Your First Overseas Hunt – Craig Boddington

It’s a big world out there with almost limitless opportunities. Transportation has never been faster and remains fairly affordable. It’s a fact that many international hunts are beyond the financial reach for many of us. However, it’s also fact that a lot of amazing adventures lie within the reach of average working folks. To some extent this is a matter of priority, and we’re all entitled to our own hunting dreams. Honestly, good old North America is a pretty cool place, with a wide variety of habitats and game animals. Also, because of our vast public lands, North America offers the greatest opportunity in the world for DIY hunting.

African sunset: Yes, the African sunset is just as magnificent as you’ve heard!

It’s okay with me if you’re content hunting close to home. North America has the world’s largest hunting culture, but according to surveys, most American hunters rarely hunt far from home. Your hunting goals are your business. Hunting is hunting and hunters are hunters; it doesn’t make you less skilled if you prefer to do all of your hunting in your back 40. In fact, I humbly submit that good old American “DIY” public land hunters are among the world’s most skilled.

Because, North America has the world’s largest hunting culture, we dominate the market, and although the percentage is small, we also have the world’s largest group of traveling hunters, tens of thousands annually, including both veterans and first-timers.

Every year on the convention circuit, I run into hundreds of hunters who dream of expanding their horizons. Some are serial dreamers, folks I talk to year after year, still thinking about a long-range hunt, but they just haven’t gotten around to it. Trust me, there are always good reasons: kids in college, job took a downward turn, illness in the family, you name it. Making an international hunt is discretionary: nobody’s going to make you do it, and there are always other things to be done with money. So, it seems to me that the first hurdle is deciding you want to do it badly enough…and, by God, this year (or next) you’re going to get it done!

The larger hunting conventions such as Safari Club International and Dallas Safari Club are great places to meet outfitters face-to-face.

As to whether it’s worth it or not, well, I’m the worst person to ask! In my 20’s, I worked three jobs and saved every penny I could so I could get to Africa just once! Like all first safaris, it was a life-altering event that I’ve never regretted. However, one’s first costly international hunt is sobering and, let’s be honest, a little bit frightening. For me, every hunt has been worth every penny, every drop of sweat, and every tingle of fear. But that’s a personal judgment that can only be made in retrospect.

In many destinations, and definitely in Africa, trophy fees are a major portion of the hunt cost. It’s important to study the animals available in the area you’ll be hunted and find out which interest you. This is a red Cape hartebeest, widespread in both Namibia and South Africa.

I can say this: I have never met a hunter who regretted investing in new horizons. Odd choice of word? No! The investment is in your book of life; the dividend in your memories. As a gun-writer, I justify this stuff as “business” which it is. But I do not delude myself that I can purchase a safari and expect to directly amortize the cost against articles sold (at outdoor publication rate, really?). Fortunately, I’ve never been afraid to invest in myself, and the memories and photos are still there, often used for articles and book chapters a decade down the road. And, if not, they’re still there.

Sticks in field: Although luck is always a factor, how well you shoot has much to do with overall success. Shooting sticks are almost universal in Africa…get a set and practice with them frequently before your safari.

Unfortunately, I have lost a lot of friends who left us with “bucket list” hunts unfulfilled. For some it was the “one big hunt” he or she wanted to do; for others it was one of many, but an important goal left unfulfilled. Amid the mysteries that await us beyond we cannot know if it matters, but as my own time grows shorter, I am increasingly convinced that we should try to acquire memories we desire to possess while we can, before it’s too late.

As for the trepidation factor, trust me, it’s there when you embark on a first international hunt…and on any trip to an unfamiliar destination. In 1933 Franklin Roosevelt said, “nothing to fear but fear itself.” When traveling internationally apprehensions are normal. I would never say there are no reasons for concern…but in the insulated world of international hunting, which almost universally means an outfitted hunt, worries are remote. On arrival you will be greeted by your outfitter and escorted to a safe camp, and you will have a wonderful experience.

Camp options range from comfortable tent camps to amazing lodges…decide what you want before booking your hunt and shop accordingly.

This principle applies across the worldwide spectrum of outfitted hunts. I’ve done a dozen hunts in Central Asia. Is this a stable and “safe” region for Westerners? Of course not! Would I grab a backpack and go hiking alone? Are you nuts? As a visiting hunter, however, I’ve never felt threatened.

Actual risks are minimal, and in the most common hunting destinations almost nil. When considering a first international adventure most hunters probably look to Africa, where 20 countries offer organized hunting for visitors. Namibia and South Africa have the two largest safari industries and are the most likely choices for first-timers. In either country a typical “plains game safari” is, in my view, the best bargain in the hunting world! Some animals are more difficult than others, and it always depends on straight shooting, how selective you are, and how your luck runs. On a seven or ten-day hunt in good country most hunters will average about one animal per day.

