August 05, 2022
By Adam Heggenstaller
The buck I remember most is the one that I did not kill. I think he was an 8-pointer, but he could've been a 7 or maybe a 9. I recall four tines, high and heavy, on one side in the couple seconds before the laurel swallowed him whole. I didn't even raise my gun. I've spent 25 years wondering what would've happened if I had.
I'd been sneaking out on a ridge when I heard brush rustling. It was difficult to tell where the sound was coming from, but then a sharp crack straight in front of me drew my full attention. Part of a white rack stood out sharply against the dark leaves of the laurel. And then it was gone, just as suddenly as it had appeared.
We all have stories like this. Many of us hunt for weeks or months or the entire season hoping to get one good chance at a nice buck, bull or bear. We have to be ready to shoot when that opportunity comes. And, as in the case of the buck that still haunts me, opportunity can come and go in a matter of seconds. If you want to have the Ultimate Season, you need to be able to use your rifle quickly and precisely. That's deadly efficiency, and there are several steps to gaining it.
Whenever possible, keep your rifle in your hands, not over your shoulder or hanging from a sling on a hook. This applies whether you're still-hunting, sitting in a stand or even just walking to your setup spot. You can rarely predict when a chance at an animal is going to come. It's easy and maybe more convenient to carry your rifle on a sling, but when a buck jumps out of its bed or trots across an opening when you least expect, it will take too long to get the gun into action. By the time you get the gun to your shoulder, the animal will likely be long gone.
If you have to use two hands to navigate terrain or undergrowth, then sling the gun, but don't get lazy. Same for walking in or out in the dark; a sling is just fine then. But during shooting hours, carrying the rifle on a sling should be the exception, not the norm. You'll be better prepared to shoot with the gun in your hands.
Keeping the gun in hand and ready for a shot, even during an all-day hunt, shouldn't be an issue with a trim, relatively lightweight rifle. Manufacturers like Browning realize this, and they produce well-balanced, maneuverable rifles that carry easy and come to the shoulder quickly. Take the Browning X-Bolt Speed for example. Here's a rifle that weighs about 6 1/2 pounds and has a 22-inch barrel in many chamberings.
Target-style and so-called crossover rifles have their place in the field, but for most hunting situations when shots are at short to moderate ranges, a rifle that's easy to carry and maneuver can provide more of an advantage than a heavier gun that shoots half-inch groups.
Shooting form plays a huge role in being able to make the most of a shot opportunity. When an animal presents a shot, keep your head up and your eyes on the target while raising the rifle to your shoulder. The stock should move to your cheek, not vice-versa. If you drop your head to find the stock, you're more likely to take your eyes off the target. Even if it's only for a split-second, it's all the time a buck needs to give you the slip.
Keeping your head up and pretty much stationary during the gun mount also promotes consistency in your form. That helps you shoot more efficiently and accurately. You'll be able to align your eye with the scope more quickly if only one object—the rifle—is moving, rather than your head and the rifle both trying to find each other. With your head remaining in a natural position, you'll find it easier to put the buttstock in your shoulder pocket and have it meet your cheek at the same spot every time. That's the kind of consistent form you want for the most accuracy.
Your scope is a major component of your shooting system. Make sure it works for you and not against you. Keep it on the lowest power, and increase the magnification only if needed and if you have time. Believe me, you can make a good shot with the scope at 2X or 3X, and it's a lot easier to find an animal in the scope at a low magnification, especially if the animal is moving.
When you raise the rifle to your cheek, you should have a full field of view through the scope. No black portions or shadows along the edges, and it shouldn't seem like you're looking through a tunnel. If you can't get a full field of view without stretching your neck or tilting your head, you need to adjust either the position of the scope or the dimensions of the stock. Normally, a couple tweaks to the scope or its mounts will do it.
Mount the scope in the lowest rings suitable for the objective bell. You want the scope low on the receiver so you don't have to lift your cheek from a solid position on the stock to see through the optic. I much prefer objective diameters on the smaller side, 36 to 44 mm, for this reason. These are compatible with medium and sometimes even low rings, which keep the scope close to the receiver and the bore. It's a more natural setup; when you don't have to break cheek weld, your eye will quickly find the center of the scope without you having to think about it.
Be sure the eye relief is correctly set for your eye position behind the scope. Here's a quick way to check. Close your eyes and mount the rifle.
When you open them, you should have a full field of view through the scope. If you don't, move the scope backward or forward in the rings until you get it. This is also a great way to ensure the scope is not mounted too high (or too low, which is less common, but worth checking).
Yes, changing the position of the scope takes time and will require you to re-zero. But it's a step that's too often overlooked. A scope that forces you to hold your head in an unnatural position can cost you the opportunity at an animal.
We all want to make the first shot count, but sometimes we miss. Always cycle the action after your first shot so you're prepared to take a follow-up shot if needed. Keep the rifle on your shoulder and your cheek on the stock while you work the action. Don't lift your head like there's something to see around or over the scope; when you're preparing to take another shot, you want to be looking through the scope. You'll be able to find the target and take another shot more quickly if you keep the rifle in position.
The best way to have the Ultimate Season is to prepare for success, and in this case preparation means practice. Becoming more efficient with your rifle requires spending more time with it. You can practice these steps at the range or during dry-fire sessions with no ammo in a safe location. When you have just a couple seconds to shoot a giant buck this season, you'll be glad.