Guns > Rifles

Practical Riflecraft

Your hardware does little good if you don’t wield it ably. Merely pointing a rifle and pulling a trigger will not bring game to bag, despite what caliber you shoot, the price of your optic or the construction of your bullet.

The rifle in America dates back to our first settlers. Indeed the NRA National Firearms Museum displays a gun that came to our shores aboard the Mayflower. Throughout our history the rifle has shaped our course. It has helped us put food on the table, explore and settle a continent, and defend our homeland.

But as hunters we are primarily interested in its practical use as a tool.
Webster’s defines “practical” as: “of, exhibited in, or obtained through practice or action [practical knowledge]; usable; workable; useful and sensible.” To that end, a “practical” hunting rifle is compact, lightweight, powerful and accurate. It wears a short barrel so it comes to shoulder quickly and carries easily in thick cover. Proper weight contributes directly to the balance of the arm, its “feel” between the hands; in a standard caliber a hunting rifle weighs about 71/2 pounds; chambered for dangerous game it weighs about 9. It is chambered to fire a cartridge adequate to hunt all game one wishes to pursue with the arm. It has as much power as needed to dispatch game at your maximum effective range, or to deal with the charge of a dangerous animal. It is capable of delivering 1 MOA accuracy.

You’ll carry your rifle all day, maybe all week. You and your rifle must sometimes traverse severe terrain and suffer through terrible weather. But in the end, you’ll shoot for only a few seconds—and neither of you can fail to function. So it’s important to understand what your rifle represents in your hands. You can appreciate that only if you master your craft.

The Practical Shooter
Not all hunters are shooters. Hunters’ average shots on game in the United States are taken at less than a hundred yards, according to surveys by game departments nationwide. What’s more, they often are taken with a rest—a tree, a rock or the cross-bar of a treestand. Shooters, on the other hand, have a firm grasp of the principles of marksmanship. They practice from the prone, sitting, kneeling and standing because they want to regularly test their abilities. They know it’s the human element—not the mechanical one—that is most likely to falter.

The position you adopt should allow you to hold the rifle in your hands, but support its weight with bones in your arms. Think “muscle on bone.” In the prone, prop your elbows on the ground and support the gun in your hands atop your forearms. In the sitting, prop your elbows in the pockets formed by your bent knees. In the kneeling, place your triceps over your knee cap. Place the web of your left hand snug against the underside of the fore-end, palm facing upward, to ensure your elbow resides underneath the fore-end. Wrap the fingers of your strong hand around the front of the pistol grip, your thumb across the tang. Exert firm rearward pressure on the grip to keep the butt tight against your shoulder. This also eliminates cant (tilting side-to-side) in the rifle, something that can affect accuracy. Pull the buttstock tight into your shoulder pocket to steady the rifle and lessen recoil. A proper stock weld ensures your head and rifle recoil as one, which facilitates rapid recovery and follow-up shots. Raise the butt to your cheek, positioning your eye at the same distance behind the sight every time. Keep your head upright at all times.

Follow procedures for getting into and out of each position step by step and dry-fire from them before ever firing a live round downrange to build confidence in your physical ability, and condition muscles and ligaments to do things they perhaps haven’t done for a long time.

Don’t cut corners. You need to develop mental and muscle memory. When a shot presents itself, you need to know immediately what position will work, and adopt it then and there, with no fuss or change of plan.

The best field-position will provide three points of contact with the ground or a body part that rests on the ground. Two elbows resting on the ground, and one’s torso and legs lying on the ground, for instance, create three points of contact in the prone. Sitting cross-legged with two elbows rested on one’s knees creates three points of contact while sitting.

Overall, remember this rule of thumb: Never stand when you can kneel, never kneel when you can sit, never sit when you can lie down. To know whether to go prone or whether to sit, kneel or stand you must continually assess the ground and your line of sight during a stalk.

“The more you shoot from the various positions, the more your body will know what position to take during a shot or an engagement with game,” says Il Ling New, an instructor at Gunsite Academy in Paulden, Ariz. “It’s muscle memory at work.

“If you cannot maintain your mechanics, you will not maintain good groups at any range,” she says. “At 50 yards we should be spot on. If not, we’re certainly not going to be able to do anything at longer range, say, 200 yards. So start small, start at short range, then build to longer range.”

It’s important to use as little muscle tension as possible to reduce or eliminate muscle fatigue. No matter how much your muscles scream at you don’t move during the shot. But understand our bodies have natural movement to them. We are never completely, perfectly still. You’ll notice wobble. Embrace it, but control it. Wobble is the thing we want to minimize.

Perfect your mechanics by beginning each range session with facing drills, advises Doug Prichard, an instructor at Sportsman’s All-Weather All-Terrain Marksmanship at FTW Ranch in Barksdale, Texas. Face the target, adopt a position, pop the gun to your shoulder and aim at the target. Do this for each position. Dry-fire, or more accurately, dry-practice, is key to muscle memory. Relax, think about the fundamentals of marksmanship and the shooting positions you want to rehearse before loading the gun.

Pay attention to the operation of your rifle’s action. With minimal practice, you can work the bolt and reload the chamber while maintaining any firing position.

Focus intently on the front sight post or reticle as the trigger breaks. Don’t look at or aim at the entire target or animal. “Pick a point on that target, or that animal,” says New. “You can easily reduce group size by simply paying attention to the reticle.”

Targets with vague aiming points help here. Eschew clearly defined grids and bullseyes in lieu of uniform surfaces—a paper grocery bag with a few barely discernible marks on its surface works well. Remember, the game has no grid covering its vital zone, no neon letters that say, “Hit it here.” In the field you must pick a spot, a wrinkle, a patch of hair.

Breathing should be deliberate but natural. Remember to take advantage of the natural respiratory pause.

“As I’m bringing the gun up and taking off the safety,” says Prichard, “I let out that breath. During that natural respiratory pause let out that breath, touch the trigger, take your last breath, let it out and start your trigger squeeze.”

Be sure to squeeze, or press the trigger. Soon a long, deliberate pull should be replaced by a compressed trigger squeeze. Use the middle of the first pad of your index finger. Remember dwell time, that period of time that exists as the bullet travels the length of the barrel: Forget about it and you’ll see poor accuracy downrange. During follow-through, hold pressure on the trigger for an instant after the gun discharges. Then deliberately remove your finger from the trigger and move to operate the bolt.

You can get away with a little trigger smack at short range, but pulling your head out of the scope will always present a problem.

Remember that follow-through is a continuation of shooting fundamentals throughout recoil. Your eyes need to remain on the sight. You must maintain your cheek weld.

After the shot scan and assess the field. Before you move from your shooting position, keep the gun in your shoulder, lower it a bit, engage the safety if you feel the need, run your trigger finger alongside the trigger well and scan the field over top of your scope. Your eyes and gun should move as one: scan left, muzzle moves left; scan right, muzzle moves right. It does little good to notice a developing situation if you are not prepared to shoot.

Now rise. In most cases we will have ample time to casually “break from character” and climb out of whatever contorted pose we’ve adopted for a shot. It’s the times we don’t that should concern us. Rehearse the right way to break position so climbing to your feet and preparing to move or shoot again becomes second nature.

Do not palm the bolt handle upward with an open hand like you might do on the bench. Sweaty hands have a way of slipping off smooth metal. Work the bolt like you own it. Use the thumb and forefinger of your strong hand to grip, or pinch, the bolt handle. Move the bolt in a two-count motion—open and back, forward and closed. The gun should never leave your shoulder; the sights should remain before your eyes.

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