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Summer Shooting Practice to Stay Sharp for Hunting Season

Everybody needs practice. There's no such thing as too much, even on long hot summer days.

Summer Shooting Practice to Stay Sharp for Hunting Season

Donna Boddington demonstrates good form standing off shooting sticks using a .22. Saving ammo and sore shoulders, a good .22 can be used for almost all "position practice." (Photo by Craig Boddington)

For many, summer days are for fishing. For others, playing golf. I don’t golf. I do some summer fishing, but for me, these long days are perfect for shooting. Whether seriously or just for fun, many of us compete in various shooting disciplines.

These days, I don’t compete, but I love to break clay targets. To some extent, shooting is shooting. Any and all trigger time is good for all other shooting. Most of my shooting throughout the year is on informal ranges, where we can tack up targets and shoot handguns and rifles.

shooting from a sitting position
Left-handed Boddington demonstrates the formal crossed-leg sitting position for a right-handed shooter. In the field, formal target positions can be modified endlessly. They offer a solid foundation, so should be learned. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

The range I use most frequently is up a canyon on a friend’s ranch. It’s cold in the winter, with heavy shadows off the ridges early and late, and blistering hot in summer. Happily, the bench sits on a roofed slab and is shaded most of the day. Except when it’s 110 degrees and much time is spent waiting for barrels to cool. Even so, I prefer the long daylight of summer range days.

The slab also accommodates a small range house where we keep the basics like targets, staple gun, shooting rests and sandbags. We also have some steel targets and a good clay target thrower. On some range days we’ll shoot the whole works—rifles, handguns and shotguns.

STAYING SHARP

Everybody needs practice. There's no such thing as too much. However, shooting rifles is most important to me and that’s the tool most of my range time focuses on. Summer is a long time from hunting seasons, but I’m always thinking ahead to the next hunt, keeping myself and my tools sharp.

Typically, I’ll start on the bench. A rock-solid benchrest is a necessary evil. It’s essential for checking loads and determining what accuracy a rifle is capable of, as well as for establishing zero. The bench is also useful for concentrating on the basics of trigger press and breath control.

practice at shooting range
A solid benchrest is essential for determining accuracy and establishing zero, but offers little practice value for field shooting. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

Comfortable and steady, the bench is seductive. All too many of us, I fear, fire a few rounds off the bench and call it "practice." If raw rifle accuracy is your interest, then you could do all your shooting off the bench. However, if you’re a hunter the bench has little resemblance to field shooting. We take portable benches afield for prairie-dog shooting. Otherwise, I’ve never seen a benchrest in game country.

MASTER THE BASICS

To get real practice value from your range session, get away from the bench. I think it’s important to have a firm background in the four basic NRA shooting positions: prone, sitting, kneeling and standing. When shooting at game there are no judges and no rulebook. You can modify these positions endlessly with sticks, bipods, rocks, trees and fenceposts, but they’re still the foundation.

practice at shooting range
With practice, prone with a bipod is almost as steady as a bench. A bipod is preferred by many long-range shooters, which is good, but Boddington believes it's a mistake to become too reliant on just one shooting position or stability aid. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

I’m not as limber (or as slim) as I once was. It’s no longer easy to get into a good crossed-leg sitting position. Nor am I as steady in an unsupported standing position. That makes it even more important to practice the basic positions and I still do. The last thing you ever want to do is to have to take a shot at a game animal from a standing, unsupported position. But guess what? Sometimes that’s the only option. Standing is least accurate and least steady; it probably should be practiced the most. Know what you can do and what you can’t do. It doesn’t matter if it’s the biggest buck you’ve ever seen; if it’s beyond your certain ability there is no shot.

At the range, we also modify the basic positions with bipods and tripods. Because we hunt in Africa, we practice a lot off shooting sticks. Over there, they are almost universal. Do not go on safari without practicing a lot off shooting sticks! My wife Donna and I are so comfortable off sticks that we take them just about everywhere because they are useful in many places. If you normally carry a bipod, you should practice with it a lot.

We all establish comfort zones, preferred positions and shooting aids. That's fine and natural, but it’s a mistake to marry just one method. Think outside your box and practice as many ways to get steady as possible. The good news is, for position practice, it’s not necessary to burn up expensive ammo and soak up a lot of recoil. Take "the great teacher" to the range, a good .22. All position practice can be done just fine with an accurate .22, cheap ammo and no recoil. With a .22, use small targets. Inexpensive Birchwood Casey interactive steel .22 targets provide great fun and good practice.

gun range practice
Use smaller targets with a .22 (above). At 25 yards from field positions, a small Birchwood Casey interactive steel target (below) is lots of fun and plenty challenging. (Photos by Craig Boddington)
shooting targets

Get as creative as your situation allows. On our little range up a friend’s canyon, we can shoot safely in almost any direction. So we move a few yards uphill, left of the bench, and practice using tree trunks and limbs for support. There’s not much in the way of fallen logs or boulders; we replicate them with a toolbox or upended storage bin, adding daypacks and rolled up jackets to get the height right, as we might in the field. To the right of the bench, a ridge rises steeply. We set up and practice uphill shots at distant rocks, always a tough proposition for getting steady.

Recommended


Despite long summer days, it’s important to not overdo it. Getting ready for hunting season—and increasing your repertoire of stability options—is not a one-day process. We intersperse rationed centerfire shooting (and barrel cooling) with .22s. This helps, but nothing is gained by shooting too much and getting flinchy.

summer shooting positions
Most of us carry some kind of small pack afield; a plump daypack can be used to augment stability in many positions. (Photo by Craig Boddington)
shooting practice from prone position
Using a range box and a pack, Donna replicates a tough uphill shot from a field rest. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

Rather than trying to cram for Opening Day exam, it’s better to budget time for multiple range sessions. Recognizing many of us have limited access to ranges, and that public ranges often have rules that preclude flexibility, I’ve got some ideas. They’re not cost-free, but worth every cent.

Think about getting training. There are quality shooting schools all over the country, in full swing in summer months. Under good instruction, you can cram for the exam. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are. You’ll pick up valuable tips you never thought of before and shed bad habits you didn’t know you had. My primary experience is at the SAAM shooting school in Texas, so good that we try to go every couple of years just for a tune-up.

TAKEAWAYS

When addressing any shot, evaluate the situation and "build your house." Decide on a suitable position, figure out what you have available to augment it and then deliberately build your position. That is exactly what we’re doing when we set up make-believe field rests on the range.

prairie dog hunting
Prairie-dog shooting offers an endless array of shots, from close to far. Here, Boddington is practicing with a tall bipod, using a .17 HMR for closer shots. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

Summer is also varmint-shooting time. Back East, folks are potting woodchucks across huge green fields. Out West it’s prairie-dog time. I’ve never lived close to woodchuck country but, after the .22, the prairie dog is the "next best teacher." It’s even better for learning to dope wind. When I was a kid Dad and I learned field rifle shooting from prairie dogs. Today, there are no prairie dogs close by but I still do summer prairie-dog safaris now and then.

prairie-dog hunting
In prairie dog towns, Boddington likes to wander around and utilize field positions. Not as many hits, but much better practice for field shooting. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

Portable benches are great for longer shots and judging wind. However, as on the range, I spend much of a shooting day away from the bench, roving the edges of a colony, carrying sticks and bipods, and taking shots from field positions, often using a short-range tool (like a .22 or .17 HMR). You don’t hit as many, but with confidence on 2-by-8-inch prairie dogs, few shots at big game are daunting … at any sane distance.




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