Legend has it that after Wyatt Earp retired from being a gunslinger cum lawman and moved to California to become a dry goods salesman, a reporter asked him to reveal the secret of his longevity. Wyatt replied, “Aim very carefully very quickly.”
This was, of course, easier to say than to do as was evidenced by how few 19th century professional gunmen needed retirement plans. Nowadays — people serving in the military or law enforcement excepted — Earp’s advice has a statistically insignificant impact on life expectancy. But for a deer hunter, it’s one of, if not the most important keys to ending the season with venison in the freezer.
Learning to aim very carefully takes a lot of practice and learning to do so very quickly takes even more. This fact presents most of us with a dilemma. To use myself as an example, I often hunt deer with a .30/06 a friend of mine aptly named “Old Earsplitenzeeloudenboomer.” It’s a tack driver downrange, and shooting it once is a lot of fun. Shooting a box of shells through it in one sitting is not. I also have a .243 that my shoulder could handle all day long. Alas, my wallet can’t handle either of them.
Fortunately, the .22 rimfire — or the .17 HMR if you insist on doing most of your practicing at ranges beyond 100 yards — provides an excellent solution to both problems. Shooting is shooting. Believe me, the finer points of shouldering a rifle, acquiring the target, controlling breathing and squeezing the trigger will become second nature much faster if you’re not worrying about scope cuts or bruised shoulders.
Whenever possible — and do your utmost to make it possible — shooting practice should take place at a safety-approved rifle range. For the purposes of today’s discussion, let’s assume your .22 has already been sighted in, so you can leave your sand bags and shooting vise at home where they’ll be during hunting season.
Although safety has to be paramount at all times, make your range sessions as beneficial as possible by finding a way to shoot from the sitting, kneeling and standing positions — being able to shoot from the prone position while hunting is so rare I don’t recommend wasting time or ammunition practicing it. You’ll notice right off that aiming carefully and getting one accurate shot off quickly is a tough combination to pull off. Don’t get discouraged. Our old friend Wyatt Earp and his brothers spent thousands of hours practicing, so they would be the ones still standing after the gunfight at the OK Corral. All you want to do is to learn how to shoot well enough to become a more successful hunter. That shouldn’t take more than a few hundred hours.
Or perhaps you’d be interested in some assistance that will flatten, albeit by no means eliminate, the learning curve. Tripod shooting sticks first came into general use in Africa for steadying the heavy rifles used to hunt dangerous game but are now used for virtually all rifle shooting there. Tripods aren’t practical in many situations faced by North American hunters, but bipod shooting sticks are almost as steady, most of them have adjustable legs and the very best ones have swiveling heads. Shooting sticks are not yet in wide use in North America, but they eventually will be for the simple reason that their ability to improve accuracy is literally phenomenal.
But as important as spending time at the range and making use of aids like shooting sticks may be, the only way to truly know if you’re able to blend a careful eye and a quick trigger finger into a combined reflex is to test it in the real world. By far the best way to do that is to go squirrel hunting during the summer months when the foliage is thick.
Squirrels either are or like to pretend to be very busy at this time of the year. They seem to spend most of their time scurrying up, down and around as many trees as possible during the first couple of hours after dawn. One will occasionally settle in to gnaw through the husk of a hickory nut, but far more often they pause for only a few seconds before moving. Anyone who can consistently spot a squirrel that has stopped in the open, take aim and put a bullet into a target the size of a quarter in less than 3 seconds this summer will have no trouble putting a bullet into a target the size of a pie plate when that big buck pauses in the clear next fall.
Squirrels are also more than willing to “flunk” any hunter who announces his or her presence by a careless sound or movement just as a deer would. If you can hunt squirrels without spooking them, you can hunt deer without spooking them. The reverse is equally true.
I love to hunt both squirrels and deer so much, it’s hard for me to keep track of which species is practice time for the other. But then I guess that doesn’t really matter.
Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]