The most typical pricing is a daily rate plus “trophy fees” for game taken. Trophy fees depend on local availability and “desirability,” so a kudu commands a higher price than common antelopes such as blesbok and impala. Some outfitters, especially those who own the land they operate on, offer inclusive “packages” which can be good deals. Costs vary among outfitters and depends on game taken, but very good plains game safaris including a good selection of animals range from around $5000, similar to a basic guided deer hunt. Not included are usually tips, trophy shipping, taxidermy, and travel, all of which must be factored in as you do your planning.

Boddington and Frederick Burchell with a southern greater kudu bull taken in southern Namibia. The greater kudu is plentiful in both Namibia and South Africa, and is at the top of many hunters’ “wish list” on plains game safaris in both countries.

You can expect comfortable camps, great food, and the time of your life, but don’t expect that a first safari will get this out of your system once and for all. Most hunters find themselves planning a return even before they get on the plane home. Now, let me throw out another idea. On a first overseas hunt it’s common to think of Africa first…but it doesn’t have to be that way. Every continent save Antarctica has a wide variety of hunting destinations, but two other areas strike me as very good options to start with: Argentina and New Zealand.

Outfitter Chris and Caroline Bilkey and Craig Boddington with Caroline’s red stag, in New Zealand’s Southern Alps above the Rangitata River Valley. As in Argentina, red stag is the premier game species in New Zealand, but most areas offer about a half-dozen varieties of big game.

Both are extremely safe and “user friendly” beautiful countries with good outfitters operating from excellent camps and lodges. Neither country vies with Africa for variety, but it always depends on what game interests you the most. Costs for basic hunts are similar to a plains game safari, and both countries need to be on your “bucket list.”

Once you’ve made the decision to take the plunge the hard part is choosing exactly where to go and picking your outfitter. This can get confusing, since there are lots of great outfitters. Word-of -mouth is always a good referral, but keep in mind that nobody knows all the good outfitters and we are all limited by our own experience. The major hunting conventions offer good opportunities to walk around and meet outfitters face to face. Just keep in mind that their purpose for being there is to sell their hunts.

No outfitter can control weather or game movement, but they can control food and lodging, and good outfitters the world over take good care of their clients. In South Africa, eland steaks on the grill…the best game meat in the world

Donated hunts are often offered for auction at fundraisers for various conservation groups. These sometimes go for ridiculously low prices, which breaks my heart. Depending on the group, these hunts may or may not be well-vetted, but are donated for a good cause. That’s why I hate to see them go cheap, but it takes at least two bidders to make an auction.

Just read the fine print carefully and make sure you know exactly what you’re bidding on! Booking agents are also a good source, and are especially useful for first-timers because they’re available to answer questions while outfitters are in the field. The limitation is booking agents only represent certain outfitters, and some outfitters don’t use agents.

I am not an agent, but I have a network of Craig Boddington Endorsed Outfitters (CBEO), in the outfitter section on my website (www.craigboddington.com). Our limitation is CBEO is restricted to folks I know and recommend to my friends, but we have members in all the likely areas for a first-time hunt.

By whatever means, locate an outfitter who appeals to you, do a “google” search, get references, and call them! Understand that most references will be satisfied and successful clients, so don’t just focus on their hunts. Ask about other hunters in camp, and about hunting conditions and “what a typical hunting day is like.”

The good news, there are very few bad apples in the outfitter barrel! Try to get a handle on the experience you’re looking for, not just the animals. Do your due diligence as if booking your hunt is a business transaction! It’s exactly that for the outfitter, while it’s dream fulfilment for you. Put emotions aside, know what you want, and check things out carefully. With just ordinary caution chances are very good that your hunting dreams will come true!

Judging Speed Goats

Judging Speed Goats: Nick Oceanak

You’ve drawn a license for the fastest land animal in North America, the Pronghorn! Well that’s great but how do you know what to look for in a mature buck? The pronghorn is one of the most difficult animals to judge in all North America. I’m speaking in terms of antler size of course! Even after being a professional big game hunting guide in Wyoming for seventeen years I still misjudge pronghorn on the hoof. Now pronghorn are not antelope but are often referred to as such because they closely resemble the true antelope in Africa. So, I will use both terms as I refer to them in this article. We regularly call them “speed goats” as well (because of their similar features to goats and notorious speed).

