THE PERFECT ZERO?

 By

Craig Boddington

Previously, this column discussed the process of “sighting in.” If you’re happy, then we’re done; it’s time to head for the deer stand! We’re going to assume we have enough accuracy to reliably hit a deer’s vital zone at whatever distance we might shoot. The vital zone of even a small deer offers about an eight-inch target, so extreme accuracy isn’t essential for much for field shooting.

Jarrett-300groups
Boddington’s Jarrett wears a Leupold scope with a CDS turret, calling for a 200-yard zero. The left-hand group was shot at 200 yards, ensuring a good starting point for dialing with a 180-grain SST load.

Hey, I love tiny groups because they instill confidence, and I love to ring steel at long range. However, I’m unlikely to shoot at a game animal much past 400 yards. Most of my shots at game are much closer, and many of us rarely need to reach past 200 yards. Theoretically, if your rifle is producing one-inch groups at 100 yards (one Minute of Angle or “MOA”), then it should produce two-inch groups at 200 yards, four-inch groups at 400 yards, and so on. Considering the size of the vital zone, one MOA is more accuracy than essential.

Boddington’s rifles wear iron sights
: Some of Boddington’s rifles wear iron sights…and a few have worn barrels. Either way, extreme accuracy isn’t possible…and unnecessary for a lot of field shooting. With excellent paper-plate accuracy at 50 yards, this old .300 Savage would be just fine to 150 yards…if Boddington could see the front sight well enough!

Actual groups usually get larger as distance increases, so I don’t mind having more accuracy than I really need, but let’s be reasonable and practical. Even today, with the best rifles, optics, and ammo ever, not all rifles can produce one MOA accuracy.

Tight groups instill
Tight groups instill great confidence, but sub-MOA groups aren’t essential for most field shooting. This Savage 100 .30-06 is more than field-ready: The excellent right-hand group is two inches high at l00 yards; the bullet will be “on” at about 200 yards

Not a train smash; 1.5 MOA is plenty for most field shooting. Most modern rifles will do at least this well, and that’s “good enough,” at least at normal field ranges. I have older rifles that are “two MOA” rifles.  Also not a problem. I hunt with them, but only in close-range situations! With such rifles, I usually do my zeroing on ten-inch paper plates. In that context, “paperplate accuracy” is good enough! Regardless of the accuracy you have to work with, and the ranges you might consider shooting, you still must decide exactly where to leave your rifle zeroed before you head afield.

TRAJECTORY CURVE

Traditionally, most of us leave a rifle zeroed slightly high at 100 yards, to take advantage of the bullet’s trajectory. Here’s how this works: There are two straight lines, line of bore and, slightly above, line of sight. Both are straight, but the path of the projectile is curved. Gravity starts working on any projectile as it leaves the muzzle, and air resistance slows it down. As distance increases, the projectile falls ever more quickly, eventually striking the ground.

: Gordon Marsh of LG Outdoors
Gordon Marsh of LG Outdoors at his bench, checking handload velocities with a Lab Radar, a wonderfully accurate tool that uses Doppler radar to measure bullet speed.

If line of bore and line of sight remain parallel, the bullet will never cross the line of sight and no zero can be achieved. Using sight adjustments, we actually zero so the line of bore and line of sight slightly converge. Line of bore remains straight, while the projectile’s path is curved. With line of bore tilted slightly upward relative to line of sight, the projectile’s curving path crosses line of sight twice, once at short range and again farther out. In between these points the projectile’s path will be above the line of sight. The point at which this distance above line of sight is greatest is referred to as “mid-range trajectory.”

Springfield Waypoint in 6.5mm
On the bench with a Springfield Waypoint in 6.5mm PRC. The scope is a Zeiss 2-12X; the big 56mm objective requires the scope (line of sight) to be considerably higher than line of bore. Height of the scope is a critical factor in good ballistics data and must be correct.

The steepness of the trajectory curve depends on velocity and projectile aerodynamics. In establishing final zero, we usually try to use that curve to best advantage, extending the ranges at which we can shoot without having to worry about holding off the target (above or below) to compensate for that curving trajectory.

There should be little mystery about the actual trajectory curve. For generations, printed ballistics charts have yielded this information, usually suggesting various sight-ins at 100 yards (the bullet’s first crossing of line of sight), and telling us greatest height of trajectory, and where the dropping projectile crosses line of sight again, and yielding bullet drop at various ranges as the decline accelerates.

