Char­lie Port­lock tells us why luck should play no part in hunt­ing

Air Gunner - - Contents -

Is there such a thing as the per­fect shot? Or is it just down to luck on the day? Char­lie has a the­ory

The per­fect shot is quite com­mon … ap­par­ently. Luck­ily, re­ports of its ex­is­tence aren’t dif­fi­cult to find. Visit any gun shop, range or ri­fle club in the land and you can hear peo­ple speak­ing of it. They can’t show you what it looks like, of course, but they can tell you how they made it, how dif­fi­cult it was and how tal­ented they were in pulling it off. Those with more hu­mil­ity might ex­press won­der at their own fleet­ing prow­ess, but most won’t bother and gen­er­ally speak­ing, the longer the range, the more im­pres­sive the marks­man. It’s a shame that ev­i­dence of this kind of per­fec­tion is so hard to come by, but then that’s not sur­pris­ing given the elu­sive na­ture of the sub­lime. I’ve never made the per­fect shot, al­though I’ve made plenty of lucky ones. The prob­lem is that luck re­ally shouldn’t have any­thing to do with it.


I can re­mem­ber a doe rab­bit that I stalked painstak­ingly one hot sum­mer long ago. In order to avoid spook­ing the pi­geons roost­ing above the war­ren, I’d crawled on my belly, fly blown and sweat­ing, for nearly 100 yards be­tween bearded wheat and hedgerow. One clat­ter and the rab­bits were gone and these grey- eyed sen­tinels were well used to my bun­gled at­tempts to close within range of the HW35. This time it was dif­fer­ent, though. The wind was per­fect and I knew my range mark­ers. There was just enough cover if I moved low and slow and I was cer­tain of my hold- over out to a seem­ingly ex­ces­sive 50 yards. As is so of­ten the case with the most dis­tinct times of our lives, the smells stay with me; warm crops, hard baked earth and hu­mid hedgerows.

As I rounded a nat­u­ral kink in the field bound­ary, I caught a glimpse of the doe, head down and feed­ing. I edged closer, right arm scream­ing with the ef­fort of mov­ing the ri­fle over the long dis­tance from my start point, but grate­ful for the face net that kept the flies from my mouth. I paused and scanned the trees with my eyes with lit­tle hope of catch­ing sight of the pi­geons. I could hear their in­ter­mit­tent roost­ing calls, but had no idea of their line of sight and in rais­ing slightly to check on my quarry I must have caught the at­ten­tion of one par­tic­u­lar­ity dili­gent bird which flapped, rose and set­tled again in an ash tree some 20 yards fur­ther on. I froze and my eyes darted to my quarry, also rigid and sniff­ing the flat air for signs of trou­ble.

It may have been spooked, but it hadn’t bolted, per­haps be­cause the pi­geon hadn’t been quite sure either and af­ter a heart­thump­ing minute she hopped a few yards closer to the war­ren to feed on some of the less ap­petis­ing but safer fare closer to home. I knew that it was 50 yards away from the range mark­ers that I’d paced out on a pre­vi­ous visit – too far. I knew it was too far, but I also knew that I’d just crawled 100 hard yards in the heat and had been hit­ting the mark at this range 3/5 from bench rested. What was more, the slight de­cline made it likely that a high shot would sail over. Any more move­ment might send the an­i­mals back into cover for good. I needed to make a de­ci­sion.

With my al­ter ego quot­ing all of the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions above, I made the choice to stay ex­actly where I was and not to spend any longer at­tempt­ing to come within my proven ef­fec­tive range of 25-30 yards. I re­moved my pack and edged around the wheat to take a rested prone po­si­tion on the outer point of a cres­cent moon made by the war­ren’s in­roads into the crop. I waited for a

while to re­lax and then spent a few min­utes watch­ing my quarry through the scope. The light was good and the sight pic­ture clear and al­though the kill zone looked small, my po­si­tion was sta­ble. I di­alled up the mag­ni­fi­ca­tion and dou­ble checked the range sev­eral times to make cer­tain of the three­dot holdover. With the shot com­posed, I didn’t feel 100% cer­tain that I could make it, but I took it any­way, heard a loud crack and watched the an­i­mal jump up once and then lie still. It was the both the best and the worst shot that I’ve ever taken.


