“Do you know how to shoot straight?”
While some people might take offense at such a question, it is one that big game hunters need to ask themselves every year. Shooting an animal with a high-powered rifle, no matter the distance, is not a natural skill. Hunters must know the capabilities of their rifles, the intricacies of their scopes, the characteristics of their ammunition, the distance of their targets and their own ability to quickly set up an ethical shot.
“Shooting is a perishable skill. If you haven’t done it in a while, you’re going to get rusty,” says Rick Basagoitia, area wildlife manager in the San Luis Valley. “There are people who believe they can go out, buy an expensive rifle and without any practice start shooting like the guys on the hunting shows on TV. Well, they can’t.”
Being able to consistently make good shots allows you to harvest the animal quickly and cleanly. But the importance of good shooting goes beyond harvesting an animal.
“We don’t want animals to suffer. Preferably, hunters will get the job done with one shot,” Basagoitia said.
Developing shooting skills must be viewed as an ethical requirement. “Shooting lots of rounds is the only way to become proficient with your rifle,” explained Brian Bechaver, a district wildlife manager in the San Luis Valley and a certified firearms instructor who has hunted all his life.
The more you shoot, the more confident you’ll be in the field. But before you shoot, take time to prepare your rifle and find an appropriate target using the tips below.
As you prepare for this year’s big game seasons, give your rifle a thorough check. Be sure the scope is attached to the barrel with the proper amount of torque. A loose scope that is not properly aligned with the barrel will cause you to miss the target. For the right amount of torque, check the manufacturer’s specifications or take the rifle to a gunsmith.
Likewise, make sure the stock is tightly fastened. A loose stock can alter how a bullet comes out of the barrel of a gun.
Ballistics is a general term that refers to how a gun fires, the characteristics of the bullet in flight and what happens when the projectile hits the target. Volumes have been written about ballistics: how a bullet behaves according to its weight, the powder load, the caliber of the rifle, distance traveled and killing power. Hundreds of web sites offer various explanations of the technical details. Read those if you have an interest in becoming a ballistics geek. However, your time may be better spent practicing with your rifle.
There are two basic ballistics concepts that are helpful to understand:
- As soon as the bullet leaves the barrel, it begins to drop.
- Point-blank range is the distance at which a target can be hit without having to adjust the sights, scope or point of aim. The range depends on the characteristics of the firearm and the bullet. So before going to the shooting range, look up specifications for your rifle and the type of cartridge you’re using.
A wide variety of paid and free apps are available in the Apple and Android app stores. Many are being produced by optics companies such as Nikon, Leupold and Bushnell and can be set up for the specific scope that is mounted to your rifle. Before installing an app, look at the number of people that are using the app and the app rating to make sure you are picking a field tested product. Nikon’s Spot On app, pictured to the left, allows you to enter your scope, cartridge manufacturer and specific bullet type to quickly and accurately generate a ballistic chart and reticle specific diagram.
Selecting a Target
Your practice target should be the size of the vital organ area of the animal you are hunting: a circle of about 15 inches in diameter for an elk, and about 10 inches in diameter for a deer. The vital area is just behind and slightly below the front quarter of a big game animal. A shot placed in this area will tear through the heart and lungs and kill an animal quickly.
Try “Sight-In” targets. Bring a spotting scope or a strong pair of binoculars and use the 1” square grid measurement system to zero scope without having to head down range with a ruler.
To get a feel for your rifle – or to refresh your muscle memory – start by shooting at the middle of the target at 100 yards. Because the scope is mounted over the barrel, when you look at the target through the scope, the barrel will actually be pointed up slightly. Consequently, if the point-blank range of your rifle/cartridge combination is set for 200 yards, and you’re shooting at a target 100 yards away, the bullet should be hitting around 2 inches high on the target (review your ballistics for the specific distance).
Take as many shots as needed to obtain a two-inch grouping with five bullets at that distance. At this distance, it’s OK to use cheap ammo.
Scopes use different types of adjustments, so before you get to the range make sure to know how your scope works. Commonly, scopes provide for adjustments of one-quarter inch at 100 yards, so to make a 2 inch adjustment you simply adjust the scope by eight one-quarter inch turns – or clicks – in the appropriate direction. Thus: 4 x ¼ = 1 inch. The same goes for making adjustments to raise the shot or to go to the right or the left.
Next, set the target at 200 yards – or at the prescribed point-blank range – and use the bullets you’ll use when hunting. You’ll be feeling the effects of recoil from previous shots, and you’ll find that holding the rifle steady on a target at that distance is challenging. This situation provides a good simulation of conditions in the field. Note: Making shots at 300 yards and beyond is very difficult and will truly test your ability to make an ethical shot.
You should shoot until you can get a good pattern in the target with five shots.
“You can get lucky with three shots,” Basagoitia said. “But you can’t get lucky with five shots at that distance.”
