Hunting’s Newest Controversy: Snipers

The sport is divided on the ethics of using long-range shooting systems to take down game

Experts from Gunwerks train customers for high-angle long-distance shots at the company’s Long Range University Course in Wyoming.
Experts from Gunwerks train customers for high-angle long-distance shots at the company’s Long Range University Course in Wyoming.PHOTO: NATE ROBERTSON

During his first 25 years hunting big game, Robert Phillips never killed from farther than 250 yards. He wasn’t certain how to calculate the pull of gravity on a bullet traveling farther than that, not to mention the harder-to-calculate effect of wind.

But four years ago, Phillips invested in a rifle and sighting system that does all that calculating for him. On a hunt in New Mexico this fall, Phillips downed an elk with one shot from 683 yards. His longest kill with this new gear came at 1,180 yards, four times beyond any conventional range.

“From that distance, the animal isn’t frightened. It’s not jittery. And you’re not jittery either,” says Phillips, a home builder in Columbus, Ind.

In this ancient American sport, the newest thing is a long-range-shooting system that measures distance, determines wind effect and fires high-powered ammunition. These systems turn hunters into snipers by taking the guesswork out of calculating the effects of gravity and wind on a bullet traveling as far as a mile. Applying technical expertise to firearm sighting systems, new players such as Gunwerks and TrackingPoint are winning shares of a market long dominated by venerable brands like Remington and Winchester. “A TrackingPoint Precision-Guided Firearm ensures never-before-seen precision at extreme distances,” says the website of TrackingPoint, based in Pflugerville, Texas.

Of about 14 million rifle hunters in America, about 5% are using new long-range systems, estimates Gunwerks founder Aaron Davidson. “And I would expect that 5% to turn into 50%,” says Davidson, a mechanical engineer who started his company in 2006. In the hopes of spurring such growth, Davidson’s company produces a cable hunting show called “Long Range Pursuit,” which he says gains about 300,000 viewers a week.

But as if big-game hunting weren’t controversial enough, many of the sport’s own practitioners disapprove of long-range hunting, calling it a violation of a tradition known as fair chase. Getting close to a deer or elk requires stealth and patience. Within 300 yards, the snap of a twig or sudden shift in wind can alert a wild animal that danger is near, sending it under cover. For the hunter, evading a wild animal’s exquisite senses can be one of the greatest thrills of the sport.

The animal should have a chance. If you shoot at an animal from 500 yards or farther, you’re depriving him of his tools. You negate his eyesight and his hearing and his sense of smell.

—David E. Petzal, Field & Stream editor and a hunter since 1960

“The animal should have a chance,” says David E. Petzal, Field & Stream magazine’s field editor and a hunter since 1960. “If you shoot at an animal from 500 yards or farther, you’re depriving him of his tools. You negate his eyesight and his hearing and his sense of smell.”

Long-range shooting is the latest new technology to come to the attention of state wildlife officials, who in various places have limited or banned hunters from using drones, trail cameras and night-vision equipment. This year in Nevada, the state wildlife commission proposed outlawing electronically controlled firing systems on big-game rifles, a measure that could effectively ban some long-range shooting systems. “To their credit, our wildlife commission is taking a stand on technologies they feel are going beyond the fair-chase ethic,” says Tyler Turnipseed, Nevada’s chief game warden.

In a 2014 statement, the Boone and Crockett Club, a 129-year-old conservation and record-keeping group, said the club “finds that long-range shooting takes unfair advantage of the game animal, effectively eliminates the natural capacity of an animal to use its senses and instincts to detect danger, and demeans the hunter/prey relationship in a way that diminishes the importance and relevance of the animal and the hunt.”

Hunting big game ought to be as difficult as hitting a fastball, says Field & Stream’s Petzal. “If you practice it ethically, most of the time you won’t succeed,” says Petzal, who once went 17 seasons without taking an elk despite hunting for one every year. “I’m talking about 2-3 weeks up and down mountains year after year with nothing to show for it,” he says.

Mike Jernigan, a disabled veteran, uses his TrackingPoint 300 Winchester Magnum.ENLARGE
Mike Jernigan, a disabled veteran, uses his TrackingPoint 300 Winchester Magnum. PHOTO: MIKE JERNIGAN

Proponents of long-range hunting acknowledge that it can improve a hunter’s chances of making a kill. But what’s wrong with that, they ask, given that hunters often spend tens of thousands of dollars on equipment, travel and licenses in pursuit of animals whose numbers are abundant—sometimes overly abundant? They also say that long-range systems don’t eliminate the element of chase or the grind of hauling heavy equipment up mountains. “It’s no cakewalk,” says Phillips, a 65-year-old Gunwerks customer.

As for ethics, proponents say that super-accurate sighting systems make hunting more humane at any range, by killing animals instantly, thereby reducing the risk of wounded prey escaping. “Without TrackingPoint 14% of animals shot suffer and require two or more shots to be killed. Many are never found,” says a TrackingPoint document. “With TrackingPoint 99.5% of animals are cleanly harvested.”

South Carolina home builder William Sinnett bought a TrackingPoint system not only for himself but for his business partner, who had a habit of jerking when he fired upon a big-game animal.

“He had a tick, so he’d just wound an animal, and sometimes we’d find the animal and sometimes we wouldn’t,” says Sinnett, a former military sharpshooter. Since using the TrackingPoint system, however, “my business partner hasn’t missed a shot,” says Sinnett.

