- The longer you aim, the more desperately you want to breathe normally again.
- Lay a foundation with a body position that makes full use of bone support (not muscles) and that enables the rifle to point naturally toward the target.
- No one can hold a rifle still; the best you can hope for is an acceptable wobble, one whose speed and amplitude stay within bounds.
- Block out distractions that can affect your judgment and focus.
- In open country or in the woods, assessing conditions as you hunt and keeping your body ready for quick, accurate positioning will boost your odds for an effortless, accurate shot.
Yesterday as I write this a six-point bull walked out of my scope field at 280 yards. He vanished in an organic mesh of alder 9 feet thick. I sighed as others party to the event whispered, “Can’t believe he didn’t shoot. I’d ‘a’ hammered that bull. Won’t get a chance like that again soon.”
Counting me, we were four people: four times as many as needed to shoot an elk or pass judgment on a shot. For better or worse, I made the only call that mattered.
“Most of my clients are comfortable with 300-yard shots.” It was my guide’s diplomatic way of saying, “What are you doing hunting elk if you can’t drop one at 300 yards?” As this fellow was born 13 years after I’d shot my first elk, I cut him a little slack and replied gently that I had killed a couple of elk at 300—but only a couple. And that a lot of factors, not just distance, determine where a bullet lands. Things like shooting position, heart rate, light, wind, shot angle and how the animal appears in the sight.
“An elk’s a big target,” he said.
“I wasn’t aiming at the elk.”
He regarded me warily, the way 22-year-olds look at elders asking them about church attendance, retirement accounts and commitment to higher education.
Truly, I had not been looking at the elk, but at a spot on its forward ribs. I’d envisioned, too, a spot on the off-side and the path between them—and the long curved tunnel my bullet would have to bore through the mountain breeze. “Getting a bullet to an elk is easy,” I said. “Killing elk every time you shoot at one is a thinking man’s game.”
That look again.
“Like, what do you mean?”
It had been explained to me long before all sentences started with “like.” People who could shoot very, very well emphasized that good marksmanship starts in your head. We pay a great deal of attention to accurate rifles and ammunition. Technique comes with practice, which gets too little attention. But neither hardware nor routine can trump mental focus.
On a Michigan morning in dry snow under sooty skies, my fingers wooden with cold, I bumped a fox from a brush pile. I triggered the old infantry rifle without aligning the sights on that red streak. But an eye-blink before ignition, the picture of the bead in the notch and the blur of the fox coming to meet it froze in memory. The creature cartwheeled in a flurry of powder.
If you think that an accident, you might be right. If you assume it was a mindless poke, a reflexive action used by the hand of Zeus to nail Reynard for chicken-house transgressions, well, you’d be wrong. My head was in that shot, if briefly. Thinking needn’t take long. Much of it, in fact, can be done before you see the target.
My first years of competitive shooting were tough. Often I came up against the time limit, though a shot a minute is a glacial pace. And invariably I’d score badly on the final targets. Then, concluding the prone stage of one four-position match, I had an epiphany.
My bullets were dutifully chopping big pieces from the 10-ring. Closing the bolt two shots from a clean target, I brushed the trigger with my little finger. The rifle fired. I’d barely sunk into position, had no sight picture. The best I could hope was that the bullet had missed the paper, leaving no evidence. Any hole would be scored. Peeking through the spotting scope, I was astonished to see that not only had the rifle found the correct target on a sheet of 11, it had centered it—the equivalent of landing a .22 bullet in the mouth of a .22 case 50 feet away.
Okay, any shot down the middle without help from sights is a gift. But because I’d thought carefully about my position beforehand, the rifle pointed naturally at the target. You must do the same in the woods when you plant your feet for an offhand shot or snug your sling from the sit. That rifle will point naturally somewhere. Your position determines whether or not it points at the target.
“Center shots are made before they’re punched,” my first coach Earl Wickman told me long ago. He tapped ashes from a cigar long enough to holster. “But don’t over-think. When you feel a good shot, let it go. Don’t analyze it. Don’t tell yourself it’s too good to be true. Just give it your permission to happen.” Some years later, on a Montana ridge, I sneaked up to a small group of elk and missed what I hope will be the easiest shot I ever miss at a bull. The animal all but filled the scope. Rather than let the shot go, I refined my hold, held a tad forward to allow for his step— and botched the chance.
