In many people’s eyes, there is a large disparity between the marksmanship skills of the target shooter and the hunter. The target shooter, with his custom-built gun and bag full of specialized trinkets, seems to live in a world totally alien to the die-hard venison fetcher. What are the similarities and differences between target shooting and field shooting? What parts of the target shooter’s discipline will help us hunt and which parts should we discard?
Numerous hunters have commented that good scores on the range don’t automatically correspond with success afield—where the shots really count. Obviously, good marksmanship does nothing to help find game, but some hunters contend that a high score on the target range does little even after the quarry has been spotted, claiming, “I’m not much good shooting at paper, but I’m deadly in the field!” There is some truth in this. Scores of hunters have proven themselves to be successful game shots but not so hot on the target range. Conversely, successful target shooting doesn’t always add up to success in the field.
We must acknowledge the importance of skill. No animal will fall to a poorly directed projectile. The only way to properly place those projectiles is with marksmanship. Skill at arms is the only ability that can fill a tag once you have found legal game, therefore, it is imperative for hunters to develop enough shooting experience so they know when an animal is shootable and to have the proficiency to bring it off when the decision to shoot is made. Putting bullets where you want them to go is the goal of every marksman and something every shooter, whether a hunter, soldier, police officer or plinker, must strive for. Bullseye targets only provide an easy-to-see, abstract index of how well a marksman achieved the goal of getting the bullets to favor center. In fact, many conventional target games are based on old military range exercises that were designed to teach soldiers how to shoot. Over the decades, much specialization has intruded, but the premise is still sound: Set up a challenge (a target at a certain range) that is the same for everyone and test your marksmanship skills.
Every hunter needs at least a modicum of marksmanship ability, but success on the target range doesn’t necessarily demonstrate that it has been achieved. There is more involved in effective field marksmanship than how close you can group shots on an abstract bullseye target. Let’s take a look at the differences between conventional target shooting, such as Olympic and NRA events, and hunting.
Distance, Time, Ethics
Formal target shooting is normally conducted at fixed ranges known in advance. The target shot can obtain and use a number of zeroes for different ranges or even specific positions. Competitors in International Rifle shoot the same target at the same distance from three different positions (standing, kneeling, and prone) and will establish a zero for each position. In contrast, hunters never know what distance an animal will appear or from which position it will be engaged.
In some events, competitors are allowed sighter shots. This means the shooter gets a crack at the target in the same conditions but the shot doesn’t count for score. In hunting, there is no such thing. All shots are for score.
In target shooting, the shooting position is dictated. For example, CMP/NRA High Power has you shoot standing and sitting at 200 yards, and Silhouette shooters engage borrego (ram) targets at 500 meters standing. Why? The rulebook says so. In hunting, shooting positions are freestyle. Hunter-shooters evaluate their target, terrain, and choose the position that they feel will work best in that specific situation.
Most target courses dictate artificial time limits. You may have 60 seconds for 10 shots, 1 minute per shot or 2.5 minutes for five shots, for instance. The time limit is always the same and known in advance. In contrast, hunters never know the time limit. There is a time limit, because taking too long means the animal will eventually slip away unscathed, but the limit is never known in advance. The hunter may have plenty of time but it can’t be counted on. It is best to prepare to shoot as quickly as accuracy can be maintained, but no faster.
Formal target courses require precision accuracy. The target size is artificially dictated and made smaller as competitors get better over the years. Hunting requires “adequate” accuracy, enough to solidly hit the vitals measuring some 8 to 12 inches in diameter for big game, give or take. This target size remains fairly constant.
Other than safety, efficient gun handling is not an issue for the conventional target shot as it is not evaluated, tested or scored. For hunters, gun handling can be critical—rushed, sloppy handling wastes time. The target may decide to leave before the hunter has a chance to shoot. Even more important, hunters don’t have a range officer to monitor them and safety is left up to them.
Target shooting also has long strings of fire. The competitor assumes a shooting position and rattles off five, 10, 20 shots or more. In the field, when a target is spotted, the hunter assumes a shooting position and usually fires one or maybe two shots.
Conventional target shooters have an easy-to-see, well-defined target, such as a black bullseye on white paper. Finding an aiming point is easy and consistent because the competitors always want to hit dead center of the bullseye. Compare that to the challenge the hunter faces: a poorly defined, possibly hard to find, target that may be partially obscured. The aim point varies while hunting as target angle and the appearance of the silhouette changes.
Target courses force you to shoot, even if it means shooting at 500 meters standing or 600 yards in high winds, but experienced hunter-shooters will decline a shot they aren’t comfortable taking because a poor shot may only wound their target. Hunters are never forced to shoot and can even attempt to get closer if desired.