A mature pronghorn buck harvested with a longbow.
A mature pronghorn buck harvested with a longbow. Photo credit Timberline Outfitters WY

So why are pronghorn so hard to judge? First, their antlers aren’t very large to begin with. Therefore, a difference of twelve inches and fourteen inches is hardly anything at 800 yards but a world of difference up close. Due to the far distances from which you will be looking at antelope, you’ll need to know what to look for. I’m a firm believer that score means very little and that the trophy is in the eye of the beholder. However, to better help you understand what to look for in the antlers of a mature pronghorn I’ll be talking about SCI scoring a little bit. It’s also a good way to convey relative size to other people. You get one length measurement on each side starting from the base and ending at the tip. Then you divide that number by four to find where you will take your four mass measurements. Finally, you get one prong measurement on each side. (ex. figure below)

How to measure a pronghorn horn
Pronghorn horn scale

Mass is the most important factor when it comes to score. Now, you’ll see in the figure that two mass measurements fall below the prong and two above. If the third mass measurement spot falls below the prong you are getting a much bigger score than if it is above, so keep that in mind. When judging a buck, you’ll be critiquing three main things: mass, length and prong size.

OK, so how does one take this basic knowledge to the field and successfully judge a goat at 1,000 yards!? I’ll give you a couple quick, handy tricks to do so.

  1. Look at where the height in which the prong comes off the main antler. If it’s below the ear, then it is most likely a younger buck. If it’s equal the height of the ear or higher then you’re looking at a mature buck.
  2. Study each buck and make sure you get a good look from every angle possible. This will help you judge the three main aspects discussed earlier. The most important angle is the side or profile. This way you can determine relative mass, length, overall antler curl and prong size. Every buck is unique so the more angles the better. It’s easy to look at a buck from straight on and say, “oh that’s a big one!” But don’t fall for it! He may not have much mass, or he may not curl making him look taller that he is, or he may not have much for prongs.
  3. Think about all other factors at play. Is the buck alone during the rut? If so, did he get run off by a bigger buck? Are you looking at a buck among a big group of bucks during the rut? If so, he may be a younger buck hanging with other young bucks because they can’t get close to the does. Has it been a good year in terms of habitat? Is it an area known for producing big bucks?
The prongs come off the antler below the ear, so we are looking at a young buck. Photo credit Timberline Outfitters WY

Body size can help in some cases when looking at comparable bucks at great distances. Look for a stout block body with a thick neck and a big belly. Sometimes older bucks are lighter in color, but I’ve found that color varies greatly and doesn’t always indicate a bucks age.

A very mature pronghorn buck. Notice how high above the ear the prong comes off. Block body, large neck and lighter colored cape indicate an older animal. Photo credit Timberline Outfitters WY

So, let’s recap on the three main aspects of the antlers: mass, length and prong size.

Mass is the most important attribute in terms of overall antler size. Look at the eye in respect to the size of the antler from the side. If the antler is as wide as the eye or wider you know you’re looking at some decent mass. Big bucks will have a circumference at the base of 6 inches and more.

This beautiful antelope buck is extremely tall. If you were to put the ear up against the antler that would be approximately 6 inches up. You can see this buck has a lot of length past that. Photo credit Timberline Outfitters WY

2. Length is perhaps the first thing we notice and the most impressive part in the overall “look” of a buck. Some bucks have huge curls that make them look cool (I love the heart-shaped ones). Some bucks don’t curl much which makes them look taller and that can be neat as well. Mature bucks range from 12 inches to 16 inches and up. When looking at a profile view try to estimate how many inches the tip of the antler is above the ear.

This buck was “massive” with over 7-inch bases and weight that carried all the way up. 84 5/8 SCI

3. Prongs are the awesome features that make the pronghorn so unique! They can stick out, go up, go down, curl in, curl out, etc. They usually aren’t more than 5 inches, but some bucks get huge prongs that go 7 inches and over. The prong adds another big contribution to the “overall” look of a buck.

Pronghorn are unique in so many ways and they all differ from one another. The next time you’re out chasing “speed goats” remember the guidelines for field judging them but also remember the true trophy is in the eye of the beholder!

A very cool non-typical buck taken by a 14-year-old Timberline client. Photo credit Timberline Outfitters WY

To Travel With Firearms

TO TRAVEL WITH FIREARMS …
By: Craig Boddington

At the airport on the way to Argentina: Duffel bag, gun case, and carry-on. A gun case automatically means you’re traveling heavy; overweight baggage charges are part of the deal when you travel with firearms.
At the airport on the way to Argentina: Duffel bag, gun case, and carry-on. A gun case automatically means you’re traveling heavy; overweight baggage charges are part of the deal when you travel with firearms.

