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Precision Hunting: Applying Competition Shooting Skills Afield

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This article originally appeared in RECOIL Issue 40

There’s an old saying about the young man who came back to elk camp bragging about the bull he’d shot at long range. One of the old-timers in the group quickly took the wind from his sails: “It’s OK, son, one day you’ll learn how to get closer.” Taking long shots at game for the sake of doing so is, in my mind, unethical. The “hunt” part of hunting involves getting as close as you can to your quarry. By depriving yourself of the stalk, you’re missing out on the essence of the experience. That said, there are times when getting closer is impractical or impossible, and everyone’s definition of “long range” is different. Precision shooting, particularly long-range competition, has become immensely popular, but how do those skills carry over into the hunting world? We will take a look at the lessons of long-range precision shooting and how they can be applied afield.

Building the Setup
If there’s a similarity between shooting at a live creature and approaching a stage at a precision rifle match, it’s the importance of achieving a solid shooting platform from which to take the shot. Many of the same techniques and tools employed by PRS shooters can be used to accomplish our goal though with two notable differences: time and weight. While a competitor might have minutes or even hours to decide how to set up for a match stage, a hunter often has only seconds to prepare for a shot on game.

Though shot opportunities sometimes seemingly arise out of thin air, there’s usually a progression of events as the stalk closes the distance to the animal where one can mentally prepare for how the shot might go down. It’s imperative that the hunter not wait until the moment that the shot opportunity presents itself to visualize the shooting setup. As a stalk is taking place, the hunter should take note of potential natural and man-made shooting aids and how they might be employed. Call it situational awareness, if you’d like, but ask yourself, “Where would I set up here? What can I use, and what are my obstacles? Can I shoot over this grass?”

Build a shooting position with sticks or a bipod and use your pack to stabilize your master arm. For more rigidity, use the sling as well.

Build a shooting position with sticks or a bipod and use your pack to stabilize your master arm. For more rigidity, use the sling as well.

Shooting sticks, bipods, beanbags, and other shooting aids have become immensely popular both afield in competition. While these can be fantastic tools, many hunters have become too dependent on them. The ability to quickly assume a field position, such as sitting or kneeling and shoot, with nothing but a sling for support, can often make the difference between a pack full of meat and a missed opportunity. Shooting aids must be carried into (and out of) the field, so weight and size are considerations. If you use a shooting aid, practice setting up with it quickly and have it ready to go when a shot might be imminent — there’s nothing worse than a hunter fumbling with gear when it’s time to be shooting.

My personal hunting experience has taught me that, in North America, sitting is the most useful and frequently used position in the field. Grass or brush is usually too high to allow for shooting from the prone position and standing is seldom sufficiently stable. I carry a small set of folding sticks ideal for shooting from the seated position, and use them if I have time to do so. Slipping a pack under my right armpit further stabilizes the position and gives me a great platform in nearly any terrain. Nonetheless, I practice shooting without the sticks or pack in case there’s no time to use them. If you’re headed to Africa, practice with standing shooting sticks, as they are extremely common there.

I love to read old hunting literature and often cringe at some of the shots that the “legends” took at distances that could only have been wild-ass guesses. With the advent of compact laser rangefinders, there’s no excuse for such guesswork these days. Ballistic apps are great, but should never be relied upon in a hunting scenario. Batteries die, apps crash, and no animal is going to stand around waiting for you to pull your glove off and scroll through your phone so that you can make a shot.

Use the apps to develop a range card that you can reference quickly in the field. I laminate mine and carry three or more on me in case I lose one during the course of a hunt. My cards are 2.5 by 3 inches and provide me with drop data out to 700 yards as well as wind drift info and even reticle values. It’s important to verify the data on the range and adjust your card accordingly.

Finding a useful field zero is a key element of hunting with a rifle. A 200- or 250-yard zero will often provide a hunter with a no-holdover solution out to 300 or more yards. As an example, with a 250-yard zero, my 7mm Remington Magnum maintains a point of impact that’s no more or less than 3 inches higher or lower than my point of aim out to 300 yards. When any shot from point blank to 300 yards presents itself, I’m good to go. With a 100-yard zero, I’d have to account for 10 inches of drop at 300 yards.

Making the Wind Call
Ballistic apps, fancy scopes, and laser rangefinders have taken much of the voodoo out of long-range shooting, but wind remains the great equalizer. A Kestrel will tell you what the wind is doing at your position, assuming you have time to use it, but it won’t paint the entire picture to the target. Game animals live in terrain that’s often far more uneven than most ranges, and that terrain can significantly affect your wind call. There are no “sighter” shots in the hunting world.

Training with a coach or submitting to the rigors of competition are both good ways to get ready for a challenging hunt.

Training with a coach or submitting to the rigors of competition are both good ways to get ready for a challenging hunt.

