Gun Practice: 
Don't be a Bench Warmer

Gun practice and sighting in a rifle are not accomplished at the same time. Do some hunting-situation practice away from the bench rest.

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Build a Stable Base Under You Rifle

Do some gun practice prone, sitting, on your knees, using a tree or other stable rest, since that may be all you have in a hunting situation. I have killed a couple of elk on a slope leaning back on my pack with my knees up and in front of me to brace the rifle on.

Most of us think we know how to shoot a rifle if we've done it all our lives. However, there is much to learn about establishing a stable base before shooting that Dad may not have taught us. To prove that all we have to do is ask ourselves how many times we've missed when we shouldn't have!

If you attend a firearms training academy (highly recommended for anyone) like Front Sight Firearms Training Institute, or Gunsite Academy, etc. you learn that the prone shooting position is the most stable. Sitting is a close second, then kneeling. Standing is the least stable, especially without a rest. Of course, the circumstances of the opportunity will dictate how much time you have to get into position and the visibility of your target from a lower position.

Do Gun Practice From the Prone Position

Do some gun practice in the prone position, since it is the most stable. Lay flat, legs spread wide with toes pointed outward and the inside of your ankles flat on the ground (for more stability).

Rest the fore-end of the rifle on your left hand (for right-handers) with your elbow beneath (not to the side) of the rifle. Tuck the butt of the gun firmly into your shoulder and rest your other elbow on the ground. Drop your cheek firmly on the stock. Your two elbows and entire lower body will provide a very stable shooting base.

Move Your Thumb!

Here's a trick that applies to all rifle shooting positions: Pull the thumb of your trigger hand off the top of the pistol grip of the rifle. Just let it relax above your hand. Or, leave it on top and apply even pressure between your finger and thumb, slowly "pinching" your trigger finger and thumb toward each other until the gun goes off

This will keep you from pulling the rifle off the "bull's eye" to your "shooting side". If you shoot a little to the right (or left for left-handers), it may not be your scope or sights. It could be your thumb. Don't adjust your rifle scope for this error. Correct the error.

Use Your Pack for a Rest

If using your hunting pack for a rest will get your rifle high enough, do it! Pull your front end arm off the fore-end of the rifle and use it to help adjust elevation lightly on the rifle butt.

The Sitting Position

First, get as low to the ground sitting cross-legged as you can with your right shoulder a little toward the target. (Left for lefties like me.) Rest the back of your arms slightly above the elbows onto the knee caps of each leg. (Triceps on kneecaps.)

This gets you very low. If your belly is making that difficult, try sinking your elbows into the V formed by each knee. This all gets you very low and stable in the sitting position. You'll have to take your breaths before sinking in, since this low position limits your diaphragm. Tuck in the rifle butt tight, relax, breathe and squeeze properly asdescribed below.

Kneeling Position

Kneeling may be required to get you up high enough to see your target. Learn how to shoot a rifle from all these positions.

Rest your butt on your right heel with the bottom of your right toes on the ground. As before, rest the soft part of the back of your arm (just above the elbow) on your kneecap. If you put your elbow on your kneecap it will wobble around. Take your breaths, lean forward, relax, focus and squeeze.

Relax and sink as low as you can into this position. Experiment with the foot that your sitting on during gun practice to see if you can make this more stable. Try sitting on the inside of your ankle instead of on your heel. Sink your leg down into the ground. The side of the ankle may be more stable, but will put more strain on your knee. I can't do it very long. A pack or coat between your butt and leg can make this more comfortable.

Figure out the best way to do this in gun practice, before you're looking at an elk in your sights.

Shooting While Standing

Practice and learn how to shoot a rifle from a standing position during gun practice at some closer distances. Sometimes a shot presents itself fairly close with the animal staring at you. All you may have time for is a standing shot.

Be aware of your limitations in this situation. Personally, anything much over 50 yards is pushing it for me. Gun practice will let you know your limitations.

When there is no time for anything else and the distance is within your ability, face the target squarely (don't turn to either side). This minimizes the movement caused by the recoil. Square up your feet at shoulder width apart. Your right foot should be back a little from the left (opposite for us lefties).

Rather than dipping your head to your sights, always bring your sights/scope to your eyes while you are focusing your eyes on the target.

(Share your practice tips.)

Give it a Rest

It’s surprising how much some tree branches move, unless you’re right up against the trunk of the tree. A knob isn't usually in the right place. It is often helpful to have done some gun practice using your front hand to anchor to a tree trunk, while at the same time letting your rifle rest on that hand. You might prefer doing this from one or the the other side of the tree. Try it both ways. 

A partner, if available, can lean on the tree trunk with an open hand and his wrist becomes a stable rest. This is especially helpful if the shooter has small hands and the tree trunk is large.

Try Shooting Sticks

Sitting bi-pod shooting sticks that break down or telescope into two or three sections are probably the most convenient to carry and use. I usually carry them fully extended, tucked in between my back and backpack.

When I see an animal that does not see me, I can immediately pull my bi-pod shooting sticks out and drop to my knees using the same knee positioning as described above. It takes a few more seconds to set the sticks up in front of you and then to put the rifle on top of them. Then you have to know how to quickly adjust the elevation of your gun.

