Big Game: What Happens Between Shot and Down

The author killed this gemsbok with a rifle during a

Gemsbok (or gemsbuck) rank among the toughest of plains game. The hide is elastic, and blood trails are often sparse.

Big game that drops instantly to a shot is cause for concern.

Bullets don’t hurl animals to earth; an immediate collapse usually mean you’ve struck the spine. A severed spinal cord anchors the beast. If your bullet has also sent fragments through the chest or so shattered the forward spine as to deliver fatal shock, you won’t have to fire again.

The author and a black bear

An offhand shot up close destroyed this bear’s heart. It ran as if untouched – but only for 30 steps.

Without knowing that, you’d best cycle the bolt and ready yourself for another shot. Bullets that strike spinal processes – those short appendages on vertebrae – also deliver a hammer-like blow. But the animal can recover, sometimes within seconds. Once it regains its feet, you’ll likely not bag it unless another hit follows, pronto.

You can expect reaction to both bullet strikes and near misses. If the buck doesn’t react instantly, you probably missed. A bullet arrives faster than you can get your scope back on target, and the reaction is involuntary. If you see the deer duck, and it runs with tail up, it is likely unscathed. A deer that stands as if puzzled by the blast and sonic crack is almost surely untouched. Sudden noise can be hard to place; animals often pause, to determine a safe exit.

Up close you’ll seldom see the eruption of hair, dust or water, the flinch, the caving to the blow when your bullet lands. The violence of recoil will obscure all.

At distance, depending on light conditions, bullet velocity and your recovery time, you will. The sound of a strike follows reaction to the hit. A .270 bullet leaving at 3,000 fps averages about 2,700 fps over its first 300 yards. It reaches a deer 300 yards away in a third of a second. The thud of impact takes a second ambling back. You’ll hear the hit about 1 1/3 seconds after you fire.