The not-so-clean kill: Intent gone wrong

Photo by Ken Thomas

This summer, an aspiring hunter sent me an e-mail.

Had I, he asked, ever wounded an animal but failed to kill and recover it? If so, how did I deal with that?

He was contemplating taking to the field for the first time, and didn’t know how he would handle such an experience. Yet he knew it might happen someday. The thought troubled him.

My answer, thankfully, was no. That hasn’t happened. Though my first, foolish rifle shot at a whitetail failed to kill, I’m ninety-nine percent certain it was a clean miss: The bullet struck a spruce branch, the animal pranced off with his tail high, and two hours of examining the area yielded not one sign of injury. Since then, I have fired four bullets in the woods and dragged home four deer.

To the larger, implied question—how would I deal with wounding an animal?—I had to say I wasn’t sure. It’s a question I have wrestled since I started hunting, but not one I have resolved. So I remain a cautious hunter.

Our e-mail exchange reminded me of my book talk in Omaha a month earlier. There, someone had asked about wounding. I said I dreaded it, had managed to avoid it so far, and thought it less likely to occur if a hunter is skilled and experienced. An experienced hunter spoke up, pointing out that the longer you hunt, the higher the chance that you will wound an animal eventually. From reading my book, he knew one of my early thoughts on the matter:

If even longtime hunters could be sickened by such an incident, I had a good idea how this greenhorn would fare. If my first shooting of a deer resulted in an endless blood trail, it would be my last.

He asked how I thought I would react if it happened now, with several years of hunting under my belt. I replied that I did not know.

In choosing to hunt, I have accepted the risk of wounding an animal. But I have not accepted, and do not want to accept, the reality of it.

I run a similar risk, of course, every time I get into a car. Driving down a back road or cruising down a highway, I might maim a squirrel, raccoon, or deer at any moment.

In hunting, though, there is intent.

As a hunter, I can set aside that intent, by choosing not to shoot when I see an animal. When that happens, no harm is done.

I can also enact that intent well, by killing swiftly. When that happens, the pain, if any, is mercifully brief. I can make my peace with that more easily than with all the other harm I do—all the messy, unintended, often-unseen ravages of my driving, eating, and living.

But what of intent gone wrong? What of a deer struck in the leg or abdomen, running deep into the woods, perhaps to recover, perhaps to linger in pain until death comes? How would I react to that? Could I hunt again the next day, or even the next year?

Would I look upon local farmers’ chickens with renewed appreciation, knowing that none of them will ever escape on slaughter day, maimed and limping?

As this hunting season approaches, I still don’t know. The possibilities trouble me. I hope they always will.

© 2012 Tovar Cerulli


  1. Ryan Johns says:

    Well timed posting. I was actually reading your book last night and wondering if this was an experience you had. I have never lost an animal but i have trailed an animal over miles following a blood trail with tears in my eyes until i found it feeling lucky that there was a light dusting of snow to aid in my search. All from a “sure” shot at the time I pulled the trigger. It is awful and it has happened more than once. I still hunt.
    It is hard to put into words what this feels like. I hunt for many reasons and in these tough moments it feels like all of those reasons are lost. My connection to the animal although almost more intense feels wrong and out of control. My thoughtful stalking and steady manner becomes confused. Before i pulled the trigger i felt like i was a part of the natural process and then immediately that feeling changes. I feel like an intruder on the landscape. Like I don’t deserve to be a part of the natural process i hold so dear.
    This is the part of hunting that we don’t talk about much and i appreciate you bringing it up. The part that all hunters know exists yet we don’t really want the public to know. i can justify it in asking whether the Mountain Lion always gets a clean kill? Or does the snake venom always kill with efficiency? But the reality is that i am not an animal in the same way. I hurt when this occurs and i apologize, out loud, to the animal i have wounded. My quiet moments with the fallen creature that are a part of every kill are much longer in these “wounded shot” moments. Every hunt begins with good intent. I have never lost an animal but i have been with respectful, skilled hunters who have and I know that it is a hard process to go through. I promise to the Earth that I will quit hunting long before i harden to the point that these moments don’t bring me to my emotional and physical knees.

  2. Melissa says:

    In his hunting class, Jackson Landers taught us how to track a wounded deer. How to interpet the blood on the ground, for example, and when to go out tracking and how. I believe his book also contains this information. The implication was that it’s something you do no matter what the cost and you need to set aside time in case it happens. One of the many reasons I don’t bow hunt since it seems more likely to happen with arrows.

  3. somsai says:

    Missed two wounded one. It was when I began hunting, couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. A lot depends on how much you want the meat.

    The one that got away was a combination of mistakes. Shooting at a moving deer, not taking a follow up shot when it didn’t go down, chasing it too soon. We figure I creased it in the front, the blood slowed down then stopped, there was just under a foot of snow. As full on dark came we had trouble finding one spot and the tracks were mixing with many others.

    No recriminations at all from my much more experienced friend. No sense in dealing with things that can’t be changed, better to just get on with the job at hand.

    I assumed the yotes got it that night. Death from coyote has to be about the worst way to go. Getting torn apart slowly as you are consumed. I didn’t feel real good about the whole thing.

    The next morning at daylight I was back out there walking circles, looking for drops of blood or a stiffened doe, or signs of a coyote feast. Nothing. The last drop we found that night was the last that dropped. Circles got larger and ended up being a mile wide.

    After that season I got a 22 bolt gun and shot a heck of a lot of rimfire at steel spinning targets, probably a thousand rounds a year. I shoot quickly and from all positions, especially off hand and kneeling. I practice with my big gun out to 300 yards. I shoot a lot and I’ve gotten better.

    Now when I shoot an animal I know what part of the lungs it’s going to go through. What has happened is past, but in the future I don’t want to spend nights looking in the snow for a blood trail, or thinking about the coyotees pulling apart a deer due to something I’ve done.

  4. Erik Jensen says:

    I’m with Somsai, I’ve lost a deer, largely out of inexperience. I felt “ok” after it, largely because one of my experienced friends said by the looks of what happened, it should have “made it”, but I’m not so sure knowing what I know now.

    I’ve had my share of clean misses with both rifle and bow, but I think your general point is right that you get better over time, and with good examples to follow.

    It will probably happen again sooner or later just because of time in the field, and it certainly happens with waterfowl. I’ve lost at least one “cripple” in the past.

    I will say I ruminate about it little but not never, probably because I work at not being a “slob hunter” and because of the pain and suffering that happens in nature. The fortunate reality is, I am also driven by a desire for hunting success, and that works against behavior that results in wounding. I’m sure I and many others would likely not hunt if it were the opposite. I will say I do get disgusted at hunters who callously take bad shots. Most “good hunters” do it sometimes, but that is largely out of a situation unfolding quickly.

  5. Arthur says:

    I hate to be the downer in all of this, but I truly believe – the longer you hunt – the bigger chance you’ll have of wounding an animal.

    It’s only happened to me once, and I hated the feeling! It’s an awful feeling, and I scoured the woods that night and the next day, and will never know truly what happened to that deer – if it recovered, or if it perished.

    What I do know is this:

    Simply having those thoughts, and feeling that anguish, allows me comfort. It sounds a little weird, but we are truly the only predator who has that moral code and would feel the way that we do after an errant shot. I’m sure a wolf would never feel any anguish about leaving a whitetail to die a slow, horrible death. It’s only in our makeup.

    And that is what allows me to be okay with it, especially since it only happens occasionally, and since I know that nothing truly goes to waste in the wild.

    My two cents anyway.

  6. Thank you for addressing this issue with such honesty. I never want to experience this but know it’s a possibility.

    It’s my responsibility to do the best I can to find an animal I shoot. How much I want the meat isn’t a factor. If I pull the trigger it’s because I intend to put that animal in the freezer. I hate to feed the coyotes but if that’s what it ever comes down to, I’ll be very disappointed.

  7. Al Cambronne says:

    It’s a good question to ponder. And, as Arthur noted, it’s something wolves probably don’t fret over. But I have to agree that the longer you hunt, the more likely it is that it could happen. Even if you take thousands of careful practice shots every year with an air rifle and .22 rimfire, and even if you’re careful about which shots you take, it could still happen.

    But if you want a comparative benchmark, maybe butchering chickens on a small farm is a pretty high bar. What about chickens, turkeys, swine, or cattle at a giant industrial processing plant? Every now and then, one hears rumors about what happens when things that don’t go quite right and animals or birds suffer horribly. There’s a reason those giant slaughterhouses don’t have too many windows.

    Still, knowing some other animal might die more slowly and painfully doesn’t change what I’d feel if I inadvertently cause that sort of death myself. So far that hasn’t happened. But next time I hunt I’ll be careful, not smug.

