9 Tips for Becoming a Better Rifle Shot on Wild Game
Learning to shoot more accurately when an animal—not a paper target—is in your crosshairs on a hunt
The competition world is crowded with incredible rifle shots. There are some guys and gals who seem to hit anything at any distance. Some of these hyper-long-range shooters man their artillery so effectively they can consistently drop little 230-grain bullets on 8-inch steel discs 1,500 yards away. But none of that means much when it’s time for you and me to shoot a deer this fall.
Important shooting—the kind that puts holes in your tag, antlers in your hands, and venison in your freezer—is field shooting. That sudden, heart-stopping, high adrenaline, no-time-to-prepare, quick-he’s-getting-away game shooting. The kind of shooting that leaves you shaking afterward. Here’s how to become more accurate on your next hunt.
1. Select the Proper Tools
This may be superfluous advice, given the time and focus most shooters devote to their rifles, scopes, and ammo these days. But it’s probably not. Let’s hand it to ourselves: The average shooter today knows more about rifles, bullets, ballistics, scopes, and the Coriolis Effect than any previous generation of hunters. But knowing how to work a rangefinder, wind meter, scope turret, and attached bipod isn’t necessarily setting up our tools or ourselves to shoot effectively when hunting. That takes an unblinking assessment of where, when, and how we hunt—not just how we target shoot.
Case in point: prone bipod shooting. Everyone trains and practices prone with a bipod clamped to his or her fore-end stock. Wonderful. Rock solid. But if you’ve spent any time hunting, you know going prone is often a recipe for “I can’t see the deer!” Grass, brush, rocks, or merely the roll of the land makes prone shooting wishful thinking. Go prone at the sighting of a buck and that may be the last time you see him.
Field shooting more often forces us to shoot kneeling, sitting, crouching, standing, or leaning over and around an odd assortment of boulders, trees, brush piles, posts, and thin air. This is what we must tune our guns and scopes to handle. And fast.
All of this can change based on where and how we hunt. If you sit in a treestand or box blind overlooking fields and meadows, you’ll likely have a solid rest and plenty of time to use it. If you perch on a high point and glass, you can probably prepare a prone shooting platform. But if you hike, walk, still-hunt and search for deer, bear, and elk, you can find yourself facing “The Shot” from a myriad of positions. You and your tools had best be prepared for this.
At its most basic this means building a rifle/scope/cartridge combination that carries comfortably and can be whipped into action quickly. It must be versatile enough that you can engage targets from 10 yards to as far as you can consistently shoot accurately from whatever position you’re in. Thirty, even 20 years ago, this meant you taught yourself to carry with your scope set on 4X or lower. This accommodated any close encounters and fast action. If you located more distant game, you usually had time to power up. Today, however, this means reconsidering that 5-25X scope. A well-trained shooter can find the vital zone of a whitetail or elk just 10 yards away at 5X, but it’s a lot easier at 3X. And if you haven’t surprised a buck or bull at 10 yards yet, you will. So the mobile hunter must consider his scope options long before the season opens. Each of us must assess the ranges at which we are most likely to find and shoot our game before arming up with too much scope or rifle.
The opposite end of this spectrum is the open-sighted medium-range rifle. The old lever-action .30/30 Winchester is a great fast-handling “brush” rifle inside 150 yards, but you aren’t likely to pick off a deer standing at 300 yards.
Now, if you hunt heavy cover where a shot opportunity beyond 100 yards is impossible, an open-sighted .30/30 might be perfect. But if you tiptoe to the edge of a 300-yard long cornfield, it’s not.
Similarly, if you lie on a ridge and watch a valley where deer walk undisturbed 600 to 1,000 yards away, your heavy precision rifle might be perfect. But if you anticipate jumping a 300-pound 12-pointer in broken woods on your way to that ridge…your 10-pound long-range rifle and 20X scope might not be the ideal tool.
Varying terrain and habitat are why the classic hunting rifle and cartridge evolved over the past 150 years to the 7- to 8-pound Winchester, Remington, Browning, Savage, Kimber, Mossberg, etc. bolt-actions with 22- to 24-inch barrels. These are well-balanced, general purpose hunting rifles capable of sub-MOA accuracy without the discomfort of target rifle weight and bulk. A few pump actions, autoloaders, and even lever-actions have been built to fit the same roll. No hunter is forced to use such rifles, but they proliferate in the hunting fields for a reason—they work. For more than a century, hunters have found them effective from the Arctic tundra and wind-swept mountain peaks to steaming jungles and desiccated deserts. The absence of adjustable combs, butts, grips, full barrel shrouds and folding stocks has not prevented millions of hunters from getting their game.
Similarly, a balanced scope sight has proven more than sufficient at powers from 2X to 16X or so with most game brought to ground quite successfully at 6X to 10X.
The point of all this is not to denigrate your favorite long-range rig, but to put it into perspective. Make an honest assessment of its functionality in the field and respond accordingly.
2. Train to Use Your Rifle Right
An effective hunter does not fish for his safety; does not scan the landscape through his scope trying to find the target; does not pause and consult a cheat sheet; does not twist and dial turrets and then recalculate. You must train to shoot as quickly as you start your truck and pull out of your driveway. Full confidence. No hesitation. Smooth and fast.
Whether you zero with the old Maximum Point Blank Range system, range and dial, or select from a Christmas tree reticle, you must know your system well. Once you’ve set up your rifle, scope, and ammo, train with it until engaging targets at all your “slam dunk” ranges is as automatic as brushing your teeth.
