Craig Boddington DON’T BLOW THE SHOT OF A LIFETIME

DON’T BLOW THE SHOT OF A LIFETIME

Training, Equipment, Attitude. TEA Party Success!

By Craig Boddington

Varmint hunting is one of the best ways to jump-start your field experience. My favorite way to shoot prairie dogs is from field positions…and if you can get steady enough to consistently hit these little rodents, big game animals seem a lot easier.

Life isn’t always fair. It’s possible to spend an entire lifetime of hard hunting and never get a chance at a truly fantastic, world-class trophy. It’s also possible to take a Boone and Crockett whitetail on the very first outing. The strange nature of hunting is that, while both effort and technique certainly count, ultimately there is a major element of random chance that places a great animal and a hunter in proximity at the same time.

So it isn’t just sour grapes to refer to any hunter who has taken a great trophy as a “lucky SOB.” Yep, sure was, and that’s a fact. On the other hand, let’s give credit where credit is due. Regardless of species, for every great trophy taken, there are at least as many opportunities that are blown, either through misses or failures to seize the opportunity.

Yes, luck was still a factor in placing a great animal in the unfortunate position of being in that hunter’s sights. But when that animal presented itself, Lady Luck walked away. In what the old magazines used to call “the moment of truth” there was very little luck involved. Whether by instinct or experience, anyone who has the good fortune to take a great trophy did things very well when that opportunity came along.

Article continues below… Please support our advertisers!

MG Arms K-Yote Varmint System

… click opens in new window.

In a fairly frenetic forty years of hunting I’ve taken a lot of game…but I haven’t had all that many opportunities at truly fantastic trophies. Nobody does. I’ve made my mistakes, but in the clinch, when opportunity and preparation must meet, most of the time I’ve done okay. I work pretty hard at being ready when opportunity strikes.

We were in near-whiteout conditions and I had just seconds to make this shot on an Anatolian chamois in Turkey. That’s when experience and training takes over. It takes years to have experience, but training—practice—is readily attainable.

You could split it up lots of different ways, but I think there are just three key elements to making sure you are ready when Lady Luck smiles. In our current political environment it’s real easy to remember them sort of as if we’re going to a TEA party: Training, Equipment, Attitude.

TRAINING

We start with “t” for “training” for two reasons. First, in our entitled society it’s all too prevalent to believe that we can substitute technology for skill. Sure, equipment matters, and we’ll talk about that…but skill comes first, and there are no shortcuts to consistently good shooting. You have to work at it. Second, within extremely broad parameters, how well you shoot is far more important than exactly what you are shooting.

The first step is to have a good grasp of the shooting basics. I know of no better way to put it than how the Marine Corps marksmanship instructors teach it: The BRASS rule for “Breathe, Relax, Aim, Sight alignment, trigger Squeeze.”

You’re excited in the presence of game, and this is natural. You have to control the excitement, so take a few deep breaths while you’re settling into the rifle. Then relax, let the last breath halfway out, and aim carefully. Then you check one last time to make sure the crosshairs or sights are where you want them…and you squeeze the trigger. These days the vast majority of us hunt with scoped rifles—but it is invaluable to learn the shooting basics with an open-sighted .22 and thousands of rounds of cheap ammunition. Absent recoil and lots of noise, the .22 makes it very simple to concentrate on breathing, getting steady, and squeezing the trigger. If you achieve proficiency with open sights, shooting with a scope will always seem (and is) a whole lot easier.

My preferred field position is resting over a pack, a fast and wonderfully steady option. It’s okay to have a favorite position, but it’s not smart to get tied to it. The most successful hunters have a wide range of potential positions.

No matter your level of experience, a .22 remains one of the very best tools for training and practice. The ammo is cheap and, more importantly, you can shoot all day long without negative effects from recoil. If you’re hunting with a scope, put a good scope on an accurate .22 and shoot it a lot; if you’re planning on using an iron-sighted rifle, perhaps a big bore you’re readying for Africa, shoot an iron-sighted .22 even more.

There is no real shortcut to the basics of rifle shooting…and there is no substitute for practice. Well, yes, there is: Field experience. But with short seasons, limited bag limits, and escalating costs it takes many years for most hunters to acquire a breadth of big game experience over a wide range of conditions. So we’re back to practice.

