Whether it’s an adventure of a lifetime or just a routine local deer hunt, SCI Members are known for doing more than simply checking their rifle’s zero once a year before heading afield. Great and memorable hunts may begin at our Convention, but it’s the preparation and practice that comes after booking a hunt that makes or breaks it.
It’s perhaps for those reasons SCI was invited this past March to participate in a special three-day Hunter’s Prep course hosted by Mossberg and held at the renowned Gunsite Academy in Paulden, AZ where experienced hunting writers honed their basic skills, learned new ones and put them into practice during practical and realistic shooting scenarios.
Though Gunsite is primarily considered a gunfighting school, “Colonel [Jeff] Cooper, our founder, was a big time hunter,” says Gunsite instructor Il Ling New. “He created a pretty robust hunting program when he started the school.”
Interestingly, the Hunter Prep class isn’t necessarily about accuracy or even shooting from different positions–even though those are important elements. Instead, emphasis is on determining your ethical range where you have 100 percent certainty of a vital zone hit, and learning how that ethical range changes with conditions and distance all while becoming a better shooter. This also correlates with Gunsite’s defensive shooting training where it’s about making effective center mass hits and using cover and concealment while becoming a better shooter.
Collectively, our group had at least a couple hundred years experience hunting big and dangerous game on every continent, but we still began with the fundamentals of safety and shooting basics. Those form the foundation on which you build yourself into an exceptional shooter, and you’re never so experienced that you can blow them off. For example, a large part of my background is in personal defense shooting where one of the fundamentals you learn is to remove the source of the ammunition (magazine) first and then clear the chamber when emptying a gun. But in the Hunter Prep course, I had to learn to clear the chamber first and then remove the magazine instead because as New pointed out, the magazine release on some bolt-action rifles is inside the triggerguard, and you don’t want your finger in there with the chamber loaded unless your sights are on a target you intend to shoot.
Another tweak to basics I had to learn was focusing on my scope’s reticle instead of the target—much like with defensive handgun shooting where you’re taught to focus on the front sight. With handguns, so long as your front sight is reasonably aligned with your rear sight and on the target, you can pretty much count on a center mass hit at typical defensive distances. That lesson was clearly illustrated to me years ago while training with an Air Marshall friend who ran me through a handgun drill called “Sign of the Cross.” For that drill, I ran the front sight all the way up, all the way down and all the way left and right in my sight picture while shooting with those different sight pictures. The result certainly wasn’t a tidy little group in the center of the silhouette, but all hits were center mass and taught me that in a defensive situation, quickly getting an effective sight picture and shot off is better than taking a long time to get a precise one.
It’s the same thing when focusing on the reticle of a riflescope and big game hunting. Sure, there are times when you need to set up, take your time and “thread the needle,” but you’re also likely to have limited time to get your sights on the vital zone and take an effective shot before game disappears. New demonstrated how, by focusing on the reticle, you are better able to see how steady or not you are and, as a result, actually move less and ultimately take a quicker, more accurate shot.
With those fundamentals, as well as natural point of aim, reacquiring the sight picture between shots, and following through freshly covered, New started live fire instruction with basic off-hand shooting at close range such as you might encounter while still hunting. “Then we’re going to put you in field positions and field situations,” she explained, “so you can respond as you would on a hunting expedition.”
The shooting positions, how you get in and out of them, and how you address the target in the Hunter Prep course were very much like the defensive carbine classes I’ve taken at Gunsite, and that’s intentional. “The marksmanship mechanics, the techniques, are very, very similar,” says New.
For example, braced kneeling is steadier than off-hand so it’s used for hunting, but it also lowers your profile so it’s used for defensive shooting. It’s a quick position to get into, but there are some nuances such as you want bone-on-bone support, but not bone-on-bone contact meaning it’s more stable to have your elbow in front of your knee and supported on your triceps muscle than to have your actual elbow on your knee, which is wobbly. Similarly with squatting or sitting, it’s better to have your elbows inside your knees instead of on top of them.
While many hunters use slings as nothing more than a carry strap, the Hunter Prep course showed how to use one to steady your aim and taught me that, in one respect, I had been using a sling wrong. Normally I carry my rifle slung muzzle down behind my off shoulder in what Gunsite calls the “African” carry. When I need to bring the rifle up for an offhand shot, I simply grab the sling and forend together and pivot it up in one fluid motion to a shooting position so the sling wraps tightly around my elbow. I’ve always believed that locked in with the sling as such, I was more steady. However, New showed me how when shooting offhand, wrapping up like that actually makes your hand into a fulcrum that the gun pivots against making you unsteady, and how when shooting offhand it’s better to simply let the sling hang.
It’s a totally different story though when you’re shooting from position where the sling really helps steady your aim. For the class, we specifically used a Barranti Peabody sling, which was a new one to me. While this sling appears as simplistic as a carry strap, it’s actually every bit the tool that the Ching sling is, only lighter and more quickly and easily adjusted. By passing your support arm through the sling and raising the sling to your armpit, you put back tension on the sling locking things tightly when in the kneeling, squatting or sitting positions resulting in a much steadier aim than without the sling.
For rifles, we all used Mossberg Patriot bolt-actions that seemed tailor-made for the course drills and gave me new appreciation for features I’ve sometimes overlooked or took for granted. One of those features is the ability to open the bolt with the safety on so you can double check to make sure a cartridge chambered. Another is a detachable box magazine that you can also load while it’s seated in the gun, so you can always keep the magazine topped off.
With their walnut stocks, polished blued steel and full features, the Patriots were effective, attractive and inherently accurate even out to the 400-yard targets we engaged. Functionally they performed almost flawlessly without cleaning over three hot, dusty days and more than 300 rounds each. The only malfunction was when one rifle developed sluggish ejection because of dust building up around the ejection plunger and needed to be cleaned. And even though we were all experienced shooters and hunters, we all improved and learned new and in many cases better ways to shoot.
It was also an opportunity to shoot at targets you ordinarily don’t get to on a square range such as a charging bear that bobbed and weaved with the unevenness of the terrain and at the instructor’s whim. By the end of the three days, instructors took the group, one at a time, “hunting” along a well-worn trail where we used the skills we had just honed on various game animal targets at unknown distances and angles.
We all agreed that we were better game shots by the end of the course. While that may have been because we just had a lot of realistic practice and learned how to better use the features of our rifles, it’s safe to say even the most experienced of us learned something that made him or her a better, safer, more ethical hunter.
New’s parting advice to SCI Members getting tuned up for hunting season was to go out and find some training from a professional trainer and not just punch holes in paper shooting from a bench. Find someone who is going to help you maximize the skills you already have and maybe address some areas where you can improve, not only in your marksmanship work, but your ability to do things in the field.–Scott Mayer