CARNIVORE Tips for Off-Season Practice Ryan Cleckner Join the Conversation From the archives: CARNIVORE Magazine Issue 1 GET YOUR ASS OFF THE BENCH Stop shooting pretty little groups at the range. Believe it or not, it can hurt your chances of success while hunting. Sure, good groups are required to properly zero your rifle and to test the precision and accuracy of your rifle, scope, ammo, and the meathead driving it. It’s also fun to share your amazing groups on Instagram (of course, with a coin in the picture for scale and also to cover up that flier . . . Yes, we know your secret). But the benefits stop there. PRACTICING TO HUNT As with any other important area of human endeavor, you should practice. Ask yourself, though, are you practicing to shoot pretty little groups, or are you practicing to hunt? If you only shoot at your zero distance from a bench, then you aren’t practicing to hunt. Your experience may be different, but I’ve never encountered a shooting bench in the field. When you’re hunting, the target decides the time and place for your shot. It’s likely you’ll need to take the shot when you aren’t ready and when you aren’t in a perfectly stable position. After you’ve zeroed your rifle and gained confidence in the capabilities of your equipment, it’s time to get confident in your ability to shoot in real-life hunting positions. Get your ass off the shooting bench! STABLE PLATFORM One key element of making a good shot is working from a stable platform — this is why you shoot better groups off of a bench than while standing. Shooting in the prone position is the most stable. If possible, I always prefer to take a shot from the prone position (depending on the amount of mud). However, shooting prone while in the field often has you staring directly into grass, logs, or slight elevation changes in the terrain. While it’s the most stable position, it’s also the least used, as it’s often necessary to get your rifle higher off the ground. Although prone is the most stable position, real-world problems like vegetation prevent its use a lot of the time. Although you’ll be able to see more, the higher you get off the ground, the less stable you’ll be. So, let’s explore some ways to increase stability that don’t involve a shooting bench or shooting proned out. GET YOUR ARM IN A SLING Find and use any support you can. It may not be perfectly stable, but it’ll be better than simply holding your rifle while standing there with your heart trying to beat out of your chest as a bull elk bugles in front of you. Your rifle better have a sling; it isn’t just for carrying your rifle over your shoulder. It’s an important shooting aid, and, if adjusted properly, almost any sling is useful as a hasty support. Using a hasty sling support involves placing your support arm under your rifle and through the sling far enough that the middle of the sling makes contact with your upper tricep. Then, wrap your arm around the sling once and place your support hand on your stock on the near-side of your front sling attachment point. The sling should be adjusted so it’s tight enough to provide support while the buttstock of the rifle is shouldered. It shouldn’t be painful on your support arm, but it’ll likely be a bit uncomfortable. If you doubt the effectiveness of a hasty sling take your firing hand off the rifle (notice the rifle stays in your shoulder without needing to pull it into position with your support hand) and grab the sling and give it a twist to simulate shortening the sling’s length. You ’ll notice the rifle pulls even tighter into your shoulder. Another component to making a good shot is to avoid muscling the rifle. With a hasty sling, your support hand no longer needs to grip the rifle. Instead, it can act as a shelf for the rifle to rest on. For the ultimate stability with a sling, a cuff-style design grabs your support arm in a cuff and wraps around your arm the same way a hasty sling does. It’s more stable, but a strictly cuff-style sling takes longer to get into and out of. There are slings available that make the best of both worlds when the situation allows. One thing to watch out for when using a sling around your arm: You may end up twisting the rifle away from your body because the rear sling attachment point is usually at the bottom of your buttstock. When using a cuff style sling, detaching the rear of the sling when getting into position will prevent this. Another great use for a sling is to pinch the sling against a tree or pull down on the front of the sling when using something in the field as support. TAKE A KNEE Often, kneeling is a great compromise in speed and stability while getting you high enough to see over obstacles. If the situation allows, I almost always drop to a knee to take an otherwise unsupported shot. If you’re only using your knee for support, you should rest your support-arm elbow just past the knee on the same side of your body and sit on either your heel or the side of your foot from your shooting-side. For example, I shoot right-handed so I rest my left elbow just past my left knee and sit on my right heel or the side of my right foot, in order to get higher or lower, respectively. Don’t put the bone of your elbow on top of your knee — it’ll wiggle around too much and won’t provide much stability. If the situation allows, a hasty-sling can be helpful in this position. Try to avoid unsupported kneeling if you have the option of using either a sling or sticks. Switch knees