If you must shoot quickly or over brush with a gun, standing might be your only option. Here’s how to practice a position for deer hunting you’ll try never to use — but one that could someday put venison on the table.
The snap of limbs and then voices told me the drivers were close. In minutes they were all but a pebble’s toss away, boughs sloughing against canvas farm jackets. I relaxed. No deer in this pocket.
Then, suddenly, a whitetail buck popped free of the pines. He sunfished over a fence a few feet to my front then rocketed straight-away. A .303 bullet caught him in the back of his neck. He tumbled, dead instantly. I couldn’t remember lifting my rifle. Truly, sometimes muscle memory beats deliberate aim.
But such lucky shots aren’t really. Instinctive shooting depends a great deal on muscle memory. It leans, too, on hand-eye coordination, some of which you inherit. But cultivating good shooting form and then using it exclusively in practice is not just training your muscles. It’s refining coordination. Your body’s routines, from walking and swimming to driving with a standard transmission, result from repeated trials, mating one function with another until the process is coordinated.
Shooting a rifle well starts at a bench. There, across sandbags or from a mechanical rest, you can focus on breathing, sight picture and trigger control, three fundamental aspects of marksmanship. Because the bench supports the rifle, you needn’t fret about sight movement or fight tired, twitching muscles. But extended shooting from the bench can leave you thinking you’re a marksman when you’re not.
Once, at a sight-in day on a shooting range, I asked a bunch of hunters who had just zeroed their rifles to take one offhand shot at a 6-inch circle at 100 yards. More than a dozen riflemen missed the backer entirely and only five out 30 hits on the backer were in the circle. Few had practiced from the positions they would almost certainly use on opening day.
Standing shots are the toughest. You’ll shoot much better prone, sitting or kneeling because your center of gravity is lower and you have more ground contact. But if you must shoot quickly or over brush, standing might be your only option. Here’s how to practice a position you’ll try never to use — but one that could someday put venison on the table.
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Before you lift the rifle, point your feet properly. Place them shoulder-width apart, with your weight evenly distributed. A line through your toes should cross your rifle’s shadow at a roughly 30-degree angle. That will get you close to comfortable. Then shift your feet to bring the sights onto the target. Find your natural point of aim — the direction in which the rifle naturally points. Do not force the rifle onto the target with your arms.
Grasp the grip firmly and pull the butt into your shoulder. Keep your left elbow (for right-handed shooters) nearly under the rifle and your right elbow almost horizontal. Raise the comb to your face, and drop your cheek as little as possible for firm contact. Touch the trigger with the first joint of your index finger.
Keep your head erect so you can look straight through the sight. Squint if you must, but try to keep both eyes open. Your eye should be about three inches from the scope lens when your face is as far forward as comfort allows.
Take a breath as you shoulder the rifle, the other as you let it settle on the target. Relax as you release the second breath. The sight should be on the target, and your trigger finger should be taking up slack.
Apply trigger pressure when the sight is on target. Hold pressure when the sight moves off target. The rifle should fire when the sight is where you want it. Resist the urge to “time the shot” by yanking the trigger as the sight bounces onto the target.
Follow through, maintaining position as the rifle recoils. Try to call your shot — that is, tell yourself where the bullet hit. An accurate call means you had your eyes on the target and knew where the sight was when the bullet left. That’s important!
Of course, these steps must be practiced to make them into muscle memory that will take over when your adrenaline is pumping. Distance doesn’t matter. Your goal is to master the fundamentals of marksmanship: position, aiming and trigger control. All components, from foot position to trigger squeeze and follow-through, must be second nature before you can expect consistent hits. Practice them often enough, and your body will respond when you must shoot quickly.