Just recently I got back from a “mixed bag” hunt in Argentina: where I did some wingshooting, deer, and water buffalo hunting. I took an over/under Blaser 12 gauge; and a Blaser R8 with .270 and .375 barrels. At this moment I’m on an airplane, headed toward Cameroon. I do not have a gun case in the cargo hold; I’ll be using a “camp gun.” In this article I will be discussing the pros and cons of flying with and without  firearms while traveling to hunt.

Mindsets vary. If you’re a hunter who views a firearm as an essential tool, then, so long as a suitable tool is available, it may not be important for you to bring a favorite firearm. On the other hand, if you’re a “gun guy,” it may be important for you to bring a firearm you consider perfect for game you’re hunting. Destinations vary. Sometimes it’s fairly easy to bring guns; other times it’s a major hassle, but still possible. And there are places where the hunting is great but it is not possible to bring a firearm. You simply must use whatever is available.

I’m both a hunter and a “gun guy.” Given a sensible choice I prefer to bring my own. However, I’ve hunted several places where bringing a firearm isn’t possible. That’s easy: I’ll use whatever is available! Where decisions get hard are situations where practicality and convenience enter in. Essential to consider: Game and hunting conditions; and what firearms are available?

ARGENTINA AND CAMEROON

Hunting partners Gary Wells and Heather Smith elected to use camp rifles and save the hassle. They did fine; Gary’s stag is a lot bigger than mine! This huge red stag was taken with outfitter Marcelo Sodiro’s McMillan .300 Weatherby Magnum…pretty good “camp gun.”
Hunting partners Gary Wells and Heather Smith elected to use camp rifles and save the hassle. They did fine; Gary’s stag is a lot bigger than mine! This huge red stag was taken with outfitter Marcelo Sodiro’s McMillan .300 Weatherby Magnum…pretty good “camp gun.”

My two situations, Argentina and Cameroon, although quite different, are good examples that led to different decisions. Argentina is the largest destination in the world, up to 20,000 foreign hunters per year. Their police and customs officials are no strangers to firearms. Foreign hunters can get temporary permits on arrival, or in advance at the nearest Argentinean consulate. It isn’t really a problem, but there are costs: Their government charges for the permit and your outfitter will probably charge to help expedite the permit. If you are flying to various places around Argentina, you must check the firearms in and out with the local airport police with every transition—much like South Africa. It is not a problem, but it’s a hassle. My hunting partners, Heather Smith and Gary Wells, elected to use camp firearms…and they had to wait for me in every airport!

I was filming, so using sponsor firearms was essential. But, absent compelling justification, there is no reason to bring firearms into Argentina! Outfitters there have good guns. Bird lodges have racks of shotguns, usually Benelli and Beretta. Big-game areas will have well-scoped bolt-actions in appropriate cartridges. I used my guns while Gary and Heather borrowed; at the end of the hunt we were all equally successful.

In Argentina I carried a .270 and .375 barrel for my Blaser R8. As expected, the .375 barrel was used just once to take this water buffalo. These water buffaloes are huge and I needed the .375…but in this camp they had sturdy CZ .375s available for use.
In Argentina I carried a .270 and .375 barrel for my Blaser R8. As expected, the .375 barrel was used just once to take this water buffalo. These water buffaloes are huge and I needed the .375…but in this camp they had sturdy CZ .375s available for use.

Cameroon is a different deal. I wanted to take the perfect rifle, and had my heart set on a 9.3x62mm from Montana Rifles. I could have…but the only way to get a gun permit is through their Washington embassy and I ran out of time. Outfitter, Phillippe Bernon suggested (politely) that they had three good scoped .375s available: A Blaser R93, a CZ, and a Sako. This is a forest hunt. The range will be close, a .375 is fine. I decided it wasn’t worth it to fight city hall. I don’t even know which of the three I will use…but it really doesn’t matter.

TRAVELING WITH FIREARMS…

A hard case has to be sturdy with all hinges intact…and all lock holes must be filled with locks. I disassemble my guns inside the case and add a gun lock…the idea is to make the security folks as comfortable as possible.
A hard case has to be sturdy with all hinges intact…and all lock holes must be filled with locks. I disassemble my guns inside the case and add a gun lock…the idea is to make the security folks as comfortable as possible.

Anywhere in the world the most important thing is to know the rules. Within the United States it’s simple: In checked baggage, sturdy gun case, unloaded, disassembled if possible, all lock holes in the case filled with locks. Ammunition cannot be in the gun case, but can be in other checked baggage. The magic litany: “In original factory containers, less than 5 kilograms (11 pounds).” Always check the airline’s website for any special rules, and for sure announce firearms and ammunition when you check in. Here’s the first caveat: The rules change! Some carriers will not carry firearms. Period, end of story. Make damn sure!

