Do you think our service members zero their rifles, fast-rope out of a helicopter and assault a fake terrorist compound once, then suspend training because everything went smoothly in practice? No. They continue training to perfect their skills so when it’s time to execute a mission they can command fluid situations with authority.
Consider this while zeroing your rifle and archery equipment. Your hunting tools might be throwing bullets and broadheads exceptionally well, but hunting situations differ greatly from sunny practice days at the range. After building confidence during your sight-in session, move beyond the range to command authority in the hunting arena.
Zeroing your rifle and bow is the first step in being an accurate and proficient hunter. To ensure equipment is zeroed properly, add on all accessories you’ll use when hunting. Changes in barrel pressure, weight added to a bow (i.e. a quiver) and gear that could alter shooting form can change point of impact.
For rifles, include bipods, buttstock cartridge holders, straps or slings and even flip-up scope covers, which can affect your field of view. For bows, add your quiver when practicing if you intend to hunt with it on, and use the same release you’ll use in the field.
Sight in with the same ammo you plan to use when hunting. Rifle cartridges loaded with the same bullet type and weight can perform differently from one manufacturer to the next. Bowhunters should practice with broadheads before the season to guarantee readiness in all shooting situations.
If where you hunt offers more long-range rifle shots, a 200-yard zero makes sense for rapid assessments. Your own shooting skills will determine your shooting limitations, either with a bow or a rifle.
Once you’re zeroed, your practice should mimic what will be expected of you during a typical hunt. Practice shooting from the positions and distances you’ll most likely encounter. If you’re only hunting from a box blind overlooking a food plot with shots to 120 yards, practicing on a long-range metal silhouette course is unnecessary. Utilize rests, like shooting sticks and bipods, and consider shooting from a popup blind if that might be in your future. The flimsy ledges of a blind’s shooting windows might require bringing along extra shooting stability, such as the Caldwell DeadShot FieldPod Max portable shooting rest.
Long-range scenarios require extra practice, particularly those with steep angles. Most modern rangefinders compensate for angled shots and provide distances based on the horizontal, not line-of-sight, distance. If your rangefinder doesn’t compensate for the shot angle, you must aim lower than you would for a flat-terrain shot of the same distance. If the distance of the shot is less than 250 yards in these steep hunting conditions, you likely won’t have to worry about adjusting point of aim. With longer shots in these conditions, point of aim should be lower than for a similar flat shot.
After perfecting garden-variety shots, progress to unlikely, albeit possible, shot opportunities. Think offhand and quick. You never know when a rutting buck will chase an estrus doe across the trail as you’re hiking to your stand. You might have to shoot from a standing or squatted position—stances you wouldn’t normally consider.
Practice wrapping your strap or sling around your arm for stability, as shooting sticks might be out of reach in a hurried opportunity. If you have a safe backstop, consider practicing running shots by rolling tires with targets in them down a hill. Get out in all weather conditions, especially wind to estimate bullet drift. Consider planning a varmint hunting weekend to test the real-world variables that affect bullet flight.
Lastly, practice shooting close. Keeping your variable riflescope on a low setting and shooting at targets under 75 yards helps prepare for chip shots during startling encounters. Traditional targets, metal silhouettes and filled milk jugs scattered in a pasture, some veiled by brush, all provide excellent opportunities to fine-tune your shooting proficiency.
Bowhunters should also move beyond pre-ranged practice fields when training. After screwing on several practice broadheads, utilize a 3-D target, such as those manufactured by Rinehart and Delta McKenzie. They’ll help you visualize your aiming point without the aid of a bull’s eye. As importantly, they allow you to get a sense of arrow penetration based on the angle or steepness of your shot.
If you predominantly hunt from a treestand, you must practice often from an elevated position. For consistency, be sure to maintain proper form. While your rangefinder might compensate for angled shots, getting a true feel for downward angles requires some angled practice sessions.
You could hang a treestand in your backyard; however, climbing up and down safely takes up valuable practice time. Other options include shooting down steep banks or from a deck, the loft of a barn or even the second-story window of a house.
If you’ll hunt from a groundblind, practice shooting through the blind’s narrow windows while seated in the constricted setting. If you still-hunt, practice uphill and downhills shots from standing, crouched and kneeling positions. Shoot beyond your comfort zone to polish long-range skills. Also, test the 10-yard shot that could occur in a rut frenzy.
Don’t be a fair-weather trainee, either. Shoot in drizzle, wind and especially low-light conditions to understand how each one affects both arrow flight and your aiming abilities. In particular, gusty conditions test arrow-drift estimation skills, and only experience reveals how much to alter your aim. Also, ensure that the added bulk of hunting clothing later in the season doesn’t change your form and accuracy.
Moving beyond your comfort zone and mimicking the real world in your shooting practice both challenges you and prepares you for what’s ahead. Start your test this summer.