Charlie Portlock tells us why luck should play no part in hunting
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.
IN QUEST OF PERFECTION
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.
A LESSON OF LUCK
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