifles fail to impress seasoned hunters. Immediate access to another shot seldom saves the day; it becomes a liability if you can’t wait to get to it!

A single-shot rifle can help you concentrate. So can loading your magazine short of capacity, or hunting with only the four or five rounds in your rifle. None of these “handicaps” has cost me a second chance, or left my rifle empty. Surely I’ll hear from hunters who’ve trudged to camp for more softpoints! One hunter out of ammo finished a wounded but still active elk with a knife. “A wild ride,” he conceded. “But the hospital bed was comfortable.”

Given limited firepower, you’re naturally more careful. But once an elk is hit, conserving ammo plummets on your to-do list.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>