Each of these positions comes intuitively, but none will be comfortable without practice. Come to think of it, none are comfortable to a middle-aged guy with a gut and bad knees. At SAAM, instructor Doug “Dog” Prichard said it never hurts to cheat a little.
For starters, he says, never leave camp without a pack and shooting sticks.
It’s true you need to be able to snap in quickly. Time is critical. But don’t pit it against you. Often you’ll find yourself with the wind and the range to your advantage. Remember the first shot is the most important. Make sure you’re as stable as possible before firing, even if it takes longer than you think it should to set up. Use the best position possible, given field of view and terrain. But never take an unsupported shot when you have time to find or build a rest. Dog likes to call this “building your house.”
In the prone when resting your gun’s fore-end across a pack, let go of the rifle with your left arm. Reach beneath your body and grasp the sling swivel on the buttstock and pull the rifle into your shoulder. Be careful not to touch the buttstock, as this will induce movement. Minimize contact with the rifle, as you’d do on a shooting bench.
While sitting, you can take out roughly one MOA by leaning against a rock or tree. If neither is present, ask your buddy to lean against you. This will remove some wobble and place him as a spotter directly in line with you. Stuff your pack under your chicken wing to take out another MOA. Stuff your buddy’s pack under your left arm. You might look like the Pillsbury Doughboy, but you’ll be rock-solid.
The same trick can be used while kneeling. If it hurts to kneel and sit on your heel, place your pack under your thigh, then sink onto it to avoid the pain.
When using shooting sticks in the kneeling position, drop to your weak-side (left) knee. The rifle is already supported by the sticks. Instead, use your strong-side (right) knee to support your chicken wing. This is amazingly stable, as it builds a shooting platform with contact front and rear.
Once you take your breath, relax. Be sure the rifle stays on target. This is known as your natural point of aim. You may need to adjust your position.
Sight alignment is the proper alignment of the front sight post within the rear sight aperture; the top center of the front blade is exactly centered in the rear aperture. The correct sight picture is obtained when the sights are properly aligned and the target is in the correct relationship to the front blade.
A riflescope places both sights in one focal plane, so sight alignment is done for you. You need only worry about the sight picture. But once you have that sight picture, it’s important to focus solely on the reticle as you squeeze the trigger. Done correctly, each time the gun fires it should be a surprise.
I knew that much, but I didn’t realize I was using the scope to check my groups. I wasn’t focusing solely on the reticle each time I fired, and Mike Moore, an instructor at Gunsite, corrected me.
“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.”
At SAAM, Dog reminded me to call my shots, to make a mental note of where the reticle was when the gun fired. It’s an important step to diagnose problems with marksmanship. Was the reticle to the right of the bullseye when the gun fired? Maybe I jerked the trigger. Was the reticle sagging below the bullseye? Maybe I waited too long before firing and got tired or ran out of breath.
Beyond that, it’s all “breathe, squeeze and follow-through,” as Dog says.
You should know just how much pressure you can apply to your trigger before your rifle discharges, allowing you to stop the squeeze if needed when the elk shifts and you need to halt action.
Practice isolating your trigger finger and applying direct pressure rearward by cupping a ballpoint pen in your hand and gently pressing the clicker until the pen point appears. Do this slowly and repeatedly, until you can stop just before the pen goes “click.” This is the kind of muscle memory you need on the trigger.
When the round fires, continue to focus on the reticle and hold your position. Reload. Now. Deliberately lift your finger from the trigger and move your hand to the bolt. With the gun on your shoulder and your head in the scope, chamber another round. Don’t admire your shot. And don’t yank your head out of the scope to see your handiwork.
This is a fine line. No one can resist the forces of recoil completely. But with practice you’ll be able focus on the reticle even when the gun roars, which will help you call your shot. In the field, I often see the reaction of the game in my scope after I recover from recoil and while reloading for a second shot. (Yes, I can move that fast. You should, too.)