When the Sitka blacktail buck walked out and posed on the grassy knoll, he was 205 yards above me. My rangefinding binocular measured a 33-degree angle. I was perched atop a cliff. It wasn’t a big cliff, perhaps 12 feet high, but the terrain dictated that the only available shooting position was on the lip atop that sheer rock face.
I rolled out of my backpack, lay prone and swiveled my legs into thin air, letting them hang off the cliff in order to get behind the backpack and rest my rifle over it. Crosshairs steady on the vitals, I squeezed the trigger of my favorite .375 H&H, sending a Hornady GMX bullet crashing through the buck. It fell and tumbled almost 60 yards before hanging up in an alder patch.
Extremely stable, well-supported shooting positions on a benchrest help us finesse accuracy, tweak point of impact to perfection, and tune handloads. However, shooting benches are a crutch that prevents many shooters from developing good field-shooting skills and adaptability.
To refine your ability to hit your target quickly, precisely, and if necessary, multiple times when far from any shooting bench, practice is required. And not just any practice. You’ve got to develop the specific skills you’ll need when adrenaline is high, time is short, and support is minimal.
Several aspects of field shooting are critical. First, you must achieve an adequately stable shooting position. It likely will not be possible to get as steady as you’d like, but with practice you can usually get as steady as you need. Then, you’ve got to acquire your target, maximize stability, execute the shot, follow through and prepare to fire again as efficiently as possible.
Achieve a Stable Position
The high points are these: Get as low to the ground as terrain and vegetation allow and find a rest for your rifle’s fore-end, whether it’s a backpack, rock, log, shooting sticks or bipod.
Field shooting conditions are rarely optimal, and usually you have to adopt some mutation of the classic prone, sitting or kneeling position. Position yourself to support your rifle with your skeleton rather than your muscles, which can tremble and tire. Ideally, give that skeleton multiple points of contact with the ground—for example, using your tailbone and both heels to create a tripod-like structure.
Better yet, glue your brisket and both elbows to Mother Earth. Rare indeed is the shot that can’t be cleanly made from a solid prone position behind a rested rifle.
Finally, learn to quickly read the terrain and take advantage of any natural support it offers, such as a stump, to rest your rifle across. Slide quickly into position, adapting on the fly and creating a solid field position in just seconds.
One final tip. When at the range preparing for a hunt, shoot a careful three-shot group from your favorite field position to ensure that your point of impact is where you want it. Sometimes point of impact is different from a lightly supported field position that flexes during recoil than it is from a benchrest.
This is a skill that many shooters take for granted, often to their profound regret. Western big game guides typically list clients’ inability to find an animal quickly in their scope as the primary reason for failing to get a buck or bull.
Keep your riflescope turned down to minimum magnification and practice throwing the rifle to your shoulder and aiming it at various objects. Keep your eyes on the object as you bring the rifle up and work at it until the scope naturally merges in line with your vision and the scope centers effortlessly on the object.
Then do the same from kneeling, sitting and prone positions. Finding your target from prone is difficult for many shooters because the same rigidity that makes the position so steady also makes it hard to scan for your target. Since prone is the best of all field positions, it’s worth mastering target acquisition from this position.
When shopping for a new scope, don’t buy too much magnification. I like no more than 4X on the bottom end and prefer 3X or even 2X. While practicing and hunting, keep that scope turned down. Also, a cheek rest of appropriate height really helps by naturally aligning your eye with the scope.
Prepping for the Shot
Once you’re stable and have acquired the target, take a deep breath or a couple deep breaths to oxygenate your muscles and your eyes, minimizing shaking and maximizing vision. Slump into the ground, relaxing muscles and allowing your skeletal structure to provide as much support as possible.
If you’ve got time, take a few seconds to bring your natural point of aim onto the target. If you find that you’re exerting noticeable muscular force to hold the rifle left, right, up or down to keep it on target, shift your position so that when you’re relaxed the crosshairs naturally come to rest on or very near the animal.
Arguably the easiest of all shooting techniques to grasp but the hardest to master, a proper trigger squeeze is essential. If you flinch or snatch the trigger, the crosshairs will be wrenched off target and you’ll miss.
Even through most shooters grasp the logical importance of squeezing the trigger gently, they still tend to scrunch up their eyes and jerk, tensing their whole body in anticipation of the recoil and throwing the shot wide as a result. Worst part is, many shooters don’t realize they’re doing it, and even when they recognize the tendency don’t develop the discipline to stop.
Learning to discipline your way through a flinch and squeeze the trigger can be difficult, particularly if that flinch is deeply ingrained. Start with dry-firing. It’s safe with any bolt-action centerfire, and the beauty is that dry-firing also helps polish your sight acquisition. Dry-fire from every improvised field position you can imagine. Practice until you can squeeze the trigger, hold the crosshair steady through the click, and follow through for at least a second.
Add a quality .22 rimfire rifle with a good, crisp trigger to your practice regimen. Keep dry-firing your big game rifle, but get out and shoot at least 50 rounds per week with your rimfire. Work on perfecting your ability to improvise field positions at the same time.
Finally, work on your trigger squeeze by adding your big game rifles to your practice sessions. Ideally, first work into a mild cartridge such as a .243 Win. or 6.5 Creedmoor, then on up to a .30-06 or one of the fast magnums. I firmly believe that once you mentally isolate a flinch and learn to discipline your way through it, you can shoot any cartridge well—whether it be a light deer cartridge or a heavy magnum suitable for Alaskan moose or brown bear.
This is just as important to shooting as it is to a golf swing or a baseball pitch. Probably more so, since a fraction of an inch of variance matters a great deal to a bullet heading several hundred yards downrange to a relatively tiny target.
Here’s the simple version. If you flinch, your follow-through is already screwed up. It’s already too late. But if you stay relaxed and squeeze the trigger, all you have to do is keep your head in position on the stock and your eye in position looking through the scope. Do so and your shot will exit the bore cleanly.
In addition to clean shot execution, follow-through is critical for seeing the result of your shot. With the light cartridges and aggressive muzzle brakes used in PRS and cross-country long-range competitions, good follow-through enables you to see bullet impact in your scope—important to correcting your hold before triggering your next shot.
With heavier big game cartridges, following through gives you the best shot at seeing the bullet impact your game and, importantly, the best crack at getting a fast follow-up shot should one prove necessary.
While every hunter hopes he won’t need to shoot more than once, getting additional shots on game is a critical skill. As the rifle comes out of recoil, assuming good follow-through, the rifle should fall back into position more or less trained on the animal. Depending on distance, the bullet will impact during recoil or as the rifle settles out of it. Practice keeping completely still and relaxed until the rifle settles. You’ll often see the result of your shot.
Then, with your eye glued to the scope, work the action like there’s no tomorrow. Keep your eye firmly in the scope, quickly but gently finesse the rifle back on target, and nail the crosshairs back on the animal.
It’s worth noting that most right-hand rifles will recoil up and right due to the conventional right-hand rifling twist and the fact that the right shoulder flexes away from the recoil and acts as a mild fulcrum point for the gun to swivel off of.
If the animal is not down, shoot again, using a proper trigger squeeze and follow-through like you did on the first. It’s easy to get even more excited—possibly even a bit panicked—on follow-up shots. But if you continue to apply the basics outlined here, as long as your original assessments of distance and wind were correct, you can bring the hunt to a successful conclusion.