Shooting Targets at the Range – Only Partial Training for the Hunt

When we are getting ready for the hunting season, we need a flat shooting angle with at least 100-200 yards of measured distance, with shooting benches and rests to make sure our scopes are sighted in and that we have a bullet or load that we can count on to hit the target.

That place can be a public shooting range or any property that fulfills those requirements safely.

After we are satisfied with the scope and the load, the next step is to practice in as many different field conditions as possible. There are many variables that can affect our aim and/or the bullet’s accuracy. If shooting two inch groups at the range is a piece of cake, then hitting a 10-14 inch kill zone should be even easier, Right?

But it’s not easier because we’re not shooting at paper and we are not shooting at the range. Everyone gets “buck fever” to some extent. Seeing a live animal withing range will automatically raise the heart rate and respiration. That’s expected. It proves you care about the result of the shot. I hope it is because you care about making a clean kill and not just a hit.

It’s your hunt and your decision, just don’t try to tell us you care about a clean kill after we watch you kick up dirt three feet behind a running buck. If you couldn’t hit it while it was standing still, what makes you think you can hit it on the run?

Rise to the Occasion or Fall to the Lowest Level of Training

We all like to think we will perform heroically in emergency situations; that we will “rise to the occasion”. The reality is, we always perform to our lowest level of training. Same is true of shooting, especially when hunting, because we are shooting at a live animal with the intent to kill it.

Assuming we know where the kill zone is, I have little doubt that if a deer walked onto the shooting range at 100 -200 yards, at least 95% of us could make a clean shot 95% of the time, because we have practiced those shots perhaps hundreds of times.

But yet we have all missed game in the field at distances less than 200 yards and many clean misses and bad hits are less than 100 yards. How could I have missed that shot? There are many possible explanations, but it is usually because we opted to take a shot we haven’t practiced and either didn’t consider all the variables or didn’t remember the fundamentals of shooting.

Shooting Fundamentals

  1. Steady Body Position – includes rifle butt to shoulder and cheek weld
  2. Proper Aiming – sight alignment and sight picture
  3. Breath Control  – to relax and to find the bottom of the breathing cycle for trigger pull
  4. Trigger Pull – pull into the shoulder, no lateral movement, trigger break should be surprise
young mule deer buck

Young mule deer buck at 63 yards. Would you take this shot?

In the field, we are likely to find ourselves shooting from unfamiliar or uncomfortable positions or at extreme angles. When things start to get exciting, it is easy to forget which bush was marked at 150 yards or to remember to take the wind into account. But unless the wind is really kicking up or the distance is 50 to 100 yards farther than you normally shoot, the most likely reason for missing is lack of attention to the fundamentals.

The table below lists 15 differences between shooting at targets at the range and shooting at a live animal in the field.

  • Five of the variable differences have to do with the shooter being excited, felling pressure or being rushed
  • Five variables differences have to do with target movement, visibility or extreme angles
  • Four Environment variables could affect ballistics
  • One Weapon variable difference

Each of these variables alone can affect the accuracy of the shot in some way, start adding several variables together and it’s no wonder we miss.

Differences between Shooting at the Range and Shooting at an Animal in the Field.

Variables At the Range In the Field
Shooter Solid, comfortable bench rest & cheek weld Variable shooting positions (supported and unsupported), uneven ground
Shooter is relaxed and comfortable High Pressure, high adrenalin, may be tired or winded
Shot is taken when shooter is ready Target & circumstances dictate when shot is taken, shot may be rushed
Shooting directions is always the same All possible shooting directions, could force awkward position
Reloading is casual, unpressured Reloading (esp. muzzleloader) extremely high pressure
Target Target is stationary and perpendicular Target may be moving and/or may be angled away from shooter
Target is unobstructed Target may be partially obstructed by terrain or vegetation
Exact distance to target is known and never changes Target could appear at any distance, exact distance may be known, but can change quickly
Target usually well lit Target may be in deep or partial shade or barely visible; Sun may be in shooters eyes
Shooting angle is usually very flat Shooting angle could be highly variable; up or downhill; also shooter comfort/alignment
Environment Changes in wind direction usually gradual Shooting direction and therefore wind direction could change rapidly
Wind effect on bullet usually only in one direction Wind pushes bullet up on upslope & down on downslope
Temperature changes little between shots Temperature can change drastically during a day’s hunt
Elevation never changes Elevation can change drastically during a day’s hunt
Weapon All but first shot is from a warm barrel First shot is a cold barrel shot

Don’t Forget Safety when Shooting in the Field

In addition to differences between shooting at the range and hunting that affects accuracy, there are also differences that can affect safety.

  • Hitting a target at the range is little cause for celebration, but hitting an animal in the field is a very exciting event. Don’t forget finger and muzzle control.
  • Target verification is simple at the range, but all targets must be verified and re-verified in the field.
  • It is simple to verify that a target is clear (front and back) at the range, but it may be impossible to verify the area behind the target is clear in the field.

If we practice from a variety of different shooting positions at targets placed at various distances and angles (uphill and downhill), we will improve our ability to make the most of the opportunities we encounter while hunting.

Our rifles are sighted in. Our bullets and loads will do their jobs. When we see that buck of a lifetime, what level of training will we fall back on?

modern muzzleloader guide

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