All too many American shooters spend their range time at the bench. The bench is essential for testing your rifle’s accuracy, and it isn’t bad for concentrating on those all-important shooting basics—but shooting from a benchrest is not practice for the field. For useful practice for hunting you have to get away from the bench and practice from actual shooting positions you might use in the field. Over time most hunters achieve the greatest comfort level from just a few shooting positions, which probably depends on the kind of hunting we do the most of. I’m primarily a western hunter and I always carry a daypack. So my greatest comfort zone is to put the pack over a rock or a log, rest the rifle over the pack, and sit, stand, or lie behind it depending on the height.

Two great teaching points: Practicing off shooting sticks, and doing it with a scoped .22 rimfire. Shooting sticks are part of my range gear, and I practice with them also. I also practice a lot with a .22, perhaps the greatest of all training tools.

In Africa three-legged shooting sticks are almost universal because they’re fast and get you above low brush. Actually, they’re not just useful in Africa; I put a set in my gun case and take them almost everywhere—including to the range, where part of every shooting session includes shooting off sticks. They are probably my second most familiar comfort zone.

Many shooters rely on bipods and crossed sticks, and they’re great, too…but whatever you like to use, you must practice in order to gain the most stability. Speed is also important. Most opportunities at game animals are fleeting, so the quicker you can get into position and get steady the more successful you will be.

Regardless of your preferred position or shooting rest, there will be situations when it just won’t work. Sometimes things happen too fast, sometimes it’s impossible to get the height right. It’s okay to achieve a comfort zone, but you cannot be married to it. The more shooting positions you know how to use and can get steady in quickly the more successful you will be. The good old NRA competition shooting positions of prone, sitting, kneeling, and standing are all useful in certain situations, and all can be used (and practiced) both with and without support. Again, a good .22 is an invaluable tool for expanding the shooting positions you are comfortable with. I’m not talking about a crash course here; I’m talking consistent shooting from field positions over a matter of years. However, there are at least two good ways to cram.

Practicing on the charging buffalo at the SAAM Safari course, with instructor Chip Beaman coaching. A good shooting school is a great way to “cram” for hunting season—and no shooter is so skilled that good coaching won’t help.

While it does indeed take years to acquire a lot of field shooting experience on big game, varmint hunting is a fantastic opportunity. You can learn at least a decade’s worth of field shooting in a couple of days in a prairie dog town. Except: Forget the portable benchrests, and use field shooting positions. If you can get steady enough to hit prairie dogs consistently there is no big game animal in the world to be concerned about.

The other way is to go to one of the several good field shooting schools now available. I have attended both the SAAM (Sportsmen’s All-Weather, All-Terrain Marksmanship) Precision and Safari courses, conducted in the Texas Hill Country. Even this old dog learned some new tricks from some great instructors. If you’re the kind of guy who simply cannot make time for regular range sessions, or access to a range is an issue, think about summer varminting or getting some training.

EQUIPMENT

The best rifle in the world can’t make up for bad shooting…but it’s a heck of a lot easier to make a shot when you have the right rifle, cartridge, and sights! Clearly this varies from situation to situation, so it seems to me there are two schools of thought: Versatility, or specialization.

Remember the old adage “beware the one-rifle man.” As a gunwriter it’s my job to use and write about a variety of firearms, so this doesn’t work for me. However, there is a strong argument for choosing just one extremely versatile rifle and using it for almost everything. I would never argue that just one rifle is suitable for hunting the entire world, or even North America. There’s a universe of difference between hunting Marco Polo sheep in Tajikistan and hunting elephant in Botswana…and the gulf between pronghorn in Wyoming and brown bear in Alaska is almost as wide. But if you leave out the largest game and extremely specialized situations like black bear with hounds it is certainly practical to hunt almost everything with one very versatile setup. Familiarity counts, especially when the chips are down and things are happening fast.

If you choose to use one versatile rifle for most of your hunting, choose wisely. To my thinking nothing is as versatile as a fast .30-caliber, suitable for all game except the very largest. I used a Lazzeroni .308 Warbird for this New Mexico elk.

It’s important to choose wisely. Leaving out the very largest game on any continent, I would suggest that one of the several .300 magnums with a top quality variable scope is pretty hard to beat! Alternatives would be fast 7mms and .270s, and there are a lot of great hunters who use these three bore diameters for, well, almost everything.

