November 09, 2023
People often view hunting and tactical shooting as being separate disciplines. However, there’s more crossover between the two than one might initially assume. In fact, many of the same principles of defensive firearm training translate very well to hunting. As a retired federal agent and federal agency firearms instructor, I’ve seen this firsthand.
As a diehard upland hunter, I’ve often adapted some of the various lessons learned from tactical training to the field. Below, we’ll discuss some aggressive gun handling, potential target identification and reloading techniques I’ve picked up during my career that can benefit upland hunters. But first, I want to talk about elevating your mental game while afield.
HEIGHTEN MENTAL AWARENESS
Wherever you’re hunting, always be mentally switched on in the field. That means moving and thinking with a heightened level of awareness of yourself, your gun and the situation at hand.
Use active mental engagement. An example is something I call "Jack’s Last Five Yards Rule," named after my father, a lifelong pheasant hunter. The way the thinking goes, you’ll often put up more birds in the last 5 yards of a field than in the first 100. So, as you approach the end of a drive, remain hyper aware rather than let your guard down, assuming that the field was a bust.
Col. Jeff Cooper, originator of many of today’s combat shooting techniques, used colors to describe different levels of mental awareness. "Condition white" is a relaxed state in which the person does not anticipate anything changing. This is the normal daily state for most people. Soldiers, police and, yes, hunters, however, should remain in "condition yellow," in which the person is more aware of the conditions and prepared for something to change.
If flushing birds are imminent, ramp up to "condition orange." This means you’re excited, very alert and ready to switch off the safety. "Condition red," meanwhile, is the action state; you are preparing to shoot or are actively shooting.
There’s one more condition beyond red that we must try to never enter—"condition black." This is a complete fog, in which you are overwhelmed and unable to engage flying targets, operate the safety or reload. A failure to mentally prepare leaves you unable to participate.
ANTICIPATE TARGET VECTORS
In the field, orient yourself to the location from which birds are most likely to appear, and always evaluate the ground ahead. Move toward superior positions or more open sky, and use creative visualizations. If they do this, I’ll do this. Anticipate action; don’t stare at a dog on point like you’re watching TV. Tell yourself to get ready.
Can you quickly move to a more stable and tactically superior shooting position? Always angle past trees or momentary obstructions to a better shooting spot. Also, remain aware of “no-shoot” areas around you. These are places where you cannot point your gun or shoot toward, such as areas where dogs or other hunters are present. Call out to others to let them know exactly where "no-shoot" zones occur by saying something like, "Hunters at 9 o’clock!"
AGGRESSIVE GUN HANDLING
With birds likely, are you ready to shoot? Get the gun barrel off your shoulder. Cover your gun’s safety with a finger or thumb. Hold the shotgun in a high-ready position with the muzzle pointed straight up. You need a solid platform, with one foot 12 to 18 inches in front of the other and your shoulders leaning slightly forward. This forward-biased position greatly helps disperse recoil and manage follow-up shots.
Push the safety off only when you have a bird in the air. It takes a fraction of a second to do so while shouldering the stock and pointing toward the target.
At the flush, bringing your gun to your shoulder from a muzzle-up position is like pivoting the middle of the gun around an axle. Bring the toe of the stock to your shoulder and extend the muzzle toward the target. Properly done, there’s no wasted motion. Leave both eyes open; if you close one eye, you lose a lot of visual space. Shotguns are pointed, not aimed like rifles.
Every shotgun recoils. Think of the energy as pushing backward first then forward toward the target. If you have a pump shotgun, use recoil as part of the motion to pump out the empty shell and then push a live round into the chamber while settling back on target.
Most misses occur by shooting behind and below a flying bird. This is often partly due to a hunter’s delayed reaction to a surprise flush. Being mentally prepared cuts your reaction time in half. Also, be ready for a follow-up shot. Shoot, assess for damage (feathers or leg drop) and adjust your lead for a second shot.
A follow-up shot should be steadier and more deliberate than the first, as air speed and angles change rapidly in the first 3 to 4 seconds of bird flight. How much lead do you use? In the first 10 to 15 yards, pull the trigger on the moving target about a muzzle’s width ahead while swinging with the bird. Beyond this range, aim 2 to 3 feet ahead. Past 40 yards, your lead should be maybe 4 to 6 feet in front of the bird depending on angles and flight time.
Shooters who miss with their first two shots have often done something (or multiple things) wrong. It’s rare to self-correct and make a hit with a third shot.
Reload now; reminisce later. In law-enforcement training, when a gun is empty you do an emergency reload. An empty shotgun is a tiny hunting emergency. Drop a shell into the chamber and put it back into battery before doing anything else.
Learn to reload without looking at the gun so you can keep your head up and anticipate more birds. Keep shells in both right and left front pockets so you can reload with either hand.
The next time you walk a field of milo or a patch of CRP, adopt a tactical mindset. Try some of these mental adjustments and tactics this season. Look for the shot before it happens, be situationally aware and capitalize when birds flush.