Hill Country Lessons
September 23, 2010
The SAAM school in Texas can teach you a thing or two about field shooting.
The steel plate was a bit downhill and down a long valley. It looked awfully small at something over 400 yards. I snuggled in prone over the pack and checked the wind. Up here on the ridge it was quartering right to left, meaning a "favor right" hold--but it was far from stable, shifting this way and that.
Behind me, Chip Beaman peered intently through his spotting scope. I adjusted the fore-end a bit and worked the butt tighter into my shoulder. "Ready," I called.
"Just wait--this is a tough one," said Chip. I paused, waiting. "Okay, favor left, send it."
Left? I had a right wind up here. But I already knew that I'd be better off trusting Chip. I put the horizontal wire through the center of gong, the vertical wire just inside the left edge, and I "sent it."
After a short pause following recoil and muzzle blast, the sound of the gong ringing came back satisfactorily. There were two gongs out there, and this was the smaller of the two, but I had a good hold and I nailed the second plate as well. Hitting them felt good, but I was relieved that now it was someone else's turn. I'd done good on that one, but it wouldn't last. Nobody hits all the targets on these courses.
I gathered my gear, cleared the position and went back to stand beside Chip. Reading wind has always been something I'm pretty good at. You learn it quickly shooting prairie dogs in the windy West. But I was perplexed because, standing next to Chip, I could clearly feel the right-to-left wind. The angle was shifting, but the direction was steady. Our ridge dropped steeply into a long valley, and the target frame was way out there, the fluorescent plates hard to see with naked eyes.
"Okay, Chip, you gave me an opposite call, so the wind out there isn't what it seems to be here--but what are you seeing?"
He grinned. "This is a tough one. We get it wrong frequently. You've got two side canyons on the left coming down between here and the target. The wind is all over the place, but those two side canyons tend to channel the currents. Once the bullet is off this ridge what's happening up here doesn't matter--and it is opposite down there, with breeze coming off the canyon. Watch the leaves and grass at the mouth of that canyon--you can see that."
He moved aside to let me look through the spotting scope. "Look at the mouth of the second canyon, just before the target. Same deal. Up here it feels like a right hold, but down there it's left."
On another target, straight out at 490 yards on the next ridge, we had a negative wind, straight from behind. He showed me how the heat waves were drifting right at the target. "At that distance that's at least a 'strong left' hold. Possibly more." Yep, sure was.
I was at Tim Fallon's FTW Ranch (FTWoutfitters.com) attending his Sportsmen's All-Weather, All-Terrain Marksmanship (SAAM) shooting course. My friend Gray Thornton at the Wild Sheep Foundation had asked me to attend the course as part of an auction item, but I was skeptical.
The range, located in the Hill Country of Texas, employs steel plates at various distances, placed in spots that test shooters' positions, holds and wind-reading abilities.
It isn't that I don't need help. Nobody's shooting is perfect enough that some good coaching isn't useful--and mine certainly isn't. There are several "field shooting courses" around the country, and I'm certain many of them are very good, but I have some fundamental issues with a lot of them.
One is that if I'm going to take time to learn something, I want to make sure I'm learning from someone who genuinely knows more than I do. Another is I want training based on practicality. There are some good "long range" courses, but I have no interest in working on shooting beyond, say, 600 yards because there's no way I would shoot that far in the field. I know some really good hands who can and do--but it isn't for me. There are too many people out there trying to shoot game at such distances who have no business attempting it, and I have no interest in joining their ranks.
So I was skeptical, but I was also committed. I arrived at Tim's ranch to discover he has studded his ridges and canyons with the darndest range complex I've ever seen. Once you get past the standard sight-in range near the lodge, the targets are steel plates of varying sizes. The ranges are, well, creative. One allows shooting from a single position at targets in 50-yard increments to 500 yards, and then out to 1,000. This is used for verifying zero data--and that's the last you'll see of targets with ranges that are nice, round numbers.
The "situational hunting courses" are 10-station courses with targets set at widely varying distances and at a variety of uphill/downhill angles. The longer shots call for prone shooting, but some positions offer options for sitting, resting against a tree and using shooting sticks or other aids. The ranges are well-designed and plenty challenging, offering a mix of shots genuinely similar to what might be found anywhere in the world in hilly or mountainous country.
The concept of a shooting school for hunters was Tim's idea--but the enablers were his chief instructors, Chip Beaman and Doug Prichard. Lifelong hunters, old friends and recently retired Navy SEALs, Chip and Doug brought not just their own experience as snipers but, perhaps more importantly, extensive experience in training snipers. They are, honestly, two of the best instructors I have ever worked with, even though, as a Marine, it hurts me deeply to say anything like that about swabbies.
With their backgrounds, these guys could teach long-range shooting and tactical employment, and of course they have. Teamed up with Tim, though, their focus is on field shooting for hunters.
