Originally I was going to write this as a guide to getting a rifle ready for a “big” hunt, but then I got to thinking: Is there any hunt that isn’t important? If it isn’t important to you, it’s very important to the game animal you’re pursuing. I think these steps are universal in application. The order may vary, as will time spent on each, depending on whether the rifle and load you have chosen are old friends or new acquaintances.
The degree of precision required for an upcoming hunt may also alter things. In fact, there are situations where some of these steps may be relegated to a mental checklist rather than physical actions. However, Murphy’s Law applies, and I’m certain that totally ignoring any of these steps invites Mr. Murphy as a most unwelcome hunting companion. Lord knows he’s been by my shoulder many times—usually when I’ve tried to cut corners.
1 CHECK FUNCTIONING
If a rifle is an old friend that has worked well for many years, it will probably continue to do so, but that shouldn’t preclude inspection for stock cracks and continuous checking that feeding, extraction and ejection are still working.
A new rifle can be more vexing. Having shelled out good money, we expect it to work. Most do, but some don’t work exactly perfectly. I’ve seen sticky safeties, stuck bolt releases and weak magazine latches, but the single most common flaws of new rifles are feeding hiccups. These are often insidious, showing up only when a certain level of magazine loading is achieved.
For instance, because of their short, fat design, the short magnums are devils to make feed properly. I have one that feeds great with one cartridge in the magazine and okay with three, but a second cartridge in the magazine always causes a hiccup.
On a new rifle, thoroughly check safety, trigger and the feeding-extraction-ejection cycle—and check feeding with every possible combination of rounds in the magazine.
Most problems can be fixed, but this can take time. So one of the most important things is to select the rifle well ahead of time, get your hands on it, and make sure it works with plenty of time to fix any problems.
2 CHECK SIGHTS
Even if you’re shooting a rifle/sight combination that has been working fine for years, it’s still a good idea to check all scope mount base and ring screws for tightness. If you’re starting from scratch with new mounts, suck it up and read the directions first. The biggest problem with scope mounts is improper assembly. Screws need to be plenty tight, but if you overtighten and break off a screw, you have a problem.
When mounting a scope, try hard to get the crosshairs perfectly vertical. This is not easy, but a canted scope causes accuracy issues that increase with range. If the vertical wire isn’t straight up and down, don’t live with it: Loosen the mount and try again until you get it right.
We tend to think of iron sights as more rugged than scopes and mounts. My experience has not borne this out. I’ve seen front sights bend and rear sights drift and, on two occasions, actually fall off the rifle. Just recently I took my old .30-30 to the range to try a new load. This rifle is a freakishly accurate Model 94 Trapper with a Lyman receiver sight, and I’ve had it set up exactly this way for 25 years. I have no idea how or when it happened, but the rear aperture was noticeably bent.
As riflemen, we want to choose a proper rifle for an upcoming hunt. But since it’s always the bullet that does the real work, it’s perhaps more important to choose the perfect load.
Thanks to the fantastic array of great bullets available, there are probably many equally perfect choices, but for hunting I think it’s best to focus on a bullet that gives you the performance you need for the game you will be hunting. This is obviously different for Cape buffalo than it is for Dall sheep and may be different on elk at long range in open alpine than on the same animal at close range in heavy forest.
We tend to be obsessed with accuracy and velocity. If you’re looking for an ideal load for Coues deer at extreme range, you definitely want all the accuracy you can get. If you’re going after brown bear in the alders, I submit that a tough, deep-penetrating bullet is probably more important than raw accuracy.
Velocity is also overrated, for two reasons. First, in my experience the fastest loads are rarely the most accurate. Second, velocity is a great enemy to bullet performance. Perfectly good hunting bullets that perform marvelously at .30-06 velocities might become unreliable bombs when pushed at the velocities of the fastest .30 caliber magnums.
On the other hand, velocity flattens trajectory and increases energy—provided you get the accuracy and bullet performance you need and you don’t mind putting up with the recoil and muzzle blast that go hand in hand with increased velocity. Most of the time, choosing the right load for a given hunt involves some degree of compromise, and there are usually a lot more good choices than bad.
4ZERO AND VERIFY
Final load selection doesn’t have to be done months in advance, but it should be done early enough to allow time for multiple range sessions with that load, especially for any hunt that might require some degree of precision or long-range shooting. Once the load is selected, a decision needs to be made as to how the rifle should be zeroed.
These days it is increasingly common to sight in to be dead-on at longer ranges, as in 300 yards. To each his own, but the most common shooting error on game, and my most common mistake, is shooting too high, not too low. So I
generally hold to the older school of zeroing for 200 or perhaps 250 yards, thus reducing the mid-range trajectory of the bullet.
Of course, I have to start holding over at shorter ranges than if I zeroed at 300 or longer, but that’s a matter of knowing the trajectory. Which brings us to the next step: Break out the chronograph and verify the velocity of your load.