Elated, I thought that all of my train­ing had paid off and that the shoot­ing from dif­fer­ent po­si­tions on the range, my stud­ies of bal­lis­tics and tra­jec­to­ries and my re­search on pel­lets and tech­nique now meant that I could kill cleanly at 50 yards with a springer ev­ery time. I was wrong. It took four run­ners and three more wounded rab­bits to undo the dam­age of that first ‘per­fect shot’. I say ‘dam­age’, be­cause in shoot­ing the doe with a great shot from 50 yards, I’d mis­taken what was ac­tu­ally chance for my own skill and as a re­sult I’d in­her­ited a feel­ing of over- con­fi­dence that led me to wound and in­jure sev­eral other an­i­mals through sheer ar­ro­gance. I’d failed as a hunter and as a marks­man and I had to spend a long time on the range be­fore I felt like shoot­ing live quarry again. It was a truly dispir­it­ing time and ever since then I know that I’m close enough when the doubt dis­ap­pears. The gods of for­tune have no role to play in the per­fect shot.


I’d ar­gue that the per­fect shot is born in that tiny win­dow be­tween the fi­nal ex­hale of breath and the press of the trig­ger. The im­pact of the pel­let it­self is just a byprod­uct of ef­fec­tive shot com­po­si­tion. With this def­i­ni­tion, the per­fect shot doesn’t truly ex­ist in the real world. It’s more a state of be­ing, a mo­ment of com­plete con­fi­dence and full prepa­ra­tion; a lit­er­ally breath­less time of an­tic­i­pa­tion that should be the apex of all of our hard work and dili­gence. There are many el­e­ments to this kind of com­po­si­tion in­clud­ing range es­ti­ma­tion, trig­ger tech­nique, hold, shoot­ing po­si­tion, fol­low through and quarry ob­ser­va­tion and I’ll be look­ing into these in de­tail next month. They’re the key, prac­ti­cal skills that the air­gun­ner needs to find them­selves ready to shoot live quarry. How­ever, these skills are dis­tinct from the mind­set that’s needed to shoot well.

It’s hard to de­fine what the ac­tual psy­cho­log­i­cal state of prepa­ra­tion feels like, but it lies be­yond con­fi­dence and worry. Both of these words im­ply a

con­scious ap­praisal of one’s abil­i­ties in that mo­ment be­fore you send the pel­let on its way and this very thought process is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. You’ll know when you’ve made a truly good shot be­cause after­wards you’ll re­alise that you were in a state of flow and that the thought of miss­ing or not miss­ing had never even crossed your mind. You were nei­ther con­sciously con­fi­dent nor afraid, merely clin­i­cally cer­tain. I’ve man­aged this kind of shot only a hand­ful of times and I’ve even missed some of those due to chance; a freak gust of wind, last minute move­ment of my quarry or a prob­lem with the ri­fle. How­ever, I look back on them know­ing that I was com­pletely pre­pared phys­i­cally and in the mo­ment as I pressed the trig­ger, not in my head. These men­tal states are rare but are prob­a­bly re­spon­si­ble for some of the great­est sport­ing, artis­tic and spir­i­tual feats of our species. I won­der if Muham­mad Ali would have been any good with a ri­fle?


Hitch­cock used to say that he sac­ri­ficed at least 40- 60% of his artis­tic vi­sion as soon as he de­cided to turn an idea for a film into a re­al­ity. Per­haps there’s a par­al­lel here for shoot­ers. There’s prob­a­bly no such thing as the per­fect shot it­self. If there were, it would be re­peat­able time and time again. How­ever, there is such a thing as the per­fect shooter. The per­fect shooter, like the per­fect artist, knows that per­fec­tion is unattain­able but strives for it re­gard­less. They pre­pare, they train and they work on their weak­nesses. Cru­cially, they’re both aware of their lim­i­ta­tions and they play to their strengths un­til they can en­ter a state of flu­id­ity where they don’t have to think about what they’re do­ing. Per­haps these spe­cial mo­ments of com­plete unity be­tween mind, body and ri­fle are the ones we re­mem­ber. I know that they’re spe­cial to me, but per­haps I’m talk­ing a load of old tosh; I’ll let you de­cide. Best of luck in the field. Ac­tu­ally, I’d bet­ter stop say­ing that ...

Not a good look for the city but per­fect for the fields

Pi­geons make the per­fect sen­tries for the rab­bit war­ren

A great shot starts with great tech­nique

Even from fully rested, 50 yards is way too far

Know­ing your holdover is al­ways cru­cial

Lots of prac­tice is needed by ev­ery hunter

With a springer you’ll have most suc­cess be­tween 20 and 30 yards

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