September 23, 2010
Stand and deliver--(but only if you really have to).
I was in a Texas hunting camp, and one of the guides was an extremely unpleasant, big-talking buffoon. Thank God he wasn't my guide, but another hunter was stuck with him. It seems they'd run onto a pretty good buck, and apparently the hunter had hesitated a bit too long, either trying to find a rest or figure out some way to get steady enough. I don't know whether the hunter was actually a bit too slow or even whether it was a shot that anyone should have attempted offhand. I do know his guide was furious. "These dudes, gotta have a rest. Nobody can stand up and shoot like a man."
This free-range sika stag was taken on New Zealand's North Island with a classic deliberate offhand shot. The distance was about 100 yards; there was no rest available and no other option. This is the kind of shot you practice for.
Well, just to separate the men from the boys, a year or so later this unpleasant gent (to use the term loosely) was apparently a "wheel man" in the notorious Bill Day/George Vogt/Lloyd McMahon whitetail conspiracy but avoided doing time by turning state's evidence. For those who have forgotten, a very large (and very purloined, thus breaking the Lacey Act) Saskatchewan whitetail rack was spirited to Mexico, and a skullcap transplant was performed on a midsize Mexican buck so that somebody could get his name in the record book. A magazine photo unraveled the whole scheme, and the main conspirators eventually did time.
Anything this particular guide (and I use that term loosely) said needed to be taken with a grain of salt, but somewhere in that horse-pucky there was a small grain of truth. It isn't that shooting standing up, what used to be called "offhand," is more manly than any other position. Hardly. But sometimes the only option is to stand up and shoot--or not shoot at all.
When that choice is presented several things are important. Primary is knowing how to shoot from an unsupported standing position, which implies knowing how to plant your feet--instantly--and how to use your shooting and supporting arms to best steady the rifle, such as it is. More about that in a moment. Equally important, however, is knowing your limitations.
My old friend and mentor John Wootters once remarked that sporting rifles should have cut-off switches so that they could not be fired if unsupported or if the target was moving. I don't altogether agree with either premise; I think there are times when running shots can and should be taken, and there are times when the best option is to stand up and shoot (if you know how). On the other hand, I think it's a terrible idea to stand up and whale away at any game animal at distance and equally silly to shoot at any animal at any distance if a steadier position is possible.
The secret to standing up and shooting is practice, and lots of it. No position is less steady, so no position requires as much practice to master. Even then, shooting standing is not perfect. There is a wobble factor that increases with range, so as distance increases, so do the chances of wounding game.
This is unacceptable, so part of practicing is learning what you can do and what you should not attempt. I'm sure that there are successful competitive shooters who can stand up and shoot a game animal at 200 yards with perfect confidence and pull it off time after time. Such shooters are few, and I am not one of them. With lots of practice, most of us can develop enough skill and confidence for offhand shooting out to perhaps 100 yards. For some of us, cut that in half--and remember that no self-imposed limit is constant, whether supported or unsupported.
When the author shot that sika stag, he was still-hunting down an open lane between eucalyptus trees. Under such conditions, any shot, if one presented itself, would be from a standing position.
Regardless of distance, whether you can pull off the shot depends a whole bunch on shot presentation. For instance, at 80 or 90 yards I'm normally pretty comfortable with an offhand broadside shot, but a frontal presentation would be tricky, and I wouldn't even consider trying a neck shot unsupported at that distance. Your own condition also influences the decision--or should.
If you've just raced to the top of a hill to get the shot, there might not be a shot without a steady rest and enough time to take a few deep breaths. Likewise if you're undergoing a serious bout of buck fever. Interestingly, one of the primary symptoms of this strange malady is that it seems to make hunters tend to ignore a host of steadier solutions and stand up and whale away. An offhand shot will almost always be taken quickly, but there are matters of degree; it might be a fast reaction to a close encounter or it might be more deliberate--but it should only be done when it's the best or only option for getting in a good shot.
FAST OR DELIBERATE?
I think there are two types of offhand shots, as mentioned above: the fast reaction to a close encounter and the more deliberate offhand shot at greater distance. Shooting form is (or should be) much the same, but the fast reaction is just that: bringing the rifle up, roughly aligning the sights and pressing the trigger--more like shooting a shotgun, pointing as much as aiming.
This is common on dangerous game at close range, and just the other day this was the situation when I shot a bongo in the dense forest of Cameroon, range no more than 20 yards. Mind you, it is very possible to miss an entire animal at even half that distance, so form is important. Regardless of sights or choice of action, gun fit is critical; you must know that the rifle is pointing where you are looking.
