Monday, August 16, 2010
While I don't pretend to know many European hunters, the few that I've met in Alaska seem to be a very serious sort of rifleman indeed. A couple of Germans and an Austrian in particular were quite savvy and their guide reported them excellent marksmen and wonderful field hunters. But, I'd wager those gentlemen were the exception to the rule and a random cross section of Europeans would likely have as equally bad field marksmanship as Americans- if not worse. It seems that Europeans have many more restrictions and provisos on the purchase and shooting of high powered rifles than Americans have and the men who pursue hunting there must be very dedicated indeed. When a rifle subjects you to the level of hassle and expense the average European endures to own a smokepole, I'd wager a weekend warrior you are not.
But, take heart- the average American for a few shekels in ammunition and some spare hours of time can regain that status of marksman that our frontier heritage suggests. When we talk field shooting, we need to define what we mean and for me that means at variable targets at unknown ranges from a variety of positions. It's the positions I want to refer to today and for a more exhaustive volume I'll refer the reader to Cooper's Art of the Rifle for a detailed discussion of the various field positions (as opposed to the competitive rifle positions). A survey of hunters shows that many have simply rudimentary skills in shooting the rifle from any position but standing or benched and virtually no one uses a shooting sling of either the formal or hasty type. Indeed a quick search of shooting catalogs shows a lack of slings that are acceptable for field shooting. So here is a run down of the field positions from the least to the most stable.
Offhand- sometimes referred to as standing is simply raising the rifle and shooting it while standing erect on two feet. This is frequently used in the hunting field and almost no one does it well. It is my least favorite position because of its inherent instability- the body being a collection of bones and joints and muscles held in balance by a wonderful bio mechanical mechanism. In short the offhand shooter will notice their crosshairs wobble in all manner of directions after the briefest of moments holding the rifle on target. In the ye olde days a lot of shooting occurred from offhand but the reader will remember that shooting a black powder piece or lever action woods rifle the shooting typically occurred at very short range and frankly the meat hunters of yesteryear missed... a lot if their journals are to be believed. Standing is useful if intervening foliage is high or an animal stands suddenly from very close range (snap shooting). I'm not inclined to attempt offhand at more than 100 paces and even then if a rest is handy I'll use it. Folks tend to hold their trigger side elbow too low to the side which fails to seat the butt of the rifle in the shoulder pocket. On the African scene the PHs tote a system of shooting sticks to help the sportsman fire from offhand with tripod support since the grass tends to obscure the shot from other positions. I've played around with shooting sticks but I've found them a bother in North America since I don't employ someone to carry them for me. I carry enough stuff already.
Kneeling- reportedly the favorite of none other than Teddy Roosevelt but we must avoid the "stained glass" approach and realize that while Teddy was a conservationist and sportsman of the highest order- he was in real life a mediocre shot with terrible vision. On his African safari he typically shot from rock throwing range and still littered the bush with wounded animals. Within my realm of experience, I don't find this any more stable than offhand. Although the left elbow is supported, I don't find that its particularly useful with a shooting sling. I would only rate this useful for a sportsman attempting a quick shot under something- say low hanging tree branches or such. I believe that kneeling became standard practice within marshal environments where things shot back, shrapnel filled the air and your comrades behind you could very well be shooting over your head from standing position. As a hunting position I can honestly report to never having shot anything from kneeling and that isn't expected to change anytime soon.
Sitting- the classic position of the mountain hunter is likely my favorite and one every western hunter should practice exhaustively. With you posterior on the ground, legs spread about 90 degrees and knees bent so the thighs or shins contact the triceps you can get remarkably stable in a hurry while the elevation allows you to shoot over sagebrush and tundra alike. The position also allows for a lot of elevation adjustment making it perfect for the mountains. Pitfalls are folks trying to rest the elbows on the knees but the joint on joint contact makes for a slippery platform. Since the left elbow (assuming a right handed shooter) is resting on something solid its perfect for the shooting sling. A good shot with experience in sitting can make some remarkable shots and gives up very little to a neophyte on a benchrest. This was reportedly Jack O'Connor's favorite position and he extolled its virtues in print frequently. If I could only choose a single position to shoot from the rest of my life- this would be it.
Prone- lying flat on the stomach with the legs spread well apart, both elbows planted solidly on the ground this is the most stable of the field positions. Its pitfalls are that its slow to assume and slow to discontinue but the hunter tucked into this position can rival a benchrest with a little practice. Intervening vegetation can be a serious hindrance since any vegetation up close will obscure the target completely. Since the elbows are supported, a shooting sling can be very effectively employed and a roving hunter who carries a day pack can use this as sort of front rest for exceptional accuracy. I've used this position from rock outcroppings above arctic valleys to devastating effect and routinely shoot sub-MOA groups on targets and can ring steel gongs to well beyond 300 yards-much farther than a shot at an animal can be justified. This should be practiced every time you go to the range. The average mountain hunter may be able to employ it perhaps 1 time in 5 but most experienced hands will take a 250 yard shot prone over a 75 yard shot offhand every time.
