Dawn came cold and clear across Montana’s high country, ushering in the dawn of another opening day of elk season. My son Josiah and I climbed the trail above our camp, stalking silently up the mountainside as shooting light arrived. We had scouted hard the day before with nothing to show for our efforts, and I feared that stormy weather had moved all the elk out of the area. There were other hunters around too, more than I had hoped to encounter this far into the backcountry. We had packed in over 14 miles, hoping to escape the crowds.
Shooting light was upon us as we climbed toward a canyon-side basin, our boots wet with dew from the mountain grass. Josiah looked at me with a funny expression, and I figured his young ears had picked up something interesting. Then I heard it too – the unmistakable ring of a mature bull bugle sounded from the far side of the canyon. Excitedly, we hurried toward a rocky point that would give us a good view of the opposite canyon wall. And there they were; a herd of perhaps 18 elk feeding on a distant mountainside meadow with a big herd bull among them.
I hit the elk with my rangefinder – just over 800 yards. That’s a long, long shot under field conditions, especially when shooting at a live animal. Earlier I had told Josiah he was up first if the opportunity presented itself. He is an extraordinarily good shot and very familiar with his rifle, but this was farther than either of us had ever shot a game animal before. As I watched the elk I monitored for wind – no movement at all. It was as still as a monastery in the canyon. That would change as the day grew older, but for now, shooting conditions were ideal. Josiah was on his belly beside me, settling into his bipod, positioning a lightweight rear shooting bag, and placing several spare cartridges ready at hand.
By this time I had my Zeiss spotting scope mounted atop my Spartan tripod and was watching the elk through the scope. Other hunters moved a couple of hundred yards below us, and I knew they must be locked onto the elk themselves. I knew of at least one other group in the area; they too had likely heard the bugling bull and might be readying to shoot. It was time to make a decision.
RIFLE, OPTIC, AND AMMO
Josiah was hunting with the same rifle he’s used on all his American big game hunts, a Kimber Mountain Ascent chambered in .280 Ackley Improved. It’s one of my favorite rifles – beautifully balanced, accurate, and light as a feather. It sports a 24-inch stainless barrel over a controlled-feed action bedded in Kimber’s carbon-fiber stock. Mounted in Talley’s one-piece Lightweight Alloy Mounts is a 2-12X42 Leupold VX6 HD riflescope. The scope’s CDS ZL2 turret is custom yardage-engraved to match the rifle and ammunition’s ballistics.
Josiah was shooting Federal Premium Terminal Ascent ammunition. This ammo offers superb long-range ballistic performance and wind-bucking ability. More importantly, it provides incredible terminal performance at a wide variety of impact velocities, thanks to its solid copper shank (rear half of the bullet), bonded lead/ copper front, and slipstream polymer tip. I’ve harvested a lot of game with this bullet, and honestly believe it’s the best all-around hunting bullet made. Josiah’s particular load shoots a 155-grain bullet with a G1 BC of .586 going 2,937 feet per second (fps). With a 200-yard zero his bullet will drop 124 inches at 800 yards (just under 15 minutes of angle), while retaining 2,057 fps of velocity and 1,456 ft-lbs. of energy. These calculations are made at 9000 feet elevation and 40-degrees Fahrenheit.
WOULD YOU TAKE THE SHOT?
Place yourself in Josiah’s shoes; you’ve traveled across three states buying gold-bullion-priced diesel and pulling a big trailer full of horses. You’ve packed many miles into the wilderness and worked hard to be ready for this moment. A beautiful 6X6 bull waits on the far side of the canyon, but other hunters may kill him at any moment. You prefer to stalk close and take your shots at close range, but you’ve worked hard to prepare for just such an encounter, where circumstances will not allow you to close the distance. Still, this is farther than you’ve ever shot at an animal.
Your position is excellent; a Spartan Precision bipod supports your rifle up front and a lightweight shooting bag in the rear. You lie on granite rock – as immovable as the mountain itself. Your hunting buddy has eyes on the bull through a quality spotting scope, and there is no discernable wind. Your bullet has plenty of retained velocity and energy to do its job at this range. Your turret is dialed and your crosshairs are steady on the bull’s vitals. Will you take the shot?
HERE’S WHAT HAPPENED: TRUE STORY
The bull stood perfectly broadside at 801 yards. Josiah pressed the trigger and his bullet impacted about 18 inches over the bull’s back. The windage was perfect. I called the impact and Josiah shot again, this time hitting so close over the bull’s back that the bullet must have cut hair. Once more I called the impact and the third bullet took the bull perfectly through the heart and lungs. He lurched toward the timber and Josiah missed a moving shot (he should have waited), but then the bull stopped and he hit him again, just lower than the first hit. The bull collapsed, cleanly killed at a very long range.
Josiah wore a huge smile as we took photos and processed the beautiful six-point bull, taken on a quintessential, traditional elk hunt deep in some of the most beautiful country on earth. He didn’t grow up back in the day when fixed scopes and iron sights were the norm, when 400 yards was a really, really long shot. It seemed natural to him to place accurate bullets at extreme range because he’s been ringing steel at those ranges since he was a little tyke. But to me, harvesting that bull at over 800 yards felt like a very real feat. My feelings were mixed; we’d had to push the envelope but we came away with a superb bull, a clean kill, and memories that will last a long, long time.