Realistic Training Regimen
It shouldn’t be surprising why the discrepancy between target shooting and field marksmanship arises. Conventional marksmanship ignores many realities that the hunter will face. No wonder many hunters are opposed to mandatory shooting tests for hunters, as a good score on a conventional course doesn’t test many of the facets of field shooting.
Don’t take this as a pox on conventional shooting—it’s an ideal way to learn and practice marksmanship skills for any purpose. A hunter that participates in a Smallbore league or attends High Power Sporting Rifle events (an NRA target match using regular hunting rifles) will only benefit. However, to work on specific field shooting skills, conventional matches don’t provide all the answers. The solution is to investigate alternative venues.
Just as it is wrong to ignore the benefits of conventional position shooting, it is also false to believe that field shooting can’t be conducted on the range. Hunting marksmanship can be evaluated and improved on the range, provided it is done in a properly designed forum specific to the hunter. Events effectively addressing the issues described above would provide an ideal test of field marksmanship prowess. Let’s consider some of the features a thorough field-shooting program for hunters should include. These guidelines will help you evaluate the worthiness of a shooting venue for the development of your field marksmanship skills.
KEEP IT REAL: Participants need to shoot at realistic, life-size silhouettes. The target should look like big game, in size, shape and appearance. The silhouette-target shouldn’t have any identifying marks over the vitals, such as visible scoring rings that could be seen with an optically sighted firearm. Real animals have marks unique to the species and each specific animal will have variations. Mass-produced targets with marks are identical and hunter-shooters can learn to always hold on a certain point idiosyncratic to the target that won’t be available in the field. Course designers should be able to color, fold, obscure or position (such as facing left or right) the silhouette realistically. No two targets need to be identical. The hunter-shooter is forced to learn to visualize a spot and hit it.
WORK THE ANGLES: The target must simulate appropriate target angle, a crucial consideration nearly every target manufacturer has ignored. The projectile must be aimed so as to bisect the vitals and this changes based on how the animal is facing the hunter, requiring a different aiming point on the animal’s body depending on its position. Ideally, the target should react when hit with an effective, target-angle-appropriate shot. Animals will usually react when hit properly in the vitals and this should be simulated.
PROMOTE OTC ACCURACY: Courses should never require more accuracy than can be found in typical, over-the-counter hunting arms. The hunter need only generate adequate, “minute-of-vitals” accuracy. Match-grade arms are not needed nor desired. The hunter needs to consistently produce properly placed 6- to 8-inch groups from improvised positions out to the limits of their personal effective range. Individual skill is a much more important factor than mechanical accuracy.
PROPER STAGING: Positions or techniques shouldn’t be dictated. Participants may shoot targets as they see fit, provided they are safe. Of course, a given scenario may feature a “conveniently” placed obstacle that precludes certain positions. High grass may prevent shooting prone, for example. But how the participant chooses to solve the problem is up to them.
GUN & TIME MANAGEMENT: Handling skills must be evaluated. Gun handling is the management of a firearm beyond marksmanship, such as the proper way to assume various shooting positions, using a sling, etc. An ideal method to test this is by evaluating the participant’s elapsed time. Assuming accuracy is maintained, a lower elapsed time indicates better handling skills.
The participant never starts aimed-in, but in a dictated start position, such as sling-arms, port-arms, high-ready, or some other carry position. Upon an unanticipated start signal, indicating a shot opportunity on legal game materialized, the participant engages their target. A faster time will earn a better score. Please note this does not encourage fast shooting—only efficient handling skills. Accuracy, as indicated by hitting the vitals, is always the first consideration. Provided the participant hits the vitals with every shot, a lower elapsed time indicates superior handling.
STEADY PRESSURE: There needs to be a bit of pressure involved with each shot. Deer-sized vitals are not that difficult to hit on a range with perfectly stationary targets when nobody is watching. Timing each shot and posting the scores emphasizes the hunter’s skills when stressed, thus simulating facets of “buck fever.”
DECISION MAKING: Participants should always have the option of declining a shot. If they feel the target is beyond their effective range, moving too fast, or for other reasons, the shot should be passed up. The participant should still be allowed to shoot at a reduced score for the benefit of his or her own experience. Remember that poor shots (misses and wounds) should be penalized if the participant chooses not to decline. It should be entirely possible for the hunter-shooter declining a scenario to outscore This lets hunters learn where their current skill levels really lie so they can make better decisions afield.
KEEP IT UNIQUE: And finally, with the exception of a few established courses that determine baseline skills, there should be few “standard” courses. Just as no two hunting situations are identical, each event should feature unique field shooting scenarios that the participants engage for score.
I hope you find these guidelines useful in evaluating a shooting program or in creating your own. If your interest is in field marksmanship for hunting, find venues that fulfill these requirements.