September 23, 2010
There's no secret to being truly effective with a hunting rifle. All it takes is a firm grasp of the fundamentals and regular, relevant practice.
Few hunters spend enough time at the range to become truly effective with their hunting rifles. Sure, they may fire a few groups from time to time, but rare is the shooter who spends time practicing from field positions or from improvised rests. The lack of practice means that when it gets right down to it, few hunters can shoot up to their campfire-claimed abilities.
Combine that lack of practice with a racing heart, throbbing pulse, and good old buck fever and you have the makings for a hunting disaster. That's too bad, because there is no secret to becoming a good marksman. All it takes is a firm grasp of the fundamentals and a bit of regular, relevant practice.
Assuming you have a solid rest and a good sight picture, you need to focus on four key elements to be successful. Natural point of aim (NPA); shooting at a natural respiratory pause; a slow, steady trigger squeeze; and follow-through are all equally important.
Few novice shooters are familiar with the term, but NPA is the key to accuracy in every position. Simply put, NPA is when the body, gun, and target are aligned naturally. If you're doing it right, you won't have to muscle the gun left or right to align your sights. If you do have to force the rifle one way or another, you haven't established your NPA, and odds are your shot won't be a good one.
Offhand takes more time to master, but master it you must if you want to be a successful hunter. Keep your head erect, your rear elbow parallel to the ground, and your support arm directly underneath the fore-end. Always support your rifle with bone, not muscle.
Test this by breathing deeply while holding the rifle on target. With a good NPA, the crosshairs will move straight up and down the center of the target. If the reticle dances wildly around the target, adjust your body, not the gun. You cannot muscle the gun and shoot well. The more out of breath you are or the greater the distance, the more critical NPA becomes.
The most daring test of NPA I've ever seen was that of marksmanship guru Jacob Bynum of Rifles Only, whose 1,000-yard range has cows wandering all over it. Bynuam had us get behind our guns at night and focus on a 300-yard LaRue steel target on which he'd trained his spotlight. Once we said we were comfortable, he would switch off the light and wait. After some arbitrary period of time passed, he would command us to fire. He didn't switch the light back on, so we were relying on the NPA we'd established 30 seconds or a minute before. We were, literally, shooting blind. We had a little margin of error because we were firing from an elevated shooting platform, but we had to be darn-near perfect to make a hit in the dark. We were making those hits, which is a testament to the quality of the training at Rifles Only and to good, solid fundamentals.
For the utmost accuracy, you must break each shot at a natural respiratory pause. You can't achieve consistency by holding your breath mid-breathing cycle. Instead, wait until your lungs are completely empty and hold your breath just long enough to break the shot. Timing is critical, as your sight picture will blur if you hold your breath too long.
Kneeling is fast, easy to assume, and works great in all sorts of terrain. Never rest bone on bone; the lead elbow should be in front of, not on, the knee.
You can improve your trigger control by making sure your rifle has a good, crisp trigger pull. You don't need an ultra-light, benchrest trigger. In fact, too light a pull on a hunting rifle is downright unsafe. But a clean, 3- to 4-pound trigger pull will make a big difference in your shooting.
Follow-through is as crucial to making a good shot as it is to sinking a three-pointer or hitting a homerun. You could do everything else right and still make a bad shot if you don't keep your head locked down on the stock and recover right back on target. Looking up is one of the most common culprits, and it's an easy one to fix--just focus on watching the animal fall in your riflescope. Lift your head, and I guarantee you'll miss or, worse, wound your target.
A good follow-through should include working the bolt immediately after recoil. With a bit of practice, the bolt work becomes automatic. The more you practice, the less you'll need it, but a fast second shot can save the day if your first shot misses its mark.
The fundamentals are, well, fundamental, but a mastery of them has helped me make some pretty tough shots over the years. Learn them, and they'll make you a better shot.
Field Position Practice
Shooting aids (like bipods and shooting sticks) are great, but you can't always find a solid, steady rest in the field. Every rifleman should have a firm grasp of the four basic shooting positions: offhand, kneeling, sitting, and prone. The more you practice them, the better you'll be. And if you can make fast, accurate hits without a rest, imagine how good you'll be when you are able to lean on a handy tree or rock.
