The shot is the moment of truth for any hunter. Hundreds and thousands of dollars, hours of preparation and labor, not to mention the life and death of the animal, and even your own, depend on that split second when you pull the trigger. You’ve got to have enough skills with your rifle (or any other weapon) to do your part. Unfortunately, not all hunters are able to practice shooting as much as they would like to. Ammunition is expensive, and range time might not be easy to organize. While nothing replaces actual practice, here are seven ways to improve your rifle shooting skills without firing a single round, and without taking too much time from your daily plans.
- Dry Firing
This is the most important exercise for any rifle or handgun shot, regardless of how much you can train with live ammo. Professionals in shooting sports do it all the time and then some more. There’s a little kid in each of us that wants to point the gun at something, yank the trigger, say “ka-boom!” and jerk the weapon back as if experiencing recoil. This is, obviously, not how you do it.
When dry firing, your job is to keep the weapon aimed precisely at your target before, during, and after you press the trigger. Stability and control are the key words. Releasing the trigger while maintaining absolute control over the weapon, and ensuring that it is relentlessly stable, without any movement, however slightest, whatsoever, is the key to successful marksmanship. Get some dummy ammo to save the striker and the mainspring of the weapon from unnecessary extra wear.
Correct trigger control is a complicated topic that can’t be covered in a couple of paragraphs in a blog, so search for more information in books and reputable websites. But never forget safety! Always make sure the gun is unloaded before practicing with it, and, to borrow the old-but-gold tip of Colonel Cooper, never aim your gun at anything you don’t mind destroyed.
- Working the Action
Another aspect of dry firing is working the action of your rifle. You want to get ready for that second shot as quickly as possible, without losing sight of your prey. Start practicing it at home – aim, dry fire, then work the action while doing your best to keep the rifle aimed at the target, and dry fire again. Don’t try to do it fast, keep it slow, rhythmical, and mindful. Your job is to program the correct sequence of motions into your brain-nerve-muscle coordinating system; once you get it, in a real hunting scenario adrenaline will take care of the tempo.
- Practice Getting in Position
A comfortable, correct shooting position is essential for good shooting, and assuming this position is a skill that also needs practicing. Get your (unloaded!) rifle, put on your daypack with some 10-20 lb. worth of weight in it. Take a few steps across the room or lawn, pretend you’ve seen a deer or other animal, and get in shooting position as quickly, but also as smoothly and inconspicuously as you can. Go through all of them: prone, sitting, kneeling, offhand, from shooting sticks, five to ten times. You’d be surprised how much energy you’ll spend on the way, but it is energy well spent – when the time comes, an ability to take position automatically, without taking your mind and eyes off the quarry, will come in very handy.
- Keep Fit
Being physically fit is an important aspect of marksmanship, and range sessions don’t get you very far in it. The stronger your muscles are, the longer you can hold the gun without trembling. The better your lungs and cardiovascular are, the easier it will be for you to control your breath – and you’ll need it desperately after a long stalk over the mountains followed by a sprint to get to that rock from which you could take the shot at that ram that has started to suspect something. Shooting depends on good hand to eye coordination, which can be greatly improved by games such as tennis and volleyball. In short, the fitter you are, the easier it is for you to shoot straight. If you haven’t already done so, invest in an individualized, professional exercise plan and work on your body.
- Learn your Rifle’s Ballistics
If your rifle is zeroed at 400 yards, how much higher will the bullet strike at 250? This might sound academic, until you stalk the mule deer buck of your dreams, measure the distance, adjust the scope, take aim… and miss. Without seeing you but scared by the strike of the bullet behind its back, the buck makes straight at you, and before you know it he’s only some 250 yards away. But if you simply aim now where you want to hit, the bullet will strike quite a few inches above.
No bullet travels to its target in a direct line: the gravity pulls it down, so the rifle must be aimed a little over, to compensate for the drop. The bullet first rises above the line of sight, then drops down below it, and it’s essential to know how much at every distance and with every scope setting. This information is individual for each rifle-caliber-scope-load combination. You can get a rough estimate from a ballistic chart, provided by most ammo manufacturers, or, better yet, from online ballistic calculators. This data should be verified at the range – and memorized. Many hunters print out the ballistic tables and glue them to the stocks of their rifles, but memory is better.
- Improve Visual Distance Estimation
Laser rangefinders revolutionized big-game hunting, and many of the long-range shots that authors and hunting videobloggers boast of would be impossible without them. Because of the arc-like trajectory of a bullet, a mistake in range estimation may cause it to strike enough higher or lower for a cripple or a clean miss. But even if you pack a rangefinder, you may still need to estimate the distance by sight. Batteries fail, and there may simply be no time to get the rangefinder, e.g. in the missed buck scenario from the previous point, or a crippled animal that is getting away.
We humans aren’t very good at telling the distances beyond a stone’s throw, but this is a skill that can be trained. The routine is simple. Every time you’re walking, jogging or cycling anywhere, pick an object in the distance and guess how far off it is. Then check yourself, by pacing or using other available methods. Repeat again and again, and never stop – soon it will become a routine that you would do automatically. Hey, you might even win a couple of small bets if you’re really good.
- Learn the Anatomy of your Prey
A shot that hits where you’ve aimed is still a bad shot if you’ve chosen the aiming point poorly. One of the problems here is that we’re seeing the animal as a two-dimensional target, while in fact they are 3D. You aim at a spot at an animal’s skin, but it’s not this spot that you want to hit, you want to hit the vital organ that is well beyond it, inside the body. The choice of where to aim depends greatly on the angle at which the animal is standing, both horizontal and vertical. Before hunting any animal, find a 3D image of its body showing the location of vital organs, and the points which you have to aim from different angles. If you like watching hunting or nature videos, you may test yourself. Hit pause, then look at the animal and decide on the best spot to aim; then refer to your source and check yourself.
An Anecdote for Dessert
More than a hundred years ago a team of British prospectors was looking for diamonds in South Africa. They needed meat, but were too busy to hunt, so they tried to hire a native hunter to shoot a few antelopes for them. He asked for some ammo in advance. The prospectors decided to test his shooting skills first. They put up a target at 100 yards, and asked him to fire a few rounds, but he missed all the time. The team decided the investment was too risky, but one of the members really wanted to have a set of kudu antlers, and gave the local a handful of rounds from his personal supplies. Within the next week, the hunter delivered to the camp precisely as many antelopes, including the coveted kudu bull, as the number of cartridges he received. How did he manage this, if he couldn’t hit a tree stump at 100 yards? Simple – by stalking the animals to 15-20 yards!
The moral of the story is: Marksmanship is important, but hunting skills are more important. You may feel that as of now you’re no match for Natty Bumppo or Annie Oackley – but that’s alright, as long as you don’t try to pass yourself off as one. You can still have a successful and fulfilling hunting experience. The key is to keep practicing while being aware of your limitations. Book your hunt on BookYourHunt.com and get from theory to practice.