  8. Brickman says:

    The first deer I every shot was unrecovered, mostly due to trespassing issues (the deer crossed a property line that we couldn’t). I remember having a lot of emotions at the time, I was in my mid teens and it was a bad way to loose a nice buck. That experience and my first recovered kill, which was not especially clean, probably contributed to the two decades I spent as a non-hunter. I guess I’ve never really gone over the story, maybe I’ll make a post about it soon.

    The two deer that I shot since I returned to hunting both had the decency to die quickly and not very far away. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how lucky that was, because I’ve read a lot of bad accounts since then.

    Lately I’ve thought even more about wounding since it’s archery season now and I’m hunting with my recurve. I’ve practiced a lot and feel pretty confident to 25 yards or so, but an arrow isn’t a copper .270 bullet. My friend who was a hunting guide wrote me a lengthy email about tracking wounded game, emphasizing the positive mental attitude aspect of it. He ended up editing it and it got posted on the blog of a hunting club in California, its a pretty good read that doesn’t hide any gruesome details:

    I certainly don’t want to cause excessive suffering. But I also know that many, if not most, wild animals die suffering, and in the woods nothing is wasted. I’ll do my absolute best to do my part, if but everything goes wrong and I don’t get the meat, the buzzards will. And I like buzzards.

  9. Phillip says:

    Trying this once more… maybe it’s a tender mercy, but my initial, and lengthy, effort was lost because the system couldn’t read the Captcha code. You won’t get off that easy, though.

    The discussion is a good one, and valid. Great points all around. But as a lifetime hunter, I do take issue with the implication (intentional or not)by some that losing animals is a result of “slob hunting” or carelessness.

    I hunted for over 10 years before I lost my first big game animal. Based on the sign, a handful of grey hair, and at the conclusion of six hours of tracking over close to a mile of mountain, I decided that I’d grazed the brisket (was aiming at his neck).

    Since then I can literally count the animals I’ve lost in a lifetime of hunting on one hand. Not only that, but despite the fact that a couple of these events occurred decades ago, I can clearly remember the circumstances. It’s not a meaningless event, and while there may come a certain sense of inevitability to the fact that it happens, it’s not something I take lightly.

    Of those unrecovered animals, one whitetail buck definitely died (within 100 yards of where we left off the search in an impassible thicket of catclaw and blackberry briars), one wild hog almost certainly died, but passed onto a property I could not get permission to access, and another whitetail probably died, either of the wound from the .50 caliber muzzleloader or in the jaws of an alligator as I lost the heavy blood trail in the rising tide of the Cape Fear swamp. One boar, I’m sure, bears a thick scar from the broadhead that stuck just below his chine bone. The fifth was an axis deer that appeared to be poleaxed by the shot, but then leapt up and took off into the mesquite leaving a trail that dwindled to nothing within 50 yards (the last time I’ll ever use a .243 for open range axis deer).

    I’ve also tracked two wounded deer to ground, including one that took most of two days through the swamps and rice paddies of the Cape Fear river, and then let them go when I saw that their wounds were not serious. I don’t count these as “lost”, because I could have killed them both and chose not to.

    I am not the world’s greatest hunter, but I think I can argue that I have “skills” and probably get some agreement from people who know me. I’m definitely not careless, nor am I a slob. In the case of the animals I lost, I have a hard time picking out any critical errors of judgement or carelessness in any of the shots. But I still remember every, single one of them.

    And yet, I still hunt. I still risk adding one more to the count every time I take the bow or rifle into the woods. How do I reconcile this reality? I’m human, I can justify anything… at least to myself. So whatever choice I make is tinged with a little salt.

    But the way I see it, nature is not kind. Death can be swift or it can be slow. It can be agonizing, or quiet as a kiss in the night. I am only one possible agent of death for any creature in the forest or field. I’m different from other killers only in that I know I can contemplate my role, and I can consciously try to make the death I deliver as “kind” as it can be.

    I also recognize that no one is guaranteeing me a swift, painless death. The rattlesnake in my ground blind doesn’t much care if his venom creates excruciating agony, even as my blood cells break down and my flesh rots away. The lion would care little for my screams as he rips open my abdomen and spills my guts. And of course, disease and cancer lurk in every man’s future with lingering pain, decrepitude, and harsh death.

    Of course our self-awareness and the contemplation of our own death is arguably the biggest reason we have these conversations at all. We’d care much less for the life or death of other creatures if we didn’t project our own ideas and fears of mortality on them. We want to guarantee them what no one is guaranteeing us. It’s that whole “golden rule” thing that is so central to our own social and moral structures. Do unto others…

    And maybe that’s it right there. What I offer to my prey is what nature doesn’t offer to any of us. I enter the woods with an implicit promise to give death as quickly and painlessly as possible. I have the technology to do so, and the skill to use that technology well. It may not always work out that way. But at least I try, and most of the time I succeed. Personally, I’m comfortable with that.

    (And yes, I could choose not to be out there at all. As modern humans in a developed country, we don’t have to hunt. But that’s a different discussion for a different time, though.)

    For any of you who haven’t lost an animal, I’m honestly happy for you. It’s a terrible feeling to anyone with a conscience. I expect there must be hunters (at least big game hunters… let’s just pretend like wingshooting doesn’t count) who will hunt their entire lifetimes without losing an animal, but I don’t know any of them. I don’t care how perfect you may try to be, nature is not perfect. Animals move. They react to things you can’t even detect, and they do it instantly. The field is full of twigs and hidden rises to deflect your bullet or confuse your sense of distance and angle. And sometimes, even your own bullet or arrow does odd things, like deflect along a rib cage or bounce off of a tibia.

    I shot a whitetail doe a few years back with my bow. Everything was perfect, from the range (19 yards) to the angle (quartering away slightly) to the animal’s posture (relaxed, head down). I watched the arrow strike and exit, as textbook as you could ever dream. When the doe ran, I had no doubt she’d go headlong into thick brush and expire at the end of her sprint.

    I waited in the tree for about an hour, then radioed my brother before climbing down to recover my deer. We picked up blood quickly enough, even though I really just wanted to walk to the thicket where I “knew” she’d be stone dead.

    Two hours later, we were circling back on tracks with no sign of blood or of my deer. At one point I thought I’d found a new blood trail, but it turned out to be my own, as a briar had cut my forearm and in the heat I bled so profusely that I was dripping on the ground. After three hours, we were utterly at a loss. We backtracked and performed a grid search. We crawled and dug through brush piles. Nothing.

    Frustrated and disappointed, we called it. In the 90 degree heat, our window of opportunity was closing, but it was pointless. We called it, deciding to go get some lunch and some rest, cool off, and then decide if we’d continue the search in the evening, or just call it a loss.

    After dropping me off, my brother had a thought. Thanks to his intimate knowledge of his property, and a big stroke of luck, he went back and checked a briar patch that he’d seen the deer bed in before. Sure enough, my doe was there, dead as a doornail… almost 300 yards from where I’d shot her.

    It turned out, when we cut her open, that she had a malformed right lung, almost half the size of the left. Where my arrow should have passed through both lungs on any normal deer, I only hit one lung on this one. With that wound, she was able to travel a long way, and it was only luck for us that she chose to go to ground in the briar patch, instead of heading into the swamp where we would never have found her before the gators did.

    Nature. She’ll throw you a curve when you’re least expecting.

    • Brickman says:

      Philip, great response. I love when people like you who have so much experience share their knowledge.

      Great quote “I’m human, I can justify anything… at least to myself.”

      Ain’t that the truth!

    • sam says:

      I think the slob reference was that if you were shooting like a slob, there is a good chance you will lose the animal. Not that if you lose an animal, you were shooting like a slob.

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks for all your thoughts, Phillip.

      You wrote: “I can literally count the animals I’ve lost in a lifetime of hunting on one hand. Not only that, but despite the fact that a couple of these events occurred decades ago, I can clearly remember the circumstances. It’s not a meaningless event, and while there may come a certain sense of inevitability to the fact that it happens, it’s not something I take lightly.”

      My uncle could have written that. As you know from my book, he’s a hunter for whom I have the greatest respect.

  10. Very good topic!

    I’ll confess right here and admit that I lost my first big game animal 3 weeks ago – a young antlerless whitetail in archery season. I have wounded a couple of animals before, but always administered a coup de grace within minutes or seconds. I take pride in practicing, preparing, double and triple checking my zeros, not bumping scopes or sights, not taking Hail-Mary’s and cavalier shots. However as many have, or will learn, these things can happen!

