I spent more than half of the past year in hunting camps across North America. And from the Far North to South Texas, campfire talk often centered on tack-driving rifles, magic loads and tiny groups. But despite all that talk, few hunters shoot to their rifle’s accuracy potential.
Whether the quarry is a Texas whitetail or a Canada moose, too many hunters fail to make the most of their opportunity during the moment of truth. Whether the culprit is nerves, lack of ability or insufficient practice, the end result is often a wounded or lost animal, wasted money and bad memories. That’s too bad, because anyone can become a good rifle shot. All it takes is a firm grasp of the fundamentals and regular, high-quality practice.
For years, shooters have conformed to the BRASS rule of marksmanship—Breathe, Relax, Aim, Slack and Squeeze. Unfortunately, that old military saw is not conducive to consistent accuracy. After all, how can you possibly let out the same amount of breath each time? If the volume of air in your lungs varies, your shot will, too.
The key to better accuracy is to break each shot at a natural respiratory pause. That is, hold your breath for an instant when your lungs are empty and then break the shot. But be sure not to hold your breath too long or your sight picture will start to blur.
Natural Point Of Aim
Natural point of aim (NPA) is not discussed much, but it’s the key to accurate shooting in every position. Simply put, NPA is when the body, gun and target are aligned naturally, without any muscular control. If you have to muscle the gun left or right to align your sights, you haven’t established a good NPA.
Test this by breathing deeply while holding the rifle on target. With a good NPA, the crosshairs will move straight up and down on the center of the target. If the reticle dances wildly around the target, adjust your body, not the gun. You cannot muscle the gun into position and consistently shoot well. The more out of breath you are or the longer the shot, the more critical NPA becomes.
Trigger control is pretty straightforward: Apply steady pressure with the first pad of your trigger finger until the sear breaks. It’s that simple. The best way to test your trigger control is to dry fire with your gun supported on sand bags. If the reticle moves when the trigger breaks, you have a problem.
A good, crisp trigger is essential. If your gun’s trigger pull is too heavy, have it adjusted by a gunsmith or replace it with a high-quality aftermarket trigger, like those offered by Timney. You’ll be amazed at how much your accuracy will improve with a light, crisp trigger pull.
Follow-through involves keeping your head down on the stock and seeing the action happen in your scope. If you lift your head at the shot, you’ll miss. Good follow-through should include working the bolt as the rifle is in recoil. With a bit of practice, the bolt work becomes automatic. The more you practice the less you’ll need it, but a fast second shot can save the day after a missed or poorly placed first shot.
The fundamentals are, well, fundamental, but mastering them has helped me make some pretty tough shots over the years, including an offhand shot on a big, South Texas whitetail last season.
I found the buck during my pre-season scouting and hunted him hard throughout November. He was a no-show in his pre-season haunts, but I rattled him in the first week the rut was in full swing. Unfortunately, as often happens when rattling in thick cover, the buck almost ran me over before I saw him. He skidded to a stop and turned to run. I stood to clear the brush, dropping my now worthless shooting sticks in the process, and tracked the big buck in my scope. I thought I’d missed my chance, but at 150 yards, the buck stopped, and looked back. I centered the reticle on his shoulder, exhaled and applied steady pressure to the trigger. My sight picture was perfect when the gun went off, and I saw the heavy 10-pointer collapse in his tracks. Offhand shots are tough, but a solid grasp of the fundamentals helped me place my bullet in the sweet spot.
Shooting In The Real World
This is the real world and Mr. Murphy seems especially fond of hunters, so you can bet there will be times when there’s no gun rest available. Such times are the reason every rifleman should have a firm grasp of the four basic shooting positions: offhand, kneeling, sitting and prone. Of course, if you do luck into a rest, you’ll be even better off if you’ve mastered shooting from these positions without one.
