Steady to the bone

Steady to the bone

Van Zwoll, Wayne

To make a shot in the field, you need to be steady. When no rest is available, you have to depend on the steadiest thing you have: bones. Last fall I missed an elk at 70 yds.-twice. And I fired three times at a deer without clipping a hair. I’ve missed a lot of easy shots at game. I have never missed because the sight was off or because a guard screw was loose, never because of faulty ammunition. I have never missed because I forgot about elevation, the barometric pressure or my horoscope. I have on occasion misjudged wind and yardage and, in 35 years afield, hit two or three branches with bullets. But almost all my bad shots have resulted from bad shooting.

It is easy to miss. The mental and physical routines that deliver hits are hardwon by disciplined practice. Nobody is born a marksman. You may be blessed with fine vision, lightning reflexes and extraordinary hand-eye coordination. You may have built great muscles. But to shoot accurately, you still must learn how to hold a rifle steady and control your breathing and trigger squeeze.

Shooting fundamentals are few.You needn’t be very bright to learn them or in the best physical shape to hone them. But you must master them. A crack field shot is not someone who makes an astonishing hit, because anyone can get lucky. Even consistent success on hunts can fail as a measure of marksmanship, because animals are big targets. If you shoot little groups only from the bench, you’re unable to carry your skill into the woods. If you need a rangefinder or wind flags to put bullets where you aim, or a minute to prep for every shot, the deer will win most of the time.

Shooters confident of hitting right where they aim take full advantage of their bodies, both as shooting platforms and as the link between eye and striker.

The elk had a mane the color of burnt steak. The ivory tips of massive antlers winked against the black timber But just as I moved into a shot alley, he turned. I’d have fired-if the rifle hadn’t bobbed like a cork in surf. With no time to ground my elbows on anything solid, 1 watched the grand animal vanish.

The foundation of every shot is body position. The key to any solid position is bone structure. Bones, not muscles, best support you and the rifle. Muscles are elastic, and they tire. Muscles contain blood that surges and nerves that twitch. Bones are like bricks: If you can align them so your muscles don’t have to work to keep joints from slipping, you’ll build with bones a platform that’s as still as the human body can be. Bone alignment must also allow the rifle to point naturally at the target. If you force the rifle on target with your muscles, you’ll have the same problems as if you depended on muscles to support your body’s weight. When the trigger breaks, your body wants to relax. If it is already relaxed, the rifle stays on target. If you have muscled the rifle where it doesn’t want to go, it will come off target at the shot.

Bones can help in all positions. The most stable is prone, mainly because it is the lowest. It gives you the most contact with the ground and puts your center of gravity mere inches above it.Your left arm should be almost directly underneath the rifle.Your arm muscles will hold the elbow at the correct angle (with a lot of help from a tight sling!), but they should not support the rifle. Count on your bones for that. Reduce stomach contact with the ground by cocking your right leg (if you’re right-handed), rolling your body onto your left-side ribs. These bones then support your torso-while your stomach is held clear of the ground to mitigate pulsebounce. Your right elbow is like the leg of a tripod jammed into the ground on the side. No muscle tension necessary here, because your hand on the rifle holds the elbow at a constant angle.

The buck came before the sun. It was far away, a ghost-deer suddenly free of the chaparral. I dropped to the ground right away, knowing time was short but that only from prone could I hit at such distance. The .300 Weatherby’s flat pop took the ghost from behind the crosswire. At 410 yds. on the last day, my hunt had ended.

Sitting is not quite as steady as prone but is more versatile because it puts your muzzle above grass and low brush, and it allows you to swivel to follow a moving animal. It is also more useful on uneven terrain. I fire often from sitting, my legs tentlike in front of me, heels hard into the ground. It’s important to lean well forward, the rear flat surfaces of your elbows against the fronts of your knees. Muscles in the small of your back stretch to put elbows against knees. But the stretch is held by bone contact, elbow to knee, so there’s no effort required to maintain this position. Your lower torso rests, through your spine, on your tailbone. Some weight, including that of the rifle, rests on your left arm-which is held by friction and muscle tension (and a sling!) against your knee. Leg bones support a lot of forward weight, but your leg muscles are relaxed, the bones held at their proper angle by the solid contact of heels and buttocks on the ground.

Alternative sitting positions are the crossed-leg and crossed-ankle variations. Competitive shooters like them. However, they’re not as useful as the “tent” position on uneven ground. They also put the rifle on a lower plane, which can fill your sight picture with tall grass and brush. Though crossed-leg sitting can give you the best results on paper, it requires more practice to stretch thigh and back muscles. The crossed-ankle option is faster; I use it in the rapid-fire stage of the National Match course. But your “base” on the ground is not as broad.

The elk gave little warning. It burst into the open on the ridge opposite as I dropped to a sitting position on the steep grass slope, my left foot pointed ahead of the bull. I swung fast from behind and pressed the trigger as my body uncoiled, the rifle now in line with my left leg and the crosswire scribing a foot of lead. The elk cartwheeled.

Kneeling, a quick position from standing, delivers a higher sight line than sitting-and more wobble. The sight typically moves in an elliptical pattern from nine and 10 o’clock to three and four. Shooters posting the best kneeling scores minimize that movement and reduce fatigue by keeping their weight over their bones. I’m careful to center my torso weight on my tailbone, planted squarely on the heel of my right foot, which is bent underneath to contact the ground through sole and toes. From head literally to toe, that stack of bone supports half my weight.