Traveling outside the U.S. is more complicated. Basic rules are similar, but the check-in agent has the obligation to ensure that your firearm can enter your destination country. So, if a temporary permit is needed, do it in advance and have a copy…or make certain it’s right there in black and white (in the airline regulations) that you can obtain a temporary permit on arrival (Argentina, Canada, Namibia, and South Africa are popular examples of this situation).

Inside the U.S. ammo can be in a checked bag separate from the guns but elsewhere in the world it’s more common to check it separately in its own lock case. I’ve used this lockable ammo can for years; it starts unlocked in my duffel bag but can be locked and checked when required.
Inside the U.S. ammo can be in a checked bag separate from the guns but elsewhere in the world it’s more common to check it separately in its own lock case. I’ve used this lockable ammo can for years; it starts unlocked in my duffel bag but can be locked and checked when required.

Ammo is another story. In the U.S. you can technically put ammo in checked baggage separate from firearms. In much of the world ammunition is checked separately in its own locked container. Here’s what I do: My ammunition is packed in a small “military-style” ammo can…with a hasp and padlock in the can to be used when needed. I start with the ammo can unlocked in my duffel…but I can lock it, and check it separately as needed. Checking ammo separately in a locked container is standard throughout much of the world.

This U.S. Customs Form 4457, obtained by bringing your (cased!) firearm to any Customs office. There is no record kept, but it serves as a “U.S. gun permit” elsewhere in the world. Previously this form was valid as long as you owned the firearm, but today most of them have expiration dates in the fine print in the upper right corner…a current 4457 is essential.
This U.S. Customs Form 4457, obtained by bringing your (cased!) firearm to any Customs office. There is no record kept, but it serves as a “U.S. gun permit” elsewhere in the world. Previously this form was valid as long as you owned the firearm, but today most of them have expiration dates in the fine print in the upper right corner…a current 4457 is essential.

The permit process differs radically in various countries, but your outfitter and a gun-savvy travel agent (highly recommended!) can help. The real magic lies in a little piece of paper called “U.S. Customs Form 4457.” Available at any U.S. Customs office, it’s the same form used to record jewelry, watches, or cameras you’re traveling with…to prove you didn’t buy them overseas. No record is kept, so it’s a silly form…but essential for firearms.

Elsewhere in the world, U.S. Customs Form 4457 generally serves as a “firearms permit” to obtain a temporary permit. The problem is the game is changing. Historically, that magical little form 4457 was good as long as you owned the firearm. Today’s forms are dated with an expiration, fine print, top right corner. So, it’s wise (and in some countries essential for a temporary permit) to get new forms.

Ah, one more caveat. You need to know the rules. Unfortunately, many airline employees and even TSA and U.S. Customs folks don’t know their own rules! Congressman David Crockett of Tennessee liked to say “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” Honest, you can’t argue with these people. You can go through various levels of supervisors, but you cannot argue and must be polite! Just now, coming in from Argentina, I got a belligerent inspector who refused to accept a copy of my 4457. That’s a first; it’s a form that no one has a record of, and copies should be fine…but not with this guy. He also insisted they do not expire, so, on this form, he was quite surprised to see, in fine print, “Expiration Date 08/31/2019” in the upper right corner.

The discussion, now calm, got more interesting when I commented that this form served as a “international” throughout much of the world. He insisted that our Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) did indeed “register” firearms and I needed to obtain proper permits. Yes, for certain situations…but in these United States, thank God, we have no nationwide registrations process. You would think U.S. Customs officials would know this—but they do not, and this is not the first time I’ve encountered this. Be polite, get your 4457, make sure it’s current, make copies, and carry the original!

…AND WITHOUT THEM

In 2018 I hunted Congo, one of several places where hunting is good but rifles cannot be brought in. We checked ahead; the outfitter had two Ruger Hawkeyes in .375 Ruger with choice of Aimpoint or low-power scope. Even if we could, there was no reason to bring a rifle.
In 2018 I hunted Congo, one of several places where hunting is good but rifles cannot be brought in. We checked ahead; the outfitter had two Ruger Hawkeyes in .375 Ruger with choice of Aimpoint or low-power scope. Even if we could, there was no reason to bring a rifle.

Trust me, it’s a lot easier to travel without firearms! It’s a relief not to have to schlep the gun case, clear its contents through various authorities…and worry about it! But that depends on where you’re going and what you’re doing. In several places I’ve hunted—Congo, Ghana, Liberia, Peru, Philippines—it’s been impossible to take a firearm so I’ve used what is there. Other times, like this hunt in Cameroon, it’s been too difficult. However, it depends on where you’re going. North America is rarely an issue; there are usually suitable firearms available. This is also true in Africa, Europe, South America, and South Pacific.