    After the event I went back to the tree stand and recreated the 32yard shot, all three of the arrows I fired were acceptable. Did I choke under pressure? Highly likely. Did the deer ‘jump-the-string’ and spin around a bit in order to take a head-shot from the arrow? Perhaps (my bow is quite loud and I will now spend the money to add more dampeners, even if it’s only to my psychological advantage). I tracked a fairly generous blood trail for 2 hours until I lost it. It was tracked again in the morning to no avail… I felt ill.

    I used various mechanisms to abate my ill feeling and embarrassment and they all were simultaneously effective in their level of appeasement, as well as inadequate. Judging from the blood trail I am sure (I hope) the deer died quickly. I compared that to the deaths a deer might experience from exposure, starvation or predation, some of which may be rapid, others far less so. I have spent much time thinking about the wounding rates of my ancestors using archaic bows, atlatls, spears, pits etc. I am convinced they must have caused more wounding than modern equipped hunters. My ancestors may also have been misogynists and racists, so that doesn’t really make it OK for me to be one either! I guess I am not using that as an excuse but more a point of reflection. I wonder about the prolonged suffering reported in many industrially farmed animals (pigs with broken limbs, severe infections etc.). I am happy to believe that all the wild meat that has ever been killed by me has a vastly insignificant cumulative level of suffering than the factory farmed meat I have bought. That calculus alone makes sense and helps ne to accept the mistake.
    I settled on the fact that this can easily happen but we must always work and prepare to minimize it. Ironically the conscientious hunter who really cares about this is the one who will struggle the most when it happens. The slob who indiscriminately flings bullets and arrows and doesn’t bother to check for signs of a hit is less likely to worry after the fact, and or course more likely to wound and lose.

    I went back into the field this weekend and shot a doe – too far back but after a while the broad head did its job and I found her dead. I have decided that while I am fine on targets well beyond the range at which I willing to send an arrow to a live animals, my archery under pressure is failing me, ‘target panic’ as it’s known, has set in. While I am an ardent and dedicated hunter I have decided to hang up the bow for this season and concentrate on rifle. Next year I’ll work to be much better prepared (although I certainly have practiced my fair share lately).
    Do your best, practice, shoot targets under field conditions, maintain your gear and be discriminate with your shooting. This way you will greatly reduce the probability of wounding but be prepared that it might happen, and probably will.

    • Erik Jensen says:

      Great points and stories, Brian. Struggling to overcome archery caused elbow tendonitis, and some target panic as well. Going bowhunting late in the month and I’m accepting more limits on my range this year, but I’m shooting better form (more back muscles, less/no bicep). I do find with either bow or rifle I need to discipline myself to not shoot or quickly get a hold of my emotions when an animal suprises me. I’m nervous and excited when an animal makes a slow approach, but also focused. I feel I’m in control and that nervous energy is focused, so I seem to shoot as well or even better than on the range. I know for others it works the opposite, the longer the animal is in their presence, the more nervous they get and they melt.

      Good luck rifle hunting.

  11. Once, a long time ago I wounded a deer and could not find her. This drove me to test the idea of using leashed tracking dogs in New York State. This experiment, conducted under a state permit, proved that this European idea would work in the United States. The use of leashed tracking dogs has now been legalized in 22 states.

    We know there is no possibility of eliminating suffering in nature. All we can do is seek to reduce it in every way possible. To not hunt would actually produce more suffering through over-population, traffic accidents and predation. The use of leashed tracking dogs allows us to reduce the time that an animal is in great pain, and it also allows us to determine if an animal is superficially wounded.

    Here are the two paragraphs with which I conclude my own book Tracking Dogs for Finding Wounded Deer. They sum up my thoughts on the topic which has preoccupied me for 40 years. They have driven me out on 1014 calls to find wounded game for other hunters.

    “There is more than one motivation for making every effort to find, or to account for every wounded deer. The reasons are almost as complex as the reasons why we hunt in the first place. Why do some hunters direct their passion into tracking those deer that are wounded? We can give clear and logical explanations, but some of the deep, driving forces motivating hunters and trackers are difficult to express. We have mixed feelings. When we are following a wounded deer, we become two different creatures at once. When we track, there is something of the predator in our feelings. The tracker is a hunter too, and we are a part of the natural world, “wild” humans seeking to track down our game before some wilder coyote finds it and devours it.
    At the same time, we have another desire to do what is “right”, although we know that this ethical sense comes from our civilized background and not from the natural world. We are aware that the natural world is cruel, that the lives of wild animals are destined to end through violence, disease or starvation. However, this does not change our conviction that we should intervene with a tracking dog, when this will reduce suffering, and when this will prevent waste. As hunters, and as trackers, we are predators, but we can be more humane predators than wolves and coyotes. We are predators ethically responsible for how we treat our prey. We are on the edge between the natural and the civilized worlds.”

  12. Erik Jensen says:

    John – Great stuff, have to get your books at some point. On my list but I just haven’t gotten around to them yet. I don’t know if you knew, Petersen’s Hunting magazine, which I only get by virtue of my membership in the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance, listed banning tracking dogs as one of the seven dumbest hunting regulations. This from a magazine that engages in a lot of divisive political and cultural warfare against non-hunters in its editorial line, so it shows support for lifting the bans that exist has quite a bit of support in various quarters of the “hunting community”.

  13. Tovar says:

    Many thanks for all the thoughtful comments, folks. And my apologies for not yet responding to each as I usually do. I hope to do that soon.

    At the moment, I’m over-busy in several arenas of life. Time in the woods, unfortunately, is not one of them!

  14. Paul Roberts says:

    Philip, great post. Thank you for that.

    “But the way I see it, nature is not kind. Death can be swift or it can be slow. It can be agonizing, or quiet as a kiss in the night. I am only one possible agent of death for any creature in the forest or field. I’m different from other killers only in that I know I can contemplate my role, and I can consciously try to make the death I deliver as “kind” as it can be. ”

    We have mountain lions here, and they do not always kill quickly at all; Neighbors have seen this, and been sickened by it. When we hunt we do have the technology to kill relatively quickly. But we need solid practiced judgment in place. Yet even this is not always enough. It’s a real world out there and hunting is both athletic as well as cerebral.

    Early on in my hunting career I saw the results of poor judgment, poor skills, and ignorance. That was a kind of hunting I wanted nothing to do with.

    As Tovar said: “So I remain a cautious hunter.”

    But… how cautious? As hunters get older, not only will the chances increase by sheer repetition but also, I believe, as skill level goes up. More deer will be taken, but the chances of mis-hap can climb, even if only incrementally.

    How long will my AOH hunting partner (or Tovar) wait for THE PERFECT shot? In a target rich environment, the definition can be more constrained. I value my wild meat for its nutritional content, and rely on it to some extent. How long will a hunter go without bringing food home for the table, and still consider hunting a worthwhile endeavor?

    This does not mean I take risks of wounding lightly. But I accept a “good shot”, a (very) high probability shot. However, some of these shots are not so for my AOH partner.

    I am especially conservative in judgment with my archery gear. I shoot homemade selfbows that lack the speed of more modern designs. I know my limitations from practice and experience. But jump to a rifle and what constitutes a “good shot” changes drastically. I have even taken running shots, killing four deer on the run. I’ve never lost one on a running shot. Such shots are not pre-planned, the reactions required are too quick. What the human hand-eye-mind can do, with practice, is amazing. There are people, and more than one, that can shoot coins, even aspirins, out of the air with archery tackle. (I’m still working on 10” discs.)

    And we can use the best judgment in line with our skills but still be blind to weakness. I’ve lost 3 deer in my 35yrs of hunting, the last quite a few years back now. All three were for the very same reason: I was dog tired, worn out, and should have gone home. I have since made it a habit to check in with myself –am I tired– and have had to tell myself, sometimes audibly, to go home. I did that last year. I hunt sparse mule deer populations in rugged terrain. I saw all of three deer and one buck last year in 5 days of hard hunting. The 4th day I’d gone home midday, took an ibuprofen, and crashed. I needed that. The following day I killed that buck at the very end of the day, with a running shot. The event, from identifying that deer as a buck to the shot, took no more than 5 seconds.

    This year, will I consider a running shot a “good shot”? I can not possibly predict that. I will know it when I see it. Do I “recommend” running shots on animals? No. But I don’t condemn them out of hand either.

    • Tovar says:

      Your points are well taken, Paul.

      “How cautious?” Well, that varies from person to person, as you know. I’m mostly a rifle hunter and my “perfect shot” is a well-braced, clear shot at a standing deer. Here in the woods of the Northeast, that deer is apt to be within 50 yards, perhaps a lot closer. That’s my ideal, the chances of a swift, clean kill being very high.

