Mastering Range Estimation – An extract from my latest book.

In the modern shooting era we are blessed with those wonderful tools called digital rangefinders. They are a superb addition to any hunters kitbag and serve a number of uses. To the small vermin hunter, rough shooting wood and field, they are next to useless. I will expand on that shortly. For the hide or ambush shooter, they are invaluable. You can use them to accurately measure distance from a fixed point to a warren, tree, nest, drey or marker. Yet the truth of the matter is that a hunter needs to learn to estimate range without any artificial help. We’re not playing golf here, guys and girls. We haven’t got time to pull a rangefinder from the bag and line up the infra-red beam while our crow poses elegantly for the gizmo to compute its results. The hunter needs to learn to make a snap judgement within seconds, then execute the shot. Mental range estimation isn’t a dark art. It is simply gained by repetitive practice and process. The brain is a wonderful organic computer capable of absorbing, memorising and calculating distance. There are natural elements that can fool it, which I will explain later. Usually though we can train our ‘eye to brain’ function to measure almost as accurately as any artificial rangefinder. Here are some tips to help you train the brain and judge distance with your own eyes.

You will never shoot accurately to a random range if your vision isn’t impeccable. A telescopic sight can correct defective vision in the same way that glasses or contact lenses can, but that won’t help where a snap judgement is needed. If your vision is poor, bite the bullet (excuse the pun) and get the spectacles or contact lenses you need. It will massively improve your ability to judge distance accurately and instantly.

All shooters tend to zero to a set yardage. The legal limit airgunner will zero to (usually) 30 yards. The rimfire shooter, perhaps 50 or 75 yards. The centrefire shooter may choose 100 yards or more. Whatever the distance you need to build a mental ruler. I’m a close range shooter (with any gun) so I carry a 10 yard mental ruler in my brain. Being able to measure 10 yards in my head means I can calculate any distance, to any quarry, out to 100 yards by rolling out this imaginary ruler. Try it.

Another method you can use to establish distance is to pace it out. A useful tactic when setting decoys, for instance. The key to this technique is learning how to pace out a yard. It’s not too hard to do and when you master it you can set your zeroing target at (for instance) 30 paces or 50 ‘paces’ instead of ‘yards’. Once learned, it also means you can pace out any missed shots and find out how much you misjudged the range. No need for a digital rangefinder, just use your legs. A good way to practise this is while walking the dog or rambling. Perfect times to fine-tune your range judgement. Pause at a lamp post and pick out an object further away. How far is that mail-box? Make your guess. About 50 paces? When you pace to it and find it was only 40 paces, stop and look back at the lamp post and remember what 40 paces looks like along the ground.

The size of your quarry as it appears at any given distance is also an important gauge of range. When you are zeroing your gun just place a full-size decoy (pigeon or crow) next to your zeroing target. Memorise how big a pigeon or a crow will look at that distance. Do the same for varying distances. Get a feel for the ‘size to range ratio’. Use the mil-dots on your scope too. How many mil dots cover a 20, 30 or 40 yard bird or rabbit from the top of its head to its feet?

It’s worth remembering that the man-made infrastructure on our shooting permissions is rarely laid out randomly. Saplings will be planted at set intervals. Telegraph poles will be set at equal distances. Even the lines of growing maize will be laid out regimentally. Most fence posts will be set 5 yards apart therefore that rabbit sitting 4.5 fence posts away along the fence line will be about 22/23 yards away. If the telephone poles are 80 yards apart (and you are leaning against one) that feeding magpie which is closer to you then the next pole is less than 40 yards away and therefore fair game.

An easy (and fun) way to practise instant range judgement is a technique that I call cone-killing. Take a handful of closed pine cones (these are heavier and travel further than open cones), each about the size of a pigeons head. Find an area of browsed grass or a flat, dry field. Throw them out across the field at random distances then try to guess the range of each and shoot them. Pine cones are very reactive when shot (either flipping into the air or shattering). This is how shooting a warren or decoy set-up will be. Random presentation of targets at various ranges.

I mentioned in the intro that there are natural elements that can fool the eye when judging range. Staring through a wood at tall, straight trees can throw your intuition. Pick out one unique tree and stare at it. Estimate the range and use it as a mental marker. Long, tunnel-like rides can effect your guess. Heat shimmer from a summer floor will impair range judgement. So will mist and fog. Shooting through a net or through leaf cover can make quarry appear more distant than it really is. Make a mesh with your fingers and look through them at an object 10 yards away. Now view the object again without the ‘mesh’ in the way. You will understand what I mean. You need to learn to compensate for optical illusions.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, July 2019


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