November 21, 2012

Buying Success

Coyote season has started and I'm home sick and popping antibiotics. What a drag! I've been so under the weather I didn't have the energy to write let alone hunt. So, you know it's been bad. Things are on the mend however and now I'm feeling well enough to get a little philosophical...

When I first started hunting coyotes seriously, I always seemed to overestimate how far away 200 and 300 yard dogs were and thus shoot over the critters. They’d run off laughing as I smacked myself on the forehead in frustration over what I’d done—again. I think it was a combination of my inexperience and the flat featureless snow, hunters contend with in this part of the world. But, darn it, those dogs just kept “looking” like they were further away than they really were.

 The solution was obvious; buy a gadget to solve the problem. After all, technology and gadgets can solve any hunting problem, at least that’s what the marketing guru’s would have us believe. And I bought the pitch. Then I bought a range-finder. No not the laser kind, this all happened long before those were invented. The only thing available back then was the split-image variety. You young pups have probably never seen one. Mine was over a foot long and weighed two pounds. It actually proved to be fairly accurate out to 500 yards. Beyond that it wasn’t much good, and it was about as convenient as a case of tuberculosis. I never used it to kill a single coyote.

 Fortunately for me, shortly after another one of my poor-range-estimation misses, Coyote School was called to order. This time it took the form of a deer hunting magazine. Inside was an article in which the author explained how to use the typical dual-X reticle in a riflescope to estimate range. He explained how most manufacturers make their riflescopes so that the tips of the heavy pickets span 18” (chest depth of an average deer) at 100 yards, and how to use this proportion to estimate range. At first, I thought that was far too low-tech to work. But the more I thought about it, the more I started to see a beautiful simplicity in it.

 I decided to see if I could make the same principle work for coyotes. That meant I needed to measure one. Since the possibility of getting a tape measure onto a live coyote was remote, the first order of business was to kill one. It was coyote season anyway, so that provided an excuse to go hunting. Four coyotes later, my tape measure told me they were pretty consistent, with an average top-of-shoulder to bottom-of-chest depth of eleven inches—at least where I hunt. Armed with that information I made a quick trip to the range and tacked up sheets of blue-colored office stationary at one, two, three and four hundred yards. After all, standard paper size is 8.5X11 inches, right? How convenient.

With my rifle snuggled into sandbags at the bench, I twisted the power ring on my scope until I had the eleven-inch dimension of the 100 yard paper bracketed. The power adjustment ring on the old Bausch & Lomb read 6X. I tried a second rifle with Leupold glass; it bracketed at 5X. I scoped out each of the further targets in turn. At 200 yards, the distance at which my rifles are usually zeroed, the paper spanned from the end of a picket to the center of the cross hair. At 400 it was an easily recognizable half, and at 300 it was somewhere in between. I already had trajectories printed and taped on each rifle; so using that info I got off the bench, into a field shooting position and sent twenty-four bullets downrange, in a simulated range ‘em and then shoot ‘em exercise.

The hits were good; better than normal, actually. I contemplated on why that was so on the drive home. It came to me about a mile past Wal-Mart. Accurately knowing the size of the target was giving me a major boost in estimating the hold-over for those shots that really did require it. At four hundred yards, my hold-over is 22 inches. Since I now knew the target was 11 inches deep, the hold-over was double the width of the target. Easy, and accurate too. Armed with new-found knowledge, I added this bracketing information to the trajectory cards taped to my coyote rifles and resolved to leave the scopes set at the appropriate powers, permanently.
Within a week, I had a coyote wind me and disappear into a gully, only to reappear 300 yards away and stop for one last look back. I missed him clean. In the excitement, I hadn’t bothered to range him. I smacked myself twice on the forehead for that one. The next dog I called in came within 60 yards. I ranged him all the way in, just to start developing the habit. I harvested a couple more within a hundred yards and then one at 125, ranging every one before the shot, even though I didn’t need to, just for the practice.

 Then, on a morning choked with ice fog, a silky dog hung up on the other side of a hay meadow. I could barely see him and my brain told me he was pushing 400 yards. The crosshairs, however, told me he was just on the far side of 200. I determined to believe the testimony of the crosshairs and held for that. A moment after the shot broke, the coyote collapsed and the sound of a V-Max hitting flesh drifted back to me.

I continued to work at crosshair ranging, until it became second nature and my hit ratio on 200 – 400 yard coyotes skyrocketed. As a bonus, I found that the required power setting (5X to 6X) worked fine for close in calling action and had plenty of magnification for up to a quarter mile. I even started ranging running coyotes and when I managed to get the lead right, the holdover was always spot on.  

All of this happened many years ago, but Coyote School taught me that the best way to solve some problems is not with new gadgets and more technology. As much as anyone, I love them both, and sometimes they can help solve a problem, but not always. Sometimes, if you apply a little common sense to what you already have, there’s a better solution. All it takes is finding someone with a little more knowledge, experience and wisdom than you’ve got. All three of those are worth a lot more than gadgets and there’s no way to buy them. That’s even truer in life than it is in hunting. Technology probably creates more “life problems” for us than it solves. This is exactly why we need to spend more time seeking out wisdom than we do ogling new gadgets. No, it’s not as much fun, but the pay-off is better.

What happened to my big old split-image optical range finder? I sold it for less than I paid for it and called the difference the price of an education. But that’s how Coyote School works; some lessons aren’t free.


  1. I bought a new Leupold scope for my Thompson Icon 22.250 the load I us is 35gr. of Varget powder with a 50 gr. Nosler ballistic silvertip bullet. When I purchased the scope I ordered a custom dial for this load. I sighted it in at 100 meteres, a four shot grouping of approx. 1/2" I then dialed it in to 200 meteres and then three hundred and it shot excellent. All I have to do now is buy a good range finder what would you suggest?

  2. Steve:
    There are lots of good rangefinders out there, and they all work reasonably well. The old rule about getting what you pay for applies to rangefinders too. With big dollars you're getting big performance.

    I'm using a Nikon 1200 right now and it's very middle of the road in price and performance. It will range a steel building to 1200 yards and a coyote directly to about 500 yards and not much further. Bushnell and Leupold make good units as well.

    I normally test rangefinders on cattle. Go for a drive, find a herd of cows in a pasture and see how far you can range them. That's a real world test. That same 1200 will range cattle between 600-700 yards. Which is pretty typical of mid-priced rangefinders. If that's far enough for you, there's no need to spend more than $350.

    The next step up in performance comes at double that price, with Leica's, Swarovski and others. But I haven't used the currently available generation, so I can't recommend one over the other.