      That said, only the first of my four deer presented that “perfect shot.”

      Two of the four were walking when I shot, not standing. But they were very close and each shot was both well-braced and clear. So I judged them to be good shots for me.

      The other deer (my second) was a complete surprise: He appeared only a few minutes after I’d reached my spot, coming in behind me at an angle that allowed me no chance to shoot. He got within 15 yards, winded me, wheeled, and ran. Even at that close range, he was running and the woods were thick, so it wasn’t a shot I was willing to take. But I stood up from my woods stool to watch him go. Then, unexpectedly, he stopped in an open area 30 yards away and turned to look back. I had nothing to brace against and don’t consider myself a great offhand shooter. But I quickly raised my rifle to see how the shot felt. The area behind his shoulder looked like a barn door. In that instant, I felt sure I could make the shot, and the bullet’s potential path looked clear of obstructions. I squeezed the trigger. He dropped in his tracks and didn’t move.

      That snap decision was probably influenced by a range of factors, including the relative scarcity of deer in this area (I might not get a better chance in weeks of hunting), the intuitive “feel” of that moment, and so on. It turned out to be a good shot. But it could easily have turned out to be a bad one.

  15. Paul Roberts says:

    Sounds like hunting to me, Tovar. Nice. Thanks for the stories. I love to hear them.

    And yes, it could have turned out to be a “bad” one. But it didn’t which puts you, potentially, incrementally closer to gaining confidence in your skills. Is this the road to trouble? Possibly, but it’s also the road to eating venison every year. If you lost one in, say, 15 successful seasons, would you then quit feeling the risk was too high? I would think a new hunter is at more risk of quitting at such a horror, bc a 1 in 3 loss appears much greater.

    • Tovar says:

      “If you lost one in, say, 15 successful seasons, would you then quit feeling the risk was too high?” — I have no idea. I don’t think it would be a mathematical decision, but rather an emotional one.

      “I would think a new hunter is at more risk of quitting at such a horror, bc a 1 in 3 loss appears much greater.” — Yes, I think you’re right.

      • Paul Roberts says:

        “I don’t think it would be a mathematical decision, but rather an emotional one.”

        Of course, in that it would depend on the circumstances -just how “horrific” it was. My comment wasn’t meant to be callous. Only that the risks are weighed against the gains -which can be seen as callous. Then again, calluses develop. I remember the first animal I killed, and cleanly, and how momentarily sickened I was. Last year I had to take a second, and final, shot on an anchored antelope. I wasn’t sickened or horrified. I was angry with myself for not collecting myself, steadying myself, better.

        Last year also, my wife accompanied me in the field to quarter my deer. She said, “You know, it doesn’t bother me like it used to. I actually see it as meat … can actually see it as roasts and streaks and … I can’t wait to get it home.”

  16. Paul Roberts says:

    Hey, Brian Joubert,
    I understand your “target panic” and deciding to put down the bow for hunting for now. Some advice: Shooting at animals is much different than shooting at paper, mostly in that the visual scape around you is not static and known as is your backyard range. Paper shooting is essential, but I suggest you start roving -shooting in the field at all ranges and random targets. Not only does it take the pressure off. being simply fun, but it familiarizes you with the same terrain you hunt on. This has enormous benefits in how you pick targets, estimate ranges, and in your shooting posture. Don’t put the bow away. Have fun with it.

  17. While bowhunting as a young man, I struck a 3-point buck too far back.
    Although there was almost no blood, I attempted to track the deer for approximately eight hours, eventually losing the trail when it disappeared in an area of solid rocks. Although this took place almost 50 years ago, I still remember the horrible, sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that stayed with me for days. I couldn’t get the thought of the animal suffering a slow, lingering death out of my mind. I was ill-prepared to hunt deer with a bow, and hadn’t trained and practiced sufficiently to insure that I would be able to hunt properly and only take a shot that would result in a clean kill. I learned the hard way, at the expense of that deer, that no hunter should take the field without being thoroughly trained and/or in the company of someone capable of insuring that
    no shot will be taken unless there is every, possible indication that a clean kill will result.

  18. Paul Roberts says:

    As Tovar asked in his OP:
    “But what of intent gone wrong? What of a deer struck in the leg or abdomen, running deep into the woods, perhaps to recover, perhaps to linger in pain until death comes? How would I react to that? Could I hunt again the next day, or even the next year?

    As this hunting season approaches, I still don’t know. The possibilities trouble me. I hope they always will.”

    Well, it nearly happened to this old hunter just a couple of days ago. It happened on a nearly broadside offhand shot on a mule deer buck at about 70 yards, just before the close of shooting light. The bullet shattered the humerus, with fragments entering the chest cavity and peppering the heart and bottom of one lung. If you look at deer anatomy, the shot was 4inches from the heart. Close is always not close enough. The shot was too low, and the deer limped away, with a shattered leg by my own hands. I was not angry with myself. Any such thoughts, any consideration of my “skills”, “judgment”, actions were pushed aside by a more important feeling, one of responsibility, and remorse.

    I let the deer go, not wanting to push it, to come back in the early AM. If unpushed it should bed and hopefully die soon. But I had to endure a night of worry, sadness, and then the questioning of everything about my actions –something I hadn’t felt in a long while. No, it never goes away.

    The next morning I had an easy tracking job, but found that the deer had headed toward a large section of private land. The last thing I wanted was to have the deer hobble across a neighbors meadow, or have to knock on the door and explain. But as luck would have it, the deer met a bobcat halfway down, spun and headed back up. The cat followed and brought the deer right back to where I’d shot. It died there and the cat had claimed it by the time I’d reached it in the morning, standing its ground at my approach. I recovered my deer, thanked the bobcat and left him plenty of goodies for his trouble.

    I can’t say this hunting story has a happy ending. In fact, now that I think about it, they never do. Happy is never the right word, even after a flawless hunt. Deeply satisfied, and fully sober. This hunt however, was tainted by suffering.

    “The possibilities trouble me. I hope they always will.”

    Tovar, they will.

    As to hunting the next day? Absolutely not, regardless of how I feel. I was given a permit to take one male deer and no more, whether I recover it or not. Next year though, yes I will hunt again, with a renewed reminder of just how I want to feel after the hunt. This year, I will be apologizing at every meal.

  19. Paul Roberts,

    Thank you for the advice. I agree. Field target shooting is very helpful (I try to shoot 3D a few times a year). Its the same as shooting in field positions with rifle and not just off the bench. As a reloader who likes to tinker I shoot off the bench a lot and it does very little to prepare one for the field! Unfortunately my wound and loss experience this year has shaken my rifle shooting a bit too, but this month I am hunting areas where long shots are rare.

    I would like to know what bullet/cartridge you used on the Mule Deer buck? Over the years I have learned to appreciate heavy for calibre bullets at moderate velocity, or tough premium grade bullets, that almost always exit and can break big bones. I find they damage less meat and while they give fewer dramatic ‘bang-flops’ than faster more frangible types they always penetrate, and I prefer an exit. I see lots of hunters now shooting Bergers/Ballistic Tips etc because they seem to give dramatic results. I prefer not to have disentegrated lead in my meat but what concerns me with those is their potential to give poor penetration (unless large and heavy for the particular animal). The last 2 animals I shot with a .223 (2 Impala in South Africa in 2008) both died smartly but the little 55gr softs disentegrated (recovered the jackets only, as to be expected) and left no exists and NO blood on the ground. If they had run far or into thick bush I may had a tough time finding them!

  20. Paul Roberts says:

    Hi Brian,
    That is a good question. In archery, at least the traditional archery I do, a momentum beats speed hands down.

    I was using a .243 -a 20″ barreled “lightweight” or “mountain” rifle, with a 95gr Hornady SST bullet -a “ballistic tip” with a “bonded core”. It is potentially a bit light for mule deer, at least for large ones although I actually prefer smaller yearling bucks as I’m hunting for the meat and the experience and not for antlers. But I choose smaller bucks also for aesthetic reasons: Those big bucks are so impressive, (and not just physically although their success is manifested there), I would rather leave them in my forests.

    I did question the bullet on this hit. Previously the .243/SST combo has been an instant killer, with appropriate placement, as all that energy is expended within. However, perfect doesn’t always happen. In this case that energy was expended at the humerus. Looking ahead I may reconsider the Nosler Partition.

    BTW: anything smaller than 6mm is illegal for deer here.

  21. Hi Paul,

    I believe the SST just has the ‘interlock’ ring like the traditional old Interlock bullet (of which I used many in my old .30-06), I dont think it is bonded (The Interbond is Hornady’s bonded version). I have not used the SST but have read many times that its a pretty soft bullet and comes apart quite quickly at higher velocities and a 95gr in a .243 is stepping out pretty quick.