The other school is specialization. We rifle derive great pleasure from trying to figure out the exact, perfect rifle, cartridge, and sighting equipment for any given hunt. Obviously there are many good choices for any given hunt, so this is generally a harmless exercise and lots of fun. The only problem with specialization is you’d better get it right…and this can be difficult if you’re going into an unfamiliar situation.

Since I’m a rifle nut and a gunwriter I usually try to match the rifle to the hunt…but I often go into unfamiliar situations. Based on long and sometimes painful experience, it is best to pay attention to conventional wisdom. For instance, we all know that Karamoja Bell took many elephants with his 7×57…but there are reasons why the legal minimum today is .375. Fortunately the legality of using a fully adequate cartridge is mandated, so today’s elephant hunters cannot try to emulate Bell. Though not mandated by law, there are reasons why most brown bear guides recommend cartridges like .338 and .375. It’s wise to listen to voices of experience. I lost a good brown bear when I was using a .300 magnum. Undoubtedly I made a bad shot…but maybe we’d have recovered him if I’d been using more gun…

Generally speaking, however, it isn’t choice of rifle or caliber that has gotten me into trouble, but rather sighting equipment. There are a very few situations in the world where iron sights are superior to scopes. These include, and are very possibly limited to, big game with hounds in thick cover, and all elephant hunting. For most situations the scope is superior. You can only shoot as well as you can see, and you see better through a scope. The better the scope, the better you can see. Today’s factory rifles tend to shoot much better than the people shooting them, so, given a budget, I would always recommend an inexpensive rifle and a top-quality scope.

We argue about suitable rifles, but make sure your scope is suitable for the job at hand. I had a 1.5-6X on a .375 on this hunt in Namibia. That’s a perfect scope for a .375, but it made a longish shot on this springbok far more difficult than it would have been with something like a 3-9X.

Choice of magnification is important, but with the marvelous variable-power scopes we have today this shouldn’t be an issue. There are places for the low-power scopes, say from 1-4X to 2-7X, but these are specialized tools best suited for larger game and close-range situations. On the other hand, the high-range variables, say from 4-12X on up, are also specialized tools, best-suited for open country. Again, conventional wisdom rules, and there are reasons why scopes in the 3-9X range have become the world’s most popular hunting scopes.

ATTITUDE

Shooting at game has much to do with confidence. You must believe in your rifle and cartridge, which has much to do with making a sensible choice. Much more importantly, you must believe in yourself.

Understand, we all miss. Learn from it if you can—then forget it and move on. We all will also be presented with potential opportunities that are beyond our capabilities. There is no shame in this. These may be fleeting opportunities at close range, or shots that we deem too far (whether for ourselves or our equipment). It doesn’t matter that other hunters might have been able make the shot; we can only do what we can do.

In hunting there should be no “hail Mary” shots; the only ethical shots are those that our experience, training, and equipment make practical. The crux of the matter, then, is our ability to make shots that we know how to make. Accomplishing this is largely mental. You must do what you know how to do.

There is a technique in sports psychology called “visualization,” introduced to me by the great gunwriter John Wootters. Professional athletes who ascribe to this (and many do) imagine—visualize—themselves in a situation relative to their sport, and being successful. It doesn’t always work, but I can assure you that if you waste your time imagining yourself missing, you surely will!

It’s important to pay attention. We love being in the field, so focus on being where you are, and don’t let your mind wander. You have to be ready to take the shot, and if you’re ready you have a much better chance of making it. Be aware of your surroundings, constantly viewing the natural rests in your area, visualizing the best way to get steady. When the chance comes, forget the excitement and concentrate on the basics, that good old BRASS rule.

Last fall I was hunting chamois in Turkey. It had rained and snowed for several days; we had seen nothing and we were running out of time. We were in near whiteout conditions when my guide looked over a little lip and saw a herd of chamois right below him. I ran forward, slid into a prone position, found the right animal, and made the shot. Or so I’m told. Experience, training, and perhaps a bit of instinct took over, and all I remember is having the sight picture exactly correct. I don’t always get it right like that…but it’s really a matter of being ready when opportunity knocks.

 

{ 1 comment… add one }

    Leave a Comment

    THE .30-06 – Still America’s Best!

