Your skill with a rifle won’t be the most important ingredient in next year’s success. But when all that planning comes together and you’re in the right position at the right time, you need to be able to put the bullet where it needs to go.
Get Sighted In Veteran hunters may not need to hear this, but I’ve seen plenty of would-be hunters at the range who do. Before you do anything else, get some sandbags or a sled and properly zero your rifle scope. All the practice in the world won’t do you much good if your scope is sighted in 6 inches to the left.
Get Yourself a .22 LR Trainer These days, centerfire hunting ammunition is expensive and hard to find. Even if you had the cash to burn through 50 rounds of .270 Winchester, you might not be able to find that many cartridges for love or money.
A .22 LR training gun is a great way around this potential predicament. Double-deuce cartridges can still be found online and in stores, and 100 rounds will only set you back about $10.
“I didn’t buy my scoped .22 to hunt squirrels,” MeatEater’s Janis Putelis told me. “It’s because it was bolt-action and it feels like a hunting rifle. I was trying to mimic what my other guns feel like.”
In other words, if you use a bolt-action deer rifle, don’t get a tricked out semi-auto rimfire. A bolt-action .22 rifle will allow you to practice cycling the action, and most modern .22s come standard with triggers that mimic their larger cousins.
Practice from Likely Positions and Distances Whether you decide to go with a .22 LR or your hunting rifle, you should tailor your range time to scenarios you’re likely to experience in the field. As every coach always says, practice like you play.
If you’re hunting from a tree stand or a blind, this is simple. Try to find a way to rest your rifle that mimics the rest you’ll have in the stand and practice shots at ranges you’ll be likely to encounter. It won’t do you much good practicing prone on 500-yard targets if your real-world shot will be at 60 yards from 20 feet in the air.
The same principle applies for spot-and-stalk, but it will be more difficult to predict your exact hunting scenario.
To cover your bases, Janis recommends three field positions you should try to master this offseason: standing with a rest, seated with a rest, and kneeling. If you can’t get into a prone position, these three options will cover the majority of hunting scenarios.
“We all hope we can lay our pack down and shoot from prone. But what happens when you’re in 3-foot-tall sagebrush? You have to improvise or use a tree,” Janis said.
For a great training day at the range, split up your available ammunition between these three shooting positions in five-round sets. Shoot at distances you’re likely to see in the field. If you’re using a .22 LR, you can mimic longer distances by shooting at smaller targets.
To add even more realism to your practice session, Janis recommends doing some jumping-jacks or running for a few minutes before picking up your rifle. Nothing can perfectly imitate buck fever, but making shots while your heart is pounding makes for excellent preparation.
Practice not only improves your skill with a rifle—it reveals your limitations.
“You’ll learn what your actual skill set is,” Janis said. Shooting offhand (free standing) looks easy in the movies, but in real life, it’s much more difficult. “If you practice, maybe you can make an offhand shot at 100 yards. But I’d bet that most guys couldn’t make that shot.”
Unless you’ve tried these shots at the range, Janis says, you won’t know one way or the other.
Dry Fire Not everyone is lucky enough to have access to a range that allows for different shooting positions. For those folks (and for everyone, really), dry firing is a great way to get some trigger time in the comfort of your home.
Ask any competitive shooter for their hottest tip, and they’ll recommend dry fire. Janis says the same.
“Dry fire at home. Work on following through on that trigger pull,” he said.
Safety is paramount whenever you’re handling a functioning firearm in your home. Triple check that the gun is unloaded, and for an added layer of safety, point it in a safe direction as you practice. A gun safe or a basement wall works well for this purpose.
As with live fire shooting, work on positions you’re likely to use in the field. Place a sticker or pin in the wall and try to hold the reticle on target as you slowly press the trigger. Take a few steps back or use a smaller target to increase the difficulty.
To add more realism, use dummy rounds to practice cycling the rifle after you take a “shot.” Practice working the bolt is worth it, especially if you’re using a new gun.
Why Practice? Some hunters only shoot a few rounds every year, but that won’t maximize your odds. You might not be able to control the deer or the weather, but you can control whether you’re prepared to take an accurate, ethical shot when the moment comes.
Janis is motivated to practice by a sense of humility. Awkward shooting positions, strong winds, and rushed shots can defeat even experienced hunters, and he continues to hone his skills because he knows that another miss could be right around the corner.
“It’s not if you’ll miss, it’s when,” he said. “You’re going to encounter a situation that you haven’t encountered before. You’re going to miss. If you practice, maybe it’ll be in two seasons rather than this season.”
There’s plenty more to say about this topic. Shooting with or without gloves is something to consider, as is shooting with cold or numb fingers. Know your bullet drops, practice at different distances, and get a good sense of your limitations as a shooter.
Bottom line? Work on scenarios you’ll see in the field and you’ll be in good shape once rifle season rolls around next year.