A hot trend in the firearms world is precision rifles, featuring a heavy dosage of competition. We are in a golden age of rifle shooting, having access to better ammunition, optics, and rifles than ever before, and we are seeing rapid technological advancements and improved products every day. Many of these advancements are due to competitive shooters demanding greater performance out of themselves and their rifle systems to achieve an edge. These precision rifle competitors are making difficult shots in short timeframes and often from awkward positions. As hunters, we might identify with difficult shots, short timeframes, and unusual or uncomfortable positions.
I have been a competitive shooter in one discipline or another for almost two decades. In addition to shooting competitively, I am also a hunter. My experiences and skills obtained through competitive shooting have made me a better shooter and hunter in many ways. A fun fact about today’s practical style matches are they originated with hunters and professionals creating opportunities to hone their field and shooting skills. Regardless of sport, anyone participating in competition is being tested against a course of fire that forces adaptation and solving the shooting problem presented. There may be a few “gamey” things here and there, but a hunter or shooter who competes will find their strengths and weaknesses with a rifle while improving their field skills.
While you don’t have to go out and try to win every match, getting the exposure to a precision rifle competition is a healthy dose of reality. You can use it as a test of your gear, your rifle, and your wits under pressure. It may bruise your ego, but getting past that will lead to improvement by exposing areas needing improvement. You should also have some fun doing it! The reality is that getting out and doing it will make you far more proficient than most casual shooters or fellow hunters. Let’s dive a little deeper into a few benefits to a hunter attending a rifle competition.
RAPID TARGET ACQUISITION
Some of my favorite matches are field style events where the shooting is done “blind” or without prior knowledge of the stage or target information. While the precision required is like the better known PRS/NRL matches, shooters must also find and range their targets on the shooting clock. There are often enough complications when you know the target information, but having a clock ticking while you’re looking for targets hidden across terrain is tough!
Directly translated for a hunter, being able to find and identify animals is what we spend a lot of money and time preparing for. Learning to find a 6-12" tan, rusty, or gray colored steel plate in the desert or woods under a time crunch makes finding an animal hiding in the landscape much easier. In a very practical sense, these same observation skills can save some energy and your legs by effectively glassing a draw or valley to determine how important it is to go that way.
RAPID TARGET ENGAGEMENT
Being able to rapidly engage a target is an important skill for any rifle shooter. Since we are hunting for creatures that can run away, we often need to make a quick shot. In competitive shooting, we are either racing a clock to do things in the least amount of time or get all our shots off within a par time. Learning to be efficient but effective in a hurry can be the difference between a trophy-of-a-lifetime or going home empty-handed.
For rapid target engagements, things like quickly manipulating the rifle, establishing a hasty but stable position, orienting to and finding the target, and making a wind call on the fly will all significantly increase our chances of hitting the target in a short amount of time. Doing these things can provide us with a few extra seconds to focus on making a good shot, instead of wasting all our time not being productive and missing in a hurry.
SHOOTING OFF YOUR BELLY
When we shoot, it is easy to do what’s fun or makes us look good. Nowadays, prone is a less common position for many field matches. Shooting in a prone position on a square range is great for accuracy and small groups, but testing shooters from barricades, branches, rock piles, fenceposts, and other obstacles offers more practical shooting expectations.
Having spent time shooting from a variety of positions has directly helped me on more than one hunt; however, two personal examples stand out to showcase the benefit of this practice.
First is a South Dakota mule deer hunt where our stalk began racing the disappearing light. We couldn’t get any closer than about 325 yards, working further up a never-ending slope. At the summit was a large patch of sage and grass between us and our quarry. Facing a setting sun on the last day of a hunt and unable to sit or go prone, I made the decision to set up a shot with my tripod. Using a tripod gave me tremendous stability, and at that point, it was easy to make an accurate shot to successfully end the hunt.
Several years back, I had the incredible experience of a Plains Game hunt in South Africa. Where we hunted, all the shots were from rapid/hastily-built positions off branches, rock piles, shooting sticks, and fenceposts. Using my competitive experiences, I was able to quickly set up firing positions and stabilize the rifle with ease. This, in turn, led to successful shots at longer than average distances in the bush and ensure every shot was delivered on target.
UNDERSTANDING BALLISTICS AND WIND
Successful precision rifle shooting requires an understanding of ballistics and the effects of wind. Regardless of position, if you can’t apply the ballistic solution, your bullet won’t connect with the target. In competitive shooting, you may have to engage targets as small as 1 Minute of Angle (MOA) at distance. If you, your rifle system, and ballistic data are not in sync, you end up losing points. In the field, the same math and science apply if your target is covered in fur.
There’s nothing wrong if you are only comfortable with closer shots when hunting. However, with a little bit of science, math, and practice, you could double or triple your effective shooting distance if time, environment, or terrain aren’t in your favor. Through the experience of competition and practice, I’ve learned and improved what I feel is my maximum, 100% hit certainty distance on different sized targets. On a hunt, this provides valuable options for success.
“AIM SMALL, MISS SMALL”
An often-used quote related to shooting, the premise of “Aim small, miss small” is critical for a competitive shooter and hunter. Being able to place the bullet exactly where you want it means you need to pick a spot for that bullet to go. If we miss, this spot allows for a precise correction assuming we see where we missed. Just hoping we hit the target will only get you so far in a precision game and is not the way to success with any target.
Doing this in the field is no different, whether hunting large or small game. We won’t hit a prairie dog without picking a specific spot on the small, animated critters. On something big like an elk, it can be easy to assume a hit because of their large vitals area, but we still need to carefully select our impact point for maximum terminal effect and shot placement. By having a specific point in mind, it allows us to apply a precise wind or other necessary adjustment with a defined aiming point to reference. This is an enabler for a clean and ethical kill, regardless of the distance or species.
It is hard to deny that rifle hunting today has progressed rapidly in a single generation. Hunters today have easy and affordable access to rifles that are capable of performance once reserved for hand-built customs.
There are better optics and ammunition, greater understanding of what the bullet is doing in-flight and on-target, as well as easier access to the training and knowledge of how to deliver a precise shot on target at nearly any distance we can see. Fortunately for anyone with a rifle, the better equipment, the science, and much of the application knowledge is the same whether connecting with steel, paper, or fur.
Competitive shooting by nature forces you to learn the science and application of your gear to get desired results on target. The forefathers of modern precision rifle games were hunters and professional marksmen trying to create realistic practice that mirrored field conditions. As hunters, we should always strive to be the best we can when harvesting an animal, and a little practice through competition will make us more effective and humane in our hunting.