Riders Of Last Shadow – Hunting From A Helicopter
Nicholas Chen 03.25.21
Hunting coyotes and hogs is challenging and fun, but do you want to kick it up a notch? Hunting from the sky is on a whole other level. We got an opportunity of a lifetime to meet up with the wonderful people of Last Shadow in Temple, Texas who took us for a magic carpet ride. We got to experience hunting from the sky in a helicopter.
Toruk Makto: Riders Of Last Shadow
For those of you nerdy enough, you may recognize the company name, Last Shadow. It is a reference to aerial hunters, but it is also a reference to James Cameron’s block buster hit movie, Avatar. In Avatar, there is a large winged animal that is the king of the skies. The natives call it Toruk which means Last Shadow, and Toruk Makto is a rider of Last Shadow. Thanks to Last Shadow we were able to take our hunting to the skies. Last Shadow is an aviation company based in Temple, Texas. They focus on hunting excursions using their MD600N helicopter.
At first glance the MD600N helicopter looks rather spacious. There were three shooters, Me, Ryan Ogborn of TFBTV and his friend Garrett Sayger. Garrett is an avid hunter, but just like Ryan and I, he has never hunted from the sky before. Both Garrett and I are 6 ft tall. Ryan is no slouch either, but he is skinnier than Garrett or I. Once we got into the cabin of the MD600N we found it rather tight. More about this later.
Hunting From Helicopters For Beginners
To preface this article, while I am experienced with shooting a firearm, I am a novice when it comes to hunting. I have hunted on occasion as a kid with my father when we went dove hunting in SoCal and Arizona, but that is not the same as hunting ground animals and certainly nothing like hunting them from the sky. We were given some basic safety instruction regarding using firearms in the helicopter. I am not sure if these safety rules are the same for law enforcement and military, the only other people I can think of that shoot firearms from aerial platforms, but they seem like they should be universal. Contrary to our normal training the safest position to point a firearm is not up or down in the helicopter. There are very expensive and very important things above and below you in a helicopter that “do not react well to bullets” (Sean Connery, Red October). So the safest place to point the gun is straight out the side parallel to the deck.
For the safety of everyone we are all wearing and using aviation headsets so that we can communicate and more importantly listen to what the pilot is telling us. He leads the hunt since he is the one flying the helicopter. While it was not necessary during our hunt, other scenarios may dictate which animal to shoot at and you need to pay attention to the pilot as he will instruct you and tell you which one to shoot. Also, it is easy to get tunnel-visioned into shooting the animal that you may not see some danger up ahead, but the pilot or other participants can see. Like if the animal is running toward something you shouldn’t be shooting at real soon.
The areas of the Last Shadow helicopter hunt were local farm lands. Last Shadow has permission from these land owners to hunt on their land; however there are some sections of land that are owned by a trust and getting to the source to get permission to hunt over their land can be difficult. For the comfort of everyone in the helicopter and any potential people on the ground you must shoot suppressed. We were shooting TRIARC Systems AR-15s suppressed with Dead Air suppressors. I brought along my Salient Arms pistol lower with a Franklin Armory BFSIII binary trigger to see if that might help. Since we were shooting 5.56 at possibly hogs, I thought more rounds on target may be required. Ryan opted to use his personal AR-15 11.5″ pistol with a Sig Sauer suppressor on it, Eotech EXP3-0 on a Unity Tactical riser.
Going back to the cramped quarters in the helicopter. I was sitting on the right rear seat, Garrett sat opposite of me and Ryan sat left rear position. There is another spot for a fourth shooter and Ashley of Last Shadow sits in the middle between that fourth position and Garrett. She helps the shooters with mags, documenting the hunt as well as spotting for game. She is a member of the flight crew and helps the pilot by watching us to make sure we are handling our firearms safely. It is easy to be complacent and get caught up in the excitement that you can forget helicopter firearm safety especially in a new environment with a lot of stimulus that you are not accustomed to.
My seating position is really better suited for a left handed shooter. Since Garrett and I are facing each other, it is easier and safer for us to turn 90º and shoot out the side of the helicopter. I had moved the microphone to my left side when I was getting setup on the ground. This was due to the microphone boom hitting the brace on my lower, but when I was up in the air I found shooting right shoulder a bit uncomfortable due to the close proximity of the bulkhead from the helicopter so I tried shooting a coyote left handed, but it was not great. So I reverted back to shooting right handed.
Another minor issue was how close the rear and ceiling of the helicopter was for me. My head would bump into the rear bulk head quite often, but when I sat perpendicular to the helicopter this was alleviated a bit.
One aspect of helicopter hunting I did not expect was the amount of air rushing in and around you. More so outside than inside, but it is noticeable. Definitely wear eyepro. It’s almost like trying to ride an off-road side-by-side without goggles. The wind gets all up in your face. I had removed the eyecup and lens cap from my thermal monocular and stashed them in my shirt pocket. It has a button closure. It was not enough. Both of them managed to fly out of my shirt pocket due to the wind whipping my shirt all the time. Don’t stick things out of the helicopter when it is moving fast. When the pilot is moving the helicopter to track the animal it is not so bad, but when he is moving fast the wind outside the chopper is significant. I thought my boot would rip off my foot cause it was left sticking out in the wind. Anything not tethered can be ripped out of your hands and fall to the ground. We all wore slings around our necks just as an extra measure of safety in case we dropped a gun.
