The throaty squeal came just in time. But it wasn’t from the swarm of cows 300 yards off. The bull was on this side, up-canyon! Racing across-slope, I galloped over a finger ridge to confront an alder thicket too dense to slip through quietly. The vegetation suggested a spring. He could be right here.
A rustle above. Our eyes met. He was close. The rifle lifted by itself, but there was no shot alley through the brush. Foolishly, I fired anyway. The blast of the magnum seemed to wake, but not alarm him. I ratcheted the action as his chest came into the sunlight. He turned away as I shoved the bolt forward. . .
. . .And stove-piped a case.
Whether I double-clutched in my excitement or just didn’t yank the empty hard enough to ensure ejection, I still can’t say. Maybe the rifle’s angle dumped the case back into the ejection port. Explanation could wait. But the bull wouldn’t.
A nightmare? No. It happened. Bungling of the first order. It actually began months before.
I wanted to use the new rifle to shoot an elk. So in early summer I scoped it, zeroed it, fired a few rounds from hunting positions with a sling and crossed my fingers that I’d draw a tag. Getting drawn is, after all, the big hurdle in the West these days–or so we’ve come to believe. Trouble is, hunters who take pains to research the best areas, the best outfitters, and the lottery odds for big game licenses from Arizona to Alberta sometimes forget to prepare themselves or their rifles for the hunt they want so badly to take. In this case, I was one of the delinquents.
I’ve seen others. Like the fellow who, after missing an easy shot at an elk, said he didn’t know where his rifle was zeroed but that another hunter had proclaimed it “dead on.”
Or the man who fired 11 rounds from a rest at point-blank range and missed 10 times, grazing the big bull elk with one errant bullet. Few of us shoot enough to become really proficient with our rifles. Fortunately, big game animals have forgiving vitals. From the side, the chest of a whitetail deer is about the size of a volleyball. Killing an elk is as easy as hitting a blue-ribbon pumpkin. One reason many animals are still running around after November is that we hunters miss targets too big to miss. Another reason: we let game walk away without firing at all. Oddly enough, we do this with rifles that shoot grapefruit-size groups at 250 yards and can hardly be made to malfunction.
My own bungling dates way back. I recall sitting in a tree in central Maine as the forest got dark one evening in June. Draped in bug netting, I listened to the hum of mosquitoes and watched clouds of no-see-ums and sniffed the month-old pile of steer bones ripening at the hem of a clearing below.
The bear came as silently as a thought. It was on the bones right away, standing, waiting for the shot. My rifle came up. It should have been no surprise that I couldn’t see the iron sights at dusk through a headnet. But it was. And I didn’t know what to do. The bear was alert. I needed both hands to aim. Slowly shifting the rifle’s weight to my right hand, I lifted the net with my left, then regained two-handed control of the rifle. But as the bead settled on the bear, the netting fell down.
My heart was at full sprint, but I managed to repeat the process, once more steadying the bead on target. Then the curtain fell again. I panicked and ripped the net back over my head. The movement brought the bear around. I aimed quickly and fired.
This episode would have gone much more smoothly if earlier I’d tried aiming through the net and then found a way to aim and shoot without alarming the bear. I just didn’t think about it.
Here are a few things you might do to prepare for a shot you don’t want to bungle.
1. Take your rifle apart. Use a mild petroleum solvent (auto parts solvent works fine) to degrease all the metal. A toothbrush helps get lube and crud from hard-to-reach places. Next, dry the parts thoroughly and wipe or spray on a thin film of rust preventative. Lubricate the mechanism with a dry spray, or use oil sparingly. Oil can collect dust; grease can impede function in cold weather. Treat the inside of stock wood with a wood preservative or sealant. Spar varnish works well. It must be allowed to dry before re-assembly. Too much wood treatment can result in a film that affects bedding.
2. Adjust the trigger while the stock is off. Accurate field shooting depends on a consistent, manageable trigger pull. I like mine to “break” at two pounds, cleanly, with no creep and just a touch of overtravel. Not many factory triggers adjust to suit me, so I often install an after-market trigger from a company like Timney. Even if you’ll tolerate a heavier pull, it’s worth a few minutes of adjusting to make sure you’re getting the best pull.
Now check for safe sear engagement by closing the bolt hard, repeatedly, on an empty chamber. Reattach the stock, snugging the front guard screw, then bouncing the butt on the floor a few times with the rifle cocked. This exercise confirms sear engagement and also seats the recoil lug in the stock mortise. Next, snug the rear guard screw, tighten the front screw firmly, then the rear screw not quite as firmly. Center guard screws should be snug only.
