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Judging distance – knowing how far you are from your quarry

Part of good fieldcraft is estimating how far away you are from your quarry or firing position, so Mike Morton offers a few pointers on judging distance

Rangefinders are great, but learning to judge distance by eye is a very useful skill

Imagine the scenario: you spot a rabbit near the hedgerow on the other side of the field. Ideally you’d like to close the gap to around 25m before taking the shot, so you look around for a suitable spot from where you can take aim. Having done that, you can then plot a stealthy route to get you within striking distance without being detected. Now comes judging the distance: how far away is your intended quarry? And how much ground do you need to cover before you can get within range?

Nowadays, most shooters would carefully take out their laser rangefinder and ping the various distances. But not everybody has one of these, and even if they do, batteries can go flat and rangefinders may get left at home or in the boot of the car by mistake. Luckily there is another way, and that’s going old-school and estimating the distance without the benefit of any artificial aids.

But perhaps we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves here, as we need to spot that rabbit and our potential firing position in the first place, which will mean observing the ground in front of us. The skills of observation and judging distance can prove very useful in a variety of situations when we’re out in the field. For instance, we could draw up a rudimentary range card if we’ve found a suitable ambush site. We could then record the distance to various key features such as lone trees, gates or fences.

And even if you’re not a hunter, knowing how to systematically observe an area and how to judge distance to an object or animal are challenging and enjoyable skills to master in themselves. Sometimes it’s just good to be outdoors, enjoying eveything nature has to offer.


Observation: Scanning and Searching

Phill Price recently explained the importance of using a pair of binoculars to effectively scan an area, but even if you don’t own a pair and are relying on your eyes to do this job, the method is the same. It may be tempting to let your gaze wander randomly over an area, but you may well fail to spot what you’re looking for with this approach. Instead, you need to scan and search. The terms may seem similar, but they represent two distinct operations.



Instead of treating the ground in front of you as a whole, it’s best to divide the area into near, middle and far. Always start your scan with the near ground as this could present you with an early shot. Start from the left and sweep your gaze to the right, trying to identify anything that might indicate a potential quarry animal or something that might give you away, like a tree with a few woodpigeons. When you reach the right, move your gaze up and track back to the left, making sure to overlap the areas you’ve scanned so nothing is missed. Then continue the process until you’ve covered the middle and far ground as well. 

Once the initial scan is complete, you should repeat the process as the countryside doesn’t stay still for long.



During the scanning phase, you’ll no doubt identify some areas that then require searching, which is a more thorough examination of any potential hotspots. This could be somewhere that you think could be a good place to find a warren, or where something has caught your eye, such as movement.


Judging Distance

Once you’ve located an area that you either want to get to or want to get within shooting distance of, you can then try to gauge the distance. There are two main methods of judging distance, the ‘appearance’ method and the ‘unit of measure’ method. 


The Appearance Method

This is the main method of judging distance, but it relies on you looking at a fellow human a certain distance away. It also relies on you knowing the amount of visible detail of that person at a given range, which can then help us estimate the distance they are away from us. This method is borrowed from the armed forces, where it’s a useful tool when observing enemy soldiers. It still has some merit for our needs, however, such as if we can observe someone like a forestry worker, farm labourer or dog walker on our permission.

  • At 100m, you should be able to see the person clearly.
  • At 200m, they should still be clear in all detail, and the colour of their skin and any equipment they are carrying or using should be identifiable.
  • At 300m, the outline of their body should still be clear and you should also be able to make out the colour of their face, but anything of greater detail will look blurred.
  • At 400m, the outline of their body should remain clear, but the remaining detail will be blurred.
  • At 500m, their body shape will begin to taper and their head will become indistinct.
  • At 600m, the body will now appear to be wedge-shaped and the shape of their head will no longer be apparent.

Airgun shooters could adopt this method to tell other things apart from a human being, such as a stationary tractor, provided you are able to survey the vehicle at known distances and identify how its appearance changes at each of those distances.


The Unit of Measure Method

As long as you can see all of the ground that’s between you and the object that you’re trying to range, you could make use of any unit of measure that’s familiar to you. For example, this could be the length of a swimming pool or a football pitch. 

While pitches do vary from one ground to another, average length is roughly 100m.

You can then estimate how many pitches could be fitted in between you and the object or animal (as long as it doesn’t move!) that you’re trying to range. You then just need to multiply that by the length of the unit. So 2.5 football pitches would give us an estimated distance of 250m.

However, this method is not terribly reliable at distances of more than 400m and should only be used on clear, level ground, but that’s probably still far enough for our purposes.


Aids To Judging Distance

In addition to the two main methods of judging distance, we can also make use of four aids to judging distance. 


Take The Average

One key aid to judging distance is to make use of anyone else who’s with you. This won’t always be applicable, as many people tend to hunt alone, but if you are out with a shooting buddy you can get them to help you. Different people will have different ways of judging distance and so may give you different answers, with the average often being more accurate than an estimated distance you’ve come up with on your own. The method works better the more people there are, but I suspect two is the maximum most of us will be able to make use of.



This is a really useful aid and is quite simple to do. You first need to estimate the minimum distance away the object could be and then the maximum. Then you add the two figures together and divide by two.

Suppose that you are trying to gauge the distance to a lone oak tree. You tell yourself it’s no closer than 100m away, but couldn’t possibly be any further than 300. You then add 100 to 300 and halve the result, giving an estimated distance to the tree of 200m.


Key Ranges

This relies on you knowing the actual distance to a specific area or object, such as our example of the lone oak tree, or a church spire. You can then draw an imaginary arc from that object and estimate the distance to nearby objects within that arc.



Most people find it easier to more accurately judge shorter distances than those further away from them. In this case, you need to choose a point that you think is halfway to your target object. You then estimate the distance to that point and then double it. This method can be used fairly well up to 1,000m, beyond which it is less reliable, but again that’s probably way further than any of us will actually need when airgun shooting.

Most shooters are pretty good at judging shorter distances, but at longer ranges getting an accurate figure can be a bit more elusive, so hopefully at least one or more of these methods and aids will prove helpful in making your next venture out into the field more productive.