There are a lot of other positions that have been written about but most are an adaptation of one of these four such as the "jackass" positions and frankly too numerous to discuss in detail since the pros and cons of the original position tend to apply to the "jackass" as well. Many had their origins within the military community such as the rice paddy prone or Hawkin's Fist and are of limited scope to the hunter. A hunter who rarely fires from rice paddies or from behind battlements and foxholes or the like, that they aren't worth more than a passing mention. The exception I'll make is "jackass prone" which is frequently executed when hunting from vehicles (or ATVs and snowmachines for that matter) and often seen at gravel pits and other informal shooting ranges nationwide. The common position is the hunter spread out over the hood of a vehicle with the rifle supported by both hands and both elbows firmly planted on the hood's surface. The waist is bent to accommodate the height of the vehicle and the feet are firmly planted on the ground and spread as far as possible. My only advice is to ensure that the piece's muzzle is well above the painted surface since the muzzle blast of a magnum is generally sufficient to peel paint. Don't ask how I know.
The shooting sling is a poorly understood device and while formal rifle competition has pretty much solidified what the shooting sling is, this is of little consequence to the hunter. For the hunter the sling is used to carry the rifle and then to "loop up" for extra stability whenever the position allows for the left elbow to be supported (again, right handed shooter). A study of the "hasty sling" is greatly recommended. In positions where the left elbow is not supported the sling does no good whatsoever. It amuses me greatly when in the sporting press we see some great Bwana attempting to look "professional" while looped up in a sling while standing offhand! The largest hindrance to the shooting sling is the slings themselves- a cursory look at rifle accessory catalogs have slings of every persuasion- mostly unsuitable. The shooting sling should be of an inelastic material, materials that stretch, so vogue in use today, are largely useless since its tension within the sling is the mechanism you use to promote stability. I also prefer slings be of uniform width- the "cobra" type slings are not exactly idea for the purpose. My favorite is an adjustable sling of canvas or nylon, about 1 1/4" wide with rugged swivels.
A 150 yard group from sitting without a sling- 3 and 1/8" or just slightly more than 2 MOA. Adequate for all but the smallest animals at long range.
A group fired from the same position with the same rifle and ammunition... this time with a hasty sling. 1 and 3/8" or slightly less than 1 MOA- very good shooting from a field position and just about the limits of the rifle from a benchrest. This is adequate for any field shooting you might do.
How much difference does the sling make? About 50% decrease in group size which means a 200% increase in stability. Remember the hunter's mantra: If you can get closer-get closer. If you can get more stable- get more stable. The intelligent hunter will commonly practice assuming these positions even in non range settings (with an empty piece or drill rifle if you've got one) at home several times per week. In the hunting field is not the time to be fidgeting trying to figure out a sling adjustment or which leg points which way. I'm also an advocate of living with your rifle on a frequent basis. Work the action. Practice engaging and disengaging the safety. Work the bolt. Dry fire (again with an EMPTY piece observing all directional constraints) so that the break of the trigger is well known. Incidentally, I've never known a shooter with extensive dry fire practice to develop a flinch or have a negligent discharge. I've known numerous shooters have negligent discharges by this point who seldom handle their rifle outside of hunting season. I've often heard the adage that familiarlty breeds contempt but I'm not sure it applies to rifles. Many hunters fail in the field every year simply because they aren't familiar with the basic mechanism of their rifle. An intimate familiarity with your rifle and a developed repertoire of field positions will put you at the top of your class among fellow hunters.
Good luck and good hunting!
Saturday, August 14, 2010
Why would this be? The American sportsman at the turn of the previous century was a marvel to the sporting world with good aperture sights, early scopes and smokeless ammunition. Those early adventurers to Africa and Alaska were often men who spent considerable time afield with a rifle in their hand as well as men with more than a passing interest in riflery. The reputation of the Yankee marksman soared. These days a visiting sportsman is assumed a clod until proven otherwise.
I believe one of the reasons for this radical shift in field shooting ability is the way the typical hunter approaches rifle practice. These days we tend to fixate on mechanical accuracy and I see a lot of shooters firing little bitty group after little bitty group from a shooting bench without ever checking to see what they're capable of from a field position- that is assuming they even know how to get in a field position! Unless you drag a shooting bench to the hunting field (and indeed the shooting rail in a treestand or a hotchkiss is just that) that is a form of practice that has little value beyond confirming that your scope and rifle are roughly in alignment. I actively advocate the idea that once you install a scope on a rifle, choose a load, and get the two to shoot into alignment; that you never shoot that rifle off of a bench again. Rifle ranges frequently frustrate this in that shooting from anywhere but the bench is frowned upon if not outright prohibited. Given that so many of us are now urban dwellers forced into static ranges- that may have a lot to do with our collectively abysmal field shooting.
