Despite the fact that accurate shooting under hunting conditions requires the mastery of a complex blend of mind and body control, I feel safe in saying that most hunters practice very little, if at all. And just for the record, although I sight-in all of my rifles and the shotguns I use turkey hunting at least once a year, I don’t consider doing so to be practice.
At least here in Missouri, the stock I-don’t-have-a-place-to-shoot excuse doesn’t hold water. The MDC maintains five manned shooting ranges, and while these facilities charge a nominal daily fee, the range master doubles as an instructor for novice shooters and a coach for experienced ones. If there isn’t a manned facility near you or if you chafe under any degree of regimentation, there are 70 unmanned shooting ranges scattered across the state on MDC properties. Still not satisfied? There are dozens of members-only ranges operated by clubs and associations.
Although my primary subject today is practice, I will touch briefly on sighting in. If your bench rest is capable of locking a rifle in place, center the scope’s crosshairs on the target’s bull’s-eye and fire one shot from no more than 50 yards. If necessary, reposition the rifle so its crosshairs are again centered on the bull’s-eye. Then–without moving the rifle–adjust the crosshairs until they bisect the bullet hole. Aim at the bull’s-eye and fire another shot. The results won’t be perfect, but they should be close enough to give you a basis to work from.
I’ve sighted-in a lot of rifles from the 50-yard station. With most of today’s flat-shooting calibers, being dead-on at 50 yards should allow for a dead-on hold on deer sized game out to about 200 yards–which, to be frank, is farther away than most North American hunters could hit a moose. Just remember that dead-on means exactly that. Nothing less than putting a three-shot group squarely through the x-ring will do.
Sighting-in at 100 yards is another good possibility. It won’t gain you much more than 40 or 50 yards of dead-on hold distance, but it will clearly demonstrate how quickly a tiny wobble at the muzzle expands as the bullet heads down range. Five-shot groups are clearly superior at this distance, but I must admit that the high cost and limited availability of ammunition these days has reduced me to three-shot groups more often than not.
Now comes the hard part. When you’ve sighted-in your rifle as perfectly as you can, take your gun vise or sand bags back to the truck.
It’s time to start practicing. To come even close to being worth its cost in time and money, you need to practice from the same positions you will–or might–be using on an actual hunt. But at a formal range, what you need to do can run afoul of what you can do. Never ever allow any part of your body to be in front of the firing line when the range is “hot” unless you’re the only–and I do mean only–person using it at the time.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of room between the benches on many unmanned public and private ranges to shoot from the sitting, kneeling and offhand positions with or without shooting sticks. (By the way, if you’re not using shooting sticks, your should be.) Just be sure that everyone else along the firing line knows what you intend to do.
Make your practice as realistic as possible. Hunters usually have to react quickly and then make a single shot out of a cold barrel count. To simulate this scenario, assume the position you’ve chosen as smoothly as possible–speed will come later–aim and fire one shot. Get out of position, lay your rifle on the bench with its action open and relax for a few minutes. Repeat this routine, using varying positions, until you’ve fired 20 rounds or your shoulder is getting tender, whichever comes first.
Learning to control your breathing and trigger finger involves universal methodology. Therefore, some–but not all–of your practice sessions can be done with a .22 rimfire. In fact, you don’t have to be at a range to practice with a .22. Squirrel season is open. If you can spot a squirrel in a leafy treetop and react quickly and skillfully enough to bring it down with a single shot, shooting a big buck next fall will seem like child’s play.
Gerald Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org