New year, new technique

Will O’Meara reveals the top three new year’s resolutions that every rifle shooter should make.

A new year is upon us, and at this time of year it is a common practice to adopt resolutions. Personally, I am not really one for adopting new year’s resolutions.

Instead, I like to adopt better practices and habits as they occur to me – why would I wait until 1 January? But whenever you time it, I think there is great use in self-improvement, and this is a good opportunity to look at potential areas to focus on.

In this article I would like to take a two-pronged approach. I’d like to firstly suggest some general areas hunters can focus on as resolutions – these I will base on my experience in guiding others in the field. Secondly, I will share some of my own resolutions that I have already adopted for 2020, and on top of that, some areas I would like to focus improvement on in the future.

As I thought about the notion of resolutions, it occurred to me that my year is divided not based on the annual calendar but by the split between the hunting season and the off-season.

In fact, the more I think about this the more I realise that my life revolves around hunting season – here in Ireland that is just six months of the year for deer and three months for pheasant, woodcock and snipe, which are my usual focus when afield with the shotgun.

A lot of my positive habits have been developed to improve my hunting, and this in turn has had many positive effects on my life.

I remember a time, about 15 years ago, when I decided I needed to improve my mountain fitness. The reason for this was to improve my capacity to hunt.

That summer of focused mountain training led to the development of a deep affinity with climbing mountains and fitness. I had always been fascinated with the hills, but up to that point it had mostly been related to off-roading in Land Rovers and on dirt bikes.

My interest in marksmanship and firearms goes way back to the age of about 10, but now it was different – now it had more of a focus. I am a firm believer that one thing leads to another and that everything happens for a reason – I embrace this in a positive manner and always look at ways to improve on weaknesses, build on existing skills and seek out new challenges.

When I look back at that resolution I made to develop my mountain fitness, I can see how it led to so much more; it no doubt changed the trajectory of my military career and led me to Special Operations, it led to the development of my interest in sniping and marksmanship, which led to the gathering of skills and experiences, and allowed me to play a role in the development of these capabilities.

The most important thing, however, was that my resolution led to friendships. I have been lucky enough to make great friends through work, hunting, occasional guiding and most recently through competition – all that stemmed from a resolution to improve my mountain fitness. In fact, I probably wouldn’t be writing this article right now if it weren’t for that resolution.

There is no doubt that my interest in hunting is obsessive. All the training I do, be it physical, mental or marksmanship-based, is focused on being a more effective hunter. When I reflect on my guiding experience in this context, I think back to instances where I have been surprised by people’s actions or skill gaps.

Let’s start with optics. Binoculars, I would have thought, are essential kit for hunting, be it in woodland or on the mountain, yet I have been surprised on occasion to see a hunter arrive with no binoculars. My own basic checklist before I leave home is all the Bs: binos, bolt, bullets, boots. Everything else I can probably, in a pinch, manage without.

My binoculars sit in a harness – I have set this up so it has all I need for a hunt. In that harness I have: binos (with rangefinder built in), folding knife on a lanyard, small waterproof pouch with tissue and lens cloth, Geoballistics weather meter, two spare rounds, drop chart for both my rifles on a piece of laminated card, and Javelin Pro-Hunt bipod.

This probably sounds like a lot of stuff to have in a bino harness but the reality is that it all attaches really easily. The Javelin bipod hangs from one chest strap in a RedKettle holster, which is super tidy, and the lens cleaning kit (mostly for mopping up rain) sits in a rangefinder pouch on the other side. Everything else sits in the small pockets on the side of the harness.

Putting this kit together was a resolution in itself, and grew from a wish to be prepared to go hunting at the drop of a hat if a short time window presented itself

Anyway, binos are key. Learn how to use them – it sounds simple, but it never fails to amaze me how many hunters are lazy about using their binos. The key here is patience followed by technique.

Technique includes setting your binos up in focus, knowing how to build a stable position, managing wet and foggy lenses, knowing when and where to look and how to search in a systematic manner.

Know your equipment and it will pay you back many times over

So the first proposed resolution is to invest time and thought into your binoculars and their use – it sounds simple but it’s an area that always has room for improvement and mostly revolves around being disciplined.