For those of you with appropriate access to vast wilderness or exceptional real estate here is an exercise to try out with a partner and it can be great fun, Take a standard paper plate (about 8" dia.) and staple it to a cardboard box (do not give it a center or 'bullseye"-animals are not so equipped) in front of a proper backstop but avoid a well cleared shooting lane. Start with a zeroed rifle, three rounds in the magazine and empty chamber, and whatever accoutrement's you typically hunt with. For myself that means a windbreaker or rain coat and a loaded day pack but only take what you routinely carry in the field. Start with your back to the target and start jogging on the go signal away from your target and toward your partner. Your partner (his back to you from well beyond the maximum shooting line) sounds a signal at some random interval of time (about 10 seconds is a good place to start) upon which you turn, take whatever field position is appropriate for the distance and terrain and fire three rounds into the plate as fast as you can accurately place them. You can make it more challenging by having your partner sound a second signal after 10 seconds (more or less) to cease fire- after all, animals won't give you all day to make the shot! The goal is to simulate a target that appears at an unknown range with intervening vegetation under physical stress and time constraints. Sounds a little like hunting doesn't it?
After running this drill a few times in a row you'll see why the shooting bench is totally unlike anything you'll encounter in the field. I ran this a few times this morning with my son acting as my partner- on my first run, the range wound up being 130 yards (measured later via GPS) and I scored 2 of 3 hits from standing. Standing is the worst position imaginable by the way but I was forced due to a large clump of willow between me and the target that prevented even kneeling. On my second run, I fired from prone on a small rise at 180 yards. Prone is wonderful if intervening vegetation and terrain allow and I scored 3/3. My last run was stopped at 270 yards and I fired from prone position again but this time using my day pack as a rest and scored 2/3. Its amazing how much your breathing affects your accuracy (particularly prone) but its common in mountain hunting to shoot when out of breath so mountain hunters best be familiar with the phenomenon.
For those of you unaccustomed to this type of shooting, be prepared to have the old ego bruised a bit. I considered that a very good performance but from the bench I could have fired much smaller groups and fired with more accuracy. But the purpose of the exercise was to practice field shooting- not see the limits of mechanical accuracy that my rifle is capable of.
Once you get the idea you can run this scenario with endless variation but one of my favorites is an unbleached paper plate on a brown cardboard box- have your partner affix it off center to make it more realistic of hitting a kill zone on a similar colored background.
Good luck and good hunting!
Sunday, August 8, 2010
Here is the moose at about 800yards. I've circled him for you.
I studied the bull now- we had closed to something on the order of 800 yards in the last hour and a half and his antlers were now fully visible to the naked eye. The white of the bone and shredded velvet visible in the glass. I'm no great shakes at field judging moose but I guessed him in the mid 40s and very big in the body- probably a three or four year old just hitting his mating prime and we were stalking him through his harem. I desperately searched the wall of alders to the front looking for a passage and found a faint trace of a game trail. I checked the moose and the wind one more time, adjusted my daypack to keep it from snagging on the brush and with Evan eager on my heels, plunged into the brush as quietly as I could. We belly crawled and picked our way through the head high tangle as quietly as possible. I couldn't tell how far we'd go but this drainage was marshier than the previous ones and supported more robust alders and several willow thickets. Visibility was mere feet and I desperately hoped we didn't spook a lounging moose in this jungle or worse yet, a bear. After a half hour we emerged on the far side, soaked from the marsh and shivering from adrenaline.
I surveyed the landscape ahead and looked at the moose. We had 200 yards of relatively open ground to cover until we hit the next drainage and the bad news was those alders were fully 12 feet tall and the expanse was a true quagmire in a deep ravine some additional 200 yards across. The pair had been joined by another cow- this one older and they were still feeding in the clearing. I could detect a rise on the far side of the ravine and the bull was about 200 yards from the far side of the alder band. 600 yards to go and Evan was wired so tight he was practically vibrating. We took a moment and prayed for success. A mosquito bit me on the back of the hand and I gently blew it off. "A mosquito?", I asked myself. "They don't fly in the wind."
And then I noticed it. The wind had died as the sun had set behind the western mountains and we had dead calm. The bugs emerged and flew around us as we stared at the bull through the glass. This was not good.