    As you said when you dont get too much resistance it results in quick kills but if you hit heavy bone… I have never hunted with a .243 but if I did I would be inclined to use something like a Partition, Accubond, TTSX etc. That way if you hit shoulder/leg bones/joints etc you can rest assured you will likely get a bullet that will stay together and penetrate. Just my $0.02!

    Sometimes I guess things just ‘happen’!

  22. Paul Roberts says:

    Thanks for the advice, Brian. I’ll be going to the Partitions, also for the issue of fragments potentially getting into the meat. I have an elk hunt coming up in a couple of weeks and will be using 150gr Partitions then, through a .270. Same exact issue there, however I’d already made the jump there. If I’m going to be shooting on the light side caliber-wise, I need to maximize the terminal performance.

  23. Phillip says:

    As so often happens, the topic has swerved a bit… nevertheless, Brian and Paul, if I may offer a thought on your bullet choice conundrum…

    First, there are as many opinions on bullet construction and selection as there are hunters and shooters. Caveat venator.

    Part of the reason for that is that ammunition has improved phenomenally over the years, and there are specialty rounds for almost anything you’d want to hunt or shoot.

    That said, and at risk of sounding like I’ve joined the band, have you considered any of the lead-free bullets? The Barnes TSX, Nosler eTip, and Hornady GMX are all excellent choices when you want good terminal performance combined with penetration (e.g. elk, hogs, bear, etc.). The only one I haven’t used on game (yet) is the GMX, but the other two have generally performed very well for me so far.

    However you need to see what works in your gun. Anecdotal and personal experience tells me that, for whatever reason, the TSX doesn’t seem to like the .270. My experience here is hardly universal, of course. The eTip and the GMX each shoot very well through both of my .270s, though, and my friends who’ve tried them had the same results. One close friend, a hard-core hunter and guide, swore he’d never use copper (based on the negative mythology) until I got him to try the ETips. Now he’s a huge advocate because of repeated performance on everything from mule deer and blacktails to hogs.

    I do have some reservations about the copper (or gilding metal) bullets on thin-skinned game like deer. They work well, but penetration is very quick and sometimes the animal’s reaction is hard to gauge. I’ve been fooled into thinking I’ve missed, as have others, when the dust erupts 20 yards past the animal. You have to follow up every time.

    Exit holes can be on the small side as well, which leads to a challenging blood trail. The bullets kill, and kill well, but be prepared to follow a track. And, of course, shot placement reigns supreme… a perfect shot precludes concerns about tracking and blood trails.

    With all this in mind, the ETip is still my go-to bullet for most of my rifle hunting these days. I just have to be cognizant when I use it for deer, and try to wait for a perfect shot opportunity.

    I’ve used the Partition in the past, and it performed pretty well… although the 180 grain 30-06 loads I used on elk never passed through. Fortunately, they deliver plenty of energy and killed the elk quickly, but I would like to see two holes instead of one.

    I’ve also used several of the bonded bullets. My favorite, so far, is the Accubond and it’s current variations like the XP3 (which has been a killer in my .243). A consideration for the bonded bullets, since we’ve mentioned lead fragments, is that they tend not to fragment easily. As an alternative to the copper and gilding metal bullets, I think they’re a good choice for the hunter who is concerned about lead.

    Just some thoughts. They’re free, and you’ll get what you paid for.

  24. Paul Roberts says:

    Thanks very much, Phillip. There are a lot of new choices out there now I see. I’ve been leery of the terminal performance of copper, esp in a light caliber, but will have to do some reading before I decide. I do like what I’ve read of the the XP3. Thanks for the input folks.

  25. Hi again,
    I guess we have gone on a slight tangent to Tovar’s thread but I guess some technical knowhow of our hunting tools is part of ensuring a clean kill.

    I have followed the debates over monometal bullets quite closely but never used them. It seems much of the criticism around lack or expansion was a result of velocities. Most experts/experienced users recommend dropping down a bullet weight as the light monometals will often out penetrate much heavier standard lead core bullets and the extra speed helps them expand (where soft bullets would come apart and for reloaders the less dense gilding metal / copper eats up case capacity). This lighter bullet approach is echoed by Gerhard Schultz who makes what many think is one of the finest monometals in the industry – GS Custom.

    My mentors and my influences in South Africa always sung the praises of heavy-for-calibre bullets at moderate velocities. Anything under 180gr .30 cal or 160gr 7mm, for example, was seen as too light so I have stuck to this mantra for years. Recently I wanted to try Barnes in order to go lead free in my meat. This season is loaded some up in my 6.5×55. I went with the 120gr Tipped TSX as apparently they have a larger nose cavity and the polymer tip which both help initiate expansion at lower velocities (Barnes recommend at least 1800fps impact velocity for reliable expansion). The 6.5 is no ‘screamer’ but I get these out the front door at around 2800fps so it’s no slouch either (and I not a hot-rodder when I reload).

    Anyway, I shot a young Mule Deer doe this past Friday. She was facing me with a slight quartering angle. The bullet entered just on the inside of the shoulder joint and exited at the diaphragm on the off side. The deer didn’t react much to the shot but trotted about 8 yards and fell over. The exit was about .75” (maybe just less) and the largest bone hit was a rib. Top the heart, lower lungs and liver were damaged. This indicates there was some decent expansion and I will continue to use these until I can get a good idea of how they do on deer size game. I doubt I will ever recover on broadside or quartering shot.

    I am curious about the E-tips as they seems much less popular that the TSX and GMX. Without he relief grooves I have wondered if they suffer from the same pressure and fouling issues as the original X bullets?

  26. Phillip says:


    I’ve never hunted much in the way of African game, which I understand is generally much tougher than our American critters. On the other hand, we do have some exotics down here that are definitely harder to knock over than whitetails or mule deer… axis deer and scimitar horned oryx come immediately to mind. Bullet and caliber selection definitely make a difference there.

    There’s only one oryx tale, and I used a 200gr Barnes TSX from my .325wsm (8mm). A frontal quartering shot that should have stopped a truck simply sent him into a bucking bronco imitation until I was able to put a second round into his neck which, of course, ended the rodeo immediately. My brother then shot one of similar size using a 180gr Scirocco just above the heart. That animal ran over 100 yards before laying down and surrendering. Hard to judge or compare bullet performance off of those two examples.

    However, I’ve had the opportunity on axis to test several different bullets, including the all-copper Barnes and the gilding metal ETips, with positive results. From best to worst, the ETips and Accubonds both made me very happy from the 30-06. The Barnes kind of falls in the middle. A frangible bullet from Extreme Shock made a BIG mess, but killed very quickly. The closest to disaster was the 85gr XP3 from my .243, which simply didn’t have the oomph to decisively kill… every hit required follow-up (except one neck shot from 65 yards).

    As far as bullet weight… with the Barnes, the common rule is to drop about 15 grains of bullet weight from what you’d typically use. In my 30-06, that means going to 165gr from my go-to 180. I’m stubborn, though, so when I loaded Barnes for the 30-06, I still used 180gr. They killed hogs just fine, but never got to use one on a deer. (I only shot the TSX, by the way… I personally believe the TTSX is a gimmick to sell to people who think they’re long-range hunters… although clients and friends have proven that the TTSX is just as effective as the TSX, so there’s no loss if that’s your choice.)

    The ETip and GMX are gilding metal, not solid copper, which gives them properties a little closer to lead. With both of these, I shoot the same bullet weight as lead (the GMX reloading data even recommends using the same charges you’d use with a lead or bonded bullet). I don’t believe there’s any need to drop bullet weight with these, although 180gr 30-caliber is a heavy bullet for a deer, regardless of bullet composition.

    As I mentioned before, I have yet to kill an animal with the GMX and as far as I can remember, none of my clients have used them (it’s been over a year since I last guided hunts, so it may be more popular now), so I don’t really have any first hand experience with their performance on game. What I do know about them, from a long conversation with a Hornady engineer, is that they were designed specifically to address one of the Barnes perceived weaknesses… they perform best at higher velocities (>2900 fps) providing proper expansion without shearing petals.

