I sat on top of a ridge in the Kaimanawas, cupping my Thai green curry in my hands, as I quietly watched Phil stalk a feeding sika spiker.
While on our hunt, we’d decided to take a break; we’d found a little crater out of the cold wind and were cooking up a meal when I saw movement down in the lower valley floor. Raising the binoculars, I saw a fat spiker feeding voraciously on the handy feed next to the creek.
I gave Phil the nod. “Go get ’em, bud.”
Phil did a great job stalking in and moved into a good position 270m out; I watched as the spiker turned side on. “Now,” I said in my head. Simultaneously, the shot rang out.
Through the binos, I saw its head come up, and then the startled deer took off down the valley; I followed its progress across the creek until it went out of sight. I’ve shot enough deer to know when a deer hasn’t been hit, and sure enough, after an hour of exhausting search, no blood trail was seen despite tracking the deer for several hundred metres.
Chatting later at the hut, we talked about practical ways hunters could upskill their marksmanship, as Phil had felt like it was a good shot, but the result wasn’t what we’d wanted.
Several months later, I stood staring at the computer screen looking at an array of shooting courses run by Sparrowhawk NZ. Sparrowhawk is led by Nick Fisher and offers access to the finest shooting coaches and a top facility on their station near Fairlie in Southern Canterbury. A quick call to Phil had us both booked on the Precision Rifle Series 1 course.
Good precision shooting is about reducing variables or accounting for them; some are within your control while others – such as atmospheric changes and the like – are not. Rifle set-up, scope mounting and selection are variables that a shooter can adjust, and that’s where Sparrowhawk focussed most of the morning.
Rifles were stripped and put back together – using Loctite where necessary and taking care to be as thorough as we could. The course had access to the full array of tools needed including torque wrenches, which were handy to ensure we used a consistent pressure when tightening scope rings and action screws. Starting with rifles checked and set up properly narrows down potential issues later and makes fault-finding much easier. There were also several lessons on calibre choice, shooting positions and rifle hold.
With our newly reassembled rifles, the next stage was to move to the 100m range.
ZEROING AND OPTIMISING SHOOTING HOLD
The task now was to move onto testing the effect of different holds on our fall of shot. Moving through a series of three-shot groups, each with a different hold, produced some startling results. For myself, my rifle produced half-inch groups with the bipod unloaded but one-inch groups with the bipod loaded. This was a gamechanger for me!
Phil noticed his group size shrunk when he placed his thumb parallel to the stock instead of over the palm swell in the traditional fashion.
Each shooter moved through the various alternative hold options all the while noting their group sizes. Coaching on each position was given by instructors Sam Dupont and Steve Dunphy.
This was the crux of the course. We moved onto the 1500m range on the stunning Mackenzie Country station, and in the variable winds, attempted to push our rifles further than most had ever thought about attempting to shoot.
When it was Phil’s turn, he built up a good position, listened to the wind hold from Nick who was spotting, and got control of his breathing. Not only was 640m double the distance he’d ever fired at, but it was also with a stock standard Savage and in a full value crosswind. Couple that with the fact I was filming him for the social media teaser video – the pressure was on! Phil adopted the thumb-parallel position his rifle liked and squeezed off the first shot. I watched through the Nikon as the bullet missed the right-hand side by about half a metre.
The wind hold was reduced, and the next shot missed just off the right-hand side of the plate by inches. The next wind hold was nil wind; as Phil released the shot, the satisfying ‘ting’ as the bullet struck the gong was testament to the Sparrowhawk coaching and Phil’s upgraded shooting skills.
With my 6.5 PRC I use for competitions, I was tasked with hitting the small ‘truing bar’ at 800m; this bar is used to give an accurate reading of my own tables/DOPE. In basic terms, if I can hit this bar at this range, and I’m confident of the projectile’s ballistic coefficient, I can then reverse engineer all my data. As I peered down my scope at the target, it looked tiny and the tussock grass swaying right to left made me nervous. My first three shots resulted in no hits, but two were very close. I stood down while three more shooters scored a zero.
When my turn came around again, I reduced my wind hold half a target. The first shot just missed over the gong by inches. On Nick’s prompt, I adjusted my scope two clicks down. I breathed out slowly, paused, completed the trigger pull … Ting! Success at last! Elated, I now had a full set of results and tables to use for competitions – once I factored in the change in atmospherics on the day, they should hold up anywhere.
The Sparrowhawk Precision Rifle Series 1 course is a great introduction to learning a system you can apply to any firearm – starting with making sure the rifle is set up properly; they’ll take you through selecting a calibre that’s appropriate, mounting a scope and setting up the rifle.
Next is shooting on the range, moving through a system of shooting checks to see what holds that rifle prefers and what produces its optimum grouping capacity.
Once that’s done, you jump straight from 100m to 640m and 800m gongs (calibre dependent) to test what you’ve learnt. It’s a structured and logical process that eliminates variables. It’s no good trying to see what your rifle is capable of without checking and adjusting these easily identified variables before you start. If you know your rifle is set up properly and you know what holds bring out its best shooting results, but you aren’t seeing those results at range, then by process of elimination, it’s the ‘nut behind the butt’! Practice and time spent reading wind and shooting at range will help improve your results.
If you’re looking at the course and thinking the long-range element is intimidating, remember that our course was populated by mostly hunters looking to upgrade their shooting. There were several straight-off-the-shelf rifles in standard calibres and, as you’ll see, Phil’s .308 Savage Ultralight was more than capable of hitting the gongs at extended range. Overall, a great course run by great instructors.
Sparrowhawk New Zealand Ltd (2005) specialises in the provision of practical small arms competition, recreational shooting and training. The course curriculum covers a variety of training and events for all skill levels – entry level to advanced. Firearm safety skills are covered for rifles, handguns and shotguns, as well as workplace safety. Training on thermal imagers and precision rifle use (competition, pest control or sporting applications) is also available. We strive to provide a minimum instructor ratio of 1:4 on range. The extensive range facility caters for competitions, club and hosted events, and classes – open range days are hosted every few weeks. Sparrowhawk New Zealand Ltd acknowledges the support and resources of Gunsite Academy Inc. USA in its course material, teaching methodology and consultancy. Sparrowhawk’s rangemasters are multiple graduates of Gunsite Academy. For more information: www.sparrowhawk.co.nz