Some of us are smart enough to service our vehicles regularly to forestall problems. Others, unfortunately like me, are constantly late with scheduled maintenance. It’s a testament to good design and manufacturing that I don’t have more mechanical problems than I do.
Shooting is a bit like that: Constant maintenance, meaning practice, really is essential to keeping your shooting skills honed. I’m pretty sure all competitive shooters, in all disciplines, and at all levels from beginner to distinguished would agree. Practice is essential not just to get better, but to maintain skill levels.
Target Practice: More Important for Hunters Than Competitors?
I haven’t been an active competitive shooter for a long time; I’m primarily a hunter. But, just maybe, practice is even more important in field shooting for three reasons. First, no matter how experienced one is, no two shots at game are exactly alike, while there is repetition in most formal shooting disciplines. Second, all too many hunts come down to just one chance, one shot. Third, in the field we aren’t talking about punching paper or ringing steel; we’re shooting at live animals, and if we’re going to harvest them, it’s our job to do it cleanly and effectively, preferably with one well-placed shot.
My Practice Habits
Fortunately, I take a more proactive approach to shooting than vehicle maintenance! I spend a lot of time on the range, typically at least a couple times a week when I’m home…and when I’m not home I’m usually hunting. I freely admit that much of my range work is on the bench, working with rifles, loads, and optics. All shooting is good practice, but some is better. I admit that I get pressed for time (or just plain lazy), and I don’t step away from the bench as much as I should and practice from various positions and using different types of support.
At least we have ready access to ranges. In California we have a range on a friend’s ranch; in Kansas we can step out the door and shoot as needed. We’re fortunate, and I do understand that access to ranges is a real challenge for many of us. I also know that many public ranges have extensive rules that may tie you to the bench and preclude the “position practice” that will do you the most good as preparation for field shooting.
Indoor Shooting as an Alternative to Field Practice
If you can’t shoot regularly—preferably frequently—then it’s unlikely you can improve your field shooting skills. Experience does help, but field shooting experience is hard-won over years, and it’s costly. I can’t fix the problem, but I can offer some ideas.
Indoor shooting, whether .22 or air rifle, is extremely good practice. Distances are shorter on an indoor range, but any and all positions can be employed. Shooting positions can also be practiced without actually firing; in the Marines, we spent endless hours “snapping in” from the formal “NRA” shooting positions before we progressed to live fire. Decades later, we still spent time “snapping in” before the all-important “range week” for annual qualification.
Training Courses: For Both Tuning-Up and “Cramming” for Opening Day
It takes discipline to get to the range as often as we should and to practice the way we should. It probably takes even more discipline to spend time in the basement dry-firing from various positions. I’m not totally convinced that Opening Day of deer season—or the first day of a distant safari—are exams you should cram for. However, all students know that “cramming” is one way to achieve the desired result and pass to the next level (or achieve the desired qualification). In shooting, one way to cram is to take training courses, which are comprised of a few days of intensive shooting under the guidance of qualified instructors.
These days there are many shooting schools, some famous and others largely unknown. I have personal experience with few, but for a dozen years my answer for both cramming for an important exam and getting a periodic “tune-up” has been SAAM (Sportsman All-Weather, All-Terrain Marksmanship training), conducted at Tim Fallon’s FTW Ranch.
Yeah, I need tune-ups, too! One of my acknowledged weaknesses is I don’t have easy access to long-range targets. I do not believe in extreme-range shooting at game, but with the equipment we have today, it’s possible to take game ethically at longer distances than when I was young. The challenge is that it’s essential to practice at real distance. And you probably should not shoot at game at ranges farther than distances at which you have actual (and preferably extensive) range time.
SAAM Training at FTW Ranch
SAAM is a bit unique in that they do not advocate extreme-range shooting at game. Their goal is to improve your skills, but also to accept your limits. They are also not connected to any firearm, ammunition, or optic company. They will not try to sell you anything. SAAM instructors are all hunters and experienced long-range shooters, and most are veterans with special operations and sniping credentials. Their credo is to show you “a way” (or several ways) to accomplish the goal, which is consistently hitting targets.
