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Practical shooting skills for accurate shot placement when hunting

Taking aim at an animal for that important first shot when hunting, places a huge responsibility on the hunter to ensure a quick death with the first shot. Every hunting season, many animals are wounded because of poor shot placement! A lack of practical shooting skills among hunters is often the reason for wounded animals, causing unnecessary suffering

Why is the first shot so important?
With the first shot, the hunter is in control of the situation and can determine the circumstances before he fires. He can take a stable shooting position, wait until the animal is standing still, decide on his aiming point and fire a well-placed shot. If the first shot wounds the animal, the hunter loses control over the situation and the conditions for a follow-up shot or shots are usually more difficult. The animal has seen you, it is in pain and pumping adrenalin, and very skittish. It may require a quick follow-up shot at a moving target from a disadvantaged position. The hunter’s buck fever has been replaced by nervous tension as he anticipates paying for a wounded animal that got away. These conditions are not conducive to accurate shot placement for the follow-up shot. That is why the hunter must make his first shot count.

Shot placement on quarry under hunting conditions
are determined by two factors:

  1. Sound knowledge of the animal’s anatomy and the location of the vital organs to ensure a first shot kill.
  2. The hunter’s practical shooting skills to ensure accurate shot placement under hunting conditions.

When the hunter confirms the zero of his rifle/telescope on the shooting range, checks his load development with reloaded ammunition, and sighting-in his scope at the shooting rage, it should be done from a shooting bench to eliminate the human factor since he is testing equipment and/or ammunition. If he concludes the shooting-bench session successfully, the rifle/telescope/ammunition combination should meet his requirements. The second component of shot placement is the practical shooting skills and ability of the hunter to \ fire an accurate shot under hunting conditions. This article focuses on the human factor.  

Practising shooting skills:
Responsible hunters must know their shooting limitations under hunting conditions, which he can only determine through frequent practise from field shooting positions using the type of support for the firearm that he will be using on a hunt. SA Hunters developed a variety of shooting exercises with various firearms from different shooting positions on the shooting range that simulate hunting conditions. Go to www.sahunt.co.za – Shooting Matters – hunting based shooting exercises for a series of practical shooting exercises.

Practical shooting positions:
The emphasis on the different shooting positions is necessary to teach hunters to adopt a comfortable and stable shooting position quickly and instinctively for that important first shot. Taking an unstable shooting position in the heat of the moment often results in a wounded animal and in most instances, the hunter is unaware that this caused the poor shot. It is important to practise different shooting exercises from the standing-, kneeling-, sitting- and prone position with or without support for the firearm regularly, to master the different techniques that enable the shottist to use the required shooting position instinctively. The following is an example for illustration: A few years ago, I was hunting by way of the “walk and stalk method” in hilly habitat in the Northern Cape when I saw a kudu bull and a young heifer at approximately 120m against a hillside. They have already seen me and the bull was looking directly at me while the younger animal walked away to the left. I knew I had only a few seconds to fire before the bull would move away as well. I had one of two choices for a shooting position: sitting down with the set of short shooting sticks hanging from my belt (I would prefer this because it provides a very stable option) or standing with the tall single shooting stick that I carried in my left hand. The sitting position was not feasible for two reasons: firstly, I was surrounded by small driedoringbossies approximately one metre high that would have made a shot impossible from the sitting position. Secondly, I knew instinctively that if I moved to remove the short shooting stick from my belt and sat down, the bull would run away. I decided to assume the standing position with the rifle supported over the tall single shooting stick. Within 5 seconds from spotting the kudus for the first time, I shot at the bull and watched it ran for approximately 40m along the hillside where it crashed down after a heart/lung shot.   

While walking up the hill where the kudu fell, I thought about the relative difficult shot I had taken using the tall single shooting stick from the standing position at 120m, and I asked myself: “Did I fire a risky shot just now?” The answer: “Regular shooting practice on the shooting range and when hunting made this shot possible”. The decision to fire the shot was made when I looked through the telescope and saw that the rifle was stable and the movement of the crosshair over the target area was within limits. For the past 25 years, I have been firing regularly at least 200 to 300 shots at the shooting range, using shooting sticks from a variety of shooting positions. For the past 35 years, I have been hunting with simple wooden shooting sticks as illustrated in the photographs below.      

The use of support (shooting sticks or a bi-pod) under hunting conditions.  
Personal experience during hunting expeditions in bushveld, plains, and mountain habitat, as described above, have taught me the importance of practising practical shooting skills and the use of shooting sticks. I prefer to hunt on foot, where possible, with my rifle in the one hand and shooting sticks in the other – without exception.

