Become a Better Shot by Practicing Real Shooting Scenarios
Here is the scenario: For the past two weeks you have been out scouting for that great deer or turkey location and you finally found that perfect spot. You decide that this is where you will hunt. It is still dark when you make your way into the location. At first light you can’t believe your eyes; a nice four-pointer steps out into the open, only 100 yards away. You fumble a bit as you bring your rifle to your shoulder; your breathing is labored.
You waste precious seconds as you mess around with the safety. Your jerky movements alert the deer and it takes a step. Your heart is pounding and your breathing is still not under control. You rush the shot, shooting just under the deer and, just like that, your opportunity is lost.
This has happened to all of us, but it doesn’t have to. Many factors could have played into this scenario. Was it opening-day jitters? Was it buck fever? More than likely, it happened because you were not one with your firearm.
I bet you hadn’t picked it up since the end of last season. Oh, maybe you went to the range last week and put five rounds down range and called it good, but it wasn’t. Let me tell you from experience that firing off a few rounds a week before the season starts is not enough. To be successful, whether you are hunting large game or small, waterfowl or upland birds, takes practice.
Your firearm, whether it is a rifle or a shotgun, needs to be an extension of your arm. The movement of bringing the firearm to your shoulder, getting your sight picture, clicking off the safety and firing should be second nature before you head to the woods. It is called muscle memory and that only happens with constant practice.
For me, hunting is not a sport; it is a way of life. With much of the food my family eats coming from what I can harvest from the wild (hunt, fish, forage), I can’t afford to miss those opportunities when they present themselves. Sure, I miss; we all do, but normally it is not from the lack of training. I am very comfortable with my abilities and with my firearms. I know my limitations and the limitations of the firearm that I am using, because I practice.
I shoot all year around. During the winter I use an indoor range, but in the summer you will find me shooting at outdoor rifle ranges or on the sporting clays course. I go through a bunch of ammo, but that is fine with me. In the big scheme of things, the ammo is the least expensive thing about the hunt.
When you take into consideration the costs of your licenses and special permits, the gas used to get to and from your location, food, lodging and other overhead, ammo should be the last cost you’re concerned about. Better to spend a few dollars now than to blow the shot of a lifetime.
REALISTIC TRAINING IS CRUCIAL
When I go to the rifle range, I don’t just settle for shooting at paper targets from a bench rest. That is fine for zeroing in your rifle, but it does not present a real-life hunting scenario. I like to change things up. After zeroing, I will try different things. I’ll fire from standing, sitting and kneeling positions and I will do this at different angles and at different distances. I will shoot both with a scope and with open sights.
“YOUR HEART IS POUNDING AND YOUR BREATHING IS STILL NOT UNDER CONTROL. YOU RUSH THE SHOT, SHOOTING JUST UNDER THE DEER AND, JUST LIKE THAT, YOUR OPPORTUNITY IS LOST.”
To simulate a stressful situation, like seeing that buck walk out of the woods in front of you, I try to get my heart rate up. Then I can practice controlling my breathing. I do all of these things over and over again until I can get it right. Jake Bowen likes to follow this rule: “Aim small; miss small.” What this means is to learn to hit small targets. Instead of shooting at a life-size target, go a size or two smaller. If you do use a life-size target, try placing a bright sticky note on it and shoot for that. If you can constantly hit that spot, then you will certainly make swift, clean kills in the woods.
BECOME ONE WITH YOUR GUN
I can’t emphasize how important breathing is. Many people have the tendency of tensing up and holding their breath prior to squeezing the trigger. This is the wrong thing to do. When you hold your breath, it is almost impossible to hold your firearm steady. To see what I mean do this simple task. Take your firearm (unloaded, of course) and hold it as if you were going to shoot, holding your breath while you do so. Watch the end of the barrel. It will start moving all over the place. Even the slightest movement will equal a miss, or at the very least, a very poor shot if you do manage to hit the target.
To find out more about how important proper breathing is, I spoke to Jacob Bowen, owner and head shooting instructor at Manchester Firing Line in Manchester, New Hampshire. Jake is also a Marine Corps veteran and, like me, a great deal of his refined shooting skills comes from his military training. When discussing proper breathing while shooting, Jake likened it to breathing during weight training and yoga. Proper breathing relaxes your body, and when you are relaxed you have better muscle control and thus, you’ll shoot better.
You need to practice controlling your breathing which, according to Bowen, is very hard to do. Breathe normally as you bring the rifle or shotgun to your shoulder and locate your target. Take a breath and release it. At the end of the exhale, gently squeeze the trigger. If you follow these instructions, and everything else is correct, your shot will be dead on 9 times out of 10.
