Sharpen Up with Summer Shooting
Author: Craig Boddington
To be an efficient big game hunter, you can never have too much shooting practice.
Summer days are great for fishing, but I don't do a lot of angling these days. I sunburn too quickly to spend much time at the beach, and mowing the grass has never been my favorite pastime. Mostly what summer days are best for, to me, is to get through them as quickly as possible and get to my favorite season, the fall. But one thing those long, hot summer days are good for is shooting!
Summer is the time when I do a lot of handloading, working up loads and shooting groups in search of the perfect combination. By summer, I generally know what kind of hunting I'll be doing in the fall. By August, if things go right, I'll have decided what rifles I will use and they'll all be sighted in with loads that are just right for their intended purpose. Mind you, hot days are a poor time for this sort of work. Barrels heat up too quickly, and loads heat up, too. You can run into excess pressure very quickly when it's 100 degrees outside! But it gets light early in the summer and stays light late. I do most of my summer range work in the cooler morning and evening hours.
The most valuable summer shooting I do, however, isn't from a benchrest punching holes in paper. You need to do some of that, because shooting from a steady rest is the only way you can determine what kind of accuracy your rifle is producing, and also the only way to establish a precise zero. Once that's done, I like to get away from the bench. Why? Because field shooting is the most important skill to me, and there aren't any benchrests in any of the places I hunt. This does depend somewhat on your interests; punching little tiny groups in targets is a worthy sport in its own right. If that's your thing, go for it! Me, I shoot groups to find out what loads my rifles like, the level of accuracy they're capable of, and to build confidence, which is very important. But to maintain and improve the shooting skill I need during the fall hunting season I have to get away from the bench.
On those long summer days at the range I spend quite a bit of time away from the bench, practicing positions I might actually use in the field. The formal shooting positions of prone, sitting, kneeling, and standing all have their uses-and all require a lot of practice to be steady and fast when the need arises. Prone is the steadiest by far and probably the easiest to learn-but is generally the least useful in the field because very low vegetation or even the slightest roll to the terrain will obscure your view when you're lying down. My favorite field shooting position is sitting; it gets you above low vegetation and, with practice, is very steady. The problem is that a good, steady, sitting position isn't very comfortable at first, and absent a lot of practice can take a lot of time to get into. So, shooting from the sitting position requires a great deal of practice.
Kneeling puts you in a bit higher position than sitting, so you can see over more vegetation. It is also very fast to get into; just drop to one knee, rest your supporting elbow on your cocked knee, and you're there. But kneeling isn't nearly as steady as sitting. It is not my preferred position, but I practice it a lot because sometimes it's the best option.
Then there's standing, the position you do not want to use in the field because it's the least steady. But sometimes you don't have any choice: Things are happening too fast to do anything else, or the brush is too high to see the game from a lower position. So, while standing should be considered the court of last resort in the field, it's the position you should practice the most on the range simply because it is far and away the most difficult to master.
While you're practicing, you don't have to stop with the formal shooting positions. You can, and should, practice from a variety of makeshift rests like you might use in the field - over a fencepost, leaning against a tree or upright pillar, resting over a log or rock. If you carry shooting sticks or a bipod afield, you should practice with them as well. There are many ways to get steady in the field - but none are good under all circumstances, and none are any good at all unless you've practiced enough so that you can get steady fast, almost without thinking about it.
The level of practice you can do on the range depends somewhat on the setup and the range rules, but summer shooting doesn't have to be at a formal range. In fact, the best place to practice is probably not in a formal range setting at all, but out in the boonies, where you can engage targets at varying distances under field conditions. Obviously, you have to keep it 100 percent safe, but if it isn't appropriate to use your favorite hunting rifle you can do almost everything you need to do with a good old .22 rimfire - at low cost and without recoil.
Don't overlook summer varmint hunting, either. In the East there are woodchucks, and in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain West there are prairie dogs and rockchucks. Out my way, we have plenty of ground squirrels! Varminting offers some of the best shooting practice there is. If you can consistently hit soda-can-size varmints at a couple hundred yards, then deer-sized game should be no trouble at all! A lot of my friends get extremely serious about prairie dogs and ground squirrels, hauling portable benchrests and sandbags to likely spots and setting up. This is good fun, and good practice for sight alignment and trigger control - but even better is to shoot varmints the way you'd shoot big game-off bipods and shooting sticks, from makeshift rests, and from unsupported shooting positions. I use .22 rimfires and .22 centerfires for my varminting, but I do most of my shooting from field positions. This is some of the best practice I get.
Just as good, maybe better, comes from coyote hunting. Whether you prowl open ground, spotting coyotes and sniping at long range, or call them in close - coyote hunting is essentially the same as hunting big game. Unlike the bite-size varmints, with coyotes shot placement is important. Nothing is as tough, pound for pound, as a coyote. Nor is any game any smarter. As is the case with any extremely wary game, things happen fast. So you need to shoot as quickly as you do accurately. If you reach the point where few coyotes escape within reasonable range-say, 200 yards, then no big game in the world should give you any problems.
Summertime isn't necessarily the best time to hunt coyotes, because the pelts are at their worst. On the other hand, the coyotes are out and hunting, and through the summer months deer (and, where they occur, pronghorn) fawns are among their favored prey. Coyotes have their place, but the fur market is nearly dead, poisoning is mostly illegal, and trapping is passing into history-so, almost throughout their range, there are more coyotes than ever before, and they're smart enough that hunters will never endanger them. So, add some early morning and late afternoon coyote hunting to your summertime shooting regimen, and you'll be more ready than ever when the fall hunting seasons roll around.
Arguably the most experienced hunting writer alive today, Craig Boddington has hunted big game in 29 American states, five Mexican states, and seven Canadian provinces . In addition to his vast North American hunting background, he has been on 46 African safaris and has thoroughly hunted 25 different countries, effectively spanning all six continents.
He currently lives on California's Central Coast when he's not away hunting or on duty with the U.S. Marines. His work includes numerous magazine articles as well as 14 books on hunting and shooting (several of which can be obtained through Cabela's).
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