Part and parcel of this is organizing all the moving parts. Being able to swing a rifle into action and hold it steadily on target is severely compromised if you must first range your target with a laser—but you can’t remember what pocket you put it in. And you’re really going to regret swinging onto the big buck that appears from behind a massive pine tree when your scope is set on 25X. Think ahead. Plan ahead. Forge ahead.
3. Determine Best Rests
Training until you can hit a ground squirrel offhand at 300 yards every time is impressive, but unrealistic for most of us. Conscientious hunters prefer to hedge their bets by using a steady rest. Save the heroics for the target range. This doesn’t mean you never take a standing, offhand shot, but you do so only when it is your best option, meaning close with no opportunity to assume a steadier position. Moving to a steadier position when a bull elk stands broadside at 50 yards seems a foolish move. Throwing a shot at it from 350 yards while standing is just as dumb.
We should train to shoot our best from every field position, but then know our limits with each. If you can hit a 10-inch circle at 127 yards every shot while standing, then 127 yards is your standing shot limit. If you’re 100 percent deadly to 200 yards kneeling, you drop to kneel, etc.
Keep in mind that nature does not permit you to use your best field positions at all times. Trying to shoot steeply uphill from prone just doesn’t work. But shooting a bugling bull at 75 yards offhand won’t work either if cedar boughs block the way. Your best shot might be kneeling or sitting to clear a flight path under the boughs.
Recognizing such natural limitations is a critical part of successful field shooting. Veteran hunters pay attention and almost subconsciously know what terrain and habitat are going to thwart certain shooting options. Thus forewarned, they don’t waste time trying to sit and shoot mule deer in tall sage or lie prone to engage mountain goats on overhead cliffs.
4. The Most Versatile Field Position
While all field positions are useful, the most versatile is sitting with fore-end bipod support. Why? Because it gets your rifle above many obstacles that compromise prone, is steadier than kneeling or standing, and can be quickly modified to shoot at extreme downhill and uphill angles. You can even reposition left and right quickly and almost silently by spinning on your butt. Try that while prone.
The ideal sitting bipod is hand-carried and unlimited in its spread. The legs of this type can be pinched close to raise the height, spread wide to lower it. Leaning forward and back also lowers height quickly. By carrying it in your hand or on your belt, you have quick access without adding weight and bulk to your rifle.
To maximize stability sitting, get your back against something solid like a boulder, tree, or even sage brush. Anything to stop upper body sway and quiver. Put a stick, backpack, or boulder under your trigger arm for even more stability. Now you’re nearly as solid as if on a bench.
5. Sling, Slang, Slung
A simple adjunct to all field positions is a proper shooter’s sling. Sling use is worthy of a complete article in itself, but at least know that a sling can be wrapped around your lead shooting arm to eliminate the swaying of the sling as well as a bit of your arm wobble. It can also be set up to apply tension from behind your shooting hand upper arm or through your support arm behind the elbow. Learn, test, and perfect at least one of these sling techniques and you could improve your group sizes by 30 to 50 percent.
6. Master Your Emotions
If you don’t keep your nerves settled, buck fever can destroy all your training and skills. Time and experience are the best ways to cure buck fever, but that’s not a reality for many hunters, particularly new ones. What happens if the second or third deer of your life steps out? Do you really want to miss it while “learning” to control your shakes? Think about encountering and shooting a good buck while you practice. Concentrate on your consummate skills as a marksman. You know you can hit it. So relax and focus on that sight picture, that trigger pull, that tiny target in that shoulder pocket. If possible, visit parks and zoos where you can observe and get close to large deer. Become comfortable and confident around them. It even helps to shoot paper deer targets that show a buck’s vitals.
7. Ramp Up the Pressure
There’s nothing like witnesses and a time limit to emulate a real in-the-field shot. Set a goal like three shots on targets at three unknown distances in 15 seconds witnessed by a friend. When you master this, you’re well on your way to beating buck fever.
8. Hire a Teacher or Attend Shooting School
The country is awash in shooting schools these days. Private classes are also offered. Consider attending if it’ll save you time and hassle. But be sure they teach field shooting for hunters, not just long-range sniping. You’re looking for versatile field skills, not precision, extreme range artillery work. Realistic hunting scenarios like the FTW Ranch Safari course are ideal.
9. Fine Tune the Process
This is the final stage of your preparation. Gather all your tools, clothing, gloves, boots, and pack. Organize everything, choosing the best places for things like rangefinder, ballistic data card, spare ammo, gloves, wind meter—whatever stuff you plan to use. Consider each carefully, remembering that KISS works for nearly every situation: Keep It Simple, Stupid. The fewer things you have to worry about and use to make a shot, the smoother, faster, and easier that shot will be to make. Once all is arranged, walk through a hunt scenario, pretending that box you’ve set in the pasture is a buck. When you see it, progress through the steps necessary to launching a well-aimed shot at it. Start slowly to get all the steps in order. Then speed up as the process becomes smooth, then second nature. You want to reach the point where you don’t need to think so much as react. You automatically reach for and find your binocular, then laser, then bipod, then assume setting position, then aim rifle, find target in scope, make necessary sighting adjustments, and launch before that nervous buck has a chance to run away.
Wash. Repeat. And repeat again until you’re so good, so competent, and so confident that your real-world shot will be a smooth and successful confirmation of your dress rehearsals.