Realistic Target Practice to Prepare for the Hunt

target shooting with muzzleloaderI was just notified that I did not draw a limited entry elk tag again this year, so I will hunt the general elk season.

I drew a muzzleloader buck mule deer tag and I should have a 95% chance to draw a cow elk tag (rifle) since I didn’t get one last year.  So, I need to prepare for at least one muzzleloader hunt and one rifle hunt.

Just after the first day of Summer may seem a little early to start getting excited about hunting season, but I have been limited to shooting at the range. The higher elevations are just now losing the snow so it is possible to hike around without skis or snowshoes.

I will spend one more day at the range to make sure both my muzzleloader and rife are sighted in, then I will spend most of my practice time trying to simulate realistic hunting scenarios.

If you don’t already do this, I will try to convince you why you should.

Why You Should Leave the Shooting Range

My range offers level targets at 50 and 100 yards, but I don’t have access to a 3D target course like bow hunters use or access to a rifle golf course, so I need to find a way to simulate shots at a variety of distances, levels and directions.

Why would you assume you are prepared for a hunt when most of your practice is at the same targets, at the same distances, at the same angle, all while sitting at a bench rest?

Obviously, this is more important for spot and stalk or fair chase hunting public lands of the West where the opportunity at a shot could be almost any direction, distance or angle, but it is still important to simulate the shots you may have to make from a blind as well.

How to Set up Realistic Hunting Scenarios

I set targets up (in pairs) at a variety of locations with level, uphill and downhill shots with distances between 50 to 200 yards when shooting muzzleloader and 50-350 yards when shooting center fire rifle. I also practice from unsupported and supported shooting positions resting on my backpack, bipod or on tree limbs, just like real hunting scenarios.

I like using one gallon milk jugs as targets. They are easy to collect and when jugs are full of water, you don’t need a spotting scope to know if you hit the target or not.

Full jugs placed on their sides with the bottom towards the shooter present 6×6 inch targets which is a realistic kill zone for deer and a very conservative kill zone for elk.

I also like the Shoot-N-C type targets because they can be stuck onto cardboard boxes so they are easy to carry and set up and the hits are easy to see, but don’t have the same impact as an exploding milk jug.

Set up targets so you move from one shooting position to the next. As you move into view of a target, you have to measure or estimate distance and windage just like a real hunting situation. To a lesser extent, you also have to account for steep angles, altitude and temperature.

You also have to find a shooting position where you can still see the target and make the shot. You may want to shoot from a prone position, but just like real situations, you may not be able to see the target.

When shooting muzzleloader, I shoot at the first target with a clean barrel, then I reload as fast as possible with a speed loader and shoot at the second target. The race to reload increases the heart rate and increases the stress level as if you missed or wound an animal. It teaches you how to quickly locate the speed loader, grab the ramrod and safely reload the gun in a hurry. Don’t drop the primer and remember which pocket has the palm saver!

If I miss a target shooting with a center fire rifle, I run away from the target about 20 or 30 paces (if I can still see the target), do 10 pushups and shoot again. The short sprint away from the target increases the distance and increased the heart rate and the pushups kick up the heart rate even further. If nothing else, this teaches you to make the first shot count, because the second shot is not going to be easier. If you missed an animal that was standing still, a second shot at a running animal is pure desperation.

Learn Your Shooting Strengths and Weaknesses

I am not an expert, but I am a decent shot and I practice enough to know my limitations. When I shoot at paper targets or milk jugs, I take chances to test and improve my skills, but I never take chances when shooting at live animals because practicing this way has demonstrated to me the distances and conditions I can realistically shoot and that determines what shots I consider to be ethical.

From supported positions, I can be deadly on 6 inch targets out to 150 yards with my muzzleloader and out to about 350 yards with my 7 mm Rem. Mag. if (and that is a BIG IF), the wind is not blowing too hard or too gusty. I tend to miss more targets than I want to admit when farther than those distances especially if the wind is more than about 15 mph or if it is gusting. So wind is a big factor and estimating the wind accurately has proven to be my weakness on shots past 350 yards (200 yards with muzzleloader), especially combined with having to adjust for wind and distance on the fly. Also, if I have to take unsupported standing shots, my effective distance shrinks by about 100 yards with each weapon.

Practice shooting at a variety of distances helps with estimating hold over/hold under adjustments as the various target distances. I keep a cheat sheet with me and study it, so I know what the hold over and wind corrections should be for various situations.


For example, for my 7 mm (9,000 feet at 40°F), a 20 mph wind causes the bullet to drift 3.6 inches at 200 yards, 5.6 inches at 250 yards, 8.2 inches at 300 yards,  11.3 inches at 350 yards and a whopping 14.9 inches at 400 yards. When I first start shooting, I have to constantly look at the cheat sheet, but after a few days of practice, I don’t have to look at the card much except for extreme winds.

What do you think will happen when you have a shot at that trophy elk, but need to take a quick look at your card?

The field practice is very good for me since I tend to get a little cocky after shooting at the range. It quickly reminds me which shots I am capable of making consistently and which shots I need to work on. Any shot I can’t make 90% of the time needs work.

If you can hit the milk jug only about half the time at a certain distance, would that be an ethical shot at a live animal? I say no.

I know I have passed on many shots other people would take, but I practice enough to know my limitations and I have no regrets. I want meat in the freezer and I like to brag to my buddies as much as anyone, but not at all cost. I know how I would feel if I blew the jaw off an animal and watched it run away to a slow certain death.

I know there are lots of guys that will just zing one out there to see what happens. That’s your choice, but if you practice more realistic shots, you will improve your ability to make a wider variety of shots and you will also learn what your limitations are. Then, you will be less likely to let excitement take over when a cool head is needed. Think about it. Would you rather take a shot with a 50:50 chance or wait for the wind to die down or take a closer shot?

Note: I prefer to use the hold over/ hold under method, but for those that like or want to learn the Maximum Point Blank Range method, download free Point Blank Ballistics Software.

Good luck this season and stay safe.

I hope I only see you at camp or at the trail head and don’t forget to pick up those milk jugs.

modern muzzleloader guide

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