Tim Fallon has hunted the world. He’s a former booking agent and he’s an outfitter, too. So he’s seen his share of bad shots in the field. Heck, like most of us, he’s even made a few himself. So he formed Sportsman’s All-Weather All-Terrain Marksmanship (SAAM) with one goal: to make good hunters better.
To do it, he teamed with a couple retired Special Forces types, who to a man lamented the same poor marksmanship Fallon witnessed in the field. The group figured it could leverage its expertise and coax experienced hunters to Fallon’s FTW Ranch for a couple days of intense firearm training. It must’ve worked, because today SAAM Level I has graduated more than 450 students.
I met Fallon through a couple friends who had previously taken the course. It didn’t take Tim much time to convince me to join him and his instructors at his FTW Ranch in Barksdale, Texas, last year. Besides, my interest wasn’t purely academic. As a lifelong hunter, I realized some of my shots on game recently had become less than desirable. In a word, I didn’t “own” every shot. That concerned me. I needed to ferret out what was going wrong, and I knew the expert instruction I’d receive in SAAM Level I Precision Rifle was just the ticket.
FTW Ranch is 12,000 acres in the Texas Hill Country. The place is beautiful, producing extremes of elevation that teach marksmen the intricacies of shooting up- and downhill. It also produces enough gale-force winds to teach anyone a thing or two about doping the wind.
But SAAM Level I doesn’t begin with anything extreme. Instead, students begin in the classroom. There, our instructor, Doug “Dog” Prichard went over the basics first: introduction to the hunting rifle, its nomenclature and manipulation; firearm safety; recommended cleaning procedures; scope zeroing; and fundamentals of marksmanship. He also explained that we’d think in terms of minutes of angle (MOA) rather than clicks on a riflescope. The point is to be precise, to speak in terms immediately understood between shooter and spotter, or coach. Telling someone to come up eight clicks means nothing unless you know the shooter is using a scope with quarter-minute click adjustments (not all scopes do), and besides, the formulas we would learn later were predicated on minutes of angle, not clicks.
After class work, we headed to the “lodge range,” a firing point adjacent to the main lodge of the ranch, to check zeroes, and begin instruction in the basic field-shooting positions. SAAM Level I assumes a modicum of knowledge of its students, but it doesn’t assume everyone is on the same page when they show up. So some of this instruction was old hat for me; still, I soaked it up—one never knows when a new technique will appear. And I was glad I did, because Dog taught me a couple new ways to approach the basic field-shooting positions.
For years, I’d always carried shooting sticks—still do. And I’d carried a pack, too, of course. But I’d never used that pack for much more than a rifle rest when shooting prone off a rock or from the crook of a tree. Dog taught me to use a pack as “stuffing” while sitting or kneeling.
Next to prone, sitting is the most stable position a rifleman can adopt. But it’s not without its problems. Middle-aged shooters will crush their diaphragms when they scrunch low; as such it’ll be hard to breathe. But a pack stuffed under your gut will give you a platform to lean against, a soft spot to help you “melt” into position. You can also stuff that pack under your strong arm—your right arm, if you’re shooting right-handed. That’s your “chicken wing,” as Dog calls it, and you can prevent it from dangling there unsupported if you tuck your pack under your elbow.
I’ve always liked the kneeling position the most. It’s quick to snap into, it’s high enough to provide me with a commanding view of the field and I can adjust my position or even move quickly if needed. But it’s not nearly as stable as the sitting position because your strong arm dangles out there unsupported even more so than when sitting. So whether you use the classic kneeling position with no more support than your knees, or you kneel and shoot with the aid of sticks, you can tuck your pack under your chicken wing to take out roughly a minute of angle. Need more stability? Ask your hunting partner for his or her pack and tuck it under your strong-side leg to eliminate the pain associated with bending and sitting on a limb that doesn’t like being “Gumby.”
Suddenly a “pretty good” position becomes an excellent one. Think you don’t have time to do all this when a shot is imminent? If your stalk is a good one, if the wind is in your favor and your movement has been minimal to this point, you’ll be amazed what you can get away with before taking the first—and most important—shot at game.
But there are simpler things you can do, too, as Dog demonstrated. If you don’t have time to stuff the packs under you, take out the wobbles in the sitting position by leaning against a tree or rock. If neither is present, lean against your buddy or your guide. This can be done quickly if the two of you communicate beforehand and sit simultaneously. It also places your partner directly in line with you so communication while waiting for the shot to present itself can be done in a whisper. And it places your partner directly in line with you, providing an effective spotter when shots ring out.
After students are comfortable with field positions, the rounds start flying “way out there.” There are ranges and targets all over FTW Ranch, and they’re used to teach marksmen about external ballistics and the effects of weather.
But long-range shooting doesn’t begin without more classroom discussion. First, three things are discussed: internal, external and terminal ballistics. Internal ballistics deals with the cartridge component reactions and the rifle’s performance when that cartridge fires. Terminal ballistics is the study of a bullet’s performance at the point of impact—at that point when its momentum stops. As such, both these terms are rather academic; marksmen have little or no control over them in the field. But external ballistics deals with the flight of a bullet from muzzle to target. A solid understanding of what happens during this flight is crucial to making necessary windage and elevation adjustments, or “hold” compensations.
But to make such adjustments, it’s important to understand several factors that affect the flight of a bullet.
Gravity is the first one. It’s constant, of course; a bullet fired from a rifle horizontally and one dropped from the muzzle at the same time would hit the ground at the same time. The difference of course is the velocity of the bullet fired from the rifle.
Muzzle velocity is the speed of the bullet in feet per second (fps) as it leaves the barrel. That speed is reduced as the bullet travels downrange because the bullet is affected by air resistance, or drag. Air resistance produces an immediate affect on a bullet, so much so that ammo makers spend a lot of time and money on bullet design.
Altitude is another key component to trajectory. The air is denser at lower elevation, so a bullet will drop faster; conversely, the air is thinner at altitude, thus it produces a flatter bullet trajectory. Dog taught us a general rule of thumb to remember this: Each 5,000 feet in elevation increase will raise the strike of the bullet one-half to 1 MOA.
Temperature and humidity produce their effects, too. The higher the temperature, the thinner the air, thus the flatter the trajectory. For every 20 degrees in temperature difference established when zeroing your rifle, Dog said, point of impact will change one-half to 1 MOA. Similarly, the higher the humidity, the lighter the air, thus there will be less drag and flatter trajectory. Which led to another of Dog’s rules: A 20 percent change in humidity will change point of impact roughly one-half to 1 MOA.
All these factors are important, to be sure, but the most crucial factor for marksmen to understand is the affect of wind. It produces the greatest effect on the bullet in flight, so we must know two things about it—speed and direction—and we must know the distance to the target in order to make correct adjustments to elevation or windage.