Accuracy and Hunting: What Counts in the End?
By Dustin Vaughn Warncke, Mac & Prowler Pro-Staff
Much can be said about accuracy and its relationship to hunting in the field versus hunting paper at the shooting range. Many will argue the finer points about relative or practical accuracy in the world of hunting versus precision shooting or even just general target shooting at the gun range and I can certainly run with that crowd. Precision accuracy is not always a real world scenario when you are shooting off-hand without a solid rest, in a standing or kneeling position, or even aiming at a moving target while in the woods. Most public gun ranges don’t prepare you for what you might encounter outdoors so I try to make it a practice to cover as many shooting scenarios at the range and elsewhere to become the best shot I can be when the moment of truth arrives.
Over the years, I have guided more than a few hunts and usually most the hunts I host are friends, family, or business customers of mine as I leave the professional guiding up to Jake Davis, Danny Barry, and the rest of the guide crew at DB Hunting Ranch where I serve as the outside sales/marketing director. I once guided a customer of mine, an owner of an outdoor shooting sports related business, on a hog hunt a few years ago. Not only was he the owner of numerous firearms, he was also a Vietnam Veteran and anyone who served in that war or any other war or conflict around our world has my utmost respect.
I had figured this hunt to be an easy one as I the hogs were hitting the feeder on the stand we were hunting on a regular basis in the morning and we were in our stand inside the high fence of the ranch just before daylight the morning of our hunt. A sounder of about 12 hogs came out shortly after shooting light dawned and I had my customer get into position to take a shot. Our stand was about a 65 yard shot and a spot that I had taken many hogs and other game from numerous times, so I knew he would get his money’s worth from this set-up. He had a bolt action .243, more than enough firepower for a “meat hog”. He hunkered down, took his time, and squeezed off a round. The group of hogs ran off into the brush including the one he had hit. It looked like a solid shot from what I could see tell so, after a short wait, we made our way down to the feeder together only to discover no blood trail or any other sign of a fatal shot. I went on a tracking job with Jake, the other guide that morning, after some time had passed and spooked the hog out of some heavy brush, never to see it again that day. My customer was rather upset that we did not take a shot at the hog when we saw it, as if we had the time and resources to act that quickly and just didn’t do anything about it. I explained that the hog was into another thick part of brush before we could even think of reaching for a gun to dispatch it with. We found the hog two days later…it was shot in the hind quarter. I chalked this up to a rushed shot or even nerves. We have all been there and if you have hunted any length of time at all, you have lost an animal and never recovered it after a shot. Yes, bad shots happen…but, then again, so do bad shooters. Both of those variables can be fixed in most cases.
Fast forward to before a recent deer season, when I was asked to help this same customer sight in his .30-30 lever action carbine before he headed to his deer lease. After getting the rifle “on paper” at 100 yards, I let him sight-in the rifle the rest of the way to fine tune his rifle to his desire since he would be the one hunting with it. His groups were about 6” or more low and to the left of the 10-ring bulls eye (about the 4 o’clock position) on a standard large rifle target. I advised him to keep shooting until he centered his group on target or could reasonably be comfortable with his point of impact with each shot without having to use “Kentucky Windage” and am off the target to hit what he was aiming at on his hunt. His response, “It’s good enough. All my shots are going to be less than 75 yards anyway.” Ruh-Roh… Now I began to see the problem with our earlier hog hunt and the reason I have far more meat in my freezer and trophies on my wall than he does…
I believe in the old success principal that “Direction is more important than Speed”. This is a true philosophy with a person’s path in life and the choices we make on a day-to-day basis through our lives, if you think about it, but it is also a good mantra for shooting and hunting as well.
Accuracy is indeed important. In fact, Wyatt Erp is quoted is saying "Accuracy is Everything". Sometimes it is the most important factor in a given equation. Do you need to have a “bench rest” accurate rifle to hunt? Certainly not. But knowing the capabilities, point of impact at a given range, and accuracy of your chosen hunting weapon are all crucial to success in the field. I have been blessed with plenty of opportunities for big game hunting for which I am very grateful. I am proud to have a freezer full of meat each year and an office decorated with several trophy mounts to prove it. That success early in my hunting life did not come easy though. The preparation and work that goes into that success in the field comes at a cost though and I run into hunters every year with a “country song” sob story because they are not willing to pay the price to prepare correctly.
Another hunt I was on with a former next door neighbor of mine proved my “Direction vs. Speed” philosophy well. He had just received a Ruger Mk II chambered in .458 Lott from his business partner at a construction company he owned as a milestone achievement gift. Now, the .458 Lott is an African game caliber that packs a punch able to take down a Cape Buffalo or similar-sized game. He insisted on not getting a scope for it and only using the factory iron sights. He hunted one evening in a separate hunting stand from me and took a low light shot at a large hog. The hog ran off and we found it by the smell because it was a bad, and I mean bad, gut shot. Upon further examination, we figured the hog died from the sheer shock of that round, not the shot placement. If it was hit with anything lighter, it would have died a slow-miserable death by a water-source, which is most often the case with a gut shot animal.