Practice conditions your foot to the muscle stretch. A vertical left shin carries about 35 percent of my weight, and supports the rifle. My left elbow rests just in front of my left knee. Again, “flat-on-flat” is the rule. As with sitting, if you put the point of your elbow on your kneecap, you’ll get wobble. To minimize horizontal sway in kneeling, angle your left foot perpendicular to your right leg, comfortably off to the side and bearing little weight (ground friction will hold your foot in place). Place the rifle butt high in on your clavicle, so you look directly forward. Don’t hunch or lean forward. Given proper bone alignment, an erect kneeling position is both steady and easy to maintain.

Prone, sitting or kneeling, a shooting sling helps. My pick, the Brownell’s Latigo, has an adjustable loop that pulls taut between your upper left arm and the front swivel, while the rear of the sling remains slack. Result: Sling tension pulls the rifle into your right shoulder and reduces wobble.

The moose, two of them, were splashing about in a pond behind a screen of willows. I sneaked forward, hoping to spot antlers. The wind swiveled; the splashing stopped. I dropped to one knee as a bull slipped through a gap in the willows. My.35 Whelen got its bullet to the gap in time to tag the second animal.

Standing, or offhand, is the position of last resort, because your center of gravity is so high and you have so little ground contact.Your left arm is unsupported, so a sling is of little use there’s nothing to brace your arm against its tension. Albeit unsteady, offhand is both flexible and very fast, and thus worth practicing.

Good offhand shooting starts at ground level. Plant your feet shoulder width apart, equal weight on each and a line through your toes at about a 30 degree angle to sight line. (The 30 degree foot angle works for me; you may find a more open or closed stance more comfortable.) To find out, tack several targets close together side-byside on a backing board. With the idea of aiming at the center target and eyes closed, shoulder the rifle. Relax. Now open your eyes. Note where the sight is. Do it again. Again.You may find that the sight wants to hang not on the center bullseye, but near another. Change foot position until when you open your eyes the sight is pointed at that middle target. As you move your feet, changing the angle of your body to the line of targets, you may also notice a change in the angle of your feet to one another. The most comfortable angle is best. Stand flat-footed. I prefer slight forward pressure on the balls of my feet. My knees are straight but not locked.

“Most successful shooters lean back and slightly right to counter the rifle’s weight,” says Gary Anderson, an Olympic shooter who’s won two gold medals. “They support the rifle by bracing the left arm against their ribs.” Try that with a heavy rifle, and you’ll agree with Gary. But hunting rifles lack the mass to stay still with your left hand supporting the fore-end far to the rear. Wind and heartbeat bounce a lightweight rifle resting against your ribs. You’ll get better results holding the fore-end near midpoint, where you can actively direct and steady it.

Stand upright. Lones Wigger, another Olympic double-gold medalist, stands as straight as a new cornerpost. “Hunching over the rifle puts you off balance and adds tension to back muscles,” he says. Keep your head upright too, even if bringing the stock to your cheek puts the rifle’s butt above your shoulder. You see best when you look straight ahead.

With the rifle ready to fire, your right elbow is best horizontal. There, it puts some strain on your wrist, but like back tension in sitting, wrist tension offhand requires no effort to maintain.

The friction of your hand on the grip does that, and the tension can help steady the rifle. A high (horizontal) right elbow also puts a pocket in your shoulder, a place for the butt to settle naturally. Grip the fore-end lightly but with full hand contact. Pull the stock more firmly with your right hand.

Let your left elbow support the rifle from underneath, not out to the side. Pulling that elbow left strains your shoulder muscles and tires your arm. My left elbow falls directly forward of that shoulder, in a straight line from shoulder to front swivel stud, just in front of my hand. In offhand, muscles in both arms come into play, but even where there’s no bone support to the ground, you can make the best use of bones by aligning them so the muscle loads fall as nearly as possible in line with major bones. If you must swing with a moving target, anticipate where the shot will occur and position your body for maximum bone support and degree of relaxation at that point.

Whatever your shooting position, when you get a quick shot in the field, point your feet before you point the rifle. Bring it smoothly to your cheek (not cheek to the rifle) as you breathe deeply to bring oxygenated air to your brain and eyes. Shoot with both eyes open if you can, pressuring the trigger as you exhale slowly. Keep up the pressure when the sight is on target. Hold pressure when the sight bounces off target or if your position falls apart (that is, if you lose bone support).

The whitetail rocketed out of tall grass, flagging off through open pines. My feet were pointed just right, and the crosswire found a rib fast. The two hung together in the milliseconds that brought pressure to the trigger. I swept the reticle with the buck, remembering shots missed and kills made. I decided not to fire. Not this time.

You won’t like shooting at paper from unsupported positions. It’s easier on the ego to shoot little groups from the bench. But to shoot well in the field, you must shoot often with only your body as a platform, doing everything right, every time. Good shooting follows established habit. When that buck catapults from cover, you won’t have time to think about shooting.Your body must be conditioned to react reflexively in the right way-so that an aimed shot comes off without conscious effort. Exhibition shooters show great fluidity and a wonderful economy of movement as the rifle tracks an aerial target. But though it may appear effortless, every shot reflects discipline. The shooter’s body looks natural in its routine because long training has purged superfluous movement and sifted out bad habits-and because bone support eliminates all the strain.

Copyright National Rifle Association of America Sep 2002

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