Sometimes life takes us down various paths, some planned, some by random chance. When I was a lot younger, I participated in various formal shooting disciplines spread throughout rifle, pistol, and shotgun. I competed in high-power, small-bore, bullseye, trap, skeet, sporting clays, you name it. I was generally good, never great. It doesn’t matter now; I dabble, but I haven’t been a formal competitor for years. However, just about all shooting has some basis in time-honored formal competition, so it’s a great background.
For quite some years, my primary interest has been hunting. The great thing about field shooting is there is no rulebook, no score card, no gallery and, often, no witnesses at all. You make the shot or you don’t, and you can never count on more than one chance. Shots at game can take any form. Formal shooting positions offer an invaluable base for hunting, but they need to be endlessly built upon and practiced on your range. Here are five “modifications” you can practice on your range to be a better shot in the field.
Stand Up and Shoot
Unsupported standing or “offhand” as we used to call it, is by far the least stable shooting position. In the field, it is complicated by circumstances – you are often out of breath and usually short on time. It is a great way to miss and, far worse, wound game. Thus, it is the court of last resort and should be avoided if at all possible.
Even so, there are times when there is no better option than to stand and shoot. Therefore, this unsteady and difficult position should be practiced and mastered. In the field, one will always use something steadier, so the only time standing is used during a relatively close encounter is when either no rest is available or there is no time to assume a better position.
So, the best way I know to practice standing is through “gun drills.” Face the target, shoulder the rifle and fire. Then turn and fire facing right, facing left, facing away. If you haven’t done this before you can start with a large target, very close, maybe 10 yards. It is not necessary to withstand recoil or burn expensive ammo; a good .22 makes a great starting point.
Over time you can move the target out. Wobbles are inevitable, but most of us can become confident and reliable on target at 50 or 60 yards, some to 100 yards or even a bit more. These distances should cover most do-or-die situations but it’s important to know your limitations. Remember, a standing, unsupported shot must not be taken unless you’re sure you can pull it off!
Three-legged shooting sticks are almost universal in Africa, but I’m starting to see them all over the place, and I usually carry mine broken down in my gun case. In broken ground, with the legs secured together, they double as a hiking staff, but their primary purpose remains a shooting rest. They get you off the ground, enabling shooting over low brush.
Choices vary, some folks prefer bipods and even monopods better, but I prefer the good old three-legged sticks. There are really only two things to master with sticks: First, the height that is right for you. I prefer the junction of the legs at about the level of my first shirt button; this allows me to keep my feet shoulder-width apart so that I can lean slightly into the sticks.
Second, it’s essential to find the steadiest way to hold the sticks and forend with your weak or supporting hand. This will vary depending on the size of your hands and the circumference of the forend, but there is no rulebook: practice and learn what works best for you.
The forend of the rifle must be rested on the junction, never the barrel. I don’t have big hands, but I’m able to grasp the forend with my thumb and forefinger, then use the other three fingers to tie sticks and forend together.
Sticks are not a long-range option; some side-to-side wobble is almost inevitable. Sticks, however, are invaluable for bridging the gap between an unsupported shooting position and a solid rest. The more you practice the steadier you will be, and your range envelope will increase. Most of us can become very steady and confident to about 150 yards. My wife, Donna, has a lower heart rate and steadier hands; she’s good to a solid 200 yards off sticks, but I am not. Again, in field shooting it’s essential to know your limitations.
The formal kneeling position has the supporting-side foot grounded, knee up, the supporting hand grasps the forend and rests over the supporting knee. The shooting-side knee is grounded, foot either upright on its side, haunches perched on that foot.
This is not an especially steady position, but it’s fast to drop into and beats standing. However, we are tossing the rulebook, and we’re always looking for a solid rest.
The biggest problem with the formal kneeling position is the shooting elbow is up in the air. So, rest the forend over a rock, log or a low bipod or tripod. Reverse the knees, grounding supporting-side knee under the rifle and behind the impromptu rest. That elbow is no longer important because the forend is rested.
The shooting-side foot goes out maybe 45 degrees, foot grounded, knee up. Now that shooting-side elbow can be rested over the shooting-side knee. You can’t use this position at Camp Perry, but in the field it’s dramatically steady!
The Vertical Rest
Horizontal rests are natural. My preference is always to throw a daypack down, and then you’ve got about as close as you can come to a benchrest with sandbags. However, there are probably more trees and fenceposts than handy rocks and logs. Vertical rests are not as steady as horizontal, but, aside from being unavoidable, are faster to use.
Two things when using vertical rests: First, never rest the rifle barrel directly on anything. With a vertical rest it’s as important to get something between the forend and the solid object. Often you can use your supporting-side hand or a cap scrunched up in your hand.
Second, on any vertical rest, go to your strong side. So, left-handers (like me!) go to the left side; right-handers go to the right. This puts your supporting hand in a good position to cushion the rifle against rest. Remembering these are field positions, this puts your body behind the rest, giving you a bit of cover. If it’s a big tree you may be able to lean into it, grounding your body and your shooting elbow.
Stabilize That Elbow
I mentioned using reverse kneeling to stabilize the shooting elbow and also looking for big trees. In field shooting, absent a rulebook, one of the biggest destabilizers is having the shooting elbow flapping in the breeze. With a standing tripod, you can have a buddy or guide grasp the legs and offer a shoulder to rest your shooting elbow. This little trick can, honestly, double your shooting distance off sticks. With a low tripod or bipod, you can often set a backpack upright and use it for an elbow rest. Likewise, with a horizontal rest or anything else.
Get that shooting elbow stabilized! Texans are big on deer hunting from box blinds. Take a board or even a walking stick and wedge it on your shooting side for an elbow rest. It’s amazing how much steadier you’ll be when you’re able to rest your shooting elbow from any position.
I hope I’ve given you something to work on at the range. Preparation leads to success and you have to be prepared for the unknown if a shooting situation presents itself.