Firearms cannot be brought into Liberia. Rifles are generally illegal, but most of the hunting is at close range in thick forest so shotguns are perfect. On two different Liberian hunts I carried this well-used Mossberg 500…and it never failed. This is a zebra duiker, considered Liberia’s greatest prize.
Firearms cannot be brought into Liberia. Rifles are generally illegal, but most of the hunting is at close range in thick forest so shotguns are perfect. On two different Liberian hunts I carried this well-used Mossberg 500…and it never failed. This is a zebra duiker, considered Liberia’s greatest prize.

The biggest problem is Asia, largely mountain hunting where shots can be far. Flat-shooting, well-scoped, sporting rifles are rare throughout the region. I’ve done a couple dozen Asian hunts and, with just two exceptions, I’ve always brought a rifle. In the Philippines it was legally impossible; we borrowed a worn M14 from the local armory! But that was jungle hunting, where ranges are short. The last time I went to Pakistan I scrambled a hunt on short notice. Like this hunt in Cameroon, there wasn’t time to get a temporary permit, so I used the outfitter’s rifles. Mind you, before committing to the hunt I knew he had good rifles in camp and available.

Perhaps the weirdest “camp gun” I ever used was in the Philippines. Our outfitter had an arrangement with the local military and we “checked out” an M14 with military ball ammunition.
Perhaps the weirdest “camp gun” I ever used was in the Philippines. Our outfitter had an arrangement with the local military and we “checked out” an M14 with military ball ammunition.

No matter where you’re going, that’s a major key: If you choose not to bring your own guns, or you can’t, then you should find out what might be available for you to use. Honestly, you should do this anyway! Even with the best planning there is always the chance your baggage can go astray. Only rarely are guns permanently lost. This has never happened to me and, with heightened security, I think it’s extremely unlikely today. But delays happen and your hunt may be far from the airport; it’s good to know what’s on hand just in case.

The small tropical whitetail is the primary game in Peru. Rifles cannot be imported so “camp rifles” must be used and, for whitetails, must be accurate. This Model 70 in .270 Winchester was just perfect.
The small tropical whitetail is the primary game in Peru. Rifles cannot be imported so “camp rifles” must be used and, for whitetails, must be accurate. This Model 70 in .270 Winchester was just perfect.

Trust me, traveling with firearms is not getting easier! Recognizing this, smart outfitters the world over are “gearing up,” ensuring they have proper firearms to rent or loan. Heck, even though I’m completely left-handed, we keep a couple of decent right-handed rifles at the Kansas farm for hunters to borrow…and they see use every deer season!

Getting a Tune-Up with Field Practice

Some of us are smart enough to service our vehicles regularly to forestall problems. Others, unfortunately like me, are constantly late with scheduled maintenance. It’s a testament to good design and manufacturing that I don’t have more mechanical problems than I do.

target shooting, steel targets, Weatherby Magnum
Boddington working out on steel targets, shooting over a pack with the rifle and scope he used in Mongolia, a Blaser R8 in .300 Weatherby Magnum with Zeiss 4-16x50mm scope.

Shooting is a bit like that: Constant maintenance, meaning practice, really is essential to keeping your shooting skills honed. I’m pretty sure all competitive shooters, in all disciplines, and at all levels from beginner to distinguished would agree. Practice is essential not just to get better, but to maintain skill levels.

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Prairie Dogs: The Best Teachers

I probably should follow my own advice, but I’m no different than most in that I often don’t! I’ve often written that varmint shooting offers the best practice there is. Woodchucks in the East and rockchucks in the West are good, likewise small rodents like ground squirrels and gophers… but there’s nothing better than prairie dogs.

Benchrest shooting Wyoming prairie dogs
Gordon Marsh with one of his “long range” prairie dog rifles, a heavy-barreled Savage 116 in .204 Ruger. With a heavy rifle like this in .204 shots can be called through the scope, very difficult with the more powerful .22-250.

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Benchrest Shooting Tips

Serious benchrest shooting is one of the most demanding shooting disciplines. It’s essentially a scientific search for ultimate accuracy. I don’t pretend it’s my game. I’m primarily a hunter, and my preference is to get away from the bench and spend as much practice time as possible shooting from field positions.

However, shooting from the bench is essential for achieving the desired zero, as well as determining the level of accuracy your rifle delivers and which loads produce optimum accuracy. So, although I have never been and probably never will be a benchrest competitor, I do a lot of benchrest shooting.

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Beating Buck Fever

What we call “buck fever” is a strange malady that can do the most amazing things to people. In its minor stages, it causes shortness of breath and acceleration of pulse. This can quickly progress to ague-like shakes that would do a malaria sufferer proud. In its most advanced state almost anything is possible, but classic cases range from being physically unable to manipulate a trigger to ejecting an entire magazine of live cartridges onto the ground without ever firing—and being totally unaware of doing so.

