How do you make heat-ofthe-mo­ment shots in the field? By prac­tic­ing them in com­pe­ti­tion

Field and Stream - - CONTENTS - By John B. Snow

Shoot­ing com­pe­ti­tions can make you a bet­ter ri­fle hunter. By John B. Snow

SHOOTER READY.” Those two words, which I’ve heard countless times at matches, are the last ones a range of­fi­cer says be­fore the buzzer in his hand emits a harsh metal­lic squeal, telling you it’s time to start shoot­ing. Tech­ni­cally, “shooter ready” should be posed as a ques­tion, but it’s never said that way. It is part of the rit­ual of com­pe­ti­tion in 3-gun and other prac­ti­cal shoot­ing dis­ci­plines.

In dy­namic long-range ri­fle com­pe­ti­tions—gen­er­ally called tac­ti­cal field matches—the R.O. in­stead says, “Time starts…now.” But the ef­fect is the same. The clock is tick­ing. It’s go time.


Many hunters are right­fully sus­pi­cious of the in­flu­ence of shoot­ing com­pe­ti­tions on hunt­ing. The fas­ci­na­tion with so-called “tac­ti­cal” giz­mos and 1,000-yard shots can trans­late to poor de­ci­sions in the field when a live an­i­mal is the in­tended tar­get, not a steel plate. If noth­ing else, these gear-cen­tric pur­suits can lead to a skewed value sys­tem, where the shoot­ing over­shad­ows the hunt­ing. My jaw clenches when­ever some­one de­scribes their hunt pri­mar­ily in terms of the dis­tance of the shot.

And yet, most hunters would do well to com­pete. I’ve seen lots of sea­soned hunters make ba­sic mis­takes in the heat of the mo­ment that have cost them an­i­mals or put the is­sue in doubt—mis­takes they’d be less prone to com­mit if they shot in a hand­ful of matches.

Last fall I was hunt­ing mu­leys with my friend Paul, who is a vet­eran outdoorsman. We’d been hik­ing a se­ries of ridges that spread like fin­gers off the side of a moun­tain, scram­bling up the brush­choked ravines to­ward high ground to glass. While mov­ing along one of these fin­gers, I saw Paul wav­ing me over. He’d spot­ted a shooter.

The buck was just be­low us and close, he said. But be­fore I could spot the deer, Paul asked if I could make a 70-yard off­hand shot. I could tell he was a lit­tle flus­tered. Yeah, I can make that shot—but this is your deer, I told him.

Paul shoul­dered his ri­fle and scanned for the an­i­mal while I crouched be­hind him. He said he couldn’t see the buck well enough and needed to dial up his scope’s mag­ni­fi­ca­tion. He dis­mounted the ri­fle, twisted the scope’s power ring, and tried again. Fi­nally, he shot—and then shot again. I could now see the deer stand­ing in the grass be­low us, look­ing our way. Shoot again, I said. Paul did, and the deer fell. It was the only hit out of the trio of rounds my friend put down­range.

With some prac­tice shoot­ing while un­der pres­sure and on the clock, my buddy wouldn’t have hes­i­tated to take a 70-yard off­hand shot and would have known that nar­row­ing his field of view by dial­ing up his scope wasn’t the best move. He got lucky with that par­tic­u­lar deer.

On a dif­fer­ent hunt last fall, dur­ing a sin­gledigit cold snap in Mon­tana, an­other friend had his own near miss on a good white­tail. This buck was a lit­tle shy of 300 yards away, walk­ing slowly be­hind some does that were headed to­ward a creek­bot­tom filled with alders. They were in the open, but wouldn’t be for long.

We had a tri­pod with a shoot­ing rest on it and were hun­kered down on the side of a sage­cov­ered hill. Pre­cious sec­onds ticked by as my friend strug­gled to get the ri­fle on the rest and the crosshairs on the deer. He emit­ted small puffs of steam with each breath, and by the time he was ready, he was huff­ing like a lo­co­mo­tive pulling a string of coal cars up a hill.

The deer van­ished into the trees be­fore he could pull the trig­ger, and we never saw the buck again. I say this was a near miss be­cause had he shot, I doubt the bul­let would have found its mark. But like Paul, he could have

got­ten on the deer and made the shot—with the right prac­tice.


Com­pe­ti­tion can teach us a lot. The pri­mary ben­e­fit is that it trains you to han­dle firearms un­der stress. The shot timer is a harsh taskmas­ter. If you fum­ble with a shoot­ing rest, or don’t re­al­ize that a 70-yard off­hand shot on a tar­get the size of a deer’s vi­tal zone is a gimme (with prac­tice), you’re go­ing to burn through the two or three min­utes you have to shoot the stage long be­fore you en­gage all the tar­gets. After that hap­pens once or twice, punc­tu­ated by the R.O. yelling “time!” as the clock runs out, you’ll find the mo­ti­va­tion to fig­ure out a bet­ter way.

Dur­ing a week­end match, it isn’t un­usual to put 200 rounds through your ri­fle—more than most hunters do over the course of sev­eral years. A match is an ed­u­ca­tion well worth the in­vest­ment in time and money, par­tic­u­larly if you note where you strug­gle and how other shoot­ers suc­ceed.

Cer­tain com­pe­ti­tions have “pro­duc­tion” di­vi­sions in which stan­dard hunt­ing rigs can be used. If that’s not the case, a call to the match direc­tor can of­ten re­sult in some­one of­fer­ing to loan or share their gear.

To be ef­fec­tive in com­pe­ti­tion, a shooter needs a plan for each stage: where you’re go­ing to shoot from, the or­der in which you en­gage tar­gets, and how to cre­ate a sta­ble fir­ing po­si­tion. This mind-set pays div­i­dends in the field as well. Be­fore long, it will have you scout­ing for good shoot­ing po­si­tions be­fore you spot an an­i­mal and re­mem­ber­ing that the best spot might be 20 yards be­hind you when a buck ap­pears.

Get­ting started in com­pet­i­tive shoot­ing in­volves a learn­ing curve, of course. But that’s the point. All of the many mis­takes you’ll make in your first matches—and if you’re like me, in ev­ery sub­se­quent match as well— are crit­i­cal lessons learned, where the price you pay is a missed hunk of steel rather than the deer of a life­time.

Game Time A Mon­tana hunter pulls up to take an off­hand shot dur­ing the ri­fle elk sea­son.

Steel Your­self The au­thor prac­tices stand­ing shots off a PRS-style shoot­ing bar­ri­cade.

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