You know the difference between bowhunters and rifle hunters? Bowhunters practice.
Because they know they’re handicapped with their primitive tools, bowhunters religiously fling arrows, sometimes daily, sometimes months before the season, sometimes year-round. The average rifle hunter? He might run to the range, lean on a table and put a shot or two into a cardboard box the day before the opener.
Forget stories about Dan Boone and “born riflemen.” Effective hunting shots are trained, not born. It takes study and practice to not only perfect physical technique, but learn bullet trajectories, wind deflection, angled shooting, scope function, and even self-control. It’s a lot easier to tame buck fever if manipulating your rifle is as natural as starting your car. Just as the world’s best basketball players practice shooting again and again and again so they can perform at their peak under duress, so should rifle shooters.
The good news is that not all practice has to be expensive, loud or elaborate. The following are techniques that can help anyone improve their rifle shooting skills with minimal hassle and often no expenditure of ammunition.
1. Handle your rifle every day. Lock away the ammo, add a trigger lock or remove the bolt for complete safety, but keep the rifle by your bed or chair and just lift and aim it several times a day. This builds muscle memory, especially ability to find targets in the scope quickly.
2. When looking for targets in your scope, don’t look at the scope. The trick is to keep both eyes open and focused on the target. Then just lift the rifle to your shoulder and face without scrunching or bending down to meet it. If you’ve practiced mounting the rifle, it will come up as it should and the scope will center over your eye, which will still be looking at the target.
3. Practice with the scope on low power and aim at large, close targets. As you get better, increase scope power and decrease target size. Eventually begin following moving targets like song birds. Finally, pick up targets already on the move. When you can smoothly lift your rifle/scope and see a flying duck near the reticle, you’re good to go.
4. Shoot an air gun or .22 rimfire for practice. It’s cheaper, quieter and easier than centerfires. Buy a rimfire in the same action style as your deer rifle so things feel and work the same. Try to set the triggers to similar pull weights.
5. Get off the bench. Once you’re zeroed, practice from field positions — sitting, standing, on bipods, against trees and rocks. Practice getting into these shooting positions at home with an empty gun. You’d be amazed how many hunters don’t know how to assume a solid shooting position in the field quickly. Don’t be one of them.
6. Stop flinching. If you close your eyes and/or jerk the trigger, you’re flinching. How can you tell if you do this? Have someone load the rifle behind your back — or not. You won’t know if there’s a live round in it or not. If the firing pin falls on an empty chamber, you’ll clearly feel yourself jerk. Keep dry-firing (doesn’t hurt most rifles, but buy a cheap “snap cap” round to be safe) with an empty gun until you’re no longer flinching. Then have your buddy sneak in a live round. Repeat as necessary.
7. Wear ear protection. The painful noise is worse than the recoil and is responsible for most flinching.
8. Figure out your trajectory curve and memorize it. Study these figures in ammunition company catalogs, online or in handloading guide books. Then shoot at large targets at 200-, 300-, 400 yards to see where the bullets land. Life-sized deer targets are a great aid for building understanding of bullet drop and confidence in your ability to hit the chest.
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9. Shoot once a week if possible and at varying distances, not just 100 yards.
10. Zero and practice with the same ammo you’ll use on your hunt at least twice before you go.
Yes, it costs to practice with live ammo, but would you rather burn $300 in practice ammo now or a $350 buck tag in November?
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Ron Spomer has been photographing and writing about the outdoors for nearly four decades. He’s written seven books, hunted on six continents and been published in more than 120 magazines. He’s currently rifles’ editor at “Sporting Classics,” Travel columnist at “Sports Afield,” Field Editor at “American Hunter” and “Guns & Ammo” — Optics Columnist at “North American Hunter,” Contributing Editor at “Successful Hunter,” Senior Writer at “Gun Hunter,” and TV host of “Winchester World of Whitetail.” He will write on Shooting Tips weekly for sportsmansguide.com. You can read his blogs and catch some of his YouTube videos at www.Ronspomeroutdoors.com.