My heart hadn’t thumped this violently in a long, long time.
The crosshairs of my scope ascribed an erratic arc as I began to seriously wonder if my 49-year-old circulatory system could handle sustained blood pressure levels that are typically only witnessed inside overburdened hydraulic actuators. I had been surprised, and a massive burst of adrenaline was the price for my inattention.
While sitting and hoping for a few more seconds before some major blood vessel burst like a rotten garden hose, I did a few combat breathing cycles, and things calmed down enough that I could make the shot. My aim, though admittedly at short range, was accurate, and there would be no need for a follow-up shot. That’s a good thing, because I was shooting a .50-caliber black-powder rifle that takes slightly longer to reload than an entire performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
The quarry was the eastern whitetail deer and the setting of this little tableau was literally the last few minutes of legal shooting time during my most recent deer hunting season.
I have often proposed that, short of actual experience, big-game hunting is the single best way to develop the proper mindset and psychological preparation for being a good tactical operator. While this argument is the topic for another entire column, now I’d like to discuss how this hunt also reiterated another salient point: you never know how much of your adversary will be offered during a gunfight.
In this case, three deer had literally walked unnoticed within 20 feet of Your Expert Gun Writer when both parties saw each other at approximately the same moment. As I was completely camouflaged, the three deer weren’t exactly sure of the danger, but knew something was seriously out of place. They spooked briefly, trotted a few steps and then stopped to figure out the nature of that large, hyperventilating lump poised at the base of a tree.
This momentary pause proved the undoing for one of the animals. The closest deer had halted behind a large maple tree with only its head and neck visible through my rifle scope.
I had to make a decision. The deer were obviously on the verge of panicked flight. As visibility through our eastern woods was only slightly better than midnight in the London fog, a running shot would be very challenging and likely to produce a cripple. I wasn’t willing to do that.
In the split seconds before the impending crash of fleeing hoofs, I placed my crosshairs where I reckoned the big neck veins and arteries were located and pulled the trigger. Fast forward to today, where a nice pile of steaks and roasts resides in the freezer a few feet away from this keyboard.
Since that day a few months ago, I’ve repeatedly pondered the experience and its relevance to my full-time job. During countless range sessions and actual hunting experience, I’d never considered shooting a deer in the neck. Likewise during tactical range training, I have seldom given in-depth consideration to shooting someone anyplace other than the X-ring. In spite of “knowing” that such a situation could arise, it took this experience to truly drive the point home.
In pondering this lesson, I’m reminded of an acquaintance who was involved in a major firefight on the streets of a large U.S. city a few years ago.
A maniac gunman had already killed a police officer and wounded several others by using movement, cover and concealment to engage the cops. Eventually the shooter was pinned down behind a large sport utility vehicle, but continued putting deadly fire onto the officers. My acquaintance could see only the man’s feet underneath the truck, so he pumped several rounds into the only visible target, the sneakers of the killer.
The man fell down, immobilized but not out of the fight. The seriously wounded officer then limped toward the vehicle and, in a mastery of understatement, “terminated the engagement.”
Unfortunately, we usually give lip service to this idea of “shoot at the biggest piece of meat and bone you see until they go down.” Though there are some notable examples of trainers who offer all sorts of oddball targets to students, too often our range experiences focus on the classic silhouette target staged perpendicular to the firing line.
I understand that such set-ups are an absolutely vital part of training. If you can’t shoot a decent grouping on the range under relatively minimal stress, your accuracy will be totally unacceptable when the feces hit the fan some dark, cold night when you’re caught off guard, injured, fatigued and scared to the point of soiling your undergarments.
However, once students have proven that they’ve mastered the basics of shooting reasonably tight groups, we need to stretch their limits to include the unusual, the offbeat and just plain strange targets.
I’ve seen targets placed on the ground, but I’ve never seen anyone intentionally train to shoot at feet beneath a vehicle. Perhaps it’s time. Safety and logistics often won’t permit shooting while lying on our back or at targets located beneath our body, but nearly every range can accommodate targets lying sideways on the ground or partially obstructed. Even simply angling a target can help students erase the constantly reinforced mental image of a B27-sized blue man attacking from three, five and seven yards.
Next time you’re at the range, build a cardboard barricade or develop a target that replicates the lower torso of a suspect. Hide a plastic milk jug behind an old tire and make students find the proper angle to take a good shot. Use your imagination to challenge yourself and your students.
We all know that the world is a random, erratic and rather messy place. Hence, we need to make every effort to replicate those same conditions during our training evolutions. Weird “out-ofthe- box” targets are an excellent way to do that.
Now I suppose it’s time to head to the range and work on my hoof shooting.