Accomplished shotgunners point at their targets. They know aiming will cause a miss. While rifle marksmanship is a different game, and you must aim to hit small targets at distance, too much attention to the sight picture can scuttle your shot.
The longer you aim, the more desperately you want to breathe normally again. The thump of your pulse becomes more pronounced—just when eye fatigue is burning a target image into your brain. Wobbles become shakes as your muscles tire under the rifle’s weight. Offhand, your entire body starts to sway. You can no longer distinguish between the actual target and the target image that entered your brain while your eye was still keen. As the entire effort starts to unravel, you hurry the shot. And miss.
Try this routine…
Lay a foundation with a body position that makes full use of bone support (not muscles) and that enables the rifle to point naturally toward the target. As soon as you shoulder the rifle, find the target and begin your trigger squeeze. You will have breathed deeply (two or three breaths, if time allows, but one will do) and let the last breath about half-way out.
Your lungs should lock about when the sight finds the target and your finger begins to pressure the trigger. The shot follows, probably not in the first second, maybe in the third, certainly by the fifth. Hold longer than six or seven seconds and odds of a good shot often drop. If that elk isn’t diving for cover, start again, after a moment’s rest.
“Believe that you’ll hit, and you will,” said Earl. “Think you might, and you might. Fear that you will miss, and there’s no hope.” Beyond the mechanics of marksmanship, hitting depends on your mental readiness to hit. If missing is an option, hitting is less likely. But rather than add pressure by making a hit imperative, consider it the natural result of your shooting routine.
In a long-ago October, hunting deer on crags draped with new snow, I found a big mule deer buck. He spied me about the same time, leaped from his bed and made off. The shot came fast because it had to. The bullet caught a rear rib and exited between the shoulders as he plunged down a slide. No time to think, but enough time to aim.
Watch film clips of Herb Parsons, Winchester’s famous exhibition shooter of the 1950s, and you might assume he didn’t aim. He did. So too Ad Topperwein and Annie Oakley, Tom Frye, Tom Knapp and everyone else who has shot aerial targets with rifles. You must see a relationship between sight and target. The best exhibition shooters see very fast. And the bead doesn’t sit in the notch very long, if at all. In fact, the difference between aiming and pointing narrows as you gain speed. “Think front sight.” Even if you’re not a handgunner, that’s good advice. With the rifle’s bead or the scope’s reticle, focus fast and maintain that focus. Iron sights require alignment too, but keeping your attention on the front sight helps you shoot faster without losing accuracy.
Don’t let wobble win!
The level of accuracy you expect affects the speed of your shot. No one can hold a rifle still; the best you can hope for is an acceptable wobble, one whose speed and amplitude stay within bounds. You determine those bounds. They’re tighter prone than offhand, tighter for a 300-meter competitor than for an elk hunter throwing down on a bull jetting for cover at 30 feet. Part of the reason we don’t shoot as well as we can in the woods is that we demand too much precision. When you’re out of breath, or wind gusts tug the rifle, and especially if you must shoot without support, you’ll have to accept more wobble! Insist on a perfect sight picture, and you’ll hold the shot too long.
In practice, it’s a good idea to measure wobble from various positions. Use paper at 50 yards. Take your time. Fire 10 shots to get an average. Record it in minutes of angle. Do that for unsupported positions and with an improvised rest—and after you’ve sprinted to the firing line. If the cost of elk ammunition puts you off, use a .22. Get a realistic idea of what you can expect. When an elk appears, you’ll know if wobble is too great to justify a shot. You’ll also know to fire if the sight looks shaky but not too shaky. Learning to recognize acceptable wobble helps you shoot faster and better. Get a mental grip on this aspect of the shot and you won’t fret so about the sight’s bounce. Riflemen who shoot only from the bench take a long time aiming and get used to placid sight pictures. In the field, time is often short, support unavailable. The reticle may be gyrating like a barn fly on a hot window. Think acceptable wobble.