    For the general run of both mule deer and whitetail hunting I can’t imagine a better cartridge than the .30-06, flat enough for most situations and plenty powerful. This beautiful Colorado buck was taken with a Kenny Jarrett .30-06.
    In general I don’t think the .30-06 is ideal for dangerous game, although it has been used up to elephant with the right bullets. But I do think it is perfect for leopard, especially with a bullet designed to open on deer-sized game. I used a 180-grain Swift Scirocco to take this Zambezi Valley leopard right at dark. Fortunately for PH Andrew Dawson and me, he was stone dead just a few yards from the bait tree.
    By today’s standard .30-06 velocities are unimpressive, but because of its popularity it is always on the cutting edge of new developments. The first Hornady Superformance loads were, naturally, in .30-06. At 3016 fps, this 165-grain Superformance load is solidly into .300 Winchester Magnum territory.
    The first time I ever used the .30-06 was in Kenya in 1977, an over-the-counter Ruger M77 that made me a .30-06 fan to this day. Using handloaded 180-grain Nosler Partitions, I racked up a long string of one-shot kills, including this fringe-eared oryx, taken at about 250 yards.
    It is absolutely true that the .30-06 is not inherently as accurate a cartridge as the U.S. military cartridge that replaced it, the 7.62 NATO or .308 Winchester. On the other hand, with greater case capacity it is faster, and it is generally plenty accurate enough.
    I am probably best known as a magnum guy, and I do like heavy rifles—but the .30-06 has been adequate for elk for a century, and it’s better today because we have better bullets. This Colorado bull was taken with an interesting rifle, an R.F. Sedgely Springfield converted to left-hand bolt, probably made about 1930.
    Following the crowd isn’t always exciting, but sometimes it makes sense. Everybody loads .30-06 ammo. You can get it anywhere, and there are well over a hundred factory loads to choose from.

    By
    Craig Boddington

    The cartridge first known as “Ball Cartridge, Caliber .30, Model of 1906” is without question the most famous American rifle cartridge, not only in our own country but throughout the world. In 1903 we replaced the Krag-Jorgensen in .30-40 Krag with the long-serving and much-loved 1903 Springfield and a new .30-caliber cartridge. The Springfield was a Mauser clone, its rimless cartridge similar to Mauser’s designs, but longer with more case capacity. The initial 1903 cartridge was loaded with the same 220-grain roundnose bullet as the Krag, but in 1906 the bullet was changed to a faster and more aerodynamic 150-grain spitzer. At the same time the case neck was shortened by .07-inch, thus the Model of 1906—the .30-06—went forward to make history. The .30-06 served the United States in both World Wars, the Korean conflict, the early years of Vietnam, and a dozen banana wars in between. It was chambered to the Springfield, the Pattern 14 Enfield, the Marine Corps’ Johnson semiauto, the Garand, the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), and several versions of the Browning machinegun. Clear into my time, the 1970s, the .30-06 was still seeing use both with snipers and in the Browning light machinegun.

     

    JUST PLAIN GOOD

    It is often written that the popularity of the .30-06 as a sporting cartridge is based on its use as a military cartridge. Yes, this has much to do with its initial popularity. Until some time between the World Wars the lever action was America’s most popular repeating rifle action. The returning doughboys had indeed loved their Springfields and Enfields, and respected the other team’s Mausers. Many turned to bolt actions…aided by tens of thousands of surplus rifles dumped on the market, along with new commercial bolt actions from the major manufacturers. After World War II the ascendancy of the bolt action accelerated, and it has long been the most popular rifle action in the world.

    On the other hand, there are lots of great cartridges suitable for bolt actions, and it has been more than fifty years (1957) since the Garand was replaced by the M-14 in 7.62 NATO (.308 Winchester). The .308 Winchester is a great cartridge, no question…but as a hunting cartridge it has never approached the popularity of the .30-06. If its lasting claim to fame is that it was America’s military cartridge during some of our biggest and most successful wars, then why isn’t the .303 British as globally accepted as the .30-06? After all, the .303 British was in service from 1888 until 1957, and in an empire the sun never set on it was used in a lot more places. The .303 British was a very popular sporting cartridge, but it has faded into history, while the .30-06 remains a world standard hunting cartridge. I suggest that its lasting value as a hunting cartridge is primarily because it is so damn good!

