Practice Makes Perfect
October 04, 2010
All hunters know that marksmanship is critical to a successful hunt, but few practice shooting under field conditions. This guide tells you how to get started.
A rest dramatically improves any hunter's marksmanship, and almost anything can serve as a rest in a pinch. Practice finding and using the best available rest under a variety of conditions. Photo by Rick Jamison
by Rick Jamison
Bill Taylor glanced down at his rifle as he eased through the woods with only a slight breeze in his face. He had a lot of confidence in that rifle, a flat-shooting 7 mm Magnum. When he sighted-in with it last week, he had twice put three shots into less than an inch at 100 yards. Taylor figured that a guy doesn't need more accuracy than that for deer hunting, and his thoughts were still on small groups when suddenly there was a buck!
The deer was walking across Taylor's line of travel no more than 150 yards away through the semi-open woods, and the buck was a big one. A giant one! Taylor's first thought was to shoot the deer as fast as he could before it got away. He shouldered the rifle and fired. The sound of the shot super-charged the deer, and in two great lunges, the big buck disappeared among the trees and brush. It was as if a deer had never been there.
Taylor quickly walked up to the spot where the buck had been standing when the shot was fired. Instead of the hoped-for red droplets, all Taylor could find were deep hoof prints engraved into the soil where the buck dug in for a quick takeoff. Taylor followed the tracks, but no matter how much he hoped the shot had connected, it was clear that his bullet had not touched a hair.
This scenario is all too familiar among deer hunters. The usual pre-season shooting preparation is to sight-in to make certain the rifle is hitting where it should. What is usually overlooked is the importance of shooting practice. Practice not from a bench rest but from hunting positions, positions that can be used in the field.
Had Taylor fired his rifle offhand at a 150-yard practice target, he would have found that he couldn't keep half his shots inside a 10-inch circle at that distance. If he would have practiced a bit, he might have found that he could do it out to perhaps 100 yards, but at 150 yards, he needed a rest of some sort. The fact is that, even when hunting from the ground, Taylor had several rests available to him, and these would have taken only a second to assume. This still would have left plenty of time to get a well-aimed and steady shot at the buck.
The key to dropping the buck of a lifetime is in shooting practice. Practice performs several valuable functions. First, it makes you a better shot. It teaches you that the bullet is going to hit where the cross hair is at the time the rifle fires, not when you think you pulled the trigger and not where the cross hair was just before you jerked the trigger. It teaches you that the cross hair has to be in exactly the right spot. Just having the target in the field of view isn't enough.
All this boils down to concentration. You have to concentrate on holding the cross hair or sights precisely on the kill zone until the trigger is squeezed and the rifle fires. Don't think about the size of the buck's rack. Don't think about the deer getting away. Just think about where that cross hair is and how much it is moving as you squeeze the trigger.
If you cannot hold the cross hair or sights on the target long enough to squeeze the trigger and if you cannot avoid a flinch, you will miss. It's pretty simple, but it's still overlooked by most hunters.
The second thing that practice does is to teach a person to know when he needs a better rest. Centerfire rifles can be accurately fired to great distances, but the greater the distance, the steadier the rifle must be during the aiming. The bottom line is that you need to learn to evaluate whether your rest is up to the shot before you fire.
The quality of your rest is critical whether you are hunting on the ground or out of a stand. Hunters who hunt exclusively from tree stands should also practice the classic ground positions, partly because every year a number of the biggest bucks are killed by hunters going to and from their stand. Obviously, the stand hunter who has a safe place to target practice while sitting in his stand has an excellent opportunity to improve his practical marksmanship.
Few hunters go many seasons without having deer come by their stands from the "wrong" direction. Practicing shots from different angles and working out a system for having the best rest possible in each position will eventually save you from having to tell one of those stories about the big one that got away.
When you practice shooting from the ground, you may find that a quick offhand shot works fine up to about 30 or 40 yards, but for a 100-yard shot, you at least need a kneeling position. You learn that a good sitting position is better than a kneeling position but a little slower to assume, and you learn that the prone position is the steadiest of all.
However, this brings up the fact that you not only need to practice from positions that can be assumed in the field but also need to practice under hunting conditions. If you do, you quickly find that the prone position is often not useful in a hunting situation because of the low level. Grass or brush is often too high for you to use a prone position.
What you quickly learn during practice is that any rest is an advantage and that almost anything can become a rest. A backpack, binoculars or a spotting scope tripod will all make valuable rests, depending on the situation. A rifle bipod can make a huge difference in a person's field shooting ability. In a pinch, even a simple stick picked up in the woods to be used as a fore-end mono-pod makes a great shooting aid. A stump, a rock or the side of a tree can make the difference between a big buck on the ground and a disappointing day.
Once in the stand, a hunter should be able to do more advance preparation for securing a rest. Depending on the angle of the shot and the type of stand, there might be a variety of "best" rests to take. Work these out before the deer shows up.
Again, practice is the key. One of the best things a hunter can do before the hunting season is to purchase at least 10 boxes of ammunition just for practice. A case of ammo is even better. Use part of the ammo to sight-in your rifle from a bench rest. This part is important because you need to be confident that your rifle is capable of making the shot. Then expend the rest of the ammunition practicing from various hunting positions in hunting situations. Wherever you practice, make certain you have a safe backstop. Be sure to use good sight and hearing protection. The latter goes a long way toward avoiding flinching.
It is a great idea to incorporate life-size paper game targets so the exact impacts of your shots are recorded. The game target also gives you practice in concentrating on the kill area and not the entire animal. If you don't have life-size targets, a simple paper plate is inexpensive and serves to record the point of impact. You're not looking for tiny groups; you're looking for the placement of individual shots. They simply need to be in an area the size of the vital region of the game: An 8- or 10-inch circle is about right for white-tailed deer. Remember that placement of the first shot is most important.
If you practice like this, you find that you can quickly determine whether the shot will be good just by the amount of cross hair movement on the target as you aim and before you take the shot. You can quickly evaluate whether you need a better rest and which type of rest is likely to do the job. And since practice makes you intimately familiar with your rifle, you won't be fumbling for the safety, and you won't have a jammed action at a critical instant.
The end result of all this practice is that you become more effective at taking game. Almost from the start, you will be a better game shot because you're concentrating on cross hair movement. You know that the shot won't be good unless the hold is good. Once a hunter accepts this fact and doesn't shoot unless the hold is good, he becomes a consistent one-shot hunter. The fact is that the first shot is nearly always the best. If you do not shoot unless or until you have a good hold/rest, the game is not usually spooked. It is just as important to know when not to fire as when to fire. If you can't get a shot, you still haven't blown a future chance of getting a shot. More importantly, you haven't wounded a big buck by attempting a shot that should not have been taken.
Again, practice in hunting situations. The vegetation, the terrain and the type of hunting you do will all influence the type of shots you are likely to get. These are the shots that should be practiced. Practice holding your rifle at the ready for a long while. Practice shooting when you're out of breath.
Not all practice has to involve live ammunition. You can get a good idea how well you can hold, including the quality of your rest or shooting position, simply by mental note of the cross hair movement on target and by dry firing. Always remember to handle your rifle as if it were loaded.
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