By Timothy P. Banse
"Beware of He Who Owns Only One Gun." That was the tribute pioneers bestowed on the man who killed game and defended his family with just one rifle. The kind of man who knew his weapon so well that he could drive a lead all through your heart as easily as he could flex his trigger finger.
No matter how well any rifleman shoots, whether back in pioneer times, or today, it's a fact that straight shooters are made and not born. Almost anyone can become a crack shot. There's no magic, there are no secrets. It is just a simple matter of reviewing the basics and practicing until the methods become second nature. But no matter whether you've never shot quite as well as you'd like to, or you just want to tighten up your bullet group that's been wandering around the X-ring, almost anyone will benefit from time spent plinking away at targets.
Like anything worthwhile, it takes a plan to reap the maximum benefits. For this and other reasons, the first step toward straighter shooting is to check the rifle's zero in order to determine whether or not it's putting bullets where the sights say it's going. Begin by bench resting the rifle across a shooting table. Place one sand bag beneath the forearm and another one underneath the butt stock, midpoint between the pistol grip and recoil pad. The idea being the bags support the rifle so it's sighted on the bulls-eye. Zero-in at the distance you'll be hunting: Brush hunters might sight-in the rifle so the bullet strikes the point of aim at 25- or 50-yards, while scoped rifles zero at 200- to 200-yards. Often with a stone cold bore the first shots will run wild. To prevent this first-shot divergence fire a warning shot, also called a fouling shot.
When squeezing off a shot, don't anticipate the recoil. If you're anticipating how the gun butt is poised to slam into your shoulder you're destined to flinch. And miss. Instead, take the time to relax. Take a deep breath, then let half of it out. Hold what's left just long enough to squeeze off the shot. But don't delay too long or you arms will start shaking as you run out of air. Squeeze the trigger so neatly, so crisply you are surprised when the gun fires. The report should surprise you. When it does, call the shot. In other words know exactly where the sights were aligned at the instant the firing pin hit the primer. Fire a five- or ten-shot group. Or, three shots, if you want. Doesn't really matter. Check the results with a spotting scope and adjust the sights to bring the group into the center of the bulls eye.
With the rifle zeroed in, review the basics: Proper body position, correct sight alignment and uniformity of technique. For proper body position consult the NRA's classic book: A Guided Book to Rifle Marksmanship. This title illustrates all the positions: Prone, Sitting, Kneeling, Off hand, and so on. All of these positions are useful in the appropriate situation.
Uniformity, consistence of technique is vital. For example, always grip the forearm in the same exact spot, tuck the butt plate tightly against your shoulder the same way each time. Similarly, arms and elbows must line up in the same position. It even helps to shoot the same ammunition loads you'll be hunting with come autumn, and that holds true down to the bullet weight, powder charge and cartridge case manufacturer.
Shooting is one sport where the buddy system is invaluable. A partner can watch your rifle's barrel for muzzle waver as well as detect the telltale flickering in the chronic flincher's eyes. And when it's his turn to step up to the firing line, you can return the favor. You already know that flinching is the reaction to muzzle blast. To lessen the effect of the noise either wear ear plugs, or better yet, wear both plugs and ear muffs. Both go a long way towards prevention hearing loss and tinnitus and the lifetime of not being able to hear loved ones or the TV. Tinnitus is incurable, prevention by way of hearing protection pays big dividends.
Recoil is an undisputed big bore villain, rifle or pistol. When a .357 Magnum's kick starts getting to a hand gunner a shootist may rather-wisely borrow his friends .44 Magnum and burn a few rounds. After six or 12 rounds with the big bore the .357 doesn't seem so bad. That same strategy also works with rifles. Every now an then when my .30-06 Colombian Mauser is getting the better of me, I'll borrow a .458 Winchester. After five or ten rounds with the Lion Killer the ought-six feels like a .22 long rifle.
Flinching can be beat. That's a fact I learned from my grandfather, Maurice. Back when I was a ten-year old kid. Out behind the barn with Grandpa, we were blamming away with horse pistol (as he called it) at a paper target tacked up to a fence post. My bullets were hitting the paper, the only problem was that my pattern wasn't a tight group, instead it looked like I was shooting buckshot. Gramps just shook his head in despair. He wanted me to do better.
"Here, gimme that," he hollered, grabbing the pistol out of my hands, flipping open the cylinder and turning his back to me. A moment later he wheeled back around and handed me the gun. "You were loading it wrong," he said, dryly. "Now try it my way."
I raised the handgun, cocked the hammer, took aim at the bulls eye, gritted my teeth and pulled the trigger. I blinked as the pistol went "Click."
Empty cylinder, I immediately surmised.
Gramps just grinned.
I was embarrassed to have been caught flinching, red-handed like that.
"Try again," he said.
I cocked the hammer and took aim.
Over my shoulder I heard Grandpa, "Three rounds in that six gun, sonny, and they're not in any particular order."
I squeezed the trigger. This time the gun roared and bucked. I watched the bullet impact dead center in the bulls eye. From then on, every time I pulled back the hammer I didn't know whether or not the gun would go off, or go click. Suffice it to say, loading the six gun by my grandfather's method considerably tightened my groups.
Banging away at the same, old, boring paper targets can get pretty boring. Salvation is found in the variety of targets that are available to break that boredom. There are pictures of menacing Jihadists, bobcat, deer, zombies and street thugs. With these specialized targets you can practice neck, lung, heart and brain shots.
Take advantage of the variety to plan on how to handle different hunting situations, such as game moving towards or away from your position. For example, if you were to ever find yourself in the unnerving situation of a grizzly bear charging downhill at you, what would be your target? The brain? True, if you could hit the bobbing head that might stop him, but if you miss you likely won't have time to get off a second shot. Some experienced hunters say it's better to shoot the beast in the shoulder, thereby crippling him, giving you more time to make a deliberate and clean kill shot.
Whichever vital organ you aim for, shooting with both eye wide open will help your brain's computer better distinguish range, direction of movement and speed over ground. Not so important at the shooting range on a sunny, Sunday afternoon, but in the wilderness when stalking (or being stalked) by wild game, it does make a difference.
Besides the variety of available paper targets, you can also shoot at water balloons, clay pigeons and empty tin cans. Naturally the tin cans and other junk is gathered up and recycled once you've finished peppering them with neat little, holes. Obviously, glass bottles are a no-no.
Until a few years ago this article would have suggested supplementing big bore shooting with .22 long rifle plinking. Without savage recoil and muzzle blast, practicing with a .22 is a good way to get rid of flinching. But with .22 ammo so hard to come by it's not as much of a viable options as it once was. Salvation though is found with Air Soft and BB guns. Firing them over and over again in your basement or garage keeps your skills intact (trigger control, consistent body position). In summation, shoot, shoot and shoot some more in order to get better and better.