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Hunter Prep at Gunsite Academy (Page 2)

The famous firearm academy is perhaps best known as a training ground for pistol shooters. But beginners and experts can learn Jeff Cooper’s “Art of the Rifle.”

We practiced the offhand position from 5 to 75 yards. With practice, I was surprised how quickly I could snap in and effectively engage targets at any range. Now, at first blush, one might ask why we would need to fire at 5 yards. Besides, isn’t hitting a target at such close range a no-brainer? Not necessarily. For starters, you need to know where your rifle prints at any range. At 5 yards, the difference between your line of sight through the scope and the bullet’s path as it exits the muzzle is magnified; the result is point of impact quite low to what is expected. It’s worthwhile to know what that difference is if you plan to hunt dangerous game, or deliver a coup de grace on wounded game. At 75 yards point of impact should be spot-on. But practice at longer range soon reveals the need to leave your scope on a low power to provide greater field of view and less reticle bounce on the target.

Focus and Squeeze
We engaged targets from the prone, sitting and kneeling positions from 50 to 400 yards on three ranges, in slow-fire and rapid-fire exercises. Gunsite doesn’t use a traditional bullseye target with an 8- or 10-inch solid circle in the middle. Rather, theirs is a mottled khaki-and-brown camouflage target. Multiple aiming points can be focused on in the intersections between all those khaki-and-brown spots. The rifleman’s job is to pick one and focus on it, much like he would focus on a spot within a uniform patch of hair in the vital zone of game.

All the while instructors advised us breathe, obtain our sight picture, focus on the reticle, squeeze the trigger and follow-through. Above all, they said, during the shot process you must ignore the target once your sight picture is acquired. This is basic advice, but difficult for anxious shooters to apply. Everyone wants to see where their shots land. But if you’re concentrating properly, and calling your shots when the rifle fires—that is, recognizing where the reticle is when the rifle fires—you should know where your shots are landing.

Still, I had to re-learn the lesson. Mike Moore caught me using the riflescope to check my groups. “Ideally,” he said, “you won’t see the animal’s reaction through the scope, because you’ll be focused on the reticle; the animal will be blurry.” He’s right. In the field I’ve been able to see the animal’s reaction to my shot through the scope. Still do, sometimes. But that isn’t always a good thing. It could mean I’m focused on the animal instead of the reticle as I squeeze the trigger. Which might explain some of my misses in recent years.

I’d traveled to Gunsite, most importantly, to solve a case of the “yips” I’d developed. Misses in recent years had been unexplainable; the shots all felt good, I’d had good sight pictures, good trigger squeezes and good follow-throughs. But still I’d missed sometimes, which left me scratching my head. Whether Moore’s advice will solve the problem I don’t know, but besides my own mantra of “breathe, squeeze, follow-through,” I now remind myself of his words before every shot.

You Can’t Do This at Home

We didn’t limit ourselves to live fire at known ranges—we had a lot of fun at unknown ranges, too. On two other courses of fire we walked trails with coaches, and when “game” was spotted we picked our position and fired. The “game” in this case was either 3-D targets of various animals encountered around the world—elk, whitetails, bears, kudu, impala, lions—or steel plates 50 yards or several hundred yards away. There was no coaching; we were on our own. If a steel plate was hit it was obvious. So sometimes a “clang” elicited “good shot,” but sometimes nothing was said by the instructor. Either way, it was about as realistic as one could hope to find without actually hunting. In the field, after all, we’re often on our own.

It’s up to us as hunters to know what will happen when we squeeze the trigger.

Another range was called the Scrambler. Here, shooters engaged seven steel targets at 50 to 100 yards. Each target was to be hit twice before moving to the next firing point, which was 5 or 15 yards away. Our final scores were based on the number of hits on each target and time. Shooters could forego a second hit on a target if they encountered difficulty, choosing speed over accuracy, but misses counted more than extra time. It took several seconds to complete the course, or several minutes, depending on each shooter’s abilities and physical fitness. Regardless, there was plenty of huffing and puffing at the end.

After running the course the first time, it was clear to me one target stood in the way of a good score. At this position, shooters slithered into a rectangular box about the size of a man, poked the rifle out the front, found the target, engaged it, chambered another round (with limited elbow room) and fired again, then slithered out and moved to the next firing point. Or they cheated, skipping the slithering and using the box as a rest, thus forfeiting any meaningful points at that firing point. Which didn’t really matter, because in Hunter Prep students aren’t earnestly scored on the Scrambler; the point is to build confidence in one’s abilities rather than engage in a race. Still, the Scrambler became our favorite course of fire. I shot it twice before I got cocky.

Ron Fielder had advised us that the record for the Scrambler—33 seconds—was held by a Marine. “Well,” I said, “I doubt I’ll beat that, but here goes.”

Fielder said “go,” and I fired. Three-plus minutes later, breathing heavily, I was disappointed at my time. I shook my head in disbelief.

“That’s not bad, Scott,” said Fielder. “Remember, that Marine was using an M16 and one magazine. He didn’t have to reload. He was a young guy, in excellent shape. He ran from target to target, squatted, fired and moved.”

I reconsidered my situation. I was using a bolt-action Kimber .308, which held only four rounds in the magazine. I started with a full magazine, but hitting seven targets twice each meant at least three reloads. I had to decide whether to top off the magazine after engaging each target, or to reload the magazine fully only after it was empty. And I had to decide whether to do that at a firing point, while stationary, or while on the move. Suddenly, three-plus minutes didn’t seem that bad.

Finally, we engaged a moving target, a robot operated by Mike Moore with a life-size whitetail target on a frame that moved to and fro at about 60 yards, sometimes closer, sometimes farther away.

The key here was recognizing the speed and direction of the target. Clearly, if it was moving straight toward us or directly away one needed only to wait until it turned broadside again before obtaining a sight picture and firing. But when it was moving laterally across our front there was a lead involved. Or was there? It moved slowly, we noted; clearly not as fast as a deer might run, but rather more like it might trot. Moore advised us to swing with the target, to concentrate on the reticle as we squeezed and to keep swinging when the round fired. Some shooters had difficulty at first, but it was more mental than physical.

Lesson learned: Gauge the speed and distance of the game. If the speed is anything less than a run, and the distance anything within 100 yards, one can simply acquire his sight picture, swing with the target as it moves laterally across the zone of fire and squeeze as he continues to swing the muzzle with the target.

I’d never engaged moving targets before. If you must admit the same, consider this exercise alone as worth the trip to Gunsite. But if that’s not enough, consider all the other exercises I’ve described: courses of fire from 5 to 400 yards; life-like “game” trails; the Scrambler. I don’t know about you, but I can’t find qualified, personal shooting instruction for less than a couple hundred bucks a day. And I don’t have access to a 400-yard public range, nor do I have the room on my own land to build one.

About Gunsite
Hunter Prep is an introductory course to help hunters assess their marksmanship skills in a professional environment. Whether you’ve hunted the world or are preparing for that hunt-of-a-lifetime, the aim is to snuff out bad habits, learn good ones and go home thinking about what you can do better the next time you go to the range. Upon graduation from their first course, students become part of the Gunsite “family,” receiving regular updates from Academy personnel about course offerings and other news.

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