There’s no substitute here for experience and, when in doubt, don’t take the shot. In a best-case scenario, a hunter will use a wind meter in conjunction with a spotting scope to evaluate the wind on the bullet’s entire path to the target. As someone who lives in the Southeast, I will be the first to admit that I lack sufficient experience to make accurate wind calls in much of the West, where winds can be both powerful and tricky. In all of my years of hunting, though, this has never been an issue because I don’t push the distance envelope. If significant winds are present, get closer.

Velocity and Bullet Performance
Just because you’re able to place your shot into the vitals of an animal at a given distance doesn’t mean your bullet is up to the task. Bullets are engineered to expand at a given velocity range and cannot be relied upon to make a clean kill when they’re used above or below that window. Knowing your limits in terms of impact velocity is crucial.

The Nosler Partition and Accubond, two of the most effective and popular hunting bullets on the market, are engineered to expand at as little as 1,900 feet per second. A .270 Winchester factory load pushes the 150-grain Partition at around 2,800 fps, which means that the bullet hits the lower end of its performance envelope at just over 500 yards. I know what you’re thinking, what about a magnum cartridge? Even the mighty 30 Nosler has its limits. With the 180-grain Accubond, its velocity crosses the 1,900 fps line somewhere around 725 yards. Nosler’s Accubond Long Range bullets are engineered to expand at as little as 1,300 fps and many match-style bullets do pretty well under these circumstances, but there’s always a tradeoff. Those fragile long-range bullets might not penetrate reliably when a shot on a big bull elk presents itself at 75 yards.

The Gear Crutch
A guide’s worst nightmare is a client who says, “I can hit anything within 800 yards with this rifle.” Advertisers, bad outdoor shows, and internet liars have convinced us that our gear will do the work for us. Many believe that they can zero their rifles at 100 yards and rely on a ballistic dial, custom reticle or rangefinding solution to help them hit their target at any distance. While those tools are fantastic aids in making tough shots, they only work when the shooter is up to the task.

There’s nothing wrong with shooting off a tripod in the field, so long as you can hump it. An extra five pounds at 8,000 feet elevation tends to make its presence known, however.

There’s nothing wrong with shooting off a tripod in the field, so long as you can hump it. An extra five pounds at 8,000 feet elevation tends to make its presence known, however.

I’m constantly testing rifles, optics, and ammunition so I often get a firsthand look at how a piece of gear will work in the field. It’s a rare occasion when I zero a rifle, dial it for a shot on a target at 300 to 400 yards based on ballistic data, and hit where I’m aiming. Velocity data gets inflated, scopes don’t always track correctly, and the zero might be slightly off. These stacking tolerances can lead to significant variations at long range, and the only way to be sure that everything is working is to test the entire setup at real-world target distances. If you haven’t shot your rifle using the same optic, load, and position at an actual target at that distance, you’ve no business taking that shot on an animal.

Life is busy, and my time in the woods and mountains is precious to me. The best way to maximize that time afield is by investing in quality training and practice during the offseason. A few years ago, despite being a fairly experienced and accomplished hunter, I was struggling. I wounded and lost back-to-back animals on challenging western hunts and my previously unflappable confidence with a rifle was seeing cracks. I spent some time at FTW Ranch’s Sportsman’s All-Weather All-Terrain Marksmanship (SAAM) course and, thanks to the high-quality instruction and practical range sessions, got my mojo back.

“In the field, winds at the shooter’s position are the easiest to calculate and has the initial influence on the projectiles flight path. In uneven terrain or longer times of flight, winds down range, mid-range, or at the target may either add to or subtract from the initial wind effect calculation,” Doug Prichard, retired SEAL sniper and senior instructor at FTW’s SAAM course. Good training will build your skills and confidence and will also let you know where your limitations lie.

Training is where we learn a skill, and practice is where we pay the dues to put that skill into the subconscious, where we can use it under stress. I’m fortunate to have my own range, where I can practice on steel targets at various distances from realistic positions on at least a weekly basis. Your own access to a range may vary, but make the best of the facilities that you have access to and, once you have a zero, don’t shoot from the bench. Dry-fire practice is as important for hunters as it is for competitors — do it with all of your gear on.

Animals Aren’t Steel Targets
The most important consideration in this entire discussion is recognizing the difference between shooting targets and shooting living, breathing animals. Not only do animals move, making a bullet’s flight time an issue, they also feel pain. Our duty as hunters is to end the animal’s life with the absolute minimum suffering possible. Period.

Precision hunting .03

It isn’t enough to hit the animal. Unlike a steel target, your bullet must strike the specific point on the animal’s body where the vitals lie and then penetrate at the correct angle to intersect with and destroy those anatomical objects, be they the heart, lungs, or brain. If you are not 90 percent certain that you can make a clean kill, don’t take the shot. If you hunt long enough you will wound and lose an animal, but to do so because you took a shot that you weren’t confident of making in the first place is unconscionable.

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