If you are a hunter, chances are this happened (or will happen) to you: you’ll carefully take aim, disengage the safety on your firearm, gently the squeeze the trigger… and totally miss your target.
There are many reasons people miss what should be an easy shot, and to help salve your pain let me assure you that the perfect shot is the end result of a complex chain of events, when you consider all of the variables involved it may seem like a miracle that we are ever able to place a projectile even close to a chosen target.
Variables that factor into shot placement include the hunter (eyesight and marksmanship ability), the firearm and its condition, ammunition, the distance from the shooter to the target, angle of elevation, wind speed and direction, lighting, trigger squeeze, respiration, recoil (flinching), shooting position and then the nature of the target itself. Bear in mind these are just the things I thought up off the top of my head; a more complete list would be much longer.
So perhaps the question shouldn’t be “Why did I miss?” but “How in the heck do we ever manage to hit anything at all?”
Here in Ohio, particularly during deer gun season, some of these factors are minor or almost inconsequential. For instance the wind speed or direction doesn’t much matter when you are shooting heavy shotgun slugs at a target the size of a paper plate at 50 yards. For varmint hunters and for our rifle-hunting friends across the river, some of the other factors can definitely come into play.
It seems to me that marksmanship is becoming a forgotten art; more and more hunters are getting into gadgets to enhance the experience of the hunt - new decoys, blinds, clothing, scents, stands, video and still cameras, trail cameras, smart phone apps, all-terrain vehicles, feeders, you-name-it - it’s easy to get caught up in having all the right paraphernalia and to forget the basics.
Why even bother? Marksmanship, we teach in hunter education, is of great importance - primarily to ensure a swift, clean and humane kill of the target. A sportsman never wants to be responsible for needless suffering. There are other benefits as well: a well-placed shot through the vitals damages up less meat and can make field dressing a much easier (and less-smelly) task, it can also greatly reduce the amount of time you spend tracking wounded game, plus there is just the satisfaction that sportsmen can take in quality marksmanship. Furthermore with the price of ammo, particularly some of the premium shotgun slug loads, who can afford to waste it?
Marksmanship starts long before the hunt by fostering a sort of mental confidence and awareness in your abilities and those of your firearm; knowing yourself and your limitations, and knowing your gun.
My first piece of advice is to have an appropriate firearm; nothing will develop poor shooting habits or ruin good marksmanship quicker than a gun that you are subconsciously afraid to shoot. Nobody, not even big, tough guys, like getting walloped by heavy guns and cartridges.
Personally I hate recoil and muzzle blast, that’s why my favorite muzzle-loading load uses only 80 grains of powder pushing a 240-grain bullet - the gun will handle up to 150 grains of powder, but that extra 70 grains doesn’t do me a bit of good. When it comes to rifles, if I can’t kill it with a .270 Winchester or .30-06 Springfield, I wouldn’t want to hunt it (fortunately those particular calibers can handle pretty much anything found on this continent). When the metal meets the meat, good shot placement is always more important than bullet energy, that’s why I advocate having “just enough” gun.
Also as we get older our eyesight will change. I have always been a fairly decent marksman, even when I had to start wearing glasses for nearsightedness, but good shot placement got a lot more complicated once I started needing bifocals. At first I thought my scopes were being weird, but it was just my eyes. So even if your gun hasn’t changed after spending 10 months in the gun cabinet, perhaps your eyes have. Your eye doctor can tell you for sure.
Before you head to the range, make sure your firearm is clean and in safe operating order (no obstructions in the barrel!) and that all the sighting components, scope mounts, etc. are snug and secure.
Sight in your firearms shooting at a known distance, say 50 or 100 yards, using a steady shooting position from a bench or in the prone position with the firearm resting firmly on sandbags or some other secure rest.
Practice having a solid and consistent stock and cheek weld - that is with the butt of the firearm placed firmly into your shoulder with your cheek resting on the stock - and do exactly the same way with every single shot. Squeeze (don’t pull or yank) the trigger during pauses in breathing; develop a smooth, steady trigger squeeze; it should come as a surprise to you when the gun goes off. Dry-firing is a good way to practice this. When I was young we were told to never dry fire a gun because we could damage it, the chances of this happening with a modern firearm is slim to none, so go ahead and practice trigger squeeze with dry firing (pointed in a safe direction of course).
Above all, practice, practice, practice; there is no substitute for experience. That way, when the moment comes to squeeze the trigger during the big hunt, you’ll be confident in your abilities to make that swift, humane kill.
Jim Freeman is wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District and his column generally appears every other Sunday. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at email@example.com