At 200 yards or more, the bullet pattern will probably be larger than what you shot at 100 yards. The critical factor, however, is landing all the shots in the vital area.
Know Your Limits
Determining distance to a target is an important skill to hone.
“Estimating range is huge,” Basagoitia said. “Most people consistently underestimate distances.”
He recommends getting a rangefinder and practicing with it at various distances in the field. When hunting, you probably won’t have time to pull out the rangefinder. But with practice, a rangefinder can help you develop the skill to estimate distance.
Because of the potential for animals to be wounded, wildlife officers strongly recommend against long shots.
Bechaver won’t take a shot if the animal is more than 300 yards away.
“That’s my maximum distance, but that’s still a very long shot. I must be in the prone position and feel very comfortable and calm. Not many people can make a 300-yard shot,” he said.
Going beyond the maximum point-blank range requires adjusting your aim, something that Basagoitia doesn’t recommend.
“That takes even more practice,” he said. “Realistically in Colorado, most shots will be well under 300 yards. It’s best to spend your time practicing at distances that are practical, from 100 to 200 yards.”
When shooting at a distance of 100 yards or more, be aware that wind also becomes a significant factor. If possible, go to the range when there is little wind — mornings are a good bet. If you are hunting on a windy day, you can minimize the effects by getting directly upwind or downwind of your target.
“Wind is a major factor and most hunters don’t even think about it,” Basagoitia said. “If the wind is strong enough to make the smaller branches on a tree move, then restrict shots to no more than 200 yards.”
Wind is a huge factor that is often ignored. If wind is moving the limbs on the trees consistently, limit your shots to no more than 200 yards. You can mitigate the effects of the wind if you position yourself directly upwind or downwind of your target (but that might be difficult to accomplish in the hunting context). You could also try to wait it out and let the wind die down, but that is not always an option. When in doubt, DO NOT shoot.
Practice, Patience, Practice
A key component of good shooting is trigger control. Place only the pad of your index finger on the trigger, squeeze slowly and continue to squeeze after the bullet is fired. Continuing to squeeze provides “follow through” and contributes to a steady position. Don’t pull the trigger quickly because that will cause the gun to move off the target.
“It’s a good idea to dry-fire your rifle. It’s one of the best things you can do to practice holding your gun steady while squeezing the trigger,” Basagoitia said. “As you squeeze the trigger, pay attention to the position of the scope crosshairs and see if they move.”
After you feel good about hitting the targets from various distances, attempt more realistic shooting situations. To become proficient, hunters must get out of their comfort zones at the shooting range.
“Most people can shoot off a bench and when they know the range of the target,” Bechaver said. “But a lot of things go out the window when you’re in the field and you see an animal.”
A hunter must be able to quickly estimate distance, take a shooting position that might be awkward and shoot uphill or downhill if needed. Various environmental and physical factors also affect shooting ability – heat, cold, wind, fatigue and the heart-pounding influence of adrenaline coursing through the body.
Bechaver recommends forcing yourself to practice in uncertain conditions – shooting from the prone position, shooting sitting down using your knee or rock for a rest, using a pack as a support, estimating distances and then checking with a rangefinder, etc. Walk quickly for 20-30 yards, then drop, calm down by taking some slow breaths and then try to hit the target. If possible, shoot uphill and downhill.
“It’s easy to hit a target at the range, but it’s something else when you’re standing in the snow on a cold day and you’re breathing hard and the wind’s blowing,” Bechaver said.
Hunters should buy shooting sticks, a simple bi-pod that attaches to the barrel of a rifle. Without those, practice using your pack as a rest from the prone position.
“When you’re hunting you don’t want to think too much about what you have to do. By shooting a lot, you’ll reach that point called unconscious competence. That’s when you’re able to do things automatically,” Basagoitia said.
And after you’ve taken lots of practice, you should be able to confidently answer the question, “Do I know how to shoot straight?”
Making a Safe and Ethical Shot
Let us not forget proper shot placement. Everything we have discussed thus far has been to help the hunter hit his target. Focus on the proper target/aiming point. The best shot is going to be in the heart/lung region, just behind the shoulder of a broadside animal. But not all animals present themselves broadside to the hunter. It is the hunter’s responsibility to determine if a clean, ethical kill can be made given the presentation of the animal. Remember that heavy bone gets in the way as the animal is facing more toward the hunter, while more soft tissue and abdominal contents are exposed as it faces away. Think of the vitals like a yolk within an egg. You want to hit the yoke, so aim for it—not just some place on the surface. Emotions, the elements, and physical limitations will be working to make you miss. Work the fundamentals like you did in practice and you’ll be successful.
Colorado Parks & Wildlife’s (CPW) Hunter Outreach Program, with the assistance of field officers, huntmasters, and partners from across the state, has created an on-line educational program focusing on elk hunting in Colorado. Elk Hunting University (EHU) is designed to provide “how to” information through a series of articles, videos and other educational tools. The following EHU articles will help you become a “real straight shooter.”