With the advent of magnified sights, most rifles were suddenly able to outperform the shooter, and today many hunters simply take the accuracy of their scoped rifles for granted. They fire a few shots at a target from a bench at the range, and if the bullet holes are within an inch of center, all is right with the world. No doubt, the surest shot is still apt to be one taken from a firm rest, but sometimes when hunting, an offhand shot is all you are going to get. Yet how many hunters practice their offhand skills? Indeed, how many practice at all.
I credit traditional styled muzzleloaders for bringing offhand shooting back into vogue, mostly because much of the shooting done in black powder competition is away from the bench. I suspect that the reason has a lot to do with the fact that most of the original muzzleloaders were designed to be fired offhand. I suspect that, 150 years ago, few hunters shot their game from tree stands or blinds, and the rifles they used surely reflected a different style of hunting. No doubt, they didn't shoot as far as shooters can today, but no one can doubt the frontiersman's effectiveness with short-range weapons and open sights.
Practice with any centerfire rifle can certainly be expensive. If you want to shoot a lot, either a reloader or financial independence is a practical necessity. But one of the things that I have found about offhand shooting with my muzzleloader, is that the improved skill carried over to my centerfire rifle. In the early '80's, I was shooting in a lot of black powder competitions, and when I picked up my deer rifle to check it's zero, I also took a few cracks from the offhand position and was pleasantly surprised at the results. Not being much of a stand or blind hunter, I am sure that all of my muzzleloader competition helped me make a couple of difficult offhand shots with my .308 when there was no time or place to take a rest. To be sure, I would not pass up a chance to steady my rifle with any kind of rest if time and space permitted. But neither would I pass up a shot on game just because I had to shoot offhand. I wouldn't take a poor shot, and offhand range is necessarily shorter, but this is a matter of knowing the limitations through practice.
I was so impressed with the improvement afforded through practice with the muzzleloader that I also bought a bolt action .22, figuring that offhand practice with that rifle would also carry over. And indeed it does. So would practice with a high quality pellet rifle, I'm sure.
I shoot mostly at circle targets at the practical offhand distances, which I deem to be between 25 yards and 100 yards. The latter is a very long offhand shot, but with practice it is a shot that I can make. I know because I shoot at that distance often enough to have the confidence necessary to make a good shot. Again, this has nothing to do with standing up and shooting like a man. It is about an opportunity to take game when no rest is available.
Shooting from the offhand position will tend to magnify flaws in the way you squeeze the trigger, breath control, gun fit, and on and on. And any improvement you make simply has to carry over to your hunting shot. The best thing about offhand practice is that it's fun. One of the reasons I shoot circle targets is so that I can score them, and that serves as something of a yardstick of my skill. I use 100 yard small bore rifle targets and feel good about my shooting when I can score in the mid 40's at 50 yards with five shots.
I don't score all of the targets and I don't always shoot paper. The .22 is a plinker. Cans, bottles or a simple block of wood, all make good targets that help sharpen shooting skills. The more often you pull the trigger, the easier it becomes to put the bullet just where you want it. And that's the kind of confidence that will put game on the table come autumn.
Capt. Fred is a New Jersey native who grew up in a family of hunters and fishermen living on the shores of the Raritan Bay. He currently resides in Ruskin, Florida where he writes about fishing and hunting, and guides fishermen on the southeast flats of Tampa Bay.