Practical Practice for Long Range Hunting
With hunting season barely two weeks away, my rifle practice sessions are starting to look different. Rather than shooting multiple rounds on paper, rocks, or steel, I’m focused on that one shot. The one that will result in a clean kill and a notched tag.
That’s not to say I’m just flinging bullets across canyons the rest of the year. I’m always looking for that cold bore hit. The difference in what I do for normal shooting practice, and how I focus those principles for long range hunting, lies in the process. Here’s what I do to make my training as realistic as possible:
Trajectory validations are done, my scope’s zero is solid and repeatable, and I’ve chosen the bullet and load I’ll be hunting with. No more tinkering!
Now’s not the time to do load development, or try the latest whiz-bang long range bullet. If I have any doubts about the rifle or load, I’d rather leave it home and take one that I’m confident in. It takes too much time for me to develop the trust and confidence in a load. I never start a new one just before hunting season.
I confirm my zero and muzzle velocity a few weeks before season starts. Any adjustments needed are noted, then confirmed with the first few long range shots. Once that’s done, I put the paper targets and chronograph away. For more on trajectory validation, or drop truing, click HERE.
Practice only with the gear I’ll use while hunting.
A day of long range shooting for me often involves several rifles and a lot of support gear sprawled out on the ground. Drag bags, chronographs, plastic ammo boxes, and multiple tripods are the norm. I’m always testing new gear, so multiple ballistic solvers might be spitting out corrections, spotting scopes judged by how they read mirage, and rear bags studied for how well they support the rifle. All of that stops in mid-August.
For several weeks leading up to hunting season, I do all of my shooting with the gear I pull out of my pack. If I’m not willing to carry it, I don’t use it. Practicing like this makes me more efficient at staging gear for a shot. Once I’m behind the rifle and ready to shoot, I don’t want to have to break position to find something I need.
Dry fire, dry fire, dry fire.
I never get enough dry fire practice. It’s such a useful training tool, you’d be a fool not to try it. Dry firing with a high-magnification scope will give you honest feedback about your position, trigger press, and body tension. As soon as the firing pin drops, check your crosshairs. They’ll tell you where the bullet was heading when you touched it off. If they move at all, isolate the problem and fix it.
Dry firing on game animals has the added benefit of teaching when to shoot, as well as when to wait. Long range hunting requires us to think about where the animal will be when the bullet reaches it. I’ve learned more about bear behavior in huckleberry patches from dry firing on them the past several years, then I did the twenty years prior. They can move a lot in three seconds!
Increase focus on natural point of aim, building a position, and spotting the shot.
I work on this one all year long, but double down on it before hunting season. One of the things I like to do is practice shooting from ridge slopes where I can’t lay flat. That’s a realistic scenario in mountain country where I hunt. I might be able to make an accurate shot, but spotting the hit could prove impossible. Because of that, I practice getting my body as straight behind the rifle as possible, and use whatever gear I have to help build a solid position.
Repeat the entire process for each shot.
Repetition helps build speed and efficiency. I try to completely dismantle a prior shot before starting the next one. I break position, zero the turrets, move the rifle off target, and clear the targeting info from my solver.
Breaking down the shot each time develops a process I can follow when under pressure. My process generally looks like this:
- Identify the target and the best place to shoot from. I have to be able to mark the target without optics before I continue.
- Point the rifle, spotting scope, and video camera in the general direction of the target, and place everything I’ll need to take a shot next to the rifle.
- Get the target in the spotter and/or video camera. Fire up the solver and confirm it’s set for the rifle I’m using.
- Range the target and check conditions.
- Get a correction from the solver. Double check the conditions and inputs.
- Start building a position behind the rifle and dial the corrections needed into the scope.
- Find the target in the scope, check parallax and scope cant, confirm target hasn’t changed position. Quickly check conditions and corrections again.
- Breathe, center the crosshairs on target, focus on the reticle, press trigger straight back, follow through to spot the hit, and open the bolt to clear the chamber. Reload if necessary.
- Confirm target location with and without the use of optics after the shot to facilitate recovery.
Visualize the shot.
For the most part, shooting is a mental game. It requires us to focus on the important things required to make an accurate shot, while blocking out distractions that can cause us to miss. Shooting at a live target can induce “buck fever”, which can quickly destroy a seemingly easy shot.
Although I’ve been hunting for close to 30 years, I still get that adrenaline rush to some degree when an animal is in the scope. Watching it at 1000 yards can make it worse, because there’s generally more time to overthink everything. Visualizing the shot and a positive outcome helps me stay calm and focused.
As I settle the reticle and start my breathing sequence, I try to “see” the bullet into the target. I exaggerate the trajectory in my mind, complete with the bend into the wind. This has helped me in the past to pay attention to the wind and my turrets when under stress.
Practice where I’ll be hunting.
I’m blessed to live close to good long range hunting country. I make it a point to stay busy scouting that country. I also make it a habit to take my rifle with me every time. Practicing in a canyon or basin where I’ll be hunting is as realistic as I can make it.
To be consistently successful at long range hunting requires us to make that first shot the best one possible. Building on fundamentals throughout the year, along with realistic practice before and during hunting season, helps me do that.