I usually carry one of two types of lightweight wooden shooting sticks (see photos below) when I hunt depending on the type of habitat. The one set is two 12mm diameter wooden dowels approximately 800mm long tied together with light nylon line to create an X-two-legged shooting stick that can be used from the sitting- and prone shooting positions for support of the rifle. Hunting in plains and mountain type habitat usually involves shots over longer distances than in the bushveld. Under these conditions proper support for your rifle is essential for accurate shot placement. Nearly all of the game that I shot over longer distances, were either from a sitting- or prone shooting position with a shooting stick for support. The majority of shots were taken from the sitting position, which I prefer (where possible) above all shooting positions when hunting because it is so versatile and stable. My second shooting stick is a 25 mm diameter, 1.8m long single wooden shooting stick that I use for the kneeling- and standing positions, especially when hunting in bushveld type habitat where shots are usually at short range. The majority of these shots were at less than 70m.

Under certain conditions (habitat) one can combine these shooting sticks for greater versatility in shooting positions and support. In the example above, I would in all probability have lost the shot on the kudu if I did not have the tall shooting stick. The added advantage of this shooting stick is that it is sturdy enough to use as a walking aid in very rough terrain (rocky hills and mountains). Hunting on this specific farm is very interesting because of the diverse types of habitat where you may shoot at 20m in the driedoringbosse or at 250m at an animal against the slope of a hill or sand dune.

The shooting ability of the hunter and/or his self-imposed limitations:
Continuous shooting practice and the use of practical shooting positions on the shooting range and under hunting conditions, allow you to develop your shooting skills to a level where the decision to shoot at game – or not – is taken instinctively. This awareness of your own shooting ability and/or your self-imposed limitations under hunting conditions coupled to sound decision-making distinguish you as responsible and experienced hunter. You should work towards improving your shootings skills for the rest of your hunting career – never neglect it! 

Shooting from the offhand standing position:
While hunting you are sometimes offered a quick first shot at short distance at game with no other option but the offhand standing position without a shooting stick or other aid. This is a potentially difficult and high risk shot to make which requires frequent practice. On the shooting range you often see experienced shooters failing to place an accurate shot from this position. The decision to take this shot – or not – should be based on the hunters’ knowledge of his capabilities, taking into consideration his shortcomings. The probability of a wounding shot from this position is high. Whenever possible, use a shooting stick – it may take only a few seconds longer to get into position and the animal may escape as a result, but it is worth it. Rather wait for another better opportunity.

Single shooting stick versus two- or three-legged shooting stick: Instead of a single shooting stick you can use a two- or three-legged shooting stick for better stability. I prefer the single shooting stick especially when game is
encountered at short distance for example when hunting in bushveld type habitat, because it is light and handy. I carry it in my left hand, and I am able to get the rifle in position very quickly for a supported shot as illustrated in the example above. An important consideration is not to make any sound while setting up for the shot – if the legs of the shooting stick or the rifle should bump against each other, this may cost you the shot. When using a two- or three-legged shooting stick, the guide can carry the sticks and set them up when you need it. Carrying the rifle and the sticks and trying to set everything up by yourself, are not easy. It is cumbersome and some noise while setting up may cause the animal to disappear before you are ready to fire. It is important to decide what will work for you and to practise this well to ensure that you act instinctively when hunting.

Bi-pod on a rifle: In some applications under hunting conditions a bi-pod on a rifle is convenient and effective, especially when shooting from the sitting- and prone positions when hunting in plains or mountain type habitat. Experiment with more than one option and decide what works best for you. In bushveld type habitat where you hunt on foot, I will not use it when carrying a rifle all day long between trees and bushes where the bi-pod add unnecessary weight and bulk to the rifle. I still regard shooting sticks under these conditions as a more practical solution.

Although I participate in hunting-based shooting competitions throughout the year, I am a hunter, first and foremost. Every technique in terms of practical shooting skills that I use under competition conditions prepare me for the hunt. I participate in shooting competitions with the objective to be a better shot under hunting conditions. When you repeatedly use the same techniques, they become second nature. You do not have to think about it, it happens automatically.

Improve your practical shooting skills with the following:

  • Foundation for shooting skill: The basic shooting techniques such as natural direction, quick target acquisition through the telescope, breathing technique, trigger control and follow through of the shot, etc. form the basis of shooting;
  • Get as close as possible to the ground for maximum stability (visualize yourself as the shooting platform) Prone position is the first choice, followed by sitting, kneeling and standing (refer to photographs below);
  • Use a shooting aid/stick for each of the shooting positions for more stability and accurate shot placement.
  • Practise the shooting positions at every possible opportunity until they become second nature and you can do it instinctively (an analogy is when you are driving a car – do you ever think about changing gears while driving your vehicle?)
  • Centrefire ammunition is expensive, even if you reload. An air-rifle or 22 rimfire rifle offer effective and cheap alternatives for practising.

Note: For more information refer to the “Manual for the development of Shooting Skills for Hunters

The sitting position with short shooting sticks from which one can shoot accurately for up to 200 metres. Note the use of the rifle sling and that both elbows are on the knees. This position is very versatile and stable and I prefer this for most of my shots, especially over longer distances

The prone position with short shooting sticks from which one can shoot accurately for up to 300 metres and even further

The kneeling position with a single shooting stick for use over short distances in the bushveld. Note the use of the rifle sling.

The standing position with a single shooting stick for bushveld hunting at close range. Note the use of the rifle sling.

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