On the bench with a Jarrett rifle
On the bench with a Jarrett rifle in .300 Win. Mag. Boddington’s California range is hot in summer, cool in winter, and always near sea level. When figuring ballistics data for open-country hunts, he estimates expected temperature and elevation. This works fine for the ranges he shoots at game, but guesswork isn’t good enough for extreme-range shooting.

Today, ballistics programs and smartphone apps yield the same information, and allow us to input altitude, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, and more, all of which increase in importance as range increases. Printed data assumes a standard measurement of line of sight over line of bore (height of scope). Electronic data allows us to input this. With the larger (higher-mounted) scopes in vogue today, that measurement must be accurate.

PH Poen van Zyl and Texan John Stucker
PH Poen van Zyl and Texan John Stucker at the bench in Mozambique, checking zero on Stucker’s .375. With a crocodile hunt in the offing, we adjusted our zeros very carefully to be exactly dead-on at 50 yards.

All data, whether printed or electronic, assumes that the starting velocity is correct. Barrels vary in length, and there are “fast” barrels and “slow” barrels. For truly accurate data, it’s essential to use a chronograph to check the speed of your load in your rifle.

gnarly spike on his Kansas farm.
Boddington was delighted to take this ancient and gnarly spike on his Kansas farm. The rifle is a Mossberg 464 with AimPoint red-dot sight. The rifle was zeroed at 50 yards, the shot about the same distance

Fortunately, the vital zone of a big-game animal remains a large target! None of this stuff matters much if your goal is to shoot your buck from a favorite treestand, like in thick timber at my Kansas farm. When I’m setting up a rifle for an open-country hunt, you bet I measure height of scope and check velocity! Effects of altitude and climatic factors are less critical…until you get past normal shooting distance, or you have extreme variations. In preparation for fall hunts, I do my summer shooting in hot, low country. I make a guess on anticipated altitude and climatic factors, run the data, and zero accordingly. This has proven adequate for the ranges I shoot at game…but isn’t precise enough for extreme-range work!

DEAD-ON OR SLIGHTLY HIGH?

Whether at 25, 50, or 100 yards, a dead-on zero with a modern rifle cartridge is the first time the bullet crosses the line of sight. Farther on, it will be above the line of sight and, as the curve steepens, it will cross line of sight again somewhere downrange.

It is not true that “dead-on at 25 yards” will be close to “on” at 100 yards. This is possible with slower cartridges, and with iron sights or low-mounted scopes. With faster cartridges and higher-mounted scopes, I’ve found that a 25-yard zero will usually strike too high at 100 yards. A 50-yard zero comes closer, especially with low-mounted sights. I often zero iron-sighted rifles and scoped big-bores at 50 yards and call it done, knowing that I’m unlikely to use such rifles much past 100 yards. However, with today’s big scopes, I find that a 50-yard zero is usually three or four inches high at 100 yards. This puts the second crossing of the line of sight ‘way out there, and creates a mid-range trajectory as much as six inches above line of sight. For me, this increases risk of shooting over an animal (or hitting too high).

John Stucker and Boddington with Boddington’s Mozambique croc
John Stucker and Boddington with Boddington’s Mozambique croc, taken in September 2021 with a Blaser .375 H&H. The Nile crocodile must be taken with either a brain or spine shot. All rifles were zeroed dead-on at 50 yards; Boddington’s four-hunter group took four big crocs…anchored with one shot each.

For close-range work, there’s nothing wrong with a 100-yard zero. Depending on cartridge, “dead-on at 100” will be on again at 150 to 175 yards, with little mid-range-rise. More common is to zero a “couple of inches high” at 100 yards. You can study ballistics charts and programs, and you should. Depending on your cartridge (and load, and bullet), a zero of two to 2.5 inches high at 100 yards will put you dead-on somewhere between 200 and 300 yards. You shouldn’t have to hold low at closer range, and you shouldn’t have to hold over until nearly 250 yards. In my youth, Jack O’Connor was our greatest gunwriter. His consistent advice was to zero “two to 2.5 inches high” at 100 yards. I believe his formula remains sound, and that’s the way I usually zero for general-purpose use. Most important to me: I never establish a 100-yard zero any higher than that, because of the risk of shooting over at “medium” range!

