Here are some some lessons learned over the course of three decades of hunting that I very much wish had been impressed on me by older, experienced hunters when I was a lad. Most of these I learned from personal trials, some from observing the mistakes and tribulations of others.
- Wipe your barrel dry of oil before hunting. A residue of oil in the barrel will throw off that critical first shot.
- If you don't know whether your rifle is sighted in, or with what load, then your rifle is not sighted in.
- Always sight in a rifle at a range of 100 yards or more. Sighting in at a closer range can result in unpredictable trajectories because of the crossover point of the rifle bore with the optical line-of-sight. Think about it: at this point (somewhere between 25 and 75 yards) every trajectory crosses. If you are zeroed near this range then you could have any conceivable drop in elevation at any practical hunting range, because there is no singular solution to a zero at this range - essentially any sight adjustment will seem right. I have been 7 or 8 inches high at 40 yards because I sighted in dead-on at 25 yards in a hurry.
- Never mix brands and styles of ammunition in your gun. I've known people who would load up a rifle with three or four kinds of .30-06 ammunition, ranging from 150 grain Remington Core-Lokts to 220 grain Winchester Silvertips. Different loads, even of the same weight, shoot to different points of impact. A rifle is generally only sighted in with one load.
- If you don't know how far away the game is, then its too far away. Stalk closer.
- If you have to hold over the animal's body when aiming, then its too far away. Stalk closer.
- If it seems windy, keep your shot within 200 yards. Even a high velocity load with a low drag bullet will drift outside the killzone in a 20 mph wind at 200 yards.
- Adjust your sights to have a trajectory no higher than half the killzone of the target (the killzone is about half the presented height of the thorax). For example, a sight adjustment for deer should have a maximum trajectory height above the line-of-sight of no more than 3 inches. So sighted, a rifle aimed in the center of the killzone (point blank) will be effective out to 200 to 300+ yards, which is plenty. For something the size of an elk you can go to 4 or 5 inches, although that is a lot of rise and can be problematic at relatively close range - know your trajectory.
- Bench rest shooting and field shooting have very little in common. Practice shooting from positions and with rests that you will have in the field. You'll find that its much more difficult to shoot those tiny little groups at 100 yards, let alone at 200, 300...
- Game animals don't have bullseyes or big black crosses on them for sight alignment. Practice shooting at realistic targets, like a plain profile of a deer in cardboard. Try popping balloons that are 6 or 8 inches in diameter while standing, sitting and kneeling.
- Game animals don't always present themselves broadside. Learn the locations of the heart and lungs from all aspects and learn to judge when the shot is not good (mainly from the rear and rear quarter).
- Never adjust your sights while in the field (e.g., for very short range or long range). If you do so, you run the risk of forgetting that you have done it when shooting at a different range or of re-adjusting them twice - or in the wrong direction - by mistake.
- Never take a dodgy first shot. If you are not certain, wait.
- Never take a first shot at a running animal. Even wingshooters have routinely practiced at only 30 or 40 yards; at that distance an experienced wingshooter is OK perhaps, but 100 yards is a very different matter.
- Don't try fancy trick shots, like a brain shot, a neck spine shot or a "Texas heart shot". Such things go wrong more often than right.
- Don't practice your long range shooting skills on living things. If you want to prove something about your long range shooting prowess, join a sport shooting association and compete. Then you'll find out whether you've got anything to talk about - and if you do, you won't.
- Needless to say (I should hope!), never do something grossly unethical, like shoot an animal in the guts or the hind quarters (because that is all you can see) in order to get a second shot in the vitals. That is cruel and irresponsible and an animal so shot will almost certainly escape to die a lingering, agonizing death. I've never done this, but I have known people to do things like this.
- Always shoot a retreating wounded animal. Having wounded an animal, don't be a perfectionist about follow-up shots. The important thing is to put it down and even a bad hit will increase the odds of that. If you've already botched it, don't make matters worse by missing your only chance to get in a solid hit before it disappears.
- If its still moving, shoot it again. Even if its on the ground, shoot it. You would not believe how many downed and apparently dying animals have suddenly gotten up and run away.
- Always keep a ready round in the chamber when approaching a downed animal.
- There is no such thing as a brushbuster cartridge or bullet. Its a myth. Any unbalanced force applied to a free body in flight causes deflection, yawing, etc. Always. A slender twig or a stalk of grass 10 yards in front of your target can cause a clean miss - or worse yet, a bad hit.
- If you shoot at an animal and it runs away, then you've hit it. Never mind if you can't find any blood on the scene, its hit. Game animals don't run from the mere noise of a shot.
- If you shoot at an animal and you feel certain that you missed, go investigate anyway. It may be lying dead just out of sight.
- Mark any fresh sign (blood, hair, tracks) with bright flourescent tape, to aid in developing a tracking trail. Wounded animals don't follow straight lines when hit - they meander and even circle around - but they usually follow the path of least resistance, such as open trails, thin brush and down slope.
- If a hit animal runs away, wait a bit before pursuing. If it was well hit, it will usually expire within 10 seconds and you'll find it easily enough. If it was badly hit, waiting a few minutes may cause it to lie down to die. However, an animal that senses it is still in danger and being pursued will have its flight instinct triggered, its arteries will constrict (limiting the blood trail) and it will run for all its worth (which can be a lot, even with a mortal wound).
- Hunting is a privilege, not a subsistence necessity. Respect the game and the environment. Conserve and protect both for future generations to enjoy.