Right now, the 6.5 Creedmoor is gathering all the headlines and glory. Fifty years ago, the 7mm Remington Magnum was America’s darling, for some years the world’s most popular cartridge to carry a “magnum” suffix. Both, to me, are anomalies. America is .30-caliber country!
It started in 1892 with the .30-40 Krag, and continued in 1895 with the .30-30, now 125 years old and still selling well. Introduced in 1906, the powerful .30-06 became the American standard. Introduced in 1963, the .300 Winchester Magnum was at first reviled: Too short in the neck, caught up in Winchester’s catastrophic pre-’64/post-’64 shift, and designed to replace the revered .300 H&H. The .300 Winchester Magnum did not take off well. However, the sun, moon, and stars realigned. Over time the .300 Winchester Magnum, a proper American .30-caliber, booted the 7mm Remington Magnum as the most popular magnum cartridge.
It remains to be seen if the 6.5mm Creedmoor will retain its current popularity, but I believe order will return to the universe and we will again become a .30-caliber nation, as we have been since the dawn of smokeless powder. However this plays out, two great and versatile .30-caliber cartridges will remain among our most popular choices. They are, of course, the .308 Winchester (aka 7.62×51 NATO) and the .30-06 Springfield (aka .30 U.S. Government, Model of 1906).
It was a perfect setup for prairie dogs; we had a big shade tree to our left, three of us in line on portable benches, with a big colony stretching away before us. Stephen Shen was on the left, Gordon Marsh in the middle, me on the right. Interestingly, all three of us were shooting the .204 Ruger cartridge: Stephen a Savage 116, while both Gordon and I were shooting Ruger No. Ones, his in blue/walnut and mine stainless/laminate.
It wasn’t universal; Bill Green was off the right, popping away and having a ball with a semi-auto .17 HMR . This was Gordon and Bill’s annual prairie dog shoot out of Cheyenne, hunting with Craig Oceanak and Nick of Timberline Outfitters. It was my second shoot with them; for Stephen, CEO of Vector Optics, his first ever. We had other rifles, .223s and .22-250s. However, except for Bill, who clung to his .17 HMR and walked in some amazing shots, the .204s did the majority of the work. There are many excellent varmint cartridges, so it struck me as unusual that three among our foursome were shooting .204s…but I think we made good choices.
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.
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.
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).
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)
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 Blaser12 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?
Our beloved tradition of campfire arguments often centers around which cartridge we should choose. That’s always fun, but maybe by now you’ve gotten my oft-repeated message that, within broad parameters, it’s kind of silly. We all know that the 6.5mm Creedmoor is the hottest-selling cartridge right now, but is any deer or steel target likely to feel the difference (or lodge a formal complaint) if struck by a Creedmoor, a .270 Winchester, a 7mm-08, or any of dozens of cartridges we can think of?
I think not. Actually, so long as the projectile strikes the desired point, the launching platform also doesn’t make much difference. Although each has significant variations, there are essentially five rifle actions: semiautomatic, slide-action, lever-action, bolt-action, and single-shot. For completeness, I suppose one could add the double rifle. I like doubles in certain applications, but it’s fair to say that the double is mostly a break-open single-shot with a second barrel and firing mechanism.
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.
It’s late autumn now, so your deer season might be over. My deer hunting is coming up soon—next week I’m going to the thick brush of Quebec’s Anticosti Island, a place I’ve long wanted to see. Then, after Thanksgiving, comes “my” deer hunt, the 12-day rifle season on my Kansas farm. I decided which rifle to use in Anticosti a long time ago, but I’m still pondering exactly what I’m going to use in Kansas.
This is a rare luxury. I love my job, but I have to produce what my editors want. This often means that I have an obligation to use a particular new rifle or cartridge on a hunt instead of one of my old favorites. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s fun to try out some of the new whiz-bangs. On the other hand, there’s a down side: constantly switching rifles, cartridges, and optics is probably not a great key to hunting success! Never forget the old adage “beware the one-gun man.”
I’m not complaining, mind you—I know I’m fortunate. I get to spend a lot of time at the range and in the field for a living. All that time has shown me that choosing a sound deer rifle and sticking with it critical, perhaps especially so for the multitude of hunters who are limited in both practice time and days afield!
A couple of weeks ago I was at the range and I felt really silly. I was shooting a Marlin lever-action “guide gun”—very tricked up, but still a .45-70, and I had a big variable scope on it, 30mm tube with large objective. Before you judge, I had a reason for doing this: the rifle seemed to be accurate, so I put a powerful variable on it and turned it all the way up so I could see how well it grouped. I would never hunt with that much glass on such a rifle. Range work done, I took the big scope off, mounted an Aimpoint red-dot sight, and took it pig hunting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.