DIALING THE RANGE

These days, dial-up turrets are all the rage, and they change the game. Some systems require either a 100 or 200-yard zero as the starting point. If you intend to dial the range, then I assume you may be shooting at some distance. I don’t like a 100-yard zero in open country, simply because you must start holding over (or dialing) at fairly close range. With today’s optics, dialing is precise, but fraught with human error: You must dial correctly and, if you don’t shoot, you must remember to dial back to zero. (Trust me, everybody forgets now and then!)

Leupold CDS
With a good scope, dialing the range or holdover is the most precise method, but the data must be correct and verified by shooting at actual distance. This CDS turret is for a .300 Weatherby Magnum load at a measured 3185 fps with 180-grain SST. The 6000 feet elevation and 30-degree F temperature reflect anticipated hunting conditions.

I’ve used several systems with good results, but a favorite is Leupold’s Custom Dial System (CDS), with turret calibrated to my load at a stated altitude and temperature. On these, again, I strike an average of most likely conditions. My CDS is based on a 200-yard zero. At 250 yards I’ll usually hold slightly high on the shoulder, keeping it simple and taking advantage of that large vital zone. I normally don’t consider dialing until about 300 yards.

If your system is based on a 200-yard zero, then you should check zero at the actual distance, so your starting point is verified as correct. Then, if you’re serious about shooting at longer ranges, you need to verify your data all the way out. This is a stumbling block for many who don’t have ready access to a “long” range. Sorry, whether published or electronically generated, data cannot be considered valid until verified by shooting at actual distance. The farther you might consider shooting at game, the more critical this becomes!

Rigby 7x57 groups
: This Rigby 7×57 groups about 1.5 MOA with this load, a 139-grain Interlock at 2700 fps. Zeroed two inches high at 100 yards, the bullet will be “on” at 200 yards, so a dead-on hold will work to about 225 yards.

Finally, if you’ve traveled some distance—by any means—it’s important to check zero when you arrive at your hunting destination. There’s no consistency about how much (or how little) rattling around may cause a shift in point of impact, so it’s always worth checking. On long, tough hunts, I’ll usually check zero every few days, for sure if the rifle has been dropped! I also recommend checking zero after an inexplicable miss. It’s terrible for the ego, but great for peace of mind to know for sure it was your fault! When planning ammo for a distant hunt, factor in enough to check zero about three times!  

STUNG BY A HORNET

By

Craig Boddington

The rimfire .22 Long Rifle is essential. With lack of recoil, low report, and cheap ammo, there’s really nothing better for small game, plinking, and practice. For serious riflemen, a fast “varmint cartridge” between .17 and .22 caliber is almost as irreplaceable.

Depending on preferences, it might be a .204 Ruger, .223 Remington, .22-250, or one of a dozen others. This rifle will be used for small varmints and coyotes in more open country. Not to be ignored, it will also be used to shoot for accuracy, and to improve one’s shooting. Because: Cartridges in this group are capable of extreme accuracy and are easy to shoot.

Barry Burchell and son Frederick
At their ranch in Namibia, Barry Burchell and son Frederick whip up some .22 Hornet loads so hunter Harley Young can borrow their Anschutz .22 Hornet to hunt pygmy antelopes.

Not all of us want a bunch of rifles chambered to different cartridges, and certainly needs differ. Even so, there’s a place and purpose for a cartridge that splits the difference between the .22 Long Rifle and the fastest varmint rounds. Such a cartridge has more range and power than a .22, but is capable of handling somewhat larger game…yet without undue destruction on small game. There aren’t a lot of options in this niche, but the two most obvious are the .17 HMR and its parent cartridge, the .22 WMR (aka .22 Magnum), both great cartridges.

Ammunition is costlier than .22 Long Rifle, but cheaper than centerfires. Of the two, the .17 is faster and tends to be more accurate. However, the .17 HMR is marginal for coyotes, so its utility is limited. The .22 Magnum isn’t as fast, but is adequate for close-range coyotes.

A nice oribi
A nice oribi, taken with the CZ527 .22 Hornet. The oribi is an open-country antelope so, by both size and average shooting distance, approaches the upper end of proper use for the .22 Hornet.

