July 23, 2015
By Brad Fitzpatrick
From our friends at Petersen's Hunting:
There is a select group of hunters that manage to harvest trophy animals year after year, and, as an outdoor writer, I've tried to pinpoint the tactics that lead to this continued success. Surprisingly, many of these hunters use different methods to harvest game; some plant and carefully manage food plots, others scout natural food sources and pinpoint travel corridors between feeding and bedding areas. Some pay close attention to changes in the atmosphere and hunt according to changes in barometric pressure and weather fronts while others focus in on the movements of a particular animal using data from trail cameras. Their tactics vary, as does the terrain and the game they hunt, but there is one thing that I have found to be consistent with all highly successful hunters — they spend months preparing for the opening day of season. It seems that the key to success does not necessarily hinge on how you hunt, but rather how well you prepare for the hunt.
Part of that preparation involves making certain that you are ready to make a clean, effective shot when the opportunity presents itself, so you need to be absolutely certain that your rifle will perform when the chance arrives. That kind of preparation takes time, so, in addition to the hours you spend in the field scouting, you must dedicate time to familiarizing yourself with your rifle well in advance of the upcoming season. Summer is the prime time for this kind of practice, so get started now. Here are five important reasons to dedicate some of your summer prep time to honing your skills as a rifle shooter.
You Won't Have to Settle: Most hunters pour over the abundant literature available on rifle models and caliber selection, but that doesn't always mean the gun you want will be immediately available. It may take months to get your desired rifle in, so start early. Otherwise, you'll be left with whatever is immediately available in the gun shop when you arrive, and, just before the season opener, the pickings may be pretty slim. Hours of research are futile if you simply walk into a gun shop and take what's left over. A gun is a big investment and not one that you want to make in haste, and pre-planning will allow you to talk to other hunters, read reviews and perhaps even shop around at different suppliers to see if you can save a little money. The same is true for optics. Having a good scope is a key element to your success as a hunter, and you want to find an optic with the reticle, magnification and price point that you want. You might also find that your favorite scope has a large objective that won't fit on your rifle with the rings you have available, which leaves you in quite a lurch. If you've done your homework, you'll feel confident in your choice, and you'll get exactly what you're looking for.
Barrel Break-In: The best shooters know that a barrel requires break-in time, and that usually doesn't mean a few shots in the waning minutes of daylight the day before the opener. Tooling marks inside your new barrel create fouling, and that fouling process allows copper molecules to adhere quickly to themselves with every successive shot through your new barrel. This changes your point of impact and can, over time, cause major problems in your barrel. Many copper fouling problems initiate in the throat, so an integral part of the barrel break-in process means cleaning the reamer marks from the throat without allowing copper to build up. The most common method of accomplishing this is to shoot the gun once, clean the throat and bore thoroughly to remove copper deposits, and repeat the process. This is critical to prolong the life of your barrel and to achieve optimum accuracy, but it doesn't happen quickly. Most hunters plan to use their rifles for many seasons, so taking the time to properly break-in your barrel is critical.
Load Selection: Rifles, even the best rifles, shoot better with certain loads, and that means you'll need to take the time to gather intel on which loads work well in your gun. This process takes time, sometimes weeks, and, if you don't afford yourself the time to experiment with different loads, you'll be stuck shooting whatever is available. This is critically important for reloaders who need time to work up loads for their particular gun. Just because you have a particular affinity for a certain type of bullet or load doesn't mean your rifle will share those same feelings. Over the course of years of rifle testing, I've found that even the most expensive guns will favor a particular load, and that favorite load may not be premium ammunition loaded with expensive bullets. It takes time to find the right ammo for your rifle, and, if you wait until the waning hours before season to start the process, you likely won't realize your gun's true accuracy potential.
Troubleshooting: There are lots of options regarding rifles, loads and optics, and it takes time to find a magic combination that works the way you want it to. As a young hunter, I purchased the rifle that I imagined would be the last deer rifle I'd ever have to buy. It was chambered in .270 Winchester, which is what I wanted, and the rifle fit me very well. It came with a good scope that was mounted on a set of rings that offered see-through bases for using iron sights. Since the rifle was equipped with sights, this seemed like a great option. In reality, using the scope meant lifting my head from the comb for proper eye alignment, which I didn't like. That realization required me to buy new bases and rings, remount the scope, and rezero the rifle, none of which I had time to do before opening day. If I had allowed myself a few extra weeks, I could have headed to the woods with a gun that worked well for me. Instead, I had to settle for what I had. This additional time allows you to address any problems with scope mounting, bedding or stock fit.
More Range Time: On any given weekday during the summer, you can count on finding an open bench at the range where I shoot. But as summer fades to autumn and more hunters feel the pressure to have their guns zeroed for the upcoming season, it's harder and harder to find an open spot to shoot. Time on the range is about more than getting your rifle tuned and zeroed — it helps you develop the level of confidence you need to make the shot. Just as different car models drive differently, different rifles shoot differently, and you need a high level of familiarity with your gun to make a high-pressure shot. Most quick sight-ins involve firing a few shots from a bench or table, achieving a rough zero at 100 yards and hoping all goes well beyond that. That's fine in some cases, but if you're a serious hunter, that won't do. Ballistic charts are a great reference and they are generally accurate, but certain features like the height of your optic above the bore and elevation can effect bullet drop, so it's much better to actually shoot your rifle at 200, 300, and 400 yards if you plan to try and make shots at those distances. Additional time on the range also allows you to practice from actual field positions such as prone, kneeling and from shooting sticks, which are far more applicable than practicing from a bench.