Back To School!

The other day my old friend Bob Boutang called me with some questions for a Masters thesis he’s working on. Bob’s a retired conservation officer, a bit older than I am. It probably doesn’t speak well of me, but the last thing in the world I ever wanted to do was go back to school! And I never did, at least not in the formal sense. However, one thing I’ve learned: Never say “never.”

So, while it’s highly unlikely I’ll go after another degree, take up sky-diving, or climb Mount Everest—or do a lot of other stuff I have no desire to do—I don’t keep a list of things I would never do. Although additional formal education isn’t high on my bucket list, I was impressed that my friend Bob was going after an advanced degree at, well, our advancing age. It kinda made me think of something else I’ve known for a long time that’s all too easy to forget: We are never too old to learn.

This applies to unfamiliar endeavors such as scuba diving or flying a helicopter…but it also applies to things we’ve done all our lives. In fact, it may apply more to familiar activities like shooting. Because it’s all too easy to get complacent and believe you already know all there is to know. And that’s just not true.

We are all victims of our own experience, and it’s not part of human nature to readily think outside of the box we create for ourselves. Okay, here’s an extreme example: A couple of years ago I was in camp with a family on their first safari. All were experienced deer hunters…but they had never seen shooting sticks. At first, they were a bit upset that they weren’t hunting from box blinds, which was the comfort zone they’d established for themselves. At first there were some frustrating misses.

At Branded Rock Canyon Ranch, shooting instructor Mark Dambrosio, a former Marine special operator, demonstrates a method to set up for a difficult uphill shot at a steel “ram” far up the canyon wall above him.

Fortunately, it was a game-rich area with lots of opportunities and everything worked out in the end. Hunts don’t always go that way. All too often it comes down to just one opportunity: Whatever the shot happens to be you must take it and make it…or go home empty. The simple solution is to practice and hopefully we all do. Shooting isn’t exactly like riding a bike, something that, once learned, you never forget. Experience does count, but shooting skills—and good shooting habits—are perishable.

Two thoughts on this: First, while we’re practicing on our own ranges, and thus in our own little bubbles, it’s amazing how quickly bad habits can develop…no matter how experienced we are. Second, no matter where we live, our own familiar ranges are bubbles, comfortable but isolated habitats that cannot offer a full range of the shooting opportunities (and challenges) that we might encounter when hunting in far-flung places.

It’s kind of a guy thing: Real men don’t ask for directions or read instruction manuals…and for sure we don’t seek training in activities we already consider ourselves accomplished experts in (like shooting). Especially in today’s busy world, it’s increasingly difficult to budget range time. Many urban dwellers have limited access to shooting ranges. This is complicated by the fact that few shooting ranges have distant targets, and many ranges have rules that limit the positions that can be employed, thus reducing the real training value. Shooting off the bench is nearly essential for establishing proper zero and testing loads—but offers very little genuine practice and almost no experience that prepares us for field shooting.

An increasingly popular—and available option—is to get training. This is sort of cramming for the exam. No matter how proficient and experienced you are (or are not), during just a few days of intensive shooting with good instructors you can get more practice value—training—than most of us can get during a year (or more!) of informal range sessions. This is becoming a popular concept, and shooting schools are popping up all over the country. Obviously, some are better than others and I’ve seen only a handful, but even as a 50-year veteran shooter I’ve gained from good instruction…and I’ve always learned some new tricks (and re-learned old lessons).

Old lessons: In all shooting it’s important to concentrate on the basics of breathing, sight alignment and trigger press. However, in the course of our informal practice, it’s amazing how quickly insidious little bad habits can pop up…and how difficult it can be to find and fix a problem without the help of a skilled observer. Smooth, consistent trigger press is essential to all rifle (and handgun) accuracy but, just as in shotgunning, follow-through is essential: Any given shot isn’t over until the bullet hits the target. A couple of years ago, at a SAAM range at Tim Fallon’s FTW Ranch, I was having odd misses at longer ranges. Doug Pritchard, a great instructor, got down beside me and watched my trigger finger. Sure enough, instead of continuing steady pressure through the shot, I was “flicking” my finger off the trigger as it broke. I know better, so I have no idea where that came! Once identified, it was an easy problem to fix.

Another reason for “going back to school” is because of that “bubble effect” of your comfortable and familiar home range. There are shooting schools all over the country. There’s great training to be had just in switching scenery: Different targets at different distances; unfamiliar elevation, temperature and air density. And: Different prevailing winds, with different ways in which the terrain channelizes air currents…and different clues for judging wind speed and direction.

Just recently I spent a few days at Branded Rock Canyon Ranch in southwestern Colorado, a new shooting facility with a great lodge in fantastic scenery, an amazing chef, fine instructors and an impressive array of steel targets out to any range one might feel comfortable shooting. There was a difference. Branded Rock Canyon goes up a long, narrow valley, with steep ridges on both sides. The valley floor rises to about 6,000 feet, tops well above 8,000. If you sight in near sea level, as I usually do, this is enough change to see some effect. However, there’s more. The ranges are set up along the valley and up both sides, enabling shots at 30, 45, even 60 degrees both uphill and down.

Such steepness is rare in actual nature, but you do occasionally encounter it in mountain hunting. When you do, you have a whole different set of shooting challenges. Figuring the hold isn’t such a big deal because modern rangefinders and other tools can handle that—but finding steady positions for shooting at severe angles, whether uphill or down, is extremely difficult.

I am not an extreme-range shooter on game, but I’ve long thought one of my strong suits was figuring out how to find a steady shooting position under most situations. Like most courses of instruction, we started in the classroom with some basics. Instructor Mark Dambrosio knew his stuff, and showed it when we shifted to ranges. With life-size steel silhouettes up (and down) the canyon walls at 400, 500, 600 yards, and beyond, we worked on positions. Rob Gearing from Spartan Bipods was there with his latest carbon-fiber tripod system. Rob knows his stuff, too…and I thought I knew mine!

However, if you take the plunge and go back to school it’s important to keep an open mind. With good ranges, fun targets and excellent instruction, I was surprised at how much I learned. And, as always, after a few days of intensive shooting under realistic and challenging field conditions, my confidence level increased. More importantly, I came away with a bunch of new ideas and shooting positions stowed away in my bag of tricks. We’re never too old to learn. –Craig Boddington

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