Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Mindset of the Shootist

After reading Col. Jeff Cooper's "The Art of the Rifle", I had a chance to apply his teachings to my own everyday life. I'm here at my dad's farm in northwestern Missouri and I happened to go with him to check his snares (small noose-like traps for smaller fur-bearers). He's had a severe problem with coyotes killing his sheep, and has taken about a dozen or so 'yotes up to this point. What follows is a detailed description of my shooting of a trapped coyote. This is not a brag letter, nor an attempt to gross anyone out. It is simply a real-life application of some of Cooper's teachings that I think some people might find useful-not the least of which is a graphic description which reminds us that guns are lethal instruments! I take no real pride or pleasure in shooting a snared critter. It was just a dirty job that had to be done. It saved us some sheep, and it put the coyote out of her misery in the least painful way I had at my disposal. Hopefully it serves to help some of my readers to wrap their mind around shooting.

My dad, his dog (Bree, an 18 month old Border Collie), and I went out checking the eight or nine snares set up around the perimeter of the sheep fields. Bree likes to go explore, and her nose is quite useful for telling us where the coyotes are crossing, and how active each fence breach is. I was toting my Tokarev TTC and three magazines of Romanian surplus ammunition. (Cooper teaches us to always bring enough ammo--just in case.)It was early afternoon and a stiff southerly wind was blowing rain clouds over the hills. We had checked the first four snares, which hadn't been touched. Each snare was about 300 yards from the next, and after close to half a mile of walking, I had started to daydream while occasionally scanning the treeline for movement. Dad was walking further away from the fence than I, obviously thinking about the imminent rain storm. Bree was bounding happily through the knee-high grass while obviously thinking about her favorite soccer ball. (Cooper teaches us to be in the right mental alertness condition when we are trying to engage potentially dangerous game...way to go, Flatland Gun Nut...)

As Bree topped a small mound near the edge of one of our ponds, the whole fence began to shake and I immediately drew my pistol and turned 45 degrees to my right to square off with the noise. I saw the head and shoulders of a coyote bobbing and weaving on the opposite side of the wire fence. Bree saw about the same time I did and evasively jumped sideways, away from the coyote. I watched Bree and the coyote make eye contact as I shifted my attention solely to the coyote while bringing the pistol up to a firing position. I was about 20 feet away at this point, and dad saw me raising the pistol, which cued him to plug his ears. (All of the above happened in maybe three seconds.)I took four or five steps forward to cut off Bree who was clearly contemplating taking a run at the similarly sized coyote (Bree is small for a Border Collie--only about 30 pounds and maybe 3ft from her nose to the end of her tail.). Bree stopped her advance and studied the strange creature intently.

Dad yelled to shoot it in the head, so I lined up my sights on her (it was female, upon inspection) forehead, but she kept bobbing and weaving. I couldn't stay lined up, and I sure didn't want to rush the shot. The snare had malfunctioned and only grabbed her around the hips (it should have closed around her neck and broken it), so she had a great deal of mobility. She made one last mighty attempt to pull the fence down and escape, but she lost her footing and fell to a sitting position. As she scrambled to get her back feet under her again, I lined up square on her chest (which was slightly quartering away and above my hands), swept the safety off, and squeezed. The pistol bucked in my hands and I saw her roll backwards as my sights settled on her head. She fell backwards and on her left side (away from the shot) and did not move. I took another step forward (now only maybe 12ft away), lined up on the center of her head (just below the right eye) and squeezed again. The shot carried her head backwards and revealed that the first round had shattered her spine just about even with the shoulder blades. She was dead before my sights recovered from the first shot.

