Too many big game hunters neglect real-world field-shooting practice
By JIM MATTHEWS
As most big game seasons wind down, the horror stories have been rolling in from hunting chums and guides about one of my pet subjects: poor field shooting on big game.
The malady is something that affects seemingly everyone at various times and some hunters all the time. Overcoming excitement, adrenaline, and a quick climb up a steep hillside are maladies that will attack all hunters at one time or another and affect how well we shoot when the important moment comes. The consistent inability to make shots in the field is the result of one thing: lack of practice. And I don't mean practice at the range, off a benchrest; I mean lots of field practice. Or simulated field practice.
Most of the good bird shooters I know are pretty competent shots at clay targets and they pop a lot of caps over the course of the year. Clay target games are patterned after real bird shooting. Yet, most of the big game hunters I know may not shoot more than five or 10 rounds out their old .30-06 a year -- and all of those are at the range to make sure ol' Betsy is still shooting the same place it was last year. Range shooting for rifle shooters bears no resemblance to field shooting. We don't have running game target ranges like they do all over Europe. We don't have shooting games where you have to climb up a steep hill and then try to find a steady rest and then make a 125-yard shot on a slowly moving target the size of a paper plate while your pulse rate is 140. As a consequence, we have a lot of shots on big game botched each year.
How can we improve our field shooting skills?
First, you need to adopt for yourself the golden rule: Don't take a shot in the field if you are not confident you can make it. It is better to let a head of game get away (perhaps unspooked so you can stalk closer or catch your breath) than to wound the animal or spook it out of the country. Don't let the egging on a hunting chum or a guide cloud your judgment about what you can or can't do. Know your limitations and stick to them.
Second, you need to practice. I know that time limitations really do restrict how much time many of us can spend in the field shooting. So you need to make the most of your practice time at the range, and use the shooting aids that can improve your chances for success in the field.
Virtually all of the hunters I know do sight their guns in each year. Since you're at the range anyway, bring along a .22 rimfire and plan to shoot 200 rounds from a variety of positions. It'll just take an extra hour or two. The best thing would be to use the same rifle you’ll use for hunting -- your big game rifle -- but why suffer the ammo expense and recoil? Use the .22 (or if you are a handloader, put together a batch of cast bullet loads for this practice with your big game gun).
First, made sure the big game rifle is sighted in where and how you want it. Second, take out the .22 rimfire and shoot 25 rounds offhand, 25 kneeling, 25 sitting, and another 25 rounds prone. Shoot at 100 yards. For some of your shots, go out and jog around the parking lot before you shoot. Make sure the pulse rate is up. Then see how many of your 100 shots would have been in a deer's vital area? I would bet you that darn few of your offhand shots will fall inside a 10-inch circle at 100 yards, and only slightly more from your kneeling and sitting positions, but hopefully most of your prone shots will be there.
Most of us will shoot poorly from unsteady positions. We are not trained target shooters who shoot thousands of rounds and learn breath control and how to break shots when the sight picture is perfect. So how can we get better?
Take the next 100 rounds of .22 rimfire ammo and do the same thing again. Only this time improvise like you would (or should) in the field. At the range where I used to shoot and when my eldest son was young, I challenged him to something he hated -- shooting offhand. The then 15-year-old sidled over to a pole and leaned against it to steady himself. He was using it just like a good field shooter would use a tree in the woods. It's darn near benchrest-solid. When we shoot from a sitting or kneeling position, we lean against the benchrest, stuffing a jacket or hat under the gun to pad the rest. Again, stability goes up. Most of the varmint hunters I know have a bipod on the forearm of their rifles, and an increasing number of big game hunters carry modern shooting sticks, modeled after those used by early buffalo hunters. Whatever you use, you will gain confidence with those second 100 shots with the rimfire.
The simple field rule I follow is to get in the most stable position possible. It is alarming how many times the only position you can use is offhand (kneeling or sitting down lowers you so much you can see the game for whatever reason). If the game is past 75 or 100 yards, I simply won't take that shot. Give me a tree, however, and I can whack a deer out to 150 or 200 yards or more with that additional brace. Let me drop into a prone position where I can rest my rifle over a log padded with my jacket, and I'll shoot out to 300 yards or a little further.
Confidence is the key. But it is only practice that will give you that confidence. It's best if you can get that confidence shooting at game in the field, but you can learn the same skills at the rifle range with some imagination and diligence. What you learn is how to improve your field skills. More importantly, you realize your limitations so you don't make mistakes when opportunities present themselves in the field. Knowing your limitations shows respect for the game and yourself.
[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.]