Sighting in your scope and figuring out your ideal rifle and ammo combo are just the first steps in prepping for a big game hunt.
Don't waste energy at the shooting range by firing your high powered hunting rifle too much in one session. Fatigue will lead to bad shooting habits and a sore body. Instead, hit the range more often and shoot less. If you don't want to go home after five to 10 shots, bring a handgun or plinker along and switch off.
Literally get to know your gun at home. Practice getting comfortable with all shooting positions while achieving a good sight picture and cycling your rifle with dummy rounds. You can do this in even the smallest living spaces as long as you practice proper gun safety.
Choose the right shooting rest for you, and practice with it, a lot. It is essential that you train with the shooting sticks, bipod, or backpack you will use in the field when you're practicing at home and with live fire at the range.
Practice shooting your hunting rifle at both short and long distances. This will give you greater confidence in the field no matter what kind of shot you have to take.
The fall of 2018 was a big step for me in my journey as a hunter. After many years shooting shotguns and upland bird and turkey hunting, I actually had a big game tag in my pocket.
Thanks to the generosity of Weatherby, Inc. I was going to be hunting pronghorn antelope during the Wyoming Women’s Antelope Hunt in mid-October. Brenda Weatherby had outfitted me with a Mark V Camilla rifle with a Maven RS.1 scope, but the onus was on me to make sure the gun was zeroed in and I was a confident shooter before we got to Wyoming.
As a new big game hunter, it was absolutely essential to me that I kill my antelope as quickly and humanely as possible. Here are some of the steps I took to get me and my rifle ready for the hunt:
Get to Know Your Gun
After you are confident that you have your rifle and scope zeroed in at the range out to your preferred distance (either 100 or 200 yards), the next step is spending time at the range to get comfortable with your gun.
You will need to practice shooting from all the potential positions you could be shooting from in the field, including standing, kneeling, seated or prone.
It's also helpful to ensure that you are competent at loading your gun and cycling through rounds efficiently so if it has to be done during the hunt, you'll be ready. This is the fun part, you get to go shooting!
Shoot Less, More Often
Keep in mind that, if possible, practicing with your rifle is best done over a series of shorter trips to the range instead of a bunch of shooting during a few, longer range sessions. While you can empty a couple of boxes of ammo when you shoot shotguns or handguns, a similar approach with higher powered hunting rifles could ultimately make you less accurate as a shooter and cause you to develop some bad habits. This is particularly true for women or kids whose bodies will feel the impact of the rifle's recoil much more.
“Shooting less and more often is best for women when they practice shooting their rifles,” says Brenda Weatherby. “I will shoot six to nine rounds at the range max, and then pack up and go home so that I can come back in a couple days or a week and do it again.”
Not overdoing it at the range helps keep you from developing bad habits if you are starting to flinch or close your eyes in anticipation of the recoil. This may not always be possible if you live far away from your shooting range, but it’s still a good idea to not shoot too much at once.
Remember that you are training to hunt and that you will (hopefully) only be taking one or maybe two shots in the field. Knowing how you shoot after 30 hard-kicking rounds isn't going to help you much as a hunter.
If you are already confident in the accuracy of your rifle and optic at the shooting range, there’s no need to fire more than a handful of rounds each time you go out to make sure you and your gun are working well together.
Shooting Rests, Sticks, and Bipods
You probably zeroed in your rifle with a good rest or sand bag on a shooting bench, but you know you won’t have that when you're hunting. However, there are a number of tools to help provide stability to your rifle in the field, and you should be comfortable shooting with any that you intend to use.
Shooting Sticks, bipods, and even a backpack are all great choices to help you keep your rifle steady in the field, but if you’ve never shot off them at the range, you won’t be prepared for the many variables you can face in the field.
For standing shots, we practiced with Primos’ Trigger Stick Gen3 Series. These shooting sticks are exceptionally easy to use and can be adjusted to allow you to shoot anywhere from a seated or kneeling position up to a standing position (these sticks work well for my 5’2” daughter as well as my 6’4” husband).
