The Big Ten
September 23, 2010
Crucial field skills every rifle shooter needs to know.
We Americans are fond of lists, and there's nothing wrong with that. When it comes to rifle shooters, we're an organized lot anyway, and grouping ideas into lists appeals to our sense of order. This particular list is self-explanatory, but the reason it's important may not be so evident. For hunters in particular, it's easy these days to get all wrapped up in the arms race--equipping oneself with all the latest gear and the fastest, flattest calibers--and forget that being a good field shot requires a set of mental and physical skills you can't buy at any store or in any catalog. Here are 10 skills I think every serious rifleman needs.
MOUNT A SCOPE. I'm the clumsiest, most non-mechanical person in the world, so properly mounting a scope, though very simple, is a challenge for me. But I believe it is essential to do this for yourself because otherwise it's impossible to make sure you get the eye relief right for you and ensure there is no canting. And when accuracy problems arise, we so often want to start hacking on the bedding or other drastic steps when so often the real culprit is a loose or improperly assembled mount.
Mounting a scope properly is a simple matter of reading the directions and following them, step by step, using properly fitting tools and taking your time to make sure you've got it right and tight. There are little tricks to learn, too, such as thorough degreasing, roughing the inner surfaces of the rings and judicious application of thread-locking compound.
BORE-SIGHT AND ZERO. Collimators are good and laser bore-sighters are better, but I haven't yet found any device to be as precise as good old-fashioned bore-sighting. There are few things more frustrating than going to the range and wasting time and bullets trying to get a new rifle or a newly mounted scope on paper, and in the field, old-fashioned bore-sighting by eye--simply aligning the bore at a target or object, then adjusting the scope until it is alignment--is a handy way to check your rifle if you fall or miss an easy shot.
Reading the shot is a crucial skill that combines recognizing the effects of wind, angle, position of game and more. The ability to do this all quickly and surely will lead to success in the field.
With practice you can become very proficient at bore-sighting by eye. The catch, of course, is you must be able to remove the bolt or, in the case of a single-shot, open the action so you can look down the bore. With other action types, a collimator is the only option.
Properly zeroing your rifle is a purely mechanical exercise in which you attempt to remove as much human error as possible to ensure your zero is exactly where you want it and also determine the level of accuracy your rifle is delivering with a given load.
This isn't about shooting but primarily about benchrest technique. Any good rest, from high-end rigs to plain old sandbags, will work just fine. Both butt and fore-end should be secure so the rifle is on target with no muscling. The supporting hand should snug the rear sandbag into the shoulder and should not touch the rifle. Zeroing cannot be rushed, and should be verified and re-verified with a cold barrel.
UNDERSTAND YOUR BULLET. American riflemen tend to be enamored of both velocity and accuracy, but provided you have enough of both to get the job done, neither is as important as the terminal performance of the bullet. All over the world I see hunters using loads that I think are somewhat (and sometimes wildly) unsuited for the job at hand simply because they were the fastest or the most accurate.
The "shoot/don't shoot" decision is yours alone. No matter what pressure you're under, if you aren't confident you can place the shot in the vitals, don't fire.
You simply must choose bullet performance that's appropriate to the game being hunted. Why do I consider this a skill? Because it requires the dedication to do your homework. In most situations there are many good choices, so read and study (and take all hype with a grain of salt) and make sound choices.
Make sure you understand the performance characteristics of the bullet you are choosing, and then make sure you understand the velocity and trajectory of your chosen load. The only way to be certain of these characteristics is to actually chronograph your load and then verify the trajectory by shooting at actual ranges.
GET STEADY--FAST. One of the biggest complaints most guides have is that their hunters are too slow to get into position for a shot, which translates into lost opportunities. Many hunters either have no plan for getting steady or are so rigidly tied to just one position or means of support that they are totally lost if the preferred technique won't work.
Sure, it's good to have a preferred technique--and you should practice it religiously--but you should also practice as wide an array of shooting positions as your imagination and range of mobility will allow. This includes shooting unsupported from the classic positions: standing, kneeling, sitting and prone. Then modify all of these positions by adding something solid to rest on, over or against.
The goal is to learn how to get steady and shoot accurately from as wide a variety of positions as possible and also to get into position quickly. With experience you will develop an instinctive knowledge of what is going to work in a given situation.
READ THE SHOT. On most ranges, you know the range, you can read the range flags for wind, and you're probably shooting on level ground. In the field, you must read all of these things, and you must be able to do it quickly. Rangefinders are great, but there isn't always time to use them (and perhaps one of their greatest attributes is how they can, through practice, make you better at quickly judging range by eye).
