Where Hunting Happens, Conservation Happens™

Going Steady

Accurate Hunter

By Craig Boddington, B&C Professional Member
 I almost always carry at least a light pack, so using it for a shooting rest is one of my favorite options. Depending on what is available to set it on, a pack can be used in almost unlimited ways to aid steadiness.
Excerpt from Spring 2016 issue of Fair Chase

The subject of this column is field shooting, so over the next several issues we will focus on shooting positions, natural and artificial rests, moving game, shooting at distance, and shooting close and fast. Before we delve into such a broad and important subject, it’s important to start with full disclosure. Because people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, let’s understand that my walls are made of thin glass! I have made some disastrous misses, and unlike some of my colleagues, I’ve never been shy about admitting (and writing about) them. Nor, I hope, have I ever blamed anyone other than myself! In this season just past, at my own place in Kansas, I missed a lovely buck. It broke my string—eight years, eight shots, eight bucks. It had to happen sooner or later, right?

Every time I’ve written about a miss or some other horrible mistake, I’ve gotten letters from readers who tell me it has never happened to them. Many go on to question my lineage or my right to be in the occupation I’m in. In the past I’ve generally been of one or two minds on such letters. First, I’ve considered that the writer must be blessed with a wonderfully selective memory. I can’t seem to forget the missed opportunities because they still haunt me. Second, I’ve considered that the writer may simply have extremely limited experience. It hasn’t happened to you? Stick around, sooner or later it will!

It now occurs to me that there is a third option. At least ten million of our more than sixteen million North American hunters are primarily deer hunters. By demographics most of them are whitetail hunters; by locale, tradition, and efficiency, most of them hunt from tree stands. Even though it just happened to me, if you do most of your hunting from a familiar tree stand and pick your shots with care, I can appreciate that one might go decades without missing a shot. Potentially there are similar situations with Western hunters who know their ground and pick their shots. Especially the many of us who focus on a fat young buck or cow elk for the freezer and have no interest in seeking the largest horns and antlers.

Hey, this isn’t high school, but perhaps the most important skillset in field shooting around the world is “going steady.” Figuring out almost instantly, exactly how to get steady enough to make the shot. This is not as simple as it sounds.

This column is not about staying in your comfort zone. Quite the opposite; it’s about expanding your shooting horizons. Now, I suspect there are many readers who have taken more game than I have, certainly of one or another favorite species. I’m a lot more certain that many of you have taken better horns and antlers of many species than I have. After all, just like you, I drool over the photos in this magazine! On the other hand, I’ve been an eclectic hunter my entire lifetime. Nobody will live long enough to go everywhere and do everything in this wide and wonderful hunting world of ours, but I’ve hunted under most conditions and in most terrains and climates on this continent, as well as all the others. Things are different when you’re out of your comfort zone. In the mountains you’re constantly out of breath; in the forest you’re trying to pick holes in the vegetation; when it’s cold you’re shivering; when it’s hot your hands are slick with sweat; and yet you still have to make the shot if you get a chance.

One of the wonderfully charming (and frustrating) things about all hunting in all places is the ultimate uncertainty. You can do everything right and never get a shot because in most situations the final move is up to the animal. So luck is a factor, and I do believe in beginners’ luck. Either way, hunting luck can be defined as opportunity meeting preparation. Whether you’re a veteran or a beginner, when an opportunity arises one has to do a lot of things right—quickly—in order to capitalize.

This column will not be about hunting tactics. Truthfully, in many or perhaps most cases I’m not qualified to offer that. I am the lifelong Jack of all hunting trades, and master of very few. Instead, it’s about shooting tactics. When a hard-won opportunity arises one must seize the moment and take advantage. Often the chance is fleeting, so the opportunity must be seized quickly. Those who don’t share our passion have no idea what the surge of adrenaline in the presence of a fine game animal feels like, or how it shortens our breath and makes our hands shake. And yet we have to get through that and perform quickly and accurately.

Hey, this isn’t high school, but perhaps the most important skillset in field shooting around the world is “going steady.” Figuring out almost instantly, exactly how to get steady enough to make the shot. This is not as simple as it sounds. In open country you may be expecting a longer shot, but a close encounter can happen at any time. Sometimes you have plenty of time to prepare; other times you have to take the shot now…or not. Realistically, at longer ranges you simply must have time to prepare, to read the distance and judge the wind, and to “build your house” into a rock-steady position. So a fleeting opportunity at several hundred yards probably isn’t an opportunity at all, nor is a quick glimpse of a flagging tail in close cover.

On the other hand, part of the skill is constant anticipation, what we in the military call “situational awareness.” If an opportunity arises now, how would I get steady? When the desired animal appears, there must be instant evaluation: How much time do I have? Perhaps it’s measured in milliseconds, perhaps you have all day. Either way you could be wrong, but you still must make the call and then instantly evaluate your options for getting steady enough to make the shot.

Shooting at game is not like small-bore competition where the “10-ring” is much smaller than the .22-caliber bullet you’re shooting. Nor is it like thousand-yard competition where a stray puff blows the bullet onto the next target. Regardless of distance, the vital zone of a deer, sheep, goat, or pronghorn is at least the size of a pie plate; and on elk and moose it’s considerably larger. So, steady enough and accurate enough are relative terms depending altogether on distance, time to set up, shortness of breath from climbing that ridge, and shakiness of hands from the dreaded malady of buck fever.

The real trick is to know how to get steady enough fast enough, and from the widest variety of shooting positions as possible. Then if you have the luxury of time, as in waiting for an animal to turn or a bedded animal to rise, you can spend those extra seconds (or minutes, or rarely, hours) controlling your breathing and focusing on doing what you hopefully already know how to do. Lord, I’ve shot from some weird positions, including some where I absolutely knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I was going to take a scope cut. At the moment that wasn’t important; getting steady was.

We all have comfort zones. For many of us, it’s leaning over the bar or rails of our favorite deer stand. For me, thanks to so much African hunting, I’m extremely comfortable shooting over the three-legged sticks almost universal over there. My real comfort zone and default position, however, is shooting over a pack. I almost always carry one, and it’s my preferred rifle rest if terrain allows. I’m also very comfortable shooting prone with a bipod, and almost equally comfortable sitting with a tall bipod, but I am not nearly so steady shooting kneeling or standing with a two-legged rest. Those are shooting horizons I should work on because the real goal is to have almost unlimited options—a full repertoire of positions you know you can make steady enough. But it’s okay to have a default position; it just isn’t okay if that’s your only steady position!

To my thinking, it all starts with the four NRA competition positions of prone, kneeling, sitting, and standing. Mind you, we aren’t competing, and our only rulebook is game regulations, which tell us when and how we can hunt, but not how we should shoot. So initially we’re going to work on those four basic shooting positions, and we’ll see how they can be modified, compromised, and even bastardized as we try to get as steady as possible.

Let’s begin with just one ground rule: It is possible I can offer some ideas and options that, just maybe, you hadn’t thought of. But you must get out on the range and practice. That means get away from the benchrest. Be creative and practice from real field shooting positions. You don’t have to expend costly ammo or get kicked around. For long-range shooting there is no substitute for shooting at actual range, but “position” shooting can be practiced perfectly well with a .22 or an airgun in your basement or garage. For that matter, you don’t need any ammo at all to practice getting into field positions. As we’ll see, some of us old guys need to limber up for some of them!


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-Theodore Roosevelt