When wobble unnerves you, you’re more apt to jerk the trigger. You see it pause momentarily, so you seize the moment. The result is a miss because you moved the rifle by firing it. Get comfortable with a little wobble. Center it on the target, smoothly crush that trigger. The rifle is most likely to fire when the sight is close to the middle. Relax, and you’ll shoot better. You’ll relax when you’re confident the shot will be good enough. It’s all in your head.
Beware outside pressures. Block out distractions that can affect your judgment and focus. Once, after hitting an eland bull badly late in a Namibian afternoon, I was quite shaken. I’d fired from prone at modest range. Ordinarily, I could have hit a tennis ball under those conditions. But the bull had obviously caught my soft-point well behind his wash-tub vitals. At camp I tried to make sense of the event, knowing my odds of finding the eland would be slim. That’s when I noticed the windage screw on my scope mount was gone. Conclusion: I was not a bad shot, just a dunce for not periodically checking such things.
At dawn a tracker joined me to follow the wounded animal. Hours later, I spied a horn above the bush 80 yards ahead. The animal was on to us and trotted off, affording us only glimpses of its head. We dashed forward and by great good luck came upon a savannah. The bull, now 100 yards off and moving, gave me a brief look at the top of his shoulder. I had to fire offhand, quickly. No time for regrets, wishes, doubts. The bullet took the great beast down just as it reached taller cover.
Take time to think.
Long pokes at game are typically less urgent. You’ve time to steady the rifle. Wobble matters less than bullet drop and drift. Still, drop and drift aren’t the gremlins we make them out to be. Rather, they’re functions of bullet flight. Know drop and drift, and hitting can be as easy as if you were using a laser beam.
Last fall I watched a friend stalk a bighorn ram. Through my spotting scope a mile away, I could see John and his guide creep toward the bedded sheep, a band containing a dozen mature rams. High on a white rock the men set up for the shot, perhaps 300 yards across a gash to a green flat tilted so steeply it threatened to dump the creatures from the mountain’s crest. After long minutes, the rams shifted enough to permit my friend a double-check on horn lengths and, at last, a clear shot. Suddenly the herd bolted, players from scrimmage cascading down the flat into a ribbon of vertical rock. Seconds later came a muffled “boom.” Then another. And another. I watched the rams single-file across the face.
“I must have aimed too high,” grimaced John when he stumbled into camp and dumped his pack-frame. “I tried to split the difference between reticle dots. Should have used just one.” Indeed. His Remington 721 in .300 H&H would have held the 180-grain spitzer to about 7 inches of drop. Seeing air under a horizontal wire should serve as a warning light to anyone! More game is missed high than low. (Only on the prairie, fore-shortened to the eye, do hunters routinely shoot low. Pronghorns are colorful and prominent on the featureless sage-scapes, adding to the illusion that they’re close.)
Shooting over that ram, John did what I and many other hunters have done many times. We forget that zeroing puts the barrel at an incline to the sightline, that every bullet leaves upward-bound. We’ve allowed for some measure of drop. On long shots, we’re smart to think twice about that before crushing the trigger.
“Never hold off hair,” Jack Atcheson told me once. “If you think the animal is so far off that you must see daylight under the wire, you’re either wrong or need to move closer.”
Thinking before you shoot far can also prevent misses due to wind. Once, bellied behind a log with my .257 Weatherby trained on a distant deer, I almost shot too soon. The wind was puffy at about 5 mph from 2 o’clock. Allowing for 6 inches of drop and that much for drift, I checked my squeeze when the deer stopped behind a bush. Light was failing, but I had to wait for a clear look. I used the delay to reassess the drift, noting a hard lean to the tops of Douglas-firs in the canyon between us. Protected by a bluff, I couldn’t feel the true force of the westerly. I nudged the reticle windward and triggered the Mark V when the buck came clear. He dropped instantly. After traipsing over to him, I found that even my revised drift estimate of 9 inches was still shy of what it should have been. The TSX had lanced the lungs a bit to the rear. My initial hold might have meant a paunched deer.
In open country or in the woods, assessing conditions as you hunt and keeping your body ready for quick, accurate positioning will boost your odds for an effortless, accurate shot. When you get an elk in your sight, you’ll want to confirm the shot is justified. Then press the trigger. Don’t wait for a stone-still reticle. Good hits result from smooth but decisive action. Think fast. Think confidently. The makings of the shot are all in your head.