Setting Up For Success
When I was learning how to shoot a rifle as a young child, I remember being told, “Hurry up and take your time.” It’s a concept that I still use today when I need to make a good, clean shot or when I’m teaching others the fundamentals of marksmanship. The concept suggests that you probably won’t have all day to make a good shot, but if you rush it, you’re likely to miss altogether. It also infers that if you can couple speed and patience, this will optimize the outcome. That being said, there are a few tricks to maximize your potential as well.
There’s a certain process that I go through before I even hit the field. First, I verify my rifle’s optic zero, as well as the cold bore shot placement. Cold bore refers to the bullet placement of a rifle, shot cold or not having been fired in several hours. The variance from a cold barrel shot and a warm or hot barrel shot can be drastic; anything from a quarter-inch to a full-inch or more. While that may not make a big difference at 100- or 200-yards, it can sure start to add up once you get beyond those ranges. Once I’ve verified zero and cold bore, I make sure to practice getting tight groups from several different field shooting positions, both supported and unsupported. Don’t fall into the trap of being satisfied with just hitting a dinner plate-sized target—under the stress of dropping the hammer on an animal, which can include anything from buck fever to difficult shooting positions or the punishment of the elements, that dinner plate-sized grouping suddenly grows into a much larger, and often leads to an unsuccessful shot.
Next is maintenance, but that doesn’t mean cleaning your barrel! A clean barrel shoots differently than a dirty one, so if you check your zero and then clean your barrel, you will affect shot placement. Like the cold bore, this variance may be minor and negligible at 100 to 200 yards, but at greater distances or smaller targets, it can really add up. What I’m talking about with maintenance is to make sure that your firearm is properly lubricated to ensure smooth cycling. I prefer Slip 2000 EWL for semi-autos and levers, and good old bolt grease for bolt-action guns. You also want to check your optics to make sure that the glass is clean and clear (use an optics or glass cloth for cleaning, not a rough cloth or your finger!). Additionally, check sling mounts, bipod mounts, or anything else that has the potential to come loose, causing problems downstream. Speaking of slings, I choose my slings not just based on how comfortable they will be to carry the rifle, but also on their ability to be used in a supported sling-wrap position.
If I am using a scope with variable magnification, I make sure it is turned down to the lowest setting. Many times I’ve found myself making my way to a pre-determined hunting location, only to jump a giant Coues buck on the way, and my scope is turned all the way up to the highest magnification—it makes for a tough shot! Even when I am in position and may possibly have to make a shot, I keep the magnification low. If the need for higher magnification presents itself, I’ll likely have time to make that adjustment, and lower magnification gives me a better field of view, more light transmission, and helps to eliminate shaking from my pulse and muscle twitches. If I am using iron sights, a fixed power scope, or a reflex sight (such as a red dot), I make sure that they are set up appropriately and ready to be used quickly. I generally keep scope caps on the optic until I am in position or actively stalking, though I use quick release caps such as flip-ups in case I need to make a quick shot. This protection is important to keep the glass clean and clear; the last thing you want to see when you shoulder your rifle is a stick stuck in your scope’s objective or worse, a big ugly scratch.
Moment of Truth
What’s next? It’s time for the shot. First off, relax! Keeping your heart and breathing rates as low as possible will help keep your mind clear and focused, as well as keep your shooting position steady. Be patient and let the animal come closer, if they are moving and not alerted to you. Why take a 300-yard shot when you can take a 200-yard shot? One of the first things I learned while hunting is that if I pictured the animal on the wall or in the photo album, before I took the shot, then I was doomed. Focus on the task-at-hand and clear your mind of any distractions. Whether your desired target is in the open for five seconds or five minutes, the preparations you took leading up to this event will pay off, if you keep a cool head and allow them to work for you. So, hurry up, take your time, and make the shot.