Upon inspection, the first round had entered just right (her right, my left) of the center of her chest, destroyed the heart and lungs, then shattered the spine before exiting above her left shoulder blade. My second shot went through her right cheek and exited behind her left ear. The second shot was probably not necessary, but as Cooper writes, we owe animals the quickest, cleanest death we can afford them. Naturally, had the 'yote made an aggressive move toward Bree, I would have taken whatever shot I could get. However, she was snared and likely in a great deal of pain. As I mentioned earlier, I take no particular pride in shooting what amounts to a chained prisoner. However, she was a wild animal whose intent was to destroy our crop of sheep. The coyotes have never been this thick as long as dad or I can remember, and as a dog lover, I don't really enjoy dispatching coyotes.

So what can we learn? Well, first of all, be aware of your surroundings! Had the coyote not been snared, it would likely have beaten a hasty retreat. But had it chosen to engage Bree (the most likely, as coyotes generally realize that a man is too big for them to take on), I may not have been able to shoot it before it had done considerable damage to our young and cocky sheepdog.

Second, we owe our game a quick, clean death. To do this, the shootist needs to keep his or her mind clear at the moment of truth. As I recall, my heart rate never increased at any point during the shooting. I was able to notice several key details that influenced my decision of when and where to engage the target. Also, after the first shot, I kept my sights on the target until I was 100% sure she was dead. Though she fell to the first shot, my sights followed her to the ground--and delivered yet another lethal blow.

Third, bullets are forever. If you point a loaded weapon at a living being, the consequences can be catastrophic and permanent. Be sure of your target, and what's behind it. Never shoot at shadows, noises, or movement. Identify and engage with a great deal of thought and deliberation. You should always know WHERE you shot and WHY you decided to put your bullets there. Think about that every time you go to the range. Why were you aiming where you were aiming, and why did your bullet impact where it did? Answer that question after every pull of the trigger. My first round was fired into the coyote's chest because that was the best shot I had, and it would amount to a quick death if my trigger pull was clean. That bullet went just right of center because my trigger pull was not perfect, but luckily for both of us, the path it took was good for a quick, clean kill. My second round was aimed at her head because I wanted to be SURE that she was no longer a threat to us as we unhooked the snare from her body. I also wanted to be sure her death was as quick and painless as I could make it. My bullet hit exactly where I aimed it because my sight alignment and trigger squeeze were both adequate.

Fourth, a knowledge of anatomy is handy. Thanks to my interest in biology, and years of growing up on the farm, I had a good idea of where her heart, lungs, and brain were at any given time (the point of aim changes as the target's body position changes). A rudimentary knowledge of biology goes a long way.

Fifth, think about having to take a life. If you own a gun for hunting or self defense, think about what taking a life means to you. Granted, there is an order of magnitude of difference between killing a human and killing a snared coyote. But the point remains, can you bring yourself to pull the trigger when the trigger needs pulled? I'm not saying to fantasize about a killing spree or anything like that. Just think to yourself "can I do it"? If you're unsure, then the answer is "no". Remember not to think about it in terms of "will I enjoy it?" but "can I do it?". If it's your first time on the hunt, then leave your rifle at home and just carry the binoculars or the coffee and watch a seasoned veteran do it. Watch all stages of the hunt intently and then decide if you are into it. If you are just starting to get into self-defense, then take NRA classes or classes from a reputable instructor.

Remember that shooting is a lot like golf--99 percent is mental, and the rest is all in your head.


James said...

What about all those birds we killed on Sunday?

I guess that doesn't require skill, since the Benelli is fueled by pure magic.

DC Houghton, esq. said...

The book is called "The Art of the Rifle" not "Benelli Shotguns are Stupidly Easy to Use".

James said...

The TTC is a rifle?


Also, I digress. Magic guns, while being easy to use in the right hands, could probably turn on you quite easily.

DC Houghton, esq. said...

Well, at least the TTC has a rifled barrel. And...uh...oh yeah, Cooper wrote a book on handguns too. I don't believe he ever wrote about shotguns (he writes in "The Art of the Rifle" about shooting geese on the wing with a 7mm Mauser).

Benelli + Multi-Defense vs. Coyote would be decidedly less interesting to read about. "I aimed at the middle and pulled the trigger and she exploded. The end."