A Question of Intent

I stopped in an outdoor equipment store this fall and ended up in a conversation with the person behind the counter about the opening weekend of rifle season. Unable to get out myself on those first few days, I asked him if he had a chance to hunt. Opening morning found him on  some mountain, looking for elk, like most of us this time of year. Quickly, the topic turned to his new rifle — fully custom from end to end, complete with long range scope, turret, etc. which was able to “put 5 shots in a pie plate at 1000 yards — I did it at the range.” He went on to describe in great detail (and as excited as a kid at Christmas) about how if he were to range an elk at 700 yards, it would be “a chip shot”. I nodded and smiled, ready to get going, as I was losing steam on the subject. We had quickly deviated from the excitement of the hunt, the opening day, how it went, etc. right into full gun geek mode.

I am definitely a gearhead, but to be honest, this conversation left me a bit put off, and confused. The rifle was the focus. The scope and his ‘ability’ to lob shots downrange farther than I could even imagine was what mattered. Not the hunt. Not the elk. Not the fresh snow, the sunrise, or how many hard miles that were hiked, hopefully to find that elusive wapiti on a steep hillside. Then the hunt would begin….not dropping down in a prone rifleman’s position to break out a litany of gear, tripods, rangefinders and wind gauges, setting up for an impossibly long shot. I just didn’t “get it”.

Before I get too far into this, let me say that I have respect for a shooter’s ability at the range to put several shots on target at 500, 700 or 1,000 yards. That is an impressive skill, and not one that everyone can pull off with reliable frequency. But where it starts to deviate quickly is when this same distance comes into play during a hunt, on a real animal, under real-world conditions. There are too many variables, questions and changing conditions, all of which, for me, is what makes hunting truly something to be experienced deeply.

Let’s take 875 yards as the distance the above hunter spots a feeding bull. That is 0.497 miles (basically, one half of one mile) from the end of the barrel to the vitals of that elk. Half of a mile.  Through a spotting scope, that bull will look pretty good, with the antlers gleaming in the early morning light, the tan hide and tracks left in the snow easily visible. Zoom in, and the bull takes up the entire frame. Time to pull the trigger? I couldn’t do it. Not because I could not practice and develop the requisite skill necessary to drop a round into the chest of that elk, but because nothing about the spotting of the bull, the set up and the shot remotely resembles hunting.

While the above is a hypothetical scenario, I have heard and read too much to know it happens. Animals get taken down from those ranges, some with one well placed shot, others requiring more, or being lost. This happens with more “normal” ranges such as 200 or 300 yards as well but I cannot get behind the “why”; why that far? Why not use the terrain, the wind and your own skill to close the gap? What is the hunter’s intention? A recent Boone & Crockett article outlines this hot button topic very well.  It states “the term ‘long-range’ shooting is more defined by a hunter’s intent, than any specific distance at which a shot is taken.  If the intent of the individual is to test equipment and determine how far one can shoot to hit a live target and if there is no motivation to risk engagement with the animal being hunted, this practice is not hunting and should not be accorded the same status as hunting.

The position continues with “…hunting, at its most fundamental level, is defined by a tenuous and unpredictable relationship between predator and prey.  This is an intrinsic, irrefutable and intimate connection that cannot be compromised if the hunter is to maintain the sanctity of this relationship and any credible claim that hunting is challenging, rewarding, respectful of wild creatures, and in service to wildlife conservation.  This connection is built upon many complex components that differentiate hunting from simply shooting or killing.”

Intent. It all seems to boil down to intent. Many times the reasons become blurry, with skill being a primary one; ‘because my rifle can shoot that far’, or ‘I practice at that range’. Hunting versus shooting. The game we seek, not to mention the tradition of hunting, deserves so much more than that.

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