Centerfire choices between the rimfires and fast varmint cartridges are also limited. Certainly, we could include the .17 Hornet and .17 Fireball, but the .17’s bullet is too light for game much larger than a fox. So, in order to get more bullet, we have to look at a couple of old cartridges: .22 Hornet and .218 Bee. Power levels are almost identical; the .218 Bee uses a 46-grain bullet at 2760 fps. The Hornet’s traditional load is a 45-grain bullet at 2690 fps, with modern loads a bit faster.

For handloaders, there’s little to choose between. However, I think the Hornet is the better choice, because of greater availability in rifles and loads. The .218 Bee was introduced in 1938 in Winchester’s Model 65 lever-action, attempting to breathe new life into the old 1892 action. Winchester still loads .218 Bee, but factory ammunition uses blunt-nosed bullets because of the M65’s tubular magazine. A few bolt-actions and single-shots have been chambered to .218 Bee, but it offers no meaningful advantage over the Hornet, and is less popular.

17 HMR, .22 WMR, .22 Hornet, .222 Remington, .223 Remington.
It’s a tough call when you want to take small game or “small big game” cleanly without doing undue damage. A shotgun is often a good choice; with rifle cartridges it’s more complex. On right from top: .17 HMR, .22 WMR, .22 Hornet, .222 Remington, .223 Remington.

The .22 Hornet is a different story! Although its popularity comes and goes, it’s a standard cartridge, consistently loaded by multiple sources, with a variety of bullet weights. Development is credited to Townsend Whelen and G.L. Wotkyns, with the case similar to the blackpowder .22 Winchester Center Fire (WCF). Introduced by Winchester in 1930, the .22 Hornet was the first centerfire varmint cartridge developed for smokeless powder…and it’s still a good one!

35-grain loads are now available that reach 3000 fps. Even so, the .22 Hornet isn’t impressive compared with the many faster .22 centerfires. On the other hand, it offers amazing performance from such a small case, with minimal recoil and good accuracy.

CZ M527
This is the CZ M527 .22 Hornet Boddington took to Mozambique in 2018. A light, slick little rifle, it shot particularly well with Nosler 35-grain Varmageddon loads. In Africa, that load accounted for a half-dozen animals, all one-shot kills, all with the bullet lodged under the hide on the far side.

On varmints such as prairie dogs, woodchucks, and marmots, the Hornet is plenty of gun, and shoots flat enough at least to a couple hundred yards. Coyotes are tough, but it’s powerful enough, with more range than can be wrung out of a .22 Magnum.

And, it has some specialized uses. Purist turkey hunters gnash their teeth and rend their garments over this but, after all, it is legal to use rifles on turkeys in several states. Doesn’t matter to me whether you approve or choose to participate. For those who do, the .22 Hornet is the perfect “turkey rifle.” Accurate enough for head shots, but powerful enough to anchor even the biggest gobbler with a well-placed body shot…without damaging much meat. My Dad was not a serious rifle guy and owned few. One was an early Oregon Kimber .22 Hornet. He loved to shoot prairie dogs with it. We still have it and, yes, Dad hunted turkeys with it. So have I!

Small varmint
Left to right: .17 HMR, .22 Long Rifle, .22 WMR, .22 Hornet. The .22 Long Rifle is irreplaceable for small game. For somewhat larger game and more range the .17 HMR and .22 Magnum are extremely effective but, above small game and below long-range varminting, Boddington believes the .22 Hornet is a solid choice.

The .22 Hornet is legal for deer in some states (usually under an “any centerfire cartridge” rule). Generally speaking, I think this is a bad idea but, with perfect shot placement, I’ve seen the Hornet take grownup whitetails very cleanly. More appropriate, and an ideal niche for this great little cartridge, is the often-oddball class of what I think of as “small big game.” In North America we were cheated in this category, with few options. The Hornet is ideal for thin-skinned animals such as lynx and bobcat, so is a fine tool for trappers and houndsmen. And it’s perfect for javelina. Usually not difficult to locate or stalk, the javelina is a uniquely American animal and makes an awesome mount. Weighing maybe 50 pounds, I can’t imagine a more perfect javelina rifle than a .22 Hornet.

jackrabbit-sized dik diks
The several varieties of jackrabbit-sized dik diks are among the smallest African antelopes. Their skin is paper thin and bones fragile; bullet damage is a serious concern. Harley Young used a .22 Hornet to take this excellent Damara dik dik, perfect cartridge and perfect shot.