DRESS FOR SUCCESS
To replicate a real hunting situation, I practice while wearing the same clothes I would be wearing on a hunt. It is one thing to be able to do everything right while wearing just a T-shirt, but how about with a jacket or coat on? By the time the fall hunting season arrives, because I have been practicing all summer, I am able to do all the steps in one fluid motion, almost without thinking about it.
“TO BE SUCCESSFUL, WHETHER YOU ARE HUNTING LARGE GAME OR SMALL, WATERFOWL OR UPLAND BIRDS, TAKES PRACTICE. YOUR FIREARM, WHETHER IT IS A RIFLE OR A SHOTGUN, NEEDS TO BE AN EXTENSION OF YOUR ARM.”
Some areas where I hunt are regulated as shotgun only. In preparation for those times I put the rifled barrel on my shotgun and then go through all of the steps I do for my rifles. I am committing all of the movements to muscle memory, which enables me to replicate this with every firearm I use, whether it is my .22 for small game or my .30-30 and shotgun for deer.
CONSISTENCY IS KEY
Another thing that I do is use the same ammo I hunt with on the range, and that goes for my rifles and my shotguns. Many times I see people on the rifle range and on the sporting clays course using the cheapest ammo that they can, or they use target rounds. That doesn’t cut it with me. I am trying to duplicate a hunting scenario as much as possible. I want everything to be as it would be on the hunt. If I wouldn’t use the ammo on the hunt, I am certainly not going to practice with it. A good example is preparing for a waterfowl hunt. I will use non-toxic shot on the clays in preparation for that hunt. More expensive, yes, but lead shot shoots differently than non-toxic and non-toxic is what I am using on that hunt.
“I SHOOT ALL YEAR AROUND. DURING THE WINTER I USE AN INDOOR RANGE, BUT IN THE SUMMER YOU WILL FIND ME SHOOTING AT OUTDOOR RIFLE RANGES OR ON THE SPORTING CLAYS COURSE.”
For me, practicing with my firearms is like the person going to the gym. At the gym you develop a routine of working out; one day you work one set of muscles and the next day you work another set. I do the same with shooting. One day I will spend the time on the rifle range and the next I will head for the clays course with my shotgun.
While large game will fill my freezer quicker, I have to admit that small game and birds, both upland and waterfowl, often are the majority of the meat that sustains my family. For that reason I have to make every shot count and, as with my rifles, to get this done takes constant practice. As soon as I can, I head to the clays range, where I will practice hitting birds in flight. Crossing right, crossing left, flying overhead or away, you just never know what birds will do so you need to be prepared. With bird hunting, the shots may present themselves for only a split-second, so you need to train your eyes to pick up the target quickly while at the same time you are moving the gun for the shot. It takes the level of hand-eye coordination that only constant practice will produce.
Becoming one with your firearm, whether the rifle or the shotgun, will take time. Even though I shoot on a regular basis, I never take anything for granted. My family depends on me to bring home game every time I go out, and so do I. Honestly, it doesn’t happen that way. There will be days when the game isn’t there, shots don’t present themselves or you just plain miss. The goal is to make those days few and far between. To do that means expending many boxes of ammo and putting the time in at the range so you are ready when the opportunity does present itself. Yes, I know, summer is fishing season, and believe me I will be doing my share of that as well, but if you plan on having a successful hunting season, then you need to put the time and work in at the range.
One final note: Many of the points above can also help make you more effective when it comes to personal security and home defense. The bottom line is to practice under the most realistic conditions possible as often as you can to ensure you’ll make the most of your shot, whether it’s for food for your table or to ensure your family’s safety.
Shooting, and shooting correctly, is fun but it needs to be done safely. Too often people concentrate too much on the mechanics and fail in the safety department. Safety, whether on the range or in the woods, should always be your top priority. Wear hearing and eye protection. When using firearms, you rely upon your hearing as much as your sight so make sure to protect both.
Make sure of your target before you shoot. If you aren’t sure, don’t take the shot. Don’t shoot at moving targets. Unless you are bird hunting with a shotgun, there is no need to shoot at a moving target. It is a very low percentage shot even for expert marksmen. It is better to wait until the animal stops, which it will, to make the good shot.
Whether you’re on the range or in the woods, know what is behind the target you are shooting at. What will stop the bullet if you miss or penetrate your target, whether you’re in the wild or at the firing range? Bullets travel a great distance and once you squeeze the trigger, you can’t take them back.
Be courteous to other shooters. It is very rare that you have the shooting range all to yourself. Be aware of those other people. While you can’t control other people, if you see something unsafe, say something, in a courteous manner. If that doesn’t work, just leave the range and come back later.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the October, 2019 print issue of American Survival Guide.