Going Long For Axis Deer: Hunting a Free-Ranging Texas Exotic

The Texas sun was just beginning to drop below the trees when I heard the strange bellow and grunt of an Axis buck from the top of a far hill. Glassing, I caught sight of the buck’s spotted coat moving between the live oak and mesquite, well over 600 yards away.

“There’s a big old Axis buck that hangs around this hill,” my guide Bobby had told me earlier when he dropped me off at my hunting site. “We hear him and some of my hunters get a glimpse. But he never gets close enough for a shot.”

Close enough? Actually, I’d come to the Hill Country of Texas to make a longer shot, 300- to 400-yards was the plan, using my rig: a Sabatti Urban Sniper rifle chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor, a Trijicon AccuPower 4.5-30X56mm scope, and Barnes VOT-TX ammunition firing a 120-grain all-copper TTSX bullet.

The author’s hunting rig for his Axis hunt: a Sabatti Urban Sniper in 6.5 Creedmoor topped with a Trijicon AccuPower 4.5-30x56MM scope.

I’ve done a fair amount of longer-range shooting the last half dozen years, both on my own and under the instruction of shooting pros. I’ve taken several deer at 300+-yards. The rig I brought to Texas, I was sure, would do the job, and I’d done enough shooting with it to be confident in the rifle and myself.

I sat atop a rocky cliff. Before me sat a deer feeder near a watering trough, and beyond that a gravel ranch road. The hill rose up on the other side of the road, large and steep, covered in stands of live oak and mesquite and interspersed with open spaces. Early June, and it had hit 90 degrees by mid-afternoon. Not a thing was moving when I got into position several hours previously, but as the sun dropped lower and the cooler breezes started, whitetail and Axis does began moving through the trees.

And then that Axis buck started calling, looking for a female. Unlike whitetails, Axis breed year ‘round, and this guy was definitely in the mood, his loud bellows echoing down the hill.

The Texas Hill Country is home to thousands of free-ranging Axis deer.

Time to build my shooting position. 

I got out of my camp chair and set the seat cushion between two large rocks. I placed my Primos Trigger sticks in front of me, sat down, and wedged my backpack under my shooting elbow for support. I put the Sabatti up on the sticks, and shifted around until I was comfortable, then set the Trijicon AccuPower at 15x, adjusted the ocular so that the trees and scrub about the middle of the far hill were clear and sharp.

The Axis had come in from the top left of the hill, and now was walking downhill using a line of trees for cover. I caught glimpses of his brown coat and tall antlers as he weaved his way around the trees.

That line of trees ended mid-hill; off to the right sprawled a block of light-green mesquite. The buck was angling to the right, it seemed to me, and logically he should move from the trees and into the mesquite cover. There was a large gap in the mesquite he’d likely pass through.

I ranged the gap at 370 yards, adjusted my position slightly, got the backpack solid under my elbow, and settled in for the shot.

That morning, I’d rechecked my bullet profile in my shooting app, Ballistic, recalibrating it for the day’s weather conditions. With the Barnes load, 370 yards required a holdover of 4.7 MOA.

McCombie used the Ballistic app to calculate his longer-range shots.

I was ready. But the dark was coming on fast.  

No movement on the hill. Not a sound. I imagined the Axis was in the mesquite now, sniffing around, making sure it was safe before he moved into the gap. 

Come on, I said to myself. Get moving, Bud!

A nice Texas Axis buck.

I forced myself to breathe in and out slowly, kept checking the gap through my AccuPower. The glass on the Trijicon was first-rate, and though the light was fading, the scope lit up the land just fine. I knew I had another ten-plus-minutes of shooting time with the scope.

Then I heard him bellow–from the top of the hill. Damn!

The Axis had turned right around and went back upslope. Through my binos, I saw a blur moving over the top of the hill and then it disappeared.

I swore out loud several times before I unloaded my rifle and gathered up my gear.

I was hunting near the Rocksprings-Leaky, Texas, with Desert Safaris outfitters, owned and operated by Hunter Ross. Desert Safaris provides hunts for free-range exotics and native game in Texas and New Mexico on over 750-square miles of leased private ranches. The Texas properties I hunted were working livestock ranches, with herds of goats and cattle roaming the lands.

Desert Safaris leases private properties for their hunts, usually on working, livestock ranches like this goat operation near Leaky, Texas

My hunt was at the invitation of Trijicon and Chuck Wahr, the company’s Global Vice President of Sales and Marketing.

Trijicon, of course, made its name with the ACOG, that stubby little optic used so effectively by our military. But the last several years, Trijicon has made an increasing push into hunting and long-range shooting optics, including the AccuPower 4.5-30x56mm.

The Trijicon AccuPower 4.5-30x56MM scope is rugged and made with high-quality glass that will take a hunter right to dark–and many minutes beyond.

A month earlier, I’d reviewed the Sabatti Urban Sniper with the AccuPower for GunsAmerica Digest.

Admittedly, the Sabatti isn’t my first choice for a hunting rifle—not at ten pounds unloaded. The AccuPower added another two pounds. But when I’d tested the rifle and optic with the Barnes ammunition, I printed five-shot groups near ½ MOA. With a chance at a longer-range Axis, I took the Sabatti.

