Hill keeper Andy Malcolm leaves the excuses aside and takes an in-depth look at the top 10 reasons for fluffing a shot
Three hours of blood, sweat and tears, and finally you are in range of your beast. You peer over the rise and your suspicions are confirmed: he’s a monster. With your heart thumping in your chest, you ease into the shooting position. Carefully, you place the crosshairs tight behind his shoulder, take a breath… and miss.
Dismayed, you watch over the top of your scope as the beast of a lifetime makes good his escape. Then you become aware of the stalker, lying motionless beside you with his face buried in his hat. Desolation consumes you.
When he trusts himself to speak, the stalker feeds you platitudes like: “Everybody misses.” But you’re not everybody. You shot like a hero on the range. On the long trudge home, you go over and over it in your head but you just can’t explain it.
I’ve been a professional stalker for 25 years now and I have seen some howlers in my time. And they haven’t all been from guests either. In my experience, the reason for a miss will likely fall into one of the following categories.
When you were 12, your uncle thought it would be funny if he gave you a shot of his .30-06. Ever since, your unconscious tells you to prepare for violence and pain whenever you pull that trigger. Closing your eyes, tensing up and getting the shot off as quickly as possible is plain self-preservation to you. When you concentrate you can overcome it, but in times of stress it’s like kippers for breakfast – it just keeps coming back.
The solution: Concentrate! For career flinchers, shooting with a smaller calibre, using hearing protection or fitting a sound moderator can all help. Putting lead down the barrel helps even more. This means firing enough shots that the fear goes and the gentle squeeze becomes second nature.
A close relation to the flinch, except the yank is a conscious act. Very often it’s the result of the shooter thinking: “It’s now or never.” The yank can also rear its ugly head when a shooter thinks a shot is so easy it doesn’t require full concentration. Dedicated shotgunners can also be guilty of the yank, because that’s what shotgunners do.
The solution: try and get into position without your quarry being aware of your presence. This removes a huge amount of pressure and gives you time to compose yourself and concentrate. Remember that, if necessary, there is only a fraction of a second between a swiftly squeezed shot and a yank. However, that fraction can make a yard of difference at the receiving end. It’s also worth bearing in mind that if your quarry is alerted and you don‘t get the shot off, it probably wont go too far. If you shoot and miss, however, it will likely be game over. Over the horizon, that is.
Heavy breathing, jackhammer heartbeat and shaking are all symptoms of buck fever. None are particularly conducive to accurate shooting. Overcoming nerves is one of the many challenges of stalking. Stilling your emotions to carry off a precision shot is one of the most satisfying aspects of the sport. But sufferers of buck fever struggle to put a lid on all that adrenalin.
The solution: As with the yank, time is everything. Time to compose yourself, do a bit of meditation, pop a couple of valium maybe – just don’t take the shot until you are steady. Alternatively you could sell the family into slavery, go shooting every day and eventually grow blasé about the whole affair.
A 500-foot clamber will do for you what adrenalin does for the sufferer of buck fever. To add insult to injury, you’ll be so hot and sweaty, your scope will instantly fog when you pop the scope caps.
The solution: At the risk of repeating myself, time is crucial. If you don’t think you can get to your final shooting position without alerting your quarry, hold back until you’ve recovered your composure. Better still, take your time getting up there in the first place.
The diverted flight
The obstacles vary, depending on where you shoot. For some, it will be branches, for others, fences. For me, it’s long heather. But your bullet doesn’t mind – if it touches anything larger than a gnat on its journey to the target, it will go AWOL.
The solution: A clear scope doesn’t necessarily mean a clear shot. Always check for obstructions by sighting down the side of your barrel before you shoot. And if you move – or your quarry changes position – check again.
Sudden technical failures
Rifles can go off zero for many reasons, but it’s rare for this to happen owing to a sudden failure on the part of the rifle or scope. However, reticles can fracture, mounts can fail, screws can shear, bullets can misfire, stocks can crack. I’ve witnessed all of these at one stage or another.
The solution: Sudden technical failures – unlike technical failings (below) – are by definition, well, sudden. This makes them difficult to anticipate. Regular maintenance might throw light on one before it spoils an expensive hunting trip, however.
These are failings on the part of the nut behind the trigger – yes, you! And the possibilities are almost limitless. Common ones include: knocking the scope off zero; slack, stripped or missing screws; slack moderators; debris wedged under floating barrels; debris in the barrel; different bullet makes, weights or even calibers. All that before you even consider the potentials for error with home-loaded bullets.
The solution: Ensure your equipment is properly maintained and set up. Check you have the right ammunition. Most importantly, make certain your rifle is zeroed before you set off hunting. Once out in the field, treat it with kid gloves. For us on the open hill, it’s uncommon to be presented with a sudden opportunity. Furthermore, the crawls can be long and arduous. For these reasons many hill stalkers opt for keeping the rifle protected in a cover right up to the firing point.
The bad position
It’s amazing how often a straightforward shot turns into a yoga session. Steep slopes are one reason for bad positions. But there are plenty of others. For example, you might be forced into shooting past the left side of a rock or tree. Not a problem, unless you’re convinced that you won’t get away with moving your body out into the open. (I learned to shoot off my left shoulder to overcome that one.)
The solution: Before committing to your final approach, pick out the most comfortable shooting point. I’d rather be in a good position 50 metres further off than closer and in a bad one. If you do find yourself in an awkward place, do whatever you can to get stable. Binoculars, rifle covers and jackets can all be used as platforms for elbows or bipods.
Distance and windage
You overestimated the range and shot over the top of your animal. The solution: Practice judging range and confirm the distance using a rangefinder or by pacing it out. Learn to gauge your prey against the scope reticle as a guide to the distance.
You underestimated the range and shot underneath the animal. The solution: as above. More importantly, ask yourself: Are you really shooting within your abilities? You’re a stalker – get closer.
You missed completely by over or underestimating windage. The solution: In this case, there is no substitute for knowing the performance of the round you put through your rifle. There are plenty of charts out there, but mostly it boils down to experience. Until you get that experience, the best thing you can do is limit the range you shoot at in strong winds.
Shock and awww
This is when the shot goes off before you are ready. I’ve known it happen when fingers are too cold to feel the trigger. More often it happens when someone is using an unfamiliar rifle.
The solution: Learn good practice. Your trigger finger should lay along the stock above the trigger until you are ready to shoot. When the moment comes, the safety is put off and then your finger moves to the trigger. The crosshairs shouldn’t waver from the spot from the moment your finger starts to move.
This list is by no means exhaustive. There are plenty other excuses for missing. I’ve heard loads of them. I’ve even borrowed a few myself. However, most misses can be avoided if you follow a few golden rules. Take care of yourself. Take care of your kit. Know your limitations. Give yourself time. And concentrate.
Stalking is challenging – that’s why we derive so much satisfaction from it. But that’s also why it is so easy to get things wrong. If you do miss, console yourself with the thought that to err is human. But before you drag your sorry posterior home, just make sure that it was a miss.