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March 05, 2008

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Paper Versus Meat

Back when I was young and knew everything, I was convinced that a good shot was a good shot, period, and that anyone who could shoot well at paper targets had to shoot well on game, and vice-versa. Now I am not so sure.

Shooting well at targets and shooting well at game require different skill sets. The target shooter must be able to control his breathing and heartbeat, be able to read mirage and wind, have a perfect trigger squeeze, have his shooting positions down to perfection, and be thoughtful and deliberate at all times. Being a good game shot requires that you shoot quickly, from awkward positions, at ill-defined and/or moving targets, and above all, that you be able to kill without hesitation.

This last is a big thing. Taking a life does not come easily to many people, and I have seen many, many otherwise fine shots become completely unhinged when the time came to drop the hammer on something that was breathing. About the only thing you can do about this is shoot until you do everything automatically, but even that is no sure solution.

Probably the best example of the "bad target/great game" shot is an African PH. The ones I've seen shoot at paper can sight in a rifle OK, but that's about it. However, if you want someone to stick a big bullet up the nose of a Cape buffalo that is 10 feet away, coming at full speed, and has payback on his mind, he is the guy to see.


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John B

The way most of us practice is exactly the problem. We shoot off a bench in perfect conditions. The trigger doesn't get pulled unless everything is exactly right. Too often in the field you just don't have that kind of opportunity and the majority of hunters simply don't get enough shooting time in the field to learn how to react quickly and (reasonably)accurately.



So that's the problem!

I do fairly well on a bench with a rifle, do all my own sight in work and have rifles that are accurate enough that I can take out prairie dogs at 100/150 yards with pretty fair consistency!

When that big ol' hairy, horny buck steps out, my heart rate increases to twice normal rate, my breathing fails to a short, raspy gasp and I shake like I've got the DT's!
I kill deer every year. I can do it. I seldom miss. Boy, talking about concentration! It's all I can do to calm myself to be able to hold everything together until I can get the shot off!
My big secret! DUH!! I ain't got one, and when I stop getting excited, that's when I stop hunting!

One of my biggest tricks is a very, dangerously light trigger. For this reason, I WILL NOT loan one of my rifles.
The reason? If I can ever get the crosshairs to target, all I gotta do is caress the trigger!
I DO NOT suggest this for anyone else. I must at all times be aware of my trigger. I do not load my gun until SETTLED in my blind/stand! The safety is checked constantly!
That's just me!

P.S. You marksmen/safety experts can chastise to your hearts content, it's just the way "I" do it!

Chris H.

Bubba, a buddy of mine likes a really, really light trigger. He loaned a gun to another buddy one time and he said that as soon as he thought about putting his finger on the trigger the gun just went off. Of course you and I know that didn't happen. It drives home the point that you should shoot a gun at the range before you ever take it to the field and that you always have to be very conciense of where you finger is in relation to the trigger and where the muzzle is pointing.


One of the best practice tips I've read came from F&S. It was for bows - but would also apply to guns with minor modification. It essentially said:

1. Set up target in backyard.
2. Duplicate your stand or post.
3. Wear gear you will have in the field.
4. Slowly, noiselessly, draw and hold for a few minutes.
5. Release.
6. Go back in the house.
7. Repeat in 2 hours.

Practicing with a couple boxes of ammo over a period of 45 minutes is all well and good, and should be done - but it's not field conditions.

I won't do the following, but perhaps someone else could and report back. Go get yourself jacked up on 5 pots of coffee to replicate the "fever" and practice one shot on a deer target.



