Occasionally I hear people say they took a “snap shot” at something. If you’re an ethical hunter, there is no such thing. A responsible hunter has to make a whole series of decisions before they shoot. The decision window may be compressed into a short time, but it is always there as a checklist of what must be considered before a shot is fired.

To help new hunters develop the mindset of an ethical hunter and develop a sense of self-confidence in their marksmanship, I ask you to raise up one hand—the hand with your trigger finger. If you can learn to use that one hand as a reminder of what responsible hunting is all about, you’ll be an ethical hunter and a role model for others.

Each finger on that hand represents one of the progressive decisions that a responsible hunter must make before taking a shot, because in the back of the hunter’s mind must always be the assumption that this is to be a killing shot. If it’s not a killing shot, don’t take it. Hunters may not kill something on an outing, but killing is the difference between hunting and wildlife watching. Taking responsibility for taking a life must be the foundation of the ethical hunter’s philosophy. This is reflected in the “Hunter’s Prayer”—“God, if I shoot at some legal game animal, let me kill it quickly. Otherwise, let me miss clean.”

The first finger (let’s start with the thumb) reminds you of the basic question: is it legal? Is your target in season? Is the species and sex legal? Does killing that animal break any laws? Do you have the right license with the right stamps, tags, and so on? To answer this question, you must have studied the laws thoroughly, which is not an easy task in some states. Nonetheless, that’s the first responsibility of a hunter: to be law-abiding.

The second finger stands for the question: is it safe? You always need to be aware of the ultimate trajectory of the shot in your line of fire, whether from a rifle, a shotgun, or a bow. If you can’t be sure that the shot will fall harmlessly to the land, then that shot should never be taken. Later I will show you how your hand can help you determine safe distances.

The third finger asks: is it sporting? The rules of Fair Chase were established to insure that game have a fair chance of escaping. This is often more a matter of personal ethics than law. Shooting a duck in the water may not be sportsmanlike to some, while others assert that it does not damage the breast and it’s more sporting to stalk to get into range. The same is true for shooting a turkey in the roost. Some believe turkeys should all have to be called in before shooting, others maintain it is harder to stalk close enough for a shot. In both cases the birds are sitting still, so what’s the difference?

At 50 yards, which is about the maximum distance you should be shooting at a game bird with a shotgun, a six-foot-tall man is about the height of your thumb.
At 50 yards, which is about the maximum distance you should be shooting at a game bird with a shotgun, a six-foot-tall man is about the height of your thumb.

The fourth finger stands for: is it practical? You may be able to hit that bighorn sheep standing 300 yards away on the edge of a cliff, but if you do, will it drop over the edge of the cliff and into a valley where you can’t retrieve it? The same is true for waterfowl. If you don’t have a dog, sometimes the responsible thing to do is to not shoot a duck that will fall into heavy cover or deeper water where you may not be able to retrieve it.

The fifth finger asks the question: does taking that shot represent a positive image of hunting? The future of hunting, more than ever before, depends on how the non-hunting public in general sees hunters. If you have a safe shot at a legal buck at a reasonable distance, but you are being watched by a group of wildlife watchers or a children’s field trip, maybe you should hunt someplace else.

The point here is that most people today don’t have first-hand experience with hunting. If you bag the duck or deer cleanly, that is one thing, but suppose you just wound it. Now suddenly you have a whole audience watch as you chase a wounded animal. Hunting is not a spectator sport, unless you are hunting for a show on television. People may get the wrong idea. This is one reason I believe that hunting seasons should never be held in the height of tourist season.

Your hand is also an invaluable guide in judging distances in the field. Hold your thumb up with your arm outstretched. At 50 yards, which is about the maximum distance you should be shooting at a game bird with a shotgun, a six-foot-tall man is about the height of your thumb. When you get to a duck blind, use your thumb to determine what is 50 yards away and refuse to shoot at anything beyond that distance. I drop a decoy at that distance when I am setting out the decoys—usually a black and white goldeneye that can be easily seen.

Crowding and being cut-off are some of the most common complaints of hunters in public hunting areas. You can’t take a tape measure with you into the field, but you can take your hand. Continue holding that thumb up. At 100 yards away, a six-foot-tall man will be about the height of the thumbnail. That’s way too far to shoot at a bird and have a lethal shot.

At the bottom of the thumbnail there is a white half-crescent. When you can hold your thumb up and sight it toward a person and their height is no taller than that white crescent, that person is now out of range—about 300 yards away. This distance not only helps determine your zone of fire, but it should also help determine the minimum distance you should be from setting up next to another hunter in a marsh. Admittedly, five times that distance is better, but the reality of hunting in many public areas is that you will not be that distant from the next hunter.

It takes a while to learn all that you need to know to become a seasoned ethical hunter, but all you need to remember is what each finger on your trigger finger-hand stands for and you are well on your way.

Images by James Swan

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5 thoughts on “The Ethical Hunter’s Helping Hand

  1. Congratulations to Mr. Swan for crafting thoughtful comprehensive guidelines for ethical hunting. I particularly appreciated Swan’s treatment of ‘finger three,’ as it were, “Is it sporting?” because his treatment of Fair Chase was not rigid and acknowledged the legitimacy of contrary arguments in particular circumstances. The overriding but unmentioned characteristic of the ethical hunter is self-discipline. Mr. Swan’s five step process does encourage, indeed, demand, self-discipline. Good job.

  2. Good article. A point to make, too, is that hunting is a fairly involved, lengthy process. Getting ready, practicing, all the time at the camp and in the woods… if there is a kill, its only the period on the end of a sentence. An ethical hunter must be able to accept that. If the hunter is a meat hunter or a trophy hunter, the ethical hunter accepts the fact that the animal is smart, too, and can easily outwit the hunter.

    All the preparation work must be done to ensure the proper placement of the bullet or arrow. No less. There is also no such thing as leaving meat in the woods. If the hunter can’t get the meat out, pass on the shot. For example, in hot weather when the animal is several miles away from the nearest road.

    My final thought is one of respect. The ethical hunter respects the animal, his fellow hunters, game wardens, the land, and all the other wildlife.

  3. Commonsenseralph,
    Are you a vegan or a vegetarian? If you eat meat you have no right to condemn me just because I’m a hunter. Animals must die for humans to consume meat. As a responsible hunter, I am no more deserving of your contempt than the individual who consumes commercially produced meat. Furthermore, hunting has provided me with an opportunity to observe a lot wild game in their natural environment and I respect those animals in a way that you likely could never comprehend. I suggest that in the future, you should refrain from commenting on subjects for which you possess little knowledge or experience.

  4. Some very good points and well worth thinking about. One comment, though – estimation of safe range is all well and good for shotguns, but rifle and handgun hunters also need to be mindful of the ethics involved – and we once had a trespasser 400 yards behind the firing points on my local shooting range killed by a stray 9mm pistol bullet. Knowing where a shot will stop is the fourth basic firearms safety rule, and is critically important.

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