September 13, 2021
I have talked with big-game guides all over the world, and one of the most common problems they see with clients is the inability to get the gun on the animal quickly.
Clients miss shot opportunities because they take too long to mount the rifle, acquire the animal in the scope and place the crosshair on the vital area. African professional hunter Geoffrey Wayland told me hunters often have the magnification of their riflescopes set too high.
Another common problem is gut-shot animals. This might seem odd because most big-game hunters understand where bullets need to go. But there's a logical explanation for this malfunction as well.
Typically, big-game hunters spend very little effort engaged in shooting practice. Given the amount of time, money and energy hunters spend in trying to find the deer or elk of their dreams, you’d think at least some attempt would be made at improving shooting skills.
Too often hunters do little, if any, shooting beyond confirming their rifle is sighted in, and that routinely happens only a day or two before the season opens.
The current ammunition supply issues only make this worse. Finding the time or desire to practice might not be the problem; it might be finding ammunition. However, there is something you can do without ammunition and without even going to the range that will help overcome these common failures. It's called dry practice.
Before you groan about how boring dry practice is, let me give you an example of how effective it can be. I'm right-handed, but last December I decided I was going to learn to shoot a defensive handgun with my left hand like it was my dominant hand. By "shoot" I mean drawing from the holster and accurately firing. During February I conducted 15-minute dry-practice sessions almost every day. By the end of the month, I'd spent three hours dry practicing and only fired 100 rounds. Still, I was able to pass a basic qualification course with my left hand.
Dry practice works. But for it to work, it must be safe. It's critical that when dry practicing you observe all firearm safety rules and never, ever, dry practice in the presence of live ammunition.
To deal with the problem of not being able to quickly find an animal in your riflescope, it helps to have your scope set on a low magnification. But that's not the only factor at play.
You also need an efficient gun mount, one that smoothly brings the rifle to your shoulder and aligns the scope with your eye, which you can achieve during dry-practice sessions. To do this effectively, pick a target or aiming point and start with the rifle at the high-ready position. The butt of the stock should be on or near your hip, and the muzzle should be positioned between your eyes and the target. When you mount the gun, keep both eyes open and focus on the target as you bring the rifle level with your shoulder. The last motion should be pulling the rifle into your shoulder.
With practice you'll begin to pick up the target—through the scope—with your dominant eye just as the butt of the rifle hits your shoulder. Take five or 10 minutes each evening and do this exercise dry 20 to 30 times. Start with the magnification on your riflescope set as low as possible. In time, you'll be able to pick up the target even on higher magnification settings.
Repeat the method when you go to the range for live-fire practice. You'll have to leave the comfort of the shooting bench to do it, but firing from unsupported positions should already be part of your regimen.
As for the problem of gut shots, I believe this comes from allowing our brain to override logic when we're under stress. Soldiers and cops are taught to shoot at the target's center of mass because that allows the best opportunity for a hit. But soldiers and cops shoot for different reasons. Hunters shoot with the goal of making the most ethical kill possible. Still, under stress our mind tells us that if we aim at the center of the target, there’s a better chance for a hit. That's true, but it's not the hit we want.
Additionally, when we do practice shooting, we're accustomed to quartering circular or square targets with the reticle. That aligns the reticle in the center of the target, where we want to place our bullets. If we quarter an animal with the reticle, the result is a gut shot.
Again, the cure is dry practice and live fire, not at circles and squares, but at lifelike targets. Take a page from this magazine, one with an image of a big-game animal on it, and aim at that photo during dry practice. Deliberately aim at the spot that will result in a hit to the vital area and not at the spot that offers the best chance of simply hitting the animal. Bowhunters regularly practice shooting at realistic targets because they understand how critical shot placement is to achieving a clean kill. Gun hunters should do the same.
Getting a hit is not what's important when shooting at big game. What's important is getting a good hit or not shooting at all. If you can find the animal in your scope faster, you'll have more time to place the reticle properly. Those are primary steps in ethically taking game, and they can be perfected through diligent dry practice that supplements regular live fire.