    I don’t know why the ETip isn’t more popular, except that it never really seemed to enjoy the marketing campaign of the GMX (you’ll see it in nearly every outdoors TV show these days). And of course, Barnes has been around forever, with a well-established reputation in Africa. Winchester is now marketing their proprietary, lead-free bullet (as are Remington and Federal), so maybe they didn’t want to build too heavily on the Nosler product? I don’t know. But as far as fouling, I haven’t seen any issues from hundreds of rounds out of my 30-06. Winchester had some serious issues with their early bonded bullets’ coating (Molybdenum or some such), and addressed it with their newer “Lubalox”. This is what they’re using on the ETips now, and it seems to work well. I think the Barnes is still the biggest source of copper fouling, and it’s reasonably minimal. I believe the barrel fouling complaints are largely a legacy issue for all of these lead-free bullets.

    Anyway, I hope this is helpful. I don’t do lab tests or deep, scientific research so I can’t offer more than personal and anecdotal information. But I tend to believe what I see more than what I hear or read, and when I relate info, that’s usually the source of it. Your mileage may vary.

  27. Paul Roberts says:

    I think that while Tovar’s thread discusses the emotional realm of wounding and loss, I agree that the technical “knowhow”, as Brian put it, is an important part of the responsibility we own. If I did not work hard to obtain that, then losses could not be fathomed and my hunting would be deemed less than responsible. In that way, while shot placement is primary, bullet performance can matter.

    I had an eye-opening experience a couple seasons ago, snowshoe hare hunting with .22 rimfire. I was using a readily available subsonic hollow point (hp) round that I suspected wasn’t performing at the terminal end. Now…snowshoes are not especially “tough” animals (although don’t kid yourself with ANY wild animal in this regard). But I lost two, due to “holing up”, over the course of a season on what appeared to be reasonable shots, and had one recovery that was a perfect shot but the rabbit traveled. I had to dig it out of 3ft of snow and found the bullet had behaved like a solid point, drilling a hole, killing, but not as quickly as it should have.

    I then put those and a bunch of other rounds through a series of reasonably controlled tests and found that those bullets did NOT perform like hp’s should. I switched brands and saw the results instantly. If you suspect something is wrong, figure it out. With big game, unfortunately, we tend to have fewer opportunities to discover the limitations.

    Most of my gun hunting for big game was done with smoothbore rifled slugs. Rifles, I found, are quite different. Their speed, the small size of the bullets, and the distances at which they can be effective, brings different issues, considerations, and complexity compared with shotgun slug, muzzleloader, or rimfire. Add distance and the complexity, and the precision required, changes greatly.

    That precision is not easy to obtain, despite all the written fodder and Youtube offerings that throw ranges around as though they are interchangeable, even the norm. There is not time or space, or the present topic, to go into what that kind of precision requires of the shooter. Let’s just say I was surprised when I got into centerfires and have worked hard at it.

    Brian and Phillip, thanks for taking the time to share knowledge and experience.

  28. Paul Roberts says:

    Interestingly, Tovar’s choice of rifle caliber, from a different thread, suggests that he’s done his homework.

  29. Thanks for the comprehensive replies Paul and Phillip!

    I often realise that as real enthusiasts and ‘gun nuts’ we (I) often indulge in more detail than necessary ITO tools, ballistics etc but I find it interesting and as Paul points out it is part of the suite of considerations for a clean kill.

    Philip, I have heard that the E-tips gave pressure spikes but that could be hearsay and misinformation. You are right in saying that they really aren’t very popular. I like the look of the GMX, one of our local scribes here in Alberta has used them in Africa, Argentina and locally, and has sung their praises for some time. I chose the Tipped TSX simply because of their reputation for expanding more readily and because I was shooting them at fairly moderate velocities at deer sized game. I see Barnes now has an LRX for long range work. Locally the long range shooters (and horde of wannabes who think 700 yards is a simple act of using large scopes…) seem to be taken with Berger. They just seem too soft and frangible to me.
    I have tried Moly coated bullets in my .308 and stopped using them – I find it very difficult to clean out of the barrel and see no advantage (I was given a 100). I haven’t noticed any bad fouling with the Barnes and as you say it seems that was the legacy of the old X bullet before the relief grooves.

    I should add that my influences on heavy for calibre bullets were from guys who came of age in an era before ‘premiums’ (except the Partition and H-Mantel which they all revered). The approach was that heavier, slower bullets didn’t come to pieces and if the front section did the rear would still exit. They also waste less meat than a similar bullet at higher velocities –as you know. I saw early in my interest in hunting how a 300gr soft from a .375 did little meat damage to an impala while a .270 with a 130gr lead core left a huge bruised area around the wound; shot placement was similar. These all led me to use heavier and or moderate velocities for years. For a while I used a 165gr plain old Hornady Interlock with a mild load in my .30-06 and it was very effective at the lower velocities.

    On that subject I find the toughness of African game often takes on a life of its own. Some species like Wildebeest, Zebra and Oryx do have a reputation for tenacity but local hunters there get on just fine with .308/.30-06/.270 class rifles. I have yet to hunt Elk but hear that they can be quite tough too.
    Great discussion, thanks.

  30. Somsai says:

    I’ve been using the Barnes for a couple years and I might as well comment. The trouble with big game bullet selection is that mostly decisions are based on anecdotal evidence. I switched because they were all copper and I have little kids who eat organ meat.

    I’ve shot two elk and two deer with them. All shots were double lung and no animal fell right down. Three of them ran a few yards first.

    One shot was quartering towards on a large cow elk. The bullet entered just in back of the front leg as close to the leg as I dared, and exited by putting a 3/4″ hole in the furthest back rib on the other side. When I looked at how much meat the bullet had traveled through to get to that back rib, and then had enough weight and speed to still put a hole through it I started to think about what I was using for amo.

    Barnes claims that their 100% weight retention makes the bullet heavier than a bullet that has lost a lot of weight in the first six inches. I guess the downside is that the fragmentation from other bullets causes more damage outside the wound channel of the actual bullet. I like knowing that the bullet is going out the other side. Any double lung is going to be fatal. Barnes are also designed for very fast expansion so that the 30 caliber bullet instantly becomes a 60 caliber hole.

    Lastly about caliber and weight for elk. A lot of elk are shot with all kinds of stuff, including 22 longs, but in general people are trending towards bigger. I don’t think it’s just macho-ness. No one wants to chase something over the mountain and the bigger hole with a bigger bullet works.

    Nothing more important to avoid wounding than proper bullet selection and placement.

    • Neil H says:

      I know this is a bit of a tangent, but of course ones feelings about wounding game are drastically changed if you can avoid it in the first place.

      I’ve also made the switch to non-lead recently, and I have mixed feeling about it. I appreciate those who have more experience. One of the difficulties is that unlike ballistics, terminal performance is all anecdotal and probably always will be.

      My first animal with Barnes was a large sow, and I felt like they didn’t quite do the job they should. I had made a less than ideal shot though, so I reserved judgement. This year’s deer I shot from a high overlook, and it was bedded down quartering away. The shot had to be a balance between making it to the heart and lungs without passing through the gut. I clipped the top of the liver, and then through a lung, severing the aorta right at the heart and passing out under the shoulder. The shot felt really good, so I was almost surprised when the deer jumped up and trotted off. There was almost no blood trail to follow, almost to the point that I wondered if I missed at first. It went about 20 yards, which isn’t bad, but the bullet doesn’t seem to create the shock lead does and the damage seems very localized. From the same rifle I’ve had similar shots put the animal on the ground before I heard the shot echo back. Of course the upside of this is that there isn’t an explosion of toxic metal throughout the chest cavity.

      I had missed a shot at a deer a couple of weeks prior, and when I dug the bullet out to confirm a clean miss I got to see how they mushroom. They do look just as advertized, but the expansion is smaller than a traditional bullet. I have considered trying the TTSX for this reason, but in my 7mm-08 that means stepping down from a 140 to 120 grain projectile. It sounds like their isn’t a substantial difference based on some of your experience, so sticking with the higher grain bullet makes more sense to me.

      I still will stick with lead-free. It’s mandated in part of my state and I like to be ready for any opportunity without re-sighting for new ammo. I also like the idea of non-lead. But I’m still a little wary of their performance. I appreciate all of your experiences since it would take a long time to tally up a good range of experiences on my own.

  31. Paul Roberts says:

    I’d like to offer some thoughts that swings back closer to the topic, one I struggle to straddle –to keep a foot in two places –places that appear to me in my present understanding as artifacts of culture: To the emotions that swirl in our respective heads, (and those of our neighbors), as we proceed on our hunting journeys…

    The immediate human culture we live in matters. Demographics matter enormously. As our country urbanizes (or suburbanizes) and experiences with nature diminish the likelihood of adverse, extra-cautious, or anxious feelings surrounding hunting/killing grows.