Practice makes better. Executing a good shot has many aspects to it, all of which can be practised. Starting with the basics, know your equipment, be familiar with your trigger pressure, and practise trigger control. Too often I have seen snatching and flinching, and in a moment we’ll get on to the most common error, shooting centre-of-mass.

We can practise trigger control any time – you don’t need to be at the range to dry fire your rifle. Practise setting up a steady firing position, breathing and slowly pressing the trigger as you reach that normal respiratory pause. Your sight picture should remain steady as the shot breaks.

The most common indicator I see of people slapping the trigger is that their finger flies forward after the shot. Practise keeping your trigger to the rear as you watch the strike.

This will help you have a consistent follow-through. If I detect apprehension or excitement in a hunter, I get them to set up and dry fire, with an empty chamber, on the animal – this is of course dependent on getting into position undetected!

Shooting centre of mass, or at the middle of what you’re aiming at, is usually good on a paper target but can be disastrous on a broadside animal. I have seen hunters get so excited and apprehensive that they cannot wait to release the shot. This is a common phenomenon across many sports where an element of stress or apprehension exists.

I think what happens is that the hunter is under this stress and aims at the centre of their quarry – this may be in order to afford the biggest target or it may be a reversion to target practice, but regardless, a gut-shot deer is not a good result for any hunt.

My advice here is don’t be too hungry, if the opportunity has a low percentage chance of success, wait or improve the situation. Before you even go on the hunt you can improve your chances by practising, figuring out what range you are confident at and learning the animal’s physiology so that you can put that bullet in the correct spot.

Take the pressure off yourself, don’t take chances, and rely on your practice. Resolution number two, then, is to practise your shooting and practise often. Focus on trigger control and aim at a killing spot.

The final suggested resolution is to learn animal behaviour. Personally, I have put countless hours into learning the behaviour of sika and red/sika hybrids in the mountains and forests of Wicklow.

This experience or knowledge is built over time – you can read books and articles to learn the characteristics of a species and the learnings of others, but it is difficult to beat time spent in the field if you want to be able to read an animal. With experience you will be able to read body shape and body language, which will tell you what the animal is and what they are going to do.

There is always an element of unpredictability, but time out there in their habitat will help you understand habits and tendencies. This will also help you understand what you will get away with during the stalk, and what they won’t forgive you for.

I recall a hunt a couple of years ago. Mr G and Coffin Rob of Spartan Precision were my guests for a few days’ hunting. We had stalked into a great shooting position high on the side of a mountain, about 200 yards from a bedded pricket.

I got Coffin set up and told him to wait. There was another group of animals about 200 yards beyond the pricket and they looked like they were feeding towards us. I got G set up so the three of us were lying side by side – G on my left, Coffin on my right.

As the other stags meandered slowly towards us, I explained the plan: “That lead stag will walk to the pricket. As he approaches, the pricket will stand and they will face each other, offering a broadside shot for you both. G, you take the animal on the left; Coffin take the animal on the right… I will count 3, 2, 1, bang. OK?”

Learn to manage your optic and get the most out of them

The minutes ticked by and sure enough the script unfolded just as I predicted. A quarter of an hour later we were gralloching two deer and loading up for the long haul back to the Landy. There was much chat along the lines of, “Had you given them the script?” “How did you know?” I didn’t really know how I knew, but on reflection I can say it is down to experience, to seeing thousands of deer interactions and recognising the habits and behaviours of the species – none of which can be learned in a book or on the internet. Know your quarry, study them and be fascinated by them.

So we’ve considered three resolutions that we can all adopt and every single hunter can improve on, regardless of their experience level. A few additional resolutions that I have identified for myself include investing more time in my deer dog – she has the basics but just needs more time in the field and a focus on her steadiness training.

Earlier this year I committed to moving exclusively to wild meat – 90 per cent of our family’s meat and fish is now killed or caught by my own hand, and I must say it has been a rewarding resolution that I look forward to developing further as time goes on.

Another one for me is to make more adventure out of my hunting – I have recently been rushing, squeezing hunts into five or six hours. This has been productive but there is a deeper sense of reward from taking a few days, pitching the tent and enjoying a few days of solitude.

Invest in your skills, get out there and have a happy new year.

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