    Today we have a bewildering array of hunting cartridges to choose from, including an even more bewildering array of fast and flashy magnums. In 1920 the .30-06 was fast and flashy, but today its ballistics are quite pedestrian. Over the years it has been factory-loaded with everything from 100 to 220 grains, and handloaded with component bullets from 100 to 250 grains. The most popular loads today are 150, 165, and 180-grain bullets, at “standard” velocities, respectively, of 2920, 2800, and 2700 feet per second. There is nothing special about these figures…except that they work.

    Recoil and muzzle blast are moderate, accuracy is generally pretty good, and bullet performance is uniformly spectacular. This is because most .30-caliber bullets are designed to provide optimum performance at .30-06 velocities. The fact that the velocities aren’t extreme also helps, because high velocity is the great enemy to bullet performance. And while .30-06 velocities are as not as impressive as the magnums, the recoil is also not as impressive…and under most circumstances the .30-6 is fast enough. With 150-grain bullets it is a near-perfect deer cartridge…and will certainly do for pronghorn and sheep. With 180-grain bullets it is superb for elk, fine for moose…and although it isn’t ideal, has probably handled more big bears than all the other cartridges put together. The 165-grain bullet is the great compromise, flatter-shooting than the 180s, harder-hitting than the 150s.

    In North America we generally have the luxury of knowing exactly what game we are hunting, so I’ve taken a lot of deer, pronghorn, caribou, and even a couple of sheep with the .30-06 and 150 or 165-grain bullets (whichever shot best in that rifle). For elk and black bear I’ve used 180-grain bullets. Even though the .30-06 is a genuine favorite of mine, I’ve never used it for moose or big bears. On specific hunts for specific animals we do have the luxury of choosing the perfect tool.

     

    The .30-06 has shined most brightly for me in Africa, where you cannot choose the perfect tool, and where you have no idea what a hunting day may bring. You might have to take 200-yard at a small steenbok, perhaps a longer shot at a much larger kudu—or a closer shot at a bigger and tougher zebra. We could argue the perfect rifle and cartridge for each situation, but this is meaningless because you must use the rifle you are carrying. Over the years I have used many rifles and cartridges in Africa, so I’ve had opportunity to compare.

    I am totally convinced that the .30-06 is the best, bar-none, absolute champion African plains game cartridge, and over there I shoot 180-grain bullets almost exclusively. The first time I personally ever used the .30-06 was in Africa, on my first safari in 1977. This makes me a Johnny-come-lately to the ’06, but I managed to make a good choice. In Africa the plains game rifle might be used every day, so it must not kick you into next week every time you squeeze the trigger. It must reach out a bit for the smaller antelope in open country…but its bullet must also have the power and penetration to handle a 500-pound wildebeest or an 800-pound zebra. The .30-06 does all these things with quiet efficiency.

    Big game is a matter of preference. I generally consider the .30-06 outclassed, but I have taken rhino and elephant with 220-grain solids. Before there was a “caliber minimum” lots of buffalo were taken with the .30-06 as well. If your “one gun” is a .30-06, however, in a pinch it will do.

    On that first safari in Kenya I had a classic case of “missitis” the first couple of days. Then I straightened up and my PH straightened me out, and I had 14 straight one-shot kills with the .30-06 and 180-grain Nosler Partitions handloaded to 2800 fps. I have been a fan ever since! The closest shot was a dik dik at maybe 30 yards. The longest shot was a Coke’s hartebeest for lion bait. This was late in the hunt and I was feeling cocky; it was a facing shot in a crosswind at 400 yards. I held a body’s width into the wind, quite a bit high, and the bullet entered center of chest. The largest animal taken with the .30-06 was a zebra, down in its tracks.

    The most difficult shot was at the only good East African impala we saw, following his herd through a narrow window in heavy cover at maybe 200 yards. I was on the scope, PH Willem Van Dyk was on the binoculars; he told me to get ready, as there would be no time for me to see the horns. He said, “He’s next, he’s coming.” I picked up the reddish brown, found the shoulder with the rifle swinging, and squeezed. The buck went down in the opening, and Van Dyk said, “Expletive, man, you can shoot.” I have had great confidence in the .30-06 ever since, and although I have used many other cartridges, I keep coming back to the .30-06 for my “light rifle.”

