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Off-Season Shooting Drills (With and Without Ammo) for Hunters

The best way to become a better marksman and rifle hunter is to practice.

Off-Season Shooting Drills (With and Without Ammo) for Hunters

When using lifelike targets, place the bullseye or scoring ring on the target’s backside. This makes you aim at the right spot—as opposed to center mass—without a bullseye reference. (Photo by Richard Mann)

Bowhunters practice a lot. In the months leading up to bow season, it’s not uncommon to see bowhunters shooting in their backyards every evening. Gun hunters, on the other hand, rarely practice.

For many, the closest thing they do to practice is checking to see if their rifle is still sighted in a few days prior to the season starting. This obviously explains why so many deer are missed and wounded with rifles every year. It could be the reason you missed a deer last season.

The key to becoming a better shot with a rifle is to practice. Understandably, it is hard for most to shoot their rifle in the backyard; a trip to a suitable and safe range is needed. Also, ammunition is expensive and currently nearly impossible to find. So, when it comes to practicing with your hunting rifle, here are a few drills you can use—with and without ammunition—to help you become a better rifle shot on game.


Many outfitters in North America and Africa have told me that the most common problem clients have is getting their rifle on target. Often, I’ve heard how clients struggle to mount their rifle, disengage the safety, and then point at the animal so that it can be seen through the riflescope.

Granted, buck fever always plays a part in this, but you can overcome buck fever just as you can unfamiliarity. Weaponcraft is the skill associated with managing your firearm, and part of that is mounting the rifle and getting it on target.

You can easily practice mounting a rifle almost anywhere. All you need to do is make sure your rifle is unloaded, that there is no ammunition anywhere around and that you have a safe direction in which to point your rifle. Then, pick a target, and—starting out slowly—practice bringing the rifle up to your shoulder, disengaging the safety and acquiring the target through the riflescope or even open sights.

One trick that helps is to ensure the last movement of the rifle is straight back into your shoulder pocket.

A mistake that hunters routinely make is having the magnification on their scope turned up too high. When carrying a rifle, the magnification should be set as low as possible.

This makes finding an animal through the riflescope easier. And, if the animal is far enough away to require more magnification, you’ll have time to make that correction before shooting.


About a decade ago I participated in a deer-culling event in Texas. Prior to the culling, I got all the shooters together and we had a competition. We used two different targets. One was a round bullseye target, and the other was a life-size cardboard deer target. The competition was timed, and the goal was to see who could make the best shot, the fastest.

On the bullseye target the shots were evenly distributed around the center. On the deer target, most of the hits edged toward center mass. Why? It’s because under stress shooters tend to aim more toward center mass to ensure they get a hit. Most guides and professional hunters I’ve discussed this with agree and have told me that most bad shots they see are gut shots—center-mass shots.

Let’s return to bowhunters. Bowhunters often train with lifelike targets to hone their instinct to aim at the right spot. Most gun hunters like shooting at geometrically balanced shapes, like circles and squares. With these, you can quarter the target with the reticle and hit center. If you quarter an animal with the reticle, you’ll hit center, too. The problem is that center hits on an animal are not in the kill zone; they’re in the gut.


Even without ammunition you can practice aiming and pressing the trigger. This is called dry-fire practice, and you can do it at home or at the range. It teaches you how to make a clean trigger press without disturbing the sights. After you’re skillfully dry-firing, combine the mount drill with a lifelike target and continue your dry-fire practice. When you think you’re getting good, and if you can spare the ammunition, try conducting the drill and actually shooting at the lifelike target.

Man aiming hunting rifle
Many hunters struggle to get their gun on their shoulder and their sights on the target quickly. You can practice developing this skill in a safe environment without ammunition. (Photo by Richard Mann)


Sometimes, no matter how much we practice, we still miss. But a miss is not always the end of a hunt. A fast recovery can sometimes still put meat in the freezer.

I was still-hunting a grown-up clear-cut and managed to sneak within 80 yards of a bedded whitetail buck. After about five minutes, he stood up and I missed him. Flabbergasted, I quickly cycled the rifle’s action, took aim and put him down before he had time to bolt. I don’t know why I missed on the first shot, but I do know that my fast action after the miss is what put him on my meat pole.

Whether you hunt with a bolt-action, pump-action, lever-action or even a semi-auto rifle, practice taking quick follow-up shots. To make a fast follow-up shot, learn to leave the rifle on your shoulder as it cycles—as with a semi-auto—or while you’re cycling it if it is a pump, bolt or lever gun.

You can practice this without ammo as well; just combine it with the mount drill while using a lifelike target. Dry fire your first shot, cycle the action, and press the trigger again. Just ensure that every time you press the trigger the sights are properly aligned on the killing spot. Once confident, run the drill with ammunition. And remember, you don’t just want a hit, you want a good hit in the kill-zone area.

There are many other reasons hunters miss, and there are lots of other practice drills you can use. However, to prepare to overcome the most common causes of missed shots and missed opportunities, practice mounting your rifle, practice dry-firing your rifle, and practice follow-up shots.

For best results, combine all of this while using a target that looks like the animal you’ll be hunting. That way, when the moment of truth arrives, your mind will say, "Hey, I’ve seen something like this before. I know just what to do."

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