3. Install or reinstall the scope last. Base screws should be very tight, though seizing them up with Loc-Tite or iodine is hardly necessary. Savvy custom gunbuilders replace standard 6-48 screws with larger 8-40s to withstand the shearing force of stiff recoil. Heavy scopes put more stress on a mount–one of several reasons I prefer lightweight scopes. When that reticle settles on a rib, you shouldn’t have to wonder if your scope has too much inertia to stay put during recoil.
Help the rings grip by degreasing them and the scope tube, and by tightening all ring screws sequentially, opposite to opposite, a turn at a time, as you would lug nuts when installing a wheel on a pickup. Incidentally, with horizontally split rings, the scope must “bottom ou
t” naturally when you lay it in the lower halves. Don’t install ring caps until those bottom halves are lined up perfectly, or you may damage the scope.
4. Zero the rifle. To save ammo, I bore-sight first. I remove the bolt and, with the rifle resting across a chair and pointing out the window, line up a rock a mile away in the center of the bore. Then, without moving the rifle, I turn the windage and elevation dials until the reticle quarters the rock. The first shot at a target should land close to point of aim at 100 yards. I tweak the adjustments until point of impact is roughly two inches high. At 200 steps I spend more time refining so that at that distance my bullets hit point of aim. I don’t fret over accuracy; three-inch groups at 200 yards suit me. One hunting load per rifle is enough. If, after zeroing, you find a cheap load that shoots to the same place, use it for practice. But switching loads in the field, or trying to manage two zeroes, is a recipe for trouble.
5. Practice from hunting positions, firing 20 times every day inside your house, with the rifle empty. Aim at a thumbtack on a wall across the room. Trigger five rounds each from sitting and kneeling, 10 from offhand. Make each “shot” count. Call ‘em. If you jerk the trigger or otherwise get sloppy, penalize yourself with another shot. At least once a week, repeat the exercise with live ammo at the range. Use paper targets so you can assess trends and progress. Save one paper target for first rounds from a clean cold barrel. Over several sessions, those shots should form a tight group. And it shouldn’t be very far from the centers of groups formed by subsequent shots. Confidence in a first-round hit helps you make first-round hits.
If groups from hunting positions go to different places than bench-rest groups, re-bed the rifle or consider adjusting your sight. You won’t have a bench in the field. One of my rifles shot a full nine inches lower at 200 yards from a sit with a tight sling than it did from a bench rest. Re-bedding narrowed the gap by half. Then I adjusted the scope to a “sitting zero.”
6. Run all your hunting ammunition through the rifle, from the bottom of the magazine through ejection. This is especially important with handloads. Had I spent more time shucking cartridges through my new .300, I might have found the extraction problem that caused the stovepipe jam on the elk hunt. A cartridge that’s too long may bind up in the magazine. One that feeds well may still be too long at the case mouth or shoulder to chamber easily. A bullet with a long shank may grab the rifling when you press the bolt home, making lockup difficult. Extracting a cartridge gripped by the lands could leave you with a plugged bore and a magazine full of loose powder.
By the way, if you handload for a rifle to be used in hot places, mind the throttle. Ammo that’s civil on a cool day can get belligerent after a long ride in a Jeep on a sweltering August afternoon, whether you’re after pronghorns or gemsbok.
7. Think about useful accouterments, like scope covers. Rain or snow can obliterate a sight picture. If you let dust accumulate on lenses, removing it can leave microscopic scratches. I like rubber covers that flip away under tension and are held to the barrel/fore-end by a rubber band. Transparent covers are good too, because you can aim through them in a pinch. I don’t like hinged caps as well, because they seem to get in my way when they’re open. Because I mount my scopes very low, some objective caps cannot slip between scope and barrel. Check before you buy. Another item to consider is a new sling. Almost every bolt rifle that goes afield these days wears a strap. But a sling is properly a shooting aid, not just something to hang the rifle from your shoulder. Brownell’s Latigo sling is my favorite, as it has no claws, and the shooting loop is quickly adjustable.
Yet another accessory worth a look is a belt pouch for cartridges. A local saddle-maker fashioned mine to my pattern, from soft leather. It holds eight rounds, each in a full-length loop stitched to the back and covered by a fold-over flap that snaps down. The pouch hugs my hip, protecting the cartridges as it keeps them quiet and accessible.
8. Practice range estimation. Many hunters miss game because they think it farther than is actually the case. This happens most often when the animal is on the far side of a canyon or above or below the hunter, is backlit, partially obscured or well camouflaged against its background. But you can also miss low–typically on flat ground or when shooting at brightly front-lit game or animals silhouetted on the horizon. Use a laser rangefinder to help you where pacing is difficult.
