The Ethical Shot - Inside MDT

Posted by Al Voth on 2023 Sep 28th

The Ethical Shot - Inside MDT

Every rifle hunter worth his skinning knife knows shooting skills are perishable. Going long periods without pulling a trigger will invariably cause skills to deteriorate, making regular practice essential to maintaining abilities. And if the goal is improvement, then serious range time is even more important. With hunting season on the horizon, now is the time to start.

Spend enough time practicing at various ranges, and it's possible to arrive at a good evaluation of the maximum range at which a hunter can make an ethical shot. And by "ethical," I mean an extremely high likelihood the bullet will strike in the fatal area selected. In other words, if this shot at an animal were offered on a target at the range, you could make it virtually every time.

In a world where long-range shooting is a popular concept, we sometimes lose track of that "every time" assurance we need when hunting, letting it slide into "I did it once at the range, so maybe I can do it again." That's not acceptable when shooting at warm targets. I have no problem with long-range shooting as a means of filling a tag as long as the likelihood of a killing shot is very high. Naturally, this requires some ruthless self-examination and self-discipline.


Not only does quality range time maintain and improve skills, but it also provides the opportunity to assess skills and determine which shots can be ethically taken and which shouldn't be attempted. In other words, every hunter needs to know what the combination of their skills and gear is capable of. The best way to determine this is to pick a steel target the size of the quarry's vital zone and engage it with the chosen rifle from a realistic field position. Start at a relatively easy distance and then keep moving the shooter and target further apart until misses start happening. That's a hunter's maximum distance for an ethical shot.

If the orange circle on these steel targets represents a game animal's vital zone, determining the distance at which it can be consistently hit helps determine a hunter's maximum ethical shooting distance.

Of course, maximum ethical distance will vary depending on the size of the game, wind direction/velocity, and the position the shooter can utilize. Shooting from prone with a bipod for support will no doubt have a longer ethical distance than shooting from a hastily acquired kneeling position with only a sling for support. This means a hunter needs to know which positions will likely be used in the field and establish an ethical distance for each one.

Unfortunately, many hunters don't have access to a long-range shooting facility where this skill assessment can be carried out. The best solution I can offer comes from the Determinator target system, which aims to determine a hunter's maximum effective shooting distance if limited to a 100-yard practice range.

The inventors of this target system have developed a series of targets based on the vital zones of most North American big-game animals, including deer, elk, pronghorn, moose, coyote, and bighorn sheep. A quick glance at one of these targets shows what appear to be typical target scoring rings, which are actually distance-simulation rings.

The Determinator paper target is always hung at 100 yards, the distance at which the smallest ring, marked with a "6," indicates the relative size of an animal's vital area at 600 yards. The other larger rings are marked progressively down to "1," indicating the largest ring and simulating a vital zone at 100 yards. The targets are always shot with five rounds, with the single worst shot determining the score. So, if a hunter places four shots in the 600-yard ring, but the fifth is in the 200-yard ring, their effective, ethical range is 200 yards.

That's harsh scoring, but it's warranted. After all, considering the weather, wind, buck fever, and physical exertion are all magnified on a hunt, it's not out of line to assume your worst shot on a range day will be your best one in the field.

Shot from a sitting position with a bipod, this Determinator target suggests the rifle and hunter have a maximum ethical range of 500 yards.

The limitation of this system is the reduced need to judge and compensate for environmental conditions such as wind and mirage. Still, it's a valuable tool, especially if 100 yards is all the distance available.


I can confirm that both "tests" can be humbling exercises. So, what happens if they show that the maximum ethical range is much less than hoped for? Well, it's time to find out where the problem lies and correct it. Improving the quality of the rifle, optic, ammo, and/or support system is certainly an option. Practice, and even formal training, should also be at the top of any list.

Upgrading a rifle with a more stable ergonomic stock could help extend a hunter's maximum ethical distance.

I don't have room to dive into training or practice in this article, so let's settle that establishing a maximum ethical shooting distance can go a long way toward revealing the weak spots in our equipment and skills. Shooting skills are perishable, and the work needed to determine a hunter's maximum ethical range is valuable trigger time. Take the time to answer the question for yourself.



Al Voth calls himself a "student of the gun." Retired from a 35-year career in law enforcement, including nine years on an Emergency Response Team, he now works as an editor, freelance writer, and photographer, in addition to keeping active as a consultant in the field he most recently left behind—forensic firearm examination. He is a court-qualified expert in that forensic discipline, having worked in that capacity in three countries. These days, when he's not working, you'll likely find him hunting varmints and predators (the 4-legged variety).


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