We crossed the remaining 200 yards as quietly as time allowed- one eye on the moose and another on the terrain ahead. Whenever one of the moose would raise its head we'd freeze in place, afraid to even breathe. Evan was reasonably concealed at a scant bit over 4 feet tall and wearing a camouflage jacket; I was not so well dressed at six foot in blue jeans and a blue windbreaker. I remembered I had a brown shirt on underneath and I quietly shed the windbreaker, my bare arms becoming a buffet line for the bugs. We stopped at the wall of brush on the ravine edge a little over 400 yards from the bull.
This is where most stalks get tricky and this one was no exception. I was pretty sure the younger cow had spotted us because she looked in our direction every few minutes. I looked hard at the bull and eyed the ravine nervously- no way I could cross that 200 yards of green hell and not spook the moose. I might as well have played a trombone or fired a revolver in the air for all the noise I'd make getting through there. I only had about 15 minutes of useful light left and we were quickly running out of options. I looked at my son, still hanging tough for a nine year old, and then at my watch, 11:50pm. We had been stalking this bull for nearly three hours.
\I was sitting there pondering the "what to do of it" when I knew we were in trouble. A slightest breeze started cooling the heavy perspiration on the back of my neck. Mountain hunting often sees bizarre, swirling wind currents and this was pretty common. As the sun set and the earth cooled that all-day steady easterly breeze was replaced by doldrums and as the earth radiated its warmth away further the cooling, contracting air of the mountains began to pull the air westerly.
Right toward our bull.
We were about to be busted and when our scent reached the already skittish cow I was pretty positive she'd vacate and take the bull with her. I contemplated the unthinkable, shed the daypack and pushed it in front of me. I slowly assumed the prone position, flipped up the lens caps and chambered a round as quietly as the mechanism would allow. Firing a 180 grain bullet from my 300 magnum with a 200 yard zero I would be about 20 inches low at 400 yards. The bull was 400 yards, right? I looked through the crosshairs and held the horizontal wire right on his backline, estimating that the round would drop into the realm of his vitals. Evan was now lying down with his fingers in his ears waiting on the shot and holding his breath, he wanted this bull so bad he could taste backstraps for breakfast. I watched the bull react through the scope as our scent filtered through the brush and reached his nostrils.
His head snapped upright and he looked straight at me while broadside, suddenly aware that the meat-eaters had come calling. I could see his gears turning and his flanks rippling, this was going to be over in a couple of seconds one way or the other as I slipped the safety off and took up slack on the trigger.
"What the hell was I doing?", my mind raged. "You don't shoot past 300 yards."
The bull was wonderfully large in the 4x scope and I was confident from years of practice at extended ranges. The classic "angel and devil scenario" was being played out inside my head at high speed. If the wind hadn't shifted he would have likely fed closer allowing a solid 200-250 yard shot. If we hadn't wasted time stalking a cow we'd have come in on this old boy from above and hammered before he knew we where there. If I had been alone instead of taking the kid with me I could have made better time... If I had a rangefinder...If....
I would love to tell my readers that I made a single, stunning shot and anchored that bull in the clearing. But that's not what happened. I'll leave the lie telling to the paid gunwriters, they apparently need the money more than I do. A last light shot, at long range, at a good size bull, surrounded by heavy brush while escorting a nine year old? Not hardly smart. Discretion became the better part of valor and I put the safety on and rolled over on my back- exhausted from hours of stalking this grand animal. As the adrenaline drained from my system, my legs turned to rubber and I dug through the pack to retrieve my canteen and eat a handful of blueberries I hadn't noticed I was lying in. I couldn't imagine how awful the feeling would have been to be stumbling around up there in that brush, in the dark, with a single LED headlamp. Looking for a wounded bull with one of my bullets in its guts; explaining to my child how Dad had rightly lost his mind for a minute and shot at a set of horns.
I felt better as we sat there and the sky turned its last stages of orange and pink from the setting sun. We talked a little about ethics and hunting and what it means to kill responsibly. Why Daddy hadn't start banging away like an artillery barrage over a set of antlers that nobody ate.
What it means to hunt.
What it means to love what you're about to kill.
What it means to give your quarry a good death.
Not some abstract lesson from a book or a lecture from a teacher about doing the right thing. But something played out in the wilderness, written in sweat and wind and tension and oddly enough disappointment. A lesson for my son to carry through life about what it means to tell yourself, "No". It had been a long day as we shouldered our packs to start the long hike back to the Jeep in the dark, our feeble lamp lighting our way.
"This was the best hunting trip ever Dad.", remarked my son, "Do you think that bull will stay here so we can try again?"
"I'm betting he will, the season has just begun." I replied as we wound our way down the far side of the ridge. "I'm betting he will..."