Whitetail Deer Hunt
The closer I got to this buck the bigger he looked! That’s perfect; he came out about 200 yards down a cutline in Georgia pines and there wasn’t much time. I immediately saw he was a “shooter,” so I ignored the antlers and concentrated on the shot. I knew he was good—but he was a lot bigger than I realized!

 

Obviously. buck fever is not conducive to hunting success, especially in its more virulent forms. That said, and this is important: Buck fever can be a good thing! It manifests itself when you are in the presence of a magnificent game animal; it’s simply an extension of excitement, and you might even say that its presence denotes respect for that animal. As hunters, we’re supposed to be excited in the presence of game. If we are not, and are able to take a fine animal’s life with total dispassion, then I suggest it’s time to hang up the guns and bows and take up golf or tennis.

So the key isn’t that you avoid getting excited. Getting excited isn’t just okay; it’s a good thing. What’s important, and truly critical to success, is that you find ways to manage that excitement and hold it at bay long enough to do what you need to do. Naturally, this gets better and easier with experience, but field experience in the actual taking of game is hard-won and can take many years. Also, some of us are more excitable than others. I can’t compare my “excitability quotient” with anyone else’s, but after decades of doing this stuff I’m generally able to control the most serious manifestations of buck fever until the shooting is done—and then the shakes begin.

Continue reading “Beating Buck Fever”

Smart Summer Shooting

Learn how to make the most of your summer practice sessions on the range or in the field.

The summer doldrums are passing by quickly! We can start to look forward to fall hunting seasons, but there’s still plenty of time for some good shooting practice. If you’re a serious accuracy freak, improving your bench shooting may be a good goal in itself. That’s probably not a productive goal for hunters, however—there aren’t many benchrests in any game country I’ve seen! For hunters, then, it’s important to spend at least some of that range time shooting the way you’re likely to shoot in the field, including trying some new positions and techniques to steady yourself.

Summer varminting is really the best practice for field shooting. The real secret, however, is to consciously seek field shooting positions. You won’t hit as many…but you’ll learn a lot more.

Varmint Hunting is Great Practice for Larger Game

Honestly, if you have any access at all, I think summer varmint hunting is the very best training for field shooting. My friend, Gordon Marsh (the proprietor of this website, Wholesale Hunter,) just got back from his annual prairie dog shoot in Wyoming. I’m a bit jealous—I haven’t made time to go prairie dog hunting in quite a while! This type of hunt offers training (and a lot of shooting!) that’s hard to replicate on any range.

It really doesn’t matter if you’re an eastern woodchuck hunter or a western prairie dog, ground squirrel, or rockchuck shooter. Few situations are better for teaching you how to read wind, and when you become confident that you can hit small rodents, big-game animals don’t seem quite so daunting. If you can go varmint hunting, take advantage of it, but don’t spend all your time shooting over sandbags. Spend some time trying new positions and techniques, such as lying down over a pack or shooting off bipods and tripods. You probably won’t hit as many targets, but you’ll improve your versatility in the field, and that’s an invaluable skill to have when you’re hunting larger game.

At the range it’s a good idea to practice the way you intend to shoot. An attached bipod is a great tool, but some rifles will change zero when a bipod is attached. Better check it out!

Mimicking Field Shooting on the Range

If you don’t have an opportunity to go varmint hunting, don’t worry—you can replicate field shooting on the range. First and foremost, get away from the bench and practice from real field shooting positions. Do at least some shooting from all four of the classic “NRA” positions of prone, sitting, kneeling, and standing. Standing in particular is important, because it’s by far the most difficult position. Given any choice of a steadier position, only an idiot would take a standing, unsupported shot at a game animal, but sometimes, as in a fast-breaking close encounter, standing and shooting may be your only option. It’s better to practice your technique and never need to use it in the field than to be unprepared in a tough situation.

In the field the last and worst option is to take a standing unsupported shot…but in fast close-range encounters sometimes that’s all there is. You hope you never have to use it, but standing unsupported is a position that should be practiced a lot!

Donna and I use shooting sticks a lot, so we always take them to the range and spend at least some time shooting over sticks in both standing and kneeling positions. One of my favorite field positions is to rest over a pack, an extremely common situation in mountain hunting. Donna isn’t familiar with that scenario, though, so in preparation for a goat hunt, she practiced on the range by lying down over packs and rolled-up jackets at various heights.

