Jim Chapman covers a technique to improve your short-range hunting
Jim Chapman helps us to avoid a common pitfall
For many of the hunts I do, there is a focus on long- range shooting. When out after prairie dogs, for instance, shots in the 75-100- yard range are the norm, and when going after jackrabbits in the wide- open deserts out west, 50-75 yards is a typical range. In preparation for these hunts, I’ll set up targets at 30 to 100- yard increments and familiarise myself with the trajectory so that I have a clear sense of the point of impact ( POI) at each distance. This POI mapping coupled with a rangefinder is the best means of ensuring solid hits on quarry, leaving the wind as the only major variable to deal with in the field.
The guns I prefer for this type of shooting, with respect to calibre and power output, have been discussed in the past. I find a .25 or .30 calibre moving at velocities over 800 fps optimal for this style of shooting. Since there are no power restrictions on airguns in the States, the compensation for increasing calibre and pellet weight is to increase the power output. This reduces the substantial effect on trajectory associated with larger calibres when the overriding requirement is to stay within legal power limits. What I’d like to discuss this month, though, is the other end of the spectrum – i.e. managing the close- range shot opportunities that pop up.
It seems counterintuitive; most shooters spend their time worrying about the shots at the furthest and not shortest ranges, what the rifle is capable of, and the shooter’s limitations. The assumption most of us have is that if we are going to miss, it’s going to be the 70- yard shot and not the 35- yard shot. So, we spend the lion’s share of our practice time on those shots. This makes sense as we strive to ensure that we can hit any target we pull the trigger on, which is the ethical and practical thing to do.
THE REAL PROBLEM
To be honest, my problem area is not the 35 or 70- yard shots, the ones I most frequently fluff are the short- range, five- yard shots that pop up right in front of me. If I were to line up all the shots I’ve missed over a long hunting career, from a percentage standpoint it would be the short- range shots that have vexed me. Several factors contribute to this, but there is an obvious one based on my previous comments – I’ve tended to spend
a lot of time assessing my hunting rig between 30-100 yards, but not so much at 5-15 yards. I suppose my reasoning has been that in most hunting applications these shots are the corner cases, and somewhere in my subconscious, think that even though my life experience has clearly demonstrated otherwise, close shots are dead easy and not to be worried about.
Before discussing why close shots can be difficult, let’s take a quick look at when and why they happen. The most problematic for me are the unexpected opportunities; when out hunting squirrels and watching a feeding area or den tree from 50 yards off, a sound is detected and looking up, a big fox squirrel is at eye level in a tree five yards away. Or, I’m glassing distant burrows for prairie dogs and putting down the binoculars find a head popping out of a burrow right in front of me. In these situations, my target is in a range for which I hadn’t done adequate preparation. My zero is set out far and I haven’t shot much from the muzzle out to 15 yards.
A bit less troublesome, but still not a sure thing, are applications such as turkey hunting, when most shots will be inside of 40 yards, but closer shots are not uncommon. For this quarry, your target is the head (about the size of a walnut) or the base of the spine. I have missed a few turkeys that have charged the call and/or decoy, almost ending up in my lap. To improve my success rate, I’ve started zeroing my turkey gun at 30 yards and practising on targets at 5- 40 yards before the hunt.
The easiest scenario to prepare for is when it is known in advance that the range will be short. Shooting rats or pigeons in a barn limits the distance – in my experience, most shots will be inside of 25 yards. For this application, the gun set- up and my preparations match the situation, making those short- range shots less difficult. I might zero the gun at 20 yards and check POI at 5- yard increments between 5-25 yards.
Why are these close- range shots ever difficult? I think it comes down to three main factors; the need to react quickly and under pressure, the need to select the right targeting point, and the need to make scope adjustments (parallax and magnification) quickly and without spooking your quarry. When that squirrel pops up five yards away and your scope is set with adjustable objective (AO) at 40 yards and 12x magnification, all the hunter sees is a fuzzy blur. You can either take the shot that way, or risk spooking the animal as you try quickly and subtly, to make the adjustments. Neither approach is a recipe for success.
The other problem is that the hunter might need to shift to the right or the left to line up the shot. This can be difficult enough to do without spooking your prey when it’s 40 yards away, far more difficult when the animal is literally right in front of you. The simple movement required to bring the rifle to shoulder or get it up on sticks, will be the warning alarm for that squirrel to get the heck out of Dodge!
The last obstacle for me is the psychological one. That 5- yard shot at the turkey’s head must be held high, sometimes very high. It seems unnatural to be holding the zero two inches over the gobbler’s head when he’s only a few yards away, but that is exactly what you need to do. I’ve looked at video footage of some of my close- range misses, and invariably I’m shooting under.
The solution to close- range shooting is straightforward. If I think there is a likelihood of a close- range shot I’ll set the scope with a low magnification and the AO in close. I’ll also get the gun rested on sticks, or whatever support is being used, well in advance. This reduces the need to move around if an animal pops up closer than expected. It also allows the hunter to get on target and take the shot quickly, before the quarry has the chance to react.
Regardless of where you zero the scope, don’t neglect practising at closer ranges when mapping the trajectory. I have had enough 5- to 10- yard shots at turkey, especially when hunting a blind, to know this is a real possibility when heading into the woods. For this reason, I spend a lot of time making sure that I can consistently hit the bullseye at 5-10 yards before the hunt starts.
Every hunter hates to make a bad shot, and although a clean miss is better than a bad hit, a five- yard miss will give your confidence and ego a spanking! Once I started following this advice on scope setup, getting into position to minimise movement, and practising with my hunting rig at close range, my success at bagging close- range game improved dramatically.
MAIN: I stepped around a cedar and had a fast 5-yard shot at a jackrabbit only seconds before he bolted
ABOVE: While focused on the burrows along the fence-line, a prairie dog popped up 5 yards in front of me
ABOVE: Start with scope magnification low and AO close
BELOW: As a last step, I shot a life- sized target at 5 yards, and hit low
LEFT: Chairgun demonstrates the same holdover is required for shots at 5 and 56 yards