It’s important to learn during gun practice how to shoot a rifle with shooting sticks. You'll find that you can easily lean bi-pod sticks forward or backward to lower or raise the front of the gun. It is not necessary to separate the legs of the sticks in order to do this. Get to know this procedure during gun practice, rather than in a hunting situation.

Primos  Trigger Stick  Tripod

Tripod shooting sticks that are long enough to use standing up add bulk and more steps to set up from a broken down state. While standing, you’re rifle will still not be as stable as when your back side and legs are anchored to the ground, in addition to the sticks.

Resting the gun on someone’s shoulder is not a good idea. The shoulder volunteer is not that stable, no matter how hard he tries to be, especially when expecting the explosion. Common sense says it just isn’t safe anyway.

Put Your Brand on 'em!

Early on my youngest son was having trouble with blinking and flinching and it was causing him to shoot poorly and inconsistently. I taught him some visualization that helped him (and myself) to avoid the anticipation response.

During gun practice it might help to get in the habit of imagining your gun as a branding tool. You are going to “brand” a cross (your crosshair brand) on the target (animal or paper). Take two or three relaxed big breaths. Take another comfortably full breath and let half of it out. Then hold your breath.

Put the center of the “cross” exactly where you want it to be “burned on”. Once you have placed the reticle on the "spot", focus on the reticle. This will blur the target, but focus on your reticle.

Hold it steady and begin to squeeze, or "press" the trigger, while you imagine burning the cross on the target. If using sights, focus on the FRONT sight.

Marry the Rifle and Scope
Divorce the Explosion!

Forget about the explosion. The explosion should surprise you. Let it. Your task is to squeeze, or press the trigger while the reticle of your scope is held steadily where you want it.

The explosion is the gun’s responsibility. The explosion is not your focused goal. Holding steady, focusing on your reticle while holding it on a very small spot on the target while you squeeze the trigger is your responsibility.

Good Follow-through

Your target will disappear for a second with the recoil. Try to keep your eyes on your reticle in the scope and bring it back down quickly to the target. With gun practice you will find that you can often watch the reaction of the animal through your scope after quickly recovering from the recoil.

That's good follow through, rather than jerking your eyes to the side to watch the animal. During gun practice get into the habit of quickly reloading for a second shot, just in case.

If you have properly sighted in your rifle, the spot where you last saw your reticle on the target is where the bullet should hit, or below it if you had to hold high. When you've learned how to shoot a rifle well, you will remember the spot the reticle (or sights) touched when the gun went off.

When my youngest son started using the branding imagery, he began shooting accurately at the range and during gun practice. The improvement was dramatic. A couple of weeks later, after successfully tracking an elk herd, he was holding his “crosshair brand” on an elk at 275 yards. He used a stable tree trunk while he was on his knees for stability. He slowly “branded” the animal right behind the front leg.

As I watched through binoculars, the gun went off. The elk ran briskly out of sight into adjacent trees. I saw no evidence of a hit before it quickly disappeared. I asked him if the shot surprised him. He said it had. I asked where he last saw the reticle. He said, “Right behind the leg”. I told him, “Then your elk is down”.

We knew the scope was “married” to the rifle with good mounts. We had spent the time to carefully sight it in for zero at 200 yards with the same premium ammo we used in the field (Federal Premium Vital Shock High Energy, 180 grain for 300 Win Mag).

The shooter divorced himself from the explosion and let it surprise him while he was still in the on-going process of simply focusing, holding and squeezing, while using the branding imagery. Sure enough, the elk only ran about 30 yards and dropped dead. The bullet hit at his point of aim. His very first elk was down.

Practice Hold Over

Learn through gun practice where to hold over at different distances. A range finder is helpful, but many scopes are set up to help you estimate distances while looking at an elk or deer through the scope. Zeroing in at 200 yards is common with high powered rifles, since little or no elevation adjustment is needed out to 300, or so, given a 6 to 8 inch drop with premium ammunition.

If you don’t know how far an animal is, but you know significant drop will probably occur, it may be safe to hold on or slightly below the spine, above the lung area.

With an elk, it’s best to get the bullet into the lung area to avoid having to track a wounded animal for long distances. During gun practice guess distances and check with a range finder so you know your limitations, preferably in the terrain you’re going to hunt in. Most of us find that we just aren’t that good at eye-balling distances, especially over up and down terrain.

Use a Small Caliber Rifle for Gun Practice

The best way to learn how to shoot a big game rifle well is to practice with a small caliber rifle. It’s cheaper, so you can shoot a lot. Since there is no kick, no flinch develops.

It’s best to avoid fast shooting with a semi-automatic rimfire, which teaches the shooter not to take careful shots. Take your time, just like you would with a big rifle, making every shot count. When you move to big guns, pretend it is a .22. Don’t anticipate the big boom! It should always surprise you.

“Stump shooting” or hunting small game is a lot of fun during the off season and keeps good shooting habits sharp. A gopher at 100 yards is tough to hit and requires good focus skills. Most summers two or three of us burn through a brick of .22 shells and eliminate over 150 gophers to the ranch owners’ delight.

There’s nothing worse than tracking a wounded elk until the blood sign disappears. Gun practice is an important key to successfully putting a bullet into an animal’s boiler room after all the hard work it took to set up the shot. Put the time in to learn how to shoot a rifle well and your chances of closing the deal rises dramatically. 

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Read about Sighting in a Rifle here. 

Download free paper targets for gun practice here.

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