This topic usually brings up shotgunners in my mind moreso than riflemen. I know many trap and skeet shooters who are absolutely terrible in the upland fields or duck blinds. Yet they can shoot 98-100 x 100 all day long on the trap range. One older shooter beat me every time we shot trap, every single time. He was almost twice my age. However when we went dove hunting each September I always managed to get my limit but he would usually only killed about half that many. By the same token he was an expert rifleman on prairie dogs, deer, antelope, and elk but I never saw him shoot at the range other than to sight in a new rifle. Another neighbor can hit a dime tossed into the air by his own hand. He can accomplish this feat repeatedly with a Model 41 Smith, a Model 29 Smith, or a Marlin Guide Gun .45-70. He has a 5 gallon bucket full of shot coins. I can't even see what he is shooting at when he pulls the trigger. He shoots trap with a Beretta holding it with one arm and hand. Usually get 20-25 birds per round. He can hit a 5 gallon bucket at 700-800 yards with the open sighted Marlin or his scoped .25-06 until the bucket is only chips. I have never seen him kill a buck or bull. He has shot a few does over the years. I have opinions on these guys and their abilities/skills which I will not reveal presently since I am more interested in your views.
Another neighbor who happens to be on a outdoor TV series at this time can do it all with great efficiency and precision, field or range, rifle or shotgun, he is near perfect in all aspects. I was amazed a few years ago when he went to one of those combat type (IPSC??) pistol shoots in Montana. He took his dad's old Browning P-35 Hi-Power box stock. He shot against guys with Ed Browns, Les Baers, Clarks, and all sorts of stock and modified semi-autos. I was not very surprised to see the trophy that he won when he came home. It was so boring for him that he never shot in that type of event again.

Jason N.

I wonder how many people have gone to the range when the weather is perfect. Then go hunting with terrible weather(wind especially) and make a bad shot then wonder whats wrong with their firearm,caliber, bullet,etc.
I live in Wyoming and the wind seemingly never stops and is tough to figure out.


I don't think there's a lot of mystery around this one. As someone mentioned, one problem is that too many people shoot from the bench and call it good.

I do feel, strongly, that a lot of time shooting from the bench is a real good thing. It builds confidence and consistency, two things that a real marksman absolutely has to have. But practice from field positions is critical too.

The other issue is target panic. I'm pretty familiar with this one when it comes to archery. I can plug arrows into the kill zone on my targets all day, and I can kill small game with aplomb... but give me something like a hog or deer, and my arrows seem to take on a life of their own.

Fortunately, I don't seem to have the same problem with firearms. I know plenty of folks who do, though, and it can really get them down. It's a major psychological leap, I think.


Phillip is it your opinion that "target panic" is inherent or acquired? Can it be easily overcome? On the other hand my kid (the trap shooting, long range magnum hunter and motocrosser) has been hunting with me since age three. Yep he went antelope hunting with me at 3 and again at 5. Over the years, he is 17 now, he never has experienced buck fever. He seemingly does not understand his friends who freeze up at the trigger or blow the shot at a nice buck. I think all the game he has seen fall over the years probably immunized him to this fever. He will bust a cap on a buck or a rooster in a heartbeat and never blink. Yet he is a very kind hearted and generous kid in his associations with other people so don't get the impression that he is an assassin.

Steve C

I've always been a better shooter with iron sights than a scope - at least out to 200 yards. This is because for every one shot I've made with a scope I've made one thousand with iron sights.

Scopes are wonderful for targets far away that are stationary. But far away and/or stationary doesn't describe 95% og the game I've shot in the last 45+ years.


You’re referring to “pucker factor”?

Anyone can and does “pucker” under pressure and within drama. Gifted individuals handle it better than others and swim in environments where the average drown.. That’s why there are “pro’s” in every field, champions, and top guns.

Del in KS


I can relate to your friend getting bored with the pistol match. It was my luck to break 25 straight and 72 out of 75 the first time I ever pulled a trigger at trap (with a field gun no less). It got boring fast after a 98/100 and a couple 50/50's my shooting began regressing and I quit after shooting a few times each year for 3 years. Nowadays shoot a few rds of skeet with my Barreta O/U 28 ga. to warm up for Dove season. It's a little harder to break 25 that way for me.


Good quote from Mark-1.

Some folks just can make shots under pressure, some can't.



