I hunt fish, and forage to fill the freezer and put food on my family’s table. To make that happen, every shot should count. The shot must be ethical, and the kill as quick and humane as possible. No animal should suffer because I made a poor shot. And that means I need to spend a great deal of time on the firing range, learning the limitations of both myself and my firearm.
All too often, I encounter other hunters in the woods who have the latest gear, but no clue how to use it. They can’t tell me how their rifle shoots or understand good range (the distance at which you can consistently hit the target). These hunters have no real idea what they, or their firearm, can do. But this knowledge is much more important than the newest gear.
Throwing Away Your Shot
Shooting a firearm effectively goes beyond just squeezing the trigger. Techniques range from proper breathing to proper mounting of the firearm. Confidence in your abilities is also critical. The only way to master these factors is to spend time on the firing range. The old adage “practice makes perfect” applies.
Hunters frequently tell me they don’t visit the range because of the cost of ammunition. This is the least of their expenses, though, when you calculate costs for gear, travel, and licenses. Ammunition goes on sale all the time, so stock up when you can.
I highly recommend practicing with the same ammo you hunt with. Firearms don’t shoot exactly the same. Your buddy may swear by Brand X, but when you use it, your shots are off. But when you use Brand Y — with the same bullet weight and powder charge — your shots are right on target. If you’re off on the range, you’ll be off in the field.
I use nontoxic shot in my shotgun, except when deer hunting, and that means I practice with nontoxic shot. The latter shoots differently than lead shot. You might as well not practice at all if you hunt with nontoxic shot, but practice with lead because it’s less expensive.
The shot material also needs to be considered with shotguns. Lead, steel, and tungsten all pattern differently; tungsten is heavier than lead, and lead is heavier than steel. The weight of the shot, as with the weight of a bullet, affects the knockdown power of the round. It also affects the maximum killing range, as does the powder charge behind it.
The same rules apply to rifle ammunition. Both of my rifles — .30-30 and .22 — work best with Federal or Remington brand ammunition, while I can use just about anything in my shotgun. A friend once said, “Stick with the one who brought you to the dance.” I suggest you test all rounds and stick with the one that works best for you.
Although it doesn’t take much to kill a deer, bears and hogs can kill you. For this large game, I opt for a larger powder charge and a heavier bullet. The bottom line is that I practice with the same ammo I plan to use in the field.
Many hunters don’t take their firearms out of the gun cases until a week before the season begins. Then, they visit the range only to adjust the rifle sights or pattern their shotguns. This won’t cut it. I shoot year-round. In the height of winter, I’ll visit indoor firing ranges if I have to.
When you practice at the range, don’t just shoot at paper targets from a bench rest. That’s fine for zeroing in your rifle, but doesn’t present a real-life hunting scenario. You’ll need to change things up. Try firing from standing, sitting, and kneeling positions, and at different angles and distances. Shoot with both a scope and open sights. To simulate a stressful situation, such as seeing a buck or turkey walk out of the woods in front of you, get your heart rate up by running in place or doing pushups.
Don’t Hold Your Breath
Proper breathing is critically important for making every shot count. I regularly practice controlling my breathing.
Holding your breath while shooting is poor technique. Only one of five shots (if you’re lucky) will be on target. As an experiment, pick up an unloaded firearm and place it in the firing position, hold your breath, and try to aim. You’ll observe the barrel bouncing all over the place.
Now, try the same exercise again, but this time, take three deep breaths and, after the third breath, release the air slowly. As your lungs are nearly empty, look down your barrel. It will be perfectly still, with the sights focused on the target. This is the moment to squeeze the trigger. If you do this every time you aim with a loaded gun, and your firearm is sighted property, then all of your shots should hit their mark.
Additionally, to replicate a real hunting situation, I practice while wearing the same clothes I’d wear on a hunt. Sure, you can do everything right while wearing just a T-shirt, but how about while dressed in a heavy jacket or coat? By the time the fall hunting season arrives, I’m able to follow all the above steps in one fluid motion, almost without thinking about them, because I’ve been practicing all summer.
Trigger control is an often-overlooked aspect of shooting, yet it’s simple: Don’t put your finger on the trigger until you’re ready to shoot. Control your breathing, take aim, release the safety, and squeeze the trigger. The gun firing should be a surprise. Don’t pull the trigger, because this will make the barrel jump.
To prepare to hunt in areas regulated as shotgun only, I put the rifled barrel on my shotgun and then follow all the same steps as for hunting with a rifle. This commits the movements to muscle memory, and enables me to replicate them with every firearm I use, whether rifle or shotgun.
Experience is the best teacher, but you can get a jump-start on tough shots by heading to the sporting clays range. Five-stand courses are perfect for mastering the mechanics of wing shooting, but won’t prepare you for realistic hunting situations with tough shots — grouse flying low and fast through trees; pheasants busting out of cornfields; and woodcocks zigzagging with the speed of jet fighters.
The best sporting clays courses force you to walk a lot, just as you’d do while hunting. You’ll encounter shooting stations with clays flying through the trees; some will be crossers from the left or right. Other clays will be heading away from you or toward you; I’ve seen pheasants do the latter. Some shots will be high and some low, as in a true hunting situation. As with bird hunting, clay shots may present for only a split second. This will help train your eyes to pick up the target quickly while simultaneously moving the gun to take the shot.
Becoming one with your firearm takes time. Although I shoot on a regular basis, I never take anything for granted. Some days, the game isn’t there, shots don’t present themselves, or I miss the shot. The goal is to make those days few and far between. And that means expending many boxes of ammo at the range so I’m ready when the opportunity does present itself. If you plan on having a successful hunting season, you’ll need to put in the time at the range too.
Dana Benner writes about all aspects of survival, farmsteading, and the outdoors. His work has appeared in print for more than 30 years.