Put in the work now and get ready for the best fall hunting season of your life.
There are many skills you need to practice throughout life so they’ll be ready when needed. One might be fluency in a second language, or playing an instrument; many of us struggle with never-ending home repairs. Rifle shooting is another skill you need to practice for proficiency on future hunts. Simply picking up a rifle the day before the season doesn’t ensure success. Plan now to practice with your rifle in the offseason like you’d practice the piano.
A WELL-ROUNDED SHOOTING PLAN. As you ponder how to fit in practice sessions and budget for ammunition, plan a shooting regiment that oversees all shooting fundamentals for the upcoming big game seasons. Most hunters begin and conclude their shooting preparation a few days before the season with an hour-long visit to the shooting range. I live just down the road from just such a facility, and the week before the big game opener it’s flooded like a Target store on Black Friday.
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Simply put, by drafting a varied shooting plan that spans several months you gain much more benefit and skill, as opposed to that one visit. Here’s a basic plan to get you started down the right road to fall success.
BACK TO BALLISTICS CLASS. Before you load the vehicle with guns and ammo, take a refresher course on the ballistics of the caliber you’ll be using in the field. Your goal should be to understand this rifle as well as you do your spouse (or better). As more and more companies release new gear to help you range, target and kill farther than ever before, it’s important to understand the effectiveness of your rifle using your adopted hunting load.
Memorizing the trajectory and drift of a bullet is best for quick reference in the field, but many expert marksmen utilize a “cheat sheet” referred to as a DOPE card taped to the rifle’s buttstock. DOPE stands for Data On Previous Engagement, and this readout of data gives you instantaneous information to match against the real-life distance and prevailing wind conditions. Even if you’re using Bluetooth rangefinder technology that changes reticle position—as found in the cutting-edge Sig Sauer Sierra3BDX riflescope—it’s good to have a backup if batteries crash unexpectedly.
GEAR UP AS IF YOU WERE HUNTING. Before zeroing your rifle, be sure to add in all the accessories you plan to use on your hunt. Include the rifle sling, bipod, scope caps, camouflage tape—even that hunting video camera clamped to the barrel. At the range you are checking the zero and accuracy of the rifle. Typically, accessories don’t change the zero, but any added changes or pressures on a rifle, particularly to the barrel, could alter bullet impact.
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The same is true of ammunition. Zero and practice with the same brand, line and bullet you plan to hunt with to maintain consistency. Once you zero with that load you can shoot another version, but don’t change the zero. Keep your rifle tuned to its favorite-shooting load.
MAKE THE MOST OF RANGE TIME. With your rifle geared for hunting, hit the range. Your goal is to zero the rifle and check accuracy. Many hunters zero at 200 yards today, which typically has you shooting 2 to 3 inches high at 100 yards. A longer zero minimizes calculations with quick shots at normal shooting ranges, plus gives your scope more adjustability if you plan to shoot farther.
With modern firearms, optics and ammunition, you should be able to shoot a 1-inch group at 100 yards. My Bergara B-14 in 6.5 Creedmoor shoots a ¾-inch group with the Hornady 143-grain ELD-X bullet in Precision Hunter ammunition, giving me ample confidence if the shot extends beyond 300 yards. You may need to shoot several different bullet weights to discover the one your rifle prefers for the tightest groups.
After your rifle is zeroed and checked for accuracy, test your riflescope’s accuracy at different powers, since you likely sighted in on its highest setting. Most riflescopes have reticles on the second focal plane. These riflescopes tend to change the holdover value of impact as the power setting is decreased, as opposed to first focal plane reticles. It will likely be minimal, but it never hurts to check at varying distances you expect during a hunt. Finally, move over to a long-range course and discover your personal shooting limit—while shooting from hunting positions. If your shots tend to stray beyond 400 yards, you shouldn’t consider a shot past that distance.
WHY FIELD TIME PAYS. Why not have some fun after your range workout? Schedule a varmint hunt and toss in your hunting rifle along with your dedicated varmint rig. Summer varmint hunts give you a classroom to test your shooting skills in various hunting scenarios, while zeroing on challenging targets. Woodchucks, gophers, prairie dogs and even wild hogs irritate landowners willing to open their fields for varmint control. Utilizing your HuntStand app ensures you won’t stray onto other properties, with the use of the Property Info feature that shows all public and private-land boundaries—and that could get you invited back (along with your varminting success) for a fall big game hunt.
In addition to helping landowners with varmint control, you’re helping yourself by shooting in real-world wind and distance conditions. Take a few test shots with your larger-caliber rifle, but don’t continue the pounding all day. Switch to a smaller caliber occasionally, as too many jolts from the big gun could create flinching issues down the road. PRACTICE THE TOUGH SHOT. Whether varmint hunting or simply shooting milk jugs in a pasture, practice the unexpected, tough shot. A good test is to have a partner choose a target amongst a medley scattered across a safe backstop, at varying distances. Your objective should be to mentally range and shoot the unanticipated target in five seconds or less.
You can also place cardboard targets inside rimless tires to practice running shots. Your “tire launcher” buddy rolls the tire down a grade from behind a protected backstop, and once it enters a safe shooting space it’s up to you to lead, and accurately hit the bull’s eye. There are two schools to follow when aiming at running game. Either swing through the target as you would while aiming at flushing upland game, or match the target’s speed and pull the trigger when the lead looks correct.
Lastly, test your accuracy from offhand, kneeling and sitting positions just in case. Shooting opportunities sometimes arise in a surprise meeting. You may not always be shooting from the padded ledge of your hunting blind. BENEFITS OF BACKYARD PLINKING. Shooting with a large-caliber rifle requires a slightly different technique than plinking with a .22 LR, but don’t overlook the added benefits of plinking. For starters, it’s something you might be able to do in your rural backyard, or even in a shed equipped with a safe backstop for indoor practice. It’s relatively inexpensive, yet still allows you to exercise precision aiming and trigger control. Plus, it’s an easy discipline to include young family members—to help maintain their interest in hunting and shooting sports.
Shooting at new targets that roll, bounce and change position at every hit sharpens accuracy skills, and many companies manufacture “flip-style” or “gong” targets specifically for plinking.
MAKE A HABIT OF CLEANING. Finally, remember to clean that firearm after a long shooting session. Cleaning a firearm regularly prevents rust, ensures sound mechanical operation, and guarantees accuracy. Study the cleaning procedures, disassembly and safe practice of your firearm model.
Depending on your belief and the manufacturer recommendation, you should clean a firearm between 20 and 50 shots, but don’t forget to foul the barrel after cleaning with one or two shots afterward. Fouling removes traces of oil and other cleaning solvents, plus it pads the rifling with copper, and powder residue to return your rifle to its range-ready zero.
Shooting is a skill that you can lose as easily as your high school Spanish if you don’t practice regularly. Keep speaking the hunting language with a summer full of scheduled shooting before hunting season, and you’ll soon be reaping the many rewards.