In the real world of hunting, there won’t always be a rest nearby, and you need to be ready to shoot — right now!
By Clair Rees
When you hunt in Montana, expect surprises. I still remember one prairie dog shoot that I went to in mid-July. Prepared for summer weather, my fellow hunters and I spent the first three days of the hunt in the bunkhouse, watching snow pile up outside. It didn’t matter that no one had winter clothing. The prairie dogs were even less inclined to brave the unseasonable cold and snow.
A couple of years ago, my carefully laid plans to bag a trophy Montana buck also went awry. I’d prudently packed insulated boots and cold-weather clothing for the late-November hunt. While the TV weather maps showed friendly skies up north, I knew how quickly the weather could change near the Canadian border. It was nearly December, so I came prepared for the worst.
“Be ready for long-range shooting,” Brian Beisher of Big Buck Outfitters had said. “A lot of the terrain is pretty open. We may not be able to get closer than 300 or 400 yards.”
Heeding his advice, I brought along a new Model Seven AWR (Alaskan Wilderness Rifle) I’d recently purchased from Remington’s Custom Shop. It was chambered for the .300 Remington Short Action Ultra Mag cartridge. The rifle delivered half-MOA accuracy with handloaded Barnes 168-grain XLC boattails, and its 3-9x Kahles scope with TDS reticle was sighted to allow a dead-on hold out to 350 yards. A ballistic chart taped to the stock displayed holdover out to 600 yards, and I had a laser rangefinder and a Steady-Stix bipod. Was I ever ready for long-range shooting!
My first surprise came when we landed at the Sheridan, Wyo., airport. The desert was dry and snowless all the way to the ranch. The temperature hovered in the high 50s. Clear skies and unseasonably warm weather prevailed throughout the four-day hunt.
The second surprise was predictable. Prepared for extreme-range riflery, I shot my 4-point muley buck offhand as it ran past an opening in the trees at 63 yards.
When I think about it, I’ve taken a whole bunch of critters by shooting offhand. The long-range kills I’ve sometimes made are more memorable. They’re like hitting one out of the park instead of rounding second after a line drive.
But at the end of the game, it’s those infield plays that count most. The same thing is true for hunting: You have to be able to stand up and hit!
Whenever I offer hunting advice, I beat the drum hard about the need to shoot from a rest. “Always use a tree, boulder, backpack — anything that’s handy to support your rifle,” I say. “If no natural rest is handy, improvise.”
Shooting from prone? A rolled-up coat, backpack — even a binocular stood on end — can be pressed into service. Better yet is a hiking staff or a folding bipod.
The same gospel, different chapter, stresses the importance of assuming a low position before you shoot. Kneeling is good, sitting is better. And if the terrain and surrounding foliage permit, dropping to your belly and shooting prone is the best bet yet. The steadier you hold your rifle, the more likely you are to make a clean one-shot kill.
That’s all good advice, but it ignores one vital fact. In the real world of hunting, you’ll shoot offhand to make those infield plays. There won’t always be a handy rest nearby. There probably won’t be time to sit on your fanny or drop to one knee. When you’re moving quietly through the woods and surprise a deer, elk or grizzly, you’d better be ready to shoot — right now! That means a quick offhand shot.
If the range is reasonable, 150 yards or less, you’ll never get a better chance. By the time you find a rest or a firmer shooting position, that animal could be long gone. He may double the distance between you or simply vanish into the brush.
Anyone who spends all his range time shooting from the bench is kidding himself. The ability to print 1-inch (or even half-inch) 100-yard groups with the rifle resting on sandbags does you no good at all when it’s time to stand up and shoot.
Sadly, fewer and fewer hunters are competent marksmen from the offhand position. They simply don’t take the time, or spend enough on ammunition, to learn to hit a deer’s vitals at 100 yards or more.
Americans aren’t the only riflemen deficient in offhand shooting skills. When I hunted moose (locally known as elk) in Finland, you had to pass a shooting test before you could get a license. A life-sized moose (sorry, elk) silhouette was hung from a motorized overhead track. A 15-inch circle marked the vital area.
It was a two-part test. First, you had to stand and fire three consecutive shots while the target was stationary at 100 meters. All three bullets had to strike inside the vital zone.
