Practical Marksmanship Training for Hunters

By T.W. Batzel, Jr.

Have you ever seen a guy at the range pull his rifle out and shoot three shots at a pie plate, hit it twice and claim that he's ready to go deer hunting? I have. Have you ever seen a guy shoot three shot groups that are touching from the bench and then watch him miss a buck? I have. Have you ever seen someone have a gunsmith mount a scope on their new rifle and bore sight it for them, and then go hunting without ever firing a shot? I have.

As far as I can tell there are maybe three types of hunters/shooters out there. The one percent that have a natural talent with the long gun, the 98 percent that have to practice, and perhaps the one percent that are just plain lucky.

I'm quite certain that I don't fall into the natural talent category and I know I'm not lucky in these matters, so I would say I'm with everybody else that has to practice. It's how much you practice and, more importantly, how you practice that's the difference between venison in the freezer and making excuses.

I grew up shooting at pie plates and dreaming that I had uncanny marksmanship abilities. All the time wondering why I couldn't consistently kill deer. I have come up with two reasons. The first one is effective practice and the second is mindset.

So, let's assume that we are not naturally talented in the ways of marksmanship and that we will, eventually, get our fair share of luck. The only other thing to do is train ourselves in both our shooting and our mindset. This article is about a technique to train for the shooting part. The mindset is another article in and of itself. This technique involves a little expenditure of money in ammunition, targets, and range fees if applicable. Mostly though, it involves an investment of time. That investment, however, will pay you big dividends come hunting season. But only if you start making deposits to the account now.

I hunt in North Carolina and in Pennsylvania and hopefully this year, in Colorado and Alabama as well. So I want to be prepared for a wide variety of situations. I'm going to buy a new hunting rifle this year, and if I ever get home from my current job assignment, this is what I'm going to do to get ready for hunting season.

My goal, with this particular rifle, is to consistently hit a 10 inch circle at any distance from 25 yards to 300 yards. From any shooting position and from any angle, cold, wet, and hungry.

The first thing I'm going to do is properly mount and bore-sight the scope. (I'm going to have a scope on this rifle, but the overall technique applies to iron-sighted weapons as well.) For bolt and single shot rifles this can be accomplished without any special tools and I have found it quite effective. Take note, this rifle is not sighted in yet; it's only bore-sighted.

Then I'm going to take it to the range and get set up on a solid shooting bench and shoot it. Three shot groups, and cleaning the rifle occasionally between groups. I'm going to take my time so as to keep the barrel cool, and I'm going to strive for consistency. Aiming for the same spot every time so as to get an accurate assessment of whether or not the rifle 'likes' the load I'm shooting and if it will shoot tight groups. I'm going to do that at 25 yards or so, to make it easier to get zeroed in. Then I'll move the target back to the typical 100 yard distance and repeat the process.

This is the sometimes tedious and boring part, but it's necessary and it gets better. After I have gotten acceptable groups from the bench at 100 yards, I will sight the rifle in for the trajectory I want. In the case of a .270 Winchester, I will set it to hit 3" high at one hundred yards. Now I will go to the 200 yard line and repeat the process again, this time simply holding on the bulls-eye and seeing where my bullets hit. It's important to "call" your shots before you look for the results. It's also important to aim for the same point so as not to skew your results.

Your ultimate goal is to have as tight a group as possible, and then record the drop with that particular load. That brings up another point. Back home I have watched folks fumble through a drawer the night before season starts and produce three or four different brand and bullet weight cartridges with which to hunt. I personally like to know exactly where a particular bullet is going to hit. At our 25 yard range they probably would all fall into the 10" circle, but who knows? At 300 yards, you could guess, but you would probably be wrong.

Okay, back to our sight in. We'll repeat the process at 300 yards and some spots in-between to effectively map out our trajectory. The bottom line is that we need to know where our bullet will land at various ranges under controlled conditions. Mostly because our hunting conditions will be anything but controlled and so that we can't blame the gun. Also, you could have the most expensive laser rangefinder on the market, but if you didn't know where to hold at 267.5 yards, what good would it do you?

Once we have sighted in the rifle for our particular needs the next thing we do is get rid of the bench-rest. Yes, throw it out, get away from it, don't look at it. We begin our second part of the technique, which is field shooting. Under uncontrolled conditions, with other factors influencing our shooting.

Ask yourself this: How many times have I shot at a deer from a comfortable bench-rest as opposed to shooting from the ground or a tree stand with my fingers cold, my pulse up around 160, and a cold drizzle running down the back of my neck? I have never shot a deer from a bench-rest, but my heart has always been beating faster than normal, I have usually been cold, and I'm almost always in some less than comfortable position.