if the front of the rifle is supported. If you’re kneeling, but also using something else for support, switch your knees into a reverse kneeling position. To support the front of your rifle, you can use a horizontal branch or log, your pack, or even shooting sticks. I like to bring trekking poles on long hikes with a heavy pack. By placing each pole’s strap over the other pole, it makes for a handy, height-adjustable shooting rest. If the front of your rifle is supported by something, you might notice that movement in the rifle is mainly caused by the rear of the rifle shifting — therefore, your support-side knee up front doesn’t provide any additional stability. Instead, rest your support-side knee on the ground and place your shooting-arm’s elbow on the knee of the same side. This switch makes all the difference, supporting both ends of your rifle. SIT DOWN ON THE JOB You can also find stability by shooting from a seated position. However, if this is your only support, it sucks (even with a hasty-sling). It’s used in some shooting competitions but is often uncomfortable and hard to master. The sitting position usually involves sitting cross-legged while facing 45 degrees toward your shooting side. Then, you place your elbows in the pocket of your knees, while the rifle points 45 degrees to your non-shooting side (toward the target). If you have to raise your knees to get this to work, then you aren’t really helping yourself because you’re using your muscles for support. Instead, either use something else for support up front or use a seated variation I like more — the crossed-ankles position. Point your legs toward the target, cross your shooting side ankle over the other, bend your knees slightly, allow them to naturally fall to the side, and then rest your elbows past your knees. Hugging your pack may seem weird at first, but it’s way more stable than a conventional sitting position. STANDING This is the fastest, but least stable, position. If you can, use a stationary object to support your rifle. As with all supports, make sure it only touches your stock and not the barrel. Also, when using any support from any position, pull down on the front of your sling; the downward pressure adds stability to your position. Make sure the support is only touching your stock and not the barrel to avoid affecting your zero. When using the side of a tree, first make sure that you don’t shake the tree or you’ll just be waving a big I’m-over-here flag. Next, try to pinch the rifle’s stock against the tree for added support. You can do this with your hand, or you can pinch your sling, or bipod leg, against the tree with your palm. The rifle’s stock is snugged against the tree, while the sling is used to pinch it tight. If you’re using shooting sticks, spread your legs out and push down on the sling with your support hand. ACCEPTABLE ACCURACY When you’re shooting in these alternate positions, don’t expect pretty little groups. Instead, practice these positions while trying to hit whatever you’ve defined as the acceptable target area at whatever distance you’re likely to take a shot. For example, being able to hit something the size of a pie-plate at 200 yards is surely acceptable for elk hunting. Therefore, try to hit a target that size at that distance and be happy with any hit — not just ones in the center. If you aren’t satisfied with a hit on the very edge of that target, then you should define a smaller acceptable target for yourself. Once your reticle is within your acceptable target size, start applying pressure to the trigger and let the rifle fire. Your rifle is likely to be moving slightly. As long as the rifle discharges when the reticle is somewhere within the target (yes, even the edge), then that’s a hit. Be comfortable in shooting within your wobble zone. Accept it, and make a smooth trigger press, rather than forcing a miss. Don’t try to hold the rifle perfectly still in the center of the target or shoot right when you think the reticle is in the center. When you try to do this, you’ll usually be thinking, “Almost there, a little left, a little more, NOW!” And then you smack the trigger. By trying to be perfect, you might very well jerk the rifle and send the round off the target. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have a confident hit somewhere within the zone I’ve determined is acceptable instead of trying to hit dead-center and ending up missing entirely. PRACTICE Now, dry-fire from these positions at home and use them while at the range. You’ll get more stable with practice, and you’ll learn what works best for you. Also, get out of the pretty little grouping mindset and start working for acceptable accuracy. Of course, practicing for hunting doesn’t stop there. Here are some more questions to ask yourself: Are you spending money to shave ounces from your gear rather than hitting the gym to shave pounds from your body? Are you hiking with your pack in the off-season? ABOUT THE AUTHOR Ryan Cleckner is a former special operations sniper and sniper instructor. Currently, he’s a firearms law attorney, best-selling author, RECOIL/Carnivore contributor, university lecturer, Trigger Words podcast host, and entrepreneur. He runs both RocketFFL which helps people get an FFL and stay compliant and RocketCCW which gets people qualified for a CCW online. His newest project is focused on family and organizational safety at Mayday Safety. 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