Your skill with the rifle will not be the most important ingredient for success in the coming year. But when all that planning comes together and you’re in the right position at the right time, you need to be able to put the bullet where it needs to go.
Veteran hunters may not need to hear this, but I’ve seen plenty of aspiring hunters on the shooting range who do. Before you do anything else, get some sandbags or a sled and properly zero your rifle scope. All the practice in the world won’t do you much good if your viewfinder is 6 inches to the left.
Get yourself a .22 LR trainer
These days, centerfire hunting ammunition is expensive and hard to find. Even if you had the money to burn through 50 rounds of .270 Winchester, you may not be able to find that many cartridges for love or money.
A .22 LR training pistol is a great way to avoid this potential situation. Double deuce cartridges can still be found online and in stores, and 100 rounds will only set you back about $10.
“I didn’t buy my .22 scope to hunt squirrels,” MeatEater’s Janis Putelis told me. “It’s because it was bolt action and it feels like a hunting rifle. I was trying to mimic how my other weapons feel.”
In other words, if you’re using a deer bolt-action rifle, don’t get a modified semi-auto rimfire firing pin. A .22 bolt-action rifle will allow you to practice cycling the action, and most modern .22s come with triggers that mimic their larger cousins.
Practice from probable positions and distances
Whether you decide to go with a .22 LR or your hunting rifle, you need to tailor your range time to the scenarios you are likely to experience in the field. As every coach always says, practice how you play.
If you are hunting from a tree stand or from a hideout, this is simple. Try to find a way to rest your rifle that mimics the rest it will have on the mount, and practice shooting at the ranges you are likely to encounter. It won’t do you much good to practice upside down on 500-yard targets if your real-world shot will be 60 yards from 20 feet in the air.
The same principle applies for spot-and-stalk, but it will be more difficult to predict your exact hunting scenario.
To cover your bases, Janis recommends three field positions to try to master this offseason: standing with a break, sitting with a break and kneeling. If he can’t go face down, these three options will cover most hunting scenarios.
“We all hope we can drop our pack and shoot upside down. But what happens when you’re in 3 foot tall sagebrush? You have to improvise or use a tree,” Janis said.
For a great day of training at the shooting range, split your available ammo among these three shooting positions in sets of five rounds. Shoot at distances you’re likely to see in the field. If you are using a .22 LR, you can mimic longer distances by shooting at smaller targets.
To add even more realism to your practice session, Janis recommends doing a few jumps or running for a few minutes before picking up your rifle. Nothing can mimic deer rush perfectly, but taking shots while your heart is pounding is excellent preparation.
Practice not only improves your skill with the rifle, it reveals your limitations.
“You’ll learn what your real skill set is,” Janis said. Shooting on the spur of the moment (independent) seems easy in the movies, but in real life it is much more difficult. “If you practice, maybe you can hit a wide shot 100 yards. But I bet most guys couldn’t make that shot.”
Unless you’ve tried these shots at the range, says Janis, you won’t know one way or the other.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have access to a range that allows for different shooting positions. For those folks (and everyone, really), dry cooking is a great way to get some activation time in the comfort of your own home.
Ask any competitive shooter for their best advice and they will recommend dry fire. Janis says the same thing.
“Dry fire at home. Work on moving forward with that trigger,” she said.
Safety is paramount when handling a working firearm in your home. Triple check that the gun is unloaded, and for added safety, point it in a safe direction as you practice. A gun safe or basement wall works well for this purpose.
As with live fire shooting, work in positions you will likely use in the field. Put a sticker or pin on the wall and try to keep the reticle on target while slowly pulling the trigger. Take a few steps back or use a smaller target to increase the difficulty.
To add more realism, use dummy rounds to practice cycling the rifle after taking a “shot”. Practicing the bolt action pays off, especially if you’re using a new weapon.
Some hunters only shoot a few rounds each year, but that won’t maximize your odds. You may not be able to control the deer or the weather, but you can control whether you’re prepared to take an accurate and ethical shot when the time comes.
Janis is motivated to practice out of a sense of humility. Awkward shooting positions, high winds, and rushed shots can defeat even experienced hunters, and she continues to hone her skills because she knows another miss could be just around the corner.
“It is not Yes you’ll get lost, it’s when,” he said. “You’re going to run into a situation you haven’t run into before. You’re going to miss out. If you practice, maybe it’ll be in two seasons instead of this season.”
There is much more to say on this subject. Shooting with or without gloves is something to consider, as is shooting with cold or numb fingers. Know your bullet drops, practice at different distances and get a good idea of your limitations as a shooter.
Bottom line? Work on scenarios you’ll see in the field and you’ll be in good shape once rifle season starts next year.