Engaging Game From The Air
This was a lot more challenging than I had anticipated. While the helicopter pilot is doing his best to match the speed and direction of the animal we were hunting, in this case it was mostly coyotes, it was not like shooting fish in a barrel.
We are shooting from an unsupported position. The animal is moving and to a certain degree so are you. With regards to the binary trigger, it was not as helpful as I would have liked. The coyotes were far enough away that the second round would always miss due to muzzle climb and the movement of the coyote. The pilot encouraged rapid firing though because our opportunities to stop the animal is a short window, unless the animal is dumb enough to run out into an open field and we can pick it off.
The biggest challenge for me was seeing the coyotes. They are brown and so is the ground. It helps when they are running across green farmland, but I recall one instance where a coyote was running alongside a pack of deer. Everyone else could see the coyote, but I did not. Only after the coyote had split off from the deer pack was I able to distinguish it from the deer. I thought it was a small fawn. Looking at the coyote from on top, it loses a bit of its identifying characteristics. Also, the white parts of its tail added to the illusion that it was a whitetail fawn.
Ryan got the first and only hog of the flight. This was easy to see since the hog was black.
I brought along my AGM Micro TM384 thermal monocular to test while we were in the air. When Ryan engaged the hog I recorded it. Here is a screen shot. See how easy it is to see the hog?
Coyotes on the other hand do not move in a straight line. They bob and weave side to side almost like a snake slithering. The one coyote I know I got was difficult to engage because it ran into a copse of trees. Fortunately, the trees did not have any leaves on it, but the branches still managed to obscure a lot and shield the coyote from some of my shots. Garrett later told me he could see the rounds from my TRIARC upper bounced off branches. I relied on my eyes to pick up subtle movements to reacquire the coyote.
While I was unable to use my thermal monocular, when we engaged coyotes, I think a thermal weapon sight would have helped a lot especially when game runs through shrubs and trees.
Last Shadow Helicopter Hunt Wrap Up
Huge thanks to Barrett Blume of Last Shadow and his crew. We had the ride of our lives. I must warn you that just shooting guns from the air is extremely fun, but at the challenge of hunting a live animal is more fun than I can convey. It may cause you to spend money, a lot of money. Maintaining helicopters to be airworthy is not easy nor is it cheap. So, a lot of the cost in a helicopter hog hunt goes towards that. Also, Last Shadow provided the guns and ammo, and considering ammo prices these days, it is not cheap to supply that. The price per shooter goes down the more you can pack into the helicopter, but I am warning you now, it is not cheap.
As I just mentioned, Last Shadow provided the guns and ammo. 5.56 is not ideal for hog hunting, but it can get the job done. Also, it is a great cartridge for any shooter. It is low recoiling; therefore, easy to make follow up shots. Also, getting more rounds down range out of a helicopter is always a good time. The TRIARC System rifle and upper were perfectly set up with the Dead Air Sandman-S. No gas to the face at all and no malfunctions.
Garrett had some thoughts about the helicopter hunt:
“I think the thermal is a really good idea, but only when things are slow. If the action was hot and heavy, you’d end up not needing it or it would become a hinderance for the shooters. For coyotes or hogs that hide, it would be awesome to have on hand though.
Talking to Jim Smith [former Delta] was actually really cool in regard to the volume of fire discussion. He said volume of fire = better hit probability. He was shooting crazy fast when we were shooting at night for that reason. He obviously knows what he is talking about and he did extremely well. However, my experience as a hunter led me to shoot only when my sight crossed the coyote though. So my cadence was much slower. I did ok, but I found when I started blasting away I missed almost everything and it took much longer. This could vary from person to person. Im just not good enough to practice the fundamentals of marksmanship on a moving target in a rapid fashion lol
Man I would totally change calibers! 5.56 sucks for hogs, but its cheap and fits into the most widely available platform in the states. That, along with the low recoil is likely the driver behind them using it. I have found that 7.62×39 is hard to beat in the cheap hunting caliber options. Hogs don’t soak that up quite as efficiently. It stands to reason that a coyote wouldn’t either. It is a slower round, but there still wouldn’t be a horrible lead. Recoil is more if you use an overgassed AK, but if you use something from Rifle Dynamics with an adjustable gas system, the differences between that and a 5.56 rifle would be negligible. Suppressing a quality AK with an adjustable gas system is easy.
6.5 Creedmoor or .308 are optimal for hogs, but they require an ar10 platform and are much heavier. I have found with both of these rounds that neck shots are almost universally one and done. I think its a velocity thing.
On another note: The rifles they had us using (Triarc I think) were perfectly gassed. Mine was like shooting a BB gun!“
Well, we all had a blast and learned a lot. This experience was definitely a bucket list item for all of us and I cannot thank Barrett and Last Shadow enough. To find out more go to their website.