So next I'll explain how I train to shoot, simulating these conditions. I'll proceed once I am confident that I can't blame the rifle for missing, that it's sighted in properly for the best load for that particular rifle, and all mounting hardware has been double checked.

I'll buy some life size archery "poster" targets that you can get for around three bucks from several catalog and on-line stores. I'll staple them securely to some thin plywood and I'll set them up on the range. This works best if you live in a rural area and can set them up on your own property at different distances, always with a suitable backstop, of course. If you have to go to a range like I do these days, the best time to go is during the week when everyone is supposed to be at work. I'll leave it to your individual discretion as to how you want to tackle that. Anyway, I set the targets up at the previously mentioned distances or, even better, at unknown distances.

This brings us to another point: you have to decide how you're going to aim. Particularly whether you're going to hold on the same spot within the Maximum Point Blank Range (MPBR) of your rifle and load, or if you're going to adjust your hold to hit a particular spot.

I like to place my bullet exactly where I want it. But you can hold dead center and if you're close, you'll hit higher in the 10" circle and if you're far away, you'll hit lower in the circle, as long as you are within the MPBR. Of course there's a point beyond which your bullet falls out of the circle, and that corresponds to the MPBR. This is where range estimation, knowing your trajectory, and knowing the anatomy of your prey is important, but I'm not going to get into all of that today.

It's also important that the targets are as close to exact scale of the animal as possible. I recently bought a batch and included an elk target in the order. The elk was about half scale since it was on the same size paper as the deer.

The next thing you do is shoot. Shoot from kneeling, prone, leaning on a post or tree, sitting, and standing. I try to avoid a pure off-hand shot if at all possible; in fact I can't remember the last time I took an offhand shot at a deer, but it is still a position you should practice.

To add to the fun and realism, put some exercise in the regimen. I used to check my target and run back to my rifle, do some pushups, then load and fire three, fairly quick, shots. This helps simulate the adrenaline rush I get when I see deer in the woods. If you don't get that rush than I suspect you would have quit reading this piece several paragraphs ago.

One note, you have to be careful at ranges, a lot of them frown on running on the range and you could be branded an unsafe shooter. So make sure you check with the range manager before you start running around with your hair on fire, shootin' up the place! It's important to be very conscious of the safety rules when doing this type of practice. There's no reason to carry your rifle when you run down to check your target, just clear it and leave it back at the firing line with the action open.

There's no reason to rush yourself, either. You want to be able to make a quick shot if that's the type of shooting you'll require, but it should never be rushed. Some friends of mine have a saying: "Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast." It's true and I know it works.

I practice a lot of kneeling or standing to kneeling, and it's more fun with friends and family. This past season on the day before the opener, I had three of my nephews at my brother's house and I put them through my shooting lesson. They had already shot at their pie plates, so I put up a deer target about 50 yards away. Which is about the distance at which most of our deer are killed, despite what some hunters'll tell you.

It was a painfully cold day and the wind was blowing a gale. We were all dressed in street clothes, which made the cold that much more evident. Perfect. I had the three standing on the firing line with their rifles loaded and pointed down range. I would call out a name and that youngster would take a knee and fire while I counted out loud "one thousand one, one thousand two . . .." I had a spotting scope and I would ask them where they hit before telling them. I would answer with something like "I hope you have your walking shoes on," or "good shot, dead deer." It worked rather well, I thought, although I wish I could have been around all summer to do it with them.

The important elements were there: unknown distances, cold, pressure (Uncle Ted counting down) and a touch of competition between them. All good things, I think, and given more of it they would get even better. I gave them three seconds to shoot from the time I called their name. Maybe a bit fast, but if your mind is in the right place, it's actually plenty of time. Plus they had the added benefit of seeing their target, its angle and range before the clock started. I think I even had them doing some push ups, which helped their heart rate and gave my sisters something to yell at me about.

This technique works particularly well for young or new hunters, or for folks that just haven't shot that much and want to get better. You also discover the realistic limit to the range at which you should attempt a shot. The times I have exceeded my limit I have regretted it.

Every year my father-in-law shoots his three shots at a pie plate with his old Remington 760 .30-06, and rarely shoots more than once to kill a deer. Of course he may be in that two percent of naturally talented or lucky people, or he may just have been killing deer for 40 years. I, unfortunately, don't have any of those credentials, so I use this method.

So if you are sitting around waiting for hunting season, get out there and try this technique. It will give you something to do besides watching the Outdoor Channel and wishing it was November. It will also give you an edge. If only in confidence, it still could be all the edge you need. Now get out there and practice, and stay away from that bench-rest!

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Copyright 2003 by T.W Batzel, Jr. All rights reserved.