There’s a saying in the military, “Three minutes of combat teaches more than three years of training.” True or not, it makes a valid point. There is no substitute for the real thing.
Shooting at a range, valuable and necessary training though it is, can’t teach all the skills necessary for shooting well in the field. Generally targets are at known ranges, the shooter is calm and unwinded, and there’s no time pressure.
With enough time and effort you can duplicate some of the hunting experience. You could, for example, jog a mile carrying your daypack and rifle, then try to hit a partially obscured target at an unknown range in a brief time period.
But you cannot duplicate the mental and emotional state of the actual hunt–the excitement, the anticipation, the pressure. Often there is fear, or at least apprehension including fear of failure, fear of embarrassment in front of fellow hunters or guides and oddly enough, sometimes fear of success. Above all there is the knowledge this is the real thing, the knowledge there may be only one chance, the mental state training can never recreate.
Experience is the best teacher. The way to learn field shooting is by shooting in the field. We can’t hunt elk or bear or deer every week, it may be only once or twice a year. But we can hunt something.
Hunt gophers or prairie dogs. Try leaving the long-range rifles in their cases sometime, grab a rimfire rifle and start walking. Learn to spot the little critters and get close. Learn to quickly acquire a stable shooting position, to improve your offhand shooting skills and fire an accurate shot fast.
In an earlier column, I talked about learning to get an accurate shot off quickly using a shot timer to measure progress. In the field you learn to get off an accurate shot quickly under the pressure of not knowing when the target might disappear.
Growing up on a farm, it seemed I was always hunting something. There were gophers digging burrows in the horse pasture, crows and magpies after the baby chicks, sometimes a fox or weasel. Winter nights, I’d take my air rifle, call the cats, and hunt sparrows in the barn. And if there was nothing else to hunt on hot August afternoons I’d shoot grasshoppers with the air rifle.
Some of those ‘hoppers were trophy size. If nothing else they taught me to shoot fast, because they didn’t sit around long. Actually I haven’t changed much. I’d rather hunt kudu or caribou, but if grasshoppers are all that’s available, I’ll hunt grasshoppers. Still beats watching TV.
That’s the best advice I can give to becoming a good field shot. Hunt something. If you don’t live in prairie dog country, hunt groundhogs, small game or field mice. Of course, this assumes the shooter loves to hunt. I sometimes get the impression many people like to boast of a 400-yard shot, or a 150-class whitetail, but find the actual hunting a bore. They like to have hunted, but don’t like to hunt.
Confidence in the equipment is important. I’ve written before about testing and preparing your rifle, scope and ammunition. Knowing I’m sighted in helps provide confidence. I’ve never cared for the idea of sighting in X-inches high at 100 yards and trusting a ballistic table to say the rifle is now sighted at 250 yards.
If I want to sight for 250 yards I set up a target at 250 yards and adjust the scope until the bullets hit center. Then I’ll fire a few groups at 100 yards and check point of impact. After traveling, if the rifle or scope gets dinged or if I just need reassurance, I can pace off a 100 yards and do a quick check.
Learn the anatomy of the game you are hunting. I won’t debate here the merits of lung shot, heart shot, shoulder shot. The point is you should know which shot you intend to take, and where to place the shot. Not just on the textbook broadside shot, which never happens in the field anyway, but at various angles. Always aim at a specific spot.
Cartridge and bullet selection are book-length topics. This is heresy for a rifle enthusiast, but within broad limits I don’t think cartridge selection matters much. Like every rifle shooter, I have my favorites, but I don’t kid myself there aren’t others just as good. There was a time when I found .270 vs. .280 debates stimulating. Not any more. Shot placement and bullet selection are so much more critical I just can’t get excited about cartridge debates.
Bullet selection is important, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking a magic bullet will drop them every time. Game animals don’t come off assembly lines. Some species are tougher than others. Some animals are tougher than others of the same species. Hunters want a cartridge, bullet and a shot placement combination proven to drop the game in its tracks every time. No such combination exists.
Some years ago 1 had several extra doe tags for whitetail deer, mule deer, and pronghorns in addition to regular either-sex tags. I used a couple of .284 Win rifles, a Winchester 88 and a Browning A-Bolt, with 140-grain Nosler Ballistic Tips at around 3,000 fps. The first 12 animals I shot dropped so fast they hit the ground while the rifle was still in recoil.
The 13th, a nice pronghorn buck, stayed up and ran a couple of hundred yards before falling dead. Why? I don’t know. He wasn’t alarmed before the shot, in fact he was grazing when I fired. Impact was just where I aimed for–a lung shot. Bullet action was perfect, with rapid expansion, a big exit hole, with both lungs just destroyed. Yet there was enough oxygen in the blood to cover 200 yards, which admittedly doesn’t take long for a pronghorn.
Use a cartridge and bullet you trust, place the shot carefully, plan for a clean one-shot kill, but be ready for the exceptions. Reload as soon as the shot breaks and be ready to shoot again. I like one-shot kills as much as anyone and generally get them, but I don’t count on it. Depending on the action type I can usually reload in a couple of seconds. If the game is still up and offers a shot I’ll take it every time. Better to burn a couple of extra rounds and wreck some meat than to lose the animal.