Poor shooting isn’t always your fault ... but it usually is.
Is there anything more embarrassing than missing a buck? If it doesn’t cost you a shirt tail – a common tradition in hunting camps throughout whitetail country – it will certainly earn you a heavy dose of grief from your buddies. It’s all in good fun, but nobody likes to miss any more than they like to hear about it from the guys in camp.
Saving face back at deer camp is one thing. Crippling a deer? Not cool. The only thing worse than telling your buddies you missed a big 10-pointer is telling them you drew blood but couldn’t find it.
For most of us, that means finding any excuse, usually the gun, for why we missed.
Sometimes the gun really is to blame. A poor shot could be the result of something like a loose or broken scope or improperly aligned sights. It also might be a result of a gun that simply doesn’t fit. The stock could be too long, the comb too low or the grip too fat.
“If I see my students lifting their heads to look through the scope, I know that gun doesn’t fit them,” says FTW Ranch lead shooting instructor Doug Pritchard. “That’s going to be one factor that can contribute to poor shooting.
“That can be fixed with an aftermarket cheek pad that attaches to the stock. It’s also fairly easy to fix other fit issues with spacers and other tools. If it’s an option, try several different brands and styles before you buy a rifle. Bolt action rifles are all similar, but there can be slight differences in the fit.”
Scopes can come loose, and they can get bumped and jarred enough to throw the crosshairs off the original zero. Check your scope mount screws regularly and tighten them with a torque wrench prior to heading to the range or the woods. Don’t assume your gun is still on, though. It’s smart to shoot a few rounds prior to a hunt, especially if you’ve traveled with your rifle.
A loose scope can throw bullets all over the paper, but more often than not, it’s the guy pulling the trigger who’s spraying lead.
As a long-time shooting instructor, including several years as a Navy SEAL sniper instructor, Pritchard has watched countless students pass through his rifle ranges. Those who struggle with accuracy tend to have the same problems.
“Flinching is a big one,” he says. “I see people anticipating the recoil by pushing or bucking forward when they pull the trigger. That will really affect accuracy.”
One cure is to use a removable shoulder pad in addition to the padded butt that is standard with most rifles. His students always wear one, mostly because they tend to shoot several boxes of ammo in a day’s training. Even a light gun like a .270 can start to feel like a magnum after a few dozen rounds. No one likes to be punched in the shoulder.
A pair of high quality ear muffs also helps reduce flinching. The boom that goes with each shot can not only contribute to long-term hearing loss, it can result in flinching, too.
“I’m also a big fan of muzzle brakes, especially on bigger guns,” adds Pritchard. “They reduce recoil considerably.”
Taming or becoming accustomed to the inevitable kick of a deer rifle is just part of the accuracy equation. Everything you do when you hold your rifle, aim and squeeze the trigger (you do squeeze, don’t you?) factors into shot placement.
Do you take a deep breath and hold it before you pull the trigger? That’s wrong. Instead, take a breath, let it out, hold and then pull the trigger. But don’t actually pull the trigger. There’s a difference between pulling the trigger and squeezing it.
Jerking or slapping the trigger can pull the gun enough to affect accuracy. Use the pad of your fingertip to slowly and steadily squeeze the trigger, and keep the trigger held back after the shot.
“Relax, keep your cheek down on the stock, your eyes open and watch the bullet hit the target through the scope,” says Pritchard. “Don’t look up as soon as you shoot to see where the bullet hit. Be ready to put another round in the chamber and shoot again if necessary.”
None of that will help if you can’t hold the gun steady and solid. A muzzle that moves just 1/100th of an inch translates to a quarter-inch at 100 yards. That might not seem like much, but when the muzzle moves a quarter-inch and a buck is 200 yards away, it can mean the difference between a killing shot and a crippling one.
Get as solid as you can. The most solid shooting position is prone with your rifle either on a bipod or across something soft like a backpack.
“The lower you can get to the ground, the better you’ll be able to hold the gun steady,” Pritchard says. “If you can’t get on the ground, I strongly recommend using a set of shooting sticks. A bipod is good, but a tripod is typically more stable.”
Setting up and bracing across a set of shooting sticks sounds simple, but sometimes, there’s not a minute to spare. Lean on a tree, drop to your butt or at least get on one knee.
“I don’t recommend a standing shot in most situations. “It’s very difficult to shoot accurately. There’s just too much movement.”
PERFECT PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
You don’t have to burn through cases of ammo before the season starts. You do need to practice, though. Just as any expert or professional athlete stays in shape during the off-season, the best shooters touch their guns regularly.
Pritchard is a big fan of dry-firing. It’s an exercise that can be done just about anywhere, and one that won’t cost you a dime (make certain your gun is unloaded).
It’s one of the best ways to work on form, including trigger squeeze, breath control and follow-through. Squeezing the trigger, working the bolt and remounting the rifle repeatedly also allows you to become intimately acquainted with your gun. That’s vitally important when you have just a split second to make a shot.
Dry-firing serves a valuable purpose, and shooting from a bench is fine, but hunters need to practice hunting shots. That means shooting from a variety of positions. There’s no substitute for real, live-fire practice.
“Shoot offhand at various distances,” Pritchard said. “If nothing else, that will show you just how difficult it is to make an accurate offhand shot.”
Shooting a box of ammo the week before hunting season isn’t nearly enough practice to keep in top form. Pritchard recommends shooting at least a box of ammo per month, and more as the season draws closer. Although a box of premium rifle ammunition can set you back $40 or more, most common deer cartridges can cost half that. Burn up the cheap stuff to work on your form. Use the good stuff in the woods.
FIND THE RIGHT AMMO
Make sure your gun likes that premium ammo, though. Pritchard says the best guns don’t always shoot the best, most expensive ammo accurately.
"A number of factors affect accuracy,” he said. “Barrel twist, bullet weight, bullet length and bullet speed all play a role in how well a gun shoots a particular load. I see it all the time. A guy can’t hit the bullseye with the ammo he brought, but when we have him try something else, he’s shooting as good as we can expect.”
Take a couple of boxes of different brands, styles and weights to the range on your next trip and shoot them all. Make sure you let the barrel cool after a couple of rounds, though. A hot barrel can affect accuracy.
Once you find the right load for your gun, stick with it. Buy a couple of cases if you fear it might be discontinued, but don’t buy a different brand or style or weight each time you shoot and expect the same results.
The most important ingredient in making every shot is knowing when you can’t make the shot. In other words, the best shooters won’t pull the trigger unless they are certain they’ll put the bullet on the mark.
You not only owe it to the animal, you also owe it to yourself and your buddies in deer camp. They’ll have a deeper respect if you pass up a questionable shot than if you ask them to help you search for a crippled deer.
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This article was published in the November 2013 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.