It may not happen today, tomorrow or next year, but one day you’ll stumble upon the stag of your dreams. Your breath will catch in your throat at the sight of him, your heart will pound, and your mouth will feel dry. The rifle crosshair will seem like it’s got a life of its own. Your first shot is your best chance … how do you make it count?
This article is dedicated to all of us (including me) who’ve stuffed up an important shot, either on a trophy animal or just an animal that was significant – perhaps your first deer or similar. We’ll talk about how you manage your nerves/fight-or-flight response both before you even get on the hunt and when you’re about to send the shot on its way. This article covers shooting at distance and mostly from the prone position although the fundamentals remain the same no matter the position. I consider shooting at close range in bush-type situations to be a slightly different skill worthy of its own article.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT
This evolutionary capability used to help us evade predators or run down game animals, but it’s the enemy of cool, calm and steady marksmanship. Learning to take shots while under pressure is really learning how to deal with your fight-or-flight response. Increase in respiration, heart rate and a surge of adrenaline are all parts of fight or flight and sometimes simply unavoidable. So how do we conquer its off-putting effects?
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Fight or flight is beaten on the range long before you get in front of your trophy stag. Overcoming it involves a series of practiced calming processes and actions that prepare you for the shot; basically, it gets your mind on the job.
Time spent getting to know your rifle, trigger, scope and the trajectory of your projectile all induce confidence. This confidence gives you a good starting point mentally and will ease the apprehension and anticipation pre-shot.
There’s a lot to take in when learning to shoot, so finding someone experienced who’s willing to help you is a great idea; joining a shooting club will put you in contact with many very experienced marksmen around New Zealand – NZ Deerstalkers Association, NZ Service Rifle Association or the number of practical field-style shooting organisations are all a great start.
Tip: If you want to learn breathing and trigger control, attend your local small-bore indoor shooting club. Hitting a pinhead ten out of ten shots requires perfection in terms of fundamentals. I guarantee you, as a deer hunter, will not
be as good as you think you are!
Key points to work on while on the range:
• Using your breathing as a calming and steadying factor. Being able to control your breathing and steadily inhale and exhale as part of your pre-shot routine has a very positive effect on your nerves. It reduces the dreaded anticipation of the shot and allows you to focus.
• Holding the rifle with your master and off hand and how it fits against your shoulder.
• Positional shooting.
• Sight picture.
• Trigger control.
WHEN THE CLOCK IS TICKING
The more animals you watch, the more you’ll get a sense of how they move and feed and when they’re alert and suspicious. Knowing what these behaviours look like gives you a rough timetable when assessing your shot – time of day and species are also factors.
Obviously, you must 100% identify that it is a deer and not a hunter; remember to always assume it’s a person until you prove otherwise. Once you’ve totally confirmed it’s a deer, you need to quickly assess several details. How relaxed is it? How far from cover is it? What time of day is it? Answering these questions is going to give you a rough idea of how long you have to set up for your shot.
One of the challenges a hunting guide faces is that often they can tell an animal is unsettled and will be gone in 10-30 seconds, so the shot is urgent; however, they cannot rush a client into a shot they’re not ready for. Guiding is a tricky skill to master and not as easy as it appears.
Once you’ve made an assessment of the animal’s movements, use one of these two pre-shot routines.
If the animal is calmly feeding in the open and you estimate you have at least several minutes to prepare for your shot, consider doing the following:
• Take a bit more time to assess the wind, particularly if shooting past 150m. If you’re shooting over a valley or gulley, try to see if there’s any variation in wind at your position, halfway and nearer the target; often there’s a difference that needs to be factored in.
• Consider dry firing; this’ll remind you of your trigger break and allow you to see if you can break the trigger without disturbing the crosshairs. When hunting tahr and attempting a shot at distance, you’ll often have time to watch the animal and dry fire.
• Find the best firing position you can. If time allows, identify the most suitable position to fire from – any uncomfortable rocks jabbing your ribs or uneven ground will distract you. You want your crosshairs dead still to pull off the best shot you can; any discomfort will cause you to compensate by pulling your rifle onto the target rather than letting it relax on the target.
• Build your position methodically. I lay my rifle aligned with the target and then I get behind the rifle, building my position from my legs, pelvis and upper torso so that when I finally pick up the rifle in position, it should point naturally at my target without stress or excessive manipulation.
• Now you’re in position, start with a big calming breath and continue with steady breathing; relax in whatever position you’re in.
• The last two points are very important: sight picture and trigger control. You must be correctly aligned, looking through your scope and have fully switched your focus to two factors: your point of aim and your trigger. Nothing else matters if your wind call and target haven’t changed. If you get everything else wrong but nail these two fundamentals, you can still release a good shot.
This kind of pre-shot routine, when written down, sounds long-winded and complicated, but believe me, when you’ve practiced it on the range – and even at home – it becomes second nature; the whole process takes less than two minutes.
If the animal is near cover, it’s late in the morning or it’s unsettled and you assess you have less than a minute to take the shot, use a cut-down pre-shot routine similar to this:
• Get into whatever position is best and quickest. It’s not going to be perfect but make do with what you have.
• Take a large calming breath and bring your rifle up to aim.
• Focus on two things: sight picture and trigger control.
• Make a quick check of the sight picture and that you’re aligned; switch your focus onto the target and crosshair … breathe … hold … break the trigger as smoothly as you can.
With this cut-down version, it’s crucial that you focus on sight picture and then a smooth trigger release. Poor trigger release is, in my opinion, the biggest cause of those times when your quarry gets away, seemingly unharmed, accompanied by the anguished thought: ‘Oh no what happened? The shot felt good!’
This shortened version works great when it is practised on the range. It’s not ideal, but over the years, it’s produced good results.
Tip: Breaking your trigger, building shooting positions and breathing control can all be practiced at home or in the garage. When breathing, I’d suggest you try this:
• When you’re in position, start with an exaggerated breath in and a slow exhale.
• Continue with a steady breathing pattern – in and out.
• With each breath, relax a little bit more and focus on your sight picture.
• Hopefully, you’ll quickly reach a mental state of total relaxation without stressing or overly manipulating the rifle.
• This can be achieved in 3 breaths for a quick shot or extended out as required.
• If, at any stage, you feel uncomfortable or like you can’t relax, readjust your position and start again.
There are many different processes used for calming a person’s nerves and focusing before taking a shot, but common to all is a controlling and calming of the shooter’s breathing and a quick check on a couple of important shooting fundamentals like sight picture and rifle hold. With every breath you take, relax a little bit more and focus – even after you’ve released the shot.
It’s up to you to use your own knowledge and advice of experienced shooters to come up with a process that works for you and that you can practice repetitively so it’s done quickly and smoothly. No matter your own intricacies, make sure the fundamentals are part of your pre-shot routine and you’ll massively increase your chances of pulling off a good shot when it really counts.