10 tips for better field shooting

by Thomas Tabor

As a shooter for the better part of my life, I can admit that I certainly haven’t been immune to problems and difficulties in my own shooting career. I have learned much of what I know today essentially the hard way - by personal experience, or perhaps better put, by personal inexperience. In other cases, I was fortunate to have been the observer and was able to learn from other shooters.

The accumulation of all those experiences are far too many to adequately cover within these few pages, so I have selected 10 problem areas that can be overlooked or misunderstood in the field and offered some suggestions and solutions.

Clean bores are not for field use
While cleanliness is said to be next to godliness, that rule doesn’t necessarily apply if you want your first shot to really count for something. This seems to go contrary to sound logic, but a perfectly clean barrel will often shoot to a different point than a barrel that has been fouled with a shot or two.

Certainly, I’m not recommending avoiding the cleaning of your rifle, but if you want that most critical first shot to hit the right spot, it’s imperative that you not only practise with it well beforehand, but that you also fire a shot through it before you reach your hunting destination and shoot at your intended quarry.

Of course, after returning home from the hunt, be sure to do a thorough and proper cleaning of the rifle to ensure that it is protected and remains in good condition while it waits in your gun safe for your next outing.

The good and bad of gun oil
Oil is a great product that can ward off rust and corrosion, but too much of a good thing doesn’t always translate into something good. After scrubbing out my bore with a good-quality solvent, I always like to apply a coat of oil, but following that, I run a couple of dry patches through to remove any excess lubricates and solvents. Doing so will leave the bore in a protective state and it will be ready to shoot when you are. Remember too, to never allow gun oil to penetrate the unprotected wood areas of your gunstock as that will eventually result in the wood deteriorating.

Boresighting does not equal sighting-in
Boresighting is a great way to get your shots on paper, but that does not mean it is a good way to get your shots on target. Even when you have perfectly aligned your sights to exactly match the axis of the bore, bullets seldom, if ever, follow precisely that line of flight. For this reason, a shooter should never consider their rifle to be sighted-in until it has been shot and the sights fine-tuned through live-fire range shooting.

Check for bore obstructions
Shooters can face the potential of damage and personal injury if something becomes lodged inside their gun barrel. If the obstruction goes unrecognised and the gun is fired, it can rupture or burst the barrel and send metal and debris flying in every direction. The cure to this potential hazard is a simple one: unload the firearm and frequently check the bore visually.

After seeing several ruptured barrels, I have become a bit of a stickler about this issue. I never load a gun without first checking to ensure nothing has become lodged in the bore. If I slip and fall while in the bush, I recheck the bore immediately. And whenever there is the remote possibility of obstruction, I unload and check. Doing so not only reassures me that the problem doesn’t exist, but it also clears my mind, and a clear mind is imperative to good shooting.

Take a shooting rest
This is one of those problem areas that I unfortunately learned the hard way through personal experience. About 35 years ago, I was on my first African safari. We had hunted long and hard looking for a good warthog, when one appeared seemingly out of nowhere, sporting nice long, thick, shining white tusks for what I thought would be a very easy shot.

Having never been very proficient at shooting offhand, I quickly looked around for something to steady my wavering rifle barrel on. Disengaging my brain temporarily, I positioned my rifle across the hard metal railing on the back of the ute and began to squeeze the shot off. I knew better than to use a hard, unyielding surface for a rest, but I suppose I have only the excitement of the hunt to blame my indiscretion on. The shot cleanly missed, sending the boar scurrying for the closest batch of thornbush, to never be seen again.

The fact that I had missed such an easy shot would normally have been enough for my ego to handle, but almost before the roar of the rifle had stopped echoing, my non-English-speaking trackers and skinners burst into a raucous and robust bout of laughter. Isn’t it funny how laughter sounds the same no matter what language it is in! I went home from that safari without getting another chance at taking a pig, but that misadventure resulted in my never repeating that mistake.

While taking a rest to steady a shot is always a good idea and one that I take advantage of whenever I can, it’s not a good idea to rest the stock, or worst yet your barrel, on a hard surface. Doing so can change the harmonics of the barrel, which will almost always change the point of impact of your bullet.

A simple way to effectively use a rest like the one in my case would have been to place something soft between the stock and hard surface it was resting against. This could take the shape of a rolled-up piece of clothing, a daypack, a wadded-up hat or anything else that would allow the rifle to recoil in a freer, uninhibited manner.