Del in KS
Being one of those guys who rarely breaks 21-23 at trap (with a fitted trap gun no less) I think I might drive down to Kansas this fall and burn your dove fields. Obviously just kidding. I am more consistant at upland bird shooting than on the trap range. Part of this is that when chasing pheasant and chukar I am there for pure enjoyment and pleasure. Trap on the other hand is a constant challenge more for myself than against others. I honestly believe that I make work out of fun when I pick up the trap gun. Oddly enough I won the first skeet tourniment that I ever entered years ago. I probably did everything wrong but broke every bird since no one told me I was supposed to miss every now and then. I have never won a tourniment since. Yep a considerable part of shooting is mental...

Del in KS

Over the years it has been my experience that a good quality Variable power scope is hard to beat. Most people use too much scope power for big game and frequently they put a POS scope on a nice rifle. Just last fall I took an old friend on his first deer hunt. He failed to get a shot off at a nice buck because he never got his scope on the deer. It was a 4x12 Bushnell Banner POS. He would not take my advice to make it into a bullet mold hammer and get a Leupold VXIII. The man has plenty of $ but refuses to spend hundreds for a scope.
For my taste a rifle that feels slightly barrel heavy is the easiest to hold steady. I too like a light trigger with no creep or overtravel (about 3 lb). If you get a shot (and have time) get in a prone or sitting position. Many guys will see a deer, pig, etc and blast away offhand. As soon as you ID a big buck,bull, bear,etc that gives you the shakes stop looking at the horns and think about making the shot. Pick the spot on his shoulder you want to hit. A good set of shooting sticks is a plus. Know your rifle and your own limits and you won't miss very often. This has helped me take over a hundred head of big game from AK Moose and bears to FL deer and pigs.
With a lower powered scope (1.75-5X, or 2.5-10X for example) you won't be able to look Bambi in the eye when you shoot him. You will also have a wider field of view that makes it easier to find your target fast.

The same applies to archery only more so. Pick a spot and concentrate on hitting it. A quiet bow is much more important than a fast bow. Rangefinders made blazing speed even less important. Practice with and use quality broadheads. They are expensive but nothing in my experience works as well as Rage 2 blade mechanicals. They make a large wound that results in good blood trails that are short. In the last 2 seasons my take was 5 deer with a bow. The best was a 10 pt. The bow is a Mathews Switchback XT with Winners choice strings and cables set at 62 lb with Carbon Force Maximum Hunter arrows. Practice, Practice, Practice.

Bernie Kuntz

There is something to what Dave suggests. In the early 1970s I hunted with a guy who was a decent shot on ducks and geese. A couple times we went to a trap range and this fellow struggled to break five or six birds out of 25. He simply could not shoot quickly enough, allowed the birds to start dropping and shot over most of them.

My 90-year-old father hunted until he was almost 87 years old. He was an expert at finding an improvised rest to make long rifle shots, and he had an uncanny ability to hit running whitetails and pronghorns--shots that I wouldn't even attempt. Yet he never was a "position shooter", and I suspect if he had ever fired something like the National Match Course he would have been pretty unimpressive.

Del in KS


Thats quite a son you have. My son went hunting and shot a few squirrels and rabbits when he was young. Since about age ten he refuses to hunt and only goes fishing when it involves a business deal. He's 29 now and very successful in life but we never share the outdoors anymore.
He currently lives in Houston and comes home often but not to shoot or hunt. Fortunately my daughter lives close and she goes to archery 3d shoots with her old dad. We plan to order her a new bow later today.

NH Philosopher

Killing paper only allows for one to develop a feel for the rifle - not the kill or the Hunt. Hunting is an alignment of random variables that you cannot "predetermine".

Those of us who are "Born to hunt" or 'whatever' have a natural predisposition for it. An internal mechanism that time/evolution/society has not turned off (yet)...some freeze due to environmental pressures like HSUS and Bambi. Others - gladly execute.

Spend some time with the Yup Ik or Inupiaq natives of Alaska - and you'll witness what I am talking about....no paper dies...Other organisms do though. Every day.


