Pre-hunt sighting for success

John Denman

I know it’s probably pretty much commonsense, but a hunting rifle needs to be sighted properly before you take it into the bush. There have been plenty of well-planned hunting trips ruined simply due to the rifle not being correctly sighted in before leaving home.

Even if you have sighted the rifle well previously, it’s worth checking again. It’s a busy world we live in and many people may only have time to hunt once or twice a year. All your other preparation can be undone by having a rifle that doesn’t shoot where you need it to. Then that long-awaited hunt is off to a very bad start.

To begin with I’d suggest that many of the stories you hear about people doing a running shot at 700m successfully are mostly rot. Distances are extremely difficult to estimate for the majority without the aid of a rangefinder. Besides all that, there are few shooters who can consistently hit a vital spot at that sort of span anyway. Hunting is not about long-range shooting it’s all about going as close as you can.

The further out your target is, the more influence things like wind and atmospheric conditions can take effect. Forget about the snipers you see in the movies, in real life a sniper will fire thousands of rounds a year in practice and have gear and training that most recreational shooters can only dream about.

The other consideration is respect for your quarry. The longer the range, the greater the chance of wounding rather than a clean kill. This is something ethical hunters should always aspire to. Not only that but if you didn’t score a clean kill, the longer range means that the wounded animal has a good start on you to follow up.

My self-imposed hunting distance is 200m. I know there will be some sniggering about that in certain quarters, but look at it this way. If a bow hunter can move within 35m, a rifle shooter should at least try to aim within 200m. Range practice is more than simply making sure you hit the paper. It also gives you some perspective on how far a particular distance may be.

I fully realise too that there are some instances where a long-range shot is the only option. Hunting thars in New Zealand is one that comes to mind where 300m shots are not uncommon. But if you have carried out your preparation correctly, 300m is do-able. Past that and you significantly reduce the chance of success. Most modern rifles are capable of shooting three shots into one inch at 100m. At 200m that may go out to 2″, but on the other hand it may blow out to 4″. These are not heavy barrelled target rifles, all they need to do is penetrate hide and reach into a vital area, and even 4″ will do that. Once again as the range opens out so do your chances of missing that vital area.

I’ve shot paper targets out to 1000m, but more at 300m and 500m. Even 300m can be a challenge in some conditions. Cross gully shots can be at the mercy of wind and mirage. Often the wind may swirl, creating air currents that are impossible to read. At least on a range there are wind flags.

There are few if any hunting rounds that cannot be affected by wind, even things like .300 Winchester Magnums will be at the mercy of wind and other factors. My longest shot on a game animal was about 300m. I say ‘about’ because I paced it out. The shot was on a wild pig, and rifle was a .270 Winchester. I knew the capability of the rifle and I took a rest over the bonnet of the car. Always take a rest where you can.

So back to the range. You need to know where your bullet will impact at a given distance and the controlled environment of a SSAA rifle range is about as good as it gets. First off, I don’t see any point in firing more than three shot groups in a hunting rifle. It’s enough to give you a good idea of where the centre of the group is at a given distance, but more importantly, hunting rifles have light barrels, more than three shots and the barrel can warm up enough to cause a flyer. On another level, if you haven’t killed your target in three shots maybe hunting is not for you.

So if you decide that your maximum range is 200m, make sure you know exactly where the shot will print at that distance. You also need to know the impact point at 100m. For most of today’s hunting rifles an inch-and-a-half high at 100m should be dead-on at 200m. If your range extends to 300m you should see how much the bullet will drop from the 200m zero. This can all take time, but it’s time well spent. Knowing everything about your rifle and its ammunition will build confidence, and confidence builds success.

Another factor is the cold barrel. It’s important to know where the first shot out of a cold barrel will print. Some people opt to fire a couple of warming shots just before they hunt, but I don’t like it. The whole idea is for you to be in complete sync with your rifle. If you know that the first shot from a cold barrel will be say, one inch up and a little to the left, you will know how to compensate if it’s required. There are two main reasons why I don’t like firing shots where I plan to hunt. One is that it may frighten game that could be close to your camp, and the other one is that if you hunt in a State Forest in NSW it’s not permitted.

Another factor is recoil. You may be surprised at how many seasoned hunters who aren’t range regulars develop a bad flinch. Range time will help you become used to muzzle blast and recoil, and lessen the tendency to baulk. Flinching is not really a matter of being scared of the rifle. It’s simply a subconscious reaction to muzzle blast and recoil.

For the most part the recoil is minimal, unless you insist on using a super magnum of some sort. When it’s all boiled down, recoil from a hunting rifle is nowhere near what other types of impact can impart. I’ve seen big blokes who played football develop a bad flinch from shooting a .243W. The same fellas who experienced big hits on the field, turn shy with a rifle that has a loud bark but a baby kiss where recoil is concerned. It’s all in the mind. Concentrate on the sight picture and trigger squeeze, and the rest will take care of itself.

Then there’s the ammo. If you are a handloader, then it’s assumed that you care enough to make sure you have your ammo loaded exactly the same as the rounds you shot with at the range. If your hunting rifle was sighted in using a certain weight of powder and a specific bullet, then that’s what you have to make sure you carry on your hunt.

It may sound basic, but handloaders like to experiment and having some trial stuff mixed up with your hunting loads is more common than you may think. Don’t go changing things unless you know precisely how it will perform, and if you have experimental loads keep them clearly marked and well away from the hunting ammo.

For users of factory ammo, this is less of a problem. However, it’s not unknown for the ammo you sighted the rifle with to be unavailable when it’s time to hunt. So make sure you keep a sufficient supply of hunting ammo and ensure the contents of the box are all the same. I heard of one hunt that went really bad because the hunter hadn’t packed his hunting ammo and had to buy some along the way. Unfortunately the brand he had used was out of stock and even the bullet weight was different. Apparently his first shot was a complete miss.

Sometimes a hunt can be fairly expensive. You may be paying a guide, there could be airfares involved among a host of other things. Messing up a hunting trip, regardless of the expense is also time you won’t gain back. So cover all the bases and have a successful hunt.

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