In preparation for a mountain hunt Donna Boddington spent a lot of time on the range building various rests with packs and jackets. Note that she’s doing this with an old Kimber bolt-action .22…practice doesn’t have to hurt to be effective.

Range rules can vary widely, and you obviously have to work within the constraints of them, but you should be as creative as your imagination and your range allow. There aren’t any bullseyes, squares, or diamonds on game animals, so animal-shaped targets are more useful for field practice. Printed targets can be expensive, though, so I recommend interspersing your animal target-shooting with “paper plate drills.” A standard paper plate is a pretty good replica of a deer’s vital zone. I vary my paper plate drills and practice them standing, off sticks, and in a variety of field positions. Tiny little groups off the bench are confidence-builders, but from less steady field positions, “paper plate accuracy” is what you really need to achieve.

Paper plate drills are great: A paper plate is about the same size as the vital zone of deer-sized game, there is no precise aiming point, and they’re cheap alternatives to printed targets. They’re awesome for practice from field positions, and if you can consistently center the plate you’re ready for hunting season.

 

Build Good Habits: Practice with a .22 Rimfire

Earlier I said “practice smart,” and I meant it. As hunting seasons draw near, it’s essential to spend at least some range time with your hunting rifle. Avoid excessive practice with your favorite rifle—centerfire ammo is expensive and centerfire barrel life is limited. Most of the practice I’m talking about can be done with equal effectiveness with the good old .22 rimfire: little noise, no recoil, lower cost, and a whole lot less time wasted waiting for barrels to cool. In a perfect world, your .22 will be of the same action type and have similar scope or sights, but any and all rimfire shooting is good.

There’s no such thing as too much practice, but there is definitely such a thing as too much recoil. This is also where the .22 comes in. Range time is precious, and it’s tempting to try to cram in as much shooting as possible when you’re on the range. However, it’s a bad idea to overdo it; it’s all too easy to acquire a flinch or other bad habits that are all but impossible to shake off. The solution? Ration your recoil. Take it in sensible doses and mix in some plinking with your .22.

Donna Boddington practicing sitting behind a shortened tripod, a wonderfully steady option. In summer we don’t wear heavy jackets, so when shooting centerfires it’s a good idea to pad up. A folded towel helps, but the PAST Recoil Shield she’s wearing is better.

I can’t tell you how much recoil is too much because we all have different thresholds, but once you reach “too much,” it’s too late to turn back. With hard-kicking rifles, even ten shots in one range session can be over the limit. So, for instance, you’re very comfortable with a .270 or .30-06, but you’ve got a brand-new .375 or perhaps a real big-bore you’re itching to play with. Once again, the bench is a necessary evil for zeroing and testing accuracy. Pad yourself well, but shoot off the bench as little as possible. Shoot from sticks and offhand, so the body can give, and be patient. It’s impossible to get used to a new level of recoil in one range session, so plan your time. After a few shots with a big boomer, it’s a good idea to run a few magazines through a .22. This will reinforce good shooting habits and subconsciously remind you that shooting doesn’t hurt.

Donna is “working out” with a 9.3x74R double on paper plates. This light Sabatti shoots well but it has a bite…after a very few shots it’s time to run a couple of magazines through a .22!

If you do overdo it, don’t try to fight your way through it; you might create bad habits or hurt yourself. Instead, go back to the good old .22; concentrate on breathing and trigger control, and stick with it until your muscle memory is cleansed. Centerfire rifles, from varmint rifles to deer rifles, are by far my favorite tools, but the .22 rimfire remains the great teacher, and none of us are too old to keep learning. There’s always a .22 handy during my summer practice sessions!

Shooting sticks are marvelous but they take a lot of practice to get used to. It isn’t necessary to burn expensive ammo or absorb a lot of recoil: practicing with a .22 is just as effective!

Take-Away Tips for Practicing Smart Shooting

So as you continue your summer prep for hunting season, remember:

1) Varmint hunting is great practice for larger game, but you can replicate field shooting on the range with paper plate drills.

2) Practice different shooting positions to increase your versatility.

3) You should get some practice time in with your hunting rifle, but don’t overdo it. A .22 rimfire is just effective for practice drills as your favorite centerfire rifle.

4) If you worry you’re developing a flinch, take a break. Pick up your .22 and focus on breath control, trigger control, and other fundamentals. Don’t try to fight through a bad set—you can create bad habits that are hard to break.


Craig Boddington is one of today’s most respected outdoor journalists. He spent the past forty years exploring our natural world as a hunter and sharing his knowledge and experiences in dozens of books and through thousands of published articles and essays. He’s a decorated Marine, an award-winning author, and continues to be a leading voice for conservation and ethical hunting around the world. 

For autographed copies of Craig’s books please visit www.craigboddington.com.