Accurately judging distance is the first step toward proper shot placement. Instinctive or calculated, bowhunters rely on it for close range shooting. Gun hunters count on their ability to estimate longer distances. Over time we all learn our own tricks for calculating distance but with the advent of laser rangefinders many of us won't leave home without them. Regardless of how you go about it, determining yardage can make or break your hunt.
I will remember one hunt as long as I live. The outcome was downright depressing all because I misjudged the distance. It happened 16 years ago. I was a neophyte bowhunter at the time. I'd set up a treestand in a small block of trees that I knew held several bucks and does. The previous winter I'd picked up some huge sheds that taped out at 183 Boone & Crockett inches. Knowing that the gigantic buck had survived the winter, my hopes ran high and I knew there was always a chance he'd show up in the timber I was hunting. As luck would have it 45 minutes after climbing into my stand I heard leaves crunching underfoot. Straining to look through the trees, sure enough a smaller basket rack buck was making his way toward my stand. Always an impressive sight I enjoyed the view as he walked 10 yards from me. Then I heard more rustling in the leaves and looked over to see him. He was nothing short of magnificent! Based on his sheds, it looked like he'd grown at least another 15 inches putting him well into the high 190's - a buck of a lifetime in anyone's books! He walked 12 yards from my stand but I couldn't get to full draw with him in plain view. As soon as he turned I capitalized. At full-draw, I locked my 20 yard pin on his body as he continued to amble forward. Walking straight away there was no shot opportunity at all! By the time he stopped, I estimated he was standing at 30 yards. With all the concentration I could muster, I focused and released. The arrow flew where I'd aimed, in perfect alignment with his chest, but literally inches high splitting the hair on his back! Completely awestruck and in total disbelief, that gut-wrenching feeling overcame me as I watched my world-class archery whitetail bound away never to be seen again... and all because I'd misjudged the distance!
Since that day I have made it my lifelong mission to learn how to accurately judge distance. From capitalizing on today's technologically advanced laser rangefinding devices to using topographic characteristics to assist in calculating distance, and understanding the influences of terrain, it is an ongoing practice in my world. Regardless of whether you're an archer or a rifleman, here are a few considerations that might help you as you learn to accurately judge distances.
The Technological Solution
Today's technology is a saving grace for hunters. Many of us won't leave home without our laser rangefinder. Portable and easy to use, we simply identify our target, adjust the setting, point, hit the button and, voila! ... distance is displayed on the screen. With yardage confirmed, all that remains is the shot itself.
When I began bowhunting nearly two decades ago rangefinders had a simple dial that brought the target image into focus when the dial was turned. Wherever the dial ended up, that was your yardage. Today, thanks to innovation, laser rangefinders are readily available and relatively affordable. In fact today there is really no reason not to use a rangefinder. Many manufacturers have their own versions, but in my opinion, one of the latest and greatest inventions is Bushnell's Laser Arc. I've got the Elite 1500 model. The ARC stands for Angle Range Compensation. While traditional rangefinders are precision optical instruments designed to be used on a level plain (line of sight), the ARC rangefinder compensates for angles from a treestand for instance, or up or down a mountain slope. I have owned and used several different kinds of rangefinders over the years. The Laser ARC is my absolute favorite. Using digital technology, it has a built-in inclinometer that displays the exact slope angle from +/- 60º of elevation with +/- 1.0 degree accuracy. Hunters have always struggled with extreme uphill and downhill angles. These severe angles alter true horizontal distance to the target. The ARC solves this problem. It has three primary settings: bow mode, rifle mode, and a regular mode (for line of sight distance calculation only).
It has a bow mode that displays line of site distance, degree of elevation, and true horizontal distance from 5-99 yards (or meters). For longer range shooters, it also has a rifle mode that calculates and displays the amount of bullet drop, at the target in inches (or centimeters). In the rifle mode, the amount of bullet drop is determined by the line of sight distance to the target, degree of elevation, along with the specific ballistic characteristics of the caliber and ammunition. As the hunter ranges the target, the line of sight, degree of elevation, and bullet-drop/holdover in inches or centimeters is displayed from 100-800 yards (or meters). Here's where the technology shines ballistically. In the start-up menu, one of eight ballistic groups can be selected by the user, with each formula representing a given combination of caliber and loads.