Next, you repeated the task while the moose silhouette hurtled left to right, right to left, and back at about 25 miles per hour, imitating a live moose crashing through the brush. You needed to be able to hit a fast-moving target because that’s how Finns like to hunt moose. Hunters line up 30 meters apart in a huge semicircle, while other hunters and their dogs move noisily through the forest. Most moose are shot as they’re driven past the waiting hunters.
I took the test with three other American writers. Even though we could shoot only from the unsupported offhand position, we all passed with flying colors (okay, I admit it took me two tries). Leaving the range, we all felt sympathy for the lone Finn we left behind. He’d failed the shooting test 39 times in a row and was about to try again.
Think about the different hunts you’ve made. You’ll be surprised the number of shots you’ve successfully taken from the difficult offhand position. In some kinds of hunting, those are the only kind of shots you’ll likely be offered. Hunt Alaska’s giant bears, and you’ll spend most of your time clambering in and out of, fast-moving streams or stalking fresh tracks along a sandbar, rifle held at the ready. At the other end of the scale, how many rabbits have you shot from the sitting or prone position? I can’t begin to count the deer I’ve killed while standing.
The best way to hone offhand riflemanship is to shoot at lots and lots of paper targets. Plinking at cans and other objects is fun, but won’t tell you exactly where your bullets land. When you can put three or four consecutive shots in a 8-inch paper plate while standing, you should be able to take deer or like-sized animals at the same distance, whether it’s 100, 150 or 200 yards away.
Work on your stance. Don’t directly face the target; position your feet so the rifle feels completely natural as it comes to the firing position. When I shoot offhand, my left elbow is nearly directly under the forearm, while my left elbow is at a right angle to the rifle. I try to relax and let my bones support the rifle. Holding the crosshair steady on a target is tough when one’s muscles are tense.
When you begin practicing offhand, you’ll quickly discover it’s impossible to keep those crosshairs steady. No matter how long you work at it, your reticle will sway to and fro past the target. The longer you try holding your shooting position, the shakier it becomes.
Here’s the trick you need to master. As the reticle moves back and forth across that stationary target, take up the trigger slack and time the rhythm. Anticipate the motion, and then trip the trigger the next time the crosshairs swing through your mark.
Experienced wingshots simply swing through the target and pull the trigger. Riflemen have a harder time of it. We’ve been drilled from an early age to hold the rifle perfectly steady, exhale, and squeeze the trigger.
Hitting a moving target with a rifle takes practice. It’s a skill best learned through repetition. Years ago, Randy Brooks and I used to take turns rolling trashed tires down a hill while the other shot at them.A fast-moving, erratically bouncing tire makes a very difficult target.
Paper targets are great for stationary practice, but hunting prairie dogs is a lot more fun. Who says you have to use a bull-barreled .22-250 sporting Mt. Palomar optics when you arrive at a prairie dog town? This kind of outfit is great for long-distance shooting off bipods or sandbags, but I always spend at least one morning or afternoon shooting offhand. I don’t always hit them with the first (or even fourth) shot, but the offhand shots I make are extremely rewarding. In addition to having fun, I’m honing useful skills.
Using a hasty sling can help steady your rifle. The sling must be adjusted in advance so you can insert your arm through it and twist the upper part of the sling around your wrist. If the sling is the right length, it helps anchor the rifle in place. While I’ve sometimes used the hasty sling, I seldom take time to employ it. I’m usually in too much hurry to shoot before my trophy escapes. That’s another great thing about prairie dogs — they stand still for long periods.
My earlier suggestion to drop to a kneeling, sitting or prone position — and use any handy rest you can find — remains excellent advice. I always do this if there’s time, even when the target isn’t very far downrange. As any experienced hunter knows, time is often a luxury you simply don’t have.
I used to know a man who whose only pre-hunt preparation was shooting at a boulder on a hillside 250 yards away. If the bullet came close, he called it good. The late Lee Peterson was the finest natural shot I’ve ever seen, He used an iron-sighted .300 Savage Model 99 and always got his buck. I know better than try to emulate his habits. I practice shooting offhand every chance I get — and that practice has often paid off.
Reprinted from the November 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.