Because a gun is only as good as its user.
By now, it is assumed that you have selected an obtained a hunting rifle that is appropriate for your needs and fits you well. It’s time to get good at shooting the gun. And by “good,” I mean capable of reliably hitting the kill zone of your intended prey. I cannot overstress the importance of this step in the process; if you can’t reliably hit your desired target, you’re simply not ready to hunt. Besides, it’s really not that tough to shoot well enough for hunting purposes. I’m going to assume that your first hunts will result in relatively close shots (100 yards or less). If you can manage a four-inch group at that range, you can take most big game animals in North America.
A word before we further discuss your practice: you need to be aware that different ammunition is going to shoot differently in your gun. This is due to a number of factors, most prominently:
- bullet weight
- bullet shape
- the “power” of the load driving the bullet
The difference is not often significant, but the results can be a little unsettling at the range when testing multiple brands of ammunition, and seeing your shots grouping in different areas. I do encourage you to try several brands of ammunition, and find one that your gun and you like. A box of 20 rounds of each brand should be enough for you to settle on a favorite. When choosing ammunition, also make sure that your bullet is appropriate for the kind of game you’re hunting. It’s beyond the scope of this article to go into detail on this, but be sure to select an appropriate bullet weight and shape for your game species. If you have any doubt, drop me a line, or ask the salesperson at the store.
Before practicing, it may be necessary to sight in your gun. If you bought your gun new, this was hopefully done by the store, but these days, I wouldn’t count on it. When you go to the range for the first time, set your target up at close range (25 yards is good for sighting in). Use a full size target, and aim for the dead center of it. Hopefully, your gun will at least hit the target paper. If it doesn’t, though, shoot another shot at the lower left corner of the target, and see if that hit paper. If not, continue shooting at corners of the target until a shot lands on the paper. (If none of them do, I’d advise getting some professional help, as something is amiss here.) Adjust the sights or scope to try to center the shot, and shoot again.
At this point, don’t waste too much ammunition getting absolutely on center. For one thing, the gun’s center aim is going to change a bit as you move the target out to a farther distance. If you can get within 3″ of the bullseye, this is OK for now.
Once you have the gun shooting reasonably accurately at 25 yards, get a fresh target and move it back to 50 yards. Carefully shoot a group of three shots, determine the approximate center of the group, and adjust the sights or scope accordingly. Move the target back to 100 yards and repeat. Fine tuning can wait until later.
Basics of practice
Once your rifle is sighted in, it’s time to get used to shooting it. I’d recommend setting a target at 50 or 100 yards and start firing. Pace yourself while doing this: firing too many shots too quickly can overheat the barrel, resulting in poorer accuracy, and, in extreme cases, damage to the barrel. How much time to wait depends on your particular gun and cartridge, but usually a minute or two between shots is sufficient.
There are five basic rifle shooting positions:
- prone (lying)
The bench position is generally regarded as the most accurate, but is also the least realistic for hunting. I recommend that you begin with the bench, but once you’re accustomed to your rifle, you try the other four positions, as they’re more likely to be used in the field. Find one that works for you, and make that your basic practice position. There are no absolutes here; find something that works for you and stick with it.
How much and how often?
In a nutshell: I don’t care. This is all about results, not effort. If you’re a natural at this, you may find that after only a couple range sessions, you’re ready for the field. If you need more time (like I did when I got started), then by all means, practice more before heading out.
As I mentioned above, when you’re capable of reliably (4 out of 5) putting bullets within a 4 inch circle at 100 yards, and doing this from a hunting position (not bench shooting), you’re probably a good enough shot to go on your first hunt (assuming you’re not planning any long-range shots for your first few hunts, which I hope you’re not).
It bears pointing out that true proficiency with a firearm is about more than accuracy. It’s also about being able to quickly load, chamber and reload it, properly carrying the gun, quickly (and safely) moving the gun from a carrying position to a shooting position, and a few more details. Some of these you can practice at your shooting range; the others, you may have to do elsewhere. Use some common sense here. If you want practice quickly shouldering your rifle in your back yard, consider informing the neighbors beforehand (and stress to them that the gun will be unloaded) so they won’t call the cops claiming that you’re getting ready to shoot up the neighborhood.
This article was deliberately kept brief, and I know that there is more information omitted than there was presented. Nonetheless, if you follow the simple steps presented here, you should be able to find your way to hunting proficiency with your rifle. Don’t forget your eye and ear protection, and have fun!