Elsewhere, the utility expands. Africa has a full suite of small predators, and is blessed with a wide variety of pygmy antelopes. In deep forest a shotgun is the preferred tool, but in more open terrain a scoped rifle is almost essential. These animals are thin-skinned, and the standard plains game rifle does too much damage. My long-time boss “Pete” Petersen loved his .22 Hornets. He used them widely at home for varmints (and sometimes deer), but he always took a .22 Hornet to Africa…not only for the tiny antelopes and small predators, but for camp meat up to impala and reedbuck. I haven’t always taken a Hornet to Africa, but I’ve often borrowed a page from Pete and taken a Hornet, especially when a “special” pygmy antelope was on the menu.

blue duiker
The blue duiker is the smallest of the several forest duikers. Found only in heavy cover, shotguns are usually used. Boddington found the .22 Hornet a perfect tool and, amazingly, the 35-grain bullet entered, expanded, and was against the hide on the far side.

Several times I took a Hornet barrel for a Thompson/Center Contender (perfect). Other times I’ve borrowed Hornets from outfitters. Although still fairly popular over here, .22 Hornets are common in southern Africa, simply because they’re so useful. A couple of years ago in Namibia, my friend Harley Young wanted to take a Damara dik dik and a klipspringer to complete his “Tiny Ten.” Outfitter Barry Burchell had a nice Anschutz .22 Hornet…but little ammo. No problem, we spent a couple hours at his loading bench, whipped some up, and after checking zero Harley made two brilliant shots. 

Coastal Mozambique is blessed with several uncommon pygmy antelopes: Suni, red duiker, and blue duiker in patches of thick forest; and lots of oribis in the open pans. In the thick stuff we usually use a camp shotgun, but I thought a Hornet might be better. With a rifle in close cover, you must find a hole to thread the bullet through, but with a low-power scope you often can.

Livingstone’s suni
A spectacular Livingstone’s suni, taken in Mozambique with the CZ527 in .22 Hornet. The shot was through a little gap at about 60 yards, perfect performance with Nosler’s 35-grain bullet.

In 2018 I took a little CZ 527 in .22 Hornet with a little Leupold 1-4X scope. I would have preferred the traditional 45-grain bullet, but that particular rifle grouped best with Nosler Varmageddon with a light, fast 35-grain bullet. It was magic! Finding a clear path to shoot through proved easier with the scoped rifle than with a shotgun, and performance was perfect. Even on suni and the tiny blue duiker, the little 35-grain bullet opened nicely and was consistently lodged against the hide on the far side, dramatic effect with almost no damage. In just a few days I took excellent suni and both blue and red duiker in the forest. The same load accounted for oribi and reedbuck in the open, but I kept the shots within 100 yards.

Kimber .22
Boddington used his father’s old Kimber .22 Hornet to take this ugly spotted hog. Such an animal is really too big for the Hornet, but at closer range with a good rest, its accuracy allows precise brain shots, well-executed on this hog.

Daughter Brittany has been keeping her grandfather’s Kimber .22 Hornet, but we took it out of mothballs this spring in the Texas Hill Country. I had every intention of shooting a javelina with it, but I couldn’t bring myself to; I couldn’t figure out what I might do with it! Wild hogs are another story; we were on Tom Hammond’s Record Buck Ranch, a place with a major pig problem. The challenge: The .22 Hornet isn’t really enough gun for hogs…you gotta be careful.

.22 Hornet
This young hunter is about to drop the hammer on a javelina. The collared peccary is just about the only “small big game” in the United States, not great to eat but a unique and interesting American game animal. The .22 Hornet is a near-perfect cartridge.

Houston Erskine and I stalked a deer feeder one morning and caught a couple of hogs. The ugliest spotted hog I ever saw was going at it eagerly, not a large pig but too big for a .22 Hornet…unless you’re careful. I got Dad’s Hornet on sticks at about 70 yards, and found the base of the ear in the crosshairs. At the shot the hog went over backwards and never moved. That’s being stung by a Hornet, what a wonderful little cartridge!

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.

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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.