The key to becoming a great hunting shot is to master the eight essential rifle skills. But first you have to know them—and your rifle.
A great rifle shot knows his or her rifle top to bottom, front to back, inside and out. They knows how it feels, how it loads, how it feeds, and how it empties. Most of all, they know how to swing it into action efficiently and shoot it precisely without pausing to think. Auto-pilot. The old, military “assemble it in the dark” kind of knowledge. Make it your goal to know and understand your rifle and how to efficiently handle it!
WHAT’S THE FIRST ESSENTIAL SKILL TO MASTER?
Set it up for proper fit.
This usually means mounting the telescopic sight so you see a full field of view without having to slide your head up, down, back, or forward. When you raise the rifle to your face, your eye should be looking right down the center of the scope. If it’s too high, you need to mount it lower or add a comb riser to the butt stock. If the sight picture is bordered with black shadow, you need to adjust the scope forward or back to achieve proper eye relief.
All this fitting could require multiple attempts and adjustments over the course of several days. Take the time to get it right. The tendency is to adjust your head position to make things work. To combat this, shoulder and cheek the rifle with your eyes closed. When the rifle feels comfortably positioned, open your eyes and see how close scope alignment is.
WHAT’S THE SECOND OF OUR ESSENTIAL RIFLE SKILLS?
Find the target in the scope.
This is a huge challenge for too many hunters. The trick is to keep both eyes open and focused on the target while bringing the rifle to bear. If you change your focus to the eyepiece of the scope, you’ll lose track of where your target is. Then you’ll waste time waving the rifle and scope across the landscape, trying to relocate your target. Targets are never “in” the scope. They are always downrange somewhere, and that’s where you must maintain eye focus.
If your rifle/scope fit properly, they should come to your face (cheek weld) pointed darn near perfectly at that target. Practice this with an empty rifle at low scope power. Aim quickly at rocks, stumps, etc. As you get more proficient, crank scope power up. Higher powers always give narrower fields of view, making target focus that much more critical.
HERE’S THE THIRD SKILL YOU NEED TO PERFECT
Assume the most stable shooting position for current conditions.
This seems pretty basic, but you’d be surprised how few hunters can efficiently do it. They’ll lie prone on rolling ground only to realize a slight rise 50 yards out blocks the sight line. Or they’ll stand for an unsteady offhand shot when they had a perfectly steady boulder to lean against. Train yourself to notice habitat and ground conditions as you hunt. If working through tall grass, you’ll know a prone shooting position won’t work. On sloped ground you can’t lie prone and shoot across a canyon uphill.
Assess such conditions as you hunt so you don’t waste time setting up in positions that don’t give you a clear line of sight. You’ll find precious few shooting benches in the hunting fields, so train to shoot standing, kneeling, sitting, and prone—aided by the most convenient, versatile rifle supports you can discover.
Mine is a jointed, hand-carried Primos Pole Cat Steady Stix bipod made of aluminum tubes shock-corded together. Carried in my hand, pack, or belt sheath, this bipod doesn’t add weight to the rifle. Depending on how many segments I employ and how far I spread the legs, it works for prone, sitting, and kneeling. Best of all, it can accommodate shooting angles extremely low and high.
THE FOURTH SKILL IS BALLISTIC
Know your zero, trajectory and basic wind deflection.
This can get pretty technical, but it’s essential for shooting beyond about 240 yards. That’s when bullet drop and wind deflection begin making significant alterations in where bullets strike. There are several ways to do this using laser rangefinders, ballistic reticles, ballistic turrets, and various zero ranges, but the simplest system is Maximum Point Blank Range.
Using it, you zero most modern cartridges at about 230 to 250 yards. This puts bullets from three to four inches high at their trajectory peak at about 150 yards. Somewhere between 275 and 325 yards most will fall three to eight inches below point-of-aim. This makes it possible to aim dead-center on most big game (vital zone about 12 inches in diameter) and score a killing hit from the muzzle out to about 300 yards. It’s quick, easy, and accomplished without rangefinders.
Right-angle winds of ten mph will direct bullets off course by one to several inches depending on bullet B.C., velocity, and target distance. Study these things and test them on the range until you’re confident you know where your rifle will shoot.
THE FIFTH ESSENTIAL RIFLE SKILLS IS EASY
Load properly and operate the safety.
Don’t laugh. Most of us have missed a shooting opportunity because we didn’t know our rifles well enough to properly fill the magazine, single-load an emergency round, or push off the safety in a hurry. Some steel-box, top-load magazines are finicky. If cartridges aren’t pressed down and back “just so,” they can pop out crooked or fail to feed. Detachable magazines improperly mounted can fail to feed and even fall out.
Safeties operate in so many ways that anyone with an unfamiliar rifle can forget not just which way they move, but where on the rifle they’re positioned. Nothing’s quite so humbling as thumbing off a tang safety on a rifle with a side-mount safety. As directed earlier: KNOW YOUR RIFLE.
THE SIXTH SKILL MAY BE THE HARDEST
Acceptable accuracy always comes down to great trigger control, and that means you can’t jerk it, slap it, or flinch. These skills don’t come naturally. It’s mind over matter. We all get excited and tend to rush our shots, jerking the trigger, sometimes even pushing our shoulders into the gun in anticipation of recoil.
The easiest way to master trigger control is also the least expensive: dry fire. Virtually all modern bolt-action rifles can be dried fired without damage. Double check with your gunsmith or manufacturer if you’re worried, or just use snap caps (dummy cartridges.) Then work on holding your rifle steady and squeezing the trigger without jerking.
Pay attention to your sight picture as you do. The reticle should remain on target throughout. Videotape yourself to search for any twitching. Do this from all shooting positions. When you transition to live fire, have a friend single-load your rifle without you watching and sometimes leave it empty. If you’ve resumed flinching, it will show up when the striker falls on an empty chamber. Practice trigger control and then practice some more because trigger jerks are not good shots.
THE SEVENTH ESSENTIAL RIFLE SKILL
Follow through and cycle.
Always concentrate on that first shot and make it count, but develop the skills to quickly and smoothly reload for any needed backup shots. This requires learning a system of operation. The “follow through” part is a combination of keeping your eyes open before, during, and through the actual shot while immediately thereafter operating the action to chamber another round. This helps you to “see” your hits or misses and compensate with your next shot.
The key is to do all this without removing your cheek from the rifle’s comb. Coming out of recoil, reloading, and getting your target back in the scope view are all one smooth move. With a bolt action you can grab the bolt knob with your thumb and forefinger or catch it in your open palm before lifting up, back, forward, and down. There are variations on this theme, including a special forefinger lift and thumb return for prone shooting. We haven’t space to detail those here, but learn them, practice them (dry fire again), and train until you can empty your rifle as smoothly as a bowl of breakfast food.
FINALLY, THE LAST OF OUR ESSENTIAL RIFLE SKILLS
No rifle continues giving top performance without proper maintenance. This doesn’t mean cleaning the bore down to bare metal after every 10 or 30 rounds. As long as accuracy remains acceptable, all you have to do is keep your rifle clean and rust free. Dry it if damp. Run a very lightly oiled swab down the bore (prevents internal rusting.) Clean raceways and bolt face with an old toothbrush. Clean out the locking lug recesses. Put a dot of grease behind each locking lug.
There are other skills good riflemen learn and use, but mastering these eight essential rifle skills will serve you well for the vast majority of your hunting and shooting jobs.