Slight variations can affect shooting accuracy
Most shooters recognise the fact that if their rifle is dropped or the scope is bumped, it can adversely affect shooting accuracy. But there are other less obvious events that can negatively affect your shooting as well. Removing the stock during cleaning operations, changing the tightness of the stock screws, removing and replacing the scope, and even slight variations in the climatic conditions can all affect your shooting in a negative manner.

I am constantly amazed at the changes that sometimes occur to my rifles over a matter of a few weeks, even when the rifle has not left the gun case. Variations in temperature and humidity can result in metal-to-wood changes, which can equate to changes in the flight of your bullets. A rifle is a fine-tuned instrument and it does not take a great deal of variation to affect how it shoots. Again, the best way to be assured that your bullets will hit where you want them to is to frequently check your rifle and shoot it on the range.

Not all cartridges are equal
I don’t believe today that there is such a thing as a ‘bad’ factory-loaded cartridge, but that doesn’t mean that all cartridges are equal in their performance. This is because different manufacturers use different components in the production of their ammunition. Sometimes, due to minor differences in the thickness of the brass and slight internal dimensional variations, it can result in changes in the powder capacities of the cases. In many instances, different primers will be used, which affects the ignition and burning rates. The types of powders will frequently vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, and the weights and style of bullets change as well. All of these variations can account for differences in performance.

Because of this, a wise shooter should not mix their ammunition from different manufacturers or even cartridges from the same manufacturer if the bullet design or weights vary, without first checking the point of impact on the range. This problem sometimes occurs when a hunter believes they might encounter game of varying sizes and wants to carry two different weight bullets in order to match the ammunition to the game. The problem with this approach is that different weight bullets will usually strike in different spots.

In my experience, I believe I could count on one hand the occasions when I have found bullets of varying weights and styles that would shoot to the same point of impact. And on those rare occasions, it has almost always been the result of careful and deliberate handloading of the cartridges in order to achieve those results.

Selecting the proper weight bullet
Cartridge and ammunition manufacturers are continually looking for ways to encourage shooters to buy the new products that they produce. In the cartridge business, this sometimes takes shape with a more diverse selection of bullet weights. The problem comes in when the twist rate of the barrel is not adequate to stabilise that weight of bullet.

Understandably, most production-built rifle manufacturers install barrels that possess a standard twist rate for that cartridge. For example, the .30-06 you’ve been shooting will likely have a twist rate of one in 10", meaning that the rifling inside the barrel makes one complete 360-degree spiral in 10" of barrel length. Similarly, your .223 may have a standard one in 12" twist rate.

In the case of the .30-06, a twist rate of one in 10" does a great job stabilising bullets from about 165 to 180 grains, but it mightn’t do so well when 110- or 220-grain bullets are shot. In the case of the .223, the standard weight bullet is somewhere around 50 to 55 grains and the one in 10" twist rate does an excellent job for those bullets, but may not do so well on the lighter or heavier projectiles. So, while it might be fun to experiment with varying weight bullets, in many cases, it might be better to stay with bullets considered to be normal for the calibre.

Of course, it should go without saying that if you have a custom-built rifle, you can have a barrel installed to match whatever out-of-norm bullet weight you would like to shoot. The general rule for barrel twists is the faster the rate of twist, the better it will do stabilising the heavier, longer bullets, and the slower twist rates will stabilise lighter, shorter bullets better.

Both eyes open
It seems natural for a shooter to close their non-shooting eye, but keeping both eyes open can actually provide a great deal of advantage in hunting situations. It will provide a better depth of field, allow you to get on your target quicker, and you will be more cognisant of what is going on around you. It might take a little getting used to, but you will be a better shooter in the long run.

Practise, practise, practise!
I once heard someone who is considered to be an expert in the area of shooting say that he wasted a great deal of ammunition and time over the years being obsessed with having all of his rifles shoot less than 1" groups at 100 yards. He went on to say that it cost him a great deal of money searching for the right combination that would ensure those results. When I heard that statement, I thought I’d never heard such foolishness.

While it is true that most hunting situations do not call for the same high degree of accuracy as say, shooting in Benchrest competitions, in my way of thinking, there is no such thing as too much shooting practice. When a person is firing their rifle, it produces much more benefit than simply being able to place all the shots into a tight little group. All shooting helps to familiarise the shooter with their firearm; it gets the shooter used to the report and recoil of the rifle; it encourages shooting confidence; and it allows the shooter to find the best possible load for their rifle.

So, the best advice I can give is to shoot often and shoot a lot and if that results in squeezing down the size of your groups, that can only add to your confidence in both the rifle and your own shooting ability. There is a lot of satisfaction received knowing that your rifle is capable of a high degree of accuracy.

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