Learning from Mistakes

A bad time to realise you’ve forgotten to bring the bolt

The way some shooters talk, you’d think they’ve never made a mistake in their lives. In fact the only way to become an expert at anything is to learn from mistakes – both your own and other people’s.

I am the first to admit that I have made hundreds of mistakes, and learning from those has made me a better fox shooter. I have also been lucky enough to learn from other people who have written to me, or come to chat at various shows and events.

The real schoolboy error that most rifle shooters make sooner or later is leaving the rifle bolt behind. It’s easily done. We are all so safety-conscious these days that we are careful to keep the rifle and bolt separate. It takes
only a small distraction as you’re setting off to leave the bolt on the kitchen table. It’s not too bad if you’re only going down the road, but imagine if you were travelling to the other end of the country.

Your kit is a minefield of potential mistakes. Batteries you forgot to charge, spare bulbs and fuses you didn’t bring with you – the possibilities are endless. When you’re travelling by air the mantra is: “Passport, money, tickets.” The equivalent three-item list for foxing is: “Lamp, rifle, ammunition.” If you’ve got those three, you’re off to a good start.

I try to keep a full kit in the vehicle, or in a pack or belt that I can grab on my way out of the door. That way I always have the vital kit and spares with me. It’s a good idea to put your equipment in order straight after a trip, while it’s fresh in your mind – replace any items you used, recharge the batteries and so on. If you wait until you’re about to set off, it’s too late.

Out in the field, even with all the right equipment, we are constantly making mistakes. There are plenty of errors you can make when you’re trying to attract a fox and manoeuvre it into a position where it is shootable safely and humanely. Perhaps you misjudge the wind and the fox catches your scent, or you call too loudly or spook it with the lamp. We’ve all made mistakes like that over and over again – it’s part of the learning process that makes us better at the job.

One mistake that’s harder to forgive yourself for is forgetting to put a round in the breech. It can be embarrassing – after all that skill and effort getting the shot set up, you pull the trigger and… click! When you are familiar with your rifle you learn to feel when the bolt has picked up a round from the magazine on the way forward – or more to the point, you can feel when it hasn’t. With practice, you can ease back the bolt and find out, even by moonlight, whether there’s a round ‘up the spout’.

All the mistakes we’ve looked at so far are annoying, but not downright dangerous. The biggest mistake any shooter can make is to take a dangerous shot – or worse still, hit something they didn’t mean to. That’s the sort of mistake you need to avoid by listening to expert advice, not by learning the hard way.

Robert’s TOP TIP: If shooting with a team, make sure that everyone’s role is clearly defined

Two key points here are always to be sure of your background, and to positively identify the quarry before taking the shot. When you’re lamping as a two- or three-man team, it helps to have a clear understanding of each person’s responsibilities. When I go out three-up on my land, the driver is in sole charge of driving safely, avoiding obstacles and the like. If he doesn’t like the look of it, no amount of coaxing from the other team members will make him take a risk. Typically I will be the lamper/caller, and it’s my job to be sure of the background – it’s my land, so I know what’s where. I won’t drop the lamp beam onto the animal unless I know the background is safe. Once I illuminate the quarry, it is the shooter’s responsibility to make a positive identification before he takes the shot. He has the advantage of viewing it through the scope, and he has to be 100 per cent sure of what he’s shooting before pulling the trigger. That means seeing not just the eyes, but positively identifying the whole animal.

It’s all too easy to see what you expect to see. Many fox shooters have had a close call with a ginger cat or even a yellow dog. A roe doe in rough grass, or lying down in stubble, can look awfully like a fox face-on – especially if she is holding her ears back, which they sometimes do.

Years ago I let my guard slip, and shot a roe by mistake. I had hit a fox, and was following it up on foot in dewy grass. I followed the trail to the edge of a wood – and there in a bramble thicket was a pair of eyes staring back at me. In my eagerness to finish off the fox, I broke the cardinal rule and shot at just the eyes at about 20 yards. I found I had killed a roe that had been lying up in the cover.

The bottom line is this: never be in a rush to leave your kit behind or to make a mistake. Robert Bucknell

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