As the rack comes slowly into view and the big buck steps into the open, you're in the right place at the right time with all the scent-dampening, deer-attracting, optics-enhancing, gun-stabilizing technology a credit card can buy. All your gun-shop prep may not matter if you haven't done enough gun-range prep to know precisely where your sporting arm will shoot under the conditions at hand.
With the opening of the statewide rifle deer season just weeks away, it's now or never for hunters who need a little quality time with their sporting arms.
After the initial set up, telescopic sights require periodic tweeking to stay on the mark. And while iron sights and slug guns generally remain steady, big game animals rarely present themselves at exactly the sighted distance.
Ballistics expert Buddy Savage, longtime owner of Braverman Arms in Wilkinsburg, said the most common mistake made by most hunters is not knowing where their guns will shoot at various ranges.
"How you set the gun up determines how it's going to shoot. You sight in at 100 yards, say, but do you know how it shoots at 50 and 150 yards? How about 25 and 200 yards?" he said. "Because you can never know where that deer or bear is going to present itself."
Hunting conditions vary wildly and unexpectedly -- that's half the challenge of the hunt. But after initially setting up their guns, many hunters do a quick annual sight-check ritual under the same controlled conditions every year. Savage said merely looking at bullet trajectory charts isn't enough to really understand how the gun shoots at different ranges.
"First of all, the bullet weight should be considered as a factor in what type of hunting they're doing. But if someone has been using 150 grains for years, I wouldn't recommend changing now, even if 150 isn't the ideal weight for their hunt," he said. "It's far better to understand how the bullet they're using shoots at different distances."
In the same respect, hunters who originally sighted a heavy load at 100 yards perhaps could have given themselves more kill-zone flexibility had they sighed at 150. But again, Savage said for most hunters it's better to understand the full collective capabilities of the sporting arm, bullet weight and sighting distance that are the most familiar.
"When you go to the range to check your sighting, fire off the typical three shots with a cold barrel and get a good pattern. But you're not done yet," he said. "With the same sighting aiming dead on, shoot a few shots at 50 yards. Do it at 25 yards. Aim dead on at 150, 175 yards. Don't aim high or low, and don't adjust your sights. You want to learn how your gun shoots."
At a distance other than the range at which the gun is sighted, if you're shooting no more than a couple of inches high or low you can probably aim dead on and place a shot in the animal's kill zone. More than a few inches high or low? Compensate with an alternative aiming point.
"I'm not a big fan of messing with your sights in the field," said Savage. "Once a hunter knows how his gun shoots -- once he knows how much drop he's got -- he should just aim a little high or low. That's the simplest way to do it."
Slug guns are notorious for blasting off with a fast initial velocity, but having a trajectory arc that drops abruptly. Many hunters would be surprised the learn the steep rate of drop within common hunting conditions.
"It's a relatively close-range gun, but if you know how it shoots there's the potential for a longer shot," said Savage. "There's a wide variety of slugs out there. The sabot loads seem to shoot well. For most of the shooting I see around here, I'd be sighting in for 75 yards dead on. At 25 yards it will be lower but not out of the kill zone, but I'd try it at 100, 125, 150 and keep shooting rounds to see how fast it drops."
At the range at which the slug drops about 10 inches, it's too much of a drop to safely and confidently compensate by aiming high. "The ethics of the gun," said Savage, demand that the hunter pass on that shot and wait for a closer one. "A clean kill -- that's what's important."
Other field conditions can be tested while sighting. A good solid rest will steady the gun, but the forestock will recoil off a hard surface before the bullet leaves the muzzle, throwing off the shot. The angle of elevation can also impact accuracy when a hunter takes a long shot from high in a tree stand or fires up a steep hill.
"If the gun is pointed down, the recoil will rise less because of the weight," said Savage. "If it's pointing up, the likelihood is it will be shooting higher."
On getting into position in the field, use a range finder to note multiple distance-marking landmarks in all directions, and consider in advance how you'll aim at various distances.
If you're sighting-in at a space not landscaped to serve as a shooting range, make sure you're firing into a safe backstop with no chance of passers-by and with the landowner's permission. In addition to many private sporting club ranges throughout the region, the Pennsylvania Game Commission operates public shooting ranges on 29 state game lands, including a new handgun-only range at State Game Land 203 near Wexford.
Following expensive lead remediation, landscaping and other work on the public ranges, users must be in possession of a general hunting or furtaker license or a range use permit, available for $30. Licensed users can bring one unlicensed guest. Kids 15 and under don't need a license and must be accompanied by a licensed person age 18 or older.