Previously I would have said that this is essential only for precision shooting at longer ranges. With the ballistic coefficient of your bullet and the actual velocity of your load, any good computer program will give you your downrange ballistics. Just recently, however, I saw failure to penetrate on elephant because the loads we were using were fully 200 fps too slow. So now I think it is an essential step to verify the actual velocity of your load.
5CHECK SHOOTING AIDS
Often it’s the little things that get you. Trust me, it’s no longer a little thing when your front sling swivel stud pulls out and your rifle is catapulted backwards. Mr. Murphy loves this one, usually arranging for the rifle to strike scope-first on sharp rocks. Check your sling, sling swivels and studs.
Also check any shooting aids you intend to use, such as bipods and shooting sticks. It is not unusual for a rifle to have a different point of impact from a fore-end-attached bipod than over sandbags, especially if the barrel is fully bedded rather than free-floated. Similarly, it isn’t unusual for a rifle to shoot slightly differently from a tight sling—obviously because pressure on the fore-end alters the barrel’s vibrations.
As your hunt date draws near, you’ll want to spend more and more time practicing from your preferred shooting positions, so it’s smart to find out early if these cause any fluctuations in accuracy or point of impact.
6FUNCTION CHECK AMMO
I’m not certain exactly when this should be done, but certainly after you’ve made a final decision on your load and well before departure. One of your final range sessions is probably the right time (and place, for safety’s sake)—but not the last one, just in case you need to regroup. Visually inspect every cartridge you intend to take on the hunt, then run it through the action, from the magazine and into and out of the chamber.
With both factory loads and handloads you’re looking for the odd cartridge that is bent or dented (I’ve even found primers seated upside down.) With handloads, you are also making sure your bullet seating depth and cartridge overall length are suited for your chamber. I have failed to do this step several times. Twice it resulted in a bullet stuck in the rifling and an action full of powder.
Do your function check, and then set aside whatever amount you need for your hunt.
7 CHECK YOUR GUN CASE
I’m hard on gun cases, and I’ve been through several in the past few years. That in itself isn’t a problem, but with airline security rules getting tighter and tighter, the airport isn’t the place to discover that your case has a broken hinge or a torn corner. A case deemed defective or unable to be properly secured may not be allowed as checked baggage, and if you’re sitting at an airport early in the morning this definitely is a problem.
Soft cases also wear out. I’ve got several with broken zippers or a hole worn through at the muzzle. This is probably not a panic issue, but once your rifle is really ready for the hunt you want to keep it that way. A good case that properly protects your rifle helps.
8 PRACTICE FOR THE FIELD
Practice for the field isn’t the same as shooting little tiny groups off the bench. For hunts that require precision and perhaps long-range accuracy, you bet you want to shoot groups. That should be part of your load selection process. And it’s okay to shoot a lot of groups, because tiny little groups build confidence.
Genuine practice for field shooting, however, must be done away from the bench and should replicate the kind of conditions you expect to encounter on the hunt you are preparing for. If you’re going sheep hunting, spend time prone, sitting, kneeling, off a bipod, over a pack. If you’re going buffalo hunting, spend a lot of time shooting off sticks and a lot more time shooting offhand.
If long-range shooting might be in the offing, this is the time to verify any published or computer-generated trajectories by shooting at the actual ranges you may encounter. Availability of ranges beyond 200 yards is a problem for many of us, but it’s a problem that must somehow be solved if you want to extend your range envelope. One solution is to attend one of the several excellent shooting schools that have cropped up around the country.
9CLEAN AND FOUL
At the conclusion of the final range session, I clean the rifle thoroughly, and then I fire a couple of fouling shots. It’s amazing how far off actual zero some rifles can be after a good cleaning. Some rifles show no difference at all. Me, I don’t leave this to chance, and I don’t go hunting with a freshly cleaned barrel if I can possibly avoid it.
10 PREPARE FOR THE ELEMENTS
The last details are the little things which, like all little things, can become important. I am not big on scope covers in the field, but they’re worth their weight in gold if it’s raining or snowing, and they’re also good in the vehicle under dusty conditions. Make sure you have covers that fit.
Pack waterproof tape in your gear and put a strip of it over your muzzle in rain or snow. It will not have any effect on accuracy, but rainwater or snow down your barrel certainly will.
If you’re going into genuine cold weather, like below 20 degrees, degrease all moving parts and lubricate w
ith just a pinch of dry graphite. On the first day of an Alberta whitetail hunt some years ago I suffered on stand all day, a high of maybe 10 degrees. I was wasting my time; my bolt was frozen solid. I got it thawed and degreased that night—and I’ve never let that happen again.
Fortunately that was one of the few times when Mr. Murphy was caught napping, otherwise he’d have sent the buck of lifetime right by me.