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.
I probably should follow my own advice, but I’m no different than most in that I often don’t! I’ve often written that varmint shooting offers the best practice there is. Woodchucks in the East and rockchucks in the West are good, likewise small rodents like ground squirrels and gophers… but there’s nothing better than prairie dogs.
Serious benchrest shooting is one of the most demanding shooting disciplines. It’s essentially a scientific search for ultimate accuracy. I don’t pretend it’s my game. I’m primarily a hunter, and my preference is to get away from the bench and spend as much practice time as possible shooting from field positions.
However, shooting from the bench is essential for achieving the desired zero, as well as determining the level of accuracy your rifle delivers and which loads produce optimum accuracy. So, although I have never been and probably never will be a benchrest competitor, I do a lot of benchrest shooting.
What we call “buck fever” is a strange malady that can do the most amazing things to people. In its minor stages, it causes shortness of breath and acceleration of pulse. This can quickly progress to ague-like shakes that would do a malaria sufferer proud. In its most advanced state almost anything is possible, but classic cases range from being physically unable to manipulate a trigger to ejecting an entire magazine of live cartridges onto the ground without ever firing—and being totally unaware of doing so.
Obviously. buck fever is not conducive to hunting success, especially in its more virulent forms. That said, and this is important: Buck fever can be a good thing! It manifests itself when you are in the presence of a magnificent game animal; it’s simply an extension of excitement, and you might even say that its presence denotes respect for that animal. As hunters, we’re supposed to be excited in the presence of game. If we are not, and are able to take a fine animal’s life with total dispassion, then I suggest it’s time to hang up the guns and bows and take up golf or tennis.
So the key isn’t that you avoid getting excited. Getting excited isn’t just okay; it’s a good thing. What’s important, and truly critical to success, is that you find ways to manage that excitement and hold it at bay long enough to do what you need to do. Naturally, this gets better and easier with experience, but field experience in the actual taking of game is hard-won and can take many years. Also, some of us are more excitable than others. I can’t compare my “excitability quotient” with anyone else’s, but after decades of doing this stuff I’m generally able to control the most serious manifestations of buck fever until the shooting is done—and then the shakes begin.
Learn how to make the most of your summer practice sessions on the range or in the field.
The summer doldrums are passing by quickly! We can start to look forward to fall hunting seasons, but there’s still plenty of time for some good shooting practice. If you’re a serious accuracy freak, improving your bench shooting may be a good goal in itself. That’s probably not a productive goal for hunters, however—there aren’t many benchrests in any game country I’ve seen! For hunters, then, it’s important to spend at least some of that range time shooting the way you’re likely to shoot in the field, including trying some new positions and techniques to steady yourself.
Varmint Hunting is Great Practice for Larger Game
Honestly, if you have any access at all, I think summer varmint hunting is the very best training for field shooting. My friend, Gordon Marsh (the proprietor of this website, Wholesale Hunter,) just got back from his annual prairie dog shoot in Wyoming. I’m a bit jealous—I haven’t made time to go prairie dog hunting in quite a while! This type of hunt offers training (and a lot of shooting!) that’s hard to replicate on any range.
It really doesn’t matter if you’re an eastern woodchuck hunter or a western prairie dog, ground squirrel, or rockchuck shooter. Few situations are better for teaching you how to read wind, and when you become confident that you can hit small rodents, big-game animals don’t seem quite so daunting. If you can go varmint hunting, take advantage of it, but don’t spend all your time shooting over sandbags. Spend some time trying new positions and techniques, such as lying down over a pack or shooting off bipods and tripods. You probably won’t hit as many targets, but you’ll improve your versatility in the field, and that’s an invaluable skill to have when you’re hunting larger game.
Mimicking Field Shooting on the Range
If you don’t have an opportunity to go varmint hunting, don’t worry—you can replicate field shooting on the range. First and foremost, get away from the bench and practice from real field shooting positions. Do at least some shooting from all four of the classic “NRA” positions of prone, sitting, kneeling, and standing. Standing in particular is important, because it’s by far the most difficult position. Given any choice of a steadier position, only an idiot would take a standing, unsupported shot at a game animal, but sometimes, as in a fast-breaking close encounter, standing and shooting may be your only option. It’s better to practice your technique and never need to use it in the field than to be unprepared in a tough situation.