The 12,000 acres of FTW Ranch are now festooned with some 32 ranges. Almost all use steel targets, which are wonderful and fun; ringing steel offers instant feedback! For those who wish to combine range work with hunting, FTW’s deep canyons and thick brush are home to excellent whitetails and all the common and some very uncommon introduced species.
Using SAAM to Prepare for Big Hunts
I “discovered” SAAM years ago, when they were interested in setting up a “safari” course. It’s awesome, with lifelike targeting and great instruction, but every now and then I return for a “tune-up” on their precision shooting ranges. I also love to shoot their running buffalo and charging elephant targets! Ideally, I might do this before a really important hunt. I spent a few days at SAAM before my markhor hunt in Pakistan in 2010, and again before hunting my last tur in Russia’s ridiculously steep Caucasus Mountains.
Donna and I just got back from a long and challenging hunt in Mongolia. Months ago, I’d agreed to participate in a SAAM course donation to Safari Club. I already knew about the Mongolia hunt, so my thinking was this would be a perfect opportunity to get a proper tune-up for a really important hunt.
Well, we couldn’t quite work out the dates with the winners, so my tune-up at SAAM fell just after the Mongolian hunt… we had to do all training on our own. I used some new and unfamiliar equipment: Zeiss’s latest scope and reticle with their 10×42 RF rangefinder-binoculars with Bluetooth interface to the Zeiss Hunting App on smartphone. I could have used SAAM’s calm and experienced instructors, mostly now old friends, talking me through this.
Practicing, Sans SAAM, for Mongolia
We couldn’t make that happen—but it really was a very important hunt, so we did a lot of practicing on our own. It worked out fine; Donna and I took eight animals, a mixture of sheep, ibex, and maral stags. There were no misses, no tracking, and few insurance shots, but, thanks to good hunting, guiding, and stalking by our Shikar-Safaris team, we also had no long shots. The farthest was an Altai argali at 325 yards. Despite all the madness bandied about these days that is not a “chip shot” under field conditions. But it’s makeable shot.
We were as ready as we could be, but a few days at SAAM before the hunt would have been better. Unfortunately, it had to wait until after. I took the same rifle I used in Mongolia, my Blaser R8 with .300 Weatherby Magnum barrel, topped with the new Zeiss Conquest 4-16x50mm scope with 30mm tube. I also took a new Sabatti Saphire in .300 Winchester Magnum, topped with LG Outdoors’ Vector Continental 3-18x50mm scope, also 30mm tube. Part of the training at SAAM is to get your “dope” exactly right; one of your many takeaways will be an amazingly useful “range card” that you’d better keep! I wish I’d had a SAAM range card in Mongolia; instead I wrote my data on a big strip of duct tape on my stock!
Other SAAM Specialties
Improvised Field Position Practice
Benchrests are scarce at SAAM ranges. Using packs and sandbags for the Blaser and a Harris bipod on the Sabatti, I took both rifles and scopes out to 700 yards with no problems, then took the Sabatti with the Vector scope on out to 1000 yards, also no trouble. Please understand, I would never consider a first-round shot at game at 700 yards, let alone 1000. In my view the risks and variables are simply too great. But if you know your data (rifle, load, and scope settings) are genuinely correct to extreme distances then taking game at half those distances (or perhaps bit more) is much less daunting—and should be practical when conditions are right and you can read the wind and have time to get steady.
Field Practice in Different Weather Conditions
One thing you can’t predict is weather! We, about a dozen shooters of various experience levels, did this SAAM course under conditions of considerable wind and intermittent rain. We all learned a lot and improved, for sure me included. Also, important: We had fun, enjoyed great food and after-hour stories at the bar, and made new friends. As always, I came away with renewed confidence in myself and my equipment. There will be a next time for another tune-up, but I’ll try to make sure it happens before some really special hunt!