    HUNTING HISTORY

    One of the first, and certainly the most publicized, sporting use of the .30-06 was on Theodore Roosevelt’s safari in 1909. The Springfield rifle wasn’t generally available to the public yet…but it’s possible that Teddy, fresh out of the White House, knew someone. His 1895 Winchester in .405 and his .500/.450 Holland & Holland both gave good service…but it was the Springfield he used the most. I have actually held that rifle, and it is not, despite all the history, a .30-06; it is an unmodified .30-03, the older version. No matter. It was the 1909-1910 Roosevelt safari that clinched the historical record of the .30-06.

    Just a few years later Leslie Tarlton, one of the professional hunters on the Roosevelt safari, and a man who is credited with taking perhaps the most lions of anyone, anywhere, any time, wrote that he considered the “American .30 Springfield as the very best of the smallbores” (as the .30-caliber was then considered). As the years passed most Americans who journeyed to Africa carried a .30-06: Author Stewart Edward White in the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway in 1934, Robert Ruark in 1952…and so forth. It was this tradition that made me choose the .30-06 on my own first safari…and the legend was exactly accurate!

    As the years passed the .30-06 became America’s darling in the game fields of North America. It was the “go-to” choice for gunwriters like Colonel Townsend Whelen—and it was the early favorite of Jack O’Connor. Yes, he became an outspoken champion of the .270, probably a better choice for the wild sheep he loved to hunt. But he was an early advocate of the .30-06, and in later years, he admitted privately that the .30-06 was more versatile.

    For generations now the .30-06 has been the most popular cartridge among North American hunters. Its ballistics aren’t sexy, and it has competition from many newer cartridges that are longer, shorter, fatter, and often faster. The .30-06 just plods along, doing its many jobs as well today as it did fully a century ago. Despite all that competition, it remains the standby for millions of American riflemen.

    POPULAR AIN’T ALL BAD

    Besides the simple fact that it’s a great cartridge, the .30-06 offers advantages in its longevity and its popularity. Every major firearms manufacturer throughout the world chambers to this cartridge…and anywhere in the world where rifles and ammunition are available at all, you will find the .30-06. There are more than 130 .30-06 factory loads, from Remington’s 55-grain sabot Accelerator to Federal’s 220-grain loads. We have a century of handloading data, thousands of recipes for getting the best performance from the rich array of .30-caliber bullets.

    The.30-06 is hardly a cutting edge cartridge—but because of its popularity it will be on the cutting edge of any new load development. A good example is Hornady’s new Superformance line, using new propellant technology that increases velocity without raising pressure or increasing load density. The first loads seen in this new line were, you guessed it, in .30-06—and they increased the velocity of the tired old warhorse very close to standard .300 Winchester Magnum performance (as Federal’s High Energy and Hornady’s Light Magnum loads have also done).

    If you want a hunting rifle for a specialized purpose, whether it’s pronghorn, mountain game, Alaskan brown bear, or three-toed gazork, then there are specialized cartridges that are probably ideal. But if you are going to own just one centerfire hunting rifle, make it a .30-06. It is the versatility king, short of thick-skinned dangerous game the ultimate jack-of-all-trades…and, as generations of riflemen have learned, it works!

    One of the wonderful things about the .30-06 is routinely fantastic bullet performance. This is because of its mild velocity, and also because most .30-caliber bullets are designed for optimum performance at .30-06 speed. These are some of the first of Federal’s Trophy Tipped bullets, of course tested first in the .30-06.
    : I would never say that the .30-06 is ideal for game the size of eland, which are considerably bigger in the body than buffalo. But it’s all about shot placement, and the .30-06’s relatively mild recoil in relation to its power simplifies shooting. My wife, Donna, loves the .30-06, and used it to drop this old Namibian bull with PH Jamie Traut.

    Editor’s Note: Born and raised in Kansas, Craig Boddington has been writing about his passions, hunting and shooting, for more than 35 years. Currently Executive Field Editor for InterMedia Outdoors, Boddington has published more than 4000 articles and 22 books, is the host of outdoors television shows on both The Outdoor Channel and The Sportsman’s Channel, and has produced six feature-length DVDs. Check his website at: www.craigboddington.com.

    { 76 comments… add one }

      Leave a Comment

      Send this to a friend