By Jon R. Sundra
There’s no substitute for practice, but some gear items can improve accuracy.
With new technology and new products driving the hunting/shooting market like never before, one has to ask if it’s possible to simply buy competency. The answer is yes you can, and no you can’t. A case can be made for both.
When guns and hunting really became a passion with me back in the late `50s, scopes were just coming into general use, and most, by far, were fixed-powers of 2.5 or 4x. There were no stadia-type rangefinding reticles. The rangefinders that did exist were military surplus jobs that worked on triangulation and required three men and a boy to carry into the field.
No one knew what a laser was, so the idea of having a rangefinder that could fit in your shirt pocket that could accurately measure distances out to 1,000 yards or more was as far-fetched as time travel, much less incorporating that same technology into a binocular or riflescope.
Back then, the typical binocular was a 7x35, and like the riflescopes of the day, they were not all that waterproof or foproof.
What has changed the least between then and now is cartridge performance. Back then, we had the .270 Win, the then-new .264 Win Magnum, and the .270, 7mm and .300 Weatherby, so the flat trajectories we have today that make it easier to properly place a bullet when we’re just guessing the range, we had back in the Paleozoic.
Of course, rifles chambered in the aforementioned and similar cartridges were few and far between, whereas today we have dozens of calibers capable of similar performance available in highly affordable rifles. Game bullets, however, have been improved in that they shoot slightly flatter due to being more streamlined. But all other things equal, it amounts only to a couple of inches less drop at 400 yards.
Modern hunting bullets are also more accurate, giving us better chances at hitting game at normal hunting ranges. We even have pocket-size anemometers that measure wind speed, thus taking at least some of the guesswork out of judging how much to hold into the wind on long shots.
It is the nature of advertising to imply that if we buy a certain rifle, scope, rangefinder, binocular or wind gauge, we will become better marksmen and/or more successful hunters. After all, what greater incentive can they offer?
Are there shortcuts to competency in shooting? Yes, to a degree. Are there shortcuts to competency in hunting? No.
First, the shooting aspect: As much as some would like to believe that some people are born with the ability to shoot a firearm, no one can deny that the more one practices, the luckier one seems to get. Once we do become familiar with shooting basics, there are things we can do beyond mere practice that can improve, if not our skill, then the result. It’s true that by buying a more accurate rifle chambered in a flatter-shooting cartridge, one can improve the odds of making a long shot.
The same applies to optics. Even though a 6- or 8x scope is adequate for taking deer-size game out to distances most of us shouldn’t be shooting, replacing a 3-9x scope with one of the new-generation 1:6 zoom ratio scopes like a 4-24x improves one’s chances of making a 400-yard shot, though not by much. Add a laser rangefinder and an anemometer, and your chances of making the shot are further improved.
Of course, you have to know the downrange impact points and the amount of wind deflection to allow for, but those are givens if one expects to make those kinds of shots. And that, of course, assumes one is shooting from a steady rest.
So it is possible to increase our chances of making a given shot count by purchasing the right rifle and scope. But most of us interpret competency as shooting ability, and there are no shortcuts to that.
There is simply no substitute for practicing field shooting — how to shoot from the various positions, and how to quickly assess what shooting aids are handy and to quickly take advantage of them to help steady a rifle.
It’s the same with hunting skill. There is no shortcut to that. Yes, it has a lot to do with being able to spot game with or without the aid of optics; with knowing the behavioral traits of your quarry; with stalking skills and knowing how to use the wind. All those things are important, but the most important aspect of hunting skill is the composure that comes only from having seen a lot of game through a riflescope, and on many of those occasions, choosing not to shoot.
I have seen hunters get so excited at the sight of game that they literally couldn’t function well enough to cycle a bolt-action rifle. I’ve seen others who had a natural shooting rest — a tree, rock or termite mound — within a few feet take offhand shots at impossible distances, yet those same shooters couldn’t have hit a pie plate at 100 yards with a normal pulse and breathing rate, let alone in the excited state that comes from seeing game in the scope.
I’m not saying that experienced hunters don’t get excited. Anyone who doesn’t get excited is hopelessly jaded and perhaps should take up another hobby. It’s just that with more experience comes composure. Once you’ve harvested 20 or 30 deer, it takes a really good buck to get you excited. Take that same hunter, though, and show him a critter he’s not hunted before, and it could be buck-feversville.
One year, I shared a Canadian bear camp with a hunter who had taken more than 50 whitetails with both gun and bow back home, but had never hunted black bears. At the end of the hunt, he admitted to having missed two bears that were within 25 yards of his stand simply because he was so excited. I have taken 14 or 15 black bears over the years, and have heard several such first-hand accounts of clean misses at point-blank ranges.
I guess what it boils down to is that you can indeed buy gear that can make you a proficient marksman, but when it comes to hunting skill, that’s not for sale.
This article was published in the December 2009 edition of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.