Donna and I use shooting sticks a lot, so we always take them to the range and spend at least some time shooting over sticks in both standing and kneeling positions. One of my favorite field positions is to rest over a pack, an extremely common situation in mountain hunting. Donna isn’t familiar with that scenario, though, so in preparation for a goat hunt, she practiced on the range by lying down over packs and rolled-up jackets at various heights.
Range rules can vary widely, and you obviously have to work within the constraints of them, but you should be as creative as your imagination and your range allow. There aren’t any bullseyes, squares, or diamonds on game animals, so animal-shaped targets are more useful for field practice. Printed targets can be expensive, though, so I recommend interspersing your animal target-shooting with “paper plate drills.” A standard paper plate is a pretty good replica of a deer’s vital zone. I vary my paper plate drills and practice them standing, off sticks, and in a variety of field positions. Tiny little groups off the bench are confidence-builders, but from less steady field positions, “paper plate accuracy” is what you really need to achieve.
Build Good Habits: Practice with a .22 Rimfire
Earlier I said “practice smart,” and I meant it. As hunting seasons draw near, it’s essential to spend at least some range time with your hunting rifle. Avoid excessive practice with your favorite rifle—centerfire ammo is expensive and centerfire barrel life is limited. Most of the practice I’m talking about can be done with equal effectiveness with the good old .22 rimfire: little noise, no recoil, lower cost, and a whole lot less time wasted waiting for barrels to cool. In a perfect world, your .22 will be of the same action type and have similar scope or sights, but any and all rimfire shooting is good.
There’s no such thing as too much practice, but there is definitely such a thing as too much recoil. This is also where the .22 comes in. Range time is precious, and it’s tempting to try to cram in as much shooting as possible when you’re on the range. However, it’s a bad idea to overdo it; it’s all too easy to acquire a flinch or other bad habits that are all but impossible to shake off. The solution? Ration your recoil. Take it in sensible doses and mix in some plinking with your .22.
I can’t tell you how much recoil is too much because we all have different thresholds, but once you reach “too much,” it’s too late to turn back. With hard-kicking rifles, even ten shots in one range session can be over the limit. So, for instance, you’re very comfortable with a .270 or .30-06, but you’ve got a brand-new .375 or perhaps a real big-bore you’re itching to play with. Once again, the bench is a necessary evil for zeroing and testing accuracy. Pad yourself well, but shoot off the bench as little as possible. Shoot from sticks and offhand, so the body can give, and be patient. It’s impossible to get used to a new level of recoil in one range session, so plan your time. After a few shots with a big boomer, it’s a good idea to run a few magazines through a .22. This will reinforce good shooting habits and subconsciously remind you that shooting doesn’t hurt.
If you do overdo it, don’t try to fight your way through it; you might create bad habits or hurt yourself. Instead, go back to the good old .22; concentrate on breathing and trigger control, and stick with it until your muscle memory is cleansed. Centerfire rifles, from varmint rifles to deer rifles, are by far my favorite tools, but the .22 rimfire remains the great teacher, and none of us are too old to keep learning. There’s always a .22 handy during my summer practice sessions!
Take-Away Tips for Practicing Smart Shooting
So as you continue your summer prep for hunting season, remember:
1) Varmint hunting is great practice for larger game, but you can replicate field shooting on the range with paper plate drills.
2) Practice different shooting positions to increase your versatility.
3) You should get some practice time in with your hunting rifle, but don’t overdo it. A .22 rimfire is just effective for practice drills as your favorite centerfire rifle.
4) If you worry you’re developing a flinch, take a break. Pick up your .22 and focus on breath control, trigger control, and other fundamentals. Don’t try to fight through a bad set—you can create bad habits that are hard to break.
Craig Boddington is one of today’s most respected outdoor journalists. He spent the past forty years exploring our natural world as a hunter and sharing his knowledge and experiences in dozens of books and through thousands of published articles and essays. He’s a decorated Marine, an award-winning author, and continues to be a leading voice for conservation and ethical hunting around the world.