Updated: Mar 31, 2019
The goal in writing this article for me was to share the most valuable piece of shooting gear that I take with me in the field. We have dedicated a lot of time and effort in our magazine to bringing you the best technical information available about rangefinders, shooting equipment, rangefinders, ballistic calculators, and the list goes on and on. A topic that I don’t feel has been covered in great detail is how important it is to have a reliable spotter by your side while in the field. If you have ever put your crosshairs on a trophy animal at a distance over 500 yards, in a tricky wind, from an awkward shooting position, you know exactly how valuable this person can be to your hunting success.
I have had the very unfortunate experience of acting as a cameraman/spotter on two trophy hunts that will forever change the way I hunt in the field. What a disappointing feeling it is to not be able to communicate to the shooter the appropriate information needed to make a perfect shot. Luckily for Aaron, we got a second chance at his trophy Kudu and the story has a very positive outcome. Unfortunately for Kregg, the bull of a lifetime snuck off into the rolling cedar mountains of New Mexico, never to be seen again. In this article I will share what I have found to be very valuable information that anybody can practice to become a better spotter in the field.
We use the term spotter in our company to define the person responsible for communicating with the shooter. This communication consists of three very important pieces of information before the shot, and two pieces of information after the shot.
First, the spotter is responsible for obtaining an accurate target range. If you own a piece of equipment that can quickly convert a line of sight distance into a “shoot to” range, such as the G7 BR2, this part of your job can be pretty straightforward. In the event that you don’t have a rangefinder that will make a ballistic range conversion, you will most likely be forced to obtain a line of sight range and input that data into a ballistic calculator to obtain your necessary drop correction.
Second, you are responsible for ensuring that the shooter is set up on the correct target. While this can often be a fairly straightforward exercise at your local or private range, this can quickly become a very complicated task when your target is a black wildebeest moving in and out of a herd of 25 other bulls.
Lastly, you are responsible for ensuring that your shooter has an accurate and current wind correction. I use the term current, because what the wind is doing when you lay down and take the initial range could be very different than what the wind is doing at the time you are ready to break the trigger.
After the shot breaks you are tasked with two new assignments that are vital to your overall success. It becomes your responsibility to inform the shooter of exactly where the bullet impact occurred, and secondly what correction, if any, is needed for a follow up shot. These two assignments are very straightforward when correctly executed, unfortunately for most of us, these are two very difficult tasks when the pressure mounts. I would like to share with you my thoughts on where I see guys fail in their responsibilities as an effective spotter in the field.
Make sure you know your equipment! Understand how to use and program your rangefinder, wind meter, and ballistic calculator. I shot with a group of Long Range University students in our Level 3 course recently who were put in a shooting scenario with a fairly tricky ranging condition. We put a very small target on a hillside roughly 950 yards away. In between the shooter and the target was a ridge located 500 yards away that obstructed almost 95% of the hillside where the target was located. This setup made for very tricky ranging conditions; with a good number of students assuming that the target was only 500 yards away, which was incorrect. Make sure you are analyzing the shooting situation you are about to attempt. A quick surveillance of the terrain helped these shooters understand what ranging error they were experiencing by not looking at the big picture (terrain).
If you are spotting at our range in Burlington, you have the luxury of asking the shooter to confirm that he or she is aiming at the orange target number 3, 4, 5 etc. Our targets are clearly numbered, and as long as you communicate, you will not have any issues acquiring the proper target. Do not just tell the shooter what target to shoot, I see guys in every school we teach shoot the wrong pieces of steel, even though they are clearly numbered. Ask the shooter to confirm that he or she is aiming at the right target; make sure you and the shooter are communicating. In the event that you are shooting a live target, stream information to the shooter about what the animal is doing, which way he is facing, etc. I recently finished a safari in South Africa with Carl van Zyl of John X Safaris and I have never met anyone more skilled on this portion of a spotter’s responsibility. Carl is constantly describing what the animal is doing, and asking for your confirmation that you are following along on the right animal. Initially I have seen shooters become slightly annoyed by this technique, but it is very important when shooting live targets to communicate, especially when your heart is racing.
Digging into the science of wind doping is beyond the scope of this article, but we can work to simplify your role in wind calling. To call wind effectively you have to know the DIRECTION of the wind and the SPEED of the wind. I promise if you try and separate these 2 elements you will be more successful in the field. Ask yourself first what direction the wind is blowing, then work to identify the speed. There are a lot of great tools available in helping dope wind, make sure you have a good wind meter and spend as much time as you can in the field paying attention to the changing wind conditions. If you don’t know what the wind is doing, DON’T take the shot.
Calling the Impact
There are a handful of errors I see folks make in calling a shot. First of all, guys often times react quickly to the shot wanting to identify the bullet impact as quickly as possible, this is not necessary. Watch the entire shot unfold before making your call. The second error I see in this step is having the tendency to call a shot high due to the vapor trail picked up in the spotting scope. Quick math would tell us that a 1,000 yard shot will have close to 20 MOA of drop in a standard .600 BC 3000 FPS cartridge, that is 200 inches or 16.5 feet of drop, the bullet is going to look like it is high because of the angle that it approaches the target, again let the shot unfold before making your call.
When shooting steel, I see beginners call a low impact due to the bullet striking the steel and the shrapnel kicking up dust below the target. A bullet that hits at the top of a 36” steel plate will send bullet fragments into the dirt below the target giving an appearance of a low impact, which is incorrect. Again, let the shot unfold before making your call . Learn to memorize the strikes you see on the target, sometimes a bullet impact can be very subtle. Your targets set up at 600 yards and closer will often swing with enthusiasm when hit by the bullet. However, a target made of ⅜-inch AR500 steel at 1,000 yards might barely wobble when struck in the bullseye. Practice will make perfect in this category. The golden rule in calling shots is DO NOT be ashamed to say you did not see the shot, a NO CALL spot If you didn’t see it is better than guessing. Move on to the next shot.
Making the Correction
Making a proper correction after a missed shot placement can be a very tricky endeavor. In the event that the bullet impact is not where you or the shooter had intended, you potentially need to make a correction before firing again. I say potentially because there is a chance the shooter pulls the shot or breaks the trigger inadvertently. I like to quickly confirm with the shooter after the shot is called whether or not he or she felt they had made a good shot. If it is determined the shot was a good shot, give the shooter the appropriate elevation or windage correction and fire again. If the shot was pulled, making any sort of correction is often a mistake. In the experience I pointed out in the beginning of this article while hunting Kudu with Aaron, he couldn’t remember for 15 minutes following his shot if he had broke the trigger where he intended or not. Buck fever happens!
When I used to have free time in the summer to pursue hobbies I spent a fair amount of my leisure time on the golf course. The relationship you need to develop is very similar to that of a golfer and his caddie. While it is very poor etiquette for a caddie to speak to the golfer during his back swing, this is not the case with the shooter / spotter relationship. The shooter has to learn to become comfortable with someone talking to them all the way through the shot.
I’ve always liked this definition of a caddie that I read some time ago. Great caddies aren't just handy with a rangefinder—they're accomplished sports psychologists, like corner men in boxing. Part of their job is to project confidence in their club selection or read of the green, so the player doesn't second-guess himself when he steps up to the ball.
This is exactly the role of a good spotter. Targets move, winds change, and obstacles arise in every shooting situation, be sure to communicate with your shooter right up until the moment that trigger is broken!