I practice the golden rule. If was an animal being pursued by a hunter, I would want a quick and ethical dispatch. I am amazed by some of the hunters that I run into from time to time, however, who seem to have a disregard for the welfare of the animals they hunt. We are sportsman and should be models of that good ethical behavior in our sport, especially to the anti-hunting community that surrounds and attacks our sport and heritage.
I just returned from the range here in the 100 degree plus Texas heat we are accustom to, working on my accuracy and trying to tighten my groups at 100 yards with my hunting rifle before deer season. I do the same with my crossbow and compound bow in my back yard at different yardages each season and have lost very few animals in recovery as a result. What frustrates me is many hunters I see around me picking up their gun or bow, shoot it a few times, call it good. Hope you hit what your aiming at, dude. In my humble opinion, good shooting fundamentals and habits should be practiced on a regular basis all year round.
Shoot an Air Rifle or .22 Rifle for Fundamental Target Practice
One habit I encourage my fellow hunters to develop is to practice shooting fundamentals using an Air Rifle or .22 Rifle. They are both cheap to shoot, have light recoil and are fairly quiet to fire compared to your normal hunting guns. Plinking for accuracy and shooting fundamentals at the range is one excellent habit that has me going to the range on a regular basis.
Expand your Target Choices
If you have not tried Ghost Targets (www.ghosttargets.com), buy a bag! If you think you are a good shot, you will soon find out what you are made of when you target shoot a marshmallow-sized (or smaller) white clay target. Ghost Targets come in a few sizes with the largest ones being better suited for hi-powered rifles. When you hit them, they vaporize into air and look like, you guessed it, a ghost flying away. If you really want to get the best shooting practice of “Aim Small, Miss Small” put a few Ghost Targets at 50 or 100 yards or even further and line up your shot. Shooting at a smaller target that can vaporize when hit, like Ghost Targets, versus a regular paper target, is more challenging and will help your accuracy regardless of what rifle caliber you use.
User Related Technical Problems
So many times, we are the ones holding us back from our potential and shooting is no exception to this rule. I used to have a problem with flinching in anticipation of the recoil from my high-powered hunting rifles. To remedy this, I started shooting on the resident Caldwell Lead Sled that was kept at the gun range I frequent or would use a shotgun recoil shoulder pad, which straps around the outside of your shirt. While it might look weird, okay maybe a little girly at first too, it does hold the recoil down to a manageable level that has eliminated my bad habit. Recently, I have been using two shooting rests from HySkore, which have also been very beneficial in helping me shoot consistently and not anticipate recoil. Ted Werner, owner of Hyskore, reminded me in a recent conversation that oftentimes the shooter is the largest variable in the equation of shooting. If you shoot alright with iron sights, good for you, keep rolling with what works. I prefer to hunt with a scope set-up, especially in low light shooting scenarios like my neighbors hog hunt. I would rather pass on a shot than ever “guess” at my aiming skills.
Get a Spotter
If you think that YOU might be the culprit to your accuracy issues, have someone watch you fire a live round or even a snap-cap to see if you flinch or pull off the target before the shot goes off. This is a common tell-tale sign of an accuracy issue. One of the best methods is to have a friend load your gun with a snap-cap or live round, their choice, and see how you shoot regardless.
Slow Down and Get “in the Zone”
In both archery (compound bow/crossbow) and rifle shooting, I try to focus on the task at hand and block out every distraction to get in “the zone” of my shooting. I talk often about how watching professional and Olympic shooters reminds me of the almost meditative state they go into in an effort to steady their aim. Although your heart is racing many times and there are very few “perfect” situations in the field, if good shooting fundamentals are engrained in you, accuracy will be better every time. I often practice and repeat a mantra to myself such as “On Target, Deep Breath, Even Squeeze” as shoot each round. The main point is to slow down. Let your barrel cool at least a minute between your shots, especially when it the weather is extra hot. Your shot groups will be affected by anything touching your barrel (so never shoot with your barrel touching your rest, only your forearm) as well as barrel temperature, as a general rule.
Most of us have heard the general accuracy rule at 100 yards is to keep all of your shots within an 8” pie plate circle as this represents the vital area on most big game animals. I personally think that accuracy rules should be stricter than this, especially when you take into account small game and predator/varmint hunting. Accuracy certainly plays a more important role when your target is smaller. Yes, I am quite particular on what I consider acceptable in accuracy terms. All three of my main hunting rifles are capable of 1”-2” groups. To get here, I did a little custom work on each rifle such as having the trigger lightned up, free-floating the barrel, etc. I my personal tolerance for accuracy is a 2” group at 100 yards, as close to the 10 ring as practical without splitting hairs. I know some hunting rifles are not that accurate but I think 4” is the maximum tolerance for any hunter. With 2” MOA you at have a better margin of error if “life happens” and Murphy’s Law shows up on your hunt. It often does. Having the best accuracy you can get out of your rifle by spending time on your fundamentals and maybe even a little gunsmith shop work on your gun, puts the best odds in your favor for a successful hunt.