A fellow I used to hunt bobwhite quail with down south decades ago only shot from the hip at the covey. He used a Model 59 Winchester labeled IMP CYL. The guy probably hunted every day of "bird" season from Georgia to the Rio Grande. I don't think I ever saw anyone kill more quail in a day than Sim. I often wondered what a fantastic shot he would have been if he put the gun to his shoulder, but then this probably just would have messed him up. I've never witnessed anyone else utilize this strange shooting posture. Another claim to fame is that his wife did the last remodel of the interior of Graceland before Elvis passed away. The color schemes and choices were insisted upon by Elvis. As it turned out that she mostly just provided contractors and materials.

Del in KS

That old friend that I mentioned earlier about deer hunting is pure poison on geese and ducks. He shoots an old Rem 1100 with a pistol grip stock he made long before benelli came out with them. He refuses to take a shot that he isn't sure he can make. Bill always seems to have lots of old shells because he doesn't shoot many. He grew up a poor black kid in rural OK. When he got a few shells he had to make everyone count for something the family could eat. Now days he has a 500K house, new Hummer, lots of guns, etc but he still is like Scrooge with his ammo.

Del in KS

My dad had a Win Modl 59. It's in my safe and has not been fired in many years. He passed in 1984.


I've been in more than a few deer camps where it was easy to come to the conclusion that bench shooting and being a proficient game shot are two distinct skills. One is much more difficult to master than the other, and too often some "hunters" believe that shooting from the bench and producing a decent group is tranferrable to shooting for blood.
Making sure your rifle is properly sighted in is commendable, but hardly sufficient. Shooting offhand and under field conditions will start to build the skills of a true game shot.
Animate targets go a long way. I was fortunate during my formative years to have access to ranches that literally teemed with jack rabbits, and became a handloader at an early age so I could afford the ammunition.

WA Mtnhunter

The proof of the shooting skill is usually on the meatpole. I hear all the MOA marksmen talk trash all summer and after the season is over, guess where they are eating an elk roast? My house.

My son is a terrible bench shooter. He can keep all his shots in a minute of pie plate with a rifle that I can shoot MOA groups with. But in the field, it's a different story. Not MOA, but DOA!

I have a casual friend who I hunt with often that can shoot sub-MOA with his 7mm Weatherby Mag at the range, but has trouble hitting 'a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle' in the field.

The fellow who can do both is exceptional in my opinion.


Several of the above comments have
touched on the secret of being a great game shot, but DEP and Del in Kansas nailed it. The African PH shoots out of necessity. Something large and nasty is about to stomp a mudhole in either him or a client, or a great trophy is about to be lost.
I can really see the man who grew up poor and is like Scrooge with his ammunition. I was taught to spot squirrels in trees and rabbits in brushpiles by just such a man. Also quail, coons, armidillos, bullfrogs, possums,jacks and anything else that we could cook and eat. My grandmother regularly took me to the chicken pen at an early age to shoot the heads off whichever chickens went into the pan that day. My father and both grandfathers lived through the Depression, and a box of .22 shells meant the difference in meat on the table or not. I still kill my deer each year, usually with one shot, but am regularly out-shot on the range by a friend, who sometimes misses a deer. We have shot and hunted together for the past seven years. It is all in the mind-set, no hit, no eat.

Jim in Mo.

You said your friend had a trick to shooting coins in the sky?
I was with a guy who tried to BS me that he could do it regularly, which I didn't believe because I new I was a better shot than him and thats difficult. He throws a coin in an erratic arc and shoots quickly and shows me a coin that had a pre-drilled hole in it!

I haven't been hunting much, but I quite frankly struggle with the taking of a life. I love hunting/fishing etc. I am a decent shot at bench, and while hunting provided I don't have the opportunity to stop and think. When we are hog hunting, and you shoot on instinct, I am quite proficient. It is the slow calculated shots that mess me up as I know and am consciously aware of the life I am about to take. I realize the necessity of it and have killed plenty vermin as a result. But with something like a whitetail, I freeze. Any suggestions for improvement would be greatly appreciated.

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