    Where I first became a hunter, in rural upstate NY, hunting was part of the culture. On the deer season opener almost no one came to school those first days. Talk of wounding however often showed little mindful remorse, at least outwardly. Not uncommonly, bravado, or laughter, were displayed; which, to me, was telling. Kids were taught to “not let it bother you”. Not always in a “buck it up” manner, but either ignored or, with little guidance provided as to how to explore such emotions. My family was different, in part having previously moved in from the suburbs, and I was expected to care. And I did. I’ve been wrestling with such thoughts ever since. And I find they do vary in intensity with the immediate culture in which I live.

    A lot of those rural kids I knew grew up on farms, growing up with the vagaries of life and death, not just due to the slaughterhouse, but to disease, birth abnormalities, accidents, predation, and in some cases the result of natural social structure (e.g. chickens fierce flock protection instinct). For most suburban children such experiences of this type most likely involves a family pet dying, or a neighborhood squirrel being crushed by a passing motorist.

    I now live in an area that looks rural but the rural culture has been replaced by a suburban one. There are no farms here, a “farm” being a drawing on an egg carton with a smiling chicken on it, said to be “organic” and “vegetarian”. (Uh…my free ranged chickens are not vegetarian, by their own choice). Instead, we are a “bedroom community” to a more urban center. Here guns are frightening implements of death, or irresponsibility, rather than tools. Hunting is conducted by callous strangers, owing to the amount of public land amidst which the new “homesteads” situate. Blaze orange in a truck tends to elicit scowls.

    The pressure to behave “appropriately” is strong. I’m known as one who hunts, but am not a stranger, and have conducted myself with appropriate aplomb. It turns out most of my neighbors are not against hunting exactly, they can reason it through with little prompting. But they care. And that matters, and carries a rippling effect outward. Those, esp strangers, that show the slightest quiver of irresponsibility affirm fears and raise adverse protective passions.

    I’d mentioned in an earlier post that “calluses form” … that we can become hardened, or accustomed, or desensitized to the violence, blood, and gore. And we must, to some degree. If we didn’t we’d never get the meat off the bone and onto our tables. This does separate me from most of my neighbors. (Interestingly, I’ve been the one called on several occasions to cull (kill) unwanted roosters or predator/pet mauled hens in neighbor’s family flocks). From my end, it does make it a little difficult for me to entirely respect those that share enormous impact on the planet, yet have reactionary opinions based on … for lack of better: emotions steeped in inexperience. Some have experienced a hunter’s carelessness, or mistake –which can loom large in the psyche. But most have not. Opinions grow regardless. A Carl Sagan comment comes to mind: “Opinions are easy. Knowledge takes work.”

    The AOH’s I’ve met of late are largely suburban in culture. They are concerned with wounding, sometimes to hand-wringing, and several have worried that if they made a mistake it would likely end their hunting career right there. For some, just seeing intestines finally spilling out onto the ground was enough. A new hunter recently joined a friend’s antelope hunt for the first time and got woozy when the gutting knife entered. He had to go “walk it off”. I don’t know if he will return.

    In raising our son, my wife and I have made it a point to progressively introduce him to the harsher aspects of the natural world. We raise chickens, garden, and forage. And we have pets. I believe my son’s relationship with animals is a pretty broad and healthy one. He can cuddle the classroom “bunny” at school, and gnaw the meat off a snowshoe hare leg at the dinner table. He cries when a favorite chicken dies and has helped me butcher chickens for the table. He also knows he can climb any tree on our land and surrounds, but to respect the ornamentals in town. Life, whether intellectual or emotional, is not simple. So neither should our experiences with it be. Convenience and self protection are not virtues.

    A couple quick stories, from China where I lived in China for a couple of years. Realize, that there are few refrigerators where my wife and I lived, so food is bought fresh, and for meat, this means alive:

    I once asked a meat seller at a market, sitting with a little pet dog in his lap, what the difference was between the dog in his lap and the dogs in the cages for sale (“wokkin’ the dog” is a favorite winter dish –named so in part to watch westerners squeal). He replied matter of factly that one was a pet and the others food.

    One night as guests of a group of Chinese friends (during which was served whole frogs, goose tongues, and intestine soup) a petite Chinese girlfriend was chatting animatedly with my wife while gnawing on a rabbit’s head (virtually all tissues are eaten and appreciated, each for specific reasons), and without a skipped beat she sucked out the eyeball and spat the lens onto the table in front of my wife. When our friend saw my wife’s slightly startled reaction, she chuckled and then winked.

    One day I was with an ex-pat friend in a market. We happened upon a man selling snakes (for soup) to a young woman, and he was expertly snipping off their heads and stripping the skins. My friend, incensed, shrieked, “Ohhhhhhh!!!! You…you …you…. What would God say!!!!??” The man looked up and guffawed, “Well, if God is a snake, I think I’d be in trouble.” Call my “callous”, but I laughed too.

  32. Paul Roberts says:

    After re-reading my above post I suspect some might wonder just what all that has to do with the emotions surrounding the wounding of game, which appears to be Tovar’s topic, if not his continuing struggle. Forgive me as I ramble further, hoping to strike a chord…

    The apparent schism between nurturing and killing strikes me as another artifact of the artifice of a detached and fractured culture. Some might say it’s a schism blown out of proportion. But in proportion to what? Without the connections to nature and our past traditions, like our diets we are forced to either rediscover or reinvent ourselves. Many it seems choose the latter. It’s always struck me that each household in my fractured neighborhood harbors a family trying to reinvent its own culture within.

    I’ve lived in a number of different communities that each vary greatly in their relationship with the natural world. And I’ve found that the immediate culture I live in influences me emotionally, which then forces me to rethink, readjust, even reinvent myself further.

    I’ve never however, spent much time in the company of vegans, at least with meaningful exchange as those I have spent time with were pretty much decided, and/or I must admit I never connected with them. Veganism seems like so many fanaticisms –based in an emotional quagmire, without the experiences to balance things out.

    I’ve also known hunters that have no apparent struggle with the killing, even wounding. Barring some bullies, and possible sociopaths I’ve run into, in most cases these were rural folks who never questioned it to begin with –a rarer and rarer person nowadays. I know one guy who, while standing in a Nebraska cornfield with blood up to his elbows, was queried by his young daughter if he ever felt sad about killing a deer. He replied, rather shortly, “Do you feel sad picking a tomato off a vine?” He was also saying, “I’m not willing to entertain such thoughts, or the emotions that elicit them. Why bother?” He might also say, “Do the deer EXPECT anything different? Would a hungry lion treat me differently?”

    Part of me understands this. I guess I’ve been a naturalist from early on, and it never occurred to me that we are not animals too. But I also spent part of my socially formative years in a suburb, as almost all of us do now. So… I do feel bad when I wound an animal, and I also see the beauty in nature as an artist does; But, both, much more so in some company than in others. I’ve come to realize, that there is no one “me”. I am a more dynamic entity than each slice of each societal code expects.

    To never hunt again? For me, that would be a decision to shrink from direct participation in the very fact that death begets life. I know there will be a time when I am too old to shoot straight. But I can also see that time coming sooner than I am physically ready, as the land around me is swallowed further by suburbia. Already I am feeling the pressure that guns don’t belong here anymore. I am considering going back to the bow, which means a significantly lower chance there’ll be wild meat in my freezer. I then have to ask, “Just why am I hunting?” I assume Tovar would stop hunting. I would not. For me, being a “participatory naturalist”, the hunt is the biggest part of it. But that is another topic.

  33. sam says:

    I got out the rifle this year due to a wounded 6 pt buck that I saw while out doing some trail maintenance. He looked like he had almost total loss of use of one of his front legs. He couldn’t run and hardly walk. I could outrun him. He was limping along slowly, hunched over and head down. Based on the timing of a shot I heard and word of mouth that somebody missed a 6pt, best guess is the shot hit a leg. Putting together bits of what other people told me, the shooter made no attempt to follow the deer.

    When I saw him, it was getting dark and I was too far from the house to retrieve the rifle and get back to where he had been. I went back with the rifle the next day thinking he probably wasn’t going to move much and really expected him to be dead, but he wasn’t dead and did move away from the area. Tracking was impossible.

    Over the next few days, I spent some time in the woods with the rifle, but never did see him again. I heard from someone else that they saw him a couple days after me, but was apparently moving much better than when I saw him.

    • Paul Roberts says:

      That is a sad story. The fact that he was “moving better” later doesn’t change it much -the hunter’s nonchalance over his wounding of a deer.

        • Paul Roberts says:

          “Nonchalance” / “detachment” /”desensitization” is what was exploring/rambling on about above. The more I see, the less clear it all is.