Remember that a bullet doesn’t follow ground contours. Neither is it affected by gravity pulling on its nose or tail (at least, over normal hunting ranges). What you must know is the horizontal component of your bullet’s flight. Guess within 10 percent, and you’ll hit inside the vitals out to 300 yards with most big game rounds.
A rangefinder is less useful on the hunt than you might think. You often won’t have time to use it, and light conditions may be poor (bright light is not what you want). Besides, animals seldom present an ideal flat, reflective surface for an accurate read. But rangefinding excursions before season can train your eye to accurately estimate distance without help.
9. Get in good physical shape. Rifles, scopes and cartridges with lots of reach won’t help you shoot game if it ambles over a ridge as you’re setting up. You won’t get long shots when bucks and bulls go to the thickets. And you won’t find the lunker antlers most hunters want unless you go where most hunters don’t. Jogging is good exercise; so is walking, preferably under a pack. Regularity is important, as is discomfort. If you stop before you hurt, you limit improvement. When training at low elevation for a high-elevation hunt, exercise until you gasp. Otherwise, you’ll gasp on the hunt. Seek out steep places and uneven terrain, to condition your feet and ankles and hone your sense of balance.
Drop excess weight. Some hunters obsess about paring ounces from their rifles but carry extra pounds over their belts. The prospect of hunting shouldn’t keep you grim-faced as you ready for the season, but a little sacrifice in preparation can make the hunt both easier and more productive.
10. Practice follow-up shots. As much as we want to make one-shot kill
s, and cultivate our marksmanship to that end, we can all miss. Sometimes you’ll get a second chance, as the animal stands, confused, or struggles to escape with an injury. At the bench you probably take your time with each shot, picking the fired case from the breech instead of ejecting it. Maybe you load singly. To practice for follow-up shots, load the magazine with three cartridges. From a hunting position, aim carefully and try hard to make a center hit with the first round. Now cycle the action and fire again. Repeat, allowing yourself five seconds between shots. Keep your eye to the scope and forget about the brass. In the field, you’ll want follow-ups to come automatically. Training makes a habit of fast, accurate follow-ups. If you expect to shoot running game (I seldom do), this routine used on a running deer target or bouncing tire will speed your cadence and smooth your shooting rhythm. You’ll hit more often.
When you get a shot, what you know can be as important as all you’ve done to prepare for it. One thing you must know is your maximum effective range. There’s no sense shooting farther; but sneaking up on an animal entails risk. To determine your outside limit, fire six groups, two each from sitting, kneeling and offhand. Do it from hunting positions, with a trail-ready rifle. A sling is permissible; rests and bipods are not. Now, toss out your worst shot from each position. Divide into 12 the average measure of each pair of groups. Multiply the result by 100, and you get your maximum effective range.
For example, say that, from sitting, you print a five-inch group and a six-inch group. Deleting your worst shot, you come up with the five-inch group and one that now measures just four inches. Average group size: 4.5 inches. Divide 4.5 into 12, and you get about 2.66. Multiply by 100 to get 266, the maximum range in yards at which you should be able to plant 9 of 10 shots inside a 12-inch circle. That level of accuracy will bring you lots of venison. The bigger vitals of an elk or a moose allow you to shoot farther with the same high odds (use 16 instead of 12 in the equation).
Note that this arbitrary formula gives you the outside limit, because on a hunt many things conspire to make shooting difficult. An error in estimating range or doping the wind can put the center of your group outside the vitals. Shivering or panting, you’ll make the rifle shake, sending bullets wild. If you don’t feel comfortable with a shot, it’s not a good shot to take. If your blood is up and you find yourself in a hurry to shoot at distant game, think first about the limit you imposed on yourself before season.
Part of the value of prepping your rifle for the hunt lies in preparing yourself, mentally and physically. The most effective riflemen put little conscious effort into a field shot. Rather, the routine is so well practiced that it comes naturally, a fast but smooth sequence of calculations and physical actions. The bullet goes where the sight rests when the striker drops. If you can’t control the rifle, you’d best not shoot. Gravity, wind and drag act in predictable ways. If you can’t accurately gauge their collective effect, you’d best not shoot.
Come to think of it, knowing when to shoot is as important as knowing how to shoot. Because, hit or miss, no one but you is responsible for the shot you fire. And blaming a botched shot on your gear or the game or the conditions won’t absolve you. You had all year to ready that equipment, and to learn when not to pull the trigger.