By Jack Billington
“You missed,” my friend Nick said, holding his rifle. But I knew I’d seen the puff of smoke right at the base of the big mule deer’s shoulder. “I can’t believe that,” I whispered. “I held dead-on, I squeezed the trigger smoothly, I didn’t jerk it – well, I can’t believe I missed that deer.” “Forget it,” Nick explained. “Reload, and take a second shot.”
The mule deer hadn’t budged. Because he was on one side of a canyon and we were on the other, he didn’t know from where the report of my CVA muzzleloader had come. Using a CVA speed loader, I quickly reloaded with Pyrodex pellets and a powerbelt bullet, rammed the charge home, put on another primer and readied for another shot.
“Aim about 3-inches above the deer’s back, right on top of the shoulder,” Nick suggested. “The deer’s at 150 yards, the gun’s sighted-in for 150 yards. I’m sure you’ll get him this time.” I took my time, I had a steady rest and I was sure of my aim. I squeezed the trigger, but the big mule deer never moved.
“Reload,” Nick told me and asked, “How many speed loaders did you bring?” This time he was frowning more than smiling. Once again, I quickly used another speed loader, rammed the charge home and readied for the shot. “Aim about 6-inches over his back this time,” Nick coached. I thought to myself, “Six inches over the deer’s back is Never-Never Land. How do you know what 6-inches really is at distance of 150 yards?”
But I sighted-in on the deer’s shoulder, moved my reticle six inches above his back and fired again. The deer went down.
“You’ve got him,” Nick announced. “But, go ahead, reload, give me your gun, and start walking out. When you reach the truck, the keys are behind the back front wheel. Drive to camp, get your gear packed-up, and be ready to go to the airport. Once you’ve got your gear and the other hunters’ gear loaded in the truck, come pick me up. I’ll have your deer out of the mountains and waiting beside the road.” Embarrassed at missing the deer twice, I simply answered, “Okay,” and followed Nick’s instructions.
I couldn’t understand how I’d missed so badly. The first thing you think about is hunter error, but I was confident I hadn’t made any mistakes. The second thing you think about is, “I’ll blame it on the gun.” But I couldn’t do that either, because this was Ken Coul’s personal CVA rifle that he’d loaned me for the hunt. Coul had sighted it in, and I had shot it and knew that it would drive tacks out to 200 yards.
I was embarrassed and frustrated over my poor shooting performance. However, a week later, I got a call from Coul, who said “Well, we figured out why you missed that mule deer twice. The gun was 12 inches low at 150 yards. Apparently, the scope got jostled, either when y’all were riding around in the truck looking for a mule deer to hunt, or when you were walking and climbing. But we re-sighted the rifle in, and it’s shooting just as good as it did before you took it hunting.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d missed a deer due to the scope’s moving between the time I sighted it and when I took the shot. On another hunt, several years earlier, I had two back-to-back hunts. On the first one, I dropped a deer within 10 yards of where he stood with my CVA muzzleloader. After the hunt, I cleaned the gun, put it in my case, drove home, took the gun out of the case and put it in my gun safe.
That weekend, I packed up and went on a second hunt. The gun had been dead-on during that first hunt. So, on the second hunt, I didn’t bother to sight it in. My guide said, “If your gun was on last week, it should be okay now. We’ll sight it in tomorrow to make sure. We’ve got to get you in a stand quickly.”
I climbed right into the stand…and I missed the white-tailed buck of a lifetime.
The moral of the story: regardless of how accurately your blackpowder gun has shot in the past, sight it in before every hunt. And one tip I’ve learned that’s critically important — almost as critically important as sighting in before each hunt — is to sight your rifle in after the hunt. Many times your scope can be off after you’ve made the shot, because you’ve climbed down out of a tree or come out of a ground blind, gone to your downed deer, loaded the deer up, put your gun in the vehicle and ridden back to camp.
From these lessons, I’ve learned to never assume that my gun will be as accurate as it can be until I sight it in just before the hunt and just after the hunt. Even then, something can happen, but at least you’ve done everything you know to do to make sure that you can shoot as accurately as possible. If you hunt long enough, sooner or later you will miss, either from operator error, equipment failure or the deer doesn’t do what he’s supposed to do when he’s supposed to do it. Misses happen – they’re part of hunting. Our job as ethical hunters is to try to keep them to a minimum.
Jack Billington is a former Army officer. After the service, he went to work as a home security counselor. He devotes his free time to conducting shooting courses with firearms. He also writes a blog featuring home and self-defense training tips.