Let's face it — big game animals present large target areas, so how is it that we miss?
A big part of it is plain old buck fever. This has different manifestations, but it's some combination of excitement, jitters and inability to handle the pressure. It's not a bad thing — if you don't get excited in the presence of game then you really should be doing something else. But you should be able to control the shakes long enough to get the shot off.
Learning how to do so is mostly a matter of experience. It does get easier over time — which I guess is pretty easy to say with nearly 50 years of hunting under my belt — but isn't particularly helpful to those of you starting out.
In the end, there's no substitute for practice. All shots are easier when you are simply doing what you know you know how to do. At that point it's just a matter of executing what you know.
A shot unlike anything you have attempted — whether on the range or in the field — is daunting. So practice often and be creative with the types of shots you train for. Get away from the bench and shoot from as many positions as you can dream up. Spend a lot of time with .22s. All shooting is good practice for at least some hunting situations. That said, some situations are more difficult than others. Here are a few hot tips to train for hunting's toughest shots.
Jack O'Connor once wrote that animals are just as big moving as standing still. Yes, but hitting running game with a rifle is very difficult. For many of us, a running shot is not a shot at all.
There's a difference between a difficult shot and a shot that shouldn't be taken, and a moving animal at distance is probably a poke that most of us shouldn't take. However, a running animal at close range may offer a perfectly ethical shot, as might a moving animal at medium range.
O'Connor spent a lot of time shooting at running jackrabbits with a rifle, and by legend he was hell on wheels on running game. Europeans — who love their driven hunts in which all shots are at moving game — often have "running boar" and "running moose" targets to practice on.
Unfortunately not all of us have jackrabbits in our backyards, and rifle targets on a track are rare in North America. Running shots are extremely difficult without practice. But here's a secret — hitting a moving animal with a rifle is really more like shotgunning than the precise aiming most rifle shooting requires. So spend some time shooting clay targets.
I'm more of a trapshooter, but because of the hard crossing angles skeet and sporting clays are probably more useful. In many ways hitting moving game with a rifle is exactly the same as shotgunning — you must swing with the target and keep the rifle moving steadily.
Establish your lead, keep swinging and squeeze the trigger. Just don't stop the rifle. By the way, with a high-velocity centerfire at fairly close range there isn't much lead required — as long as you don't stop the rifle.
Long Range Shots
This is largely a matter of perception and practice. I do not believe in "extreme range" shooting at game because variables become beyond your control or ability to read — wind at the target and along the bullet's path, bullet performance or last-instant movement of the animal.
The limit depends on the conditions and your experience, but even under ideal conditions I tend to think of 500 yards as really pushing it and 600 yards as over the edge.
Shooting at such distances is simply beyond what many of us should attempt. However, when I was a kid in the pre-rangefinder era — with inferior rifles, ammo and optics compared to what we have today — 400 yards was a very long poke. Today that distance should be attainable provided the wind isn't crazy and you have time to set up.
But here's the deal — you can't shoot confidently at 400 yards if you do all your practice at a standard 100-yard rifle range. Period. To shoot at distance in the field you simply must shoot at distance on the range. Ideally this should happen at real, actual, and full distance, but if you can practice at 200 yards you can go somewhat beyond that in the field.
If you can practice at 300 yards, then you should be good to 400 — provided you understand your cartridge's trajectory. If you can gain access to a 400-yard rifle range, even better. But don't do all that shooting from the bench, because that won't do you any good in the field. Practice shooting at distance over your pack, from a bipod or from prone and sitting positions.
Any shot at a distance longer than you've ever shot is frighteningly difficult, but if you've practiced at that distance from a similar position, then it's just a matter of taking a few deep breaths, calming yourself and implementing what you know how to do.
Steep Angles and Windy Conditions
We all know trajectory is stretched out a bit when shooting uphill or downhill, so we have to aim a bit lower. Many rangefinders give the correction — which is helpful — but this is something I drive myself crazy over, and misses are created by thinking about it too much. Only rarely are angles as acute as they appear.
Remember, game animals offer large targets. You don't need to worry about it unless you have a incredibly steep angle, considerable distance or both. I do carry a range card that gives a percentage of correction — and I have used it — but most of the time this is something you should keep in the back of your head, not foremost on your mind.
Wind is another story. Wind is serious, and as range increases it's the major factor in the decision to shoot or not. Do you know the effect it has on your bullet, and can you read the wind — not just where you are, but at the target and between you and the target? If the answer is "no" and you have anything more than a light breeze, you can't shoot.
The only real way to learn how to shoot in wind is to actually do it. Long ranges with range flags are great teachers, but watch the grass and the mirage as well as the flags.
The best teacher of all is the prairie dog. It's almost always windy on the prairie, and if you can hit a 3x9-inch prairie dog in the wind, you can surely hit a deer, elk or ram. For some, it's just as easy to plan an off-season western varmint shoot as it is to find a 500-yard rifle range. Think about that as one of your training options.
For me it isn't distance, angle, or anything else that makes a shot difficult or easy — it's whether I have enough time to properly read the shot and set up for it. On the other hand, I don't want so much time that I have to wait and get jittery, like when you're waiting for a bedded animal to stand up.
Fast shots are never easy, and a fleeting opportunity at distance probably isn't an opportunity at all. You always want time to get into the steadiest position possible, but sometimes it just isn't there. A standing or offhand shot at game is the last resort, always to be avoided. But sometimes that's all there is.
So although this is the last position you want to use in the field, you should practice offhand shooting at least as much as the other positions. Within 100 yards on a deer-sized target you should be able to raise your rifle and place your shot — though many of us can't do that at half the distance.
Practice offhand shooting and practice fast alternatives like dropping to one knee and quickly using shooting sticks.
Putting it all Together
When practicing, be exhaustive and creative in the ways you learn how to get steady. Practice with sticks, a bipod, over a pack, against a tree or range post. Also, practice from all four of the formal positions: Prone, sitting, kneeling and standing.
Field shooting positions can take weird and wonderful forms, but if you've practiced a wide variety of options you'll be able to figure it out.
Second, do the best you can to get in shape and stay in shape. All shots are difficult when you're out of breath. I'll be honest — I was a runner for 40 years, but I don't run much anymore. Instead I do a lot of hiking and cardio stuff at the gym. Do what you can and when you're hunting, stop and get your breath before you crest a ridge — not when you top out.
Finally, understanding that all too many of us have limited access to varied field-like ranges, consider formal training courses. There are a number of great shooting schools out there that have good instructors and — equally important — field ranges that will help you with distance, wind and how to get steady. Shooting practice is really a lifelong commitment, but a crash course with good instructors will give you a wonderful head start.