The legs of the sticks easily extend up or down to the right height by squeezing the “trigger” on the handle – when they are at the right height, just let off the “trigger” and they lock in place. The legs also have an angle lock that lets you to spread the legs out farther with a simple twist so that the sticks can be set at a lower height. This makes it easy to shoot the gun comfortably from a seated or kneeling position.
The ergonomic grip below the yoke swivels easily and lets you smoothly move the aim of your rifle in whatever direction you may need.
Another tool that can be useful are bipods that allow you to steady your barrel from a prone or seated position, depending on the length of the legs.
Bipods can be a great tool for shooting if you are likely going to need to stay closer to the ground due to less hiding cover in the field. My guide had me use his portable bipods from a seated position during my antelope hunt, and we practiced getting comfortable with the bipods before we moved into the area where we were hunting.
Some bipods are permanently affixed to your rifle forestock, which can be cumbersome.
Weatherby makes a great alternative – the Javelin bipod, a lightweight carbon-fiber option with a magnetic attachment.
These bipods have a base that attaches to the strap mount on the forestock of the rifle; having the mount in place still allows you to attach a strap on the rifle so you can carry it comfortably in the field. If you are in a situation where a bipod would be the most useful device to provide stability in the prone position (these bipods do not extend long enough for a seated shot, though some do), you can quickly connect the bipod to the magnetic mount.
Because you can put them on or pull them off so easily, they aren’t in the way if you end up needing shooting sticks or a different type of rest. The Javelin bipod isn’t cheap, but because they can be attached to any rifle that has the magnetic mount, you can easily swap one bipod among several firearms.
Practice Your Shooting Positions at Home
Don't save it all for the range. With the proper tools and safety precautions, you can get comfortable to shoot in all of the positions that might be needed during a hunting situation right in your own home while practicing using your gear quickly and quietly.
The overall goal of home practice is to simply get comfortable handling your gun in a variety of positions so when you head to the range or out on your hunt there are no surprises. But what specifically should you be working on?
Every gun has a balance point and it helps to know where the forestock should fit in the yoke so that it is balanced.
With the gun resting in the yoke, adjust the height so that you can stand with your feet firmly on the ground in a comfortable shooting stance with the butt of the rifle resting well in the pocket of your shoulder.
Your non-shooting hand should hold the forestock of the rifle either right at the yoke (this helps steady bipod shooting sticks) or comfortably in front of the yoke if the shooting sticks are stable.
You shouldn’t have to squat down or stand on your toes to be able to see your target when your cheek is on the stock and you are looking through the scope.
When you find the right height and after you have practiced shooting off the sticks so that you know it’s the most comfortable height for you, you could mark the legs at the correct position so that you don’t have to make too many adjustments when you are in the field. After all, it’s easy to practice deploying the sticks and getting the gun balanced and in the right position while you are at home—but you have to plan for and practice doing it in high stress situations under less than ideal conditions.
You can also begin to get comfortable shouldering your rifle in other potential shooting positions while at home. Try sitting down and practice holding the gun steady on a set of shooting sticks for as long as you can, or find a comfortable position propping your elbows on your knees as support to hold your gun steady.
With the shooting sticks you can also determine if you’re generally more comfortable kneeling or sitting while shooting – I’m more comfortable sitting but my husband prefers kneeling.
Last, lie down in the prone position and get comfortable resting the gun in your shoulder pocket and looking through the scope. Often bending one knee or spreading your legs wide will help to absorb the recoil, since the butt of the rifle will fit differently in your shoulder pocket than it does in other positions. From this kind of practice and testing, you can determine if you prefer using bipods, a backpack, or another piece of equipment that can work to steady the barrel of your gun.
