Citizens who learned to hunt with a gun have long shaped American military history. During the French and Indian War, in the mid-17th century, Major Robert Rogers recruited tough backwoodsmen into his Ranger companies, men who knew how to survive on the frontier. Later, riflemen who learned to shoot when hunting squirrels and deer shaped the American Revolution and the Civil War. Then, in World War I, Sgt. Alvin York became a famous example of an American hunter-soldier when he used his skills honed from shooting “turkey heads” to take out an enemy machine gun nest and to capture 132 German soldiers. It seems every American conflict has benefited from soldiers who grew up hunting in America’s woodlots and wildernesses.
I’ve personally witnessed how hunting and shooting molds better soldiers. While patriotic duty motivated me to enlist in the Army when I was 17 years old, my interest in arms and the outdoors guided me to the life of an infantryman. Over the course of a very active 21-year career, I lost count of the number of times my early experiences as a shooter and hunter paid off.
After finally talking my parents into trusting me with an airgun at the age of 10, I wasted no time in taking advantage of the ample woods and fields of northern Illinois to begin developing my skills. I learned the basics of marksmanship—as far as pellets and BBs allowed—at the expense of any cans, dirt clods and small varmints I came across. After I passed the “don’t shoot your eye out” test, my dad bought me a second-hand Savage Model 24.
That first whiff of gun oil made an indelible mark on my brain. Becoming a gun owner set me on a path that would eventually lead me around the globe. In spite of a lack of formal firearm training, I was fortunate to glean pointers from several shooting buddies as well as the gun magazines of the day. Of equal impact was the fact that the old stack-barrel placed .22 LR rounds and 20-gauge shot wherever needed, provided I did my part. I covered a lot of ground in those days, stalking my way through hardwoods and slinking along field edges in pursuit of small game.
When I walked into the recruiter’s office and announced I wanted nothing more than to be a grunt, I’m pretty sure I made his day. The only extra perk I bargained for was the guarantee that I’d get to jump out of airplanes. Looking back, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t such a bright idea.
Being a paratrooper simply means you have to walk that much farther to get back to supplies, supporting units, hot food and help in general. Before that lesson sank in I had to make it through basic training, where I soon learned I’d chosen the right path. In spite of southern Georgia’s oppressive heat and humidity, tramping around during our first field exercise came naturally to me. Carrying a nearly worn out M16A1 at the familiar “ready” position was a lot less tiring than the heavy Savage I’d been toting like an extension of my body. The old M16 clattered louder than a baby’s rattle but it pointed naturally and gave me my first taste of hitting somewhat distant targets.
I had learned to hunt on the fly while chasing rabbits and pheasants through the fields and by dropping squirrels from the plentiful oaks of my area. The ability to move quietly and swiftly through brush helped conserve the ammunition I’d worked hard to afford. It also set the stage for a career that seemed to propel me into jobs requiring woodsmanship. First as a paratrooper/scout and then for the bulk of my career as a Special Operations sniper, stealth became a mandate for survival whenever stepping away from the garrison world. What seemed strangely natural as a young trainee was second nature by the time I was thrust into the first of many combat zones at the age of 19.
Despite growing up near one of the original Gander Mountain stores, I couldn’t afford real hunting clothes so I bought used fatigues from a surplus store and learned to blend in with the vegetation. These lessons later paid off when the stakes were higher. Operating as a member of small, specialized teams far from any support, the ability to remain concealed in sniper/observer positions for very long periods was essential to my success and survival.
Hunting game on the edge of town required me to range farther from home each season, demanding some navigational skill. I didn’t have a map and compass but learned instead to read terrain features and memorize the lay of the land. Fortunately, I had a fair mastery of what I later learned was called “terrain association” by the time I was tasked to navigate a patrol.
Orienteering skills were particularly useful because the standard Army navigational training in those days (known as “dead reckoning”) consisted of following a measured compass direction for a paced distance to get from point A to point B with little understanding of the ground. It works on a compass course but is fairly worthless anywhere else.
In fact, I noticed a curious trait in some young soldiers during my early service: many did not adapt well to working at night, especially when alone. I wondered about their hesitancy and eventually realized most had never been far away from streetlights before. I’d naively assumed everyone wandered around rural nightscapes while growing up. I often stayed out in the woods until well after last light, enjoying the peaceful twilight and challenge of easing through the woods quietly on my way home. Walking overland on winter nights through the dim, white, quiet world was particularly agreeable.
I later slipped comfortably into the task of walking night patrols and enjoyed walking “point,” as long as the word “jungle” wasn’t in the equation.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed the lives of all Americans forever, especially for our military personnel. My ability to hit the local woods each hunting season was severely hampered by repeated tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the lessons learned in my early years continued to pay off overseas. Aside from the obvious need for skill at arms, sniping draws heavily on the same core skills used in taking wild game while hunting. The demanding desert, urban and mountainous environments of these two theaters call for all combat troops to constantly be on their “A” games. I was fortunate to work alongside the most talented and woods-savvy soldiers our military has to offer. Regardless of where the ingredients in this melting pot of warriors came from, the paths that led most there passed through woodlots, thickets, high deserts and farm fields scattered around this great country. I’m glad my own path led me from the once-rural areas of my youth to the jungles, mountains and deserts of the world and back.
Today, as a freelance writer and custom gun-builder I have more time to hunt and am truly blessed for that. Whether I’m watching North Carolina’s late-summer skies for doves or slipping silently through the cold fall woods to my treestand, I automatically revert back to “recce mode” with lightened footfalls and all senses working overtime. By applying the lessons learned young and refined while in uniform, I’m left a great deal richer at the end of each day, especially right around 30 minutes past sunset.
Steve Adelmann is the owner of Rifleman Consulting,