Laser rangefinding technology, and the ARC system in particular, is invaluable but what if we don't have one? Then it comes down to a matter of practice and estimation to determine our downrange distances.
For most of us, learning to judge distance takes considerable practice. Only by doing it a lot, and under variable conditions, can we become competent at it. Shooting is a lot like golf. Understanding how your bow or gun works (i.e., trajectory and ballistics) and interpreting the size of the target animal relative to the terrain can only be learned through firsthand repetitive experience. So how do we get all this supposed experience when we can only take a finite number of animals each year? The answer lies in visiting the gun or archery range.
For bowhunters, nothing beats practice on the 3D course. Today's 3D targets, like those made by MacKenzie, are very lifelike and offer as realistic practice as you're likely to get anywhere. Most are made to scale and can be strategically placed in any range situation to simulate realistic hunting scenarios. On my local 3D course, our club uses everything from coyote targets to whitetailed deer, mountain goat, elk, moose, wild hog, turkey and more. Some are set at long distances over 60 yards through wide open clearings while others are placed in the trees, often with very small shooting windows at closer distances like 20 or 30 yards. Most 3D ranges have a good assortment of field scenarios to allow practicing archers to hone their skills.
Likewise, rifle and muzzleloader hunters should visit the range regularly to hone shooting skills. Unfortunately due to the expansive nature of bullets today's 3D targets aren't an option. Alternatively silhouettes are. Most rifle ranges offer variable range distances from 100 to 400 yards. At my club our furthest distance is 600 yards. Unless you're really into the long range thing 400 yards is a stretch for most big game hunters. By shooting repeatedly at 100, 200, 300, and 400 yards, we grow accustomed to what those distances look and feel like. By taking note of the size of target in our scope at specified magnifications we can also learn to estimate distances. For example, at 10x zoom on my Leupold scope, I know that a deer will fill a certain percentage of the field of view. By acknowledging how much of the animal is in the field of view, I can guess the approximate yardage with relative accuracy. Likewise, at 200 and 300 yards, that deer will appear smaller respectively.
Break Distances into Increments
Whether we're hunting remote regions or in farmland things like trees, rocks, fence posts, and power poles can be used to aid in judging distances. As an archer I've learned to make a mental note of things like trees, shrubs, rocks or other physical land-based objects at 10 yard increments out to a distance of 50 yards from where I'm sitting. By burning those objects into my memory I'm better able to make quick decisions when an animal steps into a shooting lane. I'm guessing it may be the same throughout North America but where I do much of my hunting I've learned that power poles are set at a standard distance of 100 yards apart. Any time I'm hunting a wide open power line or in farm country I can use those power poles as markers to estimate yardage. As a rule, regardless of what kind of weapon you're hunting with, breaking distances down into increments simplifies things. Remember, if you're sitting in a stationary stand or ground blind there is always the option of setting out yardage markers at desirable increments, e.g., every 10 yards.
Consider Where and What You're Shooting
Judging distances on the open prairies is a very different game than judging distance in the dense forest. Likewise, estimating the distance of a large target like a moose can be tricky if you're more accustomed to looking at antelope. Dense cover and the size of the animal can play tricks on your mind.
As an archer, I spend most of my time hunting heavy mixed forest areas comprised of aspens and evergreens. Rarely do I see deer, moose or elk at distances further than 80 yards unless its down a long open cutline or across a clearcut. So, whenever I head out to different states or provinces to hunt smaller species like pronghorn antelope, it usually takes some time to acclimatize and recalibrate my brain to accurately judge distances. In my experience, smaller big game species in open terrain tend to appear further away while larger species under heavy cover often look closer than they really are. Unfortunately there are no set rules here; you just need to figure out what works best for you under variable conditions.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com.
Member of OWAA & OWC.