How to Accurately Judge Target Distance

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A gentle breeze lazily wafted the tall blades of fescue to and fro across my field of view. Muscles tensed and eyes straining to focus on my target, I was confident I could make the shot. What bothered me was my less-than-perfect ability to accurately judge the long-range distances. I was certain the pronghorn was over 200 yards but just how much further was unknown. In my opinion, antelope are one of the most difficult animals to shoot at; not because they're particularly elusive, but due to their size and where they live. Wide open spaces and a relatively small target can make for deceptive shooting. For me, accurately judging distances becomes tricky with these variables. Thankfully, my partner had a rangefinder.

"262 yards," he whispered.

At that, my confidence escalated. I now knew to elevate the crosshairs a few inches. Gently squeezing, as my TC 7mm Rem Mag bucked, the pronghorn lurched forward, took two steps and crumpled. The ability to confirm distance with the aid of a rangefinder made a big difference.

Accurately determining distance can make or break a hunt. You might be the most technically sound shooter on the planet, but it doesn't matter much if you misjudge the yardage. Precisely determining distance is the first step toward proper shot placement. Instinctive or calculated, bow hunters rely on estimating within a yard or two to ensure accuracy typically considering 10 yard increments. Likewise, gun hunters most often calculate in 25, 50, 75, or 100 yard increments.

By comparison, pronghorns can be a challenge for bow hunters as well. I remember one of my most frustrating hunts. Nearly two decades ago as a new bow hunter, I had drawn an antelope permit. I'd practiced in excess and felt confident with my technical shooting ability. I quickly learned that my shooting wasn't the problem ? but judging distance was! I'm not sure how many opportunities I had. After several stalks and more released arrows than I care to admit I was exasperated. On one stalk I emptied my quiver and I'm embarrassed to say the buck stood less than 40 yards away staring at me without a concern in the world. Something about the situation made it next to impossible for me to accurately determine the shooting distance. Talk about adding insult to injury!

Today, whenever possible, I use a laser rangefinding device but for those instances where a rangefinder isn't available, I've learned to use topographic and other physical features to assist in calculating distance.

Laser Rangefinders
Today's laser rangefinders are portable and easy to use. After choosing the appropriate setting, simply look through the viewfinder, acquire the target, hit the button and, voila... distance is digitally displayed on the LCD. With yardage confirmed, all that remains is the shot.

Thanks to innovation, laser rangefinders are readily available and affordable. Today there is really no reason not to use one. Many manufacturers have their own versions, but one of my favourites is Bushnell's Laser Arc. I use 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, the ARC rangefinder compensates for angles from a tree stand for instance, or up or down a vertical slope making it ideal for use in the mountains. Using digital technology, it has a built-in inclinometer that displays the exact slope angle from +/- 60? 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 to 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 to 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.

Practice & Repetition
Laser rangefinding technology is invaluable, but what if we don't have one at our fingertips? In my estimation, much like having the ability to calculate mathematical equations without a calculator, it is likewise important for every hunter to learn rudimentary distance judgment skills and this comes down to practice.

For most of us, learning to judge distance takes a lot of practice. Understanding how your bow or gun works (i.e., trajectory and ballistics) and interpreting the size of the downrange target animal relative to the terrain can only be learned through firsthand repetitive experience. So how do we get all this supposed experience? The answer lies in visiting the range.

For archers, nothing beats practice on the 3D course. Today's 3D targets are made to scale and can be strategically placed in any range situation to simulate realistic hunting scenarios. 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 skills. By repeatedly estimating and shooting, archers eventually learn how to roughly calculate distances in tens of yards. In time, accuracy follows.

But bowhunters aren't the only ones that need to practice. Many of us think that shooting guns alleviates the need to practice. This simply isn't true. Rifle, muzzleloader and even shotgun hunters should visit the range regularly to improve distance judgment and shooting skills as well. Every gun shoots differently.

Learning how our gun and chosen bullet performs at variable distances is the key to success. Then marrying that understanding with our ability to accurately judge target distances is the key to success. Unfortunately due to the expansive nature of bullets, today's typical archery 3D targets aren't usually an option for gun hunters. Alternatively, silhouettes are. Most gun ranges offer variable range distances from 100 to 400, and even 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 the 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.

Divide Distances into Increments
While some people have an innate ability to judge target distance, most don't. For most of us it is most practical to break the overall distance down into increments. Manmade or natural features in the terrain can also be used to help estimate distances. Whether we're hunting remote regions or in farmland, features 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 physical land-based objects at 10-yard increments out to a distance of 50 yards. While I am fundamentally opposed to road hunting for plenty of reasons, I've learned that power poles along country roads are commonly set apart at a standard distance of 100 yards. Any time I'm hunting a wide open right-of-way or in open farm country I can use those power poles as markers to help calculate yardage. As a rule, regardless of what kind of weapon you're hunting with, breaking distances down incrementally, simplifies things.

A simple strategy many bowhunters employ when sitting in a stationary stand or ground blind involves setting out yardage markers at desirable increments, e.g., at 10, 20, or 30 yards.

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
Member of OWAA & OWC.


hunter25's picture

I gave up trying to guess

I gave up trying to guess distance many many years ago. everybody that hunts wide open areas should be using a rangefinder. We antelope hunt a lot and I know our success would be much less without one.

Why work so hard and spend so much money to take a chance on failure or worse yet wounding an animal because you guessed the distance wrong?

I plan to purchase another this year partly to make sure we are never without one.


jim boyd's picture

This article makes a great

This article makes a great point... if the technology is out there, is not overly expensive and is easy to use, we would be idiots NOT to use it.

It does not use those words but I do feel that is the message and I agree wholeheartedly.

Bowhunting or long range shooting - there is no excuse not to use one.

Another good analogy of this would be a hunter who clung solely to open sights on a rifle... as good as optics are today and as cheaply as just a low end decent scope can he had, there is, again, simply no reason not to use one.

If you only rifle hunted in dense forests and all of your shots were less than 200 yards, it might not be a big deal not to use a rangefinder... but in the aforementioned circumstances, we should use them.

I beleive they have uses other than knowing how far an animal is, also... if you have one that can read long distances, you can determine that is it 800 yards (for instance) to the end of the field.... this can be useful information when you are trying to determine if you want to make a walk or stalk - or how long it will take you to do so...

With costs down now to the $300 range for a good unit, there is simply no reason to compromise a hunt on not having the capabilities these units provide. We spend thousands annually on leases, rifles, 4wd trucks... this $300 is little more in the overall scheme of things... and it is a one time cost.

Great article - I enjoyed it very well.

CVC's picture

One thing that i do with my

One thing that i do with my bow and range finder is to sight in my bow for the various distances with the range finder I will be using.  It doesn't matter if the range has the targets marked, I use my range finder for 20, 30 and so on.  Probably doesn't make a whole lot of difference, but when I am in the field if my range finder tells me it is 30 yards then I know my bow is sighted in for that distance and not 29 or 31. 

I don't worry about this with my rifle as a slight difference between ranged distance and actual distance will make little differenc with a high caliber rifle.

bman940's picture

Another good way to make a great shot

I use the Nikon BDC scopes. I have used them since the first year they cam out and I have never not had a 1 shot kill on over 10 deer. 

Great article. Don't cheat

Great article. Don't cheat yourself by a bad shot and be fair to the game you are shooting at for a clean kill