Improving your marksmanship

paul_hill_mainIf you are going to stalk live quarry, it is your responsibility to ensure that your marksmanship is up to the job, says Paul Hill. 


Over the past decade or so, firearms ownership in the UK has undergone something of a renaissance, with sporting rifles leading the way, in particular the ownership of centrefire rifles for deer stalking. Seldom does a week go by without someone emailing or phoning me to find out how they can get into deer stalking.

As sportsmen and women, we should never underestimate the importance of becoming proficient, regardless of the sport we choose. In shooting sports, this is even more important when we are taking the life of an animal; it is our responsibility to do that as cleanly and humanely as possible.

How many game shooters put away their guns at the end of the season, lamenting on a season passed until the leaves once again drop and the shotgun is dusted off? Of course, there may be the odd charity clay shoot, but, by and large, a good number of game shooters won't touch their guns until the first day of the season and will just pray that things go well. In this respect, stalkers are no different.

In the UK, deer have no natural predators, but that doesn't mean that their survival instinct has been dulled in any way. Their first and most natural reaction to a threat is the flight mechanism. In addition, the ability of a deer to survive an injury that would prove almost instantly fatal to a human is staggering. Even a fatally wounded animal can run a considerable distance before expiring. From this it is clear that the most important aspect of the stalk is shot placement: to try and ensure the quickest and cleanest kill possible. Practice is vital. But how can we make sure any practice we undertake will benefit us in the field?

Whilst clay-shooting grounds proliferate, it is a sad reality that rifle ranges, where effective practice can take place, do not. Those ranges that are available are mostly only suitable for zeroing and load development, and don't offer the flexibility needed for useful practice. And finding a range where you can shoot from all the most practical positions on realistic targets can be a task in itself.

Of course, many stalkers have land over which to shoot where they could also practice, but we have to take noise into consideration, and few landowners enjoy the barrage of shots likely to be needed, let alone the general public and perhaps even the authorities. A couple of shots to check zero is not practice. Practicing on your own may also ingrain any problems or bad habits without realising it. An hour with a coach or instructor can be worth countless hours searching internet forums for advice from the many stalkers with years of experience gained from the comfort of their armchairs.

Having established a need for practice, and assuming that a suitable range has been found, we need to make sure that the scenarios we are likely to encounter in the field are catered for at the range. Is there a high seat to practice from? Is it possible to shoot from several different positions such as sitting, kneeling and standing? Just as importantly, is there a coach or instructor on-hand to offer assistance and guidance?

paul_hill_scopeLet's assume that you've found a range that can offer everything you need. Zero has been checked and any adjustments made, and you have decided to shoot from a standing position using sticks as a support, a very common situation in the field, but one few stalkers practice. There is little point just having a few shots to check that you can hit the target in the required spot two or three times. On an average training visit I would expect a visiting shooter to take anywhere up to 50 shots from different positions as well as distances. This isn't a numbers game like breaking clays; it is effective and meaningful practice to enable the shooter to confidently take an accurate shot when presented. When you have to make a pressurised shot in the field, you shouldn't have to think about it, it should come naturally. 

To a novice, this could mean a number of visits, as learning to use a centrefire rifle safely and effectively takes time. Before I take potential clients out for their first deer, I would expect them to visit around three or four times, as much for their own confidence as mine. Whilst there are many rifle shooters happy to punch paper from a bench or a prone position, a deerstalker should be able to adapt and shoot competently from several positions, consistently. And whilst nobody is perfect, regular and useful practice will reduce the potential for disaster – it's not how good the good shots are, it's how bad the bad ones are!

Lastly, before you visit a range, try to give some thought as to what you may want to achieve and your own capabilities. There is no point trying to shoot targets a long way away unless they are just that, targets. The vast majority of deer in the UK are shot at less than 100 yards and, as that distance increases, the chances of wounding increases. Modern equipment such as high magnification optics and rangefinders unfortunately give stalkers false expectations, and whilst a joy to own and use, should not replace fieldcraft.

Each individual is unique in his or her requirements and skills. Whilst the desire to stalk deer is high, we should never underestimate the importance of practice beforehand. And I am not just referring to familiarising yourself with your rifle, scope and the ballistics and bullet performance of your chosen calibre, but also what we intend to do and how to do it. That way, when we eventually settle the crosshairs on an animal, we can be confident that the time we spent on the range was not wasted.

Good practice

1) Find a range or land that offers flexibility and suitability for your needs.

2) Go prepared. Take enough ammunition, ear defenders and shooting aids.

3) Make your practice sessions as relevant as possible. It is all very well shooting from a bench or prone, but if you want to improve your proficiency as a deer stalker, ensure that you practice from positions you are likely to use in the field (kneeling, sitting, freehand and from sticks).

4) Don't be afraid to ask for guidance.

5) Know your limits and never take a shot at a deer that is beyond your capability.

Paul Hill has been involved in shooting and deer stalking for 35 years. In addition to being a professional stalker and running Corinium Rifle Range in Wiltshire, he also conducts DSC1 courses, is a BASC approved trainer and specialises in firearms awareness and training and carcass handling and butchery. He is also an approved witness for the DSC2.


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