We've all heard the old adage that practice makes perfect but nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that perfect practice makes perfect and nothing else. Imperfect practice does nothing except solidify bad habits and instill a false sense of confidence in shaky abilities. Being a person interested in the shooting sports, I've noticed a few things regarding practice and some critical elements that I think we're missing very badly in the 21st century. African PHs (professional hunters) and Alaska guides share many things in common and one of them is the opinion that clients tend to overestimate their shooting ability by factor of (at least) ten. Both have gotten used to the practice of consoling a client who's shooting poorly by saying that "the light is different down (or up) here... you'll get used to it." Both have also gotten quite terrified of letting a new client shoot much past bayonet range until the client has proven himself a competent hand with a rifle and the pre-hunt ritual of "rifle zeroing" conducted under the pretense of calibrating rifle scopes after shipping is as much for checking to see if the client is "calibrated" as for the stated purpose. Sad to say but the American sportsman these days is largely a pathetic example of field marksmanship.
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!