Practice always costs something, but not practicing can cost you success.
Ammunition today isn’t just expensive — it’s scarce.
Last March, our Cabela’s store looked like old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. The ammo shelves were bare. There was no .380 Auto ammo, few .22 Long Rifle shells, no small rifle primers and precious little powder. Sportsman’s Warehouse? Same story. Local gun shops? Empty.
As I write this, all of the major ammo companies are behind on orders, and custom loaders like Superior Ammunition and Ultimate are trying to catch up as well.
Last year, ammo prices skyrocketed because of the rising demand for metals worldwide. Strike one. Then many of our producers were filling huge orders for the military. Strike two. Then a bunch of politicians infamous for supporting gun control came into power. Strike three. Then the rumor mill cranked up, fueled by the usual paranoia. The end result: high prices and panic buying.
Now, we hunters know we’re supposed to practice to be good shots. But how much practice can we afford at $2 a shot? How many rounds can we shoot when we can’t even find ammo at any price?
What’s a conscientious shooter to do?
Here are a few ideas:
1. Trade ammo with friends. If you need to find the best and most accurate load for any rifle, trade three rounds with another hunter shooting the same caliber. You get to sample five or six different loads while buying a single box of 20 cartridges.
2. Use a .22 rimfire. When you can find them, .22 Long Rifle cartridges cost only about 5 cents each. You can shoot 20 to 40 of them before you equal the cost of most centerfire hunting rounds. Of course, a .22 rifle doesn’t usually have the exact shape, weight, length and feel of a centerfire, but it can come close. If you hunt big game with a bolt-action, get a bolt-action .22. Ditto a lever, pump, break-action or autoloader.
If you can match the safety operation, so much the better. A Kimber .22 matches up nicely with a Winchester Model 70, and a Remington Model 547 teams nicely with any Model 700. Marlin’s 39A works like the Marlin 336. Do a bit of research, and you should find a .22 rifle that matches your big game centerfire quite nicely.
3. Practice with purpose. Bowhunters know that high numbers don’t lead to better shooting. Quality beats quantity. Each shot should mimic a real hunting situation and should be taken with full concentration. So, get off the bench and sandbags. Shoot from prone, sitting, kneeling and standing positions. Shoot off your monopod, bipod or tripod if you hunt with one.
Vary the shooting distances. On private property or other areas where safety permits, arrange the targets at unspecified distances and walk through the course, taking shots when you see the targets. Note how high or low the bullets strike at the various ranges.
Slow down and take the time to note how the wind deflected each shot. Fixing this data firmly in your memory will make you a better field shot.
Punching tight groups off a bench at 100 yards does little more than waste ammo. Once you’ve sighted-in and determined which load is most accurate, get off the bench.
4. Shoot inexpensive ammo. Just because you hunt big game with premium ammunition doesn’t mean you must practice with it. Even if Brand X isn’t superbly accurate in your rifle, it’ll suffice for honing skills like trigger control, follow-through and learning to stop flinching. Rather than shoot inaccurate loads at small targets, aim them at large metal plates, big jugs of water and similar targets that react when struck. Don’t worry if you hit them 4 inches left of center or 6 inches high. You’ll gain confidence just seeing the target bounce or explode.
5. Shoot lighter loads. Managed recoil and reduced-power loads use less powder and lighter bullets, so prices are usually lower than full-power loads. The recoil is lower, too. If you handload, you can do the same thing by following published recipes for lighter loads. Try 110-grain pills in your .308s, 40-grains in your .223s, etc. Drop velocity below about 1,800 fps, and you can even shoot hardened lead slugs instead of expensive jacketed bullets. Thousands of shooters never gave up the old muzzleloader’s chore of melting and casting bullets. Most of the folks I grew up with learned how to scrounge scrap lead from wheel weights, old pipes and linotype. These sources are becoming increasingly rare, but innovators will discover others.
6. If you don’t handload, start. Sure, there’s an up-front investment in a press, dies, shellholders, powder measures and the like, but amortized over decades and thousands of rounds, your per-shot cost is a third to half that of factory ammunition. In addition, you’ll get to tailor brass, bullets, seating depth and the like to each rifle for superior accuracy.
7. Sight-in on the cheap. You’ve probably seen others shoot an entire box of cartridges in a attempt to zero their new hunting rig. What a waste. Affix your rifle in a cradle, a Lead Sled or even a cardboard box with notches cut in each end for the forearm and pistol grip. Remove the bolt or break open the action, and sight down the barrel at a target about 30 yards away. It’s like using the bore as a peep sight. With the target centered in the bore, turn the reticle until it is covering the same aiming point. Now realign the rifle on a large target (say 3 by 3 feet) at 100 yards and fire one shot at a small bull’s-eye. Find the bullet hole with your scope. Don’t adjust anything. Realign the reticle on the same hole and lock down the rifle. Now adjust the windage and elevation dials until the reticle centers over the bullet hole. Barrel and bullet are now pointing to the same place! If you feel extravagant, fire one more shot to confirm.
8. Shoot a smaller-caliber rifle. A box of .223 Remingtons costs much less than a box of .300 Ultra Mags. Do the bulk of your practicing with the lower-priced caliber.
Practice will always cost something, but not practicing can cost you success. After spending thousands on a rifle, scope, binoculars, clothes, boots, travel, guides and licenses, it would be a shame to miss your deer just because you saved $100 on ammo by not training yourself to shoot effectively.
This article was published in the August 2009 edition of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.