Monday, August 16, 2010

Perfect Practice makes Perfect- Part 2

In my previous effort I decried the declining state of field marksmanship among Americans but I feel some apologetic words are in order. One, America remains one of the last places on this spinning orb that an average man can go out and for an average weeks' wages, purchase himself a high powered rifle and cartridges and then take that rifle hunting for a large game animal with a minimal amount of government intrusion. I think that is a very good thing. Two, the declining state of riflecraft in America is notable because we have the masses out in the fields shooting game.

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!

1 comment:

mdmnm said...

Good points. Kneeling takes the most time to master and a competition background is helpful in getting a good position. A couple of keys are trying to get the lower part of the leg under your support arm vertical and hooking your elbow slightly over your knee, matching elbow to knee much in the same way that you do in an open-legged sitting position. I find a kneeling position, particularly with a sling, a good bit more stable than offhand.

For slings, the Hunter company makes a Whelan model that is my favorite. Once you get the length of the standing loop set up right, you just give it a half twist and slide your arm through for much more support than a hasty sling offers.