Proponents of long-range shooting also argue that the virtues of creeping close to a big-game animal are overblown. They note that bow hunting—which requires extraordinary stealth—often wounds rather than kills. “Bow hunters wound animals that get away—and that’s unethical,” says Phillips.

One factor likely to limit growth is cost. While a conventional deer rifle can be bought for a few hundred dollars, these ultra-sophisticated rifles and shooting systems can cost a few thousand dollars up to nearly $25,000.


18 thoughts on “Hunting’s Newest Controversy: Snipers

  1. People can’t get closer to wild horses in Utah than about a mile. This indicates these horses were shot at. More stuff like this will be coming along with the next admin.

    • Chris, I agree that things will be getting much worse now with this Trump Regime. The only possible consolation may be this: Sniping can go both ways, and those hunters are a cowardly lot, especially when on the other side of a rifle.

  2. Hunting is not a sport, not sporting, not fair chase, ever! Hunters have tried to introduce silencers. They already hunting with scoped rifles and binoculars, travel in four-wheelers, use dogs for lions, were using dogs in WI for wolves. They kill wolves and try to minimize Zoe other predators. Hunting simply recreational killing of wildlife, not good for wildlife ecology, not good for humans. It brutalizes us all, distorts wildlife ecology, and dimishes wildlife.

  3. Wildlife doesn’t stand a chance anymore. Can people ever exercise any restraint and humility, or must they always get anything and everything they want? Then they want to be considered ethical too. Wildlife populations in the majority of cases have never been lower, and people have never been more – with more technology. I’m disgusted.

    • I don’t care how great we tell ourselves (or religions tell us) we are – many have a need to kill somethin’, whether by hunting or wars. It’s a part of our genetic makeup. It’s human nature. I truly cannot imagine wanting to do this for pleasure and sport. I think it is a holdover from the days when we had to hunt for food – now, we don’t have to, but our biology hasn’t kept up with our progress, and the killer urge is still there with nowhere to go. I’ve said this before.

      • I agree. The body count has just gotten greater, among animals and people, as our technology progressed. Just consider the rate of killing in the new slaughterhouses and look at the nightly news from the Middle East and the cities reduced to rubble, the thousands migrating to Europe. Some deny any genetic influence, but considering the violence has been going on since before we were H. sapiens, it is a part of our nature.

      • Thankfully there is a vast number of humans who don’t listen to the voice in our heads to kill other living beings. Hunters like to claim humans have always killed other animals, that we have always been the top of the food chain. Wrong. There was a long period in our history when humans were frequently unceremoniously torn apart and eaten by carnivores.

  4. Ugh. I am just so disgusted with humanity lately (more than usual). We’ve descended into the most base creature that only kills, f*cks, overbreeds, and consumes vast quantities of food and everything else on the planet. No self-control anymore, or maybe we never had any. We’re gross.

  5. Since when was hunting ever fair? When most hunters want to kill an animal, they don’t worry about how disadvantaged that animal is by scopes, etc. They just want the body/trophy and the feeling that they are superior.

  6. I don’t know if I’d say it’s a vast number, but I’m glad to know that there are those who have more ‘gentle’ genes – although we still put ourselves first, the vast majority. Reading about those two ‘children’ (15 and 17) who were so dumb they were actually photographed (thank goodness they were) throwing matches around during a drought and cause that horrific fire in Tn – and the people who want to excuse them as making a ‘childhood mistake’ because they didn’t know it would be windy (duh, that’s why we’re told not to play with fire since childhood!), or they didn’t mean it (apparently they don’t know what aggravated arson is, it’s intentional). Can’t blame this one on climate change, folks, but human stupidity and overindulgence.

    I’m so sick of all the excuses we make for ourselves, I hope that these ‘children’ (one might be nearly 18?) don’t just get a slap on the wrist. Look how destructive humans are. Our kids are not angels – we still give birth and nurse young exactly like any other mammal on the face of the earth, so we’re no different, but just arrogant.

    In my state the height of self-indulgence is the legalization of recreational marijuana – I don’t care per se, but just that it’s more hedonism and self-serving is annoying to me.

  7. I’m sick of the excuses too. The kids set a cat on fire? Yeah, that was just a prank. They’re young and didn’t think, etc.,etc. If their brains aren’t fully formed until they are in their 20s, as some believe, and they can’t reason well, then maybe they shouldn’t be allowed to get driver’s licenses or serve in the military either. If they’re so dumb they don’t know cruelty, then punishment would be a good learning experience.

    • LOL, the age of maturity keeps getting later and later – pretty soon they’ll be telling us the human brain doesn’t mature until age 45! (for some I don’t think it ever does anyway) And of course you can’t ‘shame’ children for doing wrong, I blame the overly permissive 60s.

      Saying that they ‘didn’t know the wind was going to pick up’ is just so lame. Then I read that the winds were supposed to have been ‘hurrican force’. *eyeroll* That’s why you aren’t supposed to play with fire, dummies, it’s unpredictable and can get out of control very quickly, even under the best of circumstances.

  8. I’d encourage all serious anti-hunters to take advantage of this technology and enroll in one of these courses, if they can afford it. A “clean kill” from over half-a-mile away would make the perpetrator practically untraceable by “the law.” If sport hunting were not such a one-sided affair with there instead being a small but finite chance that the hunter gets his head blown-off each time he steps into the field, these cowardly Elmers would scatter faster than roaches in a brightly lit kitchen. Historically speaking, superpowers have been brought to their knees by their oppressed victims adopting and adapting the oppressors own high-technology and then using it successfully against them.

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