Snap-Caps and Dummy Rounds Are Your Friends
While practicing in your home, I found it useful to have a set of dummy rounds or snap caps on hand. These are pretend cartridges in the correct caliber of the gun that you will be shooting. Weatherby sells dummy rounds in a variety of calibers, and Snap Caps come in some of the more common calibers and should be available at your local sporting goods store or gun shop.
Using the dummy rounds, you can practice loading and unloading your gun quickly and safely as well as cycling the bolt. In addition, with Snap Caps and similar dummy rounds, you can safely "dry fire" your rifle without worrying about damaging the firing pin, and you can practice the entire shooting cycle, including that smooth trigger squeeze from a variety of positions, as well ejecting a dummy round and chambering the next one. This will all serve to boost your confidence at the range, and later, in the field.
Shooting Positions and Live Fire
Home practice is great, but if you’re not actually firing the gun, you can’t truly get comfortable with your equipment and your rifle. Make sure you can allocate several trips to the range prior to your hunt so that you can try several shots in every position.
Again, less shooting with more trips is certainly better, but if the range is too far away, make sure you shoot enough rounds in every position at different distances so that you feel confident.
When we are practicing, we use Champion’s VisiColor Real Life Targets because they let you easily see your shot placement on a photo of a big game animal with highlighted vitals; these targets and VisiColor Paper Targets also show bright neon colors where the bullet hits so that it is easier to see where your shot went using binoculars or a spotting scope.
Remember to take your time at first but real-life hunting scenarios will develop quickly, so you need to be able to get into position, pick up the target in your scope and fire as efficiently as possible. In all three positions, using the same equipment you will use in the field, practice finding the target, steadying your aim, firing, chambering another round and repeating as smoothly as possible. Never rush through any of these steps because that’s when mistakes can happen, but being confident with the process will allow you to be better prepared in the field.
Many shooters talk about “squeezing” the trigger rather than “pulling” the trigger and this simply means using a controlled squeeze (rather than a short, sharp pull) of the trigger to keep the barrel on target as the shot is being fired. I’ve heard some say you should hold your breath to keep the gun steady, but I personally think this is NOT the best option. When you’re out hunting, you might have to pause for a while with the animal in your crosshairs waiting for it to step forward for a clear shot or quarter to provide you with a better angle. If you’re holding your breath, you might have to wait for a long time.
Instead, I practice taking a big deep breath in and then slowly and smoothly letting it out – as the breath is going out, I find that my crosshairs steady and it is easier to gently squeeze the trigger and keep the barrel on target.
Try to shoot at least once at a shooting range that offers longer distance lanes so that you can practice out as far as you are comfortable taking a shot on your hunting trip. If you’ve never shot to 200 or 300 yards, you have no idea how your gun and your ammunition will behave, so it is important to determine your maximum range before you are faced with the question of shooting or not shooting on your hunt.
A Bit About Ballistics and Ammo
It’s important to understand at least a little about the ballistics of your gun and ammo. Different calibers shoot differently – some, like my .240 Weatherby shoot very fast and flat out to 300 yards which means I don’t have to make dramatic adjustments in how high I aim.
Alternatively, some loads are still rising at 100 or 200 yards (because their trajectory is more of an arc) so, depending on what distance you zeroed your rifle, you may need to account for these variables in where you aim.
You can use practice ammunition at the range for some of your shooting, but as you get closer to your hunt, try to use the same rounds you will be using in the field so you know exactly how they shoot from your rifle. Fully understanding ballistics (and accounting for things like wind and elevation) are elements that you need to learn more about as you shoot and hunt more. However, at a minimum, your practice should allow you to feel comfortable knowing how your gun and your ammunition perform at various distances so that you are ready for all potential scenarios you could face while hunting.
When getting ready for hunting season, whether it’s your first or 40th, spending time practicing with your rifle is the most important thing you can do to ensure an accurate shot. Those hours at home and at the gun range will ensure you are comfortable using all of your equipment. Plus, that time practicing helps to build your anticipation for time afield, so put in the time in advance. Practice may not make “perfect”, but it will certainly make you a better shot and a more confident hunter.