The mission at SAAM is not to produce 700-yard shooters but to focus on all aspects of shooting in the 200- to 500-yard window: positions, wind, angles and how to put it all together quickly. But they tell you up front that in a four-day course they cannot turn every student into a master at 500-yard field shooting. As their literature states: "You will complete the SAAM course knowing exactly what your capabilities are, be it 200, 400, or 500 yards. You will know the shots you should and should not take in all kinds of environments and circumstances. That makes you a better and more eth
SAAM's instructors pay attention to the little things such as how the shooter puts the butt of the rifle into his shoulder. Fixing small flaws can pay big dividends.
Shooters are expected to bring their own general-purpose hunting rifles with the scopes they intend to use--and the 260 rounds they will fire during the four-day course. During my stay, the attendees brought a wide variety of rifles--some factory, some custom--topped with an equally wide array of scopes. Clearly, guys like Doug and Chip have their preferences, but I never heard a word suggesting different equipment might be more effective. The point of the course is for each student to use his or her own rifle and become more familiar and more proficient with it.
The lightest cartridge on the range that week was a .25 WSSM. There were .270 WSMs, 7mm magnums and an array of .30 calibers from .300 WSM on up to .300 Remington Ultra Mag.
There probably is no "correct choice." The .25 WSSM was obviously pleasant to shoot but challenged by crosswind shots at longer ranges. The .300 RUM? Well, I was glad it wasn't me shooting it more than 60 times a day. PAST recoil shields are not just recommended but supplied.
Much of the training centers on using the equipment to the best advantage, rather than trying to tell students what equipment they should use. Range books are carefully built so the shooters know exactly where their rifles are shooting at various ranges.
Almost essential, and listed under "items to bring with you," is a scope with either external elevation turrets or a holdover reticle. I gathered Chip and Doug have a slight bias toward dialing in the range, and for utmost precision they are probably correct.
Me, I tend to prefer additional stadia lines or aiming points and learning what they mean. In the field this is the faster method, and for absent-minded people like me, there isn't the risk of forgetting to dial it back down, thus having the scope set for 400 yards when a 200-yard shot appears. This is an ongoing discussion as the course progresses, but regardless of preference, the instructors' focus is on helping the shooters get it right with what they use.
While I was at SAAM there weren't any mechanical problems, but at least once a day one shooter or another "lost his zero," and the longer shots started going haywire. This in itself was interesting just because of the frequency.
When it happened, students went back to the zero range. Once the proper zero was regained the rifles tended to behave, but I don't recall a single clear explanation of what had happened. Probably a bump or a knock, since the situational courses require a lot of moving around, but this alone provided an object lesson in doing what we know we should do: Check zero before you start hunting.
During the course of a hunt (or several years of serious hunting) you won't be shooting this many rounds, so merely starting a hunt with a proper zero should be adequate, but during the course of a lengthy or particularly tough hunt I've always periodically checked the zero if I could do so without the risk of spooking game. These random losses of zero showed me why that's a good idea.
Every student starts with a different skill level. After a time, most of us add at least a small collection of bad habits. Quietly, almost gently, Chip and Doug worked on correcting the little things that add up to big things, like trigger squeeze, hand placement, body alignment and placement of the rifle butt into the shoulder. One of the things that amazed me was their ability to tell, almost at a glance, exactly where the problem was.
SAAM is a field-shooting school, not a long-range school. Students learn how to best utilize their own equipment to make both good shots and good decisions.
Much time was spent getting positions right. The course isn't about competition shooting positions. Packs are strongly recommended, bipods are utilized, and training is done on shooting sticks (hooray.).
A lightweight sandbag is provided, and the shooters are taught how to use it in various positions. In prone I found it especially useful under the supporting elbow, and in fact it's going to go into my daypack next time I go sheep hunting.
As I said at the beginning, one of the things that really struck me was Chip and Doug's ability to read wind. That's probably what I paid the most attention to, because this is truly much more of an art than a science. I thought I was good at it. Hell, I'm not even a beginner.
The interesting thing was that, either in spite of or because of their backgrounds, they didn't try for perfection. They teach "favor right (or left)" for a mild crosswind or a stronger quartering wind, depending on distance; and "strong right (or left)" for a stronger wind or longer shot. In those canyons wind was almost always present but rarely constant.
What impressed Boddington the most was how much he still had to learn about reading wind, a skill he thought he had down pat.
And I think one thing we all learned, either for the first time or the hundredth, was that when the wind was strong and the distance long we weren't going to make first-round hits. And if it were game instead of gongs, we probably shouldn't even try.
On the last day we finished up on the known-distance range, engaging targets from 200 to 500 yards, and then beyond. The purpose was for final verification of trajectory data and to build confidence. I was simply amazed at how many of the guys went straight through to 500 yards without a miss--and then, just for fun, went on to 600, 700, 800, even 1,000 yards. (Okay, maybe the longer targets required a few "ranging shots.")
The learning curve had been steep, and the increased skill level was obvious. So was the increased confidence level. As they should have been; in just a few days we had done a good year's worth of practice--under the guidance of true masters.