Rifle coach Keith Poyser outlines the foundations that any sporting shooter will need for accurate shots
For those of us who hunt, shoot and fish, respect for the quarry is paramount. If we seek excellence in stalking, we must also aim for excellence in rifle marksmanship. This is a skill as well as a responsibility, and like any skill, it is partly down to natural ability and physical capability, but it can also be significantly improved by practice, training and experience.
When shooting live quarry, you have a responsibility to deliver a humane and as near instantaneous kill as possible, and it is your responsibility to put the practice in at the range so you are confident of this. This article does not advocate long shots on quarry – we all need to shoot within our personal known and practised limits, and our ability to group within known kill-zone sizes at a given distance is a key part of that decision. Any live quarry – be it deer, foxes or even vermin – is not a paper target for long-range experimentation. However – as clients see at the end of a coaching session – if you can hit a target consistently at 400 yards, 150 yards suddenly looks much easier.
The word “shooters” is a homogenising term, but we are a diverse church: from ‘gravel bellies’ in F-Class, adjusting for minute wind changes at 1,000 yards and more, to gallery rifle enthusiasts shooting sub-sonic rounds at 25-50 yards, to tactical shooters who depend on their skills in a variety of challenging situations. As with many churches, some branches of shooting enthusiast may disregard the activities of others. Stalkers are often proudly not target shooters, and see no need to punch paper or understand ‘minute of angle’ and sight adjustments. However, to adopt this attitude is to lose out on a wider range of possibilities in the field.
Stalkers, and in fact hunters of any quarry with the rifle, have three key shots: cold bore, shot one and shot two. After that, the target has gone. A solid basis of technique and an understanding of how to gain more positional stability will increase the success rates of these all-important shots in the field.
There is no point in having an excellent kneeling position if you snatch the trigger and lift your head. Similarly, great breathing won’t help you if you wobble when taking a shot from sitting. We need both a foundation of shot technique and an understanding of solid, stable shooting positions. Both these areas need training and repetition. My aim in this article is to cover the foundations of sporting shot technique and position. Those of you shooting at longer distances on the range or abroad, and needing to know about external ballistics while dialling in for elevation and wind, will have their questions answered in a later instalment.
Yet again, I must emphasise the value of practice. Understand and practise your sight picture, breathing, trigger control, stock weld and follow-through.
Taking a shot is stressful. You may not think so, but your subconscious does. To varying degrees, you are using your fight-or-flight response to prepare the body for action. This means your breathing will unconsciously quicken, your adrenal system will kick in, and your blood vessels will dilate to move blood to your leg and arm muscles and away from your vital organs. Your muscles tense and your pulse rate quickens. This is almost the opposite of the ideal physical condition to make a steady, accurate shot. Training, repetition and familiarity are the ways to counter this reaction, as well as shooting sensible calibres. Training will program your subconscious to react more rationally, and will create muscle memory, making it easier to reproduce the same shot cycle each time. This means predictability and accuracy for you.
Sight picture and sight alignment
Sight picture is often overlooked. It becomes second nature and automatic for many. However, at longer ranges it can throw shots off target, so it is still worth checking that the target is naturally aligned with the rifle sights, and you are not ‘muscling’ the rifle onto the target, especially from a prone position. Ensure there is no shadowing or blackness around the sight picture, and that you are parallax-free at that range. To test for this, move your head slightly up and down on the stock – if the crosshairs are stationary on the target, you are correctly adjusted for parallax.
Failure to correct for parallax can lead to a discrepancy between shot placement and crosshair movement on the target. Parallax adjustment is carried out via the distance focus wheel on your scope. Many mid- and low-end sporting scopes do not have this adjustment and are built with a fixed distance setting, mentioned in your scope literature. Personally I never buy a scope without it, as it limits its usefulness at range. However, ignore at normal ranges if yours does not adjust.
‘Stock weld’ means ensuring you have the same head position and contact points for each and every shot (within the constraints of the position). Your head and eye should be comfortably aligned with the sights, your head quite vertical and your face relaxed, not tensed into position. Any muscle tension could induce movement or tremor and should be removed, by adjusting the stock or sights if necessary. Make the stock and rifle work for your natural head position, not the other way round.
Breathing is a problem area for many, due to the physical, stress-related reasons outlined above. It is key to get your breathing smooth and under control when shooting, to ensure your muscles have enough oxygen – otherwise they will become fatigued, which makes them tremble. If you need to take another breath, don’t be tempted to rush the shot. Simply take the breath and wait for another breathing cycle. This may be slower, but it is much better than firing a hurried, poor shot.
We all have a natural respiratory pause – it is longer than we think, and is plenty of time to release the shot. Once we have solid sight alignment from our position, we begin to control our breathing cycle while starting pressure on the trigger. Your own natural pause may be at the end of exhalation; others may prefer to pause after they inhale. Either can work – you just need stillness in your chest when you take the shot. If you find that your breathing is not under control due to tension, a simple tip is ‘4×4’ breathing: Breathe in, count to four, hold while counting to four, breathe out counting to four, and pause counting to four. This should bring you back under control. It also serves to reduce heart rate.
A trigger should be steadily squeezed, not pulled. The time between trigger release and the bullet leaving the barrel is critical – it seems instantaneous to us, but it is long enough to induce a miss if the shot is badly done. The trigger is not the final part of a shot – it is actually near the beginning, and you need to practise to ensure you don’t disturb the rifle while the bullet is in motion in the barrel.
Trigger control is about steady, gentle pressure from the top pad of your first finger, applied directly back towards the rear of the rifle. The three fingers below that are taking the pressure off, pulling your rifle stock tightly back into your shoulder. Your thumb is squeezing towards your trigger finger. Your shot ‘release’ occurs as a side effect of your finger pressure. Do not try to anticipate the release, otherwise you may flinch. A useful test is to have a friend load two magazines for you, randomly including some fired empty brass cases. If your rifle moves relative to the target when you pull the trigger on an empty, then you have a flinch. Dry firing and rimfire practice for a significant number of rounds can remove it.
Moving too soon after your shot can cause many accuracy issues. As stalkers, our natural instinct is to watch the quarry’s reaction to the shot and to reload. Both of these can in fact be counter-productive, and can ruin a shot. After shot release, count to two before you reload or move any part of yourself, including your head. Logically, the best place for you to see the target or quarry is through your scope, not with the naked eye. Get into the routine of staying stationary on the target, counting to two, and then reloading. It is a momentary pause that will ensure you automatically begin to avoid the common error of lifting your head to see what’s happened down-range too early.