Offhand is the most difficult position to master, but it’s the one you’re most likely to employ in the field. A proper offhand stance has the shooter facing 90 degrees to the right of the line of sight (opposite for lefties), with the shooter’s weight equally distributed on both feet. The rifle is then raised to the shoulder until the scope is aligned on the target, with the right elbow held high (parallel to the ground), head erect and the support arm directly under the forearm. Be sure to bring the gun to your face rather than the other way around, and make sure that bone, not muscle, supports the rifle.
Offhand isn’t fun to practice because the results, especially in the beginning, can be pretty embarrassing. But, with a bit of regular practice, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you improve.
The kneeling position is more stable than offhand, and it’s almost as fast. It also affords more clearance over brush and tall grass than sitting. Kneeling is also easy to assume. Simply face right and go down until your right knee hits the ground. The left elbow should be directly under the rifle, just in front of the knee, not on it. Bone on bone doesn’t make for a very steady rest.
I went a long time without using the kneeling position, but I used it to fill my freezer several times this past season, most recently to take a fine 6x5 elk in Colorado. My guide and I made a long stalk on the feeding bull, which we’d first spotted at last light the previous evening. The herd was feeding across a brushy hillside. We paralleled them in hopes of catching the bull in the open. When he finally stepped out, we were both caught off guard. With no time to spare, I dropped to a knee and stuck a 150-grain Winchester XP3 through his shoulders. The bull stumbled 5 or 10 yards down the mountain and collapsed. I would’ve preferred to take the 390-yard shot from the prone position, but there was no time and kneeling was steady enough.
Sitting is my favorite position. In fact, I’m so comfortable sitting that I feel like I can’t miss. Besides being the most comfortable position for me (your own favorite position might vary), it also offers support for both elbows, which makes it very stable. It’s pretty fast, too. Simply turn a bit right of the line of sight and sit, with your elbows just
in front of your knees. Whether you cross your legs is purely a matter of personal preference, but once you figure out the right version for your build, you’ll be surprised at how stable it is.
I shoot from the sitting position quite often, but the last bear I shot in British Columbia really stands out as one of my better sitting shots. It was the last day of a 14-day grizzly hunt where I was also allowed to take two black bears. Spring was late and most of the bears were still in their dens, but I had managed to kill a small black bear earlier in the hunt. On the last day, we spotted a nice black bear feeding on a grassy slide.
We made a lung-busting climb through blow-downs and slide alders, but the bear was gone when we got there. However, we spotted it again as we worked our way down. I was still out of breath and the bear was getting nervous, so I went prone. Unfortunately, I couldn’t clear the intervening willows, so I eased into a sitting position. My reticle was far from still on the boar’s shoulder, but I was as low as I could get, and the extra elbow support a good sitting position provides helped me put the bullet in the bruin’s boiler room.
Prone is the most stable position. Unfortunately, very few areas offer the type of terrain that makes prone practical. A proper prone position involves aligning your body, the rifle and the target, much as you might a golf shot. When you drop into position, you shouldn’t have to move the gun much to get on target. While I practice frequently with nothing but my support arm under the rifle, prone really shines with the aid of a rest, like a daypack or bi-pod.
I’ve made all my longest shots from prone, including a New Mexico pronghorn that fell to my .270 WSM from 453 yards, a fine aoudad ram at 496 yards and my best-ever mule deer at 397 yards. Most recently, I shot a fine mountain goat in British Columbia at 601 yards. I don’t like shooting that far, but am confident enough from prone to take long shots if I have to, as long as I have a good, solid rest and minimal wind.
Although many hunters believe marksmanship is their birthright as red-blooded American males, the fact is that good shooters are made, not born. Practice—whether it’s on the range or dry fire sessions at home—is the key to success in the field. The more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll become with field positions and the faster and more accurately you can break a shot. Your confidence will soar, and it won’t be long before you’re the guy in deer camp who never misses.
About the photos
Postion 1: Offhand is the most difficult shooting position, but can be mastered with practice.
Postion 2: The kneeling position can be quickly acquired and provides a solid platform for shooting.
Postion 3: The sitting position is the author’s favorite because it is very stable and easy to assume.
Position 4: Prone is great if the terrain allows it. It works best with a good rest, like a pack.