Offhand is the most difficult position to master, but it's the one you're most likely to employ in the field. A proper offhand stance starts with you, the shooter, facing 90 degrees to the right of the line of sight (opposite for lefties) with your weight equally distributed on both feet. Next, raise the rifle to your shoulder until the scope is aligned on the target. Hold your right elbow high (parallel to the ground), your head erect, and your support arm directly under the rifle's fore-end. Be sure to bring the gun to your face, rather than the other way around, and make sure that bone, not muscle, supports the rifle.
A more modern version of the offhand position is taught by Bynum. He advocates a more squared up position for faster, more natural target acquisition. You have to break your shot a bit quicker from this position than from the conventional offhand stance, but Bynum's way really works for quick, accurate offhand shooting.
Offhand is tough, but with a bit of regular practice, you'll be amazed at how quickly you improve. And that's important because if you hunt much at a
ll, you will have to shoot offhand. In fact, on my last safari, I was forced to take four of my nine animals offhand because I didn't have the time to get on the sticks. Fortunately, I practice offhand so much that the animals were in my scope as soon as the rifle hit my shoulder, and my finger touched the trigger soon after. All four, including my best-ever impala, dropped within a few yards of where they stood at the shot.
The kneeling position is more stable than offhand, but it's almost as fast. It also affords more clearance over brush and tall grass than sitting.
Prone is great if the terrain allows it. It works best with a good rest, such as a pack or bipod.
The sitting position is the author's favorite because it is stable and easy to assume. Your own favorite position will vary according to your build and flexibility.
Kneeling is fast and easy to assume. Simply face right and go down until your right knee hits the ground. Keep your left elbow directly under the rifle, just in front of the knee. Be sure not to put your elbow on your knee because bone-to-bone contact doesn't make for a very steady rest.
I've used the kneeling position to fill my freezer many times over the years. Most recently, I used it to take a fine old Cape buffalo in Zimbabwe. My professional hunter and I had been tracking the bull for the better part of the morning. We'd already spooked the herd twice and were close to calling it quits when we caught up to them in a broken mopane thicket. We eased up until we found the old dugga boy staring a hole right through us. We couldn't risk trying to get the sticks up, so I eased into a kneeling position behind a low bush, found the bull in my scope, and sent a 400-grain TSX through its near shoulder. The bull bolted, but my kneeling position was solid enough that the crosshairs were rock-solid when the trigger broke. I wasn't the least bit surprised to find the bull piled up in a heap 30 yards from where it stood at the shot.
Sitting is my favorite position. In fact, I'm so comfortable shooting from the sitting position that I feel like I can't miss. Besides being the most comfortable position for me (your own favorite position may vary), it also offers support for both elbows, which makes it very stable. It's pretty fast, too. Simply turn a bit right of the line of sight and sit with your elbows just in front of your knees. Whether you cross your legs is purely a matter of personal preference, but once you figure out the right version for your build, you'll be surprised at how stable it is.
I shoot from sitting quite often, but the black springbok I took in South Africa last season stands out as one of my better sitting shots. We'd been trying to get to within 400 yards all day but hadn't had much luck. Late that afternoon, we were able to use a bit of knee-high grass and a small swale to close the gap to a hair over 300 yards. Though I rarely use the sticks from sitting, the shot was long and the target was small. When I locked in on the sticks and rested my right elbow on my knee, my sight picture was perfect. The ram dropped in its tracks.
Prone is the most stable position. Unfortunately, few areas offer the type of terrain that makes it useful.
A proper prone position involves aligning your body, the rifle, and the target much as you might a golf shot. When you drop into position, you should not have to move the gun much to get on target. You'll know you're off if your rifle recoils off to one side or the other. If you're lined up correctly, your rifle should come back on target or pretty darn close to it. I practice pone frequently with nothing but my support arm under the rifle, but a shooting sling is a big help, and prone really shines with the aid of a rest like a rock, daypack, or bipod.
I've made most of my longest shots from prone, including a New Mexico pronghorn at 453 yards, a fine aoudad ram at 496 yards, and my best-ever mule deer at 397 yards. Most recently, I took my biggest free-range aoudad from 487 yards. I don't like shooting that far, but when I can't get any closer, a solid prone position is steady enough to make such shots practical with a good rest and minimal wind.
Every deer camp has a guy who never seems to miss. You can rest assured that he wasn't born that way; his skills are the result of years of practice. The good news is that familiarity with the fundamentals and a little practice can make anyone a better shooter. And the more you practice, the more confident you'll become. Soon you'll be the guy in camp who never misses.