Similarly, there are now laser rangefinders that will give you the correction for an uphill/downhill shot. But, again, time and conditions won't always allow their use. Nor, in my view, is it practical to attempt to memorize precisely how various angles affect your trajectory. You just need to know roughly what the effect is at various ranges as angles i
Reading wind and adjusting correctly for it is one of the hallmarks of a truly great rifleman. You have to test not only the air but study the grass and leaves at midrange, and at the target, and come up with a solution.
In the end, you need to combine these skills to read the shot and then be able to execute it before your quarry wanders off.
BACK UP YOUR OWN SHOT. Americans tend to rely on our first shot alone. African professional hunters call it "admiring the shot"--firing a deliberate first shot then waiting to see what happens. You try to make that first shot as perfect as possible, but after that all bets are off--especially if that shot connects and the animal is still up. The second shot can be crucial in preventing a lost animal and with dangerous game may well be even more important than the first shot--and the presentation is very unlikely to be better.
Learn to work the action and/or reload quickly, and always be prepared to keep shooting when necessary. On almost every animal I have ever lost, I had an opportunity to fire again and for whatever reason failed to do so.
KEEP COOL. It is extremely normal to be excited in the presence of game. If you are not excited when a shot at a beautiful animal is imminent, then I strongly recommend you get your kicks elsewhere. It's okay for your heart rate to go up, and it's okay to have to do some serious deep breathing, but you must learn to control it.
There is a proper timing for almost any shot, and I believe it is mostly excitement that causes too many of us to rush our shots or sometimes to wait too long. It takes experience to learn how to keep buck fever at bay, and experience in the presence of game can take years to acquire. The best thing I know to do is to take deep breaths, try to relax, and concentrate on the critical shooting basics of sight alignment and trigger squeeze.
KNOW WHEN NOT TO SHOOT. Even if you have practiced well and can get ready quickly, the time needed to take an accurate shot isn't always within your control. What you can always control is whether you squeeze that trigger or not. If you're alone, you have self-imposed pressure to get the job done; if you're with a companion or guide, you may have someone screaming in your ear, "Shoot!"
Checking your zero applies to all rifles in all calibers with all types of sighting equipment. A proper zero proven by a good group is one of the best confidence builders in the world.
Perhaps most important in deciding whether to shoot is your analysis of whether you can make the shot or not. We all miss, and there's no shame in missing, but you should not attempt a shot unless you are dead certain that you can get the bullet into the vitals, and only you can determine--based on your skill and experience and the current conditions--whether you have a shot or not.
There's also the issue of what might happen next. In mountain hunting, for instance, you might have a perfectly acceptable shot, but you must consider the possibility of the animal falling--destroying meat and trophy or making recovery too dangerous.
HIT MOVING TARGETS.One of Jack O'Connor's great quotes is that animals are "just as big moving as they are when standing still." There are moving shots and then there are moving shots. It depends on speed and distance. If you're an experienced shotgunner, or if you practice a lot on moving targets (jackrabbits with a .22 are unbeatable practice), then you might be able to take genuine running shots at fairly close range with confidence. For most of us, however, a genuine flat-out running animal, especially beyond point-blank range, should raise the "no shot" flag.
But what about an animal that is just walking slowly along? I can't tell you how many times I've seen hunters let animals walk slowly out of their lives forever. At shorter distances, a walking animal may well offer not only an acceptable shot but also the only shot you're going to get.
LEARN AND MOVE ON.Everybody makes mistakes, and everybody misses. Missing is very tough mentally, and if you do it in front of witnesses it's downright embarrassing. But it's part of the game. If it happens a lot, you need to figure out if you're doing something fundamentally wrong, like flinching. Or maybe you just need to spend more time on the range.
If your shooting is sound, when misses happen there are three important considerations. First, try to figure out what you did wrong so you can learn from it. Second, don't beat yourself up too much. You can't let a miss, or even a string of misses, shake your confidence so much that you are afraid to try again.
Finally, as you go through the agony of having messed up terribly--perhaps on a simple shot, perhaps on the trophy of a lifetime--slap a smile on your face and keep the rest to yourself. Nothing puts a damper on a hunting party or camp more quickly than somebody moping around with his lower lip dragging in the gravel, and you shouldn't rob others of their great day afield.
Most of us have a favored shooting position, but no given position will be possible under all circumstances. Learn and practice as wide a range of steady positions as possible.