          I remember reading a story of Saxton Pope hunting with Ishi (the last “wild Indian”) during which Ishi wounded a rabbit. (If you have read of Ishi he was considered a very kind and thoughtful man. Instead of administering coup de gras he appeared to Pope as not seemingly aware or caring of the animal’s suffering. Pope then showed Ishi how to administer coup de gras. I always wondered just what was going through Ishi’s mind. He had lived his life, survived actually, in an indigenous manner, and he was as knowledgeable about his surrounds. I wish I knew what he thought of such things.

          This may not matter to each of us individually however. We each have to make our own journeys. Discussions like those on this site were not available to many youngsters in the rural areas I lived in when young. What the culture around us thinks, esp our families and peers, weighs heavy. It’s certainly refreshing to have yours and others perspective on this topic.

          • Tovar says:

            Paul: I agree that it is good to stay aware of variations in cultures — the systems of understanding and expression that shape and influence our thoughts, feelings, and actions — whether Ishi’s culture or the culture of the rural areas where you lived when you were young. I have another post in mind on related themes.

            I’ve occasionally wondered what was going through Saxton Pope’s mind when he stole Ishi’s brain. (After Ishi’s death in 1916, Pope’s scientific curiosity overcame their friendship. Against Ishi’s express wishes, Pope urged that an autopsy be performed. The dead man’s brain was removed and never laid to rest. Only in 2000 was the organ found in a Smithsonian Institution storeroom and returned to present-day native peoples in California, who restored it to the earth.)

            • Paul Roberts says:

              Ethics is a tangled web. I try not to be entirely relativist or dogmatic. But I lean more and more toward the relativist end as I begin to consider other people, cultures, families, genera, species, …. Is there a “true” course? My visceral reaction to that is one of … apprehension -a slippery slope into dogma. In the end we owe ourselves to other people before we do to other species. If it’s your child, or the last chimpanzee, the chimp is in trouble.

              Apparently, Pope’s friendship with Ishi was not very deep. But Pope has other friends, with a different calling. It is likely that Pope’s loyalty ran deeper in another direction.

              Now, before I get shot as “messenger”, I would have honored Ishi’s express wishes. But I cannot help but wonder about why things are as they are. Good and evil are … can be … relative?

    • Deer with broken legs seldom survive the deep snows, and they are easy prey for coyotes. The deer that you observed could have been found and put out of its misery, if there had been a good tracking dog available.
      I deal with such cases all the time.

      I have been following the recent discussion of the need for clean hunting and quick kills, but up until now I have been spending my time tracking
      rather than meditating about this larger picture.

      I do not think that being careful with your shot, and using appropriate bullets is enough, in itself, as a means of reducing animal suffering. I have taken over a 1000 deer calls, and I have learned what hunters have believed to be the source of their problems: the animal moved as they were squeezing off the shot; a twig deflected the bullet or the arrow; or the frequent “I “know” that I had a good chest shot, but he stopped bleeding after 50 yards and I can’t find him.”

      Wounding deer happens despite our best precautions. I wounded a deer myself years ago, and that’s what got me started in my lifelong campaign to promote the use of leashed tracking dogs.

      It surprises me that in all of this discussion concerning wounded deer the
      use of leashed tracking dogs has not been considered as a big part of the solution..

      • Paul Roberts says:

        The reason(s) more people do not use tracking dogs can be: added cost, availability, convenience, the law (in some states), and caring enough in the first place.

        I’ve done a fair amount of hunting with dogs for rabbit, hares, both upland birds and waterfowl, raccoons, and even some falconry over dogs. A good dog sure does expand my world through their incredible sense of smell. For waterfowl especially, birds were retrieved that never would have without. And I was dogged on finding lost birds. In fact, I’d sometimes come home with MORE birds than we shot at bc my Lab would find other’s cripples. Sure was proud of her. Friends would call on me to help find their lost birds. I always responded with the affirmative bc I couldn’t stand the alternative, and was so pleased that my buddies cared enough.

        Deer dogs are rare in my exp and, from what little I’ve read, some states restrict or resist their use. I can see why as that would be tough to enforce. I know that there aren’t enough C.O.’s in the field to oversee such activity. There would likely have to be a professional licensing body that allowed for a controlled regulatory situation.

  34. Tovar says:

    Thanks for all the additional thoughts and stories, folks.

    I took my fifth deer a week and a half ago. Thankfully, it was a quick kill: my bullet through his heart. I’ll probably write the story up before long.

    Shortly before that shot, I was tempted to take another. Though it felt marginal, I thought it would probably be my only chance at venison this year. Fortunately, I refrained. Going into rifle season, this post and this discussion were on my mind; I really didn’t want them to become a self-fulfilling prophecy this autumn.

    • Paul Roberts says:

      Congratulations Tovar! Do write the story up.

      I took an elk last week, hunt with a great story. The short version is I hunted for 5 days and saw elk for all of 3 seconds, taking the bull at the very end of the last day. The shot was good, anchoring the bull, but I did have to administer coup de gras. This is something hunters MUST practice for -shooting close with precision.

      If your gun is scoped, you’ll have to know that at 25ft your bullet will be as much as 1-1/2″ below point of aim. It’s not enough to “know” this, as a calculation. Take a few shots at such ranges to get the feel for it. There are two learning pathways: One intellectual, the other physical. They must come together.

      I was with a young hunter years ago who had to administer a final close shot. It was a horrendous tracking job and both he and his buddy were not ready for it emotionally, or technically. They made a bad situation worse and both started to babble incoherently. It was … strange, and heart wrenching. I finally stepped in, aimed high, and finished it. One continued hunting, the other, gave it up.

  35. This is a response to Paul Robert’s post of November 27:

    Paul ,in many parts of the country leashed tracking dogs are being used extensively. The West Coast is an exception. There is a distinction to be made between 1.using free-running dogs to drive deer to the hunter and 2. using a leashed tracking dog to find deer that have been wounded previously. Hunting deer with dogs is now limited to a few southern states. LEASHED tracking dogs have now been legalized in 22 states where it was previously illegal. In New York State, we have been tracking wounded deer first under research permit (1976) and then under special license since 1989. The NEW York system served as a model for other states. In the Northeast. A Conservation Officer, or DNR Law Enforcement Office has to be called before a search is undertaken. Poaching is not a problem.

    In New York there are about 150 active licensed trackers, In my own case I take 30 to 40 calls a year within a 60 mile radius of where I live.

    If you are interested, there is more detail available at;; I have also written a 300 page book Tracking Dogs for Finding Wounded Deer.

    The use of tracking dogs, which is spreading rapidly in the United States, is standard, usually mandatory procedure in Europe. It has stood the test of time. It is not a wild, impractical idea as so many American hunters thought at the beginning.

    • Tovar says:

      I didn’t realize you were so close to my part of the world, John. I drive through the Albany area at least a couple times a year. Maybe we can cross paths one of these days.

      • Hi Paul,
        One thing we have to keep in mind is that the majority of deer that we track, and do not find, are not mortally wounded. When we track a deer, eight hours after the shot, jump him from his bed and find that he is strong, leaping fences and not bleeding externally, we can assume that he is going to be all right. We cannot always catch up to broken-legged deer, and in deep snow and coyote country they usually do not make it to Spring. To sum up, if you track, it becomes clear that wounding rates and crippling LOSS rates are not the same thing. All of this would have to be categorized as anecdotal, not “scientific” evidence, but the data base is very large.

        I have written two books on what my tracking dogs have taught me about wounded deer behavior. There is a lot of “folklore” out there on the subject which I have found to be untrue after a 1000+ deer searches. You can learn about these books on our web site: I also give workshops on this subject.

        I would like to establish some connection between Mindful Carnivore
        participants and the increasingly large number of people who track wounded big game with specially trained, leashe dogs. These trackers are certainly concerned about the ethical and humanitarian aspects of hunting, but they are also drawn to the fascination of working in partnership with a dog to accomplish something that neither species could accomplish alone.

        Where are you located geographically?

    • Paul Roberts says:

      I have no doubt a good dog/trainer team would be effective in locating wounded deer. Pleased to hear DEC has been on board.

      I’ve always wondered what loss/wound rates are. It’s higher than many would like to admit I’m sure. 30 to 40 a season in a 60 mile radius? That’s a lot. And those are the ones that you are contacted for.

      Would also be interesting to hear what you have to say about wounded deer behavior. Do they tend to go downhill? Head to water (which may simply be downhill)? To heavy cover? Other characteristics you could share?

  36. Tovar, I think that we would have a lot to discuss together. This winter or spring give me a call when you are driving through the Albany area. Berne, where I live, is situated about 40 minutes from the intersection of I-87 and I-90. Berne is about 20 miles west of Albany.

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