It bothered me that Josiah’s shots had impacted high, until I realized that all of his practicing had been done with his Spartan bipod resting either on the firm cushion of my shooting mat or on actual dirt, also a firm cushion. I believe – though I haven’t verified this yet – that resting his bipod atop solid rock threw his shots slightly high.
Would I take those shots again? Yes, I would. However, a shooter must work hard to become capable of ethically taking that kind of shot at a living animal. Most shooters with desire, discipline, and hard work ethic can become capable of shooting long, but there are other factors; wind, reading animal behavior, and so on that must be mastered. And that kind of shot should never, ever be taken without a competent spotter behind good glass who can call impacts and read the situation.
Whether shooting long at game is right and ethical (and healthy for the long-term future of hunting and game populations) is a subject for another time. But in this case, I’m grateful for elk meat in the freezer and a smile on my boy’s face. He worked hard for that elk, and those memories will last long into the future. Someday I’ll be too old to climb those mountains, and I’ll sit in my rocker on the porch and remember the sound of a bull bugling on a crisp Montana morning, that 801-yard shot, and the smile on my boy’s face.
*** Buy and Sell on GunsAmerica! All Local Sales are FREE! ***
I’ll say it again shooting long range on big game animals is shooting not hunting wrong to teach young hunts this. Teach them to get close enough for the shot that they do not need a range finder
Why? Why is it wrong? Why isn’t it hunting?
Because it is a type of hunting you may not do or enjoy, doesn’t make it “not hunting,” more does it make it wrong.
What would you say about shooting caribou in the head point-blank with a .22 from a boat while they are swimming? Is that close enough to be hunting?
If his first 2 misses were windage and not elevation, his wounded elk would have run off, died, and never found.
Such shots are not uncommon where I live. There are considerations that are important in longer range hunting, which appear to have been taken into account in this instance.
Not all hunting is the same. Not all hunters have the same skills. Not all hunters like the same weapons, game, or types of hunting.
What I don’t like is the attitude that imposes one hunter’s preference on others; the “it’s not really hunting if . . . ” attitude.
Let’s start understanding that there are many legitimate ways to hunt. hunting in Alaska is totally different than hunting on the east coast. Yet hunting at 40 yards from a tree is just as much hunting as hiking through the tundra and taking 600 yd shots in Alaska, or hunting brown bears in the rain forest.
I know many hunters who have the skill to take just such a shot. They have worked hard to master those skills. Yet there are people who will still say it is unethical to take a long shot. A bow hunter works just as hard to master different skills, and takes only very close range shots. Both are legitimate types of hunting.
I my brother saw 4 guys empty 5 slugs each at a deer 20 yards from them and then frantically reload as the unscathed deer bounded away. Did those guys take an ethical shot because they were close?
I’d rather see two well-placed shots at 800 yds.
Was your turret set up for your your home elev/temp or for the mountains?
I keep re-reading the article.
Have you confirmed drops since you got back home?
With the early morning, air is going to be going up, and that itself can be a part of the issue (creating vertical).
It can be calm where you are at, and where the animal is at and it can be a completely different world in between though.
Almost 3 Feet off on your vertical is significant!
Aram Von Benedikt,
First, I am glad your boy sealed the deal.
I am not opposed to hunting at distance.
I appreciate your honesty with the article, but it leaves me with a lot of questions.
Was Josiah shooting at an angle? If so, how much?
How many times did you confirm distance to target?
Is it possible the ranging hit behind the animal, giving a false number?
Were you at the actual or close to density altitude/elev & temp as your drops were set up for?
Was the ammo he used the very same lot as you chroned and did drop confirmations with?
How far would Josiah regularly practice with that rifle at distances beyond 600 yards?
What size are the targets at distance?
When practicing, did he use the same bi-pod and the same rear bag?
When practicing, did he shoot from the bench or prone in the dirt?
Did you have him practice in uneven terrain?
What did each of you learn from this hunt?
Your thought about the bipod could be correct. I have a friend who spent a lot of time and ammo determining that the difference between rubber or steel feet on a bipod on a hard surface can affect point of impact.
This isn’t an article about hunting ethics, its a boast. It wouldn’t have been written if the boy had missed all of his shots or if the story had ended with a wounded bull that was never recovered. This level of irresponsibility can’t be justified by investment in “gold-bullion-priced diesel”, or horses, or time. Rushing a bad shot you’re not prepared for because you’re concerned hunters closer to the elk might pull the trigger first shouldn’t factor into your decision. There’s a live animal across the canyon that deserves only the best you have to offer. There are other hunters that through luck, preparation, and sweat are in a better position, and theydeserve your respect.
We’re hearing about this because the outcome was a dead elk. But, I’d much rather read a story about how a young hunter was guided to resist the impulsive drive displayed here.
Slob hunters. Elk are not for your kid to use for target practice. Get closer like a real hunter would do. If you miss twice, you are too far away. This kind of crap is what anti hunters love.
It’s all about context which may not be totally clear here. If you were the hunter closer to the quarry you would not be happy with other hunters, high and behind you taking 5 half mile shots. Especially if they were aware you were there.