Lessons Learned The Hard Way Are Often Worth Repeating!
By Darrell Holland
We can all look back over our shooting career and note dreadful if not embarrassing moments when we really blew it. Anybody who claims to have never experienced such a moment is either telling a “Big Windy” or hasn’t shot much!
After the humiliation of the screw-up, often in front of witnesses, but not always, we internally beat ourselves to a pulp on the trip home. Often displays of foul language, kicking dirt and occasionally hurling objects into trees and off canyon precipices accompany such mental lapses in our shooting performance.
Vowing to “NEVER AGAIN” repeat such newbie transgressions we swallow hard the “crow” and “humble pie” on our plate. If our errors are made in the presence of friends we usually callous over from the “ribbing” we take on the way to the home front, unless of course they use a little salt on our tender ego.
“Jesus, Harold, how could you forget to dial into the wind?” your friend scoffs. Or, “What a moron. You forgot to cycle the bolt after the shot and the animal got up and escaped.” Coyote callers, have you ever left your rifle behind while retrieving the electronic call and have a coyote appear while you are midway between the two points? Be honest now!
Ever grab the wrong ammunition for the rifle you are hunting with? Or forget your data card and have to “wing it” after boasting to friends how bad you are going outshoot them in the prairie dog fields with your new rifle? Ever fail to tighten the bipod to the rifle because you were interrupted by a phone call and then discover the faux pas after missing the buck of a lifetime at 400 yds? Ever go to a field match and shoot your targets out of order, losing valuable points from which you can never recover?
Such displays of extreme intelligence can haunt us for years if not decades. Often times, we feel we’ve learned from our mistakes and confide in ourselves that we would never repeat such an egregious error. This artificial pedestal we build can get pretty high, and under the right circumstances cause us to experience gravity when we least expect it.
Note the following ballistic screw-up.
As a gunsmith and long range shooting instructor, I always advise customers and students to confirm “ZERO” prior to hunting with their rifle. The risk of a screw-up is in direct proportion to the distance traveled and the amount of money spent on a hunt. Always confirm your zero when you get into camp.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have hunted quite a bit in the U.S. and abroad and have heeded the above advice when traveling. More often than not, the rifles have survived the trip and the efforts of anti-hunting zealots who are employed by the airlines.
The 2009 hunting season was looking pretty grim. I had just built a new 280 Remington on my Signature Series Action and new adjustable comb rifle stock. I was anxious to "Christen" this new rifle, but the tag draws were unkind to me and I was left in the cold with nowhere to hunt.
At the urging of a friend I managed to find some over the counter tags allowing me to hunt. Idaho elk and Wyoming antelope were now on the menu.
The rifle shot pretty well with 168 Bergers. They sped along at 2800 fps and fist size groups at 500 yards were commonplace. I was set. All I needed was a decent shot and meat in the freezer was assured. I created my Holland’s Ultimate Data Card and attached it to the rifle, cleaned the barrel and loaded the rest of my ammunition for the hunt.
I tend to be a little anal retentive when it comes to my rifle. I carry my own rifle, and shy of being a snob don’t like folks handling my rifle. I handle my rifle as if it were nitroglycerine, carefully and quite protective--kid gloves and cased when not in use. If I knowingly bump the rifle or take a bad fall (Montana 2007) I shoot the rifle to confirm zero and continue the hunt.
The perfectly zeroed 280 went into the rifle case and rode vertical in the back seat of the truck from Powers to Salmon, Idaho. No bumps, no jarring 4x4 roads, nice and easy does it. Having provided such loving care from range to hunt camp without the usual airline baggage handlers I was confident everything was fine. On the second day of the hunt we spied a nice elk that was easy to get to, and I ventilated him at an easy 356 yards.
Two days later I was Wyoming bound for antelope. I was going to shoot an antelope between 600-800 yards if possible, given good conditions. Violating my own rule, I neglected to confirm zero upon my arrival in Wyoming. Why bother? The rifle shot great in Idaho, killed a nice elk and was never bumped or handled roughly in between. It rode in the same protective case atop blankets in the back seat of the truck. What could possibly go wrong????
Antelope were quite plentiful, but as many of you know, when you want to shoot one at long range they are always close. We backed off on more than one occasion to get the desired distance, only to have the antelope move or feed out of range. Finally, in the late afternoon we found the shot we were looking for. The range: 875 yds with only a slight breeze. Calculating the wind and drop I was ready to shoot. Inhale, exhale, focus and "ka-boom" the shot broke, hitting the antelope in the front of the chest. I shouldn’t have misjudged the wind that bad. Elevation looked good but the wind was off. A few shots later and the rodeo was over.
I should have had an "Edison Moment" about then, but the thought of confirmation never entered my mind. I consoled myself that I had just misjudged the wind and failed to see the conditions for the entire 875 yards. Not until making a second error did I begin to wonder what was going on. Had I lost my wind doping skills? Were the shooting gods trying to tell me something?
Taking a cardboard box from the truck, I set it up at 100 yds and went prone to confirm my zero. Hmmm, a 1.5 MOA "right" error at 100 yds would indeed screw things up at 875 yards. Anger, frustration, bewilderment and several other emotions came to mind. What had happened??? The rifle had kid glove care over the entire journey. What caused the point of impact change?
I guess I’ll never know. But I do know that (hopefully for the last time) I will confirm my zero prior to the hunt like I have done in the past, no matter how confident I am in the rifle’s previous performance.
In the future I feel it is important to have the most rugged, heavy walled scope tube on my rifle. I use Picatinny mounts and rings on most of my rifles and always have the maximum wheel base support for the scope. If I can find the time, I may endeavor to do a torture test as to how much abuse a scope can take before a point of impact change is evident. Scope tubes do flex under firing. Do they have a memory? Did I inadvertently toss my pack on the rifle and jar the scope? Would my disdain for the current administration produce "bad karma" that affected the rifle? Did I pick up a gremlin at that rest stop in Eastern Montana that took refuge in my rifle case?
Inquiring minds want to know?
Until then, enjoy a good laugh at my expense!
Darrell Holland is a Custom Riflesmith and designer of Advanced Reticle Technology in Leupold, Schmidt & Bender and NIGHTFORCE rifle scopes. Darrell offers an intense 4 day shooting school that is ideal for long range hunters and tactical enthusiasts.