The author likes to keep the elbow of his shooting arm high, pulling the butt into the shoulder. The supporting arm should be kept as directly under the rifle as possible, somewhat reducing muscle wobble.
The big difference between this kind of shot and the more deliberate offhand shot at longer (never "long") range is that you are close enough (and the target is large enough) that you aren't worried about the wobbles. You bring up the rifle, it looks good, and the trigger breaks. At longer range you cannot have this luxury. Now you're out of shotgunning and into the most difficult form of riflery: synchronizing a moving sight with a stati
onary target. No, it is never perfect. No, your crosshairs will not rest dead steady on the vital zone, and the more magnification, the more magnified the wobbles.
This is the kind of standing shot I dread and try hard to avoid--but I practice for it just in case. Not too long ago I was stalking a nice sika buck down an open lane between two lines of eucalyptus trees. I was on New Zealand's North Island, and this was a free-range sika, one of New Zealand's most difficult trophies, so the pressure was on. I could just see the tips of his antlers over a little rise in the ground, so I had to advance until I could see the whole body--by which time, of course, he could see me. I was fully exposed, with no hope for a steady rest, the distance somewhere near 100 yards.
Champion's VisiColor targets are scaled to distance, with hits color-coded for instant visibility. These are ideal targets for practice from field positions.
The rifle was an old friend, my Geoff Miller-rebarreled .300 H&H, long in the barrel and thus stable, with a light, clean trigger pull. I understood instantly there were no other options; I must get the rifle up and get the shot off before the deer bolted. At first the crosshairs wobbled from in front of his neck to behind his rump. I took a breath and pulled the rifle in tighter; the wobbles stabilized over the chest area, and the rifle went off. The buck ran hard to the right, through the trees and out of sight, giving me a bad moment: Offhand, unsupported, anything can happen, and I well know that. But it had looked good and felt good, and it was good. Hit perfectly, he was down a few dozen steps down the next lane.
I had three advantages on that shot: a rifle I shoot a lot, plenty of weight up front and a sweet trigger. Even so, offhand shooting is rarely a perfect solution and is only possible through lots of practice. Maybe many years of it. Advantages I have, although it was all many years ago, are several years of smallbore competition and, of course, many years of military qualification shooting, both of which required shooting from a formal standing target position. In smallbore, standing was probably my best position. To some extent the skills are transferable, especially learning how to control the wobbles and hit a stationary target with a moving sight.
However, transference is limited because if you try a formal standing position with a centerfire sporting rifle and without a padded shooting coat, you will get the hell kicked out of you. For good offhand shooting in the field you must practice with your hunting rifle, so you know its feel and heft and its trigger pull. But there's time for that. Learn to shoot offhand with a good .22 and lots and lots and lots of ammo. Shoot that .22 a bit, offhand, every time you go to the range, taking just a few shots with your centerfire. I love Champion's new color-coded, scaled-to-distance VisiColor animal targets--ideal for this practice.
For field offhand shooting you must find what works best for you, but I think stance is essential. Unlike a formal target standing position, I like a slightly open stance. (Remember, I'm left-handed; it's the opposite if you're right-handed.) My right foot is pointed toward the target, my left foot about shoulder width at 45 degrees, foot pointed out almost perpendicular to the gun/target line. This, by the way, would be a very good stance for a shotgunner, and I'm probably a shotgunner at heart.
Use of arms is also very important, and here I do pay attention to what my old shooting coach, Marine Master Sergeant Doug Johnson, taught me. Use the shooting arm (my left, but for most people the right arm) to pull the rifle butt into the shoulder. Keep the elbow no lower than horizontal--higher is better--because this helps set the butt into the shoulder. The supporting arm should be directly under the rifle. ("Rest on bone, not on muscle," said Johnson.) This is the weakest link. Nobody can hold the rifle even reasonably steady for very long, but obviously arm strength is an issue.
I tend to like a "hasty sling" in the standing position. You should try it and see if it helps you. Just don't get married to it, because there are times when you can't use it. The last thing I wanted in the forest, when I shot my bongo, was a sling or any other vine-snagging impediment on the rifle. When I shot that sika deer, well, I didn't think there was time to wrap into the sling, and since I was in full view of the animal, I didn't want the movement. Sometimes you simply have to stand up and shoot, and that's when all those hours on the range really pay off.