How come we don't use them?
Three-legged shooting sticks are in such universal use in Africa that we often call them "African shooting sticks." Over here we mess around almost endlessly with bipods and monopods and a wild assortment of Rube Goldberg gadgets, so I'm darned if I can figure out why more American hunters don't use the one shooting aid that absolutely, positively works the best under the worst conditions: three-legged shooting sticks.
It takes a lot of practice to use the supporting hand correctly with shooting sticks. Ideally, the fore-end should rest on the hand, not on the sticks, so the fingers must grip the sticks as well as the rifle.
It's true that Africa is a bit different. You are almost never alone, and the lead tracker or PH usually carries the shooting sticks. We don't often have such luxuries in the U.S., so if you're hunting on your own, you have to carry them yourself. They don't make bad walking sticks, but there are tradeoffs to be made. The stronger the sticks, the more rigid they will be, but also heavier.
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Shooting sticks are not the universal answer. Nothing is as steady as a solid rest. Failing a stout rock or log that, when padded properly, becomes like a field bench rest, the next-best thing is probably a bipod that you can sit down with or, better, lie prone.
The rules don't change: Mother Earth is the source of stability, and the closer you can get to her, the steadier you will be. However, in much hunting in Africa (and a lot of hunting elsewhere) the brush or grass is too high to allow you to lie down or sit and still be able to see the target. Also, in Africa most trees have far too many thorns to offer suitable standing rests. So a makeshift tripod standing rest is in almost universal use there. If you're considering an African hunt, I strongly suggest you either make one or obtain a commercial version, and even if you aren't Africa-bound, I still recommend you get hold of some sticks and try them. On the range they offer excellent practice, and in the field they are fast and, with practice, surprisingly steady.
There are essentially two ways to make the sticks: three sticks of equal length, about as tall as the shooter, or two sticks "shooter-high" and a third stick about three inches shorter. Either way, the sticks are joined by a flexible wrapping (a strip cut from an old innertube works perfectly) about three inches down from the top. If the sticks are of equal length you have a tripod both top and bottom and must fit your rifle into the web where the three sticks join. If you use one stick shorter than the other, you have a tripod below and an obvious fore-end rest created by the tips of the two longer sticks.
I don't personally have a preference because this is one of the tricky parts: You must not rest your fore-end (and certainly not your barrel) directly on the sticks. Instead, you place your supporting hand on the intersection, grasping both the sticks and the rifle. Getting the height right is absolutely critical and also takes practice; with the tripod legs spread you want the intersection a bit below shoulder height so you can spread your own legs slightly, leaning into the rifle with your body and pulling back on the sticks with your supporting hand, sort of like isometric pressure.
Shooting sticks are fast and wonderful for normal shooting distances--say, 100 to 250 yards--when it's just too far to shoot unsupported, when there isn't time to find a solid rest or when there just plain isn't a solid rest because of terrain or vegetation. I just returned from a wonderful hunt in Namibia, where my buddy, professional hunter Dirk de Bod, is a dedicated shooting-sticks guy. He carries them himself, always.
The new Trek Pod marketed by Swarovski is a unique wrinkle on shooting sticks. The bottom opens into a tripod while the adjustable-height top has different heads for use as a walking staff, rifle rest or tripod for camera or spotting scope.
So here's the way it works. It was last light when we spotted a small herd of blue wildebeest. There was no time for finesse; the wind was fine, and all we could manage was a direct approach, keeping one thick bush between them and us. At about 250 yards we were out of cover. Dirk eased a step to the right and set up the sticks, and I slid the rifle into place. I tend to have a slight left-to-right waver, and for me this is extreme range for the sticks. Dirk knows both things, so he grabbed two legs of the sticks and offered a shoulder for an elbow rest. The bull was facing me--not an easy target--but the 225-grain Swift A-Frame from my .338 centered his chest, and that was that.
Here's the way it doesn't work sometimes. A couple of days later we got onto a very fine kudu bull, the kind we were looking for. He was in heavy cover at about the same distance--no time for rangefinding or anything else other than putting up the sticks. He stopped in heavy cover, his shoulder obscured by some thick branches. No shot there. I was on the sticks, waiting. He was ascending a slight ridge, everything covered by dense black hook thorn, but when he came up the ridge his shoulder should open. He did, and it did, but only for a second. In that second I simply wasn't steady enough to shoot, not in thick bush like that. The moment passed, and we never saw that bull again.
So no solution is perfect all the time, but I sure do like shooting sticks, not only in many hunting applications but for good range practice. In fact, the sticks are my standard range regimen for my daughter or any other new shooters who come my way. You won't shoot the tiny groups that are possible off the bench, but, standing up, you won't deal with nearly as much recoil. And while I can carry shooting sticks in the field, I can't carry a bench rest.
After a long search I finally found some synthetic grape stakes and made a perfectly usable set, but any good, straight sticks will work if they grow in your area. Or there are several commercial options. For "genuine" African shooting sticks check out Long Grass Outfitters (www.long-grass.com) or Sporting Wood (www.sportwc.com). The Long Grass version has wooden legs that break down, so you can slip them in your guncase--or use them at half-height for sitting. The tops of the Sporting Wood version are padded with zebra skin.
There are other options as well. Versatile and effective is the new Trek Pod from Swarovski (www.swarovskioptik.com). The bottom part of the legs folds out into a tripod, and the interchangeable head can be a walking sti
ck, gunrest or can hold a camera or spotting scope. I used the Trek Pod quite a lot on this recent safari. Another great source for shooting sticks is Stoney Point, offering several models (www.stoneypoint.com).
Nothing works all the time, and I'd never suggest that sticks replace either solid rests or the good old unsupported shooting positions. But you might give them a try. If you hunt in cover where it's difficult to get close to Mother Earth and still see game, you might borrow a trick from several generations of African professional hunters. They can't all be wrong.