I thought I was going to score an Axis on Day One of my hunt. Bobby and I had driven onto a 6,000-acre ranch, low-fenced for livestock, and parked on a hill. After 20 minutes of glassing, Bobby spotted a good Axis buck below.

I used a tree to support my back and shooting arm and set up my Primos Jim Shockey sticks. We caught glimpses of the Axis meandering through a patch of persimmon trees, heading for an opening that Bobby ranged at 300 yards. 

First set up, Day One, of the author’s Axis hunt. A buck was spotted but he disappeared.

I was ready. And waited and waited. But 90 minutes later and the Axis still hadn’t appeared. We walked downhill, hoping to push him out, but he was already gone.

How and to where, we had no clue.

We saw several herds of Axis does and young males that afternoon, but no mature bucks.

The next morning, I set up on a ridge and glassed a group of Axis does four football field lengths away. The way the does kept looking back over their shoulders, I was sure a buck was close.

I set up for a long shot. Again, the buck never showed.

Day Number Three started bright and sunny as we headed to a different property.

“This ranch hasn’t been hunted for over a year. White-tails, Axis, nothing,” Bobby said as he drove. “We’re getting one today!”

We pulled into the ranch gate, crossed over the cattle guard, and immediately saw an Axis buck lounging under a mesquite tree not 80-yards away. Bobby hit the brakes. The Axis looked about four years old and had a decent rack. He just watched us, not even bothering to stand up. 

“You could get out and take him right here,” Bobby suggested.

“I’m probably going to hate myself later,” I said. “But he’s too close.”

“You’re the boss,” Bobby said, and put the truck in gear.

Boss without an Axis, one part of my brain reminded me.

We had two spot-and-stalk opportunities over the next few hours, but the Axis kept moving ahead of us, drifting through the mesquite faster than we could keep up.

Late morning, we headed back towards the front gate to get some lunch in town. As we drove around a long curve, Bobby suddenly said, “Axis!”

He kept driving, explaining that a group of Axis was bedded down in the shade under mesquite trees 50-yards off the road. He’d spotted tall antlers, too.

We drove for a half minute, then turned off the ranch road and into the brush. Some quick glassing confirmed it: a big Axis buck bedded under the trees with a half dozen does.

We stalked along the roadside brush until we got within 225 yards. The mesquite really opened up past this point, and there was no way the sharp-eyed does would miss us if we stepped out. I wedged my upper body between a couple of trees and Bobby set up the sticks.

Wedged between two trees, with shooting sticks and a pad to create a solid rest, McCombie was in the position to take his Axis. 

Through the AccuPower, I saw the tall antlers of the Axis. He sat near the edge of the group of does, the thick scrub in front of his body negating a shot.

“These guys could lay up for the next three hours,” Bobby said. “Are you ready to shoot?”

“Ready,” I said.

“I’m going to try something,” he said. “If he stands up? Shoot. Don’t wait. Shoot.”

Bobby pulled a tube call out of his hunting vest and blew it several times. Through the scope, I watched the does and the buck raise their heads and look into our direction.

Bobby blew a couple more Axis bellows and got a response—from an Axis buck somewhere ahead of us. That buck started to fairly scream. The does jumped up. I got the crosshairs on the buck, waiting, waiting, and as the does began to filter away, the buck stood up.

I fired. The buck stiffened for a second, extended his front leg to take a step, paused, and fell over.

He was a fine Axis, seven years old, Bobby estimated, and getting gray in the muzzle and along his nose, with plenty of dings to his antlers from numerous fights with other males. Back at hunting camp, the scales put him right at 200 pounds.

Just as I squeezed the trigger, the buck had twisted to his left, getting ready to follow his does. Instead of smacking him broadside in the heart-lung area, the 120-grain Barnes bullet hit him about midway down the length of his body. Fortunately, given the way he had turned, the 6.5 Creedmoor bullet came from behind and through the lungs, hit the far ribcage and then drove on up into the shoulder, breaking bone before it stopped.

I retrieved the bullet and it weighed just shy of 109 grains. Excellent weight retention, especially given the shoulder bone the bullet took out.

The Barnes VOR-TX bullet in 6.5 Creedmoor that McCombie retrieved from his Axis only lost 11-grains weight despite taking on a substantial bone.

It was a great hunt and the Axis venison was outstanding. But I want to go back. I want to get into position in front of that steep hill as a bellowing Axis buck is walking towards me, feel the excitement as the buck gets closer, and then try my best to make that 370-yard shot as the Axis steps into the gap.

McCombie and his guide, Bobby, with McCombie’s seven-year old Axis buck.

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About the author: Brian McCombie writes about hunting and firearms, people and places, for a variety of publications including American Hunter, Shooting Illustrated, and SHOT Business. He loves hog hunting, 1911’s chambered in 10MM and .45 ACP, and the Chicago Bears.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Dale Roberts June 8, 2019, 4:22 am

    The gun was so accurate my 80 year old mom took down her first hog and two shots congrats on the gun actually excellent gun

  • Kurt G Rominger June 4, 2019, 12:52 pm

    600 yards??? We have to shoo them out of camp on the Nueces. Some were five and six years old.

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