No matter how carefully and persistently a novice hunter has practiced, no matter how consistently he or she can drop bullet after bullet into a tiny target far downrange, the electrifying presence of a live big game animal can erase all such progress. The calm, confident shooter becomes a shaking, nervous wreck.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
If, like so many hunters today, you sit in a stand or blind, you might have an ideal opportunity to help your new shooter work off the nervous energy and prepare for a calm, carefully aimed shot.
Start with all that range practice and those safety lessons well before the first hunt. If possible, take your new hunter into the stand or blind with an unloaded firearm. If you’re a glass-and-stalk hunter, take him or her on a long hike.
During these pre-season practice runs, go through the motions: Get in and out of the blind. Adjust your seats and positions. Have the shooter position the gun in a variety of ways to discover which is the steadiest, easiest to assume, etc. Then dry fire at an imaginary deer (a stump, fence post or rock). Do this routine several times until it’s familiar and the novice shooter is smoothly, quietly and consistently getting into position and making a perfect “dry run.”
If stalking, pick out an inanimate target and stalk it. Duck, hunch, crawl on your knees and wriggle on your bellies. Show the new hunter how to safely cradle the gun in all these positions. Practice dry-firing from prone, prone over a pack, sitting, sitting with support from a bipod or tripod and kneeling. All of this gives the first-timer good insights into the physical requirements for stalking quietly, getting into a steady shooting position and dropping the hammer without jerking the gun.
The shooter should “call the shot.” This means they consciously watch the sight on the target so they can say with confidence where it was when the firing pin fell. “I wiggled just to the right side on that one.” Or, “I pulled that one left and the crosshair was about 4 inches down and to the left a bit.” This teaches follow-through and keeping eyes open. Closing eyes when shooting is one of the most common forms of flinching.
Eyes Wide Open
Another important part of these exercises is training to keep both eyes open while raising and aiming the rifle and maintaining focus on the target. Don’t let your students refocus on the back sight or the eyepiece of the scope. That means they’ll lose the target and probably have trouble reacquiring it. Instruct them to maintain focus on the target and lift the rifle to their face. If they do this right, without ducking too much or tilting their head down to the stock, they should find the target lined up pretty close to the front sight or reticle.
This exercise can be conducted regularly at home by locking away all ammunition, removing the firing mechanism from the gun or stuffing the chamber with a brightly colored cloth left hanging out of the action. The shooter’s job is to develop proper gun mounting and holding, which means keeping the head as erect and straight as possible while raising the gun butt and stock high enough in the shoulder pocket so the comb reaches the face. This is automatic to an experienced shooter, but challenging to new shooters. If you doubt that, just try shooting “other handed.” Feels weird, doesn’t it?
Any new hunter who’s consistently mounting, acquiring targets, dry-firing and calling his or her shots is ready for the hunt. During the actual hunt, you might want to make them do one or two more dry-firing exercises on a live animal. This can often be done on deer in a foraging field more than 100 yards away. Just have your hunter go through the entire procedure for shooting the deer, but with an empty rifle or shotgun. Watch to see if they shake, jerk the trigger or close their eyes. Ask them where the crosshair was when the firing pin fell. If everything looks good, load up and go for the real thing.
By this